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.”
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.