Sometimes the most basic topics in Christian teaching are home to the most abundant confusion. Perhaps faith is one of those topics. Several misunderstandings are commonly heard in preaching and teaching on the subject. A short list would include the following:
- You have to have much faith to experience the power of God.
- Exercising faith means seeing God’s hand in the dramatic and unexplainable.
- Healthy faith is believing that God is going to act in a particular way.
- In prayer, faith is believing that God will certainly grant the request.
Some of these notions have the benefit of superficial biblical support. But if we strip away what “everybody knows” about faith, table our fond sentiments, and look at what Scripture actually says about these ideas, what do we find?
#1: You have to have lots of it
The idea that experiencing God’s power and blessing depends on our having enough faith has a long and storied tradition. It also seems to have some Scripture to back it.
On at least half a dozen occasions during His first-advent ministry, Jesus confronted “little faith.” A brief survey follows.
- Matthew 6:30—Jesus offers gentle correction regarding worry about the future. The “little faith” is expressed in fretting and actions that go with it. “Will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (NKJV)
- Matthew 8:26—In a boat on the waters of Galilee, Jesus chides several disciples who awaken Him in a panic when a storm arises. “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”
- Matthew 16:8—Jesus addresses the disciples’ faith after they misunderstand His warning about “the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (16:6), taking it as a reference to their lack of bread. “O you of little faith, why do reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread?”
- Matthew 14:31—Jesus chides Peter regarding his faith, after he briefly walks on water. Jesus, walking on the sea of Galilee during a storm, had come to the disciples and invited Peter to come to Him on the sea. He does, but is soon terrified by the wind, begins to sink, and cries out for rescue. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
- Matthew 17:20—Jesus explains to the disciples why they were unable to rid a boy of a demon. “Because of your little faith” (ESV, with similar wording in NASB, NIV; here the majority text has “your unbelief,” while older manuscripts favor “little faith”).
Should we conclude that these individuals had faith, but in an overly small quantity? On the surface, this seems to be the case. What’s more, Jesus praises a centurion (Matt. 8:10 KJV, NKJV) and a gentile woman (Matt. 15:28) for possessing “great” faith, and in Luke 17:5, the disciples specifically ask Jesus to “increase” their faith. It isn’t hard to see why many are convinced that that having a whole lot of faith results in great things while a having only little results in little blessing.
Quantity vs. quality
But further study reveals that more is never really the issue when it comes to faith.
First, Jesus went out of His way to reject the idea that great things happen only if we have enough faith.
So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. (NKJV, Matthew 17:20)
And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Luke 17:5-6)
Jesus uses a bit of hyperbole here, to be sure, contrasting the tininess of the mustard seed with disproportionately big and dramatic results. His point on both of these occasions is to show what really makes the difference in faith: what we genuinely believe, not how much faith we have or how strongly we believe. When the disciples expressed a desire for more faith, Jesus responded by saying, effectively, “You don’t need more; you just need a little bit that is genuine and correct.”
Second, the word translated “little” in the passages above does not necessarily refer to a small quantity. The word, ὀλιγόπιστος (from oligos, little or brief or slight, plus pistis, faith) occurs only in the gospels in reference to disciples, and may well mean that the faith involved was immature or incomplete in some way. One’s faith may be “little” in the sense that he or doesn’t yet believe a particular truth that he ought to believe.
This understanding fits the contexts of “little faith” passages. In Matthew 6:30, Jesus’ hearers do not trust God to care for their basic needs. In Matthew 8:26, they do not believe God will protect them from the storm even with Christ in the boat. In Matthew 16:8, the disciples’ faith is “little” not only because they do believe God will provide food for them, but because they have already seen Him do that miraculously—and still expect to not have enough. Their faith is also incomplete because they do not grasp Jesus’ warning about the “leaven” of the religious leaders.
The pattern continues in Matthew 14:31, where Peter’s faith is “little” because he does not believe the Christ who has told him to come—and is Himself walking on the water—will see to it that Peter successfully makes the journey. Jesus specifically asks “Why did you doubt?” To be sure, in Peter’s case the degree of certainty is decisive, so we could argue that he needed more faith in the sense of greater certainty. But really, how much more faith did he need? Just enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other and leave the circumstances to Jesus. A mustard seed’s worth of genuine and correct faith.
In Matthew 17:20, the disciples apparently did not genuinely believe that Jesus had fortified them with the authority and power to cast the demon out. The evil spirit’s manifestations were too dramatic or the situation was too desperate. Their faith may have been genuine, but was certainly incorrect, something like, “We believe we have power to obey Christ except when the situation is really, really bad.”
Heroes of faith
Third, the fact that quality rather than quantity is decisive when it comes to faith is also apparent in Hebrews 11. We know that many of the heroes of faith listed there did not do their work with vast amounts of certainty about every aspect of God’s sufficiency in their situation.
Gideon is a fine example. Though he is listed among those who “through faith conquered kingdoms” (ESV, Heb. 11:33), we have the record of his struggles with doubt in Judges 6, first repeatedly questioning the identity of “the angel of the Lord,” and later requiring a series of wet and dry fleece miracles to prove that God would really do as He had promised.
In what sense is this man a man of faith? Only this: when it came to decision time, time to act, Gideon trusted God enough to yield to His direction and follow His instructions. When the decisive moments came, he believed particular truths—that God was sufficient and faithful—and believed this strongly enough to act accordingly. He had a mustard seed’s worth of both genuine and correct faith.
When we genuinely believe true things about God, we place ourselves at the disposal of One whose power, wisdom, and goodness are truly limitless.