By Jordan Burgen
"A point from last week that hasn't left me and certainly wasn't touched on in the group discussion page is prompting this email. From worry, first things first focus on righteousness and Jesus, surrender to God... Jim brought up the mission Jesus gave some disciples to do work (heal sick, cast out demons,..) they returned and asked why it didn't work. Jesus is almost ridiculing them that if they had only a mustard seed of faith they could move mountains. Where does that leave poor little flawed me? I didn't drop everything and walk with Jesus for a few years. Yet they didn't have that tiny seed of faith? It seems to me that Jesus here defined the level of faith necessary at such a high level that few of us weak mortal selves will ever attain it. Rather than hope, this points to despair. And the mountain doesn't move and we're supposed to just try try again? Please help."
The tendency in this story is to assume that Jesus is talking about the size, or amount, of a person’s faith when he speaks of the mustard seed. And while it is certainly applicable that a little bit of faith can do great things because of God, it is not the only application. I also don’t believe that it is the primary application. Jesus told the disciples that they have little faith, which is why they were unable to cast the demon out of the boy. Why, then, would he go on to tell them that a small amount of faith is what they are lacking? He must be talking about something else. I believe he is talking about the kind of faith. He does not say “if you have faith the size of a grain of mustard seed,” he says, “if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed.”
So, what is meant by being like a grain of mustard seed? If we look in Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus compares another thing to a grain of mustard seed: the Kingdom of God. He goes on to explain what this means, because he is not only talking about size:
"He put another parable before them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.
It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'"
When Jesus is talking about the mustard seed before, the comparison goes beyond the size of the seed itself. He mentions that, though it starts small, it grows and becomes a plant much larger than the plants around it and provides to creatures in its vicinity. If we apply Jesus’ previously stated understanding of what a mustard seed represents to the faith He is talking about in chapter 17, then we see that He is referring to a faith that is not stagnant. It is a faith that may start small, but does not remain small. Seeing that he calls out the disciples and others a couple times for having little faith or unbelief before this in the book of Matthew (Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31) it is clear that their faith is remaining small.
A stagnant faith is a faith in which you have stopped becoming closer to God, have stopped relying on Him to provide, and/or perhaps have started to take the power that is inside you through Him for granted or have begun to attribute it to yourself. I believe this is what He is referring to when he tells them what they are doing wrong. It is not an amount of faith issue, but a kind of faith issue. Their hearts were not in the right spot.
Now, with that said, I do not believe that having a stagnant faith is the only reason things don’t go well for us or happen. Sometimes, we can have all the faith in the world, and God’s answer is still “no.” That is a hard truth to swallow sometimes, but truth nonetheless.
As for where this leaves “poor little flawed” you, I would say: “in good company!” Most of the disciples eventually “got” it, and went on to do amazingly great things, both miraculous and historical, like starting the Church. The responsibility, however, lies with you on how great you want your faith to grow. It will start out slow, but if tended well, it will grow and grow and bless those around you. Never forget where the power actually comes from, however! God should always get all the glory.
Thank you so much for your question and I hope I was able to shed some light on it. I’ll admit, it is quite a tricky passage of scripture. Continue to pray for understanding and wisdom. And you can always reach out again with any more questions!
The "Good Questions" blog is a place where some of the really good questions people email into the church can be shared with everyone, along with Jordan Burgen's response. Jordan Burgen is the Assistant Director of Men's Soul Work here at Flatirons, but he also answers a lot of the emails sent in to us. To ask a question (about anything, really), please fill out a contact form here or email Jordan directly at