Jesus said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20 NIV). While I don’t feel totally qualified to explain this verse, does the Bible teach that if we just believe in something, it will become true?
No. Faith is not like a genie in a bottle, that if we rub it, it appears and grants us our wishes. You cannot make untrue things true just by believing them to be true.
So, how does it work? What is faith?
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV).
In the Christian life, the ‘things hoped for’ and the ‘things not seen’ are not ‘untrue things’ that we wish for, but things that are true because God has said they are true, but we may not necessarily see them.
Ephesians 2:8 says that by grace we have been saved through faith. You cannot see your salvation. And you cannot make Jesus come and pay for your sins just by believing it – Jesus already came and paid for your sins! Two thousand years ago! So, in this case, faith is the substance of things hoped for (salvation), and the evidence of things not seen (Jesus’ payment on the cross for your sin). Our faith does not move God to do something for us – our faith simply accepts what God has already done for us. If Jesus has not paid for your sin, then you can’t believe that you are saved, because it’s not yet true! But God doesn’t ask us to believe in what is untrue, only in what is unseen, but true. (As a side note, we are not saved because we ‘invite Jesus into our heart’ or ‘give our life to Christ’ or even ‘make Jesus the Lord of our life’; we are saved because Jesus took God’s wrath on the cross and the penalty for sin, and we simply believe that!)
And because we know that it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18), anything that God says to us or promises us is true, although possibly unseen.
I dealt with this a little bit in another blog post here, mentioning that God told Abraham that he would have a son, Isaac, and that Abraham’s descendants would be counted through Isaac (Genesis 17:19, 21:12). This meant that when God told Abraham, “Take your son—your only son, whom you love, Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah! Offer him up there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2 NET), Abraham was able to obey God, because if Isaac had died and stayed dead, God would be a liar. Abraham knew God’s character, and was able to be obedient (maybe another blog post could be about how knowing God’s character is crucial for walking in relationship with him).
So we need to think about what it is that God has said to us. Jesus once said, “Give, and it will be given to you: A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use will be the measure you receive” (Luke 6:38 NET). Was Jesus a liar? Why is it that sometimes we don’t see this happen? Perhaps James 4:3 (‘wrong motives’)?
My first response is, “Let’s not call God a liar!” We may not even realise we’re doing this, but if we don’t see it happen, then there’s something wrong with us, not with him. Hebrews 3:19 claims that the Israelites weren’t able to enter the promised land because of unbelief. Isaiah 7:9 says that “if your faith does not remain firm, then you will not remain secure.” James 1:5-7 says that if you ask God for wisdom, he will give it to you, but you must ask in faith (believing that he will give it to you). If you don’t see it, what do you conclude? That God didn’t give it? It is impossible for God to lie!
My second response is, “Let’s not invent new theologies just because we don’t see or understand what God has said!” I could spend a while on this, but I’ll just leave it at that…
So, what was Abraham’s back-up plan with Isaac? He didn’t have one, because he knew that God would keep his promise. As you go about through life and encounter various issues, do you accept God’s promises that have addressed that issue, or do you have your own back-up plan because you’re not sure if God is going to come through for you? That’s fine if you do, I’m not condemning, and I know how hard it is. But let’s call it what it is – unbelief. And I’m guilty of this. But I’ve decided to stop telling God, “I just don’t know that what you’ve said really happens… why did you say this God, when it’s just not like that?” Those are words of unbelief. And I’ve decided to accept that what God says is true, and if I don’t see it, there must be a good reason. I can’t make things true just by having faith, but I can miss out on what’s true by having unbelief.
So, back to the original topic (sorry for straying a little bit): if I believe that God will provide for me, is that just wishful thinking, or is it based on a promise that God has given, and therefore I don’t need a back-up plan? Are there other promises like that?
Faith is not wishful thinking. It is accepting that what God says is true, regardless of whether or not we can see it. Some things (e.g., the payment for sin) are based on something that God has already done, and some things are based on promises that will be fulfilled in the future.
God has said, “I will never leave you.” If you feel like God is not close to you, then you feel wrong! God has said, “I will no longer remember their sins,” so if you think God remembers your sins, you think wrong! God has said that he “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6 NIV), so if you don’t see yourself seated with Jesus in the heavenly realms, you see wrong! God has said that you have received his Spirit, and you have the mind of Christ, and much, much more. Faith does not create those truths – it accepts them. But without faith, you could live your whole life oblivious to what’s true but unseen, and miss out on so much.
Believing in something that God hasn’t promised is delusional. But so is not believing in what he has promised.
FOOTNOTE – My 2 cents on moving mountains
I’m far from having this figured out, but here are some thoughts. Jesus said that if I have even the tiniest bit of genuine faith, I can say to a mountain, “Move!” and it will move. We could invent all sorts of theologies to explain ourselves out of this one, but I think what Jesus is actually saying is, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.” As in, he’s saying just what he said. To be honest, I’ve never really thought that I could actually say to a mountain, “Move!” and it would move. I believe that God can do that. That it could be possible. But Jesus didn’t say, “Pray to God and ask him to move the mountain, and if you believe that he can do it, it will move.” I don’t think I’ve ever believed that if I said “Move!”, then it would happen. I may have suspiciously done some tests like that when I was a kid, but I didn’t believe it would happen – I would have been shocked if it had.
Anyway, that doesn’t mean that I should generate some faith and then go try it out on a mountain. When Satan tempted Jesus by telling him to jump off the temple because God would catch him, Jesus responded, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12 ESV). God’s power is not a party trick to be flashed around whenever it seems cool. Same thing with mountains – we do not go around trying out magic tricks on mountains. That would be testing God, because we want to see if God would keep his word, which is ultimately unbelief. But, if something comes up in your life where, for example, God tells you to do something, but there’s a literal mountain in the way, I believe you could tell it to move, and it would. Sounds crazy, but it only sounds like what Jesus said. When Jesus told Peter to come, Peter trusted him and walked on water. But Peter then looked at the wind and waves and started to doubt, and then started to sink. Jesus’ response wasn’t, “Ah, you did well. My will was for you to walk on water just a little bit.” No, he said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31 NET). It was probably because he was walking on water and that’s insane! But when Jesus says “Come!” we just go, whether or not there’s water under us or a mountain in the way. And if the mountain doesn’t move when I tell it to, then I guess Jesus would say to me the same thing he said to Peter. Fair enough.