[The content of this post was written for the 2019 Lenten devotion for my alma mater, Wesley Theological Seminary. It’s inspired by Psalm 13. And due to the writing parameters for this publication, it is purposefully and uncharacteristically short. Enjoy!]
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
In the world of religion and faith, doubt has traditionally been an unwelcome guest. After all, we typically equate faith with unwavering certainty in an apostolic orthodoxy that stands the test of time. People of faith tend to find a great deal of security in these kinds of immovable absolutes.
Yet doubt, like a constant shadow, never seems to disappear. Etymologically, the word doubt derives from the Latin duo, as in the presence of two things. Doubt is the uncertainty and fear we experience when vacillating between oppositional notions. The author of Psalm 13 was surely at this critical juncture between belief and unbelief, hope and despair, a God who self-reveals and hides, remembers and forgets. How do we navigate this terrible tension?
In the midst of our doubt stands the crucified and risen Jesus. He embodies the paradox of defeat and triumph, the failure of sin and the victory of righteousness, divine perfection and human frailty, loving embrace and hate-filled rejection, all mysteriously conjoined within the balance of his life and death. God has opened the door for the disparate tensions of our lives to find their rest in Jesus, for “…in him, all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
In Christ we find an unconditionally safe, understanding place to wrestle through our doubts and inconsistencies. Eventually, we emerge from the struggle absolutely affirmed by the love and blessing of God, in deeper, far more profound ways. Thus the Crucified One transforms our gravest doubts into lasting wisdom.
After my last post wrestling with my doubt over how Jesus Christ truly does reign over this seemingly chaotic mess of a planet, the time came on Sunday morning to share my message explaining the reign of Christ. Yes, I got through the sermon, both times. I have to tell you, though, some of that was easy, but most of it was very difficult.
On the one hand, I love the ancient biblical promises that point to the reign of God and the great “day of the Lord.” I’m firmly convinced that these promises are realized in Jesus of Nazareth. I can whoop and holler with the best of them about these things.
(No, I don’t whoop or holler, but you know what I mean. The passion is there, at least!)
But on the other hand, it was very difficult when it came time for me to talk about how the reign of Christ affects us now. I had no solid answer to give because I’m not so sure myself. I wasn’t about to put on a show and say things I wasn’t convinced were true.
So… I took a great risk. I went off script and publicly confessed my doubt. I shared with my church family that while I want to believe that the reign of Christ is in our midst and then show convincing evidences of it, I couldn’t. It got very quiet.
And then I looked around, and in most peoples’ faces I saw sighs of relief, not astonishment. I heard a few people quietly say, “I struggle with that, too.” The moment illustrated to all of us that doubt is not a plague to be avoided, that it’s okay to struggle with how our dearly held beliefs intersect the world around us. We can learn that seasons of doubt and wrestling solidify a deeper, more authentic faith, not detract from it.
Then something beautiful happened which I did not anticipate. As I was sharing my doubt, suddenly Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed came to mind. (Thank you, Holy Spirit!) This simple, pithy little parable tells about the mustard seed and how even though it is the smallest of garden seeds, it grows to become the greatest in the garden, so great in fact, that the birds of the air come to perch on its branches. Jesus was talking bout the kingdom of God, but might this also encompass and describe his reign, too?
I think this parable is somehow wrapped up in my quest, although I’m still not quite there yet. Those nagging “how” and “what” questions still abound and deserve further wrestling. But then again, this parable is an excellent starting point. If Jesus and his early followers were convinced that this is the method in which God’s kingdom takes root and form, then there must be something to it I still have yet to discern and see in my context and in our world.
Yet overall, as the title suggests, this is one pastor who didn’t get thrown under the bus for expressing my doubt. Not that I’ll be doing this every Sunday, but once in a while, honesty like this gives some much needed breathing room for questions, wrestling, and genuine growth. Spiritual maturity is never possible within the carefully fabricated, highly controlled world of shallow propositional certainty about everything.
P.S. Then again, even if I was temporarily thrown under the bus for my doubt, I shouldn’t really complain. The Apostle Thomas has had to perpetually live with “doubting” in front of his name for 2,000 years now! Poor Thomas… (Poor us, really!)
It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog… too long, in fact. But that’s life, at least for me. Other things take priority, or I find other avenues to write and connect with people. But for whatever reason– and I’m sure the Holy Spirit has had something to do with this– I have felt compelled to wrestle with something in the forum of this blog. Of course, that makes the wrestling public and thus open to scrutiny (by all 5 people who might read this!), but that’s okay. If I can’t be publicly honest about where I struggle, then am I being sincere with myself or with God?
Tomorrow, I’m preaching on the reign of Christ. This theme fits within the liturgical calendar on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before Advent begins and a new liturgical year begins. Mind you, I’m not married to the supposed preponderance of the liturgical calendar, but the theme of the reign of Jesus Christ is a good one. So why not share with my congregation the meaning and significance of this crucial theme in our theology?
Then it hit me like a loud thud, and the struggle began in earnest. It was doubt. Do I truly believe in the reign of Christ? Do I believe that at this very moment Christ reigns over all things? That old adage, “God is in control”… Do I honestly believe that, not just as a theological maxim but in my heart of hearts?
To be honest, I’ve been seriously questioning. That’s not to say that I doubt God’s existence or the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that I disbelieve the gracious power of God manifest in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And that’s not to say I disbelieve Christ’s return and hope of a new heavens and earth. Those convictions run deep within my being.
Right now, I’m struggling with how these realities play themselves out in the here and now, not just on a personal level, but on a systemic, macro, global level. Sometimes I even wonder how much of the reign of Christ is active within me, especially when I stand back and notice how out of control and chaotic my life can be. The world and my life seem more like a whirling dervish than an orderly kingdom in which Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, reigns.
At this point I can anticipate two distinctly different responses.
One response, the typical Christian response, will begin to say, “Well, Chris, of course everything seems out of whack. Everything is going to get a whole lot worse before Jesus returns, and then he’ll set it all right again.” In other words, ignore the violence, disease, broken lives, families, communities, schools, and political systems, and the ever-growing economic disparities in the world. Just keep holding out for “the great by and by in the sky.” I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work for me– not one bit. For one, I cannot ignore suffering and evil, and I have a hard time believing that God does, either. How can God sit in heaven far away, awaiting the opportune time to jump in? Meanwhile his creation decays and dies. That’s not the God I trust and live for.
The second response, the atheist/agnostic response, will begin to say, “Chris, Chris, Chris… Why do you keep clinging to your god and your religious system of belief when the painfully obvious truth stares at you right in the face: there is no god, or even if there is, it’s not the kind of god you say there is. As for Jesus, hey, he was a great teacher and role model, but this stuff about his death and resurrection has been a Pollyanna-like religious projection at best.”
Really? I’m not going to argue with skeptics here because it’s fruitless. But when I consider the countless number of people who have laid down their lives over their conviction of a crucified and risen Lord who defeated the powers of sin and death, I know there is something going on there worth my shared conviction. When dispirited disciples of Jesus became passionate, energized apostles who preached about a Risen Lord and built the church all around the known world at a whirlwind pace, something other than a delusion had to propel them.
So I find myself somewhere between these two poles of shallow faith propositions and sheer disbelief, somewhere in the shadowy wilderness of doubt. I want to hold onto what I know to be true, but I struggle with that belief, too. I want to believe that Christ does reign and will reign forever, but I’m not sure how to apply that belief in a plausible way, considering the state of the world, the church, and even my own life.
One middle ground approach that has worked for me in the past is the “already but not yet” proposition. This proposition says that the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ is both an “already” but “not yet” reality. In other words, we see evidences and sparks of Christ’s reign and the presence of his kingdom, but so much more is yet to come. This description fits the ambiguities, but how is that anything worth getting excited about? How is that a highly motivational vision for us disciples of Jesus or for anyone else?
“Hey, come join this movement called the kingdom of God! It’s not a whole lot to talk about now, but just you wait…” Hmm… That’s not the tone the first apostles took in their preaching about Jesus Christ.
Nor is it the tone of someone like Mary in her stunningly beauitful Magnificat from Luke 1:46-55
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.
Mary says all this after she knows she bears the Messiah and when her cousin Elizabeth acknowledges it, too. Notice the verb tense Mary uses. It’s the past perfect tense. She’s talking about a reality that has already happened, the effects of which are still reverberating in the present. I interpret this to mean that God has already made due on all his covenantal promises to Israel, and by extension to the rest of world, within this embryonic Messiah in her womb. Nothing seems to have changed. (In fact, our world hasn’t seemed to improve at all over Mary’s ancient world.) Yet Mary has the audacity to speak as if all the wonderful things Messiah will accomplish have already happened.
I just wish I had the faith or the wisdom to be able to see and believe the way Mary did. She was no fool. She was not deluded. I hardly take her for having a shallow, “God said it– I believe it– That settles it” kind of faith. After all, she struggled before and after this moment in her life. Mary sees and knows something absolutely powerful that celebrates the reign of her unborn child. I pray I can see what she witnessed.
In the mean time, I’m taking the sage advice someone once gave John Wesley when he struggled with his own faith: “Preach faith ’til you have it.” That does not mean talking oneself into submission to a belief. But I do believe it means that in sharing the faith, it just might help me to see and understand a truth I can’t currently see. If I can get there, it will be better than shallow, propositional faith or disbelief.
It will be faith that has been tested and tried and seasoned into something worth staking my life upon.