A distressed parent brought his son, afflicted with an evil spirit, to the apostles in Jerusalem. They could not cure him, however, so he came to Jesus, who cast out the evil spirit and healed the boy. The apostles asked him why they could not do it, and the Master replied,
Because of your [little faith]: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you (Matt. 17:20, using Greek re-translation for “unbelief”).
People often use this verse to demonstrate that with only a small amount of faith, we can do great things. That is true; the prophet Alma, for example, taught that even if we have “no more than [a] desire to believe”, it is sufficient to begin with (Alma 32:27). But the incident of the Master, the apostles, and His analogy of the mustard seed is not about this sort of faith.
If you don’t know how big a mustard seed is, look at a jar of wholegrain mustard. (If you’ve never used mustard with seeds in it, buy some. It’s delicious.) A mustard seed is pretty tiny. But in Palestine, the common mustard, or Sinapis nigra, tree grows to 10 feet or more in height. Birds love the seeds that grow on it (see Bible Dictionary, LDS edition, p.736). The size of the seed relative to its final height and breadth and the sustenance it provides is tiny. But its faith is not tiny. For a mustard seed to grow into a mature tree and produce its bounty must require great effort. By looking at it in its seed form, you might think it wouldn’t amount to much; but contained within that seed is great potential and power. To have the faith of a mustard seed is to have great faith. To cast out the evil spirit that Jesus’ apostles could not required great faith; Jesus tells them that this sort of miracle came only through prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29). He rebuked them for having only a “little faith”, then told them that if they had sufficient faith, they could move mountains. I don’t think mountains move easily! Moving mountains must be intense work; the sort of thing that Moses did when he separated the waters of the Red Sea and allowed a rock to bring forth water. It’s the sort of faith Enoch demonstrated:
“And so great was the faith of Enoch that he led the people of God, and their enemies came to battle against them; and he spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course…; and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch, and so great was the power of the language which God had given him” (Moses 7:13).
The need for the despairing father to exercise only partial belief – “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” is not the same as the Saviour’s disappointment at his apostles’ lack of sufficient faith to heal this affliction. The great faith of a mustard seed is the type of faith that prophets and apostles need to carry forth the work of God on earth; it is the type of faith that we need, eventually, in order to endure to the end and be saved. Such faith can begin with the father’s desire to believe more, but it must grow until it is as a mustard seed.
I actually love this episode because of that beautiful exchange –
Father – “If thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us and help us.”
Christ – “If thou canst believe, all things are possible.”
And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
Jesus…rebuked the foul spirit…, took [the boy] by the hand, and lifted him up, and he arose.
The father honestly assessed his faith, showed the Lord his bare spirit, his sore need for which he had not sufficient belief. But he had enough to trust that something could be done. The Lord responded by giving him everything. Miracles always require faith; but the Lord understands each heart, and has seemingly endless compassion; perhaps He knew that this man had the basis for greater faith, which this compassionate, complete miracle would bring into full life. Imagine the gratitude of this father; despairing, hoping for “any thing”. The Saviour takes his honest declaration and gives him every thing.
This is what the Lord does in my life. He takes my insufficient faith, understanding, and righteous actions and desires, and blesses me with answers to my prayers, comfort, peace, and hope. By this He increases my faith and brings me into more complete trust with Him; He knows exactly where I am and what I can do; and what will bring me to the next stage. In some situations, my faith is smaller – and it is sufficient, because there my desire is great; I am in desperate need, come honestly to God with it, knowing that it’s not sufficient, but humble and without other recourse, willing to accept whatever He offers. In His mercy, He often offers everything. In other situations, more faith is required, because there I know more and have been already blessed with faith-growing experiences, or other attributes need to be developed. There, only mustard-seed faith is acceptable. The Lord knows the difference – and usually, so do I.
May we cultivate the great power and faith of the mustard seed, for Enoch- and Moses-type miracles and eternal life in the end; and may we have the humility and honesty to admit when our faith is small but our desire great, and be ready to accept whatever the Lord wills for us in those moments, trusting in His perfect compassion.
There’s an inspiring address from Elder Jeffrey Holland, April 2013, about this episode. You can listen to it (I definitely recommend listening or watching if you can):
or read/watch it: