AN OVERLOOKED ASPECT OF FAITH
By R. Herbert
In thinking about faith, we may consider its relationship with hope and love – those other members of the great triad that the apostle Paul tells us are chief among the qualities we should seek – but we may not often think about other spiritual qualities that interact with and affect our faith. One such quality, although it is of great importance, is easily overlooked. We see this quality in two stories in the Gospel of Matthew.
Beneath Great Faith
Matthew often focuses on matters of faith, and it is interesting that he seems to carefully show a wide range – from having no faith at all, through having a little faith, to two examples (the only two incidents of their kind in the Gospels) of “great faith” ! The first story Matthew gives us of “great faith” is that of the Roman centurion whose servant Jesus healed (Matthew 8:5–13). This centurion evidently sent a message to Jesus asking him to help his servant who was paralyzed and suffering terribly. But when Jesus asked if he should come to heal the servant, the Roman officer replied “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (vs. 8).
The interesting thing about this response is not just that the centurion understood Christ’s power to simply command the healing, but his own personal attitude. Although he was an officer of the powerful Roman forces in Judea and someone who might be unlikely to display much humility, the centurion knew enough about Jewish culture to know that the Jews strenuously avoided entering the homes of Gentiles (Acts 10:28) – especially Gentiles who were part of the hated Occupation – and humbly asked that Jesus simply give the command to heal. The centurion did not say “I know you are busy, Lord” or “I know you might prefer not to enter our home,” but “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” We are told that when Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (vs. 10, emphasis added).
The second story of great faith is told of the Canaanite woman Jesus met in the area of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15:21-28). This woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter, who she explained was possessed and suffering terribly. Jesus did not answer the woman at first, telling his disciples he was sent only to “the lost sheep of Israel” (vs. 24). But the woman persisted, and when Jesus told her “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (vs. 26), she famously replied: “Yes it is, Lord … Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (vs. 27). At this, Jesus relented and told her “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (vs. 28, emphasis added). The persistence of this woman is notable, but her humility in this situation is just as amazing. Understanding full well that she, as a Canaanite, was despised by most Jews – many of whom referred to her people as “dogs” – she humbled herself yet further by referring to herself in that way, as a “dog” compared to the people with whom God was working.
Seeing the Pattern
These two stories, unique in the New Testament as examples of truly “great faith,” are fascinating in that they both stress the great humility of the individuals concerned. When we keep this in mind, we may remember that most of the men and women who are said to be of outstanding faith – Abraham, Moses, David, and others – are all said, or shown, to have been extremely humble.
We can see many other glimpses of the connection between faith and humility throughout the Bible. For example, we find pride – the opposite of humility – contrasted with faith: “Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4 NKJV). And compare these two scriptures: “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6) and “through whom [Jesus] also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). These two statements show us that grace is given to the humble and to those with faith, so the connection is clear again.
Once we begin to understand the connection between faith and humility, we begin to see it in many different ways. For example, the Epistle of James – so often called the “Epistle of Faith” because of its recurring focus on that topic – also contains more references to humility than any other New Testament book. James tells us to: “… humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:21). Because we know we are saved by faith, we can see a connection between humility and faith. James also tells us: “… Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5), and again we see the humility that underlies faith.
Connecting the Dots
What is the connection that binds these two spiritual qualities – what is the importance of humility for faith? The answer is simple. Humility admits that we cannot of ourselves accomplish that for which we must have faith. Faith understands and accepts that we must rely on someone greater than ourselves to accomplish what faith seeks. Humility is the half of the equation that enables us to see ourselves in true perspective. Faith is the other half of the equation that sees God in true perspective. We might say that humility provides the fertile field in which faith grows. Without humility our faith will always be small, yet with humility our faith can grow great. Ultimately, we can never have more faith than we have humility. So often it is to the degree that we see ourselves in perspective that our faith can be increased.