How Much Faith Is Enough?
There is a rather popular teaching in the modern church that more healings and miracles would occur if people just had more faith, but is this biblical?
You've probably heard it before. "If you just have enough faith, God can _______." It's popular among TV preachers. The whole basis of this teaching is that the only limiting factor in God's divine authority to work a miracle is you, or more precisely, your inability to have more faith for Him to do it. A great example of this kind of (incorrect) teaching can be seen here. Of course, apart from being wrong, it also accomplishes something else that is rather bizarre; it puts limits on an otherwise limitless God. In this model, God can only accomplish what you allow Him to. But then, who is really God in that scenario?
Where does this come from though? The short answer is, a lot of bad interpretations of a few select texts, one of which is Matthew 17:19-21. Let's take a look at it together.
Setting the Stage
In Matthew 17, we learn of a father who comes to Jesus and pleads with Him to heal his son. His son is an epileptic who suffers seizures that apparently put him at risk for catching on fire or drowning (presumably from the heat source in their house and perhaps a nearby well). The father then reveals that he had already asked Jesus' disciples to heal the boy, but they were unable to. Verse 18 indicates that more than mere epilepsy is in play; he is demon possessed. The demon is the root source of the epileptic seizures and is causing the boy to try and harm himself. Jesus instantly and totally casts out the demon and heals the boy:
"And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured at once." (Matt. 17:18)
The issue is resolved and the father presumably goes back home (we aren't given anymore details). At this point, the disciples come to Jesus and this is where our passage in question begins.
Verse 19 sets up the passage:
"Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, 'Why could we not drive it out?'" (Matt. 17:19)
Now, at this point, one might ask the question, "Why did they expect they should be able to drive out the demon?" Seems rather presumptuous, right? However, taken within the context of Matthew's Gospel, we remember that they were given authority to do so in the first verse of chapter 10:
"Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness." (Matt. 10:1, emphasis added)
Again, He issues the command in verse 8:
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give." (Matt. 10:8, emphasis added)
The disciples' concern was reasonable. They had been given authority to do something that they suddenly weren't able to do. Which is why this becomes a faith issue. We traditionally define faith as, "taking God at His word." God had given them His word that they could cast out demons, and by faith they should have been able to do it, but ultimately failed. They were lucky to walk away from the failed attempt with no real serious consequences (for serious consequences of a failed exorcism, see Acts 19:13-17). Baffled, they ask Jesus why it didn't work. It's His response that needs close examining.
How Much Faith?
Jesus responds to His disciples in verse 20:
"And He said to them, 'Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.'" (Matt. 17:20)
It's a faith issue! "You don't have the faith it takes to do this!" Now, in this moment, it seems like the Kenneth Copeland's of the world are onto something. Jesus just said that the amount of faith the disciples had prevented them from doing something that God had told them to do! But notice what Jesus says they need: "mustard-seed-sized faith." A peculiar size, right?
Back in Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus uses the mustard seed in a parable to describe what the Kingdom is like.
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES.”
"It's tiny!" It begins tiny, and yet it yields a plant (still relatively small in comparison to a cedar tree or something comparable) that all of the birds of the air come to make a nest in. In other words, the use of the mustard seed is meant to illustrate how small something is, not how great it is. So, with that in mind, consider what Jesus is saying to the disciples. This is a paraphrase:
"You have poverty level faith. You are lacking entirely. You have falsely believed that you had the power in yourself to do this thing, when it is God who grants the authority. If you just had a mustard-seed-sized faith, you could do anything."
Jesus isn't demanding for them to have enough faith. He is demanding them to just have a tiny amount of it. Why?
Because they didn't have any at all.
This is not a matter of needing more and more faith to do the impossible, but rather needing any amount of it.
The Modern Application
What about modern believers? Well, after all, this is a narrative involving the original twelve disciples, not every single Christian who ever lived. The disciples became apostles, an office that is now closed (a debate for another time perhaps). Keeping in mind that the Gospels are descriptively written (not prescriptively), we cannot find a direct parallel to ourselves, without applying all of the things the apostles did to us as well (something we cannot do with any sort of biblical support). But what about Paul? Surely he wrote some instructions regarding casting out demons to the churches he planted!
In fact, in Paul, we find that some of our greatest moments of fellowship in the Spirit come at the cost of suffering. Even Paul himself considered himself a dead man a few times over (2 Cor. 1:9), and it was not for a lack of faith.
Bad Theology, Dangerous Consequences
This is the danger of an unhinged biblical theology. Anyone can make any passage say almost anything in a vacuum. Find a descriptive text, pinch a few out-of-context verses from the Old Testament, and voila! We have false teaching! I don't mean to sound curt or inflammatory, but the way we handle God's Word is important. It's important because it sets the standard of living for us as followers of Christ, but more practically it has the potential, if we aren't careful, to destroy someone's sense of who God is and what their identity is in Him. Too many times have we had conversations with people in our church who felt responsible for the sickness or death of a loved one because they were told by some TV preacher that they lacked the faith for God to heal them.
Christian, listen. You need to understand something that will revolutionize your understanding of who God is. Are you ready for this?
God is bigger than our doubts and our unbelief.
Did you get that? He isn't limited by you or me. He doesn't need anything from us (Acts 17:25). He sovereignly chooses to do miracles when He wants, and all of the faith in the world (thousands of mustard seeds even) cannot contain Him. We are not God, and thank God for that. We are broken servants in need of daily grace and the tiniest amount of faith, and even in that we struggle. Thankfully, it isn't up to us for either of those things, but Him (Eph. 1:3-9, 2:8-9).