Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Doubt & The Great Commission

As a child, I used to wonder at God's reasoning as to why He would send His only son when He did instead of in the modern age when there was television; after all, if Jesus had been around when there was TV we could all see and hear him. TV would have provided proof that he did exist, that he did die, and that he was resurrected. It would have been much easier for people to believe and there would be less room for doubts. At least that's what I thought then.

Then I read the passage of Matthew 28 known as the Great Commission. This is a passage and a subject that I have heard far too many times to count. Every church that I had attended covered the subject of Jesus sending our his disciples and us to the ends of the earth to make disciples (interesting that he says disciples and not converts). It also made me afraid that I would have to become a missionary to some third world country.  One thing I never heard and was glossed over every time I heard this subject preached or taught was found in verse 17. Verse 16 begins with, "Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain in which Jesus directed them." It is the next part that astounded me because I had never payed much attention to it, "And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted." There it was: some doubted.


The eleven are standing there with the resurrected Jesus and still "some doubted."

These were not just followers, of which Jesus had many. No, these were the men he chose and shared the last three years of his life with. These were men he taught and loved and shared meals with and poured himself into. These were the closest of the close to Christ. And still some of them doubted in that moment. We are not told what they doubted (Did they wonder if this really was Jesus? Was his resurrected body different from the one they were familiar with?)  just that they did.

When he chose them, he chose men who were deniers, betrayers, doubters, cowards, and prideful to be his very disciples. Now, before he's about to ascend into heaven, Christ is entrusting his Church and this commission to them, even to the doubters. Why?

Because Jesus loves and welcomes the doubters.

This is comforting to me, as I have often felt that my doubt and my questions were unwelcome in his Church. Too often they have been dismissed or dissuaded. My questions were either ignored, discounted, or treated like a nuisance. So I internalized them because I was made to feel they were shameful and wrong. It has taken me years to understand that this is not so. Questions and doubts are not in opposition to faith, but is a part of it, a way to expand our theology and understanding, and to realize that faith often requires us to do, as the poet Rilke wrote, and "live in the question."

Only the Pharisees were smug enough to believe they had all they answers. They were filled with their own rigid self-certainty of what the kingdom was - and then Christ showed up on the scene and questioned them in a way that contradicted their answers. And in their surety, they hated him.

So much of faith is knowing that it's the Divine Mystery and not the Divine Certainty.

Certainly one of the most honest prayers prayed in all of scripture is found in Mark 9:23, when the father of the boy with the evil spirit cries out in pure, raw honesty, "I believe, help me in my unbelief!" He in that moment admitted he didn't have it all together, that his faith was shaky at best and that, even in his uncertainty, he cried out in trust to Christ. Sometimes that is the only prayer I can pray.

The German philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote, "Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Sometimes I think it is my mission to being faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful." Many would balk at this suggestion, but he's correct. It is in the struggle that one gains strength. It is in the question that one learns to trust that, even if there is no answer, it is enough to have the question - or to formulate better questions. To not fear the question because God is big enough to handle any question we have (especially since most of them are already in scripture, as if God were saying, "I knew you were going to ask this. so here it is . . .")

Christ, by knowing that there were, even in that moment after resurrection, still doubted, still had questions, understood that such was the kingdom of heaven because they would be the ones who were not blindly accepting, but were digging deeper, looking harder, inspecting more closely, and pondering the question Pilate asked, "What is truth?" But they grasped what he did not. It is Truth and not truth they were after.

There amidst the charge to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,"  "baptizing them," and "teaching them" is doubt.  And Jesus doesn't tell those doubting, "But not you. You're not ready. You're not there yet." He does not dismiss or reject them. He includes them in this great commission. Why would he do this?

Because only those who know doubt can understand others who question, who struggle, who doubt.

Over the years, I have known many and have friends who are either atheists or agnostics. When they have told me this, they waited to see my reaction. Would I get upset or indignant or question them as human beings and how could they not believe and begin to spew my rhetoric or start an argument and begin citing scripture and theological concepts to counter their statement. But I didn't. I simply asked them to tell me how they came to their conclusion. I asked to hear their story. And I listened. Without judgment. Without waiting to add my two cents. Without interrupting or judging them as they told me. When they had shared their story, I thanked them for trusting me enough to share it. More than one asked, "Aren't you going to try and save me now?"

"No, I couldn't even if I wanted to. I couldn't even save myself."

They are often surprised during our conversations about my own doubts and questions. But you're a believer?

Emily Dickinson (Saint Emily to me) wrote, "We both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour which keeps believing nimble." And she's correct.

There are times when I read the Bible and, at some point, scratch my head, "Really?!!?" There are times I wonder: Am I believing because I'm afraid not to? Because I don't want to live with the reality that there is no God and there is no life after this one? If there is no God then what is my meaning and purpose? Was this all mere chance and accident?

But there are more times in my life when I know that there is a God because I can see Him working in my life (both during the good and bad times). I also know that my periods of doubt and struggle have made me realize that we cannot approach the Bible as an idol but that we have to let go of many of our preconceived notions of who we think God is and let Him shatter that so that we form a new understanding. God is bigger than even the Bible. I cannot return to the God and Christ of my childhood that was formed by stories and good intentions. The Trinity is grander, wilder, bigger and more inexplicable than anything any of us can imagine.

Divine Mystery reveals to us that what we think is impossible is possible (Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection). So often we begin in doubt but move to wonder. Wonder, not doubt, is the beginning of wisdom. I have begun to realize that I don't have to and, shouldn't have to, turn off my brain when I read the Bible. It is challenging in all of its contradictions and its metaphors because only through metaphor can man begin to speak of God or the kingdom (that's why Christ told parables using metaphors about what God and heaven were like).

Faith is a balancing act of belief and doubt. It is trusting when there are more questions than answers. It is admitting, "I don't understand, but I'm trusting in You despite that."

Eugene Peterson translated verse 17 as, "Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally" (The Message). And how much of doubt is that holding back? That fear of abandoning oneself totally to awe, worship and the risk that faith requires?

There, at the end of Matthew, is the most glorious promise, "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Christ is with those who believe and those who doubt because they are often one and the same. They are his Church. So I am thankful that Matthew records their doubts (possibly his own in that moment of self-revelation) because it means it's okay. It's a part of the process. It's welcomed and that Christ includes the doubters in his great commission and his Church. It means there is room for me.

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