Mustard Seeds & Mulberry Trees
It was an obscure Egyptian news article detailing the murder of a group of families travelling in two buses to pray. Their vehicles had been stopped and surrounded and the passengers then forced to exit the bus. On pain of death each was required to renounce Christ and convert to Islam; nineteen adults and ten children were ordered to make that choice.
All chose death.
Hearing such stories causes me to ask personal questions about faith; of my own and others. About what faith is and how it grows and changes us.
How can I grow in my faith?
No doubt it's a question all Christians frequently ask. After all, the scriptures tell us we are saved through faith (Ephesians 2:8); that we are to live by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7); that faith is the foundation of our confidence and assurance (Hebrews 10:22-23); and that faith is the victory enabling us to overcome the world (1 John 5:4). We know even Jesus' own apostles earnestly asked of Him, 'Lord, increase our faith" (Luke 17:5).
The Apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith".
Intriguingly, when you look at the circumstance that caused the apostles request for more faith, it wasn't eminent death, as with those murdered Egyptian Christians, rather we read in Luke 17: 2-4 [Jesus said]
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
Why did this call to be forgiving cause the apostles to ask for greater faith?
Well I think it's because they realised that what Jesus was asking was more than difficult, it was counterintuitive to centuries of human thinking. Jesus was calling for people to disregard any preconceived notion of there being a limit to our obligation to forgive. And although they believed Jesus' words in their heads, they couldn't see how to make it a reality in their lives. So they sought His help to get the conviction out of their heads and into their hearts, and therefore into their behaviour.
We know that the scriptures teach that 'Faith comes through hearing God's word' (Romans 10:17); a passage telling us that knowing (hearing) certain things is essential to possessing faith. In other words: Faith begins in the head—what we believe [orthodoxy – correct doctrine, correct beliefs]. However the apostles acknowledge by their question that what Jesus was calling for here was more than a mere 'head faith', it required doing that which seemed hard to even comprehend.
So what do they do?
They seek a shortcut, an instant fix, a divine intervention to the challenge of obedience. In effect they say to Christ, 'OK, we want to do what you're saying, but that just sounds too hard. Could you therefore enable us to do it?'
So Jesus presents two parables to them as answer. In Luke 17:6-10:
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. Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will 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.’”
Mustard Seeds & Mulberry Trees
In Jesus’ day, black mustard was considered a weed. It was pervasive and persistent. Birds could not fully digest the seeds so they dropped them anywhere and everywhere, and farmers had a tough time controlling the mustard bushes that popped up in every-which place.
A mustard seed is not a big seed, its relatively tiny. So this seed imagery seems to be a play primarily on size and a reversal of the disciples’ expectation that faith has to be “big” to be “big enough.”
If a mustard seed is big enough, then a faith that is small is still a faith that is sufficient.
Further, a faith that is persistent like the little mustard seed and pervasive like the full-grown mustard weed is much more significant than the “big faith” the disciples were asking for.
If a mustard seed is big enough, then a faith that is small is still a faith that is sufficient
In regards the Mulberry tree. While they are not huge, such trees do have deep root systems. So the impossibility and sheer absurdity of ripping it up and planting it in the ocean would've struck the apostles as ludicrous. After all, nowhere do we read of Jesus demonstrating his faith in God by ordering large trees into the ocean!
So rather we are to understand that Jesus is using rhetorical language to make the point that little is much when God gets involved!
In regards Jesus parable of the servant, when combined with the previous parable, it was to teach that they were not to set their hope on accomplishing great things by a strong faith given to them in a moment of time. Rather they were to put themselves to the task of daily submitting obediently to God in labour, in patience, and in humility. For God's role is not to fulfil in us our obligations of faith toward Him. Rather his role is to take what we offer in faith, even if it is small, and make of it what He wills.
So in a nutshell, Jesus is teaching three things regarding faith:
- He reassures the apostles that even the smallest amount of faith (as a mustard seed) has powerful potential in Gods hands.
- That the crucial issue in accomplishing the will of God in our lives is not the quantity of our faith, but the power of the one we put our faith in. By referring to the tiny mustard seed after being asked about increased faith, Jesus seems to be deflecting attention away from the quantity of faith to the object of faith. That our faith abides only in the shadow of God's power when it comes to uprooting the deep rooted mulberry trees of life.
- Jesus seems to be telling the apostles that acceptable faith is more about meeting our day-in, day-out ordinary challenges by committing them to God, than it is about believing God will rescue us from those challenges. That Gods greater concern is what we will do with our little faith, than it is providing us with greater measure of it in the difficult times.
God's role is not to fulfil in us our obligations of faith toward Him. Rather his role is to take what we offer in faith, even if it is small, and make of it what He wills.
In Other Words
God doesn't measure our faith by what we don't have of it, but by what we do with what we do have.
That said, if faith could be measured on a scale of one to ten, most of us would probably rate our own fairly low.
From my experience, most people who take faith seriously are also very aware of their own lack of it. And when they speak of a lack, they are less likely to be talking about a problem with head conviction (faith as belief) than they are of heart conviction (faith as trust, fidelity, vision).
Most Christians I know don't struggle anywhere near as much with what they believe, as they do with what they do with what they believe. Likewise Jesus seems to be teaching that the recipe for vibrant faith is not governed primarily by what's in my head, but governed by whether I submit what's in my head to God's power.
Jesus is telling the apostles (and us) that when we choose to consistently act upon the little faith in our heads, God can use it to do amazing things. If we daily commit ourselves to putting God's will into action, as we understand it from God's word, we will find that things will happen.
In other words, you do what you've been tasked to do, and God, in God's time, will use that to do what only God can do (like moving impossibly large trees).
For the Apostles, the deep-rooted tree they were struggling with was how to forgive as Christ taught. So to them Jesus seemed to be saying, Do what you can, and God will make more of it.
And Paul reminds us of this simple recipe of acceptable faith in his letter to the philippians.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.— Philippians 2:12-13
God knows that faith doesn't come as easy to us as His power does to Him.
He knows it takes time to move a certainty of the mind (faith as confident belief [orthodoxy]), to a conviction of the heart (faith as confident obedience [orthopraxy]).
But the road between the two has always been, not divine interventions of miraculously gifted faith, but persistent, courageous and humble effort on our part to daily submit ourselves to God's will.
So many things in life become 'heart' convictions only through the rote of doing that which we believe in our heads.
Even in the non-Christian world this is acknowledged; whether raising children, training soldiers, learning a trade, developing relationships... Faith is reinforced and built upon only by choosing to elevate it into our behaviour. And God knows each of us intimately. Knows the depth of our faith and how best to mature it. He knows, too, its fragility and what might break it.
He knows that not all his children are candidates for the same arenas of life.
And maybe we sigh with relief at that knowledge, but by doing so we reveal again only the smallness of our faith. More content to live in the shadow of God's providence rather than in the light of his purpose and power. And that fear is probably the main reason we struggle to translate what we believe in our heads into trust, fidelity and vision?
Choosing Faith Over Fear
Fear is the opposite of faith. So often we pull up short of trusting God's word completely because, deep down, we fear. We fear what He has in store for us, what He will allow to occur if we submit. We may acknowledge He has the right to use us for any purpose He sees fit (head faith), but we are loath to step with faith into that acknowledgement (that's heart faith). And with good reason it would seem. Hebrews 11:36-40 reads:
Some men were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection, and others experienced mocking and scourging, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
Reading that may cause you to wonder, why do those most faithful to God still suffer some of the severest trials? A truth seen often throughout the scriptures among souls of exemplary faith such as Joseph, Job, Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus; and many thousands more since.
Take for example the first century Christians who for their refusal to renounce Christ, suffered the tortures of the arena. In the face of cruel death, their unwavering faith in Christ's promise of an eternal home proved a beacon of hope to the blood thirsty—but spiritually hungry—subjects of Rome; many of whom were inspired to repent and embrace Christ as saviour. Therefore, at least with those chosen few in the early Church, we see one purpose for God permitting his saints to suffer. Their hope in the face of desperate circumstances proves the truth of the gospel to those that would otherwise have dismissed it.
Therefore, from the examples it would seem that fully yielding to God warrants no assurance of earthly comforts or prevention of worldly woes. True, God gives promises in regards his care and providence (Philippians 4:19; Matthew 6:26; Hebrews 13:5; 2 Peter 1:3; Matthew 11:28), and we cling to these; and we should. But to those whose faith has bowed earthly concerns to God's holy purposes, the latter (Gods promises) makes contentment only in the former (earthly comfort) seem inadequate.
It would also seem that the purest deeds of faith require giving up to God the measure of our lives and will. Even Jesus Christ, humanity's greatest benefactor, first had to pray, “Yet not my will, but thine be done...” (Luke 22:42). He was granted no miraculous measure of faith in his time of greatest trial, rather he made a choice to submit. He chose to submit his behaviour to what he believed, not what he felt. He submitted his heart to what was in his head and not the fear that bullied him.
And we too can daily determine to make the same choices, regardless of life's difficulties. Because this world is not our abiding home. We are just passing through (Hebrews 11:9, 16; Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:11), journeying to a better place. And the extent to which that knowledge pervades our thinking and motivates us may well determine the measure to which God operates through us to influence this world for good.
To those so given to Christ, such surrender is not a resignation to the whims of fate but an assurance in Gods promises of an ultimate future—life eternal with him!
We, like Christ, can endure whatever cross we are called to bare for the joy that is set before us (Hebrews 12:2)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Richard Parr