“If I just had more faith….” I think most of us have struggled with that at some point in our lives. “If I just had more faith I wouldn’t have so many questions or doubts. If I just had more faith God would answer my prayers. If I just had more faith he wouldn’t have died; she would have recovered. If I just had more faith I would be a better person, a better parent, a better spouse. If I just had more faith I would know what to do, I would handle things better. If I just had more faith life would be different.”
It is an approach to faith at least as old as the apostles’ own faith. It is the approach they take in Sunday’s Gospel. “Increase our faith,” they ask Jesus, who has just warned them, in the preceding verses, not to become stumbling blocks to others and, told them to forgive as often as an offender repents even if it is seven times in one day. That will be difficult. It will be a challenge to live that way. “Increase our faith,” is their response. It seems like a reasonable request. If a little is good—a lot must be better. If McDonald’s can supersize our fries and drink surely Jesus can supersize our faith.
The request to increase our faith, the belief that if I had more faith things would be different, reveals, at best, a misunderstanding of faith itself and, at worst, demonstrates our own unfaithfulness. Jesus is very clear that faith is not about size or quantity. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” When Jesus uses this analogy he is using a graphic illustration to say that even small faith can do what is humanly impossible because it is none other than Almighty God who works through our faith. The issue isn’t our great faith. The issue is our great God.
Faith is not a commodity to be spent as currency in our dealings with God. Faith is not measured out according to how difficult the task or work before us. Faith is not a thing we have or get. It is a relationship of trust and love. It means opening ourselves to receive another’s life and giving our life to another. That “other” is Jesus. That one, faith-relationship, is determinative of who we are and how we live as Christians.
Faith is also not only about giving intellectual assent to a particular doctrine or idea. When we speak about a married couple’s faithfulness we do not mean they believe or agree with each other’s ideas all the time. They are faithful because they have committed themselves to each other in love and trust. They are faithful because they continually give their life to the other and receive the other’s life as their own. They are faithful because they carry with them that one relationship wherever they go, in all that they are, and all that they do. It is likewise with our faith-relationship with Jesus.
Faith does not change the circumstances of our lives. Instead, it changes us. Living in faith does not shield us from the pain and difficulties of life, it does not undo the past, and it will not guarantee a particular future. Rather, faith is the means by which we face and deal with the circumstances of life – the difficulties and losses, the joys and successes, the opportunities and possibilities.
Faith is not lived out in the abstract. It is practiced day after day in the ordinary everyday circumstances. Some days when the pain and heaviness of life seem more than we can carry, it is by faith, relationship with Jesus, that we get up each morning and face the reality of life. Other days present other circumstances. There may be days when we feel powerless, lost, and do not know the way forward but we proceed in faith.
Faith, then, is how we live; the lens through which we view ourselves, others, and the world; the criterion by which we act and speak. Faithfulness means that no matter where we go, no matter what circumstances we face, we do so in relationship with the One who created, redeemed, loves, and sustains us.
Jesus does not supersize our faith. It is not necessary. We live by faith not because we have enough faith but because we have faith, even mustard seed sized faith. That is all we need. Jesus believes that. So should we.
Thus the question may not be about how much faith we have but rather, how we are living the faith we have. How is our faith, our relationship with Jesus, changing our lives, our relationships, the lives of others? If it is not, more of the same will surely not make a difference. We do not need more faith. We need more response in faith, rooted in the relationship we have with our Lord.
Jesus goes on to tell a parable that shifts the focus from faith to obedience and humility. The story suggests we view ourselves as God’s servants who owe him simple and unquestioning obedience. When we have done what he commands, we should not get puffed up with pride in our great obedience, but should simply say, “We are unworthy servants; we have done only that which we ought to have done.”
If we focus on increasing our faith, we may get inflated notions of our role. And if we focus on obedience, we may become grandiose about how noble we are to be so obedient. Thus the Lord instructs us to view ourselves as God’s servants who owe him obedience in all things. Servants do not negotiate with the master what their privileges and perks will be. It is simply their duty to serve.
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, (Luke 12:37), Jesus showed us how he, as the Master, will graciously reverse roles and wait upon his faithful servants. But here, in this passage, he is emphasizing our responsibility to do what he commands us to do. Our focus cannot be on our feelings, but rather we must focus on our responsibility. I can’t picture the tired and dirty slave coming in from the field feeling like getting his master’s dinner. Most likely he felt like taking a bath and being served a nice dinner. But he had to focus on his duty as a servant.
Sometimes we can get so puffed up about our years of sacrificial service or our forgiving spirit that we may think God owes us something. But we have no claim on God. All that we have, we have received as gift and he graciously gives us the privilege of serving him. No where does Sacred Scripture tells us that we need to grow in self-esteem, but many times it exhorts us to grow in humility.
Faith is simply the way in which we live and move and have our being so that, at the end of the day, faithful ones can say, without pride or shame, “We have done only what we ought to have done!” We have lived in openness to, trust in, and love for, Jesus. We have allowed him to guide our decisions, our words, and our actions.