Some Doubted

I was reading the other day from Matthew 28, after Jesus’ resurrection:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

Some doubted.

I love how bluntly that is stated. One might think that having been an eye witness to Jesus’ resurrection would be enough to dispel doubt. Here are Jesus’ closest friends. They travelled with Him for three years. They witnessed His miracles. They performed miracles themselves under His direction. At the end, they saw Him captured and put to death; some of them saw where His body was laid in the tomb. And now they were physically in the presence of His living, post-resurrection being. They could see him. But some still doubted.

Even in the very presence of the newly resurrected Jesus, some doubted. If that is true for some of Jesus’ closest friends, then how do we stand against doubt?

We might think, God if you could just…. then that would be enough. But I see Jesus shaking His head the same way I see Him shaking his head at Philip who said, “Show us the Father, and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). Evidence can support faith, but it cannot eliminate doubt. And that, my friends, is where this gets interesting. Read carefully:

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:7).

If I knew Greek I’d do a word study on this line, but even across several English translations the same picture emerges: The eleven disciples climbed the hill. They saw Jesus, and they worshiped Him.

It doesn’t say that some of them worshiped and some of them doubted. It says “they worshiped him.” Only then does it add that some doubted.

Doubt did not preclude worship.

Think about that. We can worship, even when we doubt.

The passage continues with Jesus coming and speaking to them. Not to “some of them.” Not to the ones who did not doubt, but to “them.” Inclusive.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” He instructed them.

All of them. Even those who doubted.

Satan would love for us to think that doubt is a stumbling block. He wants doubt to reduce our worship, sever our Christian relationships, and prevent us from telling others about God. But I do not see doubt as a stumbling block when I read God’s word. Instead, I see Jesus, coming to me, His follower who doubts. And He is saying: Come, worship me. Then go, tell others about me.

This is what I find so amazing about these simple lines:

Yes, some doubted.

So what?

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-19).

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Doubting Thomas Sunday

The Sunday after Easter is Doubting Thomas Sunday.

It’s true across multiple denominations, and it’s true whether you are on a one year lectionary or a three year lectionary. You may have heard Thomas’ story so many times you think you’ve heard it all.

Come with me anyway.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord (John 20:19-20).

All of the disciples that is, except for Thomas.

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20: 24).

Juxtapose this story with one that occurred earlier in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had just completed several miraculous healings and a second miraculous feeding – this time of 4,000 people with just 7 loaves of bread and a few small fish. But these miracles weren’t enough of a sign. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in His spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side (Mark 8:11-13).

Well, then. If that is Jesus’ response to a demand for a sign, what do you think He does with Thomas? Thomas, one of his twelve closest friends who had travelled with Him for three years and personally witnessed countless miracles – what does Jesus do with him?

One might expect a little exasperation. One might expect Jesus to say, “If you don’t believe in me now, after all you’ve witnessed, then you’re hopeless! I’ve given you all the evidence you need!”

But Jesus doesn’t respond that way, does He?

Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:26-27).

Here we have two stories, both with people demanding further proof from Jesus, and yet two very different responses from Jesus. What was the difference?

The difference, I believe, is that Jesus knew the asker’s heart. Numerous times throughout the New Testament we read how the Pharisees asked Jesus things to test Him, to trap Him, or to ridicule Him. They did not come to Jesus with sincere doubt; they came to Jesus with self-righteousness and hidden agendas. One more sign would not bring them any closer to God.

Jesus walked away.

But to those who sincerely asked – for those who wanted to believe but struggled – Jesus had a very different response.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

We know what happened next. Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)

Did Thomas ever doubt again? I don’t know. Based on my own experiences, I would say probably. But based on my own experiences, I would also say that wrestling with those moments of doubt ultimately led him (again and again) to a deeper exclamation of faith.

Doubt, while seemingly so opposite of faith, is often a catalyst that draws us closer to God. Doubt is not something to shy away from. It is something to grip with two hands and shake. It is something to hold out to God and say, “Help!”

Sometimes in order to be genuine in our faith, we must first be genuine in our doubt. And that, to me, is the lesson from Doubting Thomas Sunday.

Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

Doubt

Sometimes I doubt it all very much.

If Christianity were real, why don’t we act more like Christians?  If there is only one faith, why are there so many factions?  If there is only one truth, why aren’t even the most fundamentals agreed upon?

Yet even as I lash out in angry questions, an irony is not lost on me.

“Sometimes it seems like a bunch of hogwash!” I exclaim.  “Did we just make this all up?  Are you just a figment of our imagination?”

And then I realize who it is I am yelling at.

God.

And I have to pause when I realize I am yelling at the very thing which I am doubting even exists.

Even in my doubts, God is there.  He is both the source and the recipient of my flashing doubts.  In my questions, in my uncertainty, in my anger:  I am still talking to God.  It is as David said: Where can I go to be away from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast  (Psalm 139:7-11).

Even my doubts cannot separate me from God.  Even when I do not believe in Him, I am talking to Him, yelling at Him, questioning Him.  I cannot ever leave His presence.  He will not let me.  “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” God declared to Joshua (Joshua 1:5b).  “I am with you always,” Jesus said, “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).  “I am convinced,” Paul declared, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Nothing, not even my doubts, can separate me from God.  I am, as David said, “hemmed in.”

You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain (Psalm 139:5-6).

God has laid His hand upon me, and I am bound to Him forever.  Indeed, such knowledge is too wonderful for me to really comprehend.  Even in my doubts, God is there.  I can yell at Him, because He is there.  I can question Him, because He is there.  I can doubt Him, because He is there.

Thanks be to God.

Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

Non-Newtonian Fluids

I had a friend recently introduce me to the wonderful world of non-newtonian fluids.  (Stick with me here; this is cool.)

Non-newtonian fluids are fluids that change their properties when presented with different forces.  One classic example is a mixture of corn starch and water.  Try this at home: mix 2 cups of corn starch in 2 cups of water in a small bowl.  (Disclaimer: I have not actually tried this at home myself, but I have experienced the end result when someone else did the mixing.  If you try this, comment below and let me know how it goes.)

Now the fun part!  If you are not playing along at home, picture a bowl with a goopy tan mixture.  Take your hand and slowly sink it into the bowl.  Your fingers will slide through the fluid like sinking into soupy mud.  Nothing unusual about that.  But now, remove your hand.  This time, put your hand quickly into the bowl with some gusto.  Your finger tips will break through the surface and – wham!  It’s like you hit a rock.  Keep tapping away quickly, and your fingers move across what feels like a solid layer just beneath the surface.  Hesitate for just a few seconds and you will feel your fingers sliding once more into soupy mud.  (Now you want to try this at home, don’t you?)

This crazy phenomenon is a property of non-newtonian fluids.  This is what scientists or engineers mean when they say these fluids behave differently under different pressures or under different forces.  In the case of corn starch and water, greater pressure makes it feel more like a solid, while lighter pressure makes it feel more like a liquid.  As long as you move quickly and with enough force, you will not sink.  If you had a small swimming pool and enough corn starch, you could make a non-newtonian fluid that you could literally run across. 

Yes, that’s right.  You could literally run across a non-newtonian fluid!  You, too, could walk on water (or at least water and cornstarch).  But here’s the catch.  It only works if you go quickly and with gusto.  Stop moving, and you sink to the bottom.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, I suppose.  After all, Peter and Jesus already demonstrated this for us (Matthew 14:22-33).  Only for them, it wasn’t in a giant swimming pool of corn starch and water; it was in the stormy Sea of Galilee.  (Which, just for the record, is NOT a non-newtonian fluid.)

After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus sent his disciples on ahead of him in a boat.  “During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake… “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”  “Come,” He said.  Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus (Matthew 14:25,28-29).  Just like skipping quickly across a pool of non-newtonian fluids!  I see such purpose in Peter’s strides.  Despite the wind and the waves and the late hour and the exhaustion of the previous day, Peter is moving without hesitation.  Jesus called and Peter went… walking across the water.

But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30).  Why is it Peter could be walking across the water just fine one minute, and sinking the next?  Well, just like that bowl of non-newtonian fluids, as soon as Peter hesitated, he began to sink. 

There are certainly times in life when it is wise to proceed with caution.  But there are far more often times when God is calling and it is our job to simply go.  We are not supposed to stop and measure the wind or ponder the waves.  We are not supposed to identify just how that liquid is going to be turned into a solid.  When Jesus calls, we need to climb out of the boat and go with gusto.  Because it is only when we are moving forward that the fluid will remain solid beneath our feet.   (And that’s something worth trying at home, too.) 

“Come,” He said.  Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus (Matthew 14:29). 

I Am

Sometimes I have trouble believing in God.

It can happen suddenly, in one of those horrendous moments that leave me questioning: if God is in control of everything, then why did he let this happen?  If he is a loving and personal God, then how could he let this happen? 

But more often than not, for me, unbelief doesn’t come that way.  It doesn’t come to the front door and stand and fight like a man; it comes like a thief.  It robs me: slowly, precisely, and carefully.  It plants the seed of doubt and nurtures it.  It spreads, like a crack in the sidewalk that freezes and thaws and spreads imperceptibly wider.  Then I suddenly look up and see only a dark and frozen expanse.  And wonder: is God really there?

If I step back and look at these moments in my life, it comes as no surprise that they most often follow on the heels of those times when I have slipped in my personal time with God and in my fellowship with other believers.  Disbelief is strongest when I’ve worked through a Sunday service, collapsed into bed after a one-sentence prayer, or gone too long without pondering God’s Word.  Jesus tells us that where two or more are gathered in His name, He is there among us (Matthew 18:20).  But if I do not gather to see Him, I begin to doubt He is there. 

I read once that if you don’t feel as close to God as you once were, make no mistake about which one of you moved.  I am living proof of that.  Jesus has told us He will be with us always – always! – even unto the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  But it is not enough for Him to simply be there.  I have to look for Him.  I have to talk to Him.  As with any of my human relationships, my relationship with God will only grow stronger if we spend time together.

Sometimes there are dry spells where I just don’t feel God’s presence.  I think then of Madeleine L’Engle who wrote: “Love is not an emotion; it is a policy.”  God’s loving presence is not something we have to feel to believe.  And just because I do not feel his presence, does not mean He isn’t there.  Despite what some “build-your-own-reality” proponents may teach, God does not need me to believe in Him in order for Him to exist.  At the end of the day, either the God of the Bible exists, or He does not.  Nothing I can do or say will change this.  If there is not a God, I cannot create Him.  And if there is a God, I cannot uncreate Him.

This fact is strangely liberating to me.  Regardless of the answer, I find it comforting just knowing that at life’s core there is this element of absolute truth.  Relativism is so popular in our culture that I begin at times to actually believe that truth is relative, that religious ideas are cultural and personal but never factual, that good and evil are “all relative.”  But no matter how confused and doubt-driven my thoughts become, when I peel them back and look underneath, I always come back to this unwavering fact: Either God exists, or He does not.  My beliefs will impact my relationship with God, but they can never impact the existence of God.  To think otherwise is to give myself some power on the level of God himself, something the devil loves to lure us toward. “You shall be as Gods,” He told Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:5).  “God is only in your imagination,” he tells us today.  “You can create or destroy Him at will.”

But of course, we can’t really.  Because either God exists, or He does not.  All we can do is ask: “God, do you exist?”  And either there will be no answer…

Or there will be Someone who says: “I AM.”  (Listen.)

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’… This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation” (Exodus 3:14-15).  

Obedience

I recently volunteered at a canine obedience trial.  Some dogs and handlers make it look so easy!  They move around the ring at the judge’s command, the dog’s head never moving more than an inch from the handler’s side.  And yet, the biggest test of obedience often comes not during the intricate heelwork, but during a seemingly simple part of the trial.  For three minutes, all the dog has to do is sit… while the handlers walk out of the ring and out of sight. 

As the handlers leave the ring, some dogs sit stoically without a glance to the left or right (impressive!).  But, there are always those dogs whose expressions grow concerned.  You can almost see the little thought bubbles forming above their heads.  “Did she tell me to stay?  I wonder if she really meant that?  She’s not even looking!  Surely it’s okay if I just lie down?”  They shift, they crane their heads around to see the point where their handler went out of sight, and sometimes, they slide down into a more comfortable position…and are disqualified.

How like these dogs we are when it comes to doing our Handler’s bidding!  Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), we listen to that little voice that begins to question.  “He didn’t really say that, did He?” Did God really say you must not eat fruit from any tree in the garden?

The question is followed shortly by reassessment.  Just like the thought bubble forming above those canine’s heads, we begin to think that what God said doesn’t really jive with what we’re seeing.  And based on what we’re seeing, we begin to put words in God’s mouth.  What He probably really meant was…  When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye… 

Which leads us to the action.  We decide to test it ourselves, just like those pups going from a sit into a down. That isn’t being willfully disobedient, is it?  She took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 

But no matter how we reason, no matter how much we think God may not be watching, disobedience has a consequence: “Disqualified!”  So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

It is disappointing for handlers to return to the ring and see their dogs in the wrong position.  No matter how perfectly they had executed all the other exercises, this one test of obedience and endurance is enough to send them out of the ring empty handed.  How much greater disappointment must our God feel in us!  Dog and handler lose a ribbon and points toward a title, but we lose fellowship with our God.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25).

God calls us to obedience to his Word and to his command.  The more we question and the more we begin to rely on our own judgment to make a decision, the more we will slide down into a more comfortable position…and be disqualified. Thanks be to God we have a Savior who has invited us back into the ring!  It is through our faith in Christ that God looks not upon our disqualifications, but upon Christ’s qualifications.  We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), but by staying an inch away from His side, we can execute even the most intricate patterns of obedience.  And during those times when we look but cannot seem to see Him, it is through adherence to His commands that we will remain in the exact right place.

Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).

Joy of Giving

One night as I was reading my Bible – I don’t recall exactly what passage, but it was one that referenced our future in heaven when we would spend our time singing praises at the throne of God – I had one of those all-American, in-the-flesh, I-can’t-believe-I just-thought-that thoughts.  I thought: what’s in it for me? 

Now I know the answer to that.  Surely the alternative to heaven is an option I don’t care to ponder.  But, truth be told, the image of sitting around all day singing praises sounded… boring.

I didn’t say the thought was right or good.  Just that I had this thought – and once it was out there, God surely heard it.  It was too late to take it back.  I turned out the light and went to sleep and didn’t think about it again.  But our God sees and hears and does not forget.

Fortunately, we have a God who can take our doubts, our fears, our angers, and all of our other I-can’t-believe-I-just-thought-that thoughts.  The Bible says God knows our hearts and minds; He knows our words before they are even on our lips (Psalm 139:4).  And I have sometimes found that when I ask a sincere question, even one I feel like I shouldn’t be asking in the first place, God has some pretty remarkable ways of answering.

I heard a sermon once where the minister said he ran from anyone who claimed to have been directly spoken to by God.  “God spoke directly to his people in the days of the prophets,” he said, “but if you want to know what God is saying to you today, read your Bible.  That is God’s Word.  That is God speaking directly to you.”  I think his point is well-taken: we need to be wary of divine claims and to test them against the words of the Bible.  But I also believe the Holy Spirit sometimes uses the circumstances of our lives to goad us towards a deeper understanding of God’s Word.  Sometimes the events around us suddenly click in a new way with what God has been telling us all along.  This, I believe, was one of those times.

A couple weeks later I was driving home after a dinner out with friends.  My mind was wandering its own tangential course when it stumbled upon a gift idea for one particular friend.  It was one of those perfectly personal, practical, inside-joke kind of gifts that made me giddy just thinking about it.  Have you ever had one of those gifts?  Something you couldn’t wait to give because it was just so perfect? 

Driving alone in my car I actually laughed out loud.  She would love it.  I could picture her face… and out of nowhere I suddenly thought: this is a little bit what it must be like to give the gift of praise to the throne of God.  This joy is what’s in it for me.  Not that I feel joy because I give, but because of the joy, I cannot wait to give.  How much more will this be true when I am surrounded by the joy of being in God’s presence!

I was thunderstruck.  I drove home in stunned silence.  I had completely forgotten my earlier thoughts.  God had not.

As we approach the Christmas season and the celebration of the day when God gave us the greatest gift by delivering his Son into this world, I am reminded again of that night.  Too often gift giving bears only a token semblance to something deeper.  But there are still special moments, when we stumble upon that perfect gift, when we are reminded of the true joy of giving.  And there are moments when we receive a foretaste of the joy that will surely beset us when we eternally sing praises to our amazing God.  During this holy season, may we experience the joy of God’s gift to us, but also the joy of giving back to Him.

 Freely you have received; freely give (Matthew 10:8).