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Mark 5:34: How Much Faith Do We Need?
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Mark 5:34: How Much Faith Do We Need?

Mark 5:34: How Much Faith Do We Need?

He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."  Mark 5:34

From Hard Saying of the Day by Intervarsity Press

In the story of the woman with the flow of blood we find this verse (also found in Mt 9:22 and Lk 8:48) that indicates that her healing was due to her faith. A similar phrase appears in the healing stories in Mark 10:52, Luke 17:19 and Luke 18:42, and the forgiveness story in Luke 7:50. Does this mean that the answer to our prayers is determined by the amount of our faith?

Certainly faith is present somewhere in most of the healing stories in the Gospels. In the cases cited above, the faith is the faith of the person being healed, but such stories form only about one-third of the healing stories in the Gospels. In Mark 2:5 it is the faith of those bringing the person to Jesus which is cited. In Mark 6:6 (and Mt 13:58) it is the general climate of unbelief, that is, the lack of faith, in Nazareth that made Jesus unable to do anything more than heal a few sick people. In Mark 9:23-24 Jesus counters unbelief and stimulates faith in the father of a demonized boy. Yet in many cases of healing the only faith which appears to be present is that which Jesus has; for example, in the raising of the man in Nain (Lk 7:11-16) one searches in vain for faith in anyone but Jesus, as is also the case in John 11. How do we put all of this data together?

First, while Jesus can talk about "great faith" (in the case of the centurion whose servant was healed) or "little faith" (in the case of the disciples in Mark), normally it is not the amount of faith but whether or not it is present that counts. In Mark 11:23-24 we read,

I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, "Go, throw yourself into the sea," and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

Yet the parallel in Luke 17:6 reads,

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it will obey you. (compare Mt 17:20)

In other words, the key element in prayer is not the amount of faith, but whether faith is present at all.

The Scripture applies this to several different situations. First, there is faith which leads to salvation. Remember that in the New Testament the Greek term for faith (pistis) or believing (pisteuo) normally means trust in or commitment to some person. The woman in Luke 7:50 may have had all sorts of weird ideas about Jesus; she is not commended for her excellent theology. Yet whatever her ideas about Jesus she had something in her heart which pushed her to express trust in or commitment to Jesus. That faith, however rudimentary from a theological standpoint, brought about her "salvation" from her disease (the term translated "healed" is the same one often translated "saved"). Now the woman was not seeking deliverance from sin, yet the same principle holds throughout the New Testament, for it is not how much we understand about Jesus that saves us, but the mere fact that we trust in him. For example, we do not know what the Philippian jailer in Acts 16 knew about Jesus; surely it was very little. Most likely he had only just that night heard about him at all. Yet his willingness to trust in Jesus was enough to save him. Saving faith is commitment to Jesus and is not dependent on our understanding how he will save us or even that he will save us. Indeed, some people might be willing to obey Jesus as God's king (that is, confess "Jesus is Lord" as Paul says in Rom 10:9-10) and yet think that in the end Jesus would still send them to hell. Even in such a case their faith in Jesus (their commitment to him, their trust in him) saves them even though they are ignorant of the fact that God would never send someone to hell who repents and turns to him. This is where Matthew 5:13 fits in, for we either have "flavor" (saltiness or faith) or do not. Minimal faith leads to salvation, while its lack leads to a far sadder result. Likewise in Mark 9:42-49 the issue is not one of the amount of faith, but that of leaving the faith altogether (which is the sense of the Greek word translated "causes to sin" in the NIV). It would be better to be maimed for life rather than to leave faith; a miserable death would be better than turning another person from faith. Again, the issue is whether people trust in or are committed to Jesus, not which theological ideas they have about him. Is Jesus or is he not one's Lord and King, however imperfectly that is understood? Thus salvation is said to be a product of faith, and in the case of salvation the mustard seed of trust (or faith) appears to reside in the individual.

When it comes to praying for healing, the locus of faith is more widespread. We noticed in the Gospels that only in about one-third of the cases is faith found in the person who is sick. After all, illness often sucks faith and other forms of willing out of a person. Thus the gifts of healing in 1 Corinthians 12:9 are normally given through someone other than the person who is ill. In James 5:14-15 there may be little or no faith in the sick person, for we do not know whether he or she calls the elders of the church out of a spark of faith, or only because the church said to do it, covering all the bases before they die. Whatever the case of the sick person, the only faith actually said to be present is in the elders, for it is they who pray and their "prayer offered in faith" which makes the sick person well. The fact is that people who do not believe that God wants to heal a sick person normally do not see those they pray for healed; conversely, those with even a mustard-seed-sized belief in their hearts often do.

This perspective fits with Mark 11:23-24 and Luke 17:6. In those cases the context is that of a miracle, which is also a gift of God. Again, not the amount of faith but the presence of faith is the quality which leads to prayer being answered. Does something in our hearts say that God will do this, or is there no expectation in us? It is this spark of faith which is the mark of the person who prays and sees miracles happen.

Finally, we should note in all of these cases that faith is also a gift of God. We saw that about the gift of faith in 1 Corinthians 12:9, but Jesus says the same about saving faith (for example, Jn 6:64-65). And whether one talks in Pauline terms about gifts of healing or whether with James one talks in terms of a prayer of faith (which surely comes because the elders have heard the heart of God), the source is God. So even faith is not a work of ours; it is a gift of God. Our only action is to respond appropriately to the faith in our heart.

Therefore we should not get worried about whether we have enough faith or not. What Christian are called to do is to look into the face of the Father and pray what they do have faith for. If they lack faith, they should honestly say, "Help my unbelief!" Trying to work up "faith" within us will not result in faith at all, but in emotional persuasion or mere positive thinking. Spending time in the presence of God (as Jesus did) will result in a spark of faith, perhaps so small we do not even notice it, which trusts God and receives the request that God in giving that faith has already put into our heart.


This author has actually known some such troubled souls, who recognized Jesus as their Lord and committed themselves to serve him the rest of their lives and yet believed that they had done something that could not be forgiven. They lived with unnecessary pain, but this misbelief did not mean that God had not fully accepted them. Of course they were far happier when someone helped them get rid of their bad theology.

Ken Blue in Authority to Heal (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1987) points out that those who pray successfully for healing in whatever tradition have three characteristics in common:

(1) the conviction that God is willing to heal (faith),

(2) compassion for the sick person (also a characteristic of Jesus) and

(3) the willingness to risk (faith must be put into action; the prayer of faith must be prayed).

8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.    Ephesians 2:8-10


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