The Gospels are little more than one story after another of people struggling to believe.
When Jesus called his disciples, there wasn’t a single one who understood that he was the Messiah or Son of God. In fact, it took a divine revelation from the Holy Spirit to clue Peter in ahead of the others.
The vast majority of the people who listened to Jesus’ teachings and witnessed his miracles harbored misgivings about following him, and some outright opposed him. The rich made excuses and refused to leave their wealth behind. The religion scholars ticked off reasons to unfollow Jesus on their lists: he dines with sinners, he violates the Sabbath, he disregards traditions, he insults the elders, etc.
There’s no one who had Jesus figured out from the beginning, and even after three years by his side, his closest followers wavered and even faltered at key times. One plotted to have him murdered. As my friend Derek Cooper and I worked on our new book Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith From Those Who Doubted Jesus, we learned that the Gospels have a lot to say to us today about struggling with doubts. Just about everyone who met Jesus doubted at one point or another.
They struggled to believe in God’s mercy for sinners, let alone his forgiveness for themselves.
They witnessed miracles, and yet they prayed for help with their unbelief.
They saw bread multiplied for the multitude, but they failed to see how Jesus could be the bread from heaven.
When Jesus preached love of enemies, the religious leaders were driven by fear of their enemies to crucify him.
In one story after another, we read about people who failed to grasp the identity of Jesus. They had every opportunity to see his miracles and to listen to his teaching. Nevertheless, some of them slowly caught on, gradually working their way around the obstacles to belief—their own preconceptions about God and the Messiah, their preoccupation with observing the Law, and their personal hopes and fears.
The progress of Jesus’ disciples is slow and painstaking in the Gospels. The dramatic irony of these encounters is hard to read at some points. I want to jump into the story and shake them by the shoulders, snapping them out of it. How could they STILL doubt Jesus after he raised a young girl and Lazarus from the dead?
There’s no doubt (sorry!) that faith is the climax of the Gospel stories. The women run to tell the apostles that Jesus is alive, Peter and John see the empty tomb and finally understand, and this rag tag band of failed fishermen, insurrectionists and tax collectors finally set out to tell the world about Jesus, the Son of God and Messiah. The destination of the Gospels is faith, but the road to belief is lined with one doubt after another.
For every person who followed Jesus, there were many more who chose to return to their wealth, their work, their religious obligations or their political aspirations.
As we preach, teach and talk about doubt in our congregations, we can start with this point of common ground: Everyone who followed Jesus in the Gospels started out with doubt. Everyone needed time to sort out the identity of Jesus. Faith is often a process.
As often as we celebrate amazing “turning point” conversion stories, the Gospels tell us about another path to belief. It’s often a hard-fought, gradual struggle that passes through uncertainty and misconceptions.
There were many reasons to “unfollow” Jesus. However, Jesus convinced a group of followers from every walk of life to move beyond their doubts and to follow him. He so galvanized them with the hope of his message that they left everything behind to travel the world to tell his story.
They’d doubted, failed, ran away and asked one unbelieving question after another.
Time and time again, Jesus welcomed them back.
The Gospels give us time and space to believe. We may experience the Holy Spirit like a rushing wind or an unquenchable flame. Then again, we may run away, hide or confess our unbelief before we set out toward the empty tomb, one faltering step after another, until we’re able to see the truth about our Risen Lord.
Though many have unfollowed Jesus and many struggle to believe, there is time to work through our doubts.