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.

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