Jesus Christ’s early Apostles opened a rich vein of pure gold for our consideration when they pleaded to the Lord, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). The statement was made in the form of a request, perhaps asking for a free gift of greater faith, but the Savior responded with a statement and a parable, treating their request as if it were the question “How can we increase our faith?” As was so often the case with such inspired inquiries, this question opened the way for a powerful teaching opportunity of great worth to all of Jesus Christ’s truly committed followers. Indeed, increasing our faith in Him is one of our greatest needs today.
As I meet missionaries around the world, often one of them asks, “How can we develop the strong faith to do miracles as we read about in the scriptures?” Those who are seeking to grow in spirituality and power in their lives and callings often seek a formula to increase their faith. During a recent mission tour, for example, I asked one of the most respected missionaries to read and explain the Apostles’ plea cited above and the answer Jesus gave in the following verses. This fine elder read it carefully, then confessed he had no idea what Jesus’ answer meant. Since then I have asked other missionaries to explain that scripture, with similar responses. My initial reaction was similar to theirs. The meaning of Jesus’ explanation is not immediately apparent from a cursory reading of the curious parable by which He chose to respond. On reflection, however, we can begin to catch Jesus’ meaning. Let us drill into that promising vein of truth.
The Untapped Power of Faith
Jesus began His response by declaring, “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed [a very tiny seed], ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you” (Luke 17:6). Jesus often hinted at the untapped power of faith and thus affirmed its elusive value. Faith to do such a miracle would be power indeed. Giving even more evidence of faith’s power, the Apostle Paul explained, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (Heb. 11:3). That kind of power is much greater than any mortal could hope to achieve, but the scripture underlines the breathtaking scope of faith as an eternal and cosmic power. Obviously if faith was the power behind the world’s creation, this powerful tool predates even the creation of this world. Learning how to increase our own faith, then, would be of supreme importance. Surely Jesus did not mention the great power of faith merely to tease His Apostles by describing something beyond their grasp. More likely He expected some of them to discover and mine the gold hidden in the vein.
What is faith? Like a nugget of pure and precious gold ore, faith has many surfaces and defies a one-dimensional definition. The Apostle Paul’s statement that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (JST, Heb. 11:1) is a classic statement where we can begin our dig. Often in the scriptures, faith seems almost to be a synonym for belief, albeit a strong belief that leads to righteous living and action. Yet faith is based in the truth, whereas belief alone may be in what is true or false (see Alma 32:21).
Achieving the gift of a strong belief is one aspect of faith. The belief part of faith may start as merely a desire to believe but can grow “brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24). Then one could say about the person whose belief has progressed to perfection, “Your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know” (Alma 32:34).
Remembering that Jesus spoke of the enormous power that a tiny seed of faith contained, we must conclude that in addition to belief, faith is also a principle of action and power. But unlike the belief part of faith, the power aspect of faith would not be dormant just because belief has progressed to knowledge. Faith as a principle of power continues to operate when the belief part of faith has grown to knowledge and caused that aspect of faith to become dormant. Such faith is a great tool to do the Lord’s work. Men and women can grow in spirituality to the point that they can do mighty things in the cause of the Lord, and when they do them, they operate by the power of faith.
Enoch is one of the greatest examples of one for whom faith became a powerful tool. The scriptures record that “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 the roar of lions was heard out of the wilderness; 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; emphasis added).
As the Apostles watched Jesus calm the roiling waves of Galilee, raise Lazarus from the dead, walk on water, and cause the man blind from birth to see, they desired greater faith that would enable them to participate in similar miracles. Later, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, we see that their faith had actually risen to much higher levels. Thus they participated in experiences similar to those of the Savior, beginning with Peter and John’s healing of the lame man at the gate of the temple. In this and other miracles, they exercised great faith and used their priesthood, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (see Acts 3:4–8).
The Parable of the Unprofitable Servant
Let us return to Jesus’ response to His Apostles’ request for greater faith. After affirming the power of faith, He answered them with a parable. Perhaps they had expected a formula. Maybe they had expected Him to merely touch each of them and confer on them an increase of faith as a gift. That was not to be. His parable was extraordinary in its subtlety, probably to require the Apostles—and us—to think more than superficially about the subject of increasing one’s faith. Most of us pass by this clue to a rich vein of ore with merely a passing glance. I quote it in full:
“But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?
“And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?
“Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow [think] not.
“So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Luke 17:7–10).
At first reading, this answer is obscure to most of us. Where in this parable do we find the formula the Apostles might have expected? For that matter, how does the parable teach us how to increase our faith? It seems to ignore the Apostles’ request rather than answer it. We might have expected Jesus to say something clear and concise, such as: “To increase your faith you must pray more, study the written word of God more deeply, magnify your callings more fully, and fast to help you realize your utter dependence on God.” All of that is probably good counsel and true, but that is not how Jesus chose to respond to the request. That He chose to respond as He did is much to our benefit.
On another occasion, when the Apostles had failed in an attempt to cast an unclean spirit out of a man, they asked a question closely related to the subject we are considering. They asked Jesus, “Why could not we cast them out?” Jesus explained that it was because of their unbelief, or lack of faith. He further explained that if they had just a little faith, again likening faith to a mustard seed, they could remove mountains. “Nothing shall be impossible unto you,” He told them. But then He added significantly, “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (see Matt. 17:18–21). It is clear, therefore, that prayer and fasting are a part of increasing faith and accessing its power. His fuller answer in response to the Apostles’ plea can lead to additional insight into what is required to gain greater faith.
Gratitude and Sacrifice
King Benjamin of the Nephites may have caught the meaning of Jesus’ parabolic answer as well as anyone. In the final teachings to his people, he explained that we are utterly reliant on our Lord, even for each day of our lives and our very breath. No matter how much we have served Him, even if with our whole souls, we are “unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21). And that being true, He surely has the right to require that we keep His commandments. If we keep His commandments, He has promised to bless and prosper us, and He always keeps His promises. King Benjamin explained, “He doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?” (Mosiah 2:24).
Could this be what Jesus is teaching us in His parable? This begins to illuminate Jesus’ parable of the servant who comes into the house from plowing or feeding cattle, yet still must prepare a meal for his master before eating and drinking. In the parable, the master would neither thank his servant nor release him from the balance of his duties. Though the insistence on preparing the meal after a long day of work sounds harsh and ungrateful on its face, in reality that servant is greatly indebted to his master and will always be. Similarly, if we want increased faith, such as Enoch gained, we must give ourselves over completely to our Lord, utterly trusting Him and striving to act as He would act in all circumstances. No matter how difficult and impossible the circumstances we face, we must retain the attitude that we are still in the Lord’s debt. Just keeping the commandments, while laudable, may be enough to maintain our faith but not enough to increase it. We must continue sacrificing and serving with no thought of reward. We do it out of love and gratitude for the Lord, to whom we owe everything.
Too often we allow ourselves to think or even say words like these: “I don’t deserve this setback. You’d think after all I’ve done, it would not have to be like this. Why must I prove myself over and over again? This is my time to rest from all this responsibility. I’ve done enough.”
Perhaps the Savior was teaching us that if we are serious about desiring greater faith, nothing short of maintaining a constant eternal perspective will do. If we place any condition on our willingness to serve the Lord with all our hearts, we diminish our faith. If we have complete trust in Him, our faith will increase, and that means the strength of our belief and our power to act will increase. We will not think we have done our duty and that is enough. We will continue with pure intent and total commitment the rest of our lives. Apparently we are to learn from the parable that maintaining such an attitude is the way to increase our faith.
When the Prophet Joseph Smith left Nauvoo, bound for Carthage Jail and death, he had perhaps reached a point in his life where he could act with complete trust in the Lord, even in the face of grave danger. He could have escaped his enemies by departing Illinois to settle in the wilderness of the West. From there he could have directed the Saints to join him. He already knew prophetically that the Saints were going to settle in the Rocky Mountains (see History of the Church, 5:85). But rather, he said, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men” (D&C 135:4). He clearly had sublimated his own desire to live to the purposes of the Lord and His plan for him. By completely giving himself in service to God, despite tremendous pressure to do otherwise, he had gained faith such as that enjoyed by ancient prophets.
Complete Trust in the Lord
It thus seems that Jesus gave His Apostles a clue to the lonely and hard road that must be followed if they desired to increase their faith. He wasn’t saying, “Don’t bother to be obedient.” “Obedience,” He seemed to say, “is a beginning, but if you want faith as the ancient Apostles and Enoch, you have to do and be much, much more.” That is the road Enoch traveled as a doubtful, fearing, slow-of-speech young man who received his call and later became the powerful “seer … come among us” (Moses 6:38; see also Moses 7:13). Likewise, the Apostles who attained greater faith also bore little resemblance to the good but ordinary men who responded to His call to the ministry. The road to increased faith is long and hard but is available to those willing to pay the price.
One modern example of a man who has gained that increased faith is President Gordon B. Hinckley. When President Hinckley announced his goal of providing 100 temples by the year 2000, he acted by faith. He didn’t build any of the temples using his own construction skills. He acted by the word of faith, and that faith unlocked the energy of thousands of others who physically planned and built those temples. He also exercised the priesthood keys that he and only he held. This was a miracle just as surely as if he had removed a mountain. Faith has thus brought about the miracle of more than 100 temples. Even a lifetime of service, of obedience, and of magnifying his callings was not enough to cause this miracle. President Hinckley could have said, “I have done enough. I am old and deserve a rest.” If he had adopted that attitude, we would not have seen the result of his increased faith. This example helps us understand more fully what Jesus suggested to His Apostles in answering their request for increased faith.
To summarize, we do not increase our faith by following a formula, although the ingredients of fasting, prayer, and righteous living are part of that process. Increasing our faith requires trusting the Lord with our whole souls. We cannot say, “We have done enough and deserve to rest.” Nor does the increase come through definitions, logic, or philosophy. Rather, we must:
Do what is right and serve the Lord because we know, trust, and love Him with all of our souls.
Harbor no thought that we deserve a reward or thanks for what we do, although rewards will surely come.
Humbly ask, seek, and knock.
Never demand anything of our Lord, because we are always in His debt.
Leave to Him the final decision in all things, having the attitude “Not my will, but thine be done.”
Be prepared to sacrifice, even unto death, for our entire mortal lives.
As members of the Lord’s Church, we can increase our faith, if we desire, by going beyond the minimum requirements of the gospel and developing complete trust in the Lord. All of this is part of the golden ore found in Jesus’ interesting and subtle parable given in response to the early Apostles’ request, “Increase our faith.”
Let’s Talk about It
Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:
How does submission to God lead to greater faith?
Why is it essential that we serve the Lord with no thought of reward?