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.

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