white belts

A number of years ago, I took a karate class with my kids for fun.

One day my class was sparring and the sensei walked onto the mat in between matches. Since we were on a break, one of the instructors shouted jokingly, “Who wants to spar sensei?” I volunteered. I figured it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to attempt to land a punch on a black belt who was morally obligated not to kill me. I thought it would be a great experience.

Well, it was an experience alright.

I threw a punch and before my fist was even close to making contact, he spun around and kicked me. It was like being kicked by a horse. I’ve never been kicked by a horse, but I imagine that if a horse ever did a roundhouse to my hip, it would have been exactly like that. Needless to say, I bowed (awkwardly) and walked off the mat. There was a 20 year competency gap between my white belt and his black belt.

For most of my life, I subscribed to the idea that Christians went from “white belt faith” to “black belt faith” by exercising spiritual disciplines like prayer, scripture reading, fasting etc. Does our faith in Christ deepen and mature? Of course. Does that maturity look like attaining some sort of “power” or “force” that enables Christians to bend their physical environment toward them favourably? No. That would be deism.

When Jesus rebuked His disciples for having “little faith”, He consistently drew their attention to their lack of dependance, but we often interpret those rebukes as being about a lack of competence.

Jesus once said that a Roman Centurion had such “great faith”, He hadn’t seen anything like it in Israel. The soldier was not more competent than the religious leaders – he was more dependant than they were. He didn’t have their dedication to prayer, fasting or scripture meditation – but he did know where to put all his chips. As it turns out, “great faith” is putting all your chips on Jesus. [1]

If the criteria for great faith was diligence in spiritual disciplines, the Pharisee’s would have been deemed the greatest – but Jesus had other words to describe them. I’m not suggesting that spiritual disciplines aren’t important – I’m provoking us to consider what spiritual disciplines are for.

The pursuit of spiritual competence always drew a different response from Jesus than the pursuit of spiritual of dependance. [2]

A prime example of this distinction plays out in Matthew 17.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain when God the Father chooses to reveal God the Son as the apex of redemptive history. Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah, showcasing that He will fulfill the law for us and is the fulfillment of God’s prophetic promises toward us.

Jesus returns down the mountain to find the other 9 disciples unsuccessfully exorcising a demon. Jesus rebuked them and described them as “faithless and twisted”. Why?

Jesus had given them specific authority and specific instructions to do that specific thing. [3] Healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead are impossible tasks. The problem was that the disciples faith had turned inward not upward, and this exorcism had become about will power, not God’s power. (hence “faithless“)

[Some translations add, “this kind comes out only by prayer and fasting”. [4] Both prayer and fasting are disciplines intended to invite dependancy.]

Good news …

When Jesus spoke about mustard-seed-sized-faith that moved mountains, He wasn’t making a quantitative statement as much as a qualitative one. Apparently, mustard-seed-sized faith in Him was more than enough.

Mountain-moving-faith is not bending God to our will in prayer.
Mountain-moving-faith is bending our will to God’s in prayer.

While Jesus told the disciples to “speak to the mountain” in prayer to remove obstacles, He also told the apostle Paul that His grace was sufficient for him and in His sovereignty, chose not remove Paul’s obstacle. [5]

God is faithful to both remove mountains from our lives and give us His grace for the mountains that remain in our lives.

Mountain-free living is not an option on this side of eternity. Therefore, spiritual disciplines are not a means to achieve spiritual competence before God, but gifts that increase our restful dependance in God.

Breathe little grasshopper, we are all white belts.

We can be thankful when we pray because God’s answer to our prayers is what we would have asked for if we knew what He knows.
~ Timothy Keller

Press on,


[1] Matthew 8:10
[2] Matthew 6:5
[3] Matthew 10:8

[4] Matthew 17:21 – older manuscripts omit this verse in Matthew, Mark 9 records it, but the meaning remains intact.
[5]  II Corinthians 12:9

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