We tend to think of great faith in terms of quantity. So did Jesus’ disciples. They asked Him to “increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). That was the wrong request, and so Jesus told them a little parable:
- 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. (Luke 17:6)
Quantity wasn’t the issue. Even if they had the smallest measure of faith – a mustard seed’s worth – they could move forests. Instead, faith was about quality as Jesus’ next parable illustrated, which concluded:
- “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 17:10)
A mature faith involves an understanding of the truth about us and God. Even the most productive and spiritual among us should regard himself as an “unworthy servant,” as totally underserving of anything from God, even a “thank you.” This also says a lot about God. Anything good that we receive from Him is totally a matter of grace.
Jesus presented many teachings about how faith and prayer should include this humble understanding:
- To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable. (Luke 18:9)
Jesus presented two people – one, a Pharisee who trusted that he was righteous and deserving:
- “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)
The Pharisee’s prayer was rejected by God. It was all “about himself” and his accomplishments. In contrast, the other acknowledged that he was a sinner and didn’t deserve anything from God. Jesus concluded that since this man humbled himself to acknowledge the truth – that he was a sinner – his prayer was received:
- "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)
The humble who acknowledge their sins will be blessed. Their prayers will be heard, because they understand their unworthiness and God’s undeserved grace. And when they do receive this grace, they are not inclined to boast that they deserve it (1 Cor. 1:29).
Jesus commended the faith of only two people, both Gentiles. What was it about their faith that He found commendable? Both exhibited great humility and a wisdom arising out of humility. A Roman Centurion requested that Jesus heal his servant. However, he understood that he was unworthy that the Jewish Jesus should come under his roof:
- The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. (Matthew 8:8-10)
The Centurion understood two things essential to “great faith.” He understood that he was unworthy of anything from this poorly clad Man. He was even willing to humble himself before those required to fear him. The Centurion also understood something about God - that if Jesus was so glorious, He could merely speak a word of healing.
It was these words of humility and wisdom that had “astonished” and impressed Jesus. This is what “great faith” is all about. When we stop trusting in ourselves and our own worthiness, we are left with no other choice than to trust in Christ’s worthiness and His all-sufficiency.
Sadly, many of us trust in the level of our faith, our mental ability to banish doubts, and perhaps even that we have the right techniques to get our prayers heard. However, when we trust in Christ’s sufficiency, we realize that our words, techniques, and mental states don’t matter:
- We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (Romans 8:26-27)
We serve a glorious, all-sufficient God. Understanding this is an important component of faith and prayer. Jesus acknowledged another Gentile as having great faith. A Canaanite woman asked Jesus to deliver her demon-possessed daughter, but Jesus declined, indicating that since she wasn’t a Jew, she was unworthy. However, she was willing to acknowledge her unworthiness, stating that she would be content to eat the crumbs, like a dog, that fell from the table:
- Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour. (Matthew 15:28)
She too exhibited great understanding that came from humility. Therefore, Jesus acknowledged her “great faith.”
Although faith is more than humility and understanding, it certainly includes these elements:
- And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Faith includes belief in the truth – that “He exists and rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” As we grow into the truths and understanding of God, we grow in faith. As we humble ourselves before God to acknowledge the truths about Him and about ourselves, He will exalt us. When, instead, we believe in ourselves, we will be humbled. We will not receive what we pray for. We will not be exalted by having our prayers answered.
When we humble ourselves, recognizing our inability to even manage our own lives, we no longer want our own ways, thoughts, or goals. Instead, we seek Him first, and He provides everything that we need (Mat. 6:33). When we trust in ourselves and seek our own goals, we shouldn’t expect to receive, no matter how fervent our prayers. Therefore, Jesus, in His model prayer, emphasized submission to the will of God:
- "This, then, is how you should pray: "'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread.’” (Matthew 6:9-11)
God’s will had to take precedence over our own. Only after praying for His will should we then pray for our daily bread.
This is of utmost importance, because many believe that it is about our will and getting what we want. They cite verses that seem to suggest that Jesus has given us a blank-check to get from Him anything we want, and they cite:
- “For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:8-11)
However, when read this verse in context, this is not a blank-check. It contains a proviso. We have to embrace God’s will in faith and obedience:
- So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
Therefore, when we humble ourselves to God’s will and His two great commandments, we can expect God to hear. Even Jesus was heard because of His submission to the will of His Father:
- During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. (Hebrews 5:7)
But how does the issue of doubt fit in? James claims that if we doubt, we should not expect to receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6). This will just have to wait for the next essay.