We were on a rare date, tucked into a back corner of our favorite brewpub. Sitting across the table from my wife, I looked her in the eye and spilled the beans: “I’m struggling with…doubt.”
Maybe not the juicy confession one would anticipate from a husband to his wife, but it was a struggle I had held close for some time. As a pastor, a struggle with doubt isn’t the kind I was eager to make public. What would people think if they knew their pastor was wrestling with assurance of his faith? I was supposed to be the unwavering the one. The man with all the answers, the deepest joy, the utmost assurances. I was the one who was supposed to comfort others in their doubts.
But here I was, coming clean with my struggles.
And I found I was not alone, for my wife graciously admitted to her own struggle with doubt as well. The struggle of holding fast to faith and hope and joy in Jesus in the midst of an ugly and pain-filled world. Life is not easy, and strength-of-faith comes at a premium.
Reading the Gospels also helps me to know I’m not alone in my doubts. In fact, I’m in fairly good company.
In giving his account of Jesus’ life, Matthew the Evangelist gives a short account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to his disciples:
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:16-20)
Tucked in at the end of verse 17, three curious words stand out: “…but some doubted.”
Juxtaposed with “they worshiped him,” these words raise a number of questions: Who was doubting? What were they doubting? Why were they doubting? Did they keep doubting?
Matthew doesn’t answer these questions. He just leaves us with the bare existence of doubt.
And I think that’s important.
DOUBT AND DISCIPLESHIP
The disciples are notorious in the Gospels for their struggle with belief. This was the case even when they saw Jesus’ miracles and tasted his power.
Consider the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, recorded in Matthew 14. The disciples had just participated in another miracle, helping Jesus feed more than 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. He had now sent them in the boat ahead of him, across the Sea of Galilee at night. It was slow going. So slow that Jesus makes better time walking. On the water.
When the disciples see him they’re terrified. No one should be walking in the middle of the sea, especially in the middle of the night! Their immediate reaction was to think he was a ghost, to which he responds: “‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid’” (Matt. 14:27). A familiar refrain with Jesus.
Then Peter does something odd. He wants to make sure it’s Jesus and decides a good litmus test would be to ask the “ghost” to command him to come out on the water. Kind of an odd request, to which Jesus simply replies: “Come.” And Peter obeys. He gets out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus on the water. Then here’s what happens:
“But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matt. 14:30-31, emphasis mine).
This is the only other time in the entire New Testament where this little Greek word, translated “doubt”—the same word found in Matthew 28:17—is used. In this context, it probably means something more like to “hesitate” or “waver”. Peter’s hesitation causes him to fear, and fear is what often causes disciples to sink. Thankfully, Peter has enough faith to cry out to Jesus for help!
Likewise, when face-to-face with the risen Christ himself, doubt remained in the hearts of some of the disciples. Fear and faith dwelt in their hearts simultaneously. Worship and doubt co-existed.
Which gives me hope that my own struggles to believe, and the smallness of my faith, don’t disqualify me. In fact, Jesus says we only need a little bit of faith—a mustard seed will do. That’s enough for him to work with. Because if faith is a gift anyway, then it’s Jesus’ to bestow and it’s also his to grow.
JESUS MEETS US IN OUR DOUBTS
Like these disciples, many of us find our worship intermixed with doubt. This isn’t an excuse to nurture our doubt, but perhaps it gives us a hopeful notion of Jesus’ grace to us in the midst of our doubt.
The story of “doubting Thomas” is a great lesson for us, because Thomas wasn’t hesitant in his doubt. He was pretty firm about it. He required proof: “‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe’” (John 20:25b). In response to Thomas’ skepticism, Jesus doesn’t tell the other ten disciples: “Hey, forget that Thomas. I never liked the guy anyway!” No, he comes to Thomas and meets him square in the middle of his doubts and offers his hands and side for Thomas to examine.
What a beautiful grace to us in the midst of our doubt! Sometimes it’s in the place of our honest doubts and hesitations that Jesus meets us most profoundly. So don’t be afraid—bring your doubts to him. He can handle it, and he’s the only one who can remove your doubts and strengthen your faith!
LOOK TO JESUS!
For me, my doubt often revolves around myself. I doubt my worthiness. I doubt the strength or authenticity of my own faith. I wonder if Peter—who had denied Jesus three times—was one of the doubting disciples of Matthew 28:17. Maybe, like me, these disciples doubted they were good enough to be on Jesus’ team.
So the reasons for my doubt are various—fear, skepticism, self-questioning. So how do I move from doubt to faith? From hesitation to worship? Jesus himself answers this question in the next three verses of Matthew 28.
In what has come to be known as “The Great Commission,” Jesus makes three things clear: it’s all about him, he’s chosen us to tell his story, and his presence is a game-changer.
First, Jesus calls them to look to his authority and his power. Our tendency is to judge our worthiness by looking to our own strength or weaknesses, abilities or failings, victories or defeats. But Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Which means that the only strengths, abilities, and victories that matters are his. Our faith is only as strong as its object. Thankfully, the object of our faith is the strongest Person in the universe!
Second, Jesus picks them to carry his story. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a). Jesus gives honor to these disciples by giving them a place in his mission. A seat at the table. A position on the team. Nothing in this commission is centered on the disciples. It’s all about Jesus—his story, his message, his church, his glory.
My doubts arise when I look at myself, but Jesus calls me not to look at myself at all. He calls me to keep my eyes on him while I turn my eyes to the nations.
Finally, Jesus promises them his presence. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). He won’t abandon them. He will be with them every step of the way. The presence of the risen Christ, presently with his people in the Person of the Holy Spirit, works in us to keep our eyes on Jesus.
When Peter attempted to walk on the water, Jesus asked him why he doubted—that is, why he wavered. The wavering Jesus was referencing had to do with where Peter’s eyes were directed. In other words, “Why did you take your eyes off of me?” Because when Peter looked away from Jesus, only then did he begin to fear.
Doubt is nothing more than wavering in our view of the Risen Christ, turning our eyes to our circumstances, our own achievements or failures, or all the other things our hearts desire. Faith is looking to the only One who can save us, the only One who can rescue us, and the only One who is worthy of our trust. When we look to Jesus, our faith grows, because the object of our faith becomes bigger in our eyes.
And when Jesus is bigger to us, doubt and hesitation don’t have anything to hold onto.
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash