As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will.” (Mark 11:20-24)
There are few passages in the Bible that have caused more confusion and consternation than the one above. It seems as if Jesus is defining faith as something akin to the power of positive thinking in which mustering up the right amount of certitude is the key to obtaining whatever you want. If you believe enough, you’ll get what you pray for; if you don’t get what you pray for, it is because you didn’t believe enough.
However, experience has taught us all that things are not quite that simple. Many people with incredible faith still regularly face apparently insuperable obstacles despite the strength and sincerity of their trust in God.
How, then, are we to understand what Jesus is saying here?
Some have believed that He was merely speaking about the metaphorical mountains in our lives, but that doesn’t seem to make the sense of the context in which we find this passage. This bold declaration by Jesus is given just after Peter marvels at the fact that a real fig tree has really been withered down to its root because of a real curse uttered by Jesus. There is absolutely nothing in the text that indicates a sudden move from literal to figurative speech. To the contrary, everything suggests that Jesus intends for his words to be taken not just seriously, but literally. Faith really can move mountains if it is strong enough. It can change the world.
So the question seems to be: why can’t we move mountains? If faith is such a powerful force, than it seems that we who seek to live out our lives in faith should expect to see similarly dramatic results. Why don’t we see them?
It is a fair question, given the nature of Jesus’ promises, but I would argue that there is a far more important question that we should ask ourselves first:
Why do we want to move mountains?
You see faith is, indeed, a powerful forced with which to be reckoned; through it, God can accomplish the impossible and bring about results that beggar the imagination, of which moving mountains barely scratches the surface. But faith is not faith if it seeks to accomplish any of these things for our own motives and ends, however good they may be; that is manipulation.
Rather, faith is our trusting response in surrender to God’s faithfulness; it is borne of a confidence that God, as our Father, is wholly oriented to our good in all things (Rom 8:28) and that through our surrender to Him and to His will for our lives the impossible can be accomplished: we can be raised from death to New Life and become increasingly conformed to his image so that we become an instruments of His healing and New Life in the world around us.
Faith involves certainty, yes, but it is a certainty anchored in Him—in His goodness and power—and not in us. Therein lies its power. A faith that is rooted in the God who is all-powerful cannot be contained by any earthly limitation; its only limitation is love, for He is also the God who is Love.
The promise given over and over again throughout the Bible is that God will continually achieve the beautiful, the powerful, and the impossible through the lives of those who would surrender themselves to Him in faith. Sometimes that will entail dramatic actions, but more often than not it will happen through all of the little actions that we carry out in our lives in love and trust in God, like our own beloved St. Therese of Lisieux. In such a life, God brings about a miraculous harvest—30, 60, even 100 times greater than the seed of faith sown.
The opposite of this is not the one without faith, but the one who uses faith for his own ends and motives, like the Jewish establishment criticized here of robbery (and of other things elsewhere). Their self-centered approach to faith has rendered their lives completely fruitless; they are they barren fig tree that has incurred Jesus’ judgment.
Faith can move mountains, but only the faith that is wholly surrendered to the Lord. Where might He be calling you to a deeper level of trust and surrender that he might accomplish the impossible through you?
Photo credits: Elayne’s Blog and BibleMesh