When (not if) You Have Doubts

 

A while back my good friend Jay called me up. It was late at night (that is, late at night for two guys with young kids—so, like, nine o’clock).

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked.

“Suuure….” I replied, feeling somewhat nervous given the late hour.

“Do you ever have doubts?” Jay asked.

“What kind of doubts…?” I inquired.

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“Doubts about God, Christianity, and….”

“Oh, those kinds of doubts…,” I said with a sense of relief. “Heck yeah, all the time…why do you ask?”

Jay explained, “I was listening to a pastor on the radio, and he was asked if he ever had doubts. He said he never did…and I was surprised because I have lots of doubts…”

“He’s lying.” I said. “Either that or he hasn’t been a pastor that long. I don’t know any pastor worth his salt that doesn’t, from time to time, have doubts about Christianity. There are a lot of things about Christianity that sound crazy. Any thoughtful pastor or Christian is going to wrestle with those things.”

At this point I went on a mini rant about all the doubts I’ve had in the last year. Everything from doubting the existence of God, the deity of Christ, the validity of the Bible, to doubting whether or not I was truly saved (to be honest that last one really surprised me).

“I thought that was the case…” Jay said.

At this point I can’t remember the exact wording of our conversation but we discussed a lot of things about doubts.

We talked about how doubts aren’t necessarily bad things. And how, contrary to popular belief, doubts don’t go away just because you’ve walked with Jesus for a while or read everything there is to read on God, the Christian life, and the Bible (not that either of us had or ever will). We discussed how it doesn’t matter if you have doubts, but instead what you do with them.

At this point I probably listed out a number of books (after the Bible) that I think every Christian should read when they have doubts. (The list was likely something close to this: Top 25 Christian Apologetics Books

We then discussed how doubt is not limited to areas of faith. (Years ago after a major argument with my wife, Meredith, I think we both doubted whether or not marriage was a God-ordained institution…or even if it was a good idea at all.) We doubt relationships, our abilities, even our perception of reality.

 

So Jay and I concluded we’re not sure what that pastor on the radio was smoking when he said he didn’t have doubts. Maybe he was afraid that if he confessed his doubts other people (people in his congregation) would doubt their own faith (or worse…doubt him). Or maybe at that time in his life he really couldn’t think of any deep questions to which he didn’t already have the answers.

At some point we said goodbye, but if I could go back in time I would add this addendum to our conversation.

I would have said, “Jay, something I’m just now learning is having all the answers is not the same as not having doubts.”

“So you’re done reading books?” he might have replied.

“No, what I mean is I could give most people the right answer to most of their ‘faith’ questions. But whether or not I truly believe those answers is a whole different matter—that’s doubt. Do I believe what I say? Is it really true? Answers alone won’t get me there. They help, but they won’t get me to a place of complete confidence.”

“So what will?” he might have asked.

“Honestly, a relationship,” I’d have said.

Then I would have stepped into my imaginary little pulpit and continued:

“Lately I find that the more I spend time with God through prayer and just being mindful of his presence the harder it is to doubt His existence.

“The more I let Jesus have his way in my life, the harder it is to doubt that he is alive and Lord of all creation.

“The more I spend time in the Bible, really just soaking it up and letting it shape me, the harder it is to doubt that it is really God’s Word.”

And because my friend Jay doesn’t like easy answers (he’s too smart for that) I’m sure he would have liked that little spiritual reflection.

 

Looking back I think Jay knew the following things when he called: Doubt is normal. I don’t need to have all the answers. God and my relationship with him is bigger than my doubt.

I think my good friend Jay just needed some reassurance.

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God’s not so big plans for your life…

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I remember the chapel like it was yesterday.  In a college gymnasium, surrounded by thousands of students, I sat on what was usually an uncomfortably hard wooden bench.  But on that day, my body did not squirm for comfort, because on that day my complete attention was on the charismatic Christian speaker in front of me.  His sermon was well-crafted, his stories were funny, and all his applications of scripture were convincing.  And with the Bible in his hand and deep conviction in his heart, he proclaimed with prophetic boldness words that spoke to my soul….”God,” he said, “has big plans for your life!”  But his sermon did not end there.  No, he then went on to give us the really good news: “God has bigger plans for your life than you could ever imagine.”

And thus began my season of despair…

Looking back, the problem was two-fold. One, at the time I could imagine some pretty big plans for my life. Once, when reading an article about a Billy Graham crusade, I saw a black and white photo of Dr. Graham preaching to a crowd of a million people.  At the time it was the largest evangelistic crusade in history.  With complete seriousness, I looked at that picture and prayed, “God would you use me to preach to two million people?”  And, truth be told, at that time I could have imagined myself preaching to three million— if God needed me to.

Of course some will respond that I misinterpreted the speaker’s use of the phrase “big plans”.   And I could not agree more.  But this only illuminates the second of the two problems. Often, when well-meaning Christian teachers and preachers say these kinds of things, they never think to define what they mean by the term “big”.   And so students, or chapel listeners (and, let’s be honest, even pastors) are left to define the term on their own. The problem is when most American Christians begin to imagine and dream about what it could mean for God to have “big plans” for their lives, their dreams often start to look like a Christian version of the American Dream.  Tell a college student today that God has “big plans” for their life, and they’ll think God is going to use them to save the world, or at least “their” world—whatever that might be.

There was another chapel speaker that year who talked about God’s plans for your life. His sermon was also well-crafted, his jokes funny, and his scriptural applications convincing.  But there, before a gymnasium full of college students, referencing Tolkien’s famous “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy, he spoke (what I now consider to be) truly prophetic words: “You are not the hero of the story. You are not Frodo. Rather, in the great battle of life, you are more like elf #351. But that is significant, because you are in the story.”

I have come to believe that God’s pleasure is often not in creating “big plans” for our lives (at least not the American kind), but rather in giving significance to the sometimes seemingly small plans He has for us.

Often there is nothing glamorous, nothing inspirational, and nothing “news-worthy” about the work Christ calls us to. Often we are simply called to be obedient and to follow wherever Christ leads.  Most of the time these actions do not seem big at all— but they are significant.  In Christ we are free to give up fantasies of American grandeur and instead rest in the knowledge that our lives are significant, no matter what we do, because it is Christ who gives significance to all of our life. The good news is that our stories are forever intertwined with His story.  And so whatever we do, whether it seems big or small, it is a part of His grand eternal story, and that is significant.

In heaven I imagine we will meet missionaries who gave their lives to the work of the gospel while living in total obscurity.  We will meet pastors who never published a book, never spoke at a conference, and never started a network, but did quietly and faithfully fulfill their calling to shepherd a flock. We will meet businessmen and women who never climbed the corporate ladder, but did live simple lives of kindness, and integrity.  And there in heaven, I imagine we will see for the first time how Christ used every one of these lives and their actions to magnify His presence on earth.  And there, before the throne of God, I imagine we will stand in awe of those once obscure and un-glorious people, and together with all the saints, we will praise God for their significant lives.

Have you ever heard someone tell you God has big plans for your life? What did you think when you heard that? Does the difference between “significant plans” vs. “big plans” resonate with you at all?

Evil and Grace

Jesus on cross black and white

Why did God let a madman shoot up a school? Better yet, why did He let Adam sin? Better yet, why did He let Satan into the garden? Better yet, why did He let evil into Satan’s heart?

Why is there evil at all?

Sure it’s true that God Himself through Jesus Christ came to rescue sinners from evil and to redeem the world. But why should the world and the people in it need rescuing in the first place? Is God like a man who built a house, rented it out to tenants and then set it on fire so that He could later rescue them? And even if we say that, in God’s case, He did not actively set the house on fire, He just allowed it to happen, He is still the one that had the power to stop it and chose not to. Why?

Some say God did not stop evil because He could not; others say He did not stop evil because He chose not to. Among those who say He chose not to stop evil, there are those who say it is because God is evil, and then there are others who say it is because God wants to work good from the evil.  In either case, God still appears evil. Because even a God who allows the ends to justify the means appears to be a God who is simply a manipulator of creation, like someone just doing the best He can with what He has to work with.

But the God of the Bible is none of these things. So why then did YHWH allow evil into the world?

Imagine evil never existed. Imagine Adam and Eve never sinned. And not only did they never sin they never had the option to sin, because evil was nowhere in existence. What then could we know of God? We could know His power.  We could know His intelligence. But we could never know His Grace.

Grace–unmerited favor–cannot be known in a world without evil.  Grace does not exist in a perfect world because in a perfect world everything is merited.  Every reward is the natural consequence of the perfect action that preceded it. But in a world where there is evil, there are many actions that merit condemnation, judgment, and even wrath. And in that world there is now space for Grace.

In an evil world there is now an open place for favor to be poured out where it should not be. In an evil world Grace shines brightly against the just consequence of condemnation.

Grace…an unknowable quality of God in a world without evil. Could it be that the great I AM is interested in displaying all of who He IS?

In Grace we see a characteristic of God that is wholly unlike any other conceived divine being. In Grace we see the holiness of God (His otherness). In Grace we see the beauty of God. In Grace we see the love of God in a way that otherwise would not be possible.

The Cross, the great symbol of Grace, is not just about salvation from evil, nor is it just about Jesus conquering evil. It is even more: it is a glorious beacon brightly shining in the darkness of night, displaying who God IS.

Evil is necessary for Grace. Grace is an essential attribute of God. God desires to fully display His attributes. Therefore evil exists.

What are your thoughts?

Discipleship as Worship

photo credit: Lawrence OP via photopin cc

photo credit: Lawrence OP via photopin cc

The goal of discipleship is worship– whole-life worship as described by Jesus in Mark 12:30:

“…Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

According to Carson’s and Beale’s, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (which by the way is awesome), the following is true:

To love God with your Heart = Loving God with your moral choices/character

To love God with your Soul = Loving God to the risk of one’s life

To love God with your Mind = Loving God with your thoughts

To love God with your Strength = Loving God with your possessions

Now look at the words Jesus uses to call people to be His disciples:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”(John 8:31-32)

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”… Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16, 21)

In each of case (and many more like these) Jesus is simply calling people to live out Mark 12:30.  That is to worship Him (as God) with all their Heart (choices), Mind (thoughts), Soul (life) and Strength (possessions).

For those of us in leadership positions our goal is the same, to lead people to the joyful worship of the Triune God– this is true discipleship.

How do you lead people in whole-life worship of God?