Christianity 201

February 3, 2018

There’s a Difference Between Doubt and Unbelief

Grab a warm drink and settle into a comfortable chair. Today’s is longer than usual. It’s our annual visit to the blog of K.W. Leslie and there was so much to choose from. Click the title below, read this at source, and then click the header to navigate to other pieces.

Doubt’s Okay, Unbelief’s the Problem

I’ve been told more than once, “In the scriptures, Jesus came down awfully hard against doubt. How then can you claim doubt is our friend?

’Cause Jesus’s objection wasn’t actually to doubt. It was to unbelief.

Contrary to popular opinion—and way too many bible translations—doubt isn’t the opposite of belief. Unbelief is. Doubt’s not the same as unbelief. Doubt means we’re not sure we believe. Unbelief means we’re totally sure—and we don’t believe at all.

Doubt’s what happens when we sorta kinda do believe. But we’re not entirely sure. So we suspend judgment till we get more evidence. And often that’s precisely the right thing to do. Y’realize Christians constantly get scammed by false teachers, fake prophets, and con artists who tell ’em, “Stop doubting me and just believe!” In so doing they’re trying to keep us from practicing discernment, because if we did use our heads we’d realize what they were up to. They don’t want us to think. Just feel. Follow your emotions, not your head. Ignore the gray matter God gave you, and listen to your brain chemicals… and ignore the fact most of us can turn them on and off if we tried.

Unbelievers definitely try to describe themselves as doubters. I’ve met plenty of nontheists who claim that’s what they really are: Doubters. Skeptics. Agnostics who are intellectually weighing the evidence for Christianity… but we Christians haven’t yet convinced them, so they’re gonna stay in the nontheist camp for now. Makes ’em sound open-minded and wise. But it’s hypocritical bushwa. Their minds are totally made up; they stopped investigating God long ago. They don’t believe; they’ve chosen their side of the issue; they’re straddling nothing.

Real doubt might likewise mean we’ve totally picked a side. There are Christians who doubt, but they’re still gonna remain Christian. (After all, where else are they gonna go? Jn 6.68 They’ve seen too much.) And there are nontheists who doubt, so they’re still gonna investigate Christianity from time to time, and talk with Christians, and try to see whether there’s anything to what we believe. Part of ’em kinda hopes there is. Or, part of ’em really hopes there’s not—but the Holy Spirit is making them doubt their convictions, ’cause he uses doubt like this all the time.

The goal of doubt is to get us to stop playing both sides, and finally pick one once and for all. The point of an open mind, as G.K. Chesterton once put it, is like that of an open mouth: At some point it’s gotta close on something solid. Belief—and conversely unbelief—means it has closed. Doubt means the question is still open. It’s not wrong to doubt. It is wrong to never deal with those doubts.

Our second guesses, or our unbelief.

Here’s one of the better-known stories about Jesus “rebuking doubt.” He was walking on water; Simon Peter wanted to do that too; the Holy Spirit let him give it a try. It’s a faith exercise. Worked as long as Peter trusted the Spirit… and stopped working the moment he stopped trusting, and started second-guessing.

Matthew 14.28-31 KWL
28 Replying to Jesus, Simon Peter said, “Master if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
29 Jesus said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and came to Jesus, walking on the water.
30 Seeing the strong wind, Peter feared… and starting to drown, he called Jesus: “Master, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus stretched out a hand, grabbed him, and told him, “Tiny-faith, why’d you backtrack?”

The KJV has Jesus ask, “Wherefore didst thou doubt?”—interpreting edístasas/“to rethink” as doubt. It actually wasn’t that. If he had doubted, he’d have never stepped out of the boat. You don’t try walking on water unless you’re pretty darned sure you can walk on water. As demonstrated every time someone walks on ice: They’re entirely sure the ice is thick enough to walk on. If they have any doubts, they stay off.

So how’d Peter go wrong? He backtracked: “Wait, what’d I get myself into? I’m walking on water in this weather. I must be nuts!” He lost his nerve. He let his fears overwhelm his circumstances, and fell over instead of stepping forward. Movies tend to depict Peter slowly sinking into the water, but I’ve no idea why. Matthew implies he fell right in. Strikes me as far more dramatic.

Jesus fished him out. I don’t know whether he stood Peter back on the water with him, or dragged him back to the boat; I just know Jesus rescued him, ’cause he does that. But note he called Peter oligópistos/“tiny-faith.” Jesus didn’t call him no-faith, but tiny-faith. Like I said, Peter had enough faith to get out of the boat, and that’s considerably more faith than your average Christian. (More than the other students too.)

But he didn’t rebuke Peter’s doubt, ’cause doubt isn’t even the issue. It’s second-guessing ourselves, even though the Spirit is clearly okay with what we’re doing, and has empowered us to act. It’s, “Wait; I don’t wanna do this anymore.” God’s kingdom needs commitment. If people are gonna act in faith, and the Holy Spirit’s gonna empower us to do miracles, we’d better darned well follow through.

The rest of the time, Jesus’s rebukes again weren’t against doubt, but unbelief.

Mark 9.19-24 KWL
19 Jesus replied to his students, “You untrustworthy youngsters.
How long am I gonna be with you?—how long must I cover for you? Bring the boy to me.”
They brought him to Jesus. The spirit saw Jesus and immediately pitched a fit.
Falling on the ground, the boy rolled and foamed.
21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has this been going on?”
The father said, “Since he was a little boy.
22 Many times it throws him into fire and into water, to destroy him.
But if you’re able, help us! Have compassion on us!”
23 Jesus told him, “If you’re able. Those who believe in God, can do anything.”
24 The father of the little boy immediately shouted, “I believe!… Help me through my unbelief.”

When people get desperate, they’re not gonna cling to their unbelief. They’re willing to try anything. Including stuff they don’t really believe in at all. That was the deal with this guy and his demonized son: The evil spirit was mimicking epilepsy, which is why too many interpreters assume this was epilepsy. But the father realized it was an evil spirit, ’cause an epileptic seizure doesn’t intentionally throw its sufferer into fire or water. He realized there was some malevolence behind his boy’s condition. And since the pagan “physicians” (really, witch-doctors) were not only no help, but likely put these critters into his son, it was time to try the exorcist. First Jesus’s students—who, to Jesus’s great annoyance, weren’t up to the task, even though he’d trained them. Then Jesus himself, who could totally do it—but he wanted the father to act, not in desperation, but belief. Same as he expects of anyone who prays to him: Do it in faith!

But if we have our doubts? He can work with that. ’Cause when the father asked for Jesus to help him through his unbelief, Jesus did, and cured his kid.

Mark 9.25-29 KWL
25 Jesus, seeing the crowd gather rapidly, rebuked the unclean spirit,
telling it, “I command you speechless, mute spirit: Get out of him, and never enter him again.”
26 Shouting and tearing him up, it came out. The boy looked dead, so many people said, “He died.”
27 Jesus gripped the boy’s hand, lifted him, and stood him up.
28 Entering the house, when they were by themselves, the students asked him this: “Why weren’t we able to throw it out?”
29 Jesus told them, “That species can’t be thrown out by anything but prayer.”

In other words you can’t throw it out. Only God can. So don’t presume you have the power to drive out every evil spirit you come across, just because you’re God’s kid. Always pray for help. You might need it. But I digress.

Doubting fellow Christians.

Jesus is infallible. Our fellow Christians aren’t. That’s why we’re actually instructed to doubt them. Test them, make sure what they tell us is consistent with good theology. It’s gotta jibe with the scriptures, with what other Christians teach, with common sense, and with our previous God-experiences. We don’t just blindly follow one another. (Not even me. I could be wrong too, of course.)

Problem is, we Christians are way too likely to unquestioningly accept the things our favorite preachers tell us. We’re more apt to listen to them than even the Holy Spirit! The Spirit may tell a man, “Help the needy,” but his pastor’ll tell him, “God helps those who help themselves.” The pastor is quoting Benjamin Franklin, not bible. But to the man, karma sounds way more fair to him than grace. So he follows his pastor, not the Spirit.

Even the best of us get suckered into following our prejudices instead of God. Likely you’ve heard this story before: God sent a prophet, whom the story calls “God’s Man,” to condemn King Jeroboam ben Nebat for idolatry. En-route home, God’s Man encountered an older prophet who, for whatever reason, led him astray.

1 Kings 13.14-22 KWL
14 He rode after God’s Man and found him sitting beneath an oak.
He said, “Are you God’s Man who came from Judah?” God’s Man said, “I am.”
15 The prophet said, “Go with me to the house, and eat bread.”
16 God’s Man told him, “I won’t go with you or come with you.
I won’t eat bread, won’t drink water in this place.
17 The message to me, the LORD’s word, is ‘Don’t eat bread, don’t drink water there.
Don’t return the way you came.’ ”
18 The prophet told God’s Man, “But I’m a prophet like you!
An angel spoke the LORD’s word to me, saying, ‘Bring him back to your house.
He will eat bread; he will drink water.’ ” But he lied.
19 God’s Man returned with the prophet, and ate bread and drank water at his house.
20 As they sat at table, the LORD’s word came to the prophet who’d brought God’s Man back.
21 He called out to God’s Man who came from Judah, saying: “The LORD says this:
‘You rebelled against the LORD’s mouth and didn’t keep the command your LORD God commanded.
22 You returned, ate bread, and drank water
in a place where I told you not to eat bread and drink water.
So your corpse won’t come to your fathers’ tomb.’ ”

Very soon after, a lion killed God’s Man, and the older prophet buried him in his own tomb, thus fulfilling this prophecy.

Yeah, it sounds harsh. But we don’t know all the circumstances behind God’s odd instructions to God’s Man: Maybe they were meant to keep him from getting killed by lions! In any case, the main point is God’s Man didn’t doubt. He heard, “I’m a prophet too,” and his discernment went right out the window. He accepted the lie because he wanted to fill his stomach, and didn’t care God had instructed otherwise. Any loophole would do.

We pull the same stunt all the time. Plenty of Christians accept everything our preachers tell us, without a doubt, without a concern, without question, because our preachers are telling us just what we wanna hear. We aren’t engaging in the sort of healthy skepticism God wants of us when he told us to test prophets and teachers.

1 John 4.1 KWL
Beloved, don’t trust every spirit, but put the spirits to the test to see if they’re from God,
because many fake prophets have been coming out of the universe.
1 Thessalonians 5.19-22 KWL
19 Don’t quiet the Spirit: 20 Don’t dismiss prophecy, 21 and put everything to the test.
Hold tight to what’s good. 22 Stay far away from what seems bad.

We’re expected to entertain a certain degree of healthy skepticism—healthy in the sense that the goal isn’t to reject everything, but test everything. Keep what’s good, shun what’s bad. We expect prophecies, moves of the Spirit, and solid teaching. But at the same time we’re meant to confirm prophecies, test spirits, double-check our teachers, and compare what we’ve heard to the scriptures, to Christians, and to reason. God isn’t just okay with this: He ordered this.

A fake prophet, false teacher, and iffy Christian will call it unbelief, and call our devotion into question. That’s their tactic, meant to frighten us into leaving them alone. Works too well, too often. Way too many Christians never admit our doubts, never publicly ask questions, keep our mouths shut, and meekly allow ourselves to be led astray. Every legalistic church, every child-molesting pastor, every fool who teaches something stupid and ridiculous and embarrasses Christianity with it, has benefited by the fact Christians refuse to doubt. We refuse to engage our brains, and apply any critical thinking. It makes us look like idiots. But whenever we refuse to ask questions, we are idiots.

Every Christian should doubt. Make sure it’s of God, and once you find out it’s him, follow him to the ends of the earth. But first we gotta reasonably confirm it’s him. So don’t slack on that.

May 17, 2016

Thomas, Revisited

Today we’re paying a return visit to the blog, Finding the Holy in the Mundane by Rachel Stephenson.  Click the title below to read at source or leave a comment for the author.

Changed and Unchanged By Doubt

But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”

John 20:25 (MSG)

The first time I was in the Operating Room (OR) during nursing school I got sick. It was not from being in the OR. It was coincidental. I had some questionable food the night before. I was in the OR, ready to see the surgery and I started getting hot. I must have looked funny since the circulating nurse looked at me and asked me what was wrong. I told her I felt hot. That nurse whisked away from the operating suite before I could say another word.

Feeling better, a few days later I had another opportunity to re-visit the OR.   It was then I found my previous visit did not go unnoticed. My welcome the second day was, “Oh, you’re the one who got sick the other day.” One moment of claustrophobic hotness and I had a reputation, “the sick one.”

I can identify with Thomas. You know him, Doubting Thomas. One moment of unbelief and this poor disciple ends up with the name that is synonymous with unbelief—Doubting Thomas.

It’s fascinating to see Thomas in another setting. Jesus, informed of His friend Lazarus’ death, decides to make the trip to Bethany. Thomas is the one who rallies the rest of the disciples and seems willing to face the inevitable along with Christ.

That’s when Thomas, the one called the Twin, said to his companions,

“Come along. We might as well die with him.” John 11:16 (MSG)

Do you see Thomas in a little different light? Realizing a trip back to Judea might mean trouble for Jesus, it’s Thomas who is willing to follow Christ to death. At that moment, that is.

After Jesus’ arrest, all the disciples, except John, deserted Jesus. I doubt they went far. Out of fear, they hid. It’s likely, from a distance, they watched Jesus on the cross. If Thomas didn’t see Jesus die, some of his comrades did. Jesus was dead. There was no doubt. Thomas, the pragmatist, didn’t understand this talk of seeing Jesus alive.   Here is John’s record of the fateful moment.

But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.” But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then He focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.” Thomas said, “My Master! My God!” Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” John 20:24-29 (MSG)

This is a tender moment between Jesus and Thomas. Jesus knew what Thomas said. Jesus made Thomas’ ultimatum the invitation. Instead of rebuke, Jesus invites Thomas to do the thing he said it would take to convince him Jesus was alive. The focus of Jesus’ attention was Thomas, not his doubting, not his weakness, not his fear.

Jesus was unchanged by Thomas’ doubt. Thomas was changed by Jesus’ grace.

Do you doubt? Everyone has in a moment of weakness, anger, uncertainty, selfishness or pride. In all of that, Jesus remains unchanged. The invitation remains unchanged. Jesus is bigger than your doubt. He’s man enough to take your unbelief and with love mold it into faith; the kind of faith that cries, “Master!”

Father, as I face many uncertain situations, remind me of Your unchanging love and grace. Help my unbelief. Open my eyes to the truth in Your Word. Open my heart to the depths of Your grace. Change me, Father, change my unbelieving heart.

October 31, 2011

Abiding Eradicates Doubt

Yesterday we looked at spiritual complacency.  Another similar malady that manifests itself in the life of the believer is doubt.  Doug Wolter looks at this at his blog, So That Others May Know, in a short piece entitled, The Mystery of Abiding.

Why do I doubt God? Why do I expect so little from him? After all, if I really am his child, if I really do have access to his throne, if I really have his Son and his Spirit interceding for me, then why am I not asking more of God and believing he will answer? Jesus, you say, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Really? Are you serious? Do you really want me to ask and believe with that kind of boldness, with that kind of heart, expecting you will answer? 

I guess that’s where it starts – with my heart being united with your heart and my words in prayer sounding strangely familiar with your words in scripture. Is that what abiding is all about? When you and me are so intimately connected, so unified as one, that the process is as natural and effortless as a branch bearing fruit?

In the end, it’s a mystery–one that I can’t analyze and figure out, but only experience. Abiding, praying, and seeing the Holy Spirit move in my life is something I cannot comprehend but what I long for more and more for your glory and my good. So teach me to remain in you. Cause me to slow down. Remind me that you are a real Person that I am joined to. And set me free to believe you for great things.

~Doug Wolter

May 26, 2011

God Decides Who Gets Promoted

Many years ago I attended a seminar for Christian musicians on the subject of promotion, taught by veteran CCM artist Scott Wesley Brown.  He began with, “Did you know promotion is mentioned in the Bible?”  Then he proceded to read Psalm 75:6,7 in the KJV:

 6For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south.

 7But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.

A few years later I sat in a camp staff training seminar where the speaker said,

“If you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”

That little phrase is used to cover a wide range of applications, but certainly we’ve all met people who have “achieved” but only through the guidance and support of many others, and certainly some by the grace of God Himself.  (Though the analogy breaks down quickly… What does the turtle do next?)

We often have the tendency to look at someone who has — for the time being — earned the attention and accolades of a large number of people, and say, “Why him?”  Perhaps we compare that person’s talents to our own and say, “Why her?”

Psalm 75 seems to basically be saying that no one advances but that God has allowed it. 

This is certainly reinforced by the appearance of Jesus before Pilate in John 19 (NIV). 

10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”  11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above…

But the Psalm passage has an entirely different spin in the NLT:

 6 For no one on earth—from east or west,
      or even from the wilderness—
      should raise a defiant fist.
 7 It is God alone who judges;
      he decides who will rise and who will fall.

And also in The Message:

  He’s the One from east to west;
      from desert to mountains, he’s the One.

  God rules: he brings this one down to his knees,
      pulls that one up on her feet.

The NASB is closer to the King James:

 6 For not from the east, nor from the west,
Nor from the desert comes exaltation;
7 But God is the Judge;
He puts down one and exalts another.

So I’m not sure why the translations seem to differ in emphasis in verse six, though they both resolve the same way in verse seven.  Perhaps the key is found in the verse which precedes six and seven, verse five, best represented by the NIV:

Do not lift your horns against heaven;
   do not speak so defiantly.’”

It’s possible that when I question God’s decision to use someone who I might not have chosen, I am in fact speaking defiantly. Or in arrogance (NLT).  Perhaps questioning why him or her is a road I should not want to go down.  Have you ever questioned why God allows a certain author’s books to sell so well; a certain pastor to become so well used; a certain individual in your church to gain such a key position of leadership?  That might be speaking defiantly.

Why am I writing this? 

This weekend I watched an interview with an individual about whom I might have, at one time awhile back, asked the “Why him?” question.  But as I watched him taking live questions I realized four things were present: (a) natural intellectual gifts; (b) natural speaking gifts; (c) an obvious command of scripture or what we sometimes call Bible knowledge; and (d) an understanding of the ways of God, which is different from the third point.  While I never had major questions, some of my minor misgivings were alleviated.

God knows what He’s doing.  He is the judge.  He promotes some and holds back others.  

But he loves us all equally, and has a “promotion” in some other department just waiting for you.

~Paul Wilkinson