So, what exactly did the disciples mean when they asked Jesus to increase their faith? Is this even something Jesus could do?
When Jesus responded to the request to be taught to pray he responded with the “Our Father”. Is his silence to their current request significant? While it’s basic catechetical teaching that faith is a gift from God, is it also God’s job to make that faith grow?
The disciples requested of Jesus: “Increase our faith."
Jesus purportedly replied: "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."
This particular exchange has always been a puzzle to me, certainly one deserving of reflection. What exactly are the Apostles requesting? We know that faith is a gift from God; and faith doesn’t seem suitable for an increase in quantity — more faith vs less faith — though that is exactly how we refer to it from time to time. Moreover, the reply seems to have little to do with the request. The Gospels only make one other reference to mustard seeds, and that is in a parable.
Another parable he put before them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32)
The two teachings are not in conflict; but I didn’t find that either one contributed to an understanding of the other. Both seeds are small. One is exemplary because of its minuscule size. The other is exemplary because of its potential for growth. Neither mustard seeds nor their size contributed to my understanding of how to increase faith. Consequently, faith references in Scripture were the next item to be probed and this reflection automatically turned into an exploration.
When Peter faltered in his unsuccessful attempt to stroll across the waves “Jesus immediately reached out his hand, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"’ (Matthew 14:21) The implication is clear: with faith you could have done this.
When various people seek healing, Jesus’ most common response is that their faith has made them well. Similarly, we are told “He could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” (Mark 6:5-6) again, the implication is clear: with faith you could have been healed.
We believe that faith is important not just so that we can move mountains, walk on water and be cured of our afflictions. Paul asserts that “A man is justified by faith.” (Romans 3:28) and that “By grace you have been saved through faith.”(Ephesians 2:8) He also instructs the new Christians, praying that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” (Ephesians 3:17)
So, what exactly did the disciples mean when they asked Jesus to increase their faith? Is this even something Jesus could do? When Jesus responded to the request to be taught to pray he responded with the “Our Father.” Is his silence to their current request significant? While it’s basic catechetical teaching that faith is a gift from God, is it also God’s job to make that faith grow?
“In the context of religion, one can define faith as confidence or trust in a particular system of religious belief, within which faith may equate to confidence based on some perceived degree of authenticity, in contrast to a definition of faith as being belief without evidence.” (Wikipedia)
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul acknowledges that “We walk by faith, not by sight.” (II Corinthians 5:7) But that doesn’t mean that we walk in ignorance or in a world of our own delusions. The scientific method, to which we are so well accustomed, relies on repeatable empirical evidence to establish its credibility and to explicate the knowledge which describes the physical world. But the supposed conflict between faith and reason, which was an outcome of the formulation of the scientific method, has minimized the role and validity of faith.
Taking the definition of faith given above, I could just as readily modify it to fit science.
In the context of science, one can define knowledge as confidence or trust in a particular system of measurements, within which knowledge may equate to confidence based on some perceived degree of authenticity, in contrast to a definition of knowledge as being belief without evidence. ( I think this fairly well describes the situation of Newtonian physics vs quantum theory.)
Just as scientific reasoning is a form of knowledge, so too, is faith a form of knowledge. True, we walk by faith, not by empirical knowledge; but that does not mean that we walk without knowledge, nor does it deny the validity of what we know by faith. Assuming that to be true, how do we “increase our faith?”
I wonder if Jesus does not expect us to answer this ourselves.