There was a 20 year competency gap between my white belt and his black belt. For most of my life, I subscribed to the idea that Christians went from “white belt faith” to “black belt faith” by exercising spiritual disciplines like prayer, scripture reading, fasting, etc.
When Jesus rebuked His disciples for having “little faith,” He consistently drew their attention to their lack of dependence, but we often interpret those rebukes as being about a lack of competence. Jesus once said that a Roman Centurion had such “great faith,” He hadn’t seen anything like it in Israel. The soldier was not more competent than the rulers of the Synagogue – he was more dependent. (Matthew 8:10)
If the criteria for great faith was diligence in spiritual disciplines, the Pharisee’s would have been deemed the greatest – but Jesus had other words to describe them.
Faith in Christ is dependent and therefore, competent. Faith in our faith is independent and therefore, incompetent.
The pursuit of spiritual competence always drew a different response from Jesus than the pursuit of spiritual of dependence. (Matthew 6:5)
A prime example of this distinction plays out in Matthew 17: Jesus takes Peter James, and John up a mountain when God the Father chooses to reveal God the Son as the apex of redemptive history. Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah, showcasing that He will fulfill the law for us and is the fulfillment of God’s prophetic promises toward us.
Jesus returns down the mountain to find the other nine disciples unsuccessfully exorcising a demon. Jesus rebuked them and described them as “faithless and twisted”. Why?
Jesus had given them specific authority and specific instructions to do that specific thing. (Matthew 10:8) Healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead are impossible tasks. The problem was that the disciple’s faith had turned inward not upward, and this exorcism had become about will power, not God’s power. (hence “faithless“)
[Some translations add, “this kind comes out only by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21) Both prayer and fasting are disciplines intended to invite dependency.]
Quantitative vs. qualitative
Here is the good news. When Jesus spoke about mustard-seed-sized-faith that moved mountains, He wasn’t making a quantitative statement as much as a qualitative one. Apparently, mustard-seed-sized faith in Him was more than enough.
Mountain-moving-faith is not bending God to our will in prayer. Mountain-moving-faith is bending our will to God’s in prayer.
While Jesus told the disciples to “speak to the mountain” in prayer to remove obstacles, He also told the apostle Paul that His grace was sufficient for him and in His sovereignty, chose not remove Paul’s obstacle. (II Corinthians 12:9)
God is faithful to both remove mountains from our lives and give us His grace for the mountains that remain in our lives.
Mountain-free living is not an option on this side of eternity. Therefore, spiritual disciplines are not a means to achieve spiritual competence before God, but gifts that increase our restful dependence on God.
Breathe little grasshopper, we are all white belts.
We can be thankful when we pray because God’s answer to our prayers is what we would have asked for if we knew what He knows. ~ Timothy Keller
Paul Dunk is a student at Knox Theological Seminary, a church planter, a performance driver and an actor.