I have been thinking for some time about how faith slowly wears, breaks-in, over the life journey. Much like a favorite piece of clothing that is well-loved, our faith in Jesus often grows as life causes our souls to fray and discolor. Throughout our life journey, we are constantly thrown about, fraught with frustrations that God simply isn’t hearing us, filled with fears about God abandoning us, upended by trials that overwhelm us.
This is the human story.
Then there’s the larger world God presents us with in the written word of Scripture, carried to us through generations of spiritual risk-takers and written on our hearts through the Spirit. Often, biblical writers have a way of making a case, then allowing us to be made by the case. It’s unforced, it’s genuine.
Luke’s studied account of the life of Jesus begins with this, just two verses in:
…I decided to write it all for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught [MSG].
So far, so good; our enlightened minds are happy to hear Luke’s intentions are we prepare for him to make his logical case. He then goes on to tell the winding tale of a man, born of a virgin and of God, who slowly comes into his own. Jesus is eventually propelled into healing ministry, fulfilling prophecies and making tangible the presence of the God who spun the universe from nothing at all.
Surprising newcomers to the Christian faith, at the very end of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus dies. Then we’re told how he rises from the dead. Soon, we’re taken to the story of how a couple folks who had known Jesus are walking along when Jesus suddenly appears. But they don’t recognize him-their eyes are closed to him.
What? Luke, didn’t you say you wanted to show us beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of this whole story?
Didn’t they know what Jesus looked like?
Did he shed a beard? Or grow one in the grave?
Had resurrection changed his physical appearance?
Anyone honestly taking inventory of this biblical account must reckon with the strangeness of these purported events. And, quite honestly, with a lot of other things. Our Scriptures are utterly perplexing at times, perfectly suited for much questioning along with some appropriate pushback.
In Luke 24:36-41, we read how Jesus, now resurrected from death, appears to some of his most devoted followers:
Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you.” They thought they were seeing a ghost and were scared half to death. He continued with them, “Don’t be upset, and don’t let all these doubting questions take over. Look at my hands; look at my feet—it’s really me. Touch me. Look me over from head to toe. A ghost doesn’t have muscle and bone like this.” As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. They still couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was too much; it seemed too good to be true.
I bolded the last two sentences. If you’re ever stuck doubting your faith, doubting the story of Jesus, doubting God’s good purposes for you, then you’re in good company!
The disciples who followed Jesus around for three years even doubted him, even when he was right in front of them. If this doesn’t strike us as bizarre, well, maybe we’d need to re-read.
And yet, these women and men who “still couldn’t believe what they were seeing” went on to tell the known world about Jesus. Now, in 2017, about 1 in 3 people worldwide adhered to the Christian faith.
Apparently they got past their doubts.
Or did they?
They certainly took Jesus pretty seriously, but we are left wondering what was the turning point for each person. Did they struggle in the moment then reconcile things later on? Did the Pentecost event in Acts 2 [Luke’s sequel to his Gospel account] convince them? Or were they ready for action by the close of the gospel’s final chapter, where Jesus led them away, blessing them before being carried into heaven?
We don’t really know.
All I know, at this point, is that we’ve got a lot of people that have some serious confidence in Jesus. These are the women and men who went on to carry the message of a risen Jesus to the known world.
But hold on. What about their doubts? And our doubts?
Well, I’ve come to see it like this: just like the earliest followers of Jesus who doubted, our own doubt reveals that our faith is functioning.
Think about it: what if they didn’t push back on this testimony? What if they didn’t ask the tough questions? What if Luke left out the details about their struggles-might that have pushed a powerful story into the realm of the mythical? What if we, reading in our own era, blithely pressed on, ignoring difficulties that stymie the faith of so many?
Doubt is a companion to faith, keeping us spiritually honed and grounded, preventing the kind of faith that forgets what it might be like not to believe-that forgets that at one time we ourselves didn’t believe.
When we acknowledge our doubt to ourselves and to others, no longer is the doubt left stirring within our souls, unheard within our community, but it’s brought out into the light and its latent toxicity can be abated.
Consider this honest dad in Mark 9:23-25. He wants his son to be healed, and desperately, but his faith is incomplete. The son has some kind of issues:
[Jesus] asked the boy’s father, “How long has this been going on?”
“Ever since he was a little boy. Many times it pitches him into fire or the river to do away with him. If you can do anything, do it. Have a heart and help us!”
Jesus said, “If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, “Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!”
Jesus says here in the Message version of the Bible that there are no ‘ifs’ among believers. He also goes on to heal the boy after the father’s moment of pure and unadulterated honesty [help me with my doubts!].
Rather than ignoring the questioning that was happening within his soul, this father brings his doubts to God, seeking transformation and a renewed faith.
Snap back to the story about Jesus showing up in Luke’s gospel account. Might the disciples have also personally asked Jesus to help them with their doubts? What happens between verse 41, where they are caught in unbelief, and verse 53, where they are continually blessing God in the temple?
I’ll bet they got honest with Jesus.
I’ll bet they asked a lot of questions about why he had to die, how he was raised, and what they were supposed to make of it all.
In my last post, I talked about vintage faith-time tested commitment, resilient trust in a risen Savior that stands the test of suffering and loss. Here are some ways to broaden the picture I attempted to paint in that post.
If faith is a leather belt, doubt is its wearer, stretching and shaping it and causing it to fit more naturally and honestly, taking it from stiff and unyielding to flexible, broken-in.
If faith is muscle, doubt is the mountain journey that first makes the hiker sore, but later conditions that same muscle into steely resilience.
If faith is a vehicle, it’s less likely that brand new model with the new car smell and shiny paint and more likely that tried and tested station wagon that carried you across your city and country more than a few times. But you’ve come to trust it, scratches, spills and all.
If we are but willing, God is ready and able to take our doubting, prideful, recalcitrant spirits and breathe new life into us, revealing that we are indeed temples for God’s spirit [I Cor. 6], reflecting God’s very image [Genesis 1:26-28].
Psalms do a great job at shaping how our faith makes its way into the context of the real, and it’s not by ignoring our perceptions and feelings. Instead, as we pray the poetry of the Psalms, we find ourselves caught up with a host of human beings who have been faith-ing long before us, even as they continue their worship in the throne room of heaven.
Eventually, we take on a new kind of vision of the world in which our doubts and questions and difficulties with God are no longer enemies to faith, but helpers along the great journey with Jesus. May we imitate him in all we do, with his Spirit helping. And may our steps this Holy Week lead us closer to him with doubt as our companion in faith.