“The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. ”” (Luke 17:5-6 ESV)
Faith is a vital distinctive of Christianity.
All religions, and irreligions (i.e. atheism or agnosticism), rely on faith because without faith we can never confer meaning or worth to anything. Only faith (belief) or religion can do that, as Tim Keller has written, “‘valuing things’ is always based on beliefs about the purpose of life, human nature, right and wrong – all of which are moral and religious.”
What makes Christian faith distinctive from every other religion, belief system or worldview is not the fact of faith but the role of faith.
In Christianity we are justified (declared right) with God by faith alone, apart from any good we have done (Romans 3:28). This belief is so important that it incited the greatest schism in Church History: The Reformation.
Amidst the Reformation this exceptional doctrine was liberated from the shackles of Latin prose which kept it from being understood by the people.
The world, and the church, have not been the same since.
With this in mind we can say confidently, “Faith is a big deal! Surely it makes sense that the disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith?”
At this point I’d like to suggest Jesus isn’t saying what, at first glance, he appears to be saying.
I don’t think Jesus is telling us that it’s wrong to ask for more faith. What I think he is telling the disciples, and us, in a roundabout way, is if we want to have more faith we should stop focusing on faith as an end in itself.
Jesus wants to reorient our focus away from externals and internals to something, or rather to someone, else that combines and at the same time transcends both of these categories.
The great lesson Jesus wanted his disciples (both past and present) to learn was, and still is, that it is not faith which is principally important but the Object of our faith: Jesus himself. As Leon Morris has said, “It is not so much great faith that is required as faith in a great God.”
Like Paul we need to stop thinking about ourselves and caring what others think of us and instead care only what the Lord thinks of us (1 Corinthians 3:21-4-7) because “true growth happens when we take our eyes off ourselves” (Tullian Tchividjian).
We can only take our eyes off ourselves when we have someone greater, more beautiful and wondrous to look upon. And there is no-one greater, more beautiful and wondrous than Jesus. Let’s look to him, forgetting ourselves, and our faith will increase because our eyes will be fixed on the Object of our faith: Jesus Christ, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV).
Timothy Keller (2010), Generous Justice : How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. London: Hodder & Stoughton. (p.165)
Leon Morris (1992), Luke (Revised Edition). Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press. (p.280)
Tullian Tchividjian (2012), Blessed Self-Forgetfulness : True Growth Happens When We Take Our Eyes Off Ourselves. Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2012/summer/selfforgetfulness.html