Doubts in Belief
Doubts in Belief
I once participated in a very interesting conversation. A group of sixteen evangelical pastors, who believed the Bible and had good ministries, discussed something you seldom hear pastors discuss. They discussed their doubts: questions about their faith, their ministries, and their careers.
One man said, "The story of Job ticks me off. Oh, sure, Job gets his money back, and God gives him a new family. But once you lose a child, you never replace that child. The fact that Job lost his entire family because of some cosmic argument between God and Satanin which Job was the pawnmakes me angry."
Another pastor said, "When I read the Book of Jeremiah, I get depressed, frustrated, and discouraged. After all, here's a man who gave years of his life to God, and from a human standard, he never experienced success."
Still another pastor said, "I was in a church for ten years; the church was growing; it was prospering. Six months before I resigned, the chairman of the board of deacons came to me and said, 'My goal is to get you out of here.' When I resigned, that same man said, 'I will give you credit for one thing: you're a man of integrity. You have always spoken the truth, and you could have split the church over what has happened in the last few months. But you didn't do it, because you were a man of integrity.' That happened two years ago," he said. "Since then, I have sent out resumés and interviewed, but not one church has invited me as a candidate. I'm angry that I'm out of work for being a man of integrity."
One man offered consolation: "Isn't it encouraging to know that when we go through hardship and trial it's because God thinks of us as a special people who can handle the situation?" Someone replied, "That used to work, but it doesn't anymore. I'm tired of being that special person. I'm tired of going through all of that."
What I'm saying may make you uncomfortable. Some of you might be thinking, If this is how pastors feel, it's no wonder the church is in the condition it's in. But I imagine there are those who resonate with what these pastors were saying. They may have articulated thoughts you were afraid to share. You're wondering how, after so many faithful years of service to God, everything is turning to sand and falling through your fingers.
I'd like to address two questions. First, why does it often seem that someone who has been a Christian for many years has greater doubt than someone who has only been a Christian for a few months? Second, what do we do about doubt when it occurs?
The disciples were confident in Christ's power.
Mark weaves together three stories in chapters 8 and 9 of his Gospel that speak to the issue of doubt. Jesus has been in Gentile territory, spending a lot of concentrated time with his disciples. Finally he asks them: What are people saying about me? Who do they think that I am? The disciples tell him that some say he's an Old Testament prophet who has come back from the dead. There are all kinds of opinions, they conclude. Jesus asks, "Who do you think I am?" Apparently speaking for the group, Peter says: We're convinced you're the Christ. You're the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel.
Suppose you're in college, and someone becomes your best friend. You share things together. You do things together. You care for one another. After a couple of years, your friend tells you he has been living incognito, and that he is the son of the president of the United States. Your best friend is the president's son. He invites you to a big event at the White House. The band is playing, the tables are decorated beautifully, and there are heads of state and kings and ambassadors and senators and artists and athletes. Imagine being there with your best friend.
The disciples felt as if this had happened to them. In Mark 9:2, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up to a high mountain. There he is transfigured before them. His clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear before them and talk with Jesus. The disciples had just acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ. And now Jesus takes them up and strips away his humanity before them. He shows them his brilliance and glory. Not only that, he appears in the presence of two of the most important celebrities in Israel's history. The disciples are awestruck.
Then Jesus does something else. When he comes down from the mountain, he finds the other disciples have been trying to cast a demon out of a young man, but were unable. Jesus exhibits his power by casting the demon out.
The disciples are beginning to feel as if their best friend is the son of the president. He rubs elbows with important people. He does things for them that no one else can do. Often we come to Jesus Christ, and in the early stages of our faith we say, "Isn't Jesus wonderful? He's God. He's forgiven my sins. He's promised me heaven. He answers my prayers. He's my friend. It's great." That's not what causes doubt.
The disciples doubted because of Jesus' suffering.
In Mark 8:31, just after telling them he's the Messiah, Jesus begins explaining to the disciples that in a few short months, they will travel to Jerusalem where the people will beat him, torture him, and condemn him to a criminal's death. But three days later, he's going to rise again from the dead. Then Peter, in front of the rest of the disciples, comes up and says: Wait a minute, Lord. That's not right. Kings don't do that. God doesn't do that.
Jesus' comments made even less sense after his Transfiguration. The disciples must have been thinking, We have just seen God. We've seen Jesus in his glory. But he keeps talking about dying. He keeps talking about rising from the dead. What does all this mean? They simply can't put it together. In 9:30, Mark records that after Jesus casts out the demon, he teaches his disciples privately about his death and resurrection. Still, they do not understand what he means. They are afraid to ask him.
What causes doubt? What causes discouragement? Doubt and discouragement come when that in which we have put our faithwhich seemed so good at firstsuddenly blows up in our face. You and I have given our lives to Jesus Christ, including our time and our energy as well. And then just when it seems as if everything should be coming together, it begins to explode apart instead. Relationships dissolve. Jobs end.
I once heard of a Christian man who was laid off just six months before retirement. The company finagled in such a way that he lost all his benefits. He had prayed, "God, I want to be a good husband. I want to be a good father. I'm going to go to church. I'm going to spend my life serving you," and six months before retirement, whatever security he had was taken away. Now he says, "God, that's not fair! I don't know if Christianity is worth it!"
Not long ago, I met with a man with whom I graduated from seminary. He worked as a youth minister for two years after graduation. Kids were getting saved; lives were being touched; good things were happening. The youth group was growing, but the church as a whole was in decline. So the congregation asked him to start a church. He did, and they had 450 people in attendance on the first Sunday. The church grew for twelve years, until the membership was over a thousand. But then problem after problem hit his ministry, so he resigned. Seventeen years of preaching the Word, ministering to people, and doing God's will went up in smoke. That's what causes doubt.
Notice Jesus' words to Peter and the crowd. In 8:31, Jesus tells them about his death. When Peter rebukes him, Jesus tells Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men." Then he goes on to tell everyone that whoever would be his disciple must carry his cross and lose his life.
When we talk about salvation, we seldom tell people what Jesus tells people. He says: You want to follow me? Here's a cross. To put it in our terms: Here's an electric chair. Here's a gas chamber. You want to follow me? Here's pain. Here's disappointment. Here's a life that will blow up in your face. Here's frustration. Here's anxiety. When we begin to understand that God's designs are contrary to human interests, Christianity doesn't look as good as it did the day we accepted Jesus Christ.
You say, "God, why did you let my child die?" or "God, why are my grandkids having so many problems?" or "God, why am I out of work?" or "God, why is it that things that we don't expect happen in churches?" or "God, why is it that after twenty years of caring for that person, he's walked out on me? It's not supposed to work that way, God. It doesn't fit my interests." Jesus says: If you want to follow me, here's a cross.
Following takes faith. What do we do when we get to that point? What do we do when we begin to doubt and wonder whether it's worth all we put into it?
What do we do when we doubt?
Part of the answer is found in the third story Mark tells. The disciples have been brought a child who has a demon, and they can't cast it out. Jesus shows up and asks in verse 21, "How long has he been like this?" The man responds that his son has been this way from birth. He asks Jesus to help, if he can.
Jesus replies, "Everything is possible for him who believes." Jesus is saying: If you decide you want to believe in me, the issue is not ability. You should have been with us up on the mountain. You should have been with us when I was feeding the 5,000. You should have been with us when I was walking on water. The issue is not ability. The man acknowledges that Jesus' ability is not the issue, exclaiming, "'I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.'"
You've probably experienced driving to a friend's house in an area you have never been to before. You've driven a long distance, and they gave you directions over the phone about two weeks before. Your friend has warned you that when you get near his house, you're going to feel as if you're in the wrong place. You will seem to be going north when you're really going south. There will be landmarks, but they won't look like you think they should.
You continue to drive, and your spouse and kids say, "Hey, surely this isn't the way. Our friend wouldn't live here."
At that point you've got three options. You can keep driving and look stupid. Or you can stop and call your friend and potentially feel stupid when your friend says, "Yeah, this is the way." Finally, you can turn around and go back. Your decision to keep going really depends upon what you think of your friend. If he's a flake, you might decide to turn around. But if you trust him, you either keep going, or you stop and make a call.
Some of us may need to stop and make a call. We need to tell God, "When I look at my life, it seems as though all I've done for you isn't worth it. The landmarks don't seem right. You say I'm going north; I think I'm going south. I don't want to follow this road anymore. Help my unbelief."
For the outline of this sermon, go to "Doubts in Belief."
Paul Borden is executive minister of Growing Healthy Churches and author of Direct Hit.