Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, the claim is made that some people don’t
receive what they’re praying for because of a lack of faith. If they just
really believed God enough, they would see the healing, financial breakthrough,
salvation of a wayward child, or other miracle for which they are asking God.
Some people even treat faith as a spiritual “substance”—as though it had volume
and mass—that can somehow “tip the scales” in their favor, if only they have a
sufficient quantity of it.
A couple of verses from the
Gospels are sometimes used to support this idea.
And he did not do
many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
He could not do any
miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was
amazed at their lack of faith.
The way these verses sometimes
get interpreted seems to treat faith as though it were a “power-up” in a video
game that increases the player’s strength. Faith, in this interpretation,
somehow increases God’s ability to work miracles.
But God is omnipotent
Nothing we do or fail to do can change His ability. It is an inherent part of
who and what God is (the philosophical term for this is ontology
, which in common language is the “being-ness” of
something, that which makes a person or thing who or what they are).
Let’s look at these verses from
a couple of angles and try to figure out what is really being said.
First, neither of these passages
says that Jesus couldn’t
do miracles because
of the unbelief of the
The passage from Mark, which does
use the word couldn’t
, also says that Jesus did heal a few sick people. So
this is not a case of a lack of power on Jesus’ part. Then verse 6 says that He
was amazed at their lack of faith. But the lack of faith on the part of the people
is not given as the reason Jesus couldn’t do many miracles. Something else must
be the “limiting factor.”
In Matthew’s account of this
scene, he does use the word because
, but does not say that Jesus
do many miracles, but rather that he didn’t
do many miracles there due to the people’s lack of faith.
This is where I find Matthew
Bates’ work on pistis
(the Greek word
frequently translated “faith” or “belief” in English) as allegiance
to be helpful.
What if these verses are not about the people lacking enough belief
that Jesus can or will perform
miracles, and are more about the people’s lack of allegiance and faithfulness
to the plan and purposes of God? The Greek phrase that the NIV here translates
as “their lack of faith” is τὴν ἀπιστίαν αὐτῶν (tēn apistian autōn
). The word ἀπιστίαν can also be translated “unreliability”
These unbelieving residents of
Jesus’ hometown we find in Matthew 13 and Mark 6 were not people who were
really interested in what Jesus was all about. Perhaps Jesus knew that no
matter how many miracles He performed, they would still find a way to not be on
board with His message of the kingdom of God. So this is not a case where Jesus
lacked the raw power to perform miracles unless the people there upped their
faith game. Rather, it was a situation where displays of His divine power would
not result in allegiant following and participation in the kingdom He was
Jesus was never about performing
miracles just to “show off” and demonstrate His ability. He wasn’t putting on a
traveling “signs and wonders” show. The miracles of Jesus were always rooted in
compassion for suffering people and in advancing people’s realization of what
God was doing through Him. He “could not” do miracles that did not fulfill one
of those two purposes, because to do so would have gone against the heart of
His mission. It was not a question of power, but of purpose.
We see this principle in
practice when Christ, during his temptation by Satan in the wilderness, refused
to turn stones into bread (to satisfy His own needs) and to throw himself down
from the pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple (to draw attention to himself by
having angels rescue Him). If we look back to the previous chapter of Matthew
(12:38–42), we see another example of Jesus refusing to perform miracles simply
to satisfy the curiosity of those who did not have faith in (were not allegiant
So human faith (in the sense of
mental or emotional belief in Christ’s ability) is not necessarily what Mark
and Matthew are writing about here, as much as a faithful response to the
person and message of Jesus.
When we ask God for a miracle,
are we asking simply to see how much we can get from God, or are we seeking
first His kingdom and righteousness? Are we asking with wrong motives (James
4:3), seeking to benefit ourselves, rather than to see the gospel advance? Are
we seeking our own will, or the will of the one who sent His only Son and, in
turn, sends us to proclaim His message?
Maybe the lack of miracles we
often experience is not because we lack belief that God can or will do them, but
rather because we are not faithfully aligned with the character and purposes of
the one we call our Lord.