The mustard seed — faith you have, not faith you don’t

Here’s another Bible problem for you. What’s with faith-as-small-as-a-mustard-seed moving mountains?

We sing:

Si tuvieras fe como grano de mostaza
Eso lo dice el Senor
Tu le dirias a la montana
Muevete, muevete 
Esa montana se movera, se movera, se movera

Shouldn’t that little song come with a little warning label? Shouldn’t it say something like: “We don’t really think this is true!” Or “No mountains were injured in the performance of this song!”?

Why does Jesus say,

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20)

if He doesn’t really mean it?

That’s a good question. It is an especially good question if you were taught all your life that the Bible was feeding you the kind of “truth” that the philosophy of our day considers Truth. I’m talking about some observable occurrence you can test and see repeated when you try it again, something material that you can measure — that kind of true. Apply that philosophy to the Bible and the “formula” Jesus posits says, “Faith moves mountains.” If that “Biblical principle” is true, then a logical conclusion follows: if your faith doesn’t result in miracle, either you don’t have enough faith or faith is not what it claims to be. Even more, this conclusion would be reasonable: if you have faith, then you tell the mountain to move, and the mountain doesn’t move, then the Bible is not true. Sometimes that reasoning is called working with “literal” truth — if the words say it, that’s what it is, as if words just describe verifiable data, as if they just report scientific findings, as if we are talking about those kinds of words. Many Christians treat the Bible like it is a scientific text and call that conservative, when it is really the most worldly thing they could be doing.

Almost anyone can observe what passes for literal truth — and most of them are having an argument in their heads about whether the last person knew what they were talking about. Jesus speaks a deeper truth than the surface truth almost anyone can observe. He is revealing eternity to us. Do you really  think the Lord was announcing his findings about what the world’s smallest seed is? Do you really think he was suggesting that mountains should be moved around? I don’t. But in a world full of “literal” truth, people get tripped up by anything immaterial to their materiality.

Matthew 17 is very confusing for literalists! I feel their pain. Just look at what happens there! First, Jesus is up on the Mount of Transfiguration revealing to his inner circle that there is just a thin veil between His Father’s dimension and our own — but that the dimensions are very different. Then he announces his impending resurrection. Then the group comes down the mountain and Jesus completes an exorcism that his other disciples could not accomplish — and why can’t they do it? They don’t have enough faith. It is a wild chapter for people who can only know what they test in their personal labs.

Maybe we should live in Matthew 17 until we understand it and stop basing our ideas of faith on things we already understand. Maybe we should stay there until we can do what is described and stop basing our doubts on what we can’t yet do. Maybe we should stop being discouraged with Jesus because he can’t just leave faith as “being nice,” or as “applying moral principles” or as “acting out a stripped-down methodology that passes for being forgiven of our sins instead of having a life of active trust” (I digress…with hope in my heart).

Many people come away from what Jesus says about not having enough faith looking for a formula for getting enough faith. But I think the whole point of his statement is not about what we lack, it is about what we don’t lack. He is ultimately being very positive — realistic about us, but full of hope. Yes, Jesus is as frustrated as we are that we have less spiritual capability than we ought to have. But even if we rely on Him just a little — mustard seed little, his work of death and resurrection will enliven even the little faith we have and do things that were previously unimaginable. Have the faith you have, not the faith you don’t.

When I sing, “Muevete!” I am expressing my hope in Jesus, not taking on the ultimate challenge to prove Jesus worthy of worship by my miraculous excavating — as if, “If the mountain moves, then Jesus can be my Savior until we reach the next mountain!”


Obviously, Jesus is not rearranging the planet for his convenience, either. So he must not mean for us to look for faith that is mustard-seed size somewhere in our inner being and prove his validity as a Savior and our value as followers by moving Mt. Everest to Beijing. Some people give up on the Bible because such things aren’t happening like they think the Bible literally says they should. They grumble, “The Book just plain contradicts itself! Mountains should move if he literally said it!” But I wish they’d soak in it long enough to see what’s really happening.

When there is a surface meaning that isn’t working for us, we do need to argue it out until we can receive its deeper content. Ignoring or reducing things we can’t understand keeps us infantile. However, being content to endlessly argue keeps us adolescent. Jesus is revealing something deeper than we can reduce to a factoid or argue as a principle. We need to move with the risen Lord to experience something more adult, something like what his inner circle experienced on the Mt. of Transfiguration. Rather than focusing on how mountains are not literally moved, or on “how much faith is enough to cast out a demon,” I think we should rejoice in what the-little-faith-we-have has done in us and through us that would have been unimaginable without it.

For instance,

  • that we should believe any parts of Matthew 17 as true must be an act of God-with-us
  • that we want to ponder and even argue about who Jesus is and what he did surely could only be the Spirit of God drawing us
  • that we know we are forgiven and destined for an eternity of connection with our Creator is a big change
  • that we care whether we have enough faith to make a difference is a conviction only a Spirit-changed heart would have
  • that people continue to be comforted, saved from self-destruction, and energized to foment justice and hope by their faith in Jesus is just what Jesus was predicting, wouldn’t you say?

Still not satisfied short of Everest taking a step towards China? I am not sure you are respecting the faith that causes your discontent, but who knows what that seed might cause next?

5 thoughts on “The mustard seed — faith you have, not faith you don’t

  1. I always enjoy re-reading a Rod-blog. I suspect that many literalists are trying to figure out why serious things they have prayed for aren’t going well for them: with health or finances or relationships, etc.. They don’t wanna blame Jesus for not answering their desperate need, since Jesus said he wants to fill the most dramatic of requests- like even to move mountains. So they read these words and jump to the conclusion that it must be them and their lack of faith. “The whole point of his statement is not about what we lack, it is about what we don’t lack” is a great way to redirect that prayer anxiety. I would also recommend praying for what you know Jesus wants to give you today: forgiveness, wisdom, something to do for Jesus; while waiting for other needs to get sorted out.

    1. Good word, Art, as usual: “pray for what you know Jesus wants to give you.” The good gifts are already given; it must be the desire that is out of whack.

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