Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.1 Timothy 1:13-14
The apostle Paul gives us a short, two-sentence description of his own testimony. He was once a bunch of things that were outside of God’s design for his life, but then he was shown mercy. God interrupted his life with mercy, grace, faith and love; Paul has never been the same. This is true for so many of us who follow Jesus.
Notice that he lists two things that kept him from fully embracing the gospel of Jesus in his former life: 1) ignorance, and 2) unbelief. These two have the same effect but are very different in terms of what is happening in our hearts.
The first, ignorance, in the Greek is the word “to know” with a negative prefix attached to it. So it literally just means “not knowing.” Sometimes we don’t believe something because we’ve never been taught it. We’ve never had someone take the time to explain it to us. We didn’t lack faith, we just lacked understanding. This is why teaching about the Kingdom of God in all its facets is so important. A huge portion of Jesus’s own ministry was teaching. He knew He had to help people embrace the truth with their minds so that they could embrace the truth with their lives. Hosea 4:6 says, “my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.”
When we don’t embrace the truth of the gospel or a truth of the Kingdom because of a lack of knowledge, I believe God has patience for that. He woos us and invites us into understanding. He sends opportunities to learn and grow. He sends people to challenge us with new ideas even if they are hard for us to embrace at first.
The second, however, is very different. The word translated as unbelief in the Greek is simply the word “faith” with a negative prefix attached. Literally it means “no faith, no belief.” It is one thing to be unaware of a truth; it’s another to be aware of it and simply reject it because of unbelief. This is when we allow doubt to dominate our thinking rather than faith. Doubt and skepticism are cheep imitations for real spiritual discernment. Over and over again in the scriptures we discover that God does not look kindly upon unbelief.
Unbelief is often equated with a hardness of heart in scripture (Mark 16:14; Hebrews 3:15-19). Unbelief is not an issue of the mind but an issue of our heart posture. It’s less about not agreeing with the right arguments and more about being unwilling to trust. Hebrews 3:12 says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”
Unbelief is often the result of a wound of the heart that never proper healed and instead calcified to protect itself. This calcification, this hardness of heart, then becomes unbelief. Unbelief and a hard heart don’t get softened from convincing theological arguments. Instead, unbelief must be surrendered so that God can do the softening. In other words, it is not a surrender of the mind but a surrender of the will that allows faith to emerge through the hard ground of unbelief.