A very difficult question with a hard answer. Jesus points out that if we have the faith of a mustard seed we can move mountains. To read only this verse on faith makes it seem as if we all ought to be busy naming and claiming it. But the simple sense of the verse may not be the best sense—a rarity in looking at scripture, but it does happen.
First, let me describe the dilemma posed by different verses on faith. In Mark 6:5 and 6, it says: “And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” People, in reading this verse misunderstand unbelief. They think that their belief is something, which if somehow exerted forcefully enough, will cause even mountains to be moved. But a collection of the verses on faith and belief will show that this is not at all what Jesus is teaching.
I think the confusion comes in when they think their faith is what moves the mountains; rather it is always God who is the mountain-mover. There are different degrees of faith, however, and in Corinthians, there is even listed a special gift of faith. Here is a statement from Jesus that shows he notices faith which is larger: “When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Luke 7:9). There is a definite place for special faith, and here Jesus gave recognition to a Gentile, even when he was still presenting himself to Israel, offering himself as a king.
James has something to say about faith that goes with the theme of the above passage, namely special faith. He says: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.” Notice that we are to ask in faith, nothing wavering. Again, the idea of faith being a sort of solid commodity is more than hinted at.
But I want to leave that idea of faith being a solid commodity for a bit. I want to talk a bit about the object of our faith. No matter whether we are talking about people of little faith, such as the man who exclaimed, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief” or we are talking about the example of the Gentile above, we are still talking about one object of faith—the Lord Jesus Christ being sent from God the Father to save and rescue a lost people. That faith is constant, and never changes, though the circumstances and, indeed, the amount of faith may vary from asking Jesus to help your unbelief to asking Jesus to just say it is so, and it will be so.
In any case, it is not self-generated. Rather it is actually spelled out in Corinthians as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:9), and is the gift of God. It may be (I think so) that this is an unusual or great gift of faith for special circumstances where the gifted person is given special trust for God to work through a desperate circumstance. It is a gift of God, and that is the main point. It is not, and was never meant to be, something that the believer is able to compel God with.
And that, I think, is where some do go astray—perhaps on two accounts. First, the doctrine is errant. If it is a gift of God, then it comes from him who is compelling the believer toward great faith, and not the other way around. Second, the idea that somehow there is a magic key within the person to be unlocked. This second way of thinking I judge to be the more common error, as the first is more easily dispelled by even a cursory study of scriptures. I think this is more the way the errant one may think: “possibly, if I just am able to muster a bit more confidence in my demeanor, a bit more assertiveness when I ask God, then he will listen and be moved this time.” You see it, don’t you? The focus of faith becomes on ourselves, on what we might be doing wrong, rather than upon the kind Father who bestows his good gifts toward his children. Rather than exercising greater faith, as we might delude ourselves into believing, we are actually moving away from trust in him toward a belief in our being able to save ourselves. In so doing, do we not make the mistake of Cain, bringing our own works to God in order to please him?
If faith can be looked at as sort of a commodity, which may increase or decrease in size, then it ought not to change our thinking about faith. In both cases, the faith, both large and small, emanates from our Father through the Spirit of God. In both cases the faith is in God, and not to be placed in man. Both cases bring glory to our God, and neither case should bring glory to man. Thanks be to God, who gives to men gifts abundantly and profusely!
I do want to end this question with a special prayer that I had long ago—special to me, though I doubt that it will amount to much in the annals of prayers throughout the centuries. This prayer, I think, demonstrates the kind of faith that sometimes seems to grow all by itself, though of course, it is God who is growing it in us. Over four decades ago, I met my future wife, Pam, and very quickly we became engaged. Together we went to Mr. Smith at the jewelry store, and picked out an engagement ring. My fiancée wore her ring with pride, and that made me glad that I had won her heart. The problem? After about three weeks, the ring went missing, and though my fiancée looked high and low, and near and far it could not be found.
She came to me, confessing its loss with bitter tears, and though I tried to console her, the loss was too grievous. She just seemed to be inconsolable. I went to God in prayer out of concern for her, and asked him directly to bring the ring back to Pam. I believe in that prayer that God gave me a special faith. I was able to come to him in confidence, with nothing wavering, and it was as if I was able to see the ring so clearly that I could hold it in my hand. I expected it to come back, and began proclaiming to her that I thought it would.
Two weeks passed and there was still no ring. I had a quiet confidence that God was not through, however, and one day her co-worker found it in her trunk where they had donned their work clothes. God had answered my prayer, giving me the faith to see the unseen. That, I think, is a good example of the kind of faith that God may impart to us on occasion. Mountain moving faith? Yes, there is mountain moving faith, but it comes from God to us in the times and manner that pleases him.