In his book When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes, Brian Zahnd writes,
“The ethos of our age might be described as the felt absence of God. Something has been lost and in the Western world, Christianity is in decline. Most denominations are losing membership and the fastest-growing religious category in America is "none." For believers who, in their anxiety and frustration, recklessly frame this phenomenon in culture-war terms, this has produced considerable consternation. But their culture-war-induced rage only adds fuel to the fire of post-Christian attitudes. Being angry with modern people for losing their faith is like being angry with medieval people for dying of the plague. Something has happened in our time. Just as something happened in the Middle Ages that imperiled the lives of medieval people…”
I don’t know about you, but I have had my fair share of doubts in my faith journey. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that a "strong faith” is defined by intellectual certainty. This was great when I had the advantage of certitude.
But what happens when you experience things or see things or question things that crack the foundation of your certainty? What happens when you have questions that Christians aren’t supposed to ask? What do you do when reading the Bible leads to more questions? What do you do when the Body of Christ—his church—so hurts and maligns the image of Christ that you question the authenticity of the whole thing?
What do you do when you want that feeling of certainty again, but it just alludes you?
Some conclude that they no longer belong with the community of faith. Some leave. If faith is certitude, then I guess I don’t got faith.
Some stay, but they stay isolated in the prison of their own doubts because voicing them in the church isn’t safe.
What if these weren’t the only two options? What if our faith communities were safe places for us to wrestle with God and our faith?
Did you know that the Scriptures give us a glimpse of doubt as a normal part of the discipleship experience? I want to share three examples.
“I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:14-27
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is up on a mountain with Peter, James and John. Meanwhile, a father brings his deaf, mute, and epileptic son to Jesus’ disciples. The disciples were supposed to be like their rabbi, perhaps they could heal his son. When they couldn’t heal his son, an argument between the disciples and the crowd and some religious leaders broke out.
Jesus comes down the mountain and enters the scene here.
The father explains the situation to Jesus and says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
“‘If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the father cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
I believe… but the truth is, I also have some unbelief.
I believe, but I have been given a theology that says my son is afflicted in this way because he must have sinned and offended God…But, he has had this condition since he was a child. What could he have possibly done at such a young age to so offend the Almighty that he deserves this? To that the religious leaders answer that I or someone in my ancestral line must have sinned and offended God.
I’ve done the things. I’ve performed the rituals, made the sacrifices, prayed the prayers. I’ve looked for hope and I’ve looked for healing. But, what you do you do when the best answer you are given is that it’s hopeless because God is against you? I believe, but I have some doubt to. Truth is, I’m starting to doubt God’s goodness if I’m honest.
Then, I brought him to your disciples, and they couldn’t do anything. Your people did nothing to help the situation. I believe. But, I got some unbelief too.
The theology this father had been given, Jesus’ disciples, and his experience had given him little reason to believe.
“I believe; help my unbelief.”
Doubting Thomas. John 20:19-29
Then, there is the disciple named Thomas. He has been saddled with one of the least flattering nicknames in history: “Doubting Thomas.”
The story goes this way…
Jesus, their rabbi and the one they believed to be God’s Messiah, had been executed by means of crucifixion on Friday. His body was hastily prepared for burial because in the Jewish context the Sabbath started on Friday evening.
On the first day of the week some of the woman who had followed Jesus went to the tomb with oil and spices. They wanted take their time honoring the body. When they approached the tomb, the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty!
The story that unfolds from here as you synchronize the gospel accounts seems to be that the women went back to tell the other disciples. Who, according to Luke’s gospel, “…did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). Peter and John had to go see for themselves so they ran to the tomb. Turns out, it is just as the women said, it was empty.
But, let’s be honest, an empty tomb and a resurrected body are not exactly the same thing.
John 20 tells us that later that evening, all the disciples except for Thomas were together in a locked room. All of the sudden, Jesus appears in their very midst and says, “Peace be with you.” He then proceeds to show them his hands and his side (John 20:21).
When Thomas gets back, the disciples tell him what they saw and what they experienced. Thomas responds, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). Thomas gets a bad rap for this, but let’s step back a look at the scene more closely.
First of all, none of them believed the report of the women either. They thought it was nonsense. They too didn’t believe until they had an encounter with Jesus. Thomas isn’t asking for anything more than what they already experienced. Jesus appeared before them and showed them his hands and his side.
Second, what gives? I mean, Jesus couldn’t have waited until Thomas got back? Why did Jesus appear when he happened to be the only one who was not there?
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you would say, “I simply want to experience what others claim to experience. I want to encounter the presence of God. I want to feel the Holy Spirit. I want to have a vision, a dream, a revelation, an encounter, a healing. What's so bad about that? Other people have. I need to see Jesus too and until I see Jesus—until I have my own encounter with Jesus—I won’t believe."
“…when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Matthew 28:16-20
The initial Resurrection appearances seemed to happen in Jerusalem. Almost everyone who was a faithful Jew had traveled to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. After the festival, the disciples returned to Galilee and Acts tells us that “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
Matthew’s gospel picks up the resurrection story back in Galilee. While in Galilee, Jesus meets with the disciples on a mountain.
Matthew 28:16-20 reads,
“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”
When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
Notice this, they saw him, but some doubted. What are they doubting? Could it be they are deconstructing their beliefs about the Messiah because what they are experiencing conflicts with what they are supposed to believe?
They are supposed to believe the Messiah will be God’s anointed warrior king who will liberate Israel from oppression and establish the Kingdom of Israel again. What they are experiencing is that Jesus doesn’t fit that description but he is definitely alive and definitely seems to be God’s Messiah.
What they are experiencing is unexplainable, but undeniable.
What they are experiencing in Jesus doesn’t line up with the doctrine and Biblical teachings of the religious leaders. What do you do with that? What do you do when some parts of your faith don’t seem to line up with Jesus?
What you do is start deconstructing your faith. But, deconstruction is simply destruction unless reconstruction happens.
They worshiped him, but some doubted.
Some would say that part of them worshiped and part of them doubted. It seems to me though that all of them worshiped and some of the whole doubted.
Which means, it is possible to worship Jesus while having doubt.
One of the most damaging things to people who are going through some sort of deconstruction process is to be told that they can’t doubt and follow Jesus or worship Jesus or belong with the community of faith. They worshiped, but some doubted.
When Jesus Encounters Doubt in the Story
A desperate father, a grieving disciple, and a community of doubters.
How does Jesus respond to doubt when it shows up in the story?
Jesus healed the father’s son. He calls on the father to hold onto whatever belief he has, and he works with whatever measure of faith the father can muster.
A week after appearing to the disciples, Jesus shows up in the locked room again. Except this time, Thomas is there. Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (John 20:27)
The religiously self-righteous will fixate on the words “Stop doubting and believe,” reading them with a tone of condemnation. But you would have to pass over the fact that Jesus shows up just for Thomas and speaks directly into the demands of Thomas’ doubts. Jesus meets Thomas in his doubts and Thomas makes one of the clearest proclamations of Jesus’ divinity in the gospels. Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus met Thomas in the place of his doubt and Thomas was radically impacted by his encounter with Jesus.
What about the disciples who worshiped while also doubting? Jesus doesn’t address it. It’s not that he doesn’t care. Rather, he invites them into something that is so much bigger than them that it transcends their doubts. He commissions them to go and make disciples.
Notice, Jesus doesn’t separate the doubters from the non-doubters. He doesn’t say, “You who have no doubts: I commission you to go and make disciples. The rest of you, we need to talk about your doubts and make sure you arrive at a place of certainty before you can be useful for the Kingdom.” No. He commissions both of them.
A Word to The Doubters (Like Me)
Your doubts and questions might be legitimate, but they are not ultimate. If you struggle with doubt, one of the things that most likely frustrates you about some Christians is their arrogant dismissal of legitimate questions. The arrogance turns you off. Don’t react by holding so tightly to doubt that you are guilty of an intellectual arrogance. Recognize the finitude of your own mind. Your doubts might be legitimate, but they are not ultimate.
Keep pursuing Jesus. Your criticisms of the Church and Christians might be accurate, and yes, the Church is supposed to be a representation of Jesus. But, the Church is still not Jesus. Keep pursuing Jesus. He is big enough to handle your questions. Your doubts don’t threaten Jesus.
I believe you belong with the community. Jesus still works through the communities of Jesus followers we call churches. I believe you are still most likely to encounter and experience Jesus by belonging to a community that is seeking to follow Jesus. Stay connected to Jesus-centered communities.
You can worship and doubt at the same time. You are not a hypocrite if you worship Jesus and sense in your soul that there is something transcendent and beautiful and true about the story of Jesus while at the same time holding onto doubts and questions. You are not a hypocrite. You are a human. You have been given a brain and a mind, and it is astoundingly beautiful, but finitely limited. You are capable of believing something is true while at the same time hoping it is true.
Jesus commissions doubters. Your doubt is not an obstacle to faith. It is a doorway to a deeper faith. And, we live in a time when there is so much information and so many diverse worldviews. Your experience of faith might be the very thing that God will use to reveal himself to people far from him. You have asked and wrestled with the questions they are asking. Jesus says “Go, make disciples. I am with you.”
A Word to the Certain:
We have to make room for those people who are worshipping and doubting. They are among us. Our communities of faith need to be safe places for people to seek God. God is not any more anxious about people’s doubts than Jesus was about the disciples who worshiped and doubted. Our communities need to be safe places for people to wrestle with God or else they will simply struggle without God.
We need to make room for the possibility that we could be wrong about some things. According to some estimations, there are about 200 different denominations in the US and about 45,000 globally. Each denomination believes they have the right doctrine and right theology and right interpretation of the Bible. While all these things are important, it would seem to me that it is awfully arrogant to not hold on to our beliefs humbly. The global and historical story of the Church is diverse, and the essentials of our faith that have transcended time and place and denominations center on Jesus. What if we kept the main thing the main thing and made room for the nonessentials of our faith to be challenged? What if we saw humble dialogue as an opportunity for growth?
We need to leave room for the Holy Spirit to work. In the resurrection accounts, belief in the resurrection followed an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Even for the Apostle Paul, he encountered the resurrected Jesus before he believed. Resurrection is something that only God can do. When you encounter it, it will change you. The Holy Spirit is still in the business of encountering people and doing what only God can do. We need to leave room for the Spirit to work and not try so hard to impose right belief and certainty on people.