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).
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.