The Reach & The Depth

In the midst of a few conversations that I had today in which I was attempting to give insight to the question of “strengthening” one’s faith, I stumbled into some language that proved to be quite helpful.

To put all of this in its right context, the question was posed as the result of a friend being told that “he just needed to have stronger faith” for some particular prayer to be answered … probably a reference to Jesus’ words to his disciples from Matthew 21:

“Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

This idea that we have control over the degree to which we believe or disbelieve something often poses a problem for those of us who understand faith to be a gift from God, not given to us based on anything that we may have done to gain it. It would seem that we have only the option of receiving what we are given and being thankful for it.

This approach to our faith, however, has its own problems.  In addition to the above passage, there are no less than five instances in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus speaks to people seeking to follow Him of how “little” faith they have … seemingly, as if Jesus thinks that they can actually do something about it!

It would appear that even Jesus’ disciples were a bit caught off guard by this accusation … that they had some control over their own faith.  I would venture to say that even those who would deny predestination for the furthering of free-will, and even the challenger of my friend (who started this whole conversation in the first place) when asked to provide some guidance and instruction for obtaining “more” faith, would have a difficult time finding helpful words.  Sure, they may offer some suggestions to pray more or read the Bible more … but as we see in Jesus’ own words, if we don’t believe our prayer will be answered than we really can’t expect anything from Jesus, can we?

So, how can we ever avoid the “ye of little faith” moments?  What could we possibly do to increase our faith?

The language that found me in this conversation allows us to speak of our faith in Jesus as multidimensional, just as the message of Jesus is multidimensional.  For this purpose we only venture to two dimensions (much beyond 3 and your head will explode); reach, and depth.  The reach of our faith refers to what we are willing to claim that we believe, either in word or in action.  For instance, I will tell anyone who asks that I believe that God is capable of miraculous healing and that God is also responsive to prayer … and consequently I sometimes find myself praying that friends and acquaintances of mine will be the recipients of God’s healing.  The depth of our faith could be described as how convinced we are of this particular belief’s truth or likelihood.  So, though I am willing to say that I believe that God is capable of healing people miraculously, and I am even willing to pray and ask that God would heal a friend on occasion, that prayer is always one that I approach with hesitancy for fear of it not happening.  The depth of my faith in God’s ability or willingness to heal is lacking.  I am willing to reach out only so far and only so often, and though I may occasionally exceed my comfort zone by swimming out to the deep end, I have yet to stay there long enough to become convinced of all of the rumors that insist the deep end is home to a greater life than I could imagine.

At this realization, the next question has to be, “Well, why am I so afraid of the deep end?”  For me personally, the first answer to that question is that I have a fear of failure.  The “what if it doesn’t work” question haunts me, and I can never help thinking that when I don’t see very specific prayers answered that I must be doing something wrong … almost as if God’s response or lack thereof is in some way indicative of how “good” or “strong” my faith is.  And since I have a reputation to hold up, I can’t have people seeing that my faith is not good or strong enough to get someone healed now can I?  It’s probably just better not to ask …

The problem here should be obvious … I’m trying to put my faith in me … not in God!  And this is not to say that we don’t need to believe in ourselves.  Rob Bell has a great perspective on the story of Peter walking on the water in which he explains Jesus’ “why did you doubt” as “why did you doubt yourself … your ability to do what I do?” Not “why did you doubt me?”  And it does seem apparent in the rest of Scripture that God believes in creation’s capacity for goodness; but we must never forget that our abilities live and die by the power of the Father.  Our hope can only be in the One who is without flaw … the One who has the ability to answer prayers … the only One who can increase the depth of our faith, wherever we may extend our reach.

So, while I do not think that people often make a statement such as “you just need to have stronger faith” with a multidimensional understanding of faith in mind, I do think that we can live in such a way as to impact the “strength” of our faith.  Extend your reach beyond the walls of your comfort zone.  If we move away from feeling like we need to believe that God will respond in the ways that we want God to respond, and towards expecting God’s faithfulness, He will respond.  It may not always be how we expect; it may not always be what we want, or when we want it, but it will always be good, it will always be right, and it will often blow your mind.  As we rely more and more on God, we will be taken deeper and deeper into the Ocean of God and He will show us things that we didn’t know existed; things that we didn’t know were possible.

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~ by Will Norman on February 9, 2008.

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