Sometimes we think of great faith as the kind of faith that prays for great things and sees amazing answers to prayer. That is probably how great faith frequently looks, but great faith need not always look the same. Consider the case of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.
21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The greatness in the woman’s faith is not that she asked for anything more than others might ask. The Gospels give several examples of people coming to Jesus on behalf of their children and Jesus healing them or even raising them from the dead. He cast out plenty of demons.
Jesus commends her faith before granting her request, but only after an interaction in which Jesus seems to refuse her. First he says nothing (v.23), then he pushes the Gentile/Jewish distinction beyond what we might even consider polite (vv. 24-26). Her humility and persistence in the face of Christ’s seeming condescension and persistent refusal brings out his praise (v.28).
If you are like me you have several prayer requests that God has not seen fit to answer even after many years, maybe decades or most of your life. And like me you struggle and are tempted to give up. You might see numerous reasons why God would never answer these prayers. “I’m not worthy. I’m really not worthy. God doesn’t answer prayers like these for people like me. Why should he?” These reasons (and I have more) sound a lot like “The Jewish Messiah isn’t about to grant the request of a Canaanite woman, is he?” But he did.
The point is that neither an unanswered prayer nor what looks like a humiliating refusal are the same thing as a final “no.” Jesus used his delays to draw out further expressions of the woman’s faith. That faith was in her all the time, but had Jesus responded quickly, none of us would have seen it and we might never know.
Let’s be the kind of people who hang on like the devil – or better, like this Canaanite woman – with whatever faith we have and then even more. Sometimes faith grows in its praying, its asking, humility and continuous kneeling before God. Sometimes God’s answers come only after long delays. A paltry, weak and sickly faith can be satisfied with quick answers, and then it may mislead us into thinking such faith is great. In fact, great faith, like this woman’s, may be the faith that keeps asking without any answer in sight.