Recently, I passed by a coworker’s desk to say hello. This is one of my all time favorite coworkers; she sews my sweaters if they tear and cooks rice and beans for me on occasion. She’s also a Christian.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“It’s alright.” (I never know how to answer that question.)
“Do you have faith?” she asked.
Seemed like an odd question and I spun it around in my head. “Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t,” I answered.
“We can’t doubt, you know? Got to have the faith of a mustard seed.”
I wasn’t really sure what she meant by that, or what makes a mustard seed different from any other seed, for that matter; however, I’ve heard several people express this idea (or at least some variation of it), that when we pray, we have to firmly believe God is going to answer our prayers, and we can’t waver in that belief.
A while back, we were studying the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in our community group. For those unfamiliar: Three buddies, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, get thrown into a blazing furnace by a Babylonian king. Everyone assumes they will be roasted. Instead, they dance out of the fire unscathed, without a burn or mark. A woman in the group said, “God doesn’t look at our needs; he looks at our faith.”
Hold on a minute, I thought. God doesn’t look at our needs? What about all those promises in the Bible about him doing just that—taking care of our needs? If he only looks at my faith, what if I have a sprinkling of doubt? What if my belief begins to totter?
When I was living in Seattle, my mother told me about a guy from my hometown who was coming to live there for a few months. Shelby was his name. His wife Anne (probably early to mid-20s, the sister of a high school friend of mine) had leukemia and was being placed in the Fred Hutchinson Center near Lake Union. Shelby, his mother-in-law and child would be renting an apartment near the center. I didn’t know him but vaguely remembered Anne.
When Shelby arrived, I called and invited him to dinner. He was a nice guy, though emotionally distraught. After that, I invited him to church and to several meals. He attended a somewhat Pentecostal church in my hometown.
One night, I took him to the Linds for dinner. The Linds were a surrogate family to me during my time in Seattle. Henrik, the father, was my Bible study leader. I went over at least twice a week to eat and play board games with the two daughters, Anna and Amy. When I told the wife, Laura, about Shelby, she insisted I invite him.
Laura has a unique gift. I say it’s a gift because it’s rare, though any of us could do it if we chose to: She listens to people. I mean, really listens. She gets close to the person, space-wise, and keeps her eyes locked on his, chewing on every word he says. We sat at the table and she engaged Shelby in conversation. She didn’t make friendly banter or avoid the subject. She didn’t give him false encouragement. His wife was dying; there’s no getting around it, no salutation that will allow him to somehow forget his circumstances and enjoy a nice, friendly supper. He was two thousand miles away from his home, in a strange city with one friend, me, whom he’d only recently met, spending every day in a cold, sterile hospital room praying over his wife who was most likely going to die. There’s no chit-chat around a table that can subvert the man’s circumstances. Laura looked at Shelby with an intense stare, hardly smiling, if ever, asking him how he was feeling, how his wife was feeling, the struggles and the pain. He opened up to Laura as if he’d known her all his life.
He’d been putting the blame on himself for not having enough faith. He’d doubted; and what he heard from those around him was if he believed hard enough Anne would get well. Laura started crying. She told him it wasn’t true. He didn’t dare blame himself. She asked if we could pray over him. Henrik and I stood and laid hands on him and the three of us prayed. He cried the entire time. I think we all did.
A month later, Anne was released from the hospital and the family went back to Tennessee. He sent me a letter, thanking me for the friendship I’d given him during his time in Seattle. But I never saw him again. Anne passed away the next year.
Some questions, with our limited understanding, we will never be able to answer. Why are some prayers answered and others are not? Why are some of us spared disease and others fall prey? What did Jesus mean when he spoke of “faith like a mustard seed?” On a whim, I decided to research it.
The mustard seed starts small but grows to be the biggest of all garden plants. I think that’s what Jesus meant: not that we don’t doubt, but that our faith doesn’t end where it begins. For a lot of us, we would rather put wrongful blame on ourselves than admit to being disappointed or doubtful of God. But faith is built on doubt. If we never doubted, we would never be stretched. And being stretched is the only way to grow.
God better look at my needs, or I’m screwed.