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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Help Me in My Unbelief


Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

 

 

Real people of faith have real doubts.

 

Maybe you’ve been led to believe that just isn’t so. 

 

All too often churches are assumed to be fortresses of unassailable certainty – places where spiritually mature people no longer have serious questions about God’s existence or the meaning of life or what happens after we die.

 

And if they do have such questions, they most certainty aren’t going to ask them out loud.

 

But the truth of the matter is that real disciples – real lifelong learners of Jesus – frequently have real doubts.  That’s simply part of what it means to surrender oneself to a God who cannot be seen, heard, or touched, and whose existence cannot be finally proved.

 

The real world, after all, can be a tragic place, giving us numerous reasons to wonder if God is really there.  The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was fiercely devoted to God, nevertheless suggested that the death of a single infant ought to call his existence into question.

 

At the very least, a church has to be a place where there are honest answers for honest questions.

 

Such an atmosphere requires humility.  And transparency.  And no more trotting out Dr. So-and-So’s list of the 10 reasons why our spiritual convictions are spot on while everybody else is totally out to lunch.

 

Many Christians have nevertheless come to see doubt as a terrifying monster.  Surely we must batten down the hatches of our faith, conceal our misgivings from others, and refuse to consider the possibility we might be wrong. 

 

If that’s so, it sure is strange that Mark chooses to include in his biography of Jesus a story in which spiritual uncertainty is openly acknowledged – in the midst of which a miracle happens anyways.    

 

In Mark 9:21-24, Jesus is confronted by a father whose son is afflicted by a demon.  “If you can do anything,” the father pleads with Jesus, “take pity on us and help us.” “‘If you can?’ replied Jesus.  Everything is possible for the one who believes.”

 

Exasperated, hopeful, and desperate all at once, the father offers what can only be described as a Doubter’s Prayer:  “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

 

In some quarters today, such wavering would be treated as a kind of unforgiveable sin.  After all, how can you describe yourself as a “person of faith” if you don’t have faith?  Outsiders might be tempted to agree with Archie Bunker’s caricature of religion from an episode of All in the Family: “Faith is believing what you know can’t possibly be true except that it’s in the Bible.” 

 

We need a healthier understanding of doubt – one that honors our freedom to ask questions, search for truth, and embrace our God-provided rationality.   

 

Doubt (as evidenced by its etymological cousin “double”) means to be in two minds – to be torn between two convictions.

 

Here we should note that some of the Bible’s most celebrated heroes – Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Job, Thomas, and John the Baptist – were world-class doubters.  Yet God never said to any of them, “Consider yourself disqualified from ministry.” 

 

God, in other words, can handle our doubts.   

 

Most importantly, doubt is not the opposite of faith.  The opposite of faith is stubborn repudiation – the stark refusal to believe.  Similarly, the opposite of bravery is not fear.  The opposite of bravery is cowardice.  Just as fear is “bravery under pressure” (something first responders know all too well, even as they dive into churning rivers or race into burning buildings), doubt is “faith under pressure.” 

 

No one who has spent much time in the fog of doubt, however, would say it’s a fun place to be. 

 

The issue is what happens next.  Are our doubts condemning us to run in place, or taking us somewhere?

 

The late pastor and author Timothy Keller felt certain that all doubts are not created equal.  “There is a kind of doubt that is the sign of a closed mind, and there is a kind of doubt that is the sign of an open mind.  Some doubt seeks answers, and some doubt is a defense against the possibility of answers.” 

 

Myriads of modern people have been assured that when it comes to miracles, it’s game over.  Miracles are impossible. 

 

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who is widely regarded as something like the patron saint of skepticism, asked which of two options is more likely – that the laws of nature have been suspended by a supernatural being, or that our sources of news about such events were mistaken or deceived?

 

Hume concluded that the evidence against a miracle will always exceed the evidence for a miracle.  Therefore miracles never happen.

 

Consult any contemporary discussion of miraculous events and you’re likely to read something on the order of, “David Hume demonstrated the impossibility of miracles.”  With all due respect for Hume’s brilliance and winsomeness, he did nothing of the sort.  It’s more accurate to say that Hume began with the presupposition that miracles cannot happen.  Therefore they do not happen.  This is known as  circular reasoning.

 

If you give miracles a zero percent chance of ever happening, you can be certain that you’ll never “see” one.  You’ll always be led to conclude that there must be some rational explanation, even if you don’t know what it is.

 

The experiences of Jesus and his first-century followers, however – not to mention events that are routinely reported on mission fields in the 21st century – provide plausible evidence for believing that God, far from being an absentee landlord, remains active in this world.

 

Is it reasonable to think that’s true?  Let’s put it this way:  If there is a Creator who can craft the Andromeda Galaxy and the intricacies of DNA replication, is it really a great leap to imagine that such a being might choose to eradicate a malignant tumor?

 

Doubt, in the meantime, is not our enemy.  Doubt may make us think more deeply.  And study more diligently.  And pray more fervently.  

 

Our doubts, in other words, may actually drive us into the arms of God.  Or at least into an understanding of God that is more consistent with his true character and identity.

 

Which brings us back to the desperate father who wonders, in his heart of hearts, if Jesus can actually do anything for his son.  Maybe he can.  Or maybe this is all a charade.  “Part of me believes in you, Jesus.  But another part of me just can’t see it.  Please help the part of me that isn’t there yet.”  

 

Whereupon Jesus heals his son.

 

Maybe today you’re living in what feels like a spiritual No Man’s Land – the swamp that lies between belief and unbelief, confidence and fear, hope and despair.

 

Here’s the wonderful news:

 

Jesus hears and answers prayers that are offered from spiritual No Man’s Land.  

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Would you like to explore previous reflections, and learn more about this ministry?  Check out glennsreflections.com.

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