Jesus & Doubt

Paul McMullen —  March 15, 2017 — 4 Comments

Jerusalem_Gethsemane_tango7174

(By Tango7174 – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26323542)
(The picture above is the Garden of Gethsemane. The olive trees are thought to be millennia old, possibly the same trees that sheltered Jesus and his disciples 2000 years ago.)

Over the last two months, I’ve explored the topic of doubt in relation to faith through several posts. I’ve used the book Benefit of the Doubt, by Gregory Boyd, to help spur the discussion. In today’s post, I’d like to share some insights from chapters 5 in BotD.

The last biblical character we looked at was Job. Boyd suggests that Job’s faith was most on display through his honest struggle with God. In chapter five, we move on to Jesus himself.

If anyone had perfect faith it must be Jesus, right? And if perfect faith equals unquestioning certainty, then how do we explain the following two incidents in Jesus’ life?

First, we see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion (see Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22). How else can we describe this scene other than a struggle? Jesus is struggling with sleepy disciples. He is struggling with his own fears. And he apparently is struggling to accept the Father’s plan.[1]

Is it fair to say the incarnate Son of God struggled? Matthew’s gospel describes it this way, “…he became anguished and distressed. He told them, ‘My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death…’ He…bowed with his face to the ground, praying, ‘My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done not mine’” (Matthew 26:37-39, NLT).

Luke adds, “He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). How do we explain Jesus’ “agony” without saying he was honestly struggling with the Father’s salvation plan?

And for Boyd, the most striking display of Jesus’ own struggle in his relationship with Father God is seen on the cross. Jesus cries, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’” (Mark 15:34, NLT). Some have suggested that since Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1 with this sorrowful cry, he is alluding to the conclusion of that psalm which points to restitution for the sufferer. But Boyd rejects this reading. He believes this is the heart cry of Jesus’ actual experience on the cross. This is what Jesus felt – abandoned, forsaken.

This moment of horror and agony is, for Boyd, a moment of true faith and, even moreso, the greatest revelation of God’s self-giving love. It is God’s willingness to experience this pain and relationship-breaking separation, that shows the depths of where God is willing to go to bring His children back to him. 1 John 3:16 puts it this way: “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (NLT).

“…to ask ‘why’ and to question God cannot be weaknesses of faith.”

For those who follow Jesus, his example shows that to ask “why” and to question God cannot be weaknesses of faith. In which case, faith is more an authentic relationship of self-giving trust, rather than a blind adherence to theological, historical, and moral propositions. That is, struggling with what you believe concerning a host of spiritual and religious topics is not as important as being authentic in your search for God and your relationship with God. It’s not that those propositions are meaningless; rather, they are not the heart of faith.

So here we are. Do you often feel like you have more questions than answers when you consider a relationship with God? Do you look at the world and at various doubts and ask “why”? Are you upset that God feels distant or unconcerned? If so, you seem to be in good company. To follow Jesus in these moments might look like grief, anguish, anger, loneliness, and lots of yelling and crying. But Jesus didn’t keep his grief to himself. He looked to the Father with his pain. He didn’t run away from the situation. He lifted his groans to heaven and waited for an answer, and then kept walking forward.

How does this all strike you? I’m not suggesting this is what it always feels like to follow Jesus (or to have faith!). But I agree with Boyd that these moments of authentic doubt (questioning) and even despair are certainly a part of what it means to be a Christian.[2]

 

[1]Boyd suggests that Jesus “struggled on issues related to faith”, which seems a careful way to phrase it (BotD, 93). I think it is difficult to directly say that Jesus struggled with faith in terms of trusting the Father. But he certainly does question the Father.
[2]Boyd ends the chapter with a personal story of his own heart cry to God. It’s entertaining and very moving to read, so I encourage you to take a look even though we don’t have space to retell in this blog.

Paul McMullen

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I've worked with new churches and church plants since 2005. I enjoy writing, teaching, and small group conversations. I feel like I bring some steadiness and people-orientation to my pioneering environments.

4 responses to Jesus & Doubt

  1. 

    I think for Jesus Psalm 22 was a both/and situation. I don’t buy into “God turned his face away” because the text never says that. It demonstrates the humanity of Jesus: he FEELS abandoned. But he, as any other Jewish person of that era, knew the psalms by heart. It was Israel’s prayer and song book. The cry is real, but so is his desperate hope that he clings to: I WILL proclaim your faithfulness before the congregation. Why? Because I’ve put all of my eggs in this one basket. There is no where else to go!

    • 

      Great thoughts Darryl! I was in college at some point when I realized Jesus’ cry was from Psalm 22. I took it immediately that he was invoking the full meaning of the Psalm, including the vindication or hope of the end of that Psalm. I think that as I read Boyd’s take (and I couldn’t explore this in depth), he made a big deal about the real separation that takes place on the cross between Father and Son. His take is that this is the ultimate expression of God’s self-giving love, to be willing to suffer this breakage in relationship that had never been experienced in the Triune God. I agree with you that it is really conjecture on our part as to what took place within God in that moment. But it was important for me to realize that this wasn’t just another pious moment for Jesus, where he’s pointing the crowd of onlookers to the bigger picture of what’s happening (the fullness of Psalm 22). This wasn’t just a teachable moment. But instead this is the raw emotion Jesus was feeling. David’s psalm “gave him words”, that in the midst of pain came to his mind and heart. That’s why when I am feeling abandoned by God, I don’t have to politely say, “this too shall pass”; but instead I can cry out “where the heck are you?” I had overlooked the humanity of Jesus in this moment.

      • 

        Hmm, my last reply was lost. I completely agree. Jesus certainly is not dispassionately quoting Bible. His emotional-spiritual pain is clearly on full display. One doesn’t have to buy into Boyd’s argument fully to agree.

        This is another demonstration, too of the identification of Jesus with Israel. One of the primary questions of the book of Exodus is “Where are you, God?!” It is the raw question of abandonment. Yet the answer is “He is where he has always been: right in the middle of their experience.” He is intimately acquainted with their suffering because he experiences it too. Which is what the suffering of Jesus ultimately shows us, right? God doesn’t hide from suffering but spreads his arms to embrace it–even refusing anesthesia!

        Thanks for a great article.

  2. 

    Paul, you are right that propositions are not the heart of faith. And like you said, Jesus set the example to take the deepest matters to God and not say away.

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