Well, if my faith were stronger, would I be healthier? If my faith were deeper, would I be more financially secure? And would I be happier and more comfortable? In other words, does Jesus say our sorrow is traced back to a lack of faith on our part? Today’s question is from a podcast listener named Scott. “Hello, Pastor John! A question always arises for me when I read about Jesus’s exorcism of the epileptic boy possessed by a demon in Matthew 17:14–20, Mark 9:17–29, and Luke 9:37–43. What does Jesus mean by ‘because of your little faith’? What is it exactly that the disciples lacked? It seems like Jesus’s answer gives easy fuel to suffering Christians who might be told that Jesus suggests that if they just had enough faith they could be healed. How is that not the takeaway?”
Well, I’m going to try to deal with these words of Jesus even though I do not fully understand them and find them in part baffling. I chose to go ahead and try to answer this just so that our listeners will know that there are passages in the Bible that are baffling — at least they are to me. They leave me with questions. I thought it might be helpful to just struggle out loud and invite others to join me and maybe go further than I can.
“I’m answering this so our listeners will know there are verses in the Bible that are baffling, at least to me.”
I should say here at the beginning that bumping into things like this doesn’t undermine my faith. Jesus has done so much and said so much that the glory of God in him has won me over to trust him and treasure him because of what I do see and I do understand, even if there are aspects of what he says that sometimes I don’t understand.
That’s how it works with my faith. In case anybody wonders, “How do you even sleep at night if you can’t understand Jesus?” Well, it’s just this one little part that baffles me.
Casting Out Demons
Let’s focus on Matthew 17. I can’t deal with all these texts, so let’s just take one — Matthew 17:17–20. Jesus comes down off the Mount of Transfiguration. He finds that the disciples were unable to heal a boy and cast out the demon that the father had brought to the disciples. Jesus’s response to their inability and the father’s statement that they couldn’t do it comes in verse 17:
“O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.”
I think that’s a reference, not just to the crowds, but to the disciples because they’re the ones who couldn’t do it. They’re the ones who didn’t have the faith. He’s saying some pretty strong things — “O faithless and twisted generation.”
He keeps going so that in verse 18 we see that Jesus rebuked the demon:
Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him [the boy], and the boy was healed instantly. Then 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 17:18–20)
No Faith or Little Faith?
Now, here’s what’s baffling to me about these words. First, in verse 17, Jesus says to the disciples that they are “faithless” (ἄπιστος). They are faithless. That is, they have no faith — at least no faith for this healing.
“We shouldn’t assume that in every case of unanswered prayer the problem lies with defective faith.”
Then, in verse 20, when the disciples ask, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?” He says, “You have little faith. It’s because of your little faith.” I think, scratching my head, “No faith? Little faith? Why does he say both?”
Then, to make matters even more perplexing, he says, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could move mountains.” Back in 13:32, he had said that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. Clearly, the point here is if you just had a mustard-seed faith, you could move mountains.
Well, if that’s true, why is it that their small faith was the reason they couldn’t cast out the demon? Small faith is what a mustard-seed-sized faith is. Yet, he’s accusing them of having small faith, and that’s why you can’t cast out the demons. Then he turns around and says, “If you had a mustard-seed faith, you could move a mountain.” You see why I’m confused? I’m baffled by what Jesus is saying here.
Thoughts to Consider
Here’s my effort. Here’s my stab to try to make some sense out of this and how it relates to the question.
1. In saying that we all need a mustard seed of faith to move mountains, it seems to me that Jesus is saying quantity of faith is not the issue. Why else would he refer to mustard-seed faith if quantity were the issue? Size of faith is not the issue. That’s the point of mustard seed.
2. In describing their little faith as virtually the same as faithlessness, he is saying that whatever little faith they were trying to have to heal this boy, it was the wrong kind of faith. It was not just the wrong size of faith, because size is not the issue anymore. It’s the wrong kind.
Faith as a grain of mustard seed seems to be not just an issue of size, but kind. There is something about this seed, since they had small faith, but it was useless. It was as good as faithlessness. It wasn’t like this mustard seed of faith.
“In saying we need a mustard seed of faith, it seems that Jesus is saying quantity of faith is not the issue.”
3. When we ponder not just how faith differs in quantity but kind, that starts to bring up issues like the condition of their hearts when they pray and the discernment of God’s will when they pray.
There are other parts of Jesus’s teaching and the other parts of Scripture that make answered prayer depend on the condition of the heart. James says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). That’s why you don’t get answers to your prayer.
Sovereign purposes of God in whether our prayers are answered come up in places like in 1 John 5:14. You have to pray according to God’s will.
Here’s a conclusion, but not a big solution. I would say to Scott, be sure to take into account all the teachings of the Bible regarding answered prayer. The Bible talks about both the condition of the heart of the one who’s praying or trying to do a work for God and the sovereign will of God.
We shouldn’t assume that in every case of unanswered prayer — for healing, let’s say — the problem lies with defective faith. That was the case here, but given the way Jesus answers and the other things he says about prayer, I would not assume that’s always the case.