In Luke 17, Jesus gave his apostles a pretty difficult task: if your brother sins against you seven times in a day and repents each time, forgive him. Maybe that’s the reason the apostles asked him in v. 5 to “increase our faith.” After all, it takes a lot of faith to continually forgive someone who just keeps making the same mistake over and over again, doesn’t it?
Jesus’ answer is interesting. He makes two points that I think are vital to Christians as we wrestle with our own weak faith.
How much faith do you need?
The first point is the response in v. 6: “ If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
I confess that I don’t fully understand the concept of having a “little faith”. How do you measure faith? In this case Jesus says it’s sufficient, but in other cases, he chastises the apostles for having “little faith” (Mtt. 17:20). Obviously context has a lot to do with it, and I suspect that the audience in this case was key as well. I think he’s telling his apostles that they don’t need to wait for the “perfect amount” of faith. Neither do we; it’s very few of us who are truly up to the task of serving God. But He has appointed “earthen vessels” to teach the gospel to the world, and earthen vessels are flawed. If we wait until we feel ready to serve God, we’ll probably never start.
We don’t need perfect faith or even outstanding faith to be pleasing to God. We just need enough faith to get started, and enough to not give up (Col. 1:22-23).
But I think the second thing he says may be even more vital – and something many of us struggle with.
Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’
(Luke 17:7-10 ESVST)
The message here seems pretty straight-forward. If I want stronger faith, I need to start by understanding my place in the relationship with God. I am a child of God, and heir with Christ to salvation, it’s true (Rom. 8:17). But our adoption is not on our terms. God redeemed us for a purpose, which was to do good works (Eph. 2:10), to become part of a priesthood ordained to offer sacrifices to God (I Peter 2:5) as His possession, to His glory (v. 9).
Serving God isn’t about what I want
People gravitate to “church” for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s to become part of a community. Sometimes it’s to receive some sort of emotional experience from a worship assembly. And sometime, as Solomon wrote, it’s that God has “set eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc. 3:11). But the reason is invariably about fulfilling a need.
That’s not selfishness in the sense of worldly self-interest. It’s a perfectly valid sentiment, as Peter pleaded with people in Acts 2:40 to “save yourselves from this crooked generation.” We know we need a savior, and so we come to Christ.
But just like with an infant, babes in Christ have to grow beyond that. As we mature in our faith, we learn more and more that it’s not about us. Jesus calls us to be great through our service to others (Matt. 20:26), by submitting and putting others ahead of ourselves (Phil. 2:3).
And above all, we start to learn that our lives are God’s, and that our service is His, on His terms, to His glory. And we do it not because we’re forced to, but because there’s no better way to live.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this:that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15 ESV)
That’s real faith – putting my own ego aside, not worrying about my own preferences and ideas of what life should be, what worship should be, what my role in the body of Christ should be. Stepping into the furnace just like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, with the attitude that even if God doesn’t step in and save us, we’re still going to serve Him above everything else (Daniel 3:18).
God grant us all that level of faith. Because that’s when the Lord’s church will truly grow.