Increase our Faith!By Nathan Mates
"The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"" -- Luke 17:5
To many new Christians, faith is something they know they should have, as they see it in stronger Christian's lives, but there's no clear roadmap or handout at Church saying how to get there. Even the apostles had problems with faith, and they needed to call upon Jesus for help. Their plaintive cry, "Increase our faith!" is what many since them have called out to God. The Bible is full of examples of faith, strong and weak, and it is worth examining this concept.
Why should we have faith? Put simply, it is one of the top virtues and characteristics of a Christian, it is a necessary component of our salvation, and it is powerful.
Firstly, faith should be defined. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary (http://www.m-w.com) gives this definition: "belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust 3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs." Compare point #1 above, with this part of their definition of belief: "(3) conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence"
From this, we see a huge distinction between faith and belief: faith operates even without hard proof, while belief is based on a piece of evidence. The bible backs that up in one single verse defining faith: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." [Hebrews 11:1] We cannot see many of the items mentioned in the Bible, especially Heaven and the new heavenly city in Revelation 20-21. But, to those with faith, it is real. We also may not be able to see the crucifixion, but by faith, we trust in its message.
We can also see what faith is by comparing it against its opposite: worry. Worrying negates faith by taking matters into ones own hands, refusing to trust God, refusing to acknowledge God's control over your entire situation. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, referred to such worrying as a lack of faith: "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?" [Matthew 6:28-30] We are to have faith that God cares for us more than he does the plants, and we can remain in his power.
Worrying, as a lack of faith, can also lead to fear. Not all fear is necessarily bad-- we are to fear God and keep his commandments as Ecclesiastes 12:13 notes. Positive fear is being reminded of God's power and ability, as well as his perfection. Compared to him, we are nothing, and without salvation, we are deserving of death. Properly reverencing God is what we should do.
However, there is also negative fear, which is caused by lack of faith that God is present in your current situation. The disciples had a case of this, which Jesus rebuked them for: "Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?"" [Mark 4:38-40] These disciples had seen many of Jesus's miracles, and yet it hadn't dawned on them to put their faith in Jesus's protection and power.
As the first main virtue and characteristic of being a Christian, faith is one of the defining marks of being a Christian. Paul, in his discussion of those marks, raises faith to a high level: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." [1 Corinthians 13:13] While love may be the top virtue, finishing in the top three is definitely something that should convince all that faith is worth having.
In fact, faith is a necessary stepping stone towards love, as Paul notes later: "The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." [1 Timothy 1:5] How can faith help produce love? We must have faith that God can turn us from unloving sinners into new creations in his mold. We must have faith in God's power, to not lose faith when the process seems to be taking too long, to keep persevering when others are acting unlovable.
Beyond just love, it is reasonable to conclude that faith is also a step towards other gifts as well. Paul notes that twice in a different letter, to the Romans. First, he notes this about Abraham's faith: "What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."" [Romans 4:3] Later on, speaking of spiritual gifts, Paul says "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith." [Romans 12:6] Paul continues on for two more verses speaking of different gifts, and while he doesn't mention faith, the clause of "let him use it in proportion to his faith" can be implied. We must have that faith to be effective in the use of what God's given us-- we need to have the faith that the gifts are not of our own skills, and fully God's to rely on them.
Faith is not just limited to the New Testament and Christians. While it is true that most of the times faith occurs in the Bible it is in the New Testament, it is based on the examples of the Old Testament. In the Bible's "Faith Hall of Fame" chapter, Hebrews 11, the author of that chapter uses the word faith 27 times, with all but 3 referring back to specific examples of it in the Old Testament. If you are looking for a starting point of faith in action, use his list with a Bible full of cross references to read up on all of these instances of faith.
Though the author of Hebrews 11 emphasizes faith the Pentateuch (Genesis thru Deuteronomy), this list is constrained to that only due to time and space limitations. He concludes with an abbreviated list of what else to look for in the Old Testament, and lists the power of faith: "And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies." [Hebrews 11:32-34] Reading the Old Testament, one certainly does get a sense of the unfaithfulness of Israel as a nation, and the faithfulness (most of the time-- they're human) of God's chosen.
In the Old Testament, faith certainly was a great characteristic to have, but in the New Testament, it takes on another characteristic: a necessary component of our salvation. God's people in the Old Testament were the lineal descendants of Abraham, but after Jesus's death, membership in God's kingdom was opened up to all. [Acts 10:45, Romans 3:29, Romans 15:27, and many other places] In the New Testament, faith is a requirement for our salvation.
While faith is a part of our identity as a Christian, some people do have more faith than others-- just like most people have varying levels of all of the Christian gifts and fruits of the Spirit. But, the variations are not purely random alone: "Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?" [James 2:5] Why is this so? The rich tend to be the most self-sufficient, and so they ignore God more often. But, the poor, especially the destitute, are forced to rely on God for their daily food, shelter, and protection. So, their faith tends to be tested and increased far more than the prosperous. This is not to claim that all rich are poor in faith-- Abraham was both wealthy and commended for being faithful.
Faith's component in our salvation is detailed by Paul in his epistles. In writing to the Galatians, he notes "[We] know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified." [Galatians 2:16] His writing to the Romans details the same concept, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." [Romans 3:28]
Paul spends much of the first part of Romans detailing out why faith is needed instead of the law. The short answer is that the law can only convict one of sin, and not purify. As a breaking of the law at any one point is no different from breaking the entire law [James 2:10], one can only be convicted under the law.
Additionally, many get tied up trying to earn salvation through works of their own, which are tainted with sinful motives and useless before a perfect God-- what can any sinner do of his own sweat or intellect that could possibly please God? But, faith is a gift of God which allows us to start a right relationship with God by putting one's faith in the complete, saving, work of of the Cross. Paul says it this way: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast." [Ephesians 2:8-9]
Where does one get that initial faith to believe? Paul notes that it comes from God's word: "Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." [Romans 10:17] However, later on, the author of Hebrews makes the further explanation as to why some hear the gospel and don't receive it: "For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith." [Hebrews 4:2]
Summarizing the above, Peter would go on later to write this: "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls." [1 Peter 1:8-9] The first part of Peter's words are faith by example-- his readers (and most of us) have not seen Jesus face to face, and certainly don't see him now. But, by faith, the readers (and hopefully us as well) believe in him. The result of that faith in Jesus is salvation.
If, as detailed above, we must have faith to initially believe in Jesus, does that mean we have fulfilled our quota of faith? Absolutely not. We must continue to grow in our faith and do all things by faith as Christians. In commenting on the issue of causing others to stumble, Paul says "and everything that does not come from faith is sin." [Romans 14:23b] Everything we did before we came to Christ was a sin, as we did the wrong things, had the wrong motives, and didn't do them for God. Putting faith in God was the first right thing we did in our lives, and we must continue to do things in faith, rather than out of worry, out of fear, out of our own strength.
Beyond the sin of letting our faith die down once we become Christians, we as Christians should always be seeking to increase our faith. Paul notes that this can be the case for some Christians he knew: "We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing." [2 Thessalonians 1:3] So, if these Christians could grow in faith, I hardly think that we should be any different than them and seek to have increasing faith.
Even Jesus had words to say on growing our faith. Look back at the title of this writing: "Increase our Faith!" As I noted right at the start, that quote is from the New Testament: "The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"" [Luke 17:5] Why did they feel a need to say this? It was because Jesus had just challenged them (verses 1-4) to live to a much higher standard than the world. Instead of taking revenge for wrongs done to us, instead of ignoring sins but taking them very seriously, Jesus stated that his standards are not that of the world.
Like those apostles, when we are confronted like a pole vaulter having his bar raised ten times higher, our reaction must not be despair or hopelessness. Despite all of their problems, cluelessness, and quirks, these disciples had the right reaction: "Jesus, we'll need your help to pull this off." Jesus asked them to produce a miracle, and they went right back to him asking for the ability to do so.
Jesus's reaction to the apostle's plea was both an encouragement and a challenge: "He replied, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you." [Luke 17:6] Now, I don't hear of many Christians telling large trees to go take a hike-- and the trees obeying. Does this mean that nobody today has faith the size of a mustard seed? I don't think so, because such a level of faith goes hand in hand with a level of maturity to not be proving one's faith in such destructive ways. I'd say it takes more power, more skill to exercise one's faith in the praying for another's healing (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual), than it does to move a tree. Faith could be used for such a brute force approach, but that's not God's style, which is caring and loving one another.
Continuing on in speaking to the apostles, Jesus turns the discussion of faith into an exercise of duty in humility: "Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'" [Luke 17:7-10] If we as Christians are the servant to the master (God), then exercising what God's told us to do (faith) shouldn't be done in an attitude of power and self-glorification, but in humility.
So, if faith is a hallmark of being a Christian, and is needed to be present (let alone growing) in a Christian, what affect does it have on our lives? Its power alone should convince Christians that we need it in our lives.
First, examine the negative affects of a lack of faith. Jesus experienced that when he visited his home: "Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor." He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith. Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village." [Mark 6:4-6] Compare that with a more believing target some time later: "Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour." [Matthew 15:28]
It was because of the second woman's faith that any healing was done, but in Jesus's hometown, the lack of faith prevented Jesus from doing many healings. Does this mean that Jesus, part of the trinity, and Son of God was truly powerless? No. Jesus could have forced people to be healthy, but it's not his methodology to force people against their will. God (and by extension Jesus) wait for us as humans to hear their knock on our heart's door and let them in to work. Satan, on the other hand, would use a wrecking crane on our heart's door, set the lawn on fire, mutilate cattle, and anything else to get our attention and do things to us.
Jesus can work in people with weak faith, but the results are not guaranteed to be the best. In John 5:5-14, Jesus healed one invalid who wanted to be healed. But, that man did not have faith to believe that Jesus was one to be followed. And so, "Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." [John 6:14] That man's lack of faith-- he treated his healing as an excuse to sin, not to worship God-- was what earned him a stern rebuke from God.
Consider the opposite case of where the faith is much stronger: the Roman centurion. Matthew records this account of the situation, "Jesus said to him, "I will go and heal him." The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith." [Matthew 8:7-10] Continuing on in verse 13, we learn that the sick servant was healed at that hour.
While the sick people in Jesus's hometown had so little faith that it required a direct touch from Jesus, this Centurion had the faith (as we should have today) that the situation could be resolved without the physical presence of Jesus. The Centurion's faith was able to accomplish much here, just as the paralytic's friends' faith-- see Mark 2:4-5.
As Christians, we should identify with the Centurion, but too often, we can fall into the same swamp of unbelief as Jesus's hometown. Our attitude should be "God, you say the word," but so often we water down the faith with a "if it's your will" qualifier. While it is true that God grants requests made in accordance with his will, he already knows that. Our lingering shards of unbelief can manifest themselves in not believing that God won't do what we ask. Instead, we should pray as David did for his sick son in 2 Samuel 12:15-23 -- David prayed his heart out, pleading with God for the child. Only when the child died (a fairly direct "no" answer) did David give up his prayers.
This principle of faith being required in the target is not limited to cases where Jesus is personally involved. In Acts, Paul is recorded as seeing faith: "He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk." [Acts 14:9-10] Like Jesus's example, faith was needed in the target for this invalid to be healed.
Our faith is also powerful in that it is a part of our spiritual armor. Mapped to the standard armor of a Roman soldier, Paul says this about faith: "In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one." [Ephesians 6:16] The Romans routinely faced flaming arrows, so their shields tended to have a leather outside that could be wettened and thus put out the flames. As Christians, our faith counteracts the attacks of the devil which may say "God won't do XYZ" "You will fail" "There's no way this will work" and so on. We will be attacked, so we need to have this essential component of faith in God's promises and character to defend ourselves.
Peter also says that we need faith's power to defend against the devil. "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings." [1 Peter 5:8-9] Here, we are not to give in to any of the attacks of the devil that may come our way and stand our ground in faith. Running away shows no faith in God and God's power to deliver us from the enemy.
Beyond attacks to us requiring faith to help us withstand, our faith can also be stretched and tested. This is an extension of the exercise principle "no pain, no gain" to the spiritual realm "because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance." [James 1:3] Our faith in God is tested as we are put into difficult situations, requiring us to make a decision to be self-reliant, or to trust God more fully. The more we are tested and our faith helps us out, the more our faith grows.
Finally, once we understand faith's role in our lives, it's role in our salvation, and its power, what should our reaction be? How do we apply it in our lives? The Bible says it quite bluntly: "In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." [James 2:17] Or, as the King James Version of the Bible renders that verse "faith without works is dead." Faith in God's power demands that we respond by living as the Bible says-- loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. [Paraphrase of Mark 12:29-31]
In terms of having our actions match our faith, Jesus said "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." [John 14:12] Faith in Jesus demands we follow in all of his footsteps, not divorce ourselves from interaction with God and humanity. In a different context, Jesus also reiterated the need to be faithful and act with what God's given us. In the parable of the ten talents [Matthew 25:14-30], Jesus said that God will commend equally people who put his talents into action, even if they start of with different amounts. However, the servant who does absolutely nothing with the money-- not even putting it in a bank-- is punished severely.
If we understand what role faith has in our salvation-- that God has called us out of the world and we are to make disciples of all the nations [Matthew 28:20] -- then if we are faithful, we will work to do just that. If we understand the power of faith, then we will work to exercise that power so that others may see God's glory and believe in him. [John 2:11] With whatever we've been given, faith in God demands that we use it to glorify him. Anything less demonstrates a lack of faith in the gifts and the gift-giver.
Even if we are the most faithful and productive for God, there is still the chance that we won't be successful here on earth. In recounting the heroes of the Old Testament faith, the author notes that many were killed and suffered in the process. He finishes by saying "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised." [Hebrews 11:39] Their reward was not to be given here on earth, but in Heaven. Their perseverance is proof of their faith. We also should follow in their examples, being shining examples of faith in God that even in the midst of everything, we still trust that our future in heaven is guaranteed by God.