The Toxicity of Unbelief

“Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” … Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. 

John 12:36-37

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 

So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

Hebrews 3:12 & 19

Living in a culture that celebrates doubt can cause us to forget all the warnings from Jesus and from the rest of the New Testament against unbelief. Scripture does not paint unbelief as something that everyone should embrace as a “normal” part of life. Instead, unbelief is regularly warned against as something that is toxic and damaging.

Imagine you are in an ancient army, fighting a foreign enemy for the sake of your King and the Kingdom to which you belong. Battle can become wearisome. Armor can get heavy. There are always casualties of war and that, by itself, can be discouraging. But imagine you press through all of this to continue to fight valiantly for your King.

Now imagine as you enter the battlefield one of the soldiers behind you says, “You know, I’m not sure I believe in our king anymore. I’m not sure we even have a king. Further, I don’t think that army over there is real either. I have serious doubts that we are even in a war. This army that you talk about us fighting against, maybe it’s just a figment of your imagination. Yesterday I was talking to this nice merchant who sells furs, I think her name was Lucy, and she told me she’d pay me a bonus fee to go home. I’m tired anyway, so I think I’m going to take her up on her offer.”

What is your response to your fellow soldier? Are you inclined to coddle them with, “Oh, I totally understand. It’s normal to question whether the King is real and whether that army over there is just a fictitious mirage. Take your time and go home. We’ll be here bleeding and fighting if you ever think you might want to return.” Is that what you’d say? I hope not.

My guess is that most of us would tap into our inner Master Sergeant and begin to challenge our fellow soldier to stay in the fight. We would remind him not to be deceived by Lucy’s lies and not to give up. We’d remind him of how much we need him supporting our flank and how being tired should never lead us into unbelief, no matter how tired we get. The King has called us to war and the Kingdom needs us to be all in! It’s a privilege and an honor to be in the King’s army, even when it’s hard.

Let’s call unbelief what it really is. It is deception. And the end result of unbelief is cowardice. It’s choosing the comfort of the couch over the challenge of the battlefield.

Some Doubted

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

Matthew 28:16-17

Some doubted!?! Let that sink in! They stood in the presence of the resurrected Jesus and still doubted. What? This is the same Jesus that casted out all manner of demons, demons who couldn’t stand to be in His presence. This is the same Jesus who healed all manner of diseases. This is the same Jesus who conquered sin and death.

To me it begs the question, “Why wasn’t doubt obliterated in His presence?”

I believe the root of this reality is that Jesus refuses to override our free will. Our faith will never be forced. God is not a coercive or abusive God, forcing Himself upon people. Instead, God patiently waits for our “Yes.” It doesn’t have to be a big yes. It can be as small as a mustard seed. But He won’t force Himself upon us.

This means the opportunity to doubt will always be there. Even if the resurrected Jesus stood right in front of you, you would still have the option of doubting. You will always have that option. We will also always have the option to believe and not doubt. This is the beauty of it all.

If people can still doubt Jesus even when His miraculously resurrected body stands right in front of them, then people will find reasons to doubt any sort of miraculous event. The spirit of unbelief is a demonic weed that will find any crack in your heart and set down roots as soon as possible.

Faith is choosing to trust. And no matter what we face, no matter the impossible situation in front of us, we can always choose to trust God, to trust His character, to trust His nature. He is worthy of our trust.

Have the seeds of doubt found a way into your heart?

Good Question

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 

Matthew 22:29

The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, so they tried to trap Jesus with a theologically difficult hypothetical situation. They wove this complex story that they thought would trap Jesus.

Jesus responds with the above reply. He tells them that the question itself is based off of faulty assumptions and that the question itself is in error. He would then go on to give them an answer to their question and challenge their assumptions about the resurrection.

But we should stop and notice that it wasn’t the answer that the Sadducees got wrong; it was their question that they got wrong. If we ask questions that are filled with faulty assumptions and poor understandings then it doesn’t matter the answer; any and all answers will be in error. Jesus had to correct their question before He corrected their answer.

Notice why their question was in error. Jesus lists two reasons: 1) they didn’t know the Scriptures and 2) they didn’t know the power of God. In other words, if we don’t have a working knowledge of BOTH the Scriptures and the power of God we’ll not only get our answers wrong, we’ll ask questions that are full of error.

How many evangelicals know the Scriptures but have no understanding of God’s power? How many charismatics have understanding of God’s power but have no understanding of the Scriptures? How many mainline protestants have no working knowledge of either? We shouldn’t then be surprised when the questions people are asking are full of error, not to mention their answers.

If you’ve never operated in the power of God, then learn from those who have. It’s arrogance to do otherwise. If you don’t know much about the Bible, then learn from those who do. It’s arrogance to do otherwise. Only then will we start to ask good questions, questions that lead to the truth instead of questions that lead to unbelief and doubt.

For example, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is a question that is full of error. It assumes the people are good and puts God’s goodness on trial, as if God should prove Himself to us, and yet our goodness goes without question. Can you see how arrogant this question is? Can you see how full of error it is? Once you ask such a poorly framed question, you’re bound to get a bad answer.

Yet, we know people are not “good” but are full of sin. We know people do all kinds of evil in the world. We know secret sins of every kind abound. Yet, God can only and always be perfectly good. So His goodness is never on trial. He never has to prove Himself to humanity (especially not after what He did on the cross).

So a better question would be “Why do so many good things happen to all of us who are so deeply messed up?” This is a good question, one worth pondering. And ultimately, while our goodness is on trial (as it should be), God is revealed for who He really is–a loving and gracious Father, slow to anger and abounding in love.

If you ask bad questions, you’re bound to get bad answers. Are there questions that you’ve been asking that are full of error? Do they need to get reframed in light of truth?

If we want to ask good questions, we must know the Scriptures and the power of God. Only then will our questions align with the truth. And God is pleased to answer all of our questions aligned with the truth.

Signs of Unbelief

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.

Matthew 16:1-4

The Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders in that community, asked Jesus to show them a sign from heaven. They wanted to test whether they could really believe Jesus was legitimate. Jesus refuses.

It’s important that we understand why Jesus refuses. This is not Jesus saying He won’t do signs and wonders. He had already performed hundreds and hundreds of healings. He had already cast out an overwhelming number of demons. He had already miraculously fed the 5000 (Matthew 14) and then turned around and miraculously fed the 4000 (Matthew 15). And with these miracles we see it bolster people’s faith. Jesus expects miracles to increase faith. But the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) teaches us that it all depends on the soil of our heart.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were around for most of these healings, miracles and deliverances. They had already seen sign after sign from heaven of Jesus’s legitimacy. But their pride caused their hearts to be full of unbelief, doubt and skepticism. So they wanted another sign. Jesus refused to bow down to their unbelief and doubt.

Jesus refuses to bow down to our unbelief and doubt. Instead, He invites our unbelief and doubt to bow down to Him. Jesus is more than willing to show us miraculous signs, but He is unwilling to throw pearls to pigs (Matthew 7:6). He refuses to be treated like a side show, a novelty act, just for the sake of people’s stubborn unbelief.

Right now, so much of our culture operates with the unbelief, doubt and skepticism of these Pharisees and Sadducees. I’ve seen many of my friends go through a process that is called “deconstruction.” I went through it too. It is basically a process of doing surgery on your faith. It’s like breaking a bone that’s not growing correctly in order to set it properly. At least that is what it is supposed to be.

But so many of my friends didn’t go through this process in an atmosphere of faith. It would be like doing surgery on yourself in an open field. It’s not so much the surgery that causes so much damage; it’s the infection that comes from doing the surgery by yourself in an unclean environment that ends up doing the damage.

When deconstruction is attempted on your own in an environment that is filled with doubt, inevitably the infection of unbelief seeps into your bones. Deconstruction itself–when done with spiritual guidance, in community, and in an atmosphere of faith–can be useful. But when it’s done in isolation, without spiritual guidance, in an environment of doubt, unbelief is often the result. Deconstruction in this context will tear down a person’s faith without reconstructing a healthy faith on the other side. It’s like breaking a bone and never resetting it.

If we’re looking for a sign to overcome our unbelief and doubt, Jesus advises us in this passage to look first to the sign of Jonah. In other words, look first to His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead three days later. That is our primary “sign from heaven” that builds faith. The apostle Paul said it this way:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:6-8

While uncertainty is a normal part of the Christian life, unbelief is not. Unbelief (often labeled “doubts”) is an infection that can grow to the point of killing one’s faith. Don’t let it. We are not helpless, passive victims of unbelief as if we can’t do anything about it. Root it out of your heart as soon as possible. Choose to trust God. Choose to trust scripture. Choose not to give in to your doubts.

The Wise and Learned

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

Matthew 11:25-26

Pride and arrogance shut down our ability to receive and hear from the Lord. Jesus praises His Father for hiding the secrets of the Kingdom of God from the wise and learned. Access to the deep things of God doesn’t come through theological education or years of bible study. It comes through intimacy with Jesus, the kind of intimacy where we operate in faith like a child.

This is the danger of formal theological and biblical education. I was a biblical studies major in college. I went on to seminary to get my Masters of Divinity. I value theological education and I am so glad that I learned all that I did in those settings. But if one does not maintain faith like a child in those settings, it can become a trap.

I saw so many friends lose their faith in those schools. I saw so many other friends embrace doubt and skepticism. I saw classmates start to reject the very scriptures that they had previously built their lives upon. I saw identities change from “children of God” to “wise and learned.” And then they’d wonder why God felt so “hidden” from them.

In part, this happened to me. I fell for one of the enemy’s oldest tricks. The temptation is to exchange information for intimacy. The more information I got, the less intimacy I thought I needed. And while I didn’t come close to losing my faith, I did lose my confidence in the truth of scripture. By the time I left seminary, my faith was riddled with bullet holes of doubt, skepticism and cynicism. I didn’t understand how toxic it really was until years later.

It took a radical disruption from the Holy Spirit and a process of Jesus renewing my mind in order to set me free from the demonic chains of unbelief. As I had encounter after encounter with the living God through the power of the Spirit, my skeptical mind was washed clean. I had renewed faith in the reality of the Kingdom of God on the earth, the truth of the gospel, and the trustworthiness of the Bible.

A woman spontaneously spoke a prophetic word over my life months before the radical disruption of the Holy Spirit began. She said to me, “You will walk in the power of God like the disciples leaving the upper room, but lean not on your own understanding.” This word over my life has become true, but the chronology of it was reversed. I had to first “lean not on my own understanding” before I ever experienced the power of God.

In order for God to reveal to me His power, He had to strip away what I thought I “knew.” He had to strip away my titles of “wise and learned” and had to return me to child-like faith and trust in the Lord. These deep truths of the Kingdom are hidden from the wise and learned but revealed to little children.

Are there parts of the Bible that you’ve rejected because you are now wise and learned?

Where does God need to return you to child-like faith?

Consequences of a Miracle

Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

Matthew 11:20-24

Jesus expected people who had experienced or witnessed miracles performed by Him to respond in repentance and faith. Every time Jesus would heal a broken body, cast out a demon, cleanse a leper, or raise the dead it was a sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on earth. Repentance and faith are the natural responses to the invasion of the Kingdom.

Yet, instead of repentance and faith, many people responded only with curiosity and amazement. Unfortunately, many people still do. While curiosity and amazement are normal reactions to the miraculous, if it stops there–if it never gives birth to repentance and faith–then the condition of the heart is not where it needs to be.

If a skeptical, unbelieving heart is confronted with a legitimate miracle, that person stands at a crossroads. They can continue in unbelief or they can repent for their unbelief and choose faith. Jesus expects the latter.

We live in a culture that thinks it’s okay to justify our unbelief by continuing to ask for more evidence. We get piles and piles of evidence and still ask for more. We give our unbelief names like “caution” and “wisdom.” But we don’t admit to what it really is: a hardness of heart, a lack of faith.

Miracles, signs and wonders are dangerous in this way. They put everyone involved at a spiritual fork in the road. It’s one thing to waver in doubt having never been exposed to healings, miracles or deliverance. But once you are confronted with a miracle, there’s no more wiggle room. You either believe or you reject. You either repent for your unbelief or you walk away shackled to your unbelief. There’s no more in-between. And there are severe consequences for staying in your unbelief.

Are you still wavering in doubt and unbelief?

Have you embraced the miraculous or would you feel right at home in Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum?

Overcoming Unbelief

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

Matthew 11:2-6

Remember that John the Baptist was one of the first people to announce that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 3; John 3:22-36). John was the one who baptized Jesus in water, saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Him, and heard the voice of the Father speak words of love and identity over Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17). John the Baptist is the one who saw Jesus and declared, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!“(John 1:29).

But we also know that John the Baptist was persecuted by Herod the tetrarch because John spoke out against Herod’s unlawful marriage to Herodias–his brother Philip’s wife (Matthew 14:3-12). John was stuck in prison and probably expecting his impending death. John was having a moment where he was struggling to believe in the calling on his own life and the truth about who Jesus was. Even after all that John the Baptist had seen and heard from the Lord, his difficult circumstances were causing him to wonder if Jesus really was the one they were all waiting for. Doubt can creep in like that!

Has anyone ever been there?

Notice Jesus’s response. He doesn’t launch into a theological argument proving that He is the Messiah. Instead, Jesus lists the miracles that He had been doing on a daily basis. The best evidence of Jesus being the Messiah, the Savior of the world, was the miracles. They not only fulfilled prophecy about His life but demonstrated the tangible reality of the Kingdom of God on earth.

So why did Jesus conclude with, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me?”

I believe Jesus knew that John, and many others, had different expectations of how things would turn out. John didn’t expect, as the Elijah-figure preparing the way for the Lord, that he would spend his final days in prison. He didn’t expect his life to end by execution. And many others didn’t expect the Messiah to go to the cross.

We are witnessing here the same juxtaposition that we experience in our own lives. Jesus is opening the eyes of the blind, causing the lame to walk, cleansing those with leprosy, opening the ears of the deaf, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor. And yet He’s not miraculously getting John out of prison. He’s not miraculously sending angels to bust John out of prison, saving him from execution (which we know He can and will do at times according to Acts 12 & 16).

This is the tension of the Kingdom of God growing side-by-side with the kingdom of darkness (Matthew 13:30). This tension can cause many to “stumble on account of (Jesus)“. As followers of Jesus we have to live in this tension while living in this broken world. The Kingdom of God is breaking out all over the world but so is the kingdom of darkness. We have to keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. We have to keep our eyes focused on what He IS doing and not get sucked into focusing on what we think He should be doing.

I also think this passage in Matthew 11 points to the necessity of signs, wonders, miracles, healings, deliverance, and prophecy. The operation of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12) not only strengthens the church, but it also combats unbelief. It helps people know that the Kingdom of God is a tangible reality on the earth and not just a theory, not just a belief, not just a religious principle.

When our faith wavers, sometimes we need to see the power of God on display right in front of us. We need to know that Jesus is still opening the eyes of the blind, causing the lame to walk, cleansing those with leprosy, opening the ears of the deaf, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor today!

So many Christians today who do not believe in the miraculous gifts and do not operate in the miraculous gifts are falling away from their faith. In a cultural sea of unbelief and doubt, tangible and experiential evidence of God’s supernatural power is irreplaceable.

Have you seen God do the impossible recently?

The One Who Doubts

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

James 1:5-8

It has become popular to celebrate “doubt” in Christian circles as something that should be embraced and welcomed. It is a cliche at this point to say, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith.” Believers are encouraged to embrace their doubts and live with them as a sort of conversation partner with faith.

That all sounds great, and I am sure it is comforting to those who have doubts. The only problem with it is that it is the complete opposite of what scripture says and how Jesus lived and taught His own disciples.

This verse in James does not have nice things to say about doubt. It is not something we embrace. It is something we fight against. It is not something that acts as a conversation partner to faith. It is something that erodes faith. I have cast out a spirit of doubt in more than enough deliverance sessions to know that doubt is a demonic tool of the enemy.

We need to clarify what we mean when we are talking about doubt. Doubt in this James passage is the opposite of belief. When we ask the Lord for something like wisdom, we are commanded to believe and not doubt. This Greek word translated as “doubt” is the same word translated as “waver” when describing Abraham’s faith in Romans 4:20, “he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God.” So we see that when scripture talks about doubt, it is talking about unbelief.

Yet, there has been a bit of a slight of hand in the language used today in the church. Many people who celebrate “doubt” are meaning to say “uncertainty.” They want to create room for the Christian not to be certain about everything. And I whole-heartedly agree with that intention. In the life of faith there are many uncertainties that will never fully be resolved until we are in eternity. The apostle Paul affirms this reality to the Corinthians when he says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”(1 Corinthians 13:12).

Uncertainty is a lack of knowledge that, when addressed humbly, leads to intellectual curiosity, pursuit of God, and a kind of soul rest in the presence of mystery. However, doubt is a lack of trust that often leads to distance from God, a skeptical attitude, and a cynical outlook. Doubt demands knowledge before trust while uncertainty acknowledges trust as the gateway to greater knowing. Doubt comes with accusations while uncertainty comes with an admission of our own limitations.

So while we can and should admit uncertainties, we should reject doubt as described in the Bible. Doubt in the Bible is unbelief and is toxic to our life of faith. The one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind“(James 1:6). James does not celebrate the Christian who doubts as “normal” and “natural.” Instead, he makes it clear that a person who lives in doubt “is double-minded and unstable in all they do“(James 1:7). These are the words of scripture, not my words.

But we really shouldn’t be surprised by James’s words. Jesus was no less combative toward doubt. After causing the fig tree to shrivel up, Jesus said:

“Truly I tell you, 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. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Matthew 21:21-22

His words to Thomas were even stronger:

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.”

John 20:27

So if we struggle with doubts, we should not embrace them. We should not celebrate them. Doubts are also not an opportunity for us to feel shame, self-condemnation, or self-pity. They are, instead, an opportunity for repentance. Doubts need to be acknowledged not so that they can be conversation partners with faith but so that they can be surrendered and removed. Cancer cells are not partners with healthy cells. They are toxic invaders that need to be found and removed.

Most of the time, underneath a particular doubt or area of unbelief, is a wound of the heart. Until that doubt is acknowledged as both real and unwanted, the wound underneath can never be exposed and healed. Doubt is not a problem of convincing the mind but of healing the heart. This is why we need to ask God for wisdom. We need His wisdom in eradicating doubt from our lives.

Unbelievable Unbelief

So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

Hebrews 3:7-8, 12-13

In God’s Kingdom, unbelief causes us not to be able to enter in. For that first generation of Israelites, unbelief caused them not to be able to enter the Promised Land. So they wandered in the desert until a new generation emerged. Speaking of this unbelieving generation of Israelites, the writer of Hebrews says, “So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19).

How do we get to this place of unbelief?

First, sin begins to lie to us about ourselves and about God. Sin either makes us feel shame and guilt–which makes us want to separate ourselves from God–or begins to make us feel like God is holding out on us. In the end, sin, if not repented of quickly, begins to erode our trust in God. Our doubts begin to creep in and God no longer seems trustworthy. This is “sin’s deceitfulness.”

This then leads to a hardening of our hearts. Thick walls of doubts and deception begin to form around our hearts as a means to protect it. If we are in relationship with someone (a spouse for instance) and they don’t seem trustworthy anymore, then we build defensive walls around our hearts in order not to get hurt. We do the same with God.

These walls–this hardening of the heart–form a stronghold in our feeling and thinking. Strongholds are fortifications of intricate lies that have been woven together. We are lied to by the enemy and told that these strongholds will keep hurt out. But what they keep out are things like faith, trust, hope and experiencing the love of the Father.

People say, “I just can’t feel God anymore” and they make the statement as if it is some indictment against God…as if He somehow distanced Himself from them. But this confession is a self-indictment about the self-protective walls we’ve allowed to surround and harden our hearts.

Unbelief is sin. Unbelief is rebellion. Unbelief is a choice. Often, it is the by-product of a hundred little choices. And it is very different than uncertainty. A life of faith is full of uncertainties. But a life of faith is also full of trust, full of hope, full of love for God, full of intimacy with God. Unbelief separates us from God.

Just as unbelief kept the Israelites from entering the Promised Land, it keeps us from entering God’s Presence. Unbelief keeps us from experiencing and encountering the Holy Spirit. Unbelief keeps us from entering into the gifts of the Spirit. I know because I lived in that specific unbelief for years.

We, as the American Church, have to stop celebrating unbelief as if it is a natural and inevitable part of following Jesus. It’s not! Uncertainty is a natural and inevitable part of the faith journey, but unbelief is not. Not distinguishing between the two is harmful to the process of discipleship.

Compared to our Christian brothers and sisters on the continents of South America, Asia, and Africa, North American Christians are steeped in the sin of unbelief. And the first step to ridding ourselves of sin is repentance. The proper response to our unbelief is not to accept it as “normal” but to repent of it and renounce it in Jesus’ name.

Ignorance and Unbelief

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.