One of my favourite pieces of Christian literature is The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 (Zondervan). I particularly like Adrian’s account of his forays into the practising of miracles. His desire to have faith that will move mountains sees him start out by trying to move a paper clip:
“Had another go with the paper-clip tonight. I really took authority over it. Couldn’t get it to budge. Told God I would give up anything he wanted if he would just make it move half an inch. Nothing! All rather worrying really. If you only need faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain, what hope is there for me when I can’t even get a paper-clip to do what it’s told?”
Anyone who has read the book knows that Adrian’s heart was in the right place, but his theology on this point was somewhat adrift. God is not a vending machine in which you can put faith tokens in the slot to purchase miracles. Simon the magician was reprimanded for trying to buy the ability to do miracles on demand (Acts 8:9-24). Yet Jesus did say: “Have faith…if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’…it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24). This teaching has caused much confusion down the years.
An atom of faith
It helps to remind ourselves that Christian faith is in a person: in God himself. In recent years, the meaning of the word ‘faith’ has changed somewhat. We can now talk about having faith in ourselves or we can regard faith as some kind of assertive willpower. But to remind ourselves of its original meaning, it’s useful to mentally expand the word ‘faith’ in the Bible to ‘faith in God’. In fact, Jesus does exactly that for us because the verse I’ve quoted above actually starts: “Have faith in God…” (v22).
When Jesus encouraged people to have faith in God, it sometimes sounds as if he was saying they needed this faith in order to be healed – “your faith has healed you” (Mark 5:34; 10:52). Yet when the paralytic was lowered through the roof, Jesus saw that his friends had faith – not the ill person himself (Mark 2:5). When we understand ‘faith’ as meaning ‘faith in God’, it all makes sense: Jesus attributed all healings to God, not to our faith. So when he castigated his disciples for having no faith – such as when their boat was sinking in a storm (Mark 4:40) – he was telling them to trust God.
The disciples just didn’t get this at first, asking Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5). Perhaps groaning inwardly at their stupidity, Jesus explained that they only needed faith the size of a mustard seed, ie the tiniest amount imaginable. Today he’d probably talk about an atom of faith. The point is that because the ‘faith’ we need is ‘faith in God’ – what matters isn’t how great our faith is, but how great God is.
What about throwing mountains into the sea? This teaching followed immediately after Jesus made a fig tree wither because it didn’t have any fruit (Mark 11:12-24). Again these verses have been a source of confusion, but their meaning becomes clear in the context of the next two chapters in Mark and when we realise that the mountain of the Lord is a metaphor for the temple. Jesus was quoting Isaiah 56:7 just after he threw out the money-changers: “my holy mountain…my house will be called a house of prayer” (Mark 11:17).
In chapters 11 and 12, Mark charted the growing opposition to Jesus (11:15-33; 12:13-40), Jesus’ prediction that the Jewish leaders would be thrown out of the vineyard (12:1-12) and his predictions that the temple would be destroyed (13:1- 27). Jesus then used the fig tree as an illustration of what was to come. The conclusion was that its destruction would happen within a generation (13:28-37) – which it did in AD 70. Jesus had called on God to do the impossible – to throw down his own mountain, his own fruitless fig tree – and it happened. Modern readers can easily miss this when we read about faith that moves mountains. Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to make showy or frivolous demands of God; he was teaching them to pray for the things that God has already said he wants to do to advance his kingdom.
So on to the next problem: faith providing “whatever you ask for”. Just as we have to remember that ‘faith’ in the Bible means ‘faith in God’, after the phrase “whatever you ask for” we have to mentally add ‘in Jesus’ name’ to remind ourselves who we are working for. John actually did this for us repeatedly (John 14:13- 14; 15:16; 16:23-26) – perhaps the Church at that time needed the same reminder as we do: to pray in God’s service, not self-service.
What matters isn’t how great our faith is, but how great god is
Prayer is a request, not a demand. Paul prayed about his “thorn in [the] flesh”, but God didn’t remove it (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Probably this was a deteriorating eye condition, which was disastrous for a Bible scholar (see Galatians 4:15; 6:11). We’d expect it to be God’s will to heal this, but that didn’t happen.
Although Paul had often prayed and seen God heal instantaneously (Acts 19:11-12), he didn’t presume it would always happen. Paul served God, not the other way round. When we pray for healing, we aren’t putting our faith in a mechanism or procurement process; we put our faith in God. Usually we don’t know exactly what God’s plan is, like when Paul prayed about his “thorn”. After praying three times he stopped – not because he lacked faith, but because he realised this was part of God’s will for him.
Paul’s acceptance of his illness in this way impresses me greatly. It’s easy to have faith in God when prayers are answered immediately, but harder to trust him when those prayers appear to be unheard. One day we will understand God’s plan, but until then, like Paul we put our faith in God, we pray in Jesus’ name, and we patiently accept the outcome.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge