Mustard Seed

Christ said: “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you (Matthew 17:20).

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Skeptics and Naturalists through the years have always had a field-day with this verse. I recall a passage in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, where a boy with a club foot, goes to sleep believing as perfectly and completely as possible, only to awake to the same foot he has always had – and with his “faith” in God dashed to pieces. I have seen any number of cases – some simple – some more complex – where the same sense of the world and the place that faith plays within it – essentially the same as the boy in Maugham’s classic story.

On it’s face, Christ’s statement is absurd. For if even such a tiny measure of faith would move mountains – then I have to confess to having seen less than a tiny measure of faith, and possessing even less still. But such absurd statements are not given to us simply for effect or as exaggeration. Strangely, people read this quote from Christ and immediately assume that they know what faith is.

And this, I believe, is the heart of the matter. The faith spoken of by Christ is a mode of seeing, a mode of existence, that is foreign to our experience. Certainly the intellectual certainty or confidence that is asserted in the modern world is not the faith that moves mountains. Such certainty is simply a variety of opinion and differs in no way from the many varieties of opinions which we hold about many things. Such faith (intellectual certainty, etc.) requires no particular transformation of the person who exercises it. At most, it is a shift in what we may think about something – perhaps no more significant than changing the brand of soap we use.

The Scriptures speak of being saved by grace through faith, but in the debates of the Reformation, when the entire relationship with God was largely reduced to a matter of legal status, intellectual assent was sufficient for the sake of that argument. But it is not sufficient as a proper understanding of saving faith.

Vladimir Lossky offers this observation on faith:

What one quests is already present, precedes us, makes possible our question itself. ‘Through faith, we comprehend (we think) how the ages have been produced’ (Heb. 11:3). Thus faith allows us to think, it gives us true intelligence. Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man. (From Lossky’s Orthodox Theology).

Saving faith, as noted above, is a means of perception rooted in a living union with God. By it, we are enabled to see in a manner that belongs to God. We have faith in God because we perceive the truth of who He is. It is an “ontological relationship between man and God.” It is immediately a transformation of our inmost being – though the transformation be ever so small.

Thus the example of Christ – that the least amount of such an existence is capable of moving mountains.

All of this presses us back to our life of prayer and seeking constant union with God through dwelling in His name. We do not need to try harder – but to try something different. Our mode of seeing, thinking, believing, choosing, etc. are all distorted and do not give us the truth of ourselves. Faith, as given by God, is a restoration of that true self.

(Luke 18:8)

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21 Responses to “Mustard Seed”

  1. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! I would love to see an expansion on this post on the nature of saving faith from an Orthodox perspective. I can connect your point about it being a way of perception to the statement of the Apostle Paul (I think?) that “We walk by faith, not by sight,” but the more common contrast offered when I was Evangelical was that of saving faith as “personal trust” vs. “mental assent.” That is, even as an Evangelical, I was taught that biblical saving faith (GK. “pistus”) is more than mental assent (“Even the demons believe, and tremble.”), but involves trust in a Person demonstrated by obedience. Yet in concert with your observations about what happened in the Reformation debates, when modern Evangelicals (as children of the Reformation) seek to articulate their definition of salvation, it inevitably gets reduced to mental assent to certain propositions (along with sometimes unspoken rules of an expectation of evidence of such “saving faith,” in the form of particular lifestyle changes). I came to realize as an Evangelical, by looking deeply into my own heart and motivations, that I had to choose between actually trusting Jesus Christ as living Lord in an active personal way OR trusting some doctrinal formula (i.e, “sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura, etc.”)–I could not simultaneously do both! I have probably only been able to put this into words since becoming Orthodox.

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    Karen, I have added a paragraph from Vladimir Lossky that struck me years ago when I was in grad school. I think it speaks well to the question, though it is somewhat “thick” as is all of Lossky’s work.

  3. Fr. Milovan Katanic Says:

    Fr. Stephen:

    Speaking of “moving mountains” I didn’t see you post or make note of you making the 2 million hits mark. In case I missed it – Congratulations!!

    Fr. Milovan

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  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. Milovan. Many thanks!

    Christ is risen! I noted the milestone several articles back. You’re kind to notice. May God bless you very good work!

  6. Carolina Says:

    Faith seems to me to be a verb. It is doing things God’s way, living God’s way, and not ‘my way’ as Frank Sinatra sang. This requires maintaining a close relationship with Him so that we learn to listen to the nudges He sends us and act upon them. Our faith grows as we learn to trust Him more and more with our lives.

  7. Jeremiah Says:

    My apologies for being a little slow, but is it a general Orthodox position that this statement is not in reference to the miraculous, per se, but to the transformation of our lives?

    The Lossky quote was way over my head. Even the explanation afterwards was too much for me. I’ll have to reread it a few more times…

  8. Henry Says:

    Golf is a funny sport. On Sunday afternoons we see a few players on television who hit perfect shots almost every time they touch a club, while most of us hack, chop, and slice our way through the course at the This Valley of Tears Country Club. Every once in a while even the worst of us can hit a perfect shot, just like Tiger Woods. It is the memory of those shots and that hope to hit another that brings us back to play one more round. So it is with my walk. In spite of my best efforts, most of the time I seem to make a hash of things. However, there are those perfect moments when I have touched the Heart of God. Those moments of true faith, as rare as they might be, are so profoundly wonderful they bring me back to the Master’s table, again and again.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Jeremiah,
    It certainly would result in miracles – but frankly – those who have been most transformed seem the least interested in miracles. As a Belorussian monk once told me, “You Americans. You talk about miracles like you don’t believe in God.” I thought it was very insightful of him.

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Henry,
    The golf example works well for me. My few really sweet shots are like a moment in the kingdom. You either have to play the game, or be a Scotsman to grasp this, I think.

  11. Carolina Says:

    Jeremaih, I took a crack at the Lossky quote. Here is my take. The asterisks denote his sentences as I couldn’t transfer in color here.

    We are thirsty for Him, whether we know it or not. What we are looking for is already present, both in our souls and in our surroundings. We are longing for God’s presence. We are His creation, and it is He who prompts us to question what is going on in our life as regards to Him.
    *Another translation of Hebrews. NKJ “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” This seems to come from Genesis. God made the world. He spoke it into being. A lot of people do not believe this.
    *True intelligence comes from God and faith gives us access to that intelligence.
    * We can only learn from God by having a relationship with him. Faith is committing oneself to God. The word ‘believe’ has been watered down in our generation. We are asked to believe in all kinds of things. But God wants a commitment and a relationship.
    * God has always wanted a relationship with mankind. Some say, He is a gentleman and waits for us to respond, after first giving us many nudges in His direction. He wants to restore us, body and soul, to the Garden of Eden pre-fall relationship. The Church has said that it is through baptism-dying unto self- and chrismation-receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit- that the restoration process begins. We spend the rest of our life working it out.

  12. Margaret Says:

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you for addressing this! May God bless all you do!

  13. Jeremiah Says:

    Thank You Father Stephen. That definitely clears it up for me. So much of the nonsensical “theology” I have grown up with has clouded my understanding of such scriptures. I appreciate the clarification.

  14. Kate Says:

    So this really is complementary to today’s post about making small choices,would that be a correct take on it? It makes the mustard seed idea make more sense.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    I had not thought of it that way – but it makes sense.

  16. Mark Basil Says:

    My confusion about faith as “believing enough” was cleared up one day when I heard a sermon by a beloved monk.

    He said, “Faith is not accepting something with your mind. Faith is a spiritual organ through which you sense reality, just like your physical eyes. But for all of us this spiritual sense is terribly atrophied; to have faith requires lengthy care for our atrophied spiritual organ.”

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Mark Basil,
    Yes, Lossky speaks in his book about faith as an “organ” of perception. You state it quite well.

  18. Jerry Cornelius Says:

    “Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship for which the catechumen prepares himself, and through which baptism and chrismation are conferred upon the faithful: gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man.” – Vladimir Lossky,’Orthodox Theology’

    “Saving faith, as noted above, is a means of perception rooted in a living union with God. By it, we are enabled to see in a manner that belongs to God. We have faith in God because we perceive the truth of who He is. It is an “ontological relationship between man and God.” It is immediately a transformation of our inmost being – though the transformation be ever so small.

    Thus the example of Christ – that the least amount of such an existence is capable of moving mountains.” – Father Stephen Freeman

    Father Stephen,

    I am not aware of any responsible Christian Commentator who would dispute that Faith is an Ontological Relationship between man and God nor am I aware of any credible expression of Christian Spirituality which would question or dispute the link between the Noetic, Purity of Heart and Faith – However – you have indicated that the smallest amount of Faith enables us to move Mountains, and Vladimir Lossky seems to suggest Faith is communicated through the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation – if that is the case would you comment on the HOW of “doing the greater works” – Miracles, Raising the Dead, Healing, Deliverance – with reference to these two verses:

    Mark 11:24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

    John 14:12 I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father

    I am interested in why you can say “[I] confess to having seen less than a tiny measure of faith, and possessing even less still…” if you have received the Sacraments of Baptismand Chrismation and why you are not pressing on to do the Greater Works to the Glory of God or are you?

  19. Bill Says:

    From Rowan Williams’ 2008 Easter Sermon…faith as seeing…

    “Of all the classical Christian texts, [the Gospel of John] is the one that most insists that faith is about seeing. It is about that double vision of myself as frightened and potentially violent and God as radiant, consistent and unceasingly creative. And that’s what we’re invited into in the story of the gospel; it’s what we’re invited into in Christian faith; recognizing the self-deception, recognizing the glory. Indeed in recognizing the glory, the radiance of an unceasing, selfless love we are somehow enabled to face more courageously and more fully our own self-deceit.”

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    Jerry,
    I should remain silent on whether i am pressing on to do greater works. It is enough to say that I a great sinner.

  21. Daniel Schulte Says:

    I second Karen’s request for an expansion on this post on the nature of saving faith from an Orthodox perspective. I think that there is sometime here I am missing. Or perhaps you could recommend a reading somewhere.

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