When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”
“O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment.
Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “Because you have so little faith. 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.” (Matthew 17:14-20)
What makes prayer, prayer? When does a prayer count as a real live prayer in God’s sight? We’d all agree that we can pray out loud or internally, at any time, in any posture, in any place, alone or with company. While we might have our personal preferences, none of those variables determines whether or not prayer counts as prayer. But there is one ingredient that does make all the difference. Jesus says, ‘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’ (Matthew 17:20). By implication, praying without faith is a worthless activity.
Matthew 17:20 was brought to my attention at a ministry training meeting some years ago. It’s been on my mind ever since, and has had a big impact on my prayer life. While there’s definitely a strong element of encouragement in what Jesus says, it’s important to bear in mind that the verse comes just after the disciples have failed to drive out a demon. In context, Jesus is rebuking his followers, so the verse challenges before it encourages.
The Challenge of Mustard Seed Faith
It’s possible to have faith in a general way without activating that faith in a particular situation. Shortly before their failure to drive out the demon, Peter declares that Jesus is, ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:16). Jesus’ reply indicates his faith is genuine: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven’ (16:17). Yet despite this, the disciples do not act with faith when it comes to the specific task of driving out the demon. They seem to have no confidence in God’s power. (When Jesus says, at the start of 17:20, ‘Because you have so little faith’, it must be his rather withering way of pointing out how faithless they were during the recent incident with the demon. They didn’t even have the mustard seed-sized faith he’s about to discuss. ‘Little faith’ in Matthew’s gospel [8:26] parallels ‘no faith’ in Mark’s gospel [4:40]. See also Matthew 17:17, where the disciples are surely included, because of their handling of the demon incident, among the ‘unbelieving and perverse generation’.)
So Matthew 17:20 teaches us that we can pray in the most polished terms for the most deserving things and yet be entirely ineffective and powerless in prayer. The indispensable ingredient is to believe in our hearts that God will grant our request – if it’s in line with his purposes.
In the Christian life we constantly need reminding that, ‘The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7). We tend to think that if we drag ourselves out of bed at an early hour and pray with the right words for the right things there’ll be traction between earth and heaven. But God, as always, closely observes what’s going on in our hearts. Unless faith is present, our prayers will go unheard. This doesn’t mean we need to imagine the granting of our requests. God can do ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20). So it’s not about scaling down the hugeness of our requests to fit our faith (as Jesus makes clear with his illustration of mountain shifting). No, praying with faith means scaling up our vision of God. Children sing ‘Our God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that he cannot do,’ but do their parents inwardly agree?
Matthew 17:20 challenges us to focus on God and his promises, and therefore to go large in prayer because he’s more than able to cope. Praying with faith also means adjusting our prayers to our knowledge of God’s character and his purposes. We can’t pray with faith for certain things if Scripture informs us that God has other plans. Those who pray with faith not only note God’s limitless power, but also his revealed will.
The Encouragement of Mustard Seed Faith
At the training meeting mentioned above, the speaker pointed out that we often think of faith like a ‘dimmer switch’. We strive to have great faith rather than little faith. But while it certainly is good to have great faith, like the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:28), the really important thing about faith is simply having it – even mustard seed-sized – rather than not having it. So it might be better to think of faith as more like an on/off switch. This is tremendously encouraging. Very often my confidence that God will bring about what I ask for is as small as a mustard seed. But Jesus says that’s big enough for my prayer to count! Mustard seed faith is all that’s required to move mountains. Doesn’t that spur you on to do business with our omnipotent God today?