Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dealing with Doubt

I am, by my nature, a doubter. Especially when it comes to God. I often find people are surprised when they hear that about me for the first time. As a teacher, writer and occasional preacher, I generally speak with lots of confidence and passion about God. But my confidence and my passion are fruits of many years of great struggles with doubt, almost to the place of despair, about who God is, about whether Jesus is real, and about whether Christianity is actually what it claims to be. Am I a Christian because this is something that is really true, or am I simply one because of the culture I grew up in and the people I now find myself around? Though it is far less often than it once was, those doubts will sometimes creep back up.

And I know that I am not alone. I'm convinced there are multitudes of people sitting in church pews every Sunday, serving in churches faithfully, giving of their time and their money, maybe even teaching the faith to others, who struggle with doubt from time to time. Far too often, our churches are not a safe place to have that struggle. And I do not think that is a good thing.

Let's be clear here first. There are two kinds of doubters. One is a sincere doubter who is truly searching for the truth. He is the kind of person who like the father of the child with an unclean spirit, proclaims to Jesus, "I believe! Help me with my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24) This kind of doubter wants the truth, he wants to believe, he simply needs some help. He is truly seeking. And Jesus has promised that all who seek will find.  The other kind of doubter is someone who does so because he is moving further away from certainty. Doubting is something he does, not because he wants the truth, but because he want the truth obscured. Deep down, he knows what is true. He simply doesn't want it be true, so he lives in his doubt, never desiring Spirit-filled confidence in the truth of God. He is the kind of man James calls "double minded, unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8)

There are times when I've been both of these. But for the sincere doubters, trying to come to term with the truths of the faith, the church ought to be a safe place to both express those doubts and try to work through them. I have a soft spot in my heart for sincere doubters, because I was once one of them. And overcoming this kind of doubt is no easy thing. It will require work.  But it will be worth it. No ounce of blood lost in sincere seeking will not be returned 10 times. The Spirit is often active in our tears and questions. So today, I want to give you one simple thing that I discovered, that did more to overcome my doubts than anything else. It is the one thing, again and again, I've come back to when I began to doubt. It's the one thing I can't figure out how to "explain away." And it has sustained me through every period of doubt I've ever had.

The question that haunted me, even during my darkest days, even when this whole Christianity thing seemed the least plausible, was simply this: "Why would the apostles die for a lie?" Here is what I mean. After Jesus' death on the cross, we find the disciples holed up in a room, hidden from the public, fearing for their own lives. They'd all abandoned Jesus. Peter had denied he even knew him. The only thing that even kept them together at this point was their common fear that the authorities might come for them next. At some point, they all probably figured they'd have to get back to fishing, or tax collecting, or whatever it was that they'd been doing before. But something happened that changed that completely. Within just a few weeks, they had come out of hiding and they were boldly proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah! And they all went to their graves standing by this truth. Every one of them died a martyr's death, according to tradition. But before they died, they set the world on fire with their preaching and their witness, laying a foundation that still stands today, some 2,000 years later.

And what exactly was it that they were proclaiming? It wasn't that Jesus had come bringing some new morality, or a new religious order. They staked their lives on one simple, undeniable fact. Jesus was killed, but he rose from the grave. As Peter told the crowd at Pentecost, "This Jesus . . . you killed . . . God raised him up." (Acts 2:23:24) The reason they were so certain was simply this; they had seen Jesus die on the Cross, and then three days later, they had seen him walking among them, alive and more well than any of them. They had seen him, they had touched him, they had talked to him. And they went to their graves believing, knowing that this Jesus is alive!

And since that was true, then it changed everything. If Jesus is risen, then everything must be different. If Jesus has defeated death, then he is who he says he is. He is God in the flesh.  And if he is who he says he is, then any demands he makes of us are just and right, and we must heed them.

The testimony of the early church seemed to hinge on this one important fact; that he is indeed risen. Paul said that if Christ is not raised, then his teaching and our faith is in vain, that we are to be "most pitied." (1 Corinthians 15)  If the resurrection is false, then nothing else about Christianity matters. We should just go on about our lives. We all have better things to do on Sundays. We can find morality other places. We can find friends and community other places. What we cannot find other places is a God who has put on flesh and become like us, and then defeated sin and death for us.

Once I embraced that Jesus is indeed alive, then everything else just kind of fell into place. It didn't mean all my questions were answered; it simply meant that I knew there must be an answer, if I kept seeking. I hope and pray that if you are like me, and you struggle with these kinds of doubts, that you will begin by answering this question: did Jesus rise from the grave? Is he alive? Answering that question correctly will go a long way toward building a faith that will stand the test of time.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reflections on Eleven Years of Marriage

Later this week, my wife and I will celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary. Being married to her has been one of the great joys of my life. We are happier and more committed to one another today than we have ever been. Being her husband is probably the supreme pleasure God has given me here on this earth. If the rest of our marriage is as happy as we are at this moment, then I will live a happy rest of my life indeed.

But I would be lying if I said every day was filled with joy and pleasure. Marriage is often equal parts joy and pain, ecstasy and misery. And sometimes, the pain outweighs the pleasure. When two people come together as husband and wife, conflict is bound to come, and we have had our share of it. I’m not saying we’ve had more than the average couple; I am simply saying that every marriage comes with its share of pain and heartache and sadness included. After more than a decade together, we have eyes wide open to see this.

I often tell people who are considering marriage that if they knew just how hard it would be, they would never even consider it, but if they go ahead and do it, and commit themselves completely to it, they will never regret it. I also tell them to imagine their future spouse doing the most hurtful possible thing to them. Whatever it is, it is likely that they will either do it, or do something equally as hurtful, before the marriage is over. We are sinful, broken people, and all our relationships will reflect that sinfulness and brokenness. The question is this; are you willing to forgive and forebear despite it? If the answer is yes, then you may very well be ready for marriage.

I say that for this reason. Our society, even among Christians, has a warped view of what marriage is really about. We primarily see marriage as a path to happiness. It’s a way to add to our quality of life, like a new car, or a puppy. And if marriage is something that is simply two people coming together for the sake of their mutual pleasures, then if and when the joy ends, so should the marriage. This is, I think, the primary reason why so many marriages end in divorce. People become disillusioned when their partner doesn’t meet their expectations, when their husband or wife doesn’t still make them happy. And they leave. Now, if this is all marriage is, then that is completely understandable. If marriage is mainly a path to self-fulfillment, then it makes perfect sense that we would run when we are no longer fulfilled. But it was meant to be much more than that.

Christians believe that marriage was created by God for a particular purpose, and that purpose was more than self-fulfillment. It’s more than even procreation, or building a society. The Bible speaks of marriage as a “divine mystery,” meant to say something about the very nature of God himself. Look at what Ephesians 5 has to say:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32 ESV)

Notice what Paul does right here. He takes us back to Genesis, when God describes what marriage is all about. And he tells us that, from its very beginning, marriage had a higher purpose than anything anyone could see. It was a mystery, now revealed through the coming of Jesus. So in some way, when a man and a woman get married, and become “one flesh,” they are reflecting the relationship that Jesus himself has with the church he has purchased with his blood. Since its creation, the main purpose of marriage has been to be a pointer to what the relationship between God and man, redeemed through the Gospel, looks like. Get this; the marriage between man and woman is the shadow. The marriage between Christ and his church is the real thing. Earthly marriage is a reflection. The marriage of Jesus and his bride is the actual thing being reflected. This is one reason our marriages are all messed up to one degree or another. Shadows are never perfect. Reflections are always flawed.

Now, this understanding of marriage is revolutionary. It’s not what we would expect. But once we realize it, it changes everything about how we must think about it. Because marriage is meant to mainly be a reflection of this relationship between Christ and his bride, then we must be very careful about how we treat it. Christians who treat marriage cavalierly give a warped impression to the world about who Jesus is, and what relationship with him looks like.

Now, this is not meant to beat up people who have been through divorce, whether it was for one of the few reason that the Bible allows or not. It’s mainly meant for those who are currently married, or considering marriage. If you claim to be a Christian, this is what you are getting into. It’s not mainly about “happily ever after,” at least not with this man or woman you have chosen to spend the rest of your earthly life with. It’s mainly about pointing the world to something much greater.

Because when Christians decide to make marriage something that it is not; namely, when we decide to abandon it for reasons other than those very strictly prescribed in the Bible, then we tell lies about the nature of the very God we claim to worship. Why do we not abandon our spouse, even if they don’t make us particularly happy? Because God doesn’t abandon us. Why do we forgive again and again, despite sometimes great hurt? Because that’s what God does. Why do we love someone who seems to be unlovable? Because that’s exactly what we have received from God through Jesus, and what we expect to receive for all eternity.

And here’s the thing; when we primarily see marriage as something created for purposes infinitely greater than our own happiness, we often find that we get happiness thrown in. When we see marriage as a pointer to who God is, and what the Gospel is all about, we begin to find a satisfaction and a peace and a happiness that we never expected. When we forgive our spouse, and choose to love them despite their sins and shortcomings, we often begin to discover that we actually do love them in reality.

Because even 50 years of a terrible marriage will not compare to an eternity of happiness with Jesus himself. This is what God has promised us. We will experience hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of years of inexpressible joy and pleasure in Heaven, as a collective bride of a perfect king, who sacrificed his life for us so that we could have that relationship. And when a billion years are up, there will be another billion, and another billion and another billion, for all of eternity. And we will never get tired of it. And it will never grow old. And the pleasures will be one on top of the other, on top of the other. And we will never be unsatisfied again.

For this reason, I’m looking forward to not just the next 11 or 25 or 50 years with my wife. I’m looking forward to the next thousand years. And the thousand after that. We will no longer be married to one another; we’ll be married to Him. But we’ll do it just like we do it now. Together. And it will be glorious. Forever.