Friday, February 27, 2015

Things that Prayer cannot Change

There are things that are unchangeable – things that we simply must accept. James and John requested that Jesus would appoint them to reign at either side of Him once He came into His “glory.” However, He could not grant this request:

  • To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared." (Mark 10:40)
There are many other things that cannot be granted to even our most fervent prayers. The length of our lives has also been determined:

  • Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16)
This can be very discouraging, especially when this pertains to the death our young children, or even miscarriages that God allows in the face of fervent prayer. However, the Psalmist took comfort in the fact that there are certain things that God has written in stone, His pre-ordained stone. Therefore, he continued:

  • How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! (Psalm 139:17) 
We find it so comforting to know that our Lord has a precise plan for our lives. This mitigates the worry and the second-guessing – should I have done this or that or… However, this assurance does little to help us accept the loss of our infant. It staggers our understanding, and we grope to find meaning.

Is there a divine wisdom in loss? What sense did it make to Peter when the Lord informed him that he would have to be martyred?

  • I [Jesus] tell you [Peter] the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!" (John 21:18-19)
Why instead didn’t Jesus tell Peter to pray about this as He had about the trials that preceded His crucifixion? Why could not Peter escape martyrdom? Why would not prayer prevail in this instance? Instead, Peter would have to glorify God in this manner. His fate was set.

Likewise, the Spirit informed the church at Smyrna that they too would have to die horrifically:

  • Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
Once again, there was no mention of a prayer technique that could reverse this horror. Instead, these martyrs would have to prepare themselves for their pre-ordained fate.

However, I do think that some understanding is possible. In another perplexing verse, Paul writes:

  • Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. (Colossians 1:24) 
Paul would have to face afflictions similar to that of his Master, and so also the other Apostles. This verse should not be understood to suggest that there was anything lacking in Christ’s atonement on the Cross. Instead, it points to the necessity of Apostolic martyrdom to advance the church, not atone for it. It is because they died the death of martyrs for what they believed that the Apostles are credible witnesses. This is also true for the martyrdom of many of the Church Fathers.

In direct contrast with these martyrs were the “Christian” Gnostics who evidently knew that they had nothing worth dying for. The Honorable Joseph Addison wrote”

  • I think it is very remarkable, that there was not a single Martyr among those many Hereticks, who disagreed with the Apostolical church, and introduced several wild and absurd notions into the doctrines of Christianity. They durst not stake their present and future happiness on their own chimerical operations, and did not only shun persecution, but affirmed that it was unnecessary for their followers to bear their religion through such fiery tryals. (The evidences of the Christian Religion)
With their death, the Apostles and the Fathers showed the world that they had something that was worth dying for. And it wasn’t just for a future hope, like the Jihadis who die for their unfounded faith. Instead, Christian martyrdom was also a powerful assertion that what the Apostles had recorded had actually happened!

Peter’s martyrdom would place a seal of truth open everything He had taught. He proved this by dying for the faith.

Certain prayers will not be answered the way we want. Jesus’ wasn’t! He prayed that He wouldn’t have to go to the Cross. However, He was willing to submit to the will of the Father:

  • "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." (Luke 22:42)
Clearly, we cannot expect all of our prayers to be answered. However, how can we accept the death of an infant? What possible purpose could this have in God’s plan?

I cannot answer this with any satisfaction. However, associate professor at Biola University, Clay Jones, offers some suggestions. He and his wife suffered five miscarriages. Consequently, they have remained childless. Jones writes:

  • Many important spiritual lessons are learned from the suffering and/or death of children – courage, patience, compassion, selflessness, humility… we learn that we can never base our ultimate happiness on this world. The American Dream – that we can have our kids grow up, graduate, achieve successful careers, marry great spouses, and have wonderful children… - is forever in danger. There is nothing worldly that we can count on, including what most people love most: their children. Instead, we must look to God for our ultimate and eternal fulfillment. (Christian Research Journal, Volume 38, Number 01, 14)
Although there are still many unanswered questions, I can accept this because I accept my Lord. Presently, I am tormented by the reports of grave injustices, especially those committed by ISIS and Boko Haram – the slaughter, kidnapping, and sexual abuse of tens of thousands of Christians and other non-Muslims. Although I had been raised on the Holocaust, I could barely conceive of such horrors or that the “civilized” world would once again allow them.

I am not comfortable in the world. This is not my home. This is increasingly clear. I pray for the end of these horrors, but they continue. For my own sanity, I can do little else but to immerse myself in Scripture and cry out, “Lord Jesus, come quickly!”

I certainly haven’t abandoned prayer. If I had, I would have purchased an AK47 and a one-way ticket to Iraq. Instead, I continue to pray, knowing that our only hope is in our Savior, who strangely is allowing these horrid abominations to continue.

There is so much that I don’t understand, but I do know the Lord and know that He is faithful, whether in martyrdom or in mayhem.

Does God Love Me enough to Answer my Prayers?

We are highly sinful and unworthy of God, and we sense our unworthiness. Therefore, we tend to obsess and doubt:

  • Do I have enough faith to receive anything from the Lord? Many of my prayers haven’t been answered. Perhaps God didn’t answer my prayer about saving me?  Perhaps I doubt too much? Does He love me enough to answer my prayers?
 One young man wondered whether he had enough worthiness to be saved. Terrified at the prospect of going to hell, he took a radical step. He forfeited everything he had to become an Augustinian monk. He had been taught that this was the surest way to please God and to merit salvation. However, even after this radical move, he remained tortured by doubts and thoughts of hell.

He subjected himself to the most extreme deprivations along with four hours of daily confessions, but nothing relieved him. Finally, his vicar advised him:

  • Luther, all you need to do is to just love God!
To this, Martin Luther bellowed back, “Love Him? I hate Him!” He later wrote that He couldn’t love God, if he couldn’t be sure that God loved him back and would receive him into heaven. However, years later, while preparing a lesson on the Epistle to the Romans, Luther encountered a verse that would change his life: “And the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). He suddenly realized that he didn’t have to earn God’s love. Instead, it was there waiting for him. He just needed to take it on faith.

Luther later wrote that it felt as if the gates of heaven had opened for him. He was now enabled to trust that God loved him. Let me guess what you’re now thinking:

  • This assurance of God’s love is miles away from me. Sometimes I wonder whether this assurance is even possible for someone like me who doubts and questions. 
Certainly, there are many reasons to doubt and question. While the Bible gives us many assurances that God is love, there are also a number of verses that make it seem like His love is conditional and we have to fulfill a set of impossible conditions. Take, for instance, Hebrews 12:14:

  • Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 
This verse, among others, is a doubt-maker:

  • How holy must I be? It doesn’t seem that any of my thoughts, motives or deeds are entirely holy. They are all sin-infested. Is there a certain level of holiness that I must attain before I can be saved? Isn’t the Bible therefore a collection of contradictions? 
Can we truly be confident of the grace of God when these questions remain unanswered? Not entirely! Consequently, I think that we need to take a deeper look at Scripture.

Jesus’ actions didn’t often look like love. He continually criticized His own disciples. At times, it seemed that they couldn’t do anything right. He commended faith only twice in Scripture, and on both occasions it was the faith of Gentiles – the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:28) and the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:10) – never of His disciples. He never told them anything like this:

  • You men are really first class. Choosing you was the best thing that I had ever done. You’re such quick learners and, oh, so spiritual!
Jesus never encouraged them – not exactly the way to win and sustain a following! Rather than building their confidence in their heavenly destiny, many of Jesus’ teaching served to undermine their confidence. However, after His final discourse with His disciples, Jesus prayed to the Father. This prayer illuminates a different perspective, a heavenly one! And this is as it should be, because Jesus is no longer addressing His disciples but His Father:

  • "I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” (John 17:6-8)
Perhaps you’ve read these verses too often to notice their transcendent perspective. These words do not represent Jesus’ usual words of censure like “get behind me Satan” or “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" (Matthew 26:40).

Instead, Jesus words are other-worldly. About His fumbling disciples Jesus prays, “they have obeyed your word…they accepted [the words You gave me]. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.”

These words are astounding and perplexing. From our earthly perspective, they didn’t even understand His Word, let alone obey His Word! Just to illustrate this point, I will quote each one of their five preceding statements. All of these words demonstrate their lack of understanding:

  • Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" (John 14:5) 
  • Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us" (John 14:8), unaware that they had already seen the Father in Jesus.
  • Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" (John 14:22)
  • Some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,' and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" They kept asking, "What does he mean by 'a little while'? We don't understand what he is saying." (John 16:17-18)
  • Then Jesus' disciples said, "Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God" (John 16:29-30), but they were just about ready to disown their faith
These ignorant statements weren’t unusual for the Apostles. They often seemed clueless about their Master, and Jesus wasn’t hesitant to let them know this. However, when Jesus talked to His Father, we perceive a different perspective. From these heights, we are invited to view an entirely different landscape, one through which we learn that the disciples “have kept Your Word!” This is the gracious heavenly reality.

You might think that this distinction between the earthly message and the heavenly one is just a weird anomaly. However, this same distinction is found throughout Scripture. Let me just take a few examples.

The prophet-for-hire Balaam had also been granted a view from this same mountain-top. He had been hired by the King of Moab, Balak, to curse Israel. However, God had warned Balaam to say only what He would reveal to him. God had opened his eyes so that he could penetrate the haze and see reality from the perspective of God. And this is what he saw:

  • The oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened: "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:4-5)
  • "He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel. The LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a King is among them.” (Numbers 23:21)
There was probably little that was “beautiful” about Jacob’s tents, especially after wandering 40 years in the desert. Balaam was beholding a transcendent reality. Clearly, there was gross “iniquity in Jacob” and no shortage of “wickedness in Israel,” but this is not what God was seeing! He sees a different reality, a transcendent one. He sees the end from the beginning. Jesus also saw His Apostles in their glory, a glory where we are already seated in “the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephes. 2:6).

In the eyes of our Lord, our status is dramatically transformed when we repent of our sins. When we do so, we are transported into the kingdom of His beloved Son, where we sit “the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” We become His vessels of glory.

Job had made many rash indictments against God during his lengthy trial. However, God brought damning charges against Job’s three friends:

  • "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." (Job 42:7-8) 
This is peculiar for many reasons. For one thing, Job seemed to have talked far worse of God than had his three friends. Second of all, God, against the evidence to the contrary, said that Job had spoken correctly of Him! Clearly, this wasn’t accurate, or was it? From God’s heavenly perspective, Job had just repented twice of his rash words (Job 42:6; 40:4-5), and all had been forgiven. Job had also been cleansed of all his unrighteousness (1 John 1:9), and that made all the difference in the world!

There is the heavenly perspective that transcends the temporal – all of our this-worldly failures and sins. God does not see as we do. While He is not blind to the earthly, He sees a high and eternal reality, one in which everything is wiped clean, where love and righteousness remove from sight everything that makes us cringe in shame.

Lot lived in Sodom and willingly partook in its life. When the two angels showed up to investigate Sodom’s sinfulness, Lot hurriedly rushed them off to his home, hoping to dispatch them early in the morning, without consequence to his town.

Every step of his life had been soiled by compromise. He even got drunk and had sex with his two daughters. However, this isn’t the final word about Lot. In the New Testament, we find that, in God’s eyes, Lot was regarded in an entirely different light, as “a righteous man” (2 Peter 2:7).

The Bible speaks of two distinct realities. According to the first reality, we have fallen short of God’s standards (Rom. 3:23) and deserve condemnation (Rom. 6:23). However, there is another reality that trumps the first one. It is a reality where “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” according to James 2:13. It is a reality where we are new creations in Christ – children of the light, where any who call upon God shall be saved (Rom. 10:13)!

From a human perspective, Abraham had been a spiritual failure. He continually doubted God’s promises. Even after Yahweh appeared to him and promised that Sarah would give birth to the promised son in the following year, Abraham once again wimped out and passed off his beloved as his sister.

Consequently, the unknowing king grabbed Sarah for his harem. However, before he could have sex with her, God struck the entire nation of Gerar down with a disease. He then appeared to the king in a dream and instructed him to return Sarah to her husband Abraham.

The shocked king then confronted Abraham about his deception. Abraham admitted his cowardice:

  • "I said to myself, 'There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.' …And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother." ' " (Genesis 20:11-13)
Abraham’s unfaithfulness had a long history. In spite of this, when God had appeared to the king in his dream, He uttered some of the most profound words in all Scripture:

  • Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die." (Genesis 20:7)
 Even after Abraham had disgraced God so thoroughly, God remained faithful. Despite his failings, Abraham remained His “prophet!” Besides this, the cowardly failure Abraham would have to pray for the king!

The king might have thought, “What kind of God is this that chooses such low-life as prophets!” However, God’s love and protection for his failing prophet did not falter. He is therefore esteemed by God in this incredibly gracious way:

  • Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be."  Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead--since he was about a hundred years old--and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:18-21) 
God does not see as we see. He sees us through gracious and loving eyes. We often fear that we lack enough faith to be saved. However, Hebrews 11 – it’s know as the “hall of fame of faith” – gives us unbelievable portraits of exemplary faith. But if we read closely, we will be shocked at what we read.

Hebrews tells us that by faith “Abraham was enabled to become a father” (Heb. 11:11). However, it didn’t seem that he had much faith. We are also told that “By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger (Heb. 11:27). However, the original account tells us that Moses did fear!

My favorite example of faith regards the children of Israel:

  • By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. (Hebrews 11:29)
This is incredible! Israel was anything but a model of faith. The original Exodus account tells us that they rebelled against Moses after they heard the Egyptian chariots approaching!

From an earthly perspective, Israel was a sorry mess, but not from God’s gracious perspective! Here’s a glimpse into His thinking:

  • But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:8-10) 
God’s logic is both illuminating and persuasive. If He was willing to pay the supreme price for us, when we were yet sinners – His enemies – wouldn’t He protect His investment now that we have been made His friends!

Perhaps an analogy might help. If you go to the junk-yard and purchase a rusted-out Model-T Ford for an exorbitant price, and then spend the next several years restoring it to its original form, would you then discard it? Certainly not! You would now treasure it and do whatever you could to preserve it!

Our Lord paid the highest price for all humanity. Consequently, any who come to Him, He will in no way cast out (John 6:37). Why would He? He’s already paid the price for us! He even pursues those who refuse Him.

He pursued David, His King. David deserved only the worst from God. God had given David everything, but this didn’t satisfy David. He saw a woman he wanted, and he took her, even though she was already married. If that wasn’t enough, he killed Bathsheba’s husband to cover up his sin.

However, God was not going to be mocked. Sin would require a price. Despite David’s many prayers, God took Bathsheba’s newborn. However, she conceived again, and David named his child “Solomon,” in Hebrew, “Shlomo,” a form of “Shalom,” meaning peace. It seems that David was hoping that this child would spell peace between him and God. But how could David expect anything good from such a sin-stained relationship! However God had another name in mind:

  • Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and lay with her. She gave birth to a son, and they named him Solomon. The Lord loved him; and because the Lord loved him, he sent word through Nathan the prophet to name him Jedidiah. (2 Samuel 12:24-25)
David hadn’t been hopeful enough. Instead of Solomon being a mere “peace” child, he was “Jedidiah” (“beloved of God,” in the Hebrew) in God’s eyes. From an earthly perspective, David and his new wife didn’t deserve anything but punishment from God. However, He heard David’s prayer, forgave his sin, and cleansed the entire relationship. On top of this, out of all David’s sons, God chose Solomon to become the next king of Israel. God can salvage the worst of lives and relationships!

Paul, having hardened his heart, was even His persecutor. Not only did he kill Christians, but He also forced them to blaspheme Jesus. I cannot think of anything worse. However, Paul explained:

  • Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Tim. 1:15-16) 
Paul served as an example of God’s readiness to extend His forgiveness to anyone – to the worst of sinners. If God was willing to forgive Paul, He was willing to forgive anyone who would come to Him!

King Manasseh was another example of God’s incredible mercy. He was the worst of the worst. He reigned for 55 years in Jerusalem and bathed the city with the blood of the righteous. Scripture informs us that he was worse than the Canaanites. However, even Manasseh found the mercy of God, when he repented of his sins (2 Chron. 33:10-13).

The meaning is clear. If God forgave and restored Manasseh, the worst of the worst, He would certainly respond favorably to any who would call upon His name!

Let me again guess what you are thinking:

  • Well, you make salvation seem as if it’s available to anyone who confesses their sins. But how about that verse you cited before which says “pursue holiness without which shall no one see God? I don’t think that I can be holy enough.”
Well, the Book of Hebrews illustrates what it means to pursue holiness through the example of Esau:

  • [See to it] lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it [the blessing] diligently with tears. (Hebrews 12:16-17; NKJV) 
Esau wasn’t rejected because of his sins – we are all sinners. He was rejected because he was unwilling to repent that he had sold his birthright for a bowl of soup, demonstrating that he did not esteem the things of God. Although he wept over loosing his father’s blessing, the things of God were foolishness to him.

How does God regard us? We lack the superlatives to answer this question. Paul wrote of the love of God this way:

  • I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephes. 3:17-19) 
God’s love for us is a love that “surpasses knowledge.” Why then can’t we see this? Why does our God obscure this glorious reality, causing us to walk in uncertainty? Perhaps we are not ready for the light. As Jesus told His disciples, there were certain truths that would not yet be good for them to see:

  • "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” (John 16:12)
We too cannot bear to behold the beauty of the tents of Israel and certainly not our own glory. I think that it was C.S. Lewis who said that if we could see our glory, we’d worship each other.

However, sometimes He does open our eyes to glimpse this transcendent reality. For example, Paul claims that for those who are being saved, “we are…the [sweet] aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15). This is amazing to us! How can we, with all of our spiritual warts, manifest as the aroma of Christ!

However, we can’t handle this light in sustained doses. We lack the mental maturity to assimilate this light in a profitable way. In the midst of a life-threatening and bloody chain saw injury, I was lying in a pool of blood, thinking that this breath would be my last. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t alone. I was so overcome by the presence of God that I was in ecstasy. I knew that even if I died, God would be there with me, and that I was totally safe and loved by Him.

I was miraculously rescued and spent the next four days recuperating in the hospital. On the second day, my surgeon warned that I would have to exercise my half-cut-off wrist or lose its functionality. However, after my divine encounter, I was convinced that the God who had saved me was great enough to restore my hand without any exercises. Well, I didn’t exercise it, and it wasn’t restored as it might have been.

My theology – my understanding - did not measure up to what God had revealed to me. I had wrongly thought that since God is omnipotent, I didn’t have to do anything.  Now I understand that, although God is all-powerful, this doesn’t relieve me of my earthly responsibilities.

Perhaps even after imbibing all of these verses, you are still left with uncertainly about God’s love and your salvation. That’s certainly not unusual. Sometimes, even the knowledge of the Word will not take us everywhere we what to go, nor should it. God has not constructed our lives so that we would make ourselves self-sufficient through wisdom. Instead, we are always to depend upon lowly humble prayer – an acknowledgement that we and our wisdom are not enough. We need His intervention.

And He will intervene! When we ask our Lord for assurance about His love and our salvation, we ask according to His will and, therefore, can be confident that He will answer.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Atheists insist that there is no evidence for God. The Christian retorts that they know God in their heart, but they suppress this evidence:

·       Romans 1:18-20 - The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Now some research is available suggesting that even atheists have an awareness of God:

·       A team from the University of Finland got 16 atheists and 13 religious people to read aloud statements like “I dare God to make someone murder my parents cruelly” and “I dare God to make me die of cancer.” Perhaps surprisingly, both atheists and the religious got emotionally aroused when daring God to do terrible things. In fact, if anything, the atheists were even more het up. They went on to do another test, in which they got the atheists to simply wish for terrible things to happen. But that didn’t cause nearly the same reaction as asking God to do it.

This might suggest that rather than confronting the atheist with more evidence, which they will deny, it is better to confront them with the consequences of their denial.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Believing, Doubting, and Receiving

I was often told that if I wanted God to answer my prayers, I had to believe, without any doubt, that he would answer my prayers. I found this very troubling. How could I not have doubts? There were already many prayers that had gone unanswered! How then could I not doubt that this latest prayer might also go unanswered? This teaching even threatened the little bit of faith that I did have, but this seemed to be James’ message:

  • If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does (James 1:5-8).
I liked the first verse. It promised that God would generously give me wisdom without censuring me for asking, and I certainly needed wisdom. However, it seemed that the following verses reversed this promise. I wouldn’t receive anything from the Lord because I struggled with doubt, and this made me “double-minded” and “unstable.”

I knew I couldn’t reach His standards, and so His promise of wisdom was useless to me. Even worse, my doubts suggested that I might not even be one of His children!

However, I began to see that many of God’s servants doubted, and God didn’t abandon them to their doubts. John the Baptist had doubted. Even though he had testified that he had seen the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus and referred to Jesus as the “Lamb who takes away the sins of the world,” he too doubted after he was thrown into prison. He therefore sent his disciples to Jesus to determine if He was really the Messiah.

Instead of sending John’s disciples back saying, “Just tell John to quit doubting,” He addressed his doubts with evidence:

  • "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5). 
In fact, Jesus always seemed ready to provide evidence to support the often-failing faith of His disciples. After His crucifixion, they were on a doubt-saturated retreat. However, He penetrated their locked safe-house to encourage them in the midst of their disbelief:

  • "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have" (Luke 24:38-39).
They doubted, yet they received! This relieved me, but it left me with another problem – How do I understand James? Perhaps there were different kinds of doubting, and perhaps James had a more serious form of doubting in mind.

James equated doubting with being “double-minded.” Perhaps he had the hypocritical, unrepentant sinner in mind, not the person struggling with honest doubts, like Jesus’ disciples.

I found that the Greek word for “double-minded” was used only one other time in Scripture, and that was in the fourth chapter of James:

  • Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up (James 4:8-10).
These verses revealed several things about this double-minded man. He was a “sinner” who had to repent, to “Grieve, mourn and wail.” Evidently, he hadn’t “come near to God.” He prayed and used God-talk, but his heart was far from God. It was no wonder that he would receive nothing from God until he humbled himself to confess his sins and double-mindedness.

It reminded me of when the Lord hosted the Prophet Ezekiel to a tour of the Temple to see the duplicitous secrets of the “seventy elders of the house of Israel”:

  • He said to me [Ezekiel], "Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, 'The LORD does not see us; the LORD has forsaken the land'" (Ezekiel 8:12-13). 
Outwardly, they might have looked pious, but inwardly, they had another life. This reminded me of friends who had also claimed that “the LORD has forsaken the land.” They had explained that they had prayed, but the Lord didn’t answer them. Since He hadn’t come through for them, they conveniently concluded that they would now have to take charge of their own lives, the very thing they wanted to do. They continued to pray, but now their trust was in themselves and not the Lord.

I began to notice that there were many kinds of doubting. Some kinds weren’t even contrary to faith. The Bereans doubted Paul’s message, but this kind of doubting was commended:

  • Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).

Doubt has a sanctified role in the life of a Christian

Prophets and teachers could not simply be accepted and believed. They had to be examined/doubted:

  • Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1). 
The church at Ephesus had been commended for this:

  • I know your deeds…I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false (Revelation 2:2).
It’s not easy being a doubter/tester, but I found that there is definitely a place for me in the Body of Christ. In fact, everything had to be doubted and examined to safeguard the church (1 Thess. 5:21; Deut. 13:1-5; 18:21-22).

I began to see that the “faith teachers” who teach that we have to close down our skeptical, doubting minds in order to receive anything from the Lord, are wrong. God gave us minds and doubts for a reason, to seek out and safeguard the truth.

There are others forms of doubting that are a normal part of growth. Growth is painful. For a tree to grow, it must break through its old barriers and defenses, the smooth bark that had once protected the tree. In the process, it develops tears and stretch marks associated with the rough bark of an older tree. We too have to grow by re-examining and breaking through our old boundaries—our old ways of thinking.

Believing was a stretch for Jesus’ disciples. He would often address them as “Ye of little faith.” They just weren’t getting it. They would try to make the stretch but would fall. On one occasion, they saw Jesus walking on the water towards their boat. In a great display of faith, Peter cried out:

  • "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. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!"  Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?" And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God" (Matthew 14:28-33).
Peter’s doubt wasn’t the result of a lack of commitment. Instead, he and the rest of the disciples weren’t fully convinced of Jesus’ divine identity. However, after this incident they expressed a deeper understanding: "Truly you are the Son of God."

We too have a deficient understanding of faith. We wrongly regard it as our personal possession and expect it to be fully amenable to our control and manipulations. We think that faith is about an amount, and then we place our faith in the sufficiency of our own faith. We look to ourselves instead of to Christ, our real hope. We become self-centered rather than God-centered. Instead, Jesus encouraged His disciples not to regard the extent of their faith but the object of their faith—God. The smallest measure of faith—a mustard seed’s worth—was enough. However, they would have to grow in their understanding of the One in whom they had invested their faith.

We all have to grow in our understanding of our Lord (2 Pet. 1:2-3; 1 Tim. 4:6; 1 Peter 4:12). There is no escaping this. I had tried to. I prayed that I would be relieved of all of my painful doubts and weakness-of-faith. However, this was not to be. Christ had another purpose for my weakness, my tendency to doubt everything that came my way. He would use this to create His strength (2 Cor. 12:9-10), a confident knowledge of Him. He coerced me, through the torment of doubts, to meditate on His Word day and night in hope of finding answers.

When I wasn’t able to find a way to reconcile stubborn verses, it felt as if I was drowning. I had banked everything on Scripture. I had walked out on the ice-covered lake. If it was not able to support the weight of my confused life, I would fall through the ice to my death.

I heard the ice crack all around me, but it never gave way. In retrospect, I realize that it had been underpinned by God Himself.

  • Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5).
My faith was a gift from my Savior, and He would safeguard it! We worry too much about the size of our faith and our control over doubts and thoughts, but we can do nothing without Him (John 15:5). Therefore, we have to entrust our growth to Him, as we actively apply His means of growth.

We have faith-impediments that are so deep that only He can uproot them at their foundation. We always try to compensate for our doubts and insecurities with self-trust, the very enemy of Christ-trust. We love to believe in ourselves, and so this bondage must be broken.

Jesus had sent out His disciples. After their return, a father claimed that they had failed to cast out the demon from his son. After Jesus cast it out, His disciples wanted Him to explain the reason for their failure:

  • "Why couldn't we drive it out?"  He replied, "This kind can come out only by prayer" (Mark 9:28-29).
What an embarrassing revelation! They had gone out to the mission field without prayer! Why? Evidently, they thought they didn’t really need it! Why not? They were convinced that they had what the job required. Their faith wasn’t truly in Jesus. Instead, they had to learn that, without Him, they were helpless! Their failures and self-doubts were necessary to teach them this lesson.

Other doubts are more serious

They represent a rejection of the faith.

  • The LORD said to Moses, "How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” (Numbers 14:11) 
Doubts were often used as justification for unbelief. The Israelites refused to believe and so they resorted to doubting that God could provide:

  • But they continued to sin against him [despite His many miracles], rebelling in the desert against the Most High. They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, "Can God spread a table in the desert?” (Psalm 78:17-19)
  • God's anger rose against them; he put to death the sturdiest among them, cutting down the young men of Israel. In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe (Psalm 78:31-32).
However, some reject the faith because of disappointment and can be brought back. Thomas had doubted his brethren’s accounts that they had seen the risen Savior. He refused to believe despite these accounts and Jesus’ many miracles and prophesies about His return. Nevertheless, Jesus appeared to him to give him the proof that he demanded, but He also chastened him:

  • Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). 
However, others remain hardened in their willful doubt and refusal to believe. According to John, when we harden our heart against the faith and willfully disbelieve, we are liars:

  • Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son (1 John 2:22; 5:10).

Why don’t we receive when we pray?

One reason is willful doubt, whether we call it unbelief or just rebellion. James ascribes it to wrong motives reflecting a wrong faith:

  • You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God (James 4:2-4).
Unanswered prayer is often a matter of sin and unbelief!  Peter gives us an example of sin that will block our prayers:

  • Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers (1 Peter 3:7).
There are many biblical references about how unrepented sin blocks us from receiving anything from God. However, will unwanted and unintentional doubting prevent us from receiving from the Lord? I’ve tried to argue against this. We all experience the temptation to sinfully doubt. Jesus was also tempted in every way that we are, except without sin (Heb. 4:15). Therefore, doubts and temptations, in themselves, aren’t sins. Rather, these particular temptations can be positively harnessed to propel a deeper, more prayerful investigation of the Word as we search for answers. Therefore, the doubt is not the problem but how we respond to it.

However, there are a couple of verses that seem to suggest that we shouldn’t even try to combat these doubts through study, but rather, we should shut down our minds to such doubts if our prayers are to be answered.

Peter wanted to know how Jesus was able to whither a fig tree by merely cursing it. Jesus explained:

  • "Have faith in God," Jesus answered. "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:22-25).
I think that understanding Jesus’ answer depends on understanding the phrase, “not doubt in his heart.” Jesus charges that we must “have faith in God.” How? By believing His Word and in “what he says will happen.” What would this consist of? Well, if He directed us to curse a fig tree so that it will wither, we should trust Him that “we have received it.” If His Word tells us that He will give wisdom to those who ask, we should take His Word for it and trust that we are receiving it!

However, Jesus adds what seems to be a blank check: “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” However, how can we believe that we have received unless it is something that God has already promised us? Certainly, I cannot expect Him to give me something that is sinful or something against His will because I simply asked without doubting! Therefore, the “whatever” needs to be qualified. It needs to be according to His will! The Father would never grant, “Lord I pray that Jesus will not be crucified.”

Even Jesus had to conform His prayer to the will of the Father:

  • Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup [the crucifixion] be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39).
Jesus’ “whatever” was not granted. Instead, He confessed that the will of the Father had to trump His own. Therefore, the “whatever” must be subordinated to the will of the Father.

However, there are also other things that limit the “whatever,” but this will have to wait until another installment.