Thursday, November 3, 2011

Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" He said to them, "Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you." (Matthew 17:19, 20 ESV)

This verse does not mean what I thought it meant. And most likely it doesn't mean what you've been taught, either.

I had always understood this verse to say that even the tiniest amount of faith would make miracles happen. If only we had a TEENY TINY BIT of faith, we could not only move a mountain (though where would we put it?), but we could lay hands on the sick and have them recover, or trust God when the stock market crashes, or love our spouses like we use to love them, or make it through that Comparative Religions class still loving Jesus, or... Well, you get the picture. God would answer our prayers if we only had a smidgen of faith. So when we pray, and he doesn't answer, it's not his fault. It must be ours. After all, we are the ones who don't have enough faith. ...Right?

And when I prayed for the sick and they DIDN'T recover, or when I prayed for relationships, or marriages, or other mountains in life to be moved, and they didn't move, I doubted that I had faith, or that at least I didn't have the RIGHT KIND of faith. Or, maybe that I really DID have faith, but God wasn't fulfilling his part of the bargain (and that's a scary thought). Or maybe I just misunderstand Jesus here. Maybe he is not talking about God moving in our lives in response to prayer at all. Maybe he means something in the order of "A teensy bit of faith (belief you can) will give you enough hope that you can move that mountain with a shovel. Over a lifetime. Because you just believe you can." Maybe Jesus was basically...not very inspiring here. It sounds like he's writing a self-help book, doesn't it? "If you can believe it, you can achieve it!" That's just not very inspiring when you're dealing with something out of your control. Like cancer. Or, in this case, a demon.

The disciples had come to Jesus wondering why they couldn't drive a demon out of a boy. There's something about exorcism that a self-help mantra doesn't fit. It seems, to my mind, that Jesus' reply that they had "so little faith" would have punched me in the gut as if he were saying to me, "you have no belief, no trust, no...FAITH. That's why you couldn't do this." Makes me feel small. And confused. Hadn't Jesus sent these guys out to do just this kind of thing a few chapters earlier (Chapter 10)? And while many good sermons have been preached on this verse, encouraging us to "take a step out on faith" or to "just believe", hadn't they done exactly that? "The seventy- two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Luke 10:17). And now it seems Jesus is pointing his finger at them telling them they didn't have any faith, because if they had had faith as big as a mustard seed (a very tiny amount) they could have done it. Confusing isn't it? Seems like they USED to have faith, and they maybe LOST their faith, and now Jesus is giving them a pep-talk (kinda like a drill Sargent would), saying that if they had had any faith at all they could have helped that boy by casting out the demon. Buckle down, maggots! Start believing! You can achieve it!

Well, I thought wrong. And there's no other way around it. That's not what Jesus meant.

I know a man who is a Hebrew scholar. Not the bookish, geeky kind who talks about declensions and cognates until you're looking for any excuse to end the conversation. He has given years and years to study the scriptures in their original language so he can have a deeper understanding of God. He sees things I don't. And he can converse in Hebrew, though since I can't it doesn't make much sense to me. I gotta admit that it sounds cool, though.

Chad (I'll call him Chad) pointed out that "faith", to a Hebrew-thinking mind, doesn't mean what it means to most of us. Faith, in Hebrew/Aramaic, means something much more like "consistent", or "solid" or "persistent" or "unyielding". It could be used to describe the pavement in the parking lot. and here it describes a mustard seed. Though it starts out as a very tiny seed, it is persistent and consistent and unyielding enough that it grows, over time, into a tree. It turns out that Jesus wasn't lecturing the disciples on whether or not they even HAD any faith. Not at all. He was encouraging them to not give up so easily. Be persistent in prayer, keep at it, don't quit too soon! If you don't give up, you can cast out that demon. Keep practicing! Your faith will grow if  you persevere!

John Wimber was the leader of the Vineyard Churches and became known nationally and internationally for his healing ministry. It was not uncommon for John (or most of the Vineyard churches for that matter) to pray for folks with all kinds of injuries and ailments and they would be healed. Even instantly. But John's own testimony was that it didn't start out very well. He tells how he discovered that the Bible instructed believers to pray for the sick, so he started praying for people. They just didn't get well. But he kept trying. In "The Way It Was," the biography of John by his wife, Carol, John estimated that he prayed for maybe hundreds of people without having even one of them healed. It was making him angry with God, he confessed. Especially since he was also preaching regularly that the church should be praying for healing. (And his church wasn't seeing any fruit, either). He says in a paper called Miracles are Not Complicated
"At one point, I became completely discouraged. We had been praying for the sick for nine months and had yet to see anyone healed of anything, not even a headache! Some of our friends left the church out of frustration and irritation."
The point is, over nine months (get that? NINE MONTHS...) of praying, even with no results, for hundreds of people, John remained consistent in his faith. Faith = belief + action. Belief by itself is mere opinion. And John kept at it.

Then one day, though he was frustrated with God for not answering his prayers, and though he was used to counseling folks on "why we don't always see results", he prayed for a lady who was very sick. And, unexpectedly, gloriously, she was healed. Right then and there. She got up out of bed with a smile on her face, brushed her hair and then made coffee. John was stunned. Excited, too. After all those years, God had answered a prayer for healing! And then the tide turned.

From that point, more and more often, when John prayed for people they would be healed. Cancer. Broken bones. Headaches. Comas. Not everybody, but more and more bodies. I met the man. I believe it. I spent time with folks who spent time with him. It all happened. And it also began happening in his church, and in other Vineyards, and in other churches around the world. You see, John persisted in his faith (a belief put into action). He was consistent and unyielding. A mustard seed that doesn't give up will eventually becomes the largest tree in the garden. An oak tree is an acorn that held its ground. And faith, persistently put into action yields results, too.

In this verse, Jesus didn't berate the disciples for their lack of faith. He let them in on an encouraging little secret. Don't give up. Miracles do happen. God does answer prayer. Just keep on praying. Give that seed a chance to grow before you expect it to flower and bear fruit. Never give up. Keep praying for healing. Keep asking for a miracle in your marriage. Keep trying to cast out that demon. Be unyielding, persistent, steady. It's not "self-help talk". It's how faith grows. Persistently. Consistently. Steadily.

On October 29, 1941, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Harrow School to to hear the traditional songs he had sung there as a youth, as well as to speak to the students. When he was invited to give a speech, Churchill stood before the students and said,
"Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up."
And he sat back down.

He must have understood.