What does it mean to have faith the size of a mustard seed? We have all heard the parable of the mustard seed, but I’ll admit, there was always a little bit of confusion in my mind regarding this parable. Did it mean faith the size of a mustard seed is a small amount of faith, or a large amount of faith? If you read this parable in Matthew 17 and Luke 17, it seems as if Jesus is saying that you only need a small amount of faith. His disciples ask how to increase their faith, and Jesus says a person only needs faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain or throw a mulberry tree into the sea. Here’s the problem: it never seemed to work.
Yes, I must admit, rather sheepishly, that I tried this as a child. I tried commanding mountains to move, but it never happened. Now, there are myriad reasons why it didn’t actually happen, but in my childish understanding, it seemed that Jesus was giving us a measure for our faith, and I didn’t measure up. Perhaps what Jesus was actually saying was that having even a tiny amount of faith is next to impossible.
The first time I got a glimpse of an answer to this question was in reading a missionary story called “Overnight Mountain” in a collection by Joyce K. Ellis. In this story, marauders were on the loose in a little village in a faraway country. A Christian family remembered the story of the mustard seed and prayed for God to move a mountain somehow in front of their house that night. The next morning when they awoke, their house was covered in snow! They were completely snowed in…God had literally moved a mountain over their house. While there are many lessons in this story, the one that stuck with me the most closely was that God moves mountains “over there”. In other words, if you want the kind of faith that moves mountains, you go to where God is moving. You go to the mission field. Yes, I believe that my limited understanding of this parable was part of the reason I decided to go into missions. I wanted to have faith that would move mountains. I wanted to see God’s power at work. I think God knew that this little misunderstanding would move me toward His calling, but He also planned for me to learn the truth of this parable later on.
It wasn’t until this year as I was reading a Bible study by Priscilla Shirer called “The Armor of God” that I was struck by the simple and profound truth that is really found in this parable. As Priscilla talks about the Shield of Faith, she says, “Faith does not focus on the quality or quantity of human belief. It focuses on how trustworthy, true, and loyal the object of that belief has proven Himself to be.”*
In other words, this parable is not actually about the Mustard Seed. It is about the Maker of the Mustard Seed. When Jesus responded to His disciples, He was not giving them an example of how large their faith should be, or a tacit command to make their faith a certain size. He was telling them that the size of their faith is inconsequential. It doesn’t matter how large or how small a person’s faith is. It only matters who they place their faith in.
How then do we increase our faith? By learning more about the one we have placed our faith in. “Manufacturing” faith is impossible. It is, in fact, a paradox to say that we will increase faith without considering who or what that faith is in. For example, if you want to cross a bridge, you can’t just stand on the side trying to decide when you have enough faith to cross. You will most likely never make it. If you want to trust the bridge to hold you, it would be better to read about how the bridge was made, what materials and process were used, and study statistics on how many people have made it safely across the bridge. Then you will have the confidence to step out without fear.
Likewise, if we want to have more faith in Christ, we must learn more about Christ. As we learn about Him through the Scriptures, we will see His faithfulness and trustworthiness. Through this understanding, we will begin to recognize His faithfulness in our own lives. And as we see it in our lives, we will begin to trust Him implicitly when a new situation arises that requires faith.
So, the next time you see a mustard seed, do not fear. It is not a measure meant to evaluate your faith. Instead, look to Christ. Learn about Him. Learn what He thinks about you. And then follow Him where He calls you to go.
*Shirer, Priscilla. The Armor of God Workbook. Lifeway Christian Resources, 2017. Page 139.