I’m a Little Mustard Seed
My world became a whole lot bigger the first time I heard that some coins can be worth more than their face value. The ensuing obsession, albeit brief, started with trying to collect a complete set of the special quarters with the state designs printed on one side and also with trying to collect a penny minted in every year available. When I heard about collector’s coins that had minting errors or limited edition designs, I found myself spending hours sifting through my stash of loose change hoping I could find that one coin that was worth more than the rest of what I owned combined. In the end, I would come to characterize this treasure hunt as a discouraging exercise; after an eternity trudging through my coin jar, the monotony of the painstaking analysis and the despair of the incredibly low odds left me feeling a little hopeless, despite the ever-present potential benefit.
I could not think of a better analogy – which isn’t to say there isn’t one – of how we tend to analyze our own walks with Christ. We spend hours, days, and sometimes lifetimes applying scrutiny to the jar of thoughts, feelings, and affections we keep hidden within the closet of our hearts. Through such an exercise we hope to find just one glimmering cent’s worth of evidence that our faith is genuine. We are encouraged in Scripture to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), so we should certainly not feel discouraged against trying to gain a sober understanding of the state of our faith. Where we tend to get in trouble, though, is when we judge our faith by the wrong standards.
It is tempting to look at things like the size of our faith, how we feel about our faith, and what we do in the name of our faith to determine the genuineness of our hearts before God. However, when we begin to wonder about our faith as so many of us do, we should not seek to identify anything other than the person in whom we have put it.
Common Misconceptions About Faith
The real situations we experience rarely match textbook definitions, but we can boil down the majority of the misconceptions we hold about faith into three categories. Praise be to God that He addresses each of them in His Word.
My Faith Isn’t Big Enough
Sometimes, our faith doesn’t feel “big enough”. The gospel accounts record Jesus using the illustration of a mustard seed on a number of occasions to serve a number of teaching objectives. Though Jesus used the illustration to describe the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:31, Mark 4:31, Luke 13:19), we will focus on His use of the picture in reference to faith. In Matthew, the disciples had attempted to drive a demon out of a boy and failed. The boy’s father was persistent, though, and asked Jesus Himself to remove the demon – a request He gladly grants. In the aftermath, “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). The Gospel of Luke contains a similar story: “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).
This is one of those occasions when diving too far into the analogy can be detrimental to our understanding. Specifically, trying to figure out how the size of the mustard seed should correspond to the size of our faith can be difficult to piece together. In the basic sense, to understand what Jesus meant, consider what transpires in His illustration: A mustard seed, the tiniest of all the seeds, is planted in the tiniest of fashions, but after a while, it grows into the mightiest of plants. There isn’t but the tiniest amount of substance or strength in the tiniest of seeds, but somehow, it comes to tower over the other plants of the garden. What must the mustard seed do in order to achieve these ends? It must trust in its Creator and Sustainer to bring about His good design in its life. Faith placed in itself would indeed be the tiniest of faiths because in itself it has only the tiniest strength. Instead, the mustard seed cries out to the Lord as David did in 1 Chronicles 29:11: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.” The Lord establishes the mustard seed, and similarly, the Lord establishes us. The size of our belief doesn’t change anything about our God.
My Faith Doesn’t Feel Right
Sometimes we either don’t feel like we have faith or don’t feel like acting according to our faith. Our desires, affections, and emotions can be difficult to pin down (Jeremiah 17:9), but because they are sometimes the most present thing we experience, we think they can govern us.
Jesus told a parable in Matthew 21. “’What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” And he answered, “I will not,” but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, “I go, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They [the Pharisees] said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you’” (Matthew 21:28-31). There is a small detail hiding in the first son’s response; the Greek word that is translated “I will” more deeply means “to will, have in mind, or intend” (See Blue Letter Bible reference below). The word seems to be used to describe a desire so tangible that it is certain to be acted upon or fulfilled. The first son didn’t have the desire to follow his father’s wishes, and even after turning to follow his own desires, he came back to his father and was justified. Something got the better of his feelings, and he returned to the right path.
When we don’t feel like we have faith, often it can be because our faith is still working. Joy, for instance, is a fruit of the Spirit, and fruit takes time to grow. When we don’t feel like following our faith, often it is because the desires of our flesh are competing with our desires for God. What we need to remember is that how we feel about Jesus will never change the truth about Jesus. Feelings may influence us, but by the grace of God, what influences us can change. True faith is classified as returning to Christ regardless of the storm of emotions we experience.
My Faith Doesn’t Look Like Somebody Else’s Faith
Sometimes we feel like our actions would look different if we actually had faith. It would be irresponsible of me as the author to say that the Holy Spirit won’t point out a contrast between our stated belief and our behavior as a means of our sanctification because this is a basic attribute of God’s discipline in our lives. However, we tend to get in trouble when we think we should be “doing more”.
Matthew 19 records an encounter between Jesus and a rich young man. In short, the man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do in order to have eternal life. Jesus recounted to him a handful of the commandments, and after the young man affirmed that he had kept the commandments to the letter, he asked Jesus what he still lacked. Jesus told him to sell the abundance of what he had, give it to the poor, and then follow Him. The man went away dejected. (Matthew 19:16-22)
Jesus used this as a teaching moment for the disciples, and we should pay attention, too. “And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:23-26). In biblical times, the Israelites viewed wealth and success as a sign of God’s favor over a righteous life. People would have seen a rich young man claiming to have kept all of the commandments as the epitome of a godly person. This is at the heart of the disciples’ reaction when they ask, “Who then can be saved?”
We can easily be deceived into thinking the external aspects of our faith are what make our faith. We ask ourselves if we are praying enough, giving enough, doing enough, and more, but truly, this is an impossible way to please God. God is pleased by faith, and faith is an issue of the heart. The things we do will not change our need for our Savior, even though our Savior will inevitably help us change the things we do. The fruit of good work will inevitably come, but we need the vinedresser to graft us into the vine first (John 15:1).
Our Faith Is Not About Us
Put simply, the authenticity of our faith is defined by the object of our faith. When our faith becomes about how much we do or how much we feel or how much we believe, it should not surprise us that our faith begins to falter. At that point, we’ve mentioned ourselves three times but not once mentioned Christ! When it comes to faith in Jesus Christ, there is only one aspect of it that makes it genuine, and that is the fact that it is placed in Jesus Christ. True faith involves looking unto Jesus. When we fix our eyes on Christ – His qualities, His mission, His worthiness, His righteousness, His friendship, His love, His promises, and more – our faith gains what it needs to begin to blossom. I hope we can all see a little more clearly now why spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible-time are stressed so heavily in Christianity. Such things are meant to take our gaze off ourselves and place it onto the One who provides our hope. Our faith is not about us. Our faith has everything to do with Christ, and that is how we can tell that it is genuine.
Carry On, Little Mustard Seed
We are all little mustard seeds under the brilliance of the majesty of God. There’s not much to speak of in our fragile existence, but the One who designed us, knitted us together, and prepared our road before us has promised to never leave us or forsake us. When was the last time you looked unto Jesus? He is a gentle and good God who bears the burdens we cannot bear and who nurtures us with a tenderness and compassion that is hard to put into words. It is because of Him we can pray such a wonderful thing as “Thank you, Lord, for looking after this little mustard seed.”