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The Tyranny of ‘If’: Wistful Longings, Foundering Ships, and the Struggle to Believe

May 7, 2012

The Tyranny of ‘If’: Wistful Longings, Foundering Ships, and the Struggle to Believe

“’If you can do anything, do it. Have a heart and help us!’ Jesus said, ‘If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.’ No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, ‘Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!’”                                                                                     – Mark 9: 22-24 (MSG)

“Doubt is natural within faith. It comes because of our human weakness and frailty. Unbelief is the decision to live your life as if there is no God. It is a deliberate decision to reject Jesus Christ and all that he stands for. But doubt is something quite different. Doubt arises within the context of faith. It is a wistful longing to be sure of the things in which we trust. But it is not and need not be a problem.”

                                                                                                                                                                           – Alistair McGrath

Milestone or Millstone

I passed another milestone this week. May first marked one year since I embarked on a new chapter in life. In a sense, I backtracked almost twenty years and began doing what I should have done all along. It was no easier or less scary as a middle aged man than it appeared when I was younger and stronger, but this time around I had an added factor at work: Basically, I had nothing to lose.

After seventeen years of marriage, I was homeless, broke, and alone in the world. I was profoundly depressed and confused, reeling from a series of heartbreaking betrayals and losses, and desperate for some sense of meaning and purpose in my life. When an opportunity to go into full-time ministry service opened up, it was one of those moments where you don’t ask a lot of questions because the answer is manifestly clear. The door couldn’t have been open any wider.

Last May was tough. I struggled with living alone. I cried a lot. I raged and bargained, I prayed and fasted, I read and meditated. Did I mention I cried?

Slowly, things began to look brighter. It wasn’t anything miraculous, just a day here and there where I wasn’t miserable every waking moment. Sometimes I’d even find myself smiling and laughing without having to fake it for the benefit of others around me. It has ebbed and flowed, though. Just when I feel like I may have finally put the grief and pain behind me, it wells up again in new and surprising ways.

The worst moments for me, I have discovered, are milestones. In retrospect, I imagine it is because I tend to expect too much of life and myself. When Christmas came and went, my triumph at having made it through a year since I almost died was tempered by sadness that I was still alone and empty inside. I guess that’s how I keep myself going, for better or for worse; I tell myself “It may suck now, but by this time next year . . . “ Then, when next year comes and I still haven’t found the fitness instructor who is into older guys with no money and wants to have a family; when I still haven’t published a book; when my kids still don’t understand who and what their mother really is; when I still have long periods of time when I doubt if God is going to ever really make anything good come of all of this suffering, I hit a brick wall. The milestone ceases to be a celebration and becomes a millstone around my neck, dragging me down into the cold, murky depths of sadness and despair.

Doubt, Faith, and Reality


I guess that’s what it all comes down to in the end. I’m a pastor, after all. People expect me to have the answers, to be unflaggingly positive and optimistic, to be strong. But sometimes I look around and say “Really, God? Seriously?”

And then I feel guilty. I feel like a hypocrite. I berate myself for my lack of faith. I paste on a happy face, suck it up, and charge back into the fray, even though I still ache inside and hope desperately that no one notices.

But the guilt stays with me.

I came across the quote by Alister McGrath at the top of the page while reading today, though, and the wheels started turning. Could it really be true that doubt is not the same as unbelief? Is it really possible that, not only is doubt a natural part of our faith journey, but that doubt can’t exist unless there is already faith at work in our lives?

My mind went to the familiar story in Mark Chapter 9. Jesus and his inner circle of disciples have just experienced their own milestone moment. Peter, James, and John were witness to Christ’s transfiguration – a literal mountaintop experience. They were the first human beings to see Jesus for who he really was. They heard the actual voice of God. For a fleeting moment things made perfect sense.

It was so great that they didn’t want to go back to the realities of life in ministry. Mark’s account says that, as they made their way back down the mountain, all they saw was Jesus. How awesome would that have been?

But then reality set in. Jesus started talking – again – about how he was going to be mistreated and would suffer and die, and the farther they walked the louder the sounds of the crowds that followed them everywhere became. The dust in the air, the smells of sickness and unwashed bodies, the cries for help all had to be a huge buzz kill compared to what they had just experienced. Why all of the pain and suffering when the Messiah who walked alongside them could just wave his hand and make it all go away? Why the day-to-day struggles? Why the everydayness of the crowds?

Had any of it even been real?

And then Jesus has an encounter with a man and his son that lays out three very important principles about faith, doubt, and Christian maturity.

Doubt Doesn’t Cancel out Faith

Waiting at the bottom of the mountain are ten frustrated and confused disciples. While Jesus has been off team-building with his favorites, they have been toiling away among the crowds. We aren’t told how long they have been at it, but we can assume that they have been doing the work Jesus taught them to do – healing the sick and the lame and proclaiming the Good News in his absence. But for some reason, this one particular boy, the one prone to epileptic fits and self-injurious behavior, won’t respond.

And to add to their fatigue and frustration, the Pharisees have swooped in to throw in their two cents, probably laughing at them as they try again and again the relieve his suffering. Imagine their state of mind. For that matter, imagine what is going through the mind of the boy’s father. He traveled all this way, stood in line in the hot sun for hours waiting their turn, watching as others are healed and their hope is restored, but when it comes to the person he loves most in the world – that which is more important to him than anything else – nothing.

The doubt hung so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife.

That’s why Mark is so careful to include a very important word in his account of the father’s entreaty to Christ. “If”.

It’s such a tiny word, but it has the power to take a tyrannical stranglehold on our lives. If God is good, then why  . . . ? If God loves me, then why . . . ? If God can really do anything, then why not . . . .?

Jesus, sensing the waning strength of his disciples and the anguished father, cuts right to the chase. In so many words, he makes a revolutionary statement: belief is always stronger than doubt.

We forget that sometimes, don’t we? In our fallen humanity we assume that we either have faith or we have doubts – one or the other. But what if it’s like a half-full glass of water? The top half isn’t really empty, it’s full of air. It is a full glass – half water and half air – the only variable at work is how much of each it contains at any given moment.

It is a battle of belief versus doubt. The Greek term used by both Jesus and the boy’s father, pisteuo, means “to entrust something to another; to obey or follow instructions”.  In the culture of the day, it would be understood that the word referred to both belief that comes from the head as well as from the heart.

Jesus is saying that we can’t sit around waiting to gin ourselves up to the point that all of the unbelief is forced out of us, we must start where we are by taking the first baby step in the right direction. We can’t entrust something to someone else until we first open up our clenched fist and let go of that which we are clinging to so desperately. It all starts with moment-to-moment obedience. And the good news is that it doesn’t take a whole glass full of faith to accomplish great things. In fact, Jesus told his followers in Matthew 17 that if they merely had pisteuo the size of a mustard seed – the tiniest of the tiny – they could move a mountain.

It’s really not about us, in other words, it’s about letting God do what God does.

That’s hard for me. I don’t want to live the rest of my life alone, but as I have discovered in my tentative forays into the dating world, I also no longer have what the opposite sex today is looking for. To try to find companionship without the bank account, home ownership, and material trappings of success that I not only once had, but now seem to be the price of admission for a relationship, is humiliating and discouraging.

My natural impulse is to stamp my foot and say “Fine, God. If you won’t give me what I want, then I’m not doing what you want!” But Jesus waits patiently, asking “Do you believe? Will you open your hand?” And like the boy’s father, I am forced to admit that, yes, I still believe, but there’s a lot more doubt in my glass at the moment than belief.

Doubt is no Match for God’s Love

Once the father is willing to admit his deficiency, he takes the most important step: “Help me with my doubts!” he cries in desperation. The word for help (boetheo) is a combination of two words meaning “to cry out” and “to run”. The idea is that one is crying in such desperation that the other is compelled to run full speed to their aid. It is not a casual request for assistance.

The word was a part of the everyday vocabulary of those in the shipping industry, describing a practice known today as “frapping”. When a ship was caught in a particularly fierce or prolonged storm, the captain would order his crew to “boetheo” the ship, a process by which ropes or chains were wrapped around the hull of the ship and cinched up very tightly so that the beams that held the vessel together would not be loosened and forced apart by the waves.

When the waters rise and we grow tired of treading water, when it feels as if it has been an eternity since our footing was firm and secure, God is waiting at the ready for one simple word from us. When we indicate that we are done trying to force the issue and admit that we truly need help, God wraps us in his arms and pulls us back together again.

In his time. In his way. On his terms.

Doubt is Intended to Drive us Deeper into God

Mark’s account tells us that with a few words, Jesus accomplishes what the disciples were unable to do with hours of effort. The boy is healed, and Jesus goes on as if nothing happened. “Wait just a minute, Jesus,” his followers demand. “Was there something you forgot to tell us? What’s the deal here? We said all the right words, but nothing worked. Why?”

Have you ever felt like that? You’re doing everything you know to do, but life isn’t working out according to plan. I’ve been there more times than I care to admit. We try our best to get God to fit into a simple equation: When this happens, I do this, and therefore God will do this. Sometimes our obedience brings about expected outcomes, but more often than not, things don’t go according to our plans.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples is frank but instructive. “Some things in life don’t change without a lot of prayer and time invested.” In other words, God has more in mind than just answering a simple request. He is using our momentary pain and frustration to accomplish a task of far greater eternal value – to drive us closer to him. As we labor through these chapters in life, we learn that prayer is more than simply reeling off a laundry list of complaints or wishes to a vending machine in the sky, instead it is a drawing near to the God of the universe, who, by virtue of our contact with himself, changes us first and the situation second, if at all. The disciples’ question was about power and control, but Jesus’ answer was about relationship and obedience.

Roads and Signposts

In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Christian author C.S. Lewis shared the story of his own struggles with faith. His mother died when he was very young, and his father, unable to cope with his grief, sent Lewis and his brother off to boarding school, where they were physically, and possibly sexually, abused. When his fervent prayers for his mother’s recovery from cancer were not answered, Lewis rejected God and set off on a lifelong search for the sense of happiness and satisfaction that disappeared when his mother passed away.

He searched in alternative religions, in academia, and in the horrors of World War I’s trenches. When he at last found God again, he noted that those things he had been chasing all of his life suddenly seemed unimportant in comparison to what he had gained. That which had been the central desire of his heart was merely a signpost to guide him back to the One he had lost so many years before.“When we are lost in the woods,” he concluded, “the sight of a signpost is a great matter. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They shall encourage us, and we shall be grateful for the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold.”

Keep moving forward in the faith you have. Admit your doubts and ask for God’s help. Let your struggles serve as signposts that draw you closer to the One who waits at the end of the path.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Willa Beth permalink
    May 8, 2012 2:14 pm

    excellent in every way. Thanks for writing your heart

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