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.

Everything A Loss

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…

Philippians 3:4-9

I relate to Paul in this passage in so many ways. In seminary, I learned a lot. I met some of my best friends and met some of the greatest teachers. Some of those teachers have been life long models for me of Christ-likeness.

But there are so many things we were filled with in seminary, and it wasn’t the Holy Spirit. They taught us how to critique and doubt Scripture but not how to trust in it. They taught us how to deconstruct our faith but not how to rebuild it. They taught us to demythologize the miraculous stories of the Gospels, but they never taught us how to heal the sick, raise the dead, or cast out demons.

In other words, they taught us how to be a good Pharisee, a lot like Paul’s old life, but they didn’t teach us how to do ministry like Jesus and the disciples. They filled our mind with theology but didn’t fill our lives with the Holy Spirit. They imparted to us skepticism but never imparted the gifts of the Spirit. We became masters at reinterpreting passages of Scripture but not masters at submitting our lives to the word of God.

If anyone thinks they have reason to put confidence in their theological education, I have more. Indoctrinated by the third year; of the people who were moderate progressives; of the tribe of Emergents; a skeptic among skeptics. In regards to knowledge, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the Fundamentalists; as for righteousness based on cynicism, faultless.

Then I had a series of encounters with the Lord that changed everything. He showed me how my life, which I thought was full of healthy skepticism and cautious intellectualism, was really just full of unbelief. He showed me how toxic doubt had been in my life and how it had robbed me of a full life in Christ and had distanced me from the power of the Holy Spirit. He took me through a process of dismantling my resistance to Him. It took an overhaul of my heart and a renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2). And this process continues as He calls me into a bigger and bigger “Yes” with my life.

So now, whatever were gains to me in seminary I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…

Now I pursue something totally different. My desires have been changed by these intimate and profound encounters with the Lord. “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…”(Philippians 3:10).

Father, purge out of me anything that is not of You. Get rid of all doubt and hesitation. Get rid of slow obedience and replace it with quick obedience. Get rid of fear and replace it with faith and trust.