On the mountain, Jesus revealed his divine glory to Peter, James, and John. The four had just rejoined the rest of the disciples and the ever-present, clamoring, curious, constantly needy crowd when a desperate father threw himself before Jesus and pleaded,
“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” (Matthew 17:15–16)
Jesus’s response must have caught everyone off-guard:
“O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” (Matthew 17:17)
Phew. Those are searing words. You can almost see the impotent, humbled disciples casting chastened glances at each other. The afflicted boy was brought to Jesus, whose omnipotent word soon dispatched both demon and disease.
The Holy Exasperation of a Grieving God
Who was Jesus calling faithless and twisted? These words were aimed at the disciples, the crowd, Israel, the world, and us. All of these are wrapped into the Greek word geneá(generation): a group, a nation, or an entire age.
In Jesus’s exclamation, we get a glimpse into the deep anguish and grief that he lived with during his sojourn on earth. This was no impatient outburst of a tired man. This was a careful, measured, if anything highly restrained and understated revelation of the exasperation the Holy One experiences bearing with evil people (Luke 11:13) who don’t really know how evil they are (John 2:24–25).
What must it have been like for Jesus to have created and uniquely loved each of these people who, because of their own perversity, did not know, believe, or receive him (John 1:3, 10–11)? Oh, many loved that he could heal, feed, and excite them with miracles. But, as their Creator, the one to whom they would ultimately give an account for their sin (John 5:22; Romans 14:12), he was despised and rejected by them (Isaiah 53:3). They were faithless and twisted, and Jesus, who was faithful and righteous (Revelation 3:14), was dwelling among them. It was harder for him to bear than any of them imagined.
Little Faith Results in Ministry Failure
And the disciples, at that moment, were counted among the faithless and twisted. So can we be. Our faithlessness is the worst part of our perversity (numerous English translations choose “perverse” in Matthew 17:17). More accurately, our lack of faith in God is the root of all our perversity.
But were the disciples really faithless? After all, they had tried to cast out the demon and disease. Wasn’t that faith? Perhaps. But whatever faith was present, while apparently well meaning, didn’t produce any results. It didn’t put God’s glory and power on display, it didn’t proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God, and it didn’t help the boy or the father. That’s why Jesus didn’t commend their effort; instead he rebuked their failure.
Later, when the disciples privately asked Jesus why they had failed, his explanation was succinct: “Because of your little faith” (Matthew 17:20). This was an unnerving answer. Jesus did not speak of God’s mysterious, inscrutable will in choosing not to answer at the time the disciples asked. Jesus put the blame squarely on the disciples’ shoulders. Their ministry failure was due to their little faith.
This account is included in the Scriptural canon in part to make us squirm and force us to ask the same soul-searching question over our ministry failures that the disciples were forced to ask: “Why could we not ____?”
Of course, not every unanswered prayer for healing, provision, conversion, etc. is a result of little faith. But we must not let ourselves off the hook too quickly when we don’t see prayers answered or when our ministry efforts fail. Being a Calvinist doesn’t mean we always get to appeal to God’s mysterious inscrutability. Yes, God is sovereign. And in this narrative, the sovereign God makes a clear statement: Little faith results in ministry failure.
What If Nothing Was Impossible for You?
But like all of Jesus’s rebukes to his disciples, his reproof is not intended to condemn us but to exhort us to press in further. If we currently have little faith, it is possible for us to have more faith. If we failed yesterday or today, we don’t have to continue to fail. “Little faith” is not a permanent label. Jesus means it as a catalyst for our transformation. For this is what he followed up with:
“For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of 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)
If Jesus’s rebuke over our little faith makes our heads droop, his promise should make our jaws drop: “nothing will be impossible for you.” Those are not empty words. That phrase is a check to be cashed.
How would you live differently if you really believed that nothing would be impossible for you?
Don’t let cynicism squelch that question. Our lightning quick and loud unbelief is not commendable. It is perverse, twisted. It robs us of more than we know. When contemplating such a question, it can be tempting for some of us to quickly point to the errors of the word-of-faith movement and reaffirm that we aren’t going to fall in that ditch. Good. We should not. But that does not excuse us to live at peace with little faith and impotence in kingdom ministry.
We are meant to move mountains — to see the impossible occur through the exercise of faith in the omnipotent promises of our sovereign Lord. If we are not seeing mountains move, we are living beneath our means. We are living as paupers when we have millions in our heavenly bank account. Jesus doesn’t commend this. He rebukes it.
The faith of God’s people is the channel through which God chooses to manifest much of his glory that results in the conversion of unbelievers. If we have little faith, then little glory is seen through us. We must not be content with this.
If we recognize that we have little faith, let us repent today and join the disciples in pleading, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5), and not let God go until he blesses us with an answer. It is a request he loves to grant.
Jesus really does mean for us to move mountains. He wants us to live in the bold joy of knowing that nothing will be impossible for us.