August 21, 2017

“…but some doubted.”

reddoubt.jpegUPDATE: John at Confessing Evangelical adds to this discussion.

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” -Matthew 28:16-20, English Standard Version Bible

The Bible can be amazing.

We can say all the theologically correct things you can think of, but when the Bible surprises you, when it reaches across the centuries and touches you with a sentence or a phrase, there’s something very special that convinces you on a deeply human level that God speaks through this book because he knows you and your innermost struggles. Not just as it paints the portraits of Jesus or gives us the words of God, but when it speaks to my human experience so precisely you feel that God is speaking to you and you alone. God is saying “I know how it is. Don’t be ashamed. It will be OK.”

You see, doubt is a constant in my life. I’m not put together like a theological block of concrete. If you need a speaker to talk about his absolute and increasing certainties, I’m not your guy. If you need someone to give testimony to how all his doubts have vanished, knock on another door.

No, I wonder if God exists. I sometimes see the universe as an empty place. Oh, I frequently see it filled with the glory of God and singing his majesty with all its created energy. I’m often filled with the assurance of faith. But not all the time. Sometimes tragedy, emotion, age, disappointment, depression, dark moods….they visit me and I doubt. I wonder and question. This is my human experience. God gives me faith. My humanness still gives me doubt.

On her blog sidebar, Amy Welborn has this quote: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.” That’s my experience. I know a lot of feelings, but by the grace of God- and by that grace only- faith wins out. On some days, just barely.

This disqualifies me from ministry according to some in the blogosphere. In the theological weight rooms of the internet, it’s how much you can lift that makes you worth having as a minister of Jesus Christ. Being lifted, every moment, and some moments completely, is a story that gets little respect in some corners.

My experience with God’s people, however, is quite different. Whenever I share my doubts and fears, as well as my faith journey and experience, tears come to a lot of eyes. People wait to talk to me. They say “Thank you.” They recognize something they always thought you couldn’t admit without condemnation.

What does this have to do with the Bible, and those moments of personal encounter?

Sometime in the early 90’s, post seminary and post an awful lot of ministry, Bible teaching and reading, I was studying the Great Commission when a phrase came flying off the page at me.

“….but some doubted.”

***silence***

That phrase exploded like a bomb in the midst of my pretense and phoniness in ministry. It was such a window into the reality of my life that I never tire of pointing it out to anyone who struggles. What a gift! “…but some doubted.”

If I need to locate this for you, it’s the mountaintop experience that closes Matthew’s gospel, which he likely borrowed from Mark’s lost ending. It’s the disciples, now witnesses of the resurrection. It’s the doubting Thomas’s. The disciples Jesus loved. The Peters, Jameses and Andrews. It’s the guys who John said saw the grave clothes lying there, who ate with the resurrected Jesus, inspected his wounds, heard his teaching, sat on the seashore and enjoyed fish and bread for breakfast.

There on the mountaintop, their theology included….”I’m just not sure….I’m don’t know…..It can’t be….but it is…..how? What? Oh Lord. I believe. Help my unbelief.” Amazing.

If you didn’t recognize that last line, it’s from an encounter in Mark 9 where a man who believes admits he also doesn’t believe. In a Gospel where fear and faith are constantly laid out for Christians to see, it’s frequently the case that believers don’t believe perfectly, or well, or with absolute certainty. It seems that Paul, who had been given kinds of certainty none of us can even comprehend, could still write that …“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Certainty of an absolute sort awaited him and all of us, in the future.

The entire New Testament rings with the tension between doubt and belief. The church addressed in Hebrews stands in danger of shrinking back. The Johannine communities are tempted to reject the wonder of the incarnation. The persecuted Christians addressed in Mark’s Gospel stood between existential fear and risk-taking, suffering faith.

I don’t know of any creed that says I must confess certainty. They call on me to confess “I believe…” That’s really profound, and incredibly helpful. It’s torture to tear up the fragile assurance of weak believers or to reject the sola fide of those who are trusting a God who is less than an overwhelming certainty some of the time. Simple, childlike faith is a beautiful treasure, to be encouraged, built up and nurtured. But that won’t happen if we don’t accept “…but some doubted,” and still do. And always will.

I love John Piper because he listens to the criticisms of his theology responds pastorally. Have you read When I Don’t Desire God and/or Battling Unbelief/Future Grace? It is a fight to be a Christian. We must stir ourselves up, be stirred and stir up one another. Whatever is the certainty that we affirm in our creeds, our gathering together is an admission that we are still the disciples doubting even on the mountaintop; even after all that we believe.

So we pray for the Holy Spirit to take the Word and stir us up. The preacher prays for that as he prepares and as he teaches. The believer prays for that as he comes to worship to recalibrate, renew and reenlist. The church prays for its weak, doubting faith to be made more certain.

Scripture says we have a sure and certain word. We are not, however, sure and certain people. That is the testimony of the Bible from beginning to end. From Abraham to the churches in Revelation. The sure, certain, truthful God has spoken and acted truthfully and in reality. We believe and experience his truth and power by his grace. We believe, and that is a miracle. But we are not free from doubt. At least the apostles on the mountain weren’t yet free from doubt. Not yet. And neither am I.

[I recommend everyone read Alister McGrath’s essay “Doubt and the Vain Search for Certainty.“]

Comments

  1. an influential sunday school teacher pointed that out to me a year or so ago. i too had totally missed that phrase despite reading the great commission a billion or two times. i was shocked that it was in there, and wondered why i always missed it.

    my campus ministry at college has been seeking to do more evangelism on campus and start more spiritual conversations with students. i’ve had wonderful conversations with fellow students and i’ve found the an overwhelming majority of college guys aren’t militant atheists who worship at the darwinian temple. they’re kids who grew up in a christian environment and went to church, but slowly grew to become agnostics. i’ve been moved as i’ve listened to several stories from these people. it’s not that they’re certain that God doesn’t exist, it’s that they’re not certain He does. i’ve empathized with their doubts more than i would care to admit to any of my fellow christians. instead of debating God’s existence via creation, i try to stick with Jesus and the gospel, but at times as i share the beauty of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, i pause and listen to myself, wondering if i really believe all this stuff. most days i do, but some days i don’t.

    but my point in all this was, thanks for sharing. i’m too deeply troubled by doubt often in my christian life despite being in the faith for 15 years now.

  2. That’s a verse that has leapt out at me on occasion, too. Thanks for the reminder of it. I had been feeling a bit bruised by the theological gym-bunnies.

    What’s really striking is that they were experiencing doubt in the one context where most of us would probably feel pretty confident of having a firm faith: standing in front of the risen Jesus, who is right there, large as life.

    Heck, even Richard Dawkins has claimed he would believe if confronted with a miracle that no conjuror could have enacted. But here are the disciples, in precisely that situation: and “some doubted”. Hallelujah.

  3. I consider this entire discussion to be a major, two sided pastoral issue:

    Side 1: the endless addition of adjectives to faith so that doubt and uncertainty of any kind is heresy, apostasy or abandonment of the Gospel.

    Side 2: the constant undermining of assurance by teaching the saving requirement of impossible levels of works, fruit, obedience, repentance, etc as the sources of assurance, then constantly questioning performance and experience in those areas.

  4. I should discipline you for saying “gym bunnies” here on an open discussion thread. If you could go to a chat room somewhere, it would be more acceptable.

  5. Michael,

    I used to debate this issue all the time over at ThOoze and I just got sick of it. In many ways, we’ve made Doubt the new Faith.

    The only problem is that doubt is NEVER portrayed positively in the Bible. Never.

    Sure it may talk about doubt and note that people doubted, but it simply NEVER holds doubt up as being anything other than negative.

    When people ask me all the time why we see so few miraculous events portrayed in the Bible today in America, I can’t help but think back to Jesus’ inability to do any miracles in His hometown because everyone doubted Him. If that doesn’t depict the American Church, I don’t know what does.

    My ex-church used to get these pomo artists to come in and sing about doubt all the time for “special music.” I wanted to hang myself after every performance because it was–for want of a better phrase–so “lost.” We’re surrounded by doubt, swimming in a sea of it in this country, but where’s the faith that moves mountains? For once, I’d like to see that on display and not all this introspective doubt.

    Our refrain in the face of doubt should always be the same: “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

  6. Histrion (Jay H) says:

    iMonk writes: This disqualifies me from ministry according to some in the blogosphere. In the theological weight rooms of the internet, it’s how much you can lift that makes you worth having as a minister of Jesus Christ.

    I guess there’s an example of the absence of the Holy Spirit, then.

    Meanwhile, danedelen writes: We’re surrounded by doubt, swimming in a sea of it in this country, but where’s the faith that moves mountains? For once, I’d like to see that on display and not all this introspective doubt.

    Well, to paraphrase Dr. Phil, “How’s that power trip working out for you?”

  7. Histrion,

    To answer your question: “Better than your straw man.”

    😉

  8. Histrion (Jay H) says:

    Heh heh…