Belief, Doubt, and Submission
by Jack Wald | February 17th, 2013

Luke 4:31-41

Of all those Jesus encountered in his three years of ministry, who knew most clearly who he was? Moses and Elijah met with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and they certainly knew who he was. Everyone else seemed to know Jesus was someone special but were not quite sure about him. When Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was, they replied: (Matthew 16:14–18)
“Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

This is Peter’s great declaration of faith, being bold enough to say what the others speculated but were afraid to say. Peter took a risk, just like when he walked on water toward Jesus, and put his speculation out where it could be shot down.

When Annie and I were in Thailand visiting out daughter and her family, I went out one day and sat at a café and read through the gospel of Luke and parts of the other gospels. As I read, I wrote down how people responded to Jesus and that has become our Lenten series focus. Today and over the next six Sundays, we will look at some of the various ways people responded to Jesus.

As I read through Luke in the café in Chiang Mai, one of the things I noticed was that the beings who were most clear about who Jesus was were demons. People were confused about who Jesus was. Some called him Rabbi, teacher. Some thought he might be a prophet. Some wanted to make him king and have him lead them in a rebellion against the Roman occupiers. Some thought he was in league with the devil. But there was no uncertainty, no hesitation on the part of demons. In encounter after encounter the demons cried out:
Luke 4:34
“Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Luke 4:41
Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ.

Luke 8:28–29
When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man.

Before I tell you where my mind took me when I read these texts, let me tell you about demons. Most of what we know about demons is found in the Apocrypha, fourteen books written during the four hundred years between the Old Testament and New Testament. These books were influential and the New Testament writers often refer to the teaching of these books when they write.

But the New Testament itself says very little about demons. We know they are created beings. They are referred to as fallen angels and have power to do evil. They manifest themselves in possession of individuals, causing illness – although not all illness is attributed to demons. They are active in the world, working with the devil against the purposes of God, and like the devil, they are destined for judgment.

With that limited understanding, let me tell you where my mind took me when I read the reactions of demons to Jesus. In my early years as a follower of Jesus and at times since then, I have thought that it would be so much easier to believe if I could see Jesus. I envied the disciples because they got to walk with Jesus, talk with him, watch him. They saw him heal people. They saw him in his encounters with demons. They saw him die and then on the third day after his death they saw him in his resurrected body. They watched him walk through walls. They watched him eat a fish. They heard him speak. No wonder their lives were transformed. No wonder they were so dedicated. No wonder they were willing to die as martyrs for him. And I thought that if I could have that experience, then I would be a stronger, more faithful follower of Jesus.

And yet the demons knew Jesus at a far deeper level than any of the disciples. The apostle John spent three years with Jesus, was one of his closest disciples, and had a revelation toward the end of his life in which he saw the risen, resurrected Jesus in all his heavenly glory. But John, at least until his death, did not live with Jesus in the spiritual realm.

We have no idea when angels were created, but they existed long before humans were created. They were in the heavenly realm with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These fallen angels, demons, had no doubt about who Jesus was. They had every experience I ever wanted with Jesus but at a far deeper level. But then, what was the result?

The demons had no doubt about who Jesus was but they were actively working in opposition to him. Knowing who Jesus is, without any doubts, is obviously not the answer to having faith in Jesus.

So let me take off from this train of thought and make two points: First, you cannot have faith without the presence of doubt, and secondly, belief is not belief without submission and obedience.

First, you cannot have faith without the presence of doubt.

This is not immediately obvious. Consider the statements Jesus made about doubt.

When Peter stepped out in faith and began walking on water to Jesus and then began to sink, (Matthew 14:31)
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

When Jesus spoke judgment on a fig tree for not producing fruit and later that day the tree had withered, the disciples were amazed and asked him how this had happened. (Matthew 21:21)
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.

After Jesus resurrected from the dead, he appeared to his disciples. (Luke 24:37–38)
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?

Thomas had been absent when Jesus appeared to his disciples and doubted what they told him. Later when Jesus appeared to him he said to Thomas (John 20:27)
“Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

James, who relied on the teaching of Jesus more than any of the other letter writers in the New Testament said that if we lack wisdom we should ask for it. (James 1:6–8)
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. 7 That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

It seems clear that doubt is not encouraged in any way. It would be wrong for me to hold up doubt as a positive quality in our Christian faith. There is nothing admirable about doubt. Our goal is to have faith without doubt. But I would argue that faith without doubt is impossible and we should not dismay when we do have doubts.

Jesus wants us to have faith. James wanted the readers of his letter to have faith. I want us to have faith. But faith does not develop unless there is room for doubt. Certainty does not produce faith. When there is room for doubt, that is when faith grows.

Phil Yancy struggled a lot with the question of suffering. He wrote a book, Where Is God When It Hurts and as a result of that book, many people wrote to him, telling him of their struggles, telling him why it was so difficult for them to believe in a loving God. As a consequence, he wrote his next book, Disappointment With God, as a way of dealing with all the stories he received from people who were struggling with faith.

In this book he wrote about three questions many Christians ask but are afraid to verbalize. Is God unfair? Is God silent? Is God hidden?

Is God unfair? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why do people who are following him suffer? They ask the question that has been asked as long as man has been able to think: why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?

Is God silent? Why does God not speak to us when we pray for understanding and answers. Why is it that someone who has been faithful in following God and endures great suffering, pours out his or her heart to God and then there is no response? Why does God not speak to us when we are in such agony?

Is God hidden? Where is God? Why does God make it so hard to believe in him? Why doesn’t he show himself to us? Why doesn’t he at least send an angel to us to encourage us and let us know he exists?

These are questions many people ask and then Yancy thought about a time when God was fair. God was not silent. God was not hidden.

In the book of Exodus when Israel made their way from Egypt to Canaan, God was fair. He laid down the law with Moses and when someone disobeyed, they were punished. When they obeyed, they were blessed. And the result of his fairness was that people were terrified of him.

God was not silent. He let them know when to move by having the cloud over the tabernacle move. He made decisions for them by the casting of lots and the use of the Urim and Thummim. He gave them the Law, telling them what to do and what not to do. And what was the result? People pretty much did whatever they wanted to do. God’s direction did not result in an obedient people.

God was not hidden. He spoke with Moses in the Tent of the Tabernacle and when he did, a pillar of cloud, God’s visible presence, blocked the entrance to the tent. He was fearfully present at Mt. Sinai, with the mountain trembling and lightening and thunder and fire. Moses went up that mountain to meet with God and before he ascended, he told Israel that any man or woman who touched the mountain would die. God was visibly present and what was the result? While Moses was meeting with God, Israel decided to create an idol to replace him and were in the process of worshiping that golden calf when Moses came down from the mountain.

God was fair, he was not silent and he was not hidden but the result was rebellion, disobedience, terror – not faith.

In the great chapter in Hebrews that lists heros of the faith, the writer begins with this: (Hebrews 11:1)
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Faith grows best in the absence of evidence for what we believe. Faith grows best in the presence of doubt.

One of the best examples of this is Abraham, the father of our faith. God promised him he would be the father of a great nation, even though he and Sarah had no children. His faith is illustrated by his waiting most of his life, until he and Sarah were old, well past the time when they could conceive a child, before they finally had a son. God promised Abraham his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky and yet for year after year he and Sarah had no children. Abraham is the father of our faith because he continued to believe God’s promise despite the lack of any evidence to support it.

We crave certainty. We want to believe in what we can sense with our five senses but God wants us to grow in faith because that is all we will take with us into our heavenly existence. God wants us to be rich in faith when we enter his kingdom so God has to work in our lives against our basic instincts.

Let me give an example. Jews came to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray and make their sacrifices. They came to the place where God dwelt on earth, but where was he? So Israel did in the Temple what they did at the foot of Mt. Sinai. When they could not see God, they created a god. At Mt. Sinai, Aaron collected their gold and made a calf for them to worship. In the temple, they took an ancient relic, a bronze serpent, and turned that into an idol they named Nehushtan.

Seven hundred years earlier in the Exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel rebelled and were afflicted with a plague of poisonous snakes. As they suffered, God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Anyone who looked at the bronze snake would be healed.

For over seven hundred years this bronze snake was kept in the tabernacle and later, the temple in Jerusalem. It was a treasured relic. But over time it became the object of worship of people who came to the Temple. So when Hezekiah became king of Judah and instituted reforms, he got rid of the Asherah poles and other places where idols were worshiped and he also destroyed the bronze serpent.

What could be seen replaced the God who is not seen. There has to be room for doubt if faith is to grow but we do all we can to get rid of room for doubt and replace it with certainty.

I know a woman who suffered back pain for two years rather than go to a doctor and get the operation she needed. Why did she choose to suffer so long? She kept waiting, wanting God to heal her supernaturally. A supernatural healing confirms that God is present and makes faith more certain. How many of our prayers are directed toward making what we believe more certain? We seek the spectacular to make what we believe more clear. We hold on to miraculous stories and sometimes exaggerate them so our faith will seem more certain.

At various times in my life I have gone away to a retreat center for three days to fast and pray. I remember one time going away to fast and pray and wanting so desperately to have an angel appear to me. For three days I kept looking up, wondering when it would happen – but there was no angelic appearance. Why did I want to see an angel? I wanted certainty in my life that God existed.

I think I may have wanted to see an angel at that time because I had talked with a friend who did see an angel. I believed him when he told me this. I do not disbelieve the existence of angels, but it seems to me that God does not see the benefit of revealing himself to me that way. God is at work in me to grow my faith and the appearance of an angel would work against that in my case. I wanted to see an angel to have my faith grow but God has a different way of growing faith in me.

As I have mentioned, the worst year of my life was 2010 when the parents of the children at the Village of Hope were deported, along with 134 other foreign Christians who had been living and working in Morocco. I was devastated and unable to trust God even to pray before a meal. That was a very difficult year in which my faith was shaken to its roots. And yet, in that year, my faith grew.

I wrote a letter to friends at the end of that year and three or four people emailed me to say it seemed I had grown in faith. I responded by saying that if I had grown in faith, it was not intentional. All I had done was to hold on to Jesus and refuse to let go, despite the chaos and pain of what was happening.

Our faith grows best when we go through difficult experiences and we refuse to let go.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book, Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil writes to a junior devil about his work to pull people away from faith in God. In one letter he writes:
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Growing in faith does not come easily. Do not be dismayed by doubt. Persevere. Do not let go of Jesus. You cannot have faith without the presence of doubt.

Jesus had appeared to his disciples after his resurrection but Thomas was not present. When the others told him they had seen Jesus he could not believe them. Then Jesus appeared again and this time Thomas was there. (John 20:26–31)
Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Why are we, who have not seen Jesus, who have not had the opportunity to touch his side and see his wounds, blessed? We are blessed because our faith grows best when there is room for doubt.

Secondly, and briefly, belief is not belief without submission and obedience.

James wrote in his letter: (James 2:18–19)
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Demons know that Jesus is the Son of God. James wrote that they believe there is one God. But it is clear that knowing Jesus is the Son of God is not enough.

When I was in university, I met people who talked about Jesus as a person you could have a relationship with. This was news to me. I had grown up in the church. I had been an altar boy in the Lutheran Church. I had been active in my Presbyterian youth group, serving as a junior deacon. I had heard the Bible stories but now I was in university and not sure that God really existed.

One young woman encouraged me to begin praying, asking God, if he existed, to reveal himself to me and I began to do that.

At the time I was shoplifting, mostly books. One day I stepped into a store to steal some books and then as I stood in the door of the store, I knew God was watching me. It was clear to me that he existed and with someone watching me, I could not steal books. Shoplifting is something done when no one sees you and so with an awareness that God was there and watching me, I turned around and walked out of the store. I knew that God existed but then it took a couple more months before I came to the point of submission and chose to live my life for God.

This is the first big step required of us if we are to become followers of Jesus. We have to realize that we are not the center of our universe and we are created to serve our creator in a relationship of love. We follow the example of Jesus who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested and taken to be crucified. He prayed: (Luke 22:42)
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

We enter faith in an initial act of submission but then it is followed by innumerable times when we have to choose to submit to God.

In my early months of following Jesus I had to choose not to get drunk when I went out with my roommate. I had to choose to treat women with respect as God’s creation. I had to choose to use the money I had for God’s purposes and begin to tithe what I received.

In the years that followed I have had to choose to submit to God in each relationship of my life. I have had to choose to forgive, choose to see people with God’s eyes rather than my own, choose to encourage people rather than assert my rights, choose not to express my judgments and keep an open mind about people, choose not to speak unkind words but to build up people with the words I speak.

I have had to submit to God as I resisted temptation or as I turned back to God after giving in to temptation. I have had to submit to God in the expression of my emotions. I have had to submit to God in my dreams and ambitions.

It is true that I have often chosen badly and have had to come back with a renewed desire to follow Jesus. We are not perfect and it is a struggle to resist our human nature and put Jesus first. This is a daily struggle and some days I do better than others but there is never a day when I do not have to tell God I am sorry for asserting my will rather than seeking his will for my life.

In our relationship with God we are continually faced with a choice of living for ourselves or living for Jesus. Our submission to God has to be continual because my human nature keeps asserting itself.  I keep wanting to choose myself.

Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God? Saying yes to that question is not enough. Are you holding on to Jesus through the difficult periods of your life? Are you daily, hourly, submitting to God, trying to live for Jesus in every part of your life? Are you persevering in faith as you follow Jesus? Are you holding on to the love of Jesus as you work to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in his transformation of you? Are you holding on to Jesus with hope? Saying yes to these questions is what our life as followers of Jesus is all about.