“O you of little faith . . .” The words run through the Gospel of Matthew as a kind of refrain, reminding us of the disciples’ wavering trust. And perhaps of our own. Four times, we hear this rebuke cushioned with tenderness, this tenderness steeled with rebuke.
Do you see, disciples, how God feeds the ravens and robes the lilies? And “will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30).
Winds may blow and waves may rise on the fickle Sea of Galilee, but I will be with you — I, the storm-stilling Son of God. So “why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26).
Every wave will hold your feet if you only keep your eyes on me, Peter. But “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).
Do you remember, my twelve, how I fed thousands from a few leftover loaves? Then “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?” (Matthew 16:8).
Why such tenderness in this rebuke? Because their faith, though little, was genuine. Why such rebuke in this tenderness? Because their faith, though genuine, was smaller than it should have been. And perhaps so too is ours.
O You of Little Faith
“O you of little faith” is our English way of rendering just one Greek word, which Jesus may in fact have coined — a mash-up of the words for little and faith. “O you of little faith” are the small-trusts, the meager-confidences, the weak-believes. I often find myself among them.
You can recognize them, first, by their anxious care (Matthew 6:25–33). Though they walk in a world where birds feast and flowers dress like kings, they find themselves easily troubled by their own needs. Does God see them? Does God hear their cries? Is God really their Father? Their heads may nod, but their hearts hesitate. Alongside the worry they wear on their sleeve rests this badge: “O you of little faith.”
So too, the little-faith regularly walk in unneeded fear (Matthew 8:23–27). Not all fear arises from little faith, and Jesus knew when to comfort fears rather than correct them (Matthew 14:26–27). But for the little faith, fear is less like an acquaintance and more like a roommate, less like an occasional wave and more like a constant undercurrent of silent insecurity. Though they know that Jesus is with them, fear somehow seems to stand in between.
“Orient your Christian life less around a set of practices and more around a glorious Person.”
And then, finally, those of little faith often are marked by many doubts (Matthew 14:28–33). Like Peter on the sea, they often entertain what Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls “after-thoughts.” Peter saw the wind and the waves before putting his foot on the water, apparently trusting Jesus’s word more than the storm. But then he thought again. “That is always the trouble with weak faith,” Lloyd-Jones writes. “It comes back again to questions which it has already solved and answered” (Spiritual Depression, 157). Introspective and second-guessing, those of little faith struggle to leave their doubts in the boat.
The tenderness of Jesus shines magnificently in these stories of little faith. He meets his disciples’ cares, fears, and doubts with his assurance, peace, and help. Yet his tenderness also carries a rebuke we need to hear.
Lessons for Those of Little Faith
In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, we read of one Little Faith, who, after being robbed of his spending money (though not his jewels), was forced to travel “with many a hungry belly the most of the rest of the way” to the Celestial City (146).
And so with us. We need only a little faith to be united to the Christ who saves (typified by Little Faith’s jewels). But we need more than a little faith to walk comfortably with Christ. So as we gather up the tenderness Jesus gives to those of little faith, let’s listen too for the lessons he teaches, knowing that he rebukes us for our comfort.
Stand up to your little faith.
One common temptation among those of little faith is to believe that we are at the mercy of our little faith. The temptation is understandable. We do not choose our cares, fears, and doubts; they just seem sewn into the fabric of our temperament. We could not more command them, it seems, than the disciples could command the storm.
No doubt, temperament shapes our faith in significant ways. Little faith seems to follow those given to timidity, introspection, and melancholy. And yet, temperament never tells the whole story. If it did, surely Jesus would not have rebuked his disciples, even with tenderness. Nor would he have called them to such rigorous action and reflection, whatever their temperament:
- “Look at the birds of the air. . . . Consider the lilies of the field. . . . Therefore do not be anxious” (Matthew 6:26, 28, 31).
- “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26).
- “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).
- “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember . . . ? How is it that you fail to understand . . . ?” (Matthew 16:8–11).
Yes, our temperament may dispose us to cares, fears, and doubts. We may shake like bruised reeds while others stand fast. But even still, have we studied the ravens and the lilies? Have we queried our trembling hearts, “Why are you so afraid?” Have we taken ourselves in hand and played the preacher to our soul — reminding, exhorting, encouraging? Only God can give great faith (Ephesians 2:8), but he often sees fit to give it through patient, prayerful thought.
Little faith might be ours by temperament, but it need not be ours by consent. By the power of the Spirit within us, we have some choice in this matter. We can pray, consider, ask, remember — and over time, we may feel our faith rising higher than little.
Consider all the evidence.
Often, however, careful thought may seem to reveal only how plausible our cares and fears are. Consider the storm on the sea, for example. What would careful thought have accomplished when the waves rose higher than the stern, the rain stung your skin, and water began to fill the boat? Think as much as you want, all calculations seem to yield the same answer: panic.
And yet, Jesus still asks his question: “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26). Apparently, the fear that seems so plausible, so reasonable, even so inevitable is, well, not. Somehow, great faith finds a way to cast an anchor, no matter how severe the storm.
How? By closing its eyes, plugging its ears, and singing the storm away? No, but by considering all the evidence, not just the kind we can see in the moment. Great faith is never blind faith. It sees the waves, feels the wind, hears the thunder, tastes the rain. But then great faith goes further and, above and beyond all of these, senses something more.
Great faith sees a Savior whose heart never sleeps (Psalm 121:3–4). Great faith remembers the words “Peace! Be still!” which have silenced many a fiercer storm than this one (Mark 4:39). Great faith holds onto the hand that has first grabbed hold of us (Isaiah 41:10). Great faith feels the love from which we cannot be separated, even if the waves should drown us (Romans 8:38–39).
As long as our eyes stay on the surface of life, little faith may seem like our only rational option. But when we look to things unseen, we may feel that something far greater than the storm is here.
Answer doubts with Christ.
Great faith, then, considers all the evidence. And at the heart of that all stands one preeminent Person: Jesus. How could the disciples fear when Jesus was in the boat with them (Matthew 8:23–24)? How could Peter doubt when Jesus stood with him on the waves (Matthew 14:29)? How could the disciples worry as long as Jesus, the multiplier of loaves, walked with them (Matthew 16:8–10)? In each case, “O you of little faith” is shorthand for “O you of little faith in me.”
Those of great faith have not discovered any spiritual secrets. They have not reached second-tier Christianity. They have not climbed some monastic ladder of devotion. They have simply learned, sometimes through long and painful practice, to see Jesus as the most wonderful, powerful, merciful, and faithful Person in the universe. Or as Lloyd-Jones puts it, they have learned to answer their doubts with a look:
We can only conquer our doubts by looking steadily at Him and by not looking at them. The way to answer them is to look at Him. The more you know Him and His glory the more ridiculous they will become. (Spiritual Depression, 158)
“Jesus, more merciful than the storm is strong, always stands ready to save his people of little faith.”
I know that “looking to Jesus” sometimes sounds like a vague and convenient substitute for more careful application. But really, look to Jesus — not simply with a quick glance in moments of care, but as the main labor (and joy) of every day. Read books about him. Get to know him in his offices as Prophet, Priest, and King. Perhaps choose a Bible-reading plan that always has you reading one of the Gospels. Orient your Christian life less around a set of practices and more around a glorious Person.
Just as the best answer we can offer to Satan’s accusations is a trusting look at Jesus, so too with our little faith. The best answer to our cares, fears, and doubts is a look — thoughtful, informed, believing — at the Christ who loves to save.
Lord, Save Me
When Peter cried, “Lord, save me” as he began to sink into the sea, we read, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him” (Matthew 14:30–31). Jesus, more merciful than the storm is strong, always stands ready to save his people of little faith.
But his saving goes further still. When Peter was safe within the grip of Jesus, he heard his Lord’s tender rebuke: “O you of little faith . . .” Jesus loves to save those of little faith — not only from the sea, but from the doubts that send them sinking. And how would he have us respond to those doubts? Rise up and stand against them. Consider all the evidence for trusting. And above all, fasten the eyes of faith on him, who never fails his own.