Bible Answer

Explain “faith like a mustard seed”

The Bible says that if I have faith like a mustard seed I can command a thing to be. I have prayed and believed for certain mountains in my life to move, but they still remain. Are there other works I can do?

You have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching, and as a result you are expecting things to happen which Jesus never promised. The full context of the quote you mentioned is:

Luke 17:3 “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.
Luke 17:4 “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
Luke 17:5  The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
Luke 17:6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.

The Lord tells His disciples that He expects us to extend limitless forgiveness to our brothers and sisters in faith. For a 1st century Jew, this would have seemed like an impossible standard. 

Jewish culture did not operate this way. Forgiveness was a powerful source of leverage in Jewish society, and it was granted only after gaining as much benefit as possible from extending it. Jewish religious leaders offered God’s forgiveness to the people only after they had met the Pharisee’s expectations for contrition and atonement. Individually, Jews commonly withheld forgiveness from one another as a means of securing financial concessions, etc.

But now Jesus tells His disciples to extend forgiveness without preconditions and without limit. To this request the disciples respond, “Increase our faith!” They are so astounded by Jesus words that they question their abilities to keep His command, so they ask the Lord to grant them more ability (i.e., more faith) to carry it out. 

In response Jesus uses hyperbole to explain how they have completely misunderstood how faith works. He says that faith isn’t a means of increasing personal strength such that we may carry out the commands of God. Rather, God must do every good work in His own power:

James 1:17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.

Therefore, faith is merely believing in God’s ability and inclination to do that thing. The Bible defines faith this way:

Heb. 11:1  Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

So faith means holding to a confident expectation concerning something God will do in the future, but such faith is only possible when the Lord reveals HIs plans to us. If the Lord has not told us of His future plans, there is nothing in which to place our faith. God must tell us what He will do before we can place our confidence in that word.

So when Jesus says we only need a little faith to move a mountain, He means that if God reveals to us that He is willing to move a mountain by our word, then we only need a little faith (i.e., trust in His word) to see that mountain moved. We do not have to find the power within ourselves to accomplish it. The power is God’s alone. We only need the faith to trust God at His word. 

If we act in faith and speak that word and the mountain moves, it was not our word or even our faith that moved the mountain. It was God Who moved the mountain. Out faith allowed us to be in the right place to see it happen. 

Likewise, Jesus' disciples did not need faith to learn how to forgive. They only needed to place their trust in the word of Jesus when He commanded them to forgive, and the Lord would do the hard part of granting them the capacity to forgive. The disciples knew the Lord was inclined to grant them the capacity to forgive because He commanded it!

Therefore, no believer can issue commands “in faith” as you described expecting the Lord to carry them out. When you try to misapply the Scriptures this way, you are treating God as if He were a genie in a bottle, and as you experienced, nothing will happen. You must act according to the will of God as He reveals it to you by His Word and through His Spirit.

For a more comprehensive understanding of these matters, please consult the following teaching on our website:

Luke – Lesson 17A
The Sovereignty of God series