Many of us have heard this verse. I know that it’s one of the first that comes to mind when I think about faith. In some ways, I find this verse comforting. Mustard seeds are very small, but grow into one of the largest herbs – one that birds can rest under. Jesus is saying here that a very small amount of faith (the size of a mustard seed) can make powerful things happen (shading birds under its leaves). That’s pretty awesome when you think about it. You don’t need a lot of faith to accomplish a lot.
A Little Background Can Go a Long Way
If you read this verse in context, you will learn that this discussion takes place right after the Transfiguration (for a great resource on the Transfiguration and what it means, read this). Jesus took three of his disciples with him to witness this amazing event: Peter, James, and John. After witnessing the Transfiguration, these three return with Jesus to the other nine disciples. Mark gives the most thorough account of the entire event – which, if you know anything about Mark, must make this very important, since Mark liked to really get through the events of Jesus’s life. It’s the shortest Gospel because he only shares the facts. And uses lots of “immediately’s.”
According to Mark, the nine disciples who were not with Jesus are surrounded by a large crowd, who run to greet Jesus when they see him. The disciples have been asked to cast out an evil spirit from a little boy, but they were not able to do so (after they were already given the authority to cast out demons in Matthew 10:1). Jesus then rebukes the crowd for being an “unbelieving generation” and heals the boy, saying that “everything is possible for him who believes.”
Later, the disciples ask Jesus in private why they were not able to cast out the demon as they had done before. This is where the well-known verse comes in. Jesus tells them, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
Small faith can do big things, so why don’t we see that today?
If you dig deeper into the verse, we learn that it is not just about having faith. Have you ever prayed for something and had it not happen? We all have – many times, I’m sure. That’s where this verse gets tricky. There are two things that have to happen in order for our very small amount of faith to do big things, like move mountains.
1. Your request has to be in line with God’s will
2. Your faith has to be absolute
Let’s dive deeper into each of these.
1. Your request has to be in line with God’s will.
God wants to use us and He wants to answer our prayers, but so often we are not aligned with His plan. Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” and in Matthew 19:26, Jesus tells his disciples, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
If all things are possible for God, why doesn’t He answer our requests with the results that we want? There’s a catch to all of this: God will only do those things that advance His plan for the world. And He’s allowed to do this – even though it may hurt us – after all, He’s the creator of the world!
We know that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28, but the verse doesn’t end there. It goes on to specify, “…who have been called according to His purpose.”HIS PURPOSE. We so often leave this out because it’s inconvenient. We are here because God has a purpose for each of us. And His purpose is going to come before anything that we request.
It is when we align our requests with God’s will that He will use our faith will do powerful things.
We have to remember, whether God answers our prayers – and He always answers – with a “Yes” or a “No” or even “Wait,” He is doing so because His answer fits into His larger purpose.
Imagine if you got everything you ever asked God for, including the fancy car, the big house, the thriving family. It’s the life we all wish that we could live, but God doesn’t always give us these things for a reason. It is through the hard times – the “No” and “Wait” answers – that we grow in our faith. If you had everything you could ever wish for, you would no longer need God.
2. Your faith has to be absolute.
Jesus cast out the demon with “the calmness of assured authority” (Pulpit Commentary) that the disciples has not displayed. For faith to truly move mountains, it must be a faith of perfect confidence and trust in our God’s ability to do the thing that we are asking. Not only do we have to trust His ability, but we also have to believe that He will do what we ask.
Think about it. Last time you asked God to do something big (or small) in your life, did you really and truly expect it to happen? Or was there a little bit of doubt in your heart, either that He could not or would not accomplish this thing?
It’s hard to have no doubts floating around in every request. The important thing here is not the amount of faith we have, – Jesus says that it can be as small as a mustard seed – but the quality of that faith. If our faith is one of convenience, of believing when things are easy and turning away when they are hard, then we are not giving our whole selves over to God.
It is not the quantity, but the quality of your faith that is important.
Our faith is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). The Bible tells us over and over to walk faithfully with God (Genesis 5:22; Genesis 17:1; 1 Kings 2:4; 2 Chronicles 7:17. Isaiah 38:3). This is an active faith. When you are walking in faith, you are in an active relationship with God and building a life of faith through intentional actions. A faith that is not growing is one that is decaying. We either move toward an absolute faith in our God or drift away from Him and His mercy and loving kindness.
What does this mean for my life?
So, there are two big questions: How do we know God’s will? How do we have an absolute faith? The answers are important.
Building absolute faith and knowing God’s will aren’t easy, but we already have all the tools we need. We have to remember the following about faith so that we can truly begin to intentionally live lives of faith:
-Faith does not depend on our senses, but rather on our beliefs
-Faith does not rely on testimony or consistent evidence, but on our Biblical foundation
-Faith is not formed by logical study, but by accepting the ambiguous nature of a righteous yet merciful God
-Faith is founded on God, who is ever constant and always present
-Faith reveals to us the holiness of God
-Faith depends on our belief that the Bible is the true and living Word of God
We already have all the tools we need to live a life of faith.
Because our faith is not built on our knowledge or understanding, but upon our God, creator of the universe and supplier of all needs, we do not grow our faith on our own effort. Instead, we begin to build a legacy of faith through our knowledge of God, gained through:
-Studying the Bible
-Meditating on His Word
-Praying (including prayers for increased faith)
-Living by faith
-Knowing God’s promises to us