Faith in the Shadows
By Austin Fischer
I love being a pastor and am called to be a pastor, but at times, doubt comes more naturally for me than faith. When a child dies, I don’t see a hidden joy and design behind the tragedy; I see nonsense. I don’t feel divinely comforted; I feel rage. So if you need your pastor to make it all make sense, to tie all the suffering nonsense up with a tidy bow, then I will disappoint you.
There are both a blessing and a curse here. The curse is that many things I’ve been told are “supposed” to come naturally for pastors do not come naturally for me. The blessing is that my situation has forced me to develop habits that can shape and sustain me as I live a life in service to a faith that does not always come naturally. What my faith lacks in ease it makes up for in grit, which is just as well because easy faith comes with its own set of problems. Stanley Hauerwas said, “Just as an athlete with natural gifts may fail to develop the fundamental skills necessary to play his or her sport after the talent fades, so people naturally disposed to faith may fail to develop the skills necessary to sustain them for a lifetime.” My bags are packed for the long haul. I hope yours are too. Because at some point in your life, I suspect you too might find yourself on the fringes of faith, and as you stand there in the shadows you will need grit. You will also need to know you are not alone and many stand with you.
When we walk down the long hallway of Christian faith, we find that many of our saints also had an inner skeptic. Think of Sarah, laughing at God’s promise to give her and Abraham a son in their advanced age. Think of Moses, the man who would argue with a burning and talking bush, insisting God had the wrong guy. Think of the despair in the lament psalms. Think of the apostles scoffing at the prospects of an empty tomb—the great apostles, first skeptics of the resurrection! Their skepticism has something to teach us, which leads us to the story of the Great Commission.
Jesus, newly risen, gathers his apostles and sends them out into the nations, making disciples and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But few recall what precedes this. The eleven apostles journey to a mountain in Galilee. They’ve been told Jesus will meet them there. They reach the top and there he is—the resurrected Christ! And what happens next is so incredibly strange: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17).
Wait. How could someone stand on top of a mountain, stare into the eyes of the resurrected Christ, and still doubt? How is that possible? This is a haunting question, to be sure, but it invites another question:
Why do most of us not know this story?
Given how deeply so many struggle with skepticism and doubt, how is it possible the church has not told us this story over and over? How is it possible so many people think their doubts disqualify them from faith when some of the apostles looked into the eyes of the resurrected Christ and still doubted?
Around a third of people who leave faith do so because of skepticism and doubt. Over a third of young adult Christians feel they cannot ask their most pressing questions in church. And over a third of young adult Christians feel Christians are too confident they have all the answers. Add these numbers and something becomes very clear and very sad. Doubt makes people abandon faith, but people don’t abandon faith because they have doubts. People abandon faith because they think they’re not allowed to have doubts. People abandon faith because, intentionally or unintentionally, they’ve been forced into an impossible, unbiblical, binary choice: You can have Jesus or you can have doubts, but you cannot have both.
So what will it be? Jesus or our doubts?
Thanks be to God, this is not a decision we have to make, and this brings us back to that mountain where the risen Christ stands with the eleven apostles.
Translating the Bible into English can be a bit tricky at times, and Matthew 28:17 is one of those times. Some difficult interpretive decisions have to be made in translation, and many translations make it sound as if some of the disciples are worshipping and some are doubting—as if ten are worshipping and one is doubting (we’re looking at you, Thomas). But a strong argument can be made, on grammatical and narrative grounds, that it is best translated, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but were not sure.”
In other words, it’s not that some worship while some doubt—it’s that all worship and all doubt. They all worship, even though they’re uncertain. Two thousand years ago, Jesus gathered a group of worshipping doubters on a mountain, sent them out, and the world was never the same. And this is why no one should ever think they must choose between Jesus and doubt. The church is built on people who lived the contradiction.
Excerpted from Faith in the Shadows by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com.