Increase our faith! – Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty'” (Luke 17:5-10).

“If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11: 23)

A popular preacher, often referred to as “the father” (or “granddaddy”) of the Word of Faith movement, claimed that after he was healed from an incurable blood disease God called him to “go and teach my people faith”. However, there are diverse views of what it means to have “faith” in God.

Many Christians have been taught that ill-health, poverty and failure are a consequence of a lack of faith. They believe that they could be more prosperous and successful, or be healed from sickness, if they only had more faith or if they knew how to exercise their faith more effectively. This type of teaching gives rise to an almost superstitious response to circumstances, ascribing all adversity to the work of the devil. It suggests that what stands in the way of faith is our own doubt. Therefore the battleground is within the mind to counter any negative thoughts and doubts with positive confessions when faced with trials of any kind. This, they believe, is exercising “faith”. Some adherents even reject the idea of saying “God willing” as being a negative confession that indicates doubt or uncertainty in what we are asking. The danger with this is that we may have faith in faith rather than faith in God.

Where does “faith” come from? Is it within the person to conjure up enough positive thoughts to overcome any otherwise “reasonable” doubts? We can easily identify with the disciples’ request to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”

Jesus spoke of those who lacked faith: “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith (Mark 6:4-6).

Of course we know that God is able to do far more than what we ask or expect and so why should we ever limit him?

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Eph. 3:30-21).

From these verses many Christians may suppose that they limit God due to a lack of faith. But God is sovereign and always causes all things to work in accordance with his will and purpose. The onus is upon us to align our prayers and petitions with his will so that we can confidently expect him to answer us in accordance with his will. If we ask for anything that is contrary to his will we cannot expect God to grant our request.

Having witnessed many of Jesus’ miraculous healings, Lazarus’ sisters were upset that when he was taken ill, and subsequently died, Jesus had not come in time to heal their brother: “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” (John 11:31) And God did raise Lazarus to life because it was his purpose to demonstrate Jesus’ authority over death through this circumstance.

Bearing this is mind, biblical faith is not about convincing myself of the impossible – it is not positive thinking. Biblical faith is grounded in the authority of God’s word and comes from hearing and understanding his word. Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). If God says to me that I should tell this mountain or that mulberry tree to be uprooted and cast into the sea, then it will happen, not because I am able to convince myself of the impossible, but upon the authority of his word. If my faith is misplaced because it is not based on God’s will then no amount of “positive thinking” will cause it to happen. And if by faith I do achieve great things, even telling a mountain to be thrown into the sea because God has instructed me to do so – I am merely an unworthy servant doing what I have been told to do. This is why Jesus answered the disciples request to increase their faith by showing them that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed they can achieve impossible feats but, having done what they were told to do, should acknowledge that ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’.

We are called to obedience and faithfulness to the word of God. Faith and faithfulness are inseparable. If we do anything contrary to his word, then we sin (cf. Rom. 14:23). Biblical faith is simply acting in obedience to what God has called us to do and what he has prepared in advance for us to do:

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

Has God told us to expect healing for every sick person of every disease? Has God told us to raise every dead person in the Name of Jesus Christ? Unfortunately, there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing who attract a great following after themselves by reports of miracles and healings which seem to give credibility to their teachings. But faith is not in the evidence or lack of evidence of miracles. True faith is hearing and believing what God has spoken. Signs and wonders can in fact mislead people:

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you (Deuteronomy 3:1-5).

The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12).

Many people think that if the gospel is accompanied by signs and wonders more people will have faith to believe. But the wickedness and perversity of those who refuse to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead – despite all the testimonial evidence and miracles that attested to Jesus’ ministry – will not be changed by signs and miracles. Rather, they are the ones who will be inclined to be deceived by all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders. These counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders may be impressive and convincing – just as Pharaoh’s magicians were able to imitate many of the miracles that Moses performed – but they introduce and “authenticate” lies which are believed by those who have refused to love the truth.

Jesus attracted a great following because of the miracles he performed, but they were not necessarily all faithful disciples:

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:27-29).

Jesus told the following parable to illustrate the point that those who refuse to believe the word of God as it has been revealed will not believe even if someone rises from the dead (obviously alluding to his own resurrection).

… “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead'” (Luke 16:27-31).

There is only one way to increase our faith – and that is to pay more careful attention to the word of God, to study the Scriptures diligently and to continually renew our minds with the knowledge of his word (cf. Heb 2:1; 2 Tim 3:14-17. Effective faith – which can be “as small as a mustard seed” – is simply to be sure that whatever we ask for is in obedience and according to the word of God.

Some matters of faith are uncertain. When we are unsure about a course of action it is not a lack of faith, nor is it “negative thinking” to enquire of the Lord and to leave things to God’s providence with the humble attitude, “The Lord willing, we will do this or that…” (James 4:13-14). We may ask the Lord to change difficult circumstances but he will not always do so. To endure hardships, trials, poverty and even sickness is not evidence of a lack of faith. On the contrary, it is very often the means by which our faith is tested and proven. We are called to the obedience that comes from faith (Romans 1:5) and all we can say, after having done whatever the Lord required of us is “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” This is faithfulness.