"If I had enough faith, wouldn't my problems all go away?"
Truly I tell you, 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.
- Matthew 17:20b
This verse is kind of a doozy.
I really love this verse, but I hate to break it to you, it's been misused, misunderstood, and just plain old avoided because it’s really difficult. But, on the other hand, it's just so beautiful and awesome. So, here we are, just trusting that God is going to use this verse, like he does with all of his Word, to stretch us and grow our faith. And even though I’m no theologian, I do have the very Spirit of God to lead me as we sweat through the difficulties of this verse together. So, let’s lean in to the good things that God has for us in this wondrous, complex, somewhat confusing verse. To start that process, we're going to look at two common misconceptions and two corrections.
God is our personal genie.
When we first read this verse, we might be tempted to think that if we just had enough faith, all of our problems would go away. We could overcome any mountain as we see fit. Sadly, there are lots of people who misread this verse in this way. In fact, I’ve seen people’s faith brutalized by this line of thinking. A friend of mine’s family was preyed upon by “faith healers” when his mom fell ill to cancer. They were told that if they just had strong enough faith, God would heal his mom and she would live. But, when she wasn’t healed, when she eventually went to be with Jesus in heaven, it was their fault. Her death was due to their lack of faith. All they needed was mustard seed like faith, right? Why else wasn’t their mountain moved? This is probably the most damaging way of interpreting this verse.
God doesn’t do miracles.
Some well-intentioned people go to exactly the other extreme. When presented with the disparity between the promise of this verse and the harsh reality that God has not miraculously intervened in the way they asked, these people decide that this verse must be merely symbolic. This verse and the surrounding story are simply a way of helping hurting people to have hope and to cope with hard situations by having faith that God will move their figurative mountains. Sadness and worry, those kinds of mountains, can be overcome. But surely this verse can’t literally be referring to God stepping in and doing a miraculous work, right? This verse is figurative. Period.
A LITTLE CORRECTION (HOPE IT HELPS)
God is God.
Well, that first way of understanding our verse demotes God to our cosmic errand boy. We’re the ones in control, not him. We decide what’s best in any given situation, not him. However, that view of this verse disregards the rest of the Bible. It’s clearly God’s prerogative, as God over everything, to do as he sees fit. This prerogative works in total unity with the rest of his "Godness"—with his perfect goodness, his knowledge of all things, his love for his people, and his plan of redemption. All throughout the Bible we're told to trust in the Lord, to follow his leading, and he will work all things together for good. The short of it then is this: when we consider this verse, we should humbly understand that our mustard seed faith is IN GOD. It is trusting in him and his good ways. He’s the Mountain Mover. Not us. We can’t just run around willy nilly claiming this verse for our lives and expecting God to jump through hoops for us. He simply doesn’t work that way. And, here’s a reality check for those of us who think this is bogus: we are in no way equipped to make those kinds of decisions for the good of the universe anyway.
God works miracles.
Thomas Jefferson famously made his own Bible, in which he cut out all of Jesus’ miracles. Evidently, he presupposed that there were no such things as miracles, and therefore those parts of the Bible couldn’t be true. But, lest we judge to quickly, don’t so many of us “enlightened” modern people still struggle to believe that Jesus walked on water, multiplied fish and bread, raised the dead, or healed a demon-possessed boy (as he does in the context of our verse)? This leads us to the other misunderstanding of our verse. We want Jesus, but just a tamer, more civilized version, one without those crazy miracles. This whole mountain moving situation must be figurative. But, if that's the case, so is the rest of the Bible. Jesus couldn’t have truly risen from the grave, and he didn’t actually ascend into heaven either, where he isn’t sitting right now with the Father. This line of thinking makes everything symbolic. But, the Bible itself doesn’t allow for that. Paul says to those who would make the Bible merely a nice moral story, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." (1 Cor. 15:17)
So, what do we know?
We do know that we have this amazing, trustworthy, loving God who understands everything and holds everything together. And, that same God tells us to put our faith IN HIM, even our teeniest tiniest faith, and he will do big things. He is beyond capable. He stepped into time for us, went to the cross for us, lives in the hearts of his followers, whispering his love and guidance to us. Now, that is miraculous. He is the Mountain Mover. That's what we can know. He is a God we can trust. Period.
So, I'm putting my mustard seed in his hands.
Are you apt to treat God as your cosmic errand boy?
Or, are you more likely to struggle to believe that God will work at all in your life?
What mountains are you asking God to move?
Natalie co-founded Dwell with her sister, Vera. Together, they're committed to helping others connect with God each and every day. Natalie also hosts our weekly podcast, Dwell Differently. She and her husband, Jason, live in Chicago with their 5 kids, where Jason pastors First Free Church.