“Do I have enough faith?” When I was a young Christian, that was often an agonizing – and paralyzing – question.
I came to conscious faith in Christ – there’s that word again, we use it in so many ways! – as a young teenager in the context of what we then called ‘the Pentecostal Movement’ in Anglicanism (not long afterwards we started calling it ‘the Charismatic Renewal’). ‘Faith’ was a huge issue for us charismatics, because of our emphasis on healing and supernatural intervention. We paid a lot of attention to verses like Mark 11:22-24:
‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, 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’.
‘Heart’, to us, meant ‘the feelings’ (as it self-evidently does to all modern people); we didn’t know that the New Testament writers thought the feelings were centred in another organ of the body, the intestines (hence the King James Version’s translation of ‘compassion’ as ‘bowels of mercy’). ‘Heart’, in the New Testament, covers a much bigger portion of the inner life – the emotions, the thoughts, and especially the will, the choices we make.
What I missed when I read the New Testament was how active the words ‘faith’ and ‘believe’ are.
Four friends bring a paralyzed man to Jesus so that he can heal him. The house is too crowded and they can’t get to Jesus, so they climb up and dig a hole in the mud roof, and lower their friend down on his stretcher, right in front of Jesus. Mark says, ‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’ (Mark 2:5).
But note this: what Jesus actually saw was their actions. Their ‘faith’ was a decision to act on trust. The action made it concrete – but also, somehow, easier to practice. They didn’t spend much time agonizing over whether they ‘had enough faith in their ‘hearts’. They were too busy digging a hole in the roof.
Matthew tells the famous miracle story of Jesus walking on the water, but he adds a detail not included in Mark:
But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’
‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’
‘Come,’ he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’ (Matthew 14:27-31).
What did ‘faith’ feel like for Peter? It felt like wet feet! Faith was a decision to act in a concrete way – to swing his feet over the side and step out, his eyes fixed on Jesus. Peter was already familiar with this kind of faith. A few months earlier, he had heard the invitation of Jesus, “Follow me”, and he had left his old life behind with his fishing nets and stepped out into the unknown, following wherever Jesus went – surely another example of ‘walking on water’!
This is why faith and action are not opposed to each other. As Christians we’re called to act in faith. Faith looks like giving generously to the poor and needy. It looks like taking your courage in your hands and speaking your word of testimony to a friend. It looks like loving your enemies and praying for those who hate you. It looks like giving your hungry enemy a plate of stew and a cup of coffee. It looks like getting out of your seat, coming to the front of the church and stretching out your hands to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
In his book ‘Prayer’, Ole Hallesby says that the two essentials for prayer are faith and desperation. Most of us don’t have too much trouble with the desperation; the older we get, the more we realize that (contrary to Paul McCartney!) the ‘movement we need’ is emphatically not ‘on our shoulder’! It’s beyond us! We need help from outside, or we’re not going to get anywhere.
Faith, Hallesby says, can seem more intimidating, but it doesn’t need to. If you have enough faith to turn to Jesus and ask for help, then you have enough faith. That’s the ‘faith the size of a grain of mustard seed’ that Jesus was talking about.
In Lent, we seek to grow in faith. But we sometimes make this too complicated. Growing in faith means simply (a) asking what Jesus is calling us to do next, and then (b) getting out of the boat and starting to do it, trusting that he will be there to hold us up.