In Luke 17:5 we hear what appears to be a harmonic, unscripted cry for help from our favorite Christians: "The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"
Three honest words spoken with great urgency: “Increase our faith!”
What accounts for such desperation?
The disciple’s desperate plea comes just moments after Jesus finishes a penetrating lesson on sin and forgiveness. Penetrating like sword to bone. Here it is:And he said to his disciples, "Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him." (Luke 17:1-6)
This lesson had put the disciples on edge like few others. It was a lesson on forgiving serial sinners. If another Christian sins against you seven times on the same day, said Jesus, and yet comes back and repents each time, then you should forgive him for each and every dirty turn. This is the audacious standard of charity set by the Man crucified by sinners and for sinners. Happy are the homes that give heed to it.
Now the disciples could have gone one of two ways hearing this. They could have become scoffers or they could have become wee little desperate believers falling to their knees. Their pocket-sized prayer reveals they chose the latter - “Increase our faith!”
And that’s what really strikes deep about this scene: the apostles saw their problem as a faith problem! Their problem wasn’t the teacher, or the teaching, or the serial sinner, or the serial sin. Their problem was their faith. It was weak. In short supply. Fragile as dry flowers. But how blessed they were to know it! Blessed is the man who does not think of himself more highly than he ought to think.
In this passage we get what we often get with Jesus, a lesson freshly sown quickly yielding another. A deliberate lesson on forgiveness gives rise to a spontaneous lesson on faith. What a harvest! Seeing both lessons side by side unveils a mountain range of spiritual reality. The reality is this: knowing what God calls for is one thing, believing it is right enough and good enough and true enough to live out is another thing altogether. That requires faith and no little bit.
Seeing these lessons side by side also lifts the curtain on an essential strategy for growing in faith.
At first glance the strategy may look as simple as asking for it: “Increase our faith!” Yes, indeed, prayer is crucial. Prayer for God's help profoundly reminds us that the life of faith is not merely our own work. It is God's work and He is pleased to lift up in grace those who have made themselves low in prayer.
But there is something in the scripture here that comes before the asking, something critical that we must not overlook. What actually woke up the disciples to their desperate need for faith in the first place? It was the Word of Christ. It was Christ’s teaching on forgiveness. It was Christ’s command. It was hearing the Word of the Lord that pushed the disciples off the edge, suspending them in space far above the terra firma of human ability and there they were, led out into the unknown, reaching for the one thing available: divine grace to believe the Word of the Lord.
Nothing will grow legs on your faith like hearing the Word of God. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ,” said the alien apostle to the church at Rome (Rom. 10:17). When we hear God’s Word we are hearing about the substance of things not seen. We are hearing about the life the Father has made for us through the Son. We are hearing about the life into which the Spirit eagerly leads us and fills us to inhabit.
Do you want to grow in faith? Then you must get within earshot of the Word of Christ. You must hear the Word of the Lord. Yes, you will be pushed off the edge of the world where no faith is needed to live and be suspended in divine space, pleading for the one thing you need. He who called you out there is faithful to grant it.