Doubting Disciples: What You’ve Really Needed

It would be very easy to recommend to you a book or some speaker or a lecture or sermon as a way to combat the doubts that are in your heart and head. I haven’t been writing to cure you of your doubts, though. You might look back on this time of your life and realize that you needed to ask questions in order to become the kind of person you should be. If that’s the case, then I wouldn’t want to rob you of it.

In my last post of the “Doubting Disciples” series, I want to point out instead what I think you need. It’s not to re-read The Case for Christ. It’s not to memorize a certain verse.

What you need is an encounter with the resurrected Jesus.

He has been what you’ve always needed, doubts or not.

The whole episode on the Emmaus road would never have done for the two disciples what it did had Christ himself had shown up there as a stranger, engaging people and secretly pursuing them. Yes, Jesus taught them things from the Scriptures in those moments, so someone might be inclined to argue that we really do need deeper study into the Bible.

I disagree. Those disciples knew the Scriptures. They’d also been learning from Jesus prior to his execution. And if they got something out of that teaching session in Luke 24, it’s because Jesus was the one who was doing the teaching.

They needed Jesus.

When Jesus disappeared from their dinner table, the two disciples didn’t run back to their friends to talk about the amazing Bible study they just had. They talked about the resurrected Jesus. As well they should. If they had any reason to believe again, it was because of him.

They needed Jesus.

So do I, in my moments when I’m not even sure I want to keep being a Christian. And believe me, those moments hit me more times than I’d like them to. I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore. I’m tired of having to justify why some Christians live no differently than anyone else but still feel inclined to believe that they’re going to heaven and the others are going to hell. And lest you think I’m simply judging other believers, you can keep yourself from leaving an upset comment: in many ways, I’m indistinguishable from my non-Christian friends or family members, which makes me much less inclined to inform them that I’ve found some eternal truth that they haven’t.

I need Jesus. In my fragile moments, I need him even as I’m questioning whether I want him anymore.

And you need him, too.

Your search for the validity of the Christian faith is not going to mean much in the end if it doesn’t somehow lead you to Christ. And I have no idea how that journey might go or how long it might last. Abraham waited years before he and his barren wife miraculously conceived; deaf and blind people who asked Jesus for a miracle, meanwhile, were answered right that moment. How God might answer you is really up to Him.

Until then, I hope my previous posts help you on the way. Don’t forget to listen to strangers.

Doubting Disciples: Why the Secret Pursuit Might Be Slower Than You’d Like

In the last post for the “Doubting Disciples” series, I wrote about how Jesus might be pursuing us in secret, causing our hearts to “burn,” so to speak, long before we realize that it’s him.

Today’s post will be shorter because I want to add a thought to this secret pursuit that may or may not be relevant to where you are as a doubter.

If Jesus is pursuing us behind the scenes, without our knowledge, then why does he seem to take his time? What’s keeping him from showing himself and healing me of my doubts? Why do my prayers never seem to get past the ceiling?

While I don’t have personal knowledge of your experience, I want to propose an answer:

He’s taking his time because you’re not ready for him yet.

When a person of faith falls into serious doubt, they have a tendency to reject most of the things they’ve been taught before. For instance, I used to be a young-earth creationist. I’m not anymore, and there’s very little chance that I’m going to accept the arguments I once found persuasive.

I think that holds true for a lot of people in a lot of ways. When they start questioning what they believe, there’s a good chance that the old answers will no longer hold weight. So they start seeking out other authorities because, in their mind and heart, the current one doesn’t seem to know what they’re talking about.

A person who is doubting Jesus might not be open to hearing some of the things that He would say. Or, they might have tried talking to fellow Christians about their doubts only to receive answers that were neither reasonable nor biblical. As a result, they listen to anything Christianity says with a suspicious ear.

And the more they listen, the more they fortify themselves from Jesus himself. Even if he had nothing do to with the so-called answers the doubter received, Christ himself is shut out.

Now, Jesus could speak to that doubter immediately. He could speak in any number of ways. But that person might be in a place where they’ll shut him out if they suspect there’s even a hint of Christianity in the answer they’re receiving.

They trusted Jesus once, and he let them down. Why take that risk again?

So maybe Jesus waits to show himself because you need time to process things. Maybe he waits because revealing himself directly, now, when whatever’s left of your faith is still fragile, would only serve to push you away, not bring you back. You might be in a place where you wouldn’t even be willing to hear him.

So instead, he has chosen to quietly pursue you and gently tug at your heart.

At the moment, you might not be open to anything else.

I hope that helps you today.

Doubting Disciples: The Secret Pursuit of You

[This post is part of a larger series called “Doubting Disciples.” Instead of answering questions, I hope these posts will help you make the most of this time of your life, however hard it might be.]

After Jesus, in the guise of a stranger, encounters his two disciples on the Emmaus road, they sit town together for dinner. That’s when the two men recognize their teacher, who somehow disappears from the room.

And that’s where we pick up today:

When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

While I’m no longer a Calvinist, I appreciate a story John Piper once wrote in a book of his. He had lost his credit card and was getting anxious about finding it. He eventually did and out of that situation, he took this lesson: When we’ve just discovered there’s a problem, God is already working on the solution.

God works behind the scenes, setting things up in order to show Himself. (The entire book of Esther testifies to this. God’s name doesn’t appear once in that book, but His providence is evident the whole way through.)

Something like this is apparently happening on the road to Emmaus, and it’s so secret that not even the author saw fit to mention it until the dinner scene.

As they were talking to Jesus, something was happening within the disciples. Something was stirring in their hearts … or, in their own words, burning.

Was it something they had experienced before? There’s a reasonable chance that it is. When Jesus leaves and they turn to each other in shock, their words suggest that this wasn’t the first time they had come down with burning-heart syndrome. Had this happened when they’d heard Jesus teach, before he was handed over to the Romans?

It’s possible, but what we know for sure is this: They were connecting with Jesus before they even knew it was him.

I’ve already written that we should expect help to come from unlikely places because Jesus can speak through strange sources. But today, I want to explore this from a different angle:

Jesus was secretly pursuing them before they were aware of it–and it was working.

Sometimes when people write about wrestling with doubt, their focus can be on our struggles with the regular answers and the pursuit of new ones. I think it’s a good thing to write about how to doubt well (I wouldn’t have devoted a series to the subject if I didn’t), but there’s a point that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t get brought up enough:

While you’re pursuing answers, God is pursuing you.

You’re not the only one who’s looking for something.

No, you can’t feel that happening. No, you can’t see Him working. But there may be something that keeps you hooked, perhaps some type of quality about Jesus or even a Christian that’s kept you from leaving the faith altogether or that’s making you reconsider why you left it behind.

Maybe you’ve met an incredibly kind Christian after years of dealing with the judgmental ones. Maybe you got into a conversation with a Christian whose intellectual strength is far greater than the cheap apologetics you’re used to hearing, and they’re bringing up points about the Bible and other subjects that you hadn’t considered before.

Or maybe you’ve abandoned church and most (if not all) interaction with Christians but are still intrigued by Jesus himself. You’re not ready to join (or re-join) a community of his followers, but you admire or are at least interested in his teachings, perhaps on loving enemies or forgiveness or doing justice by giving to the poor.

What if that interest, however it was developed, is not just your doing? What if it’s more than mere curiosity? Is it possible that something about Jesus has your attention at the moment because He’s causing your heart to burn?

Maybe.

Chances are, you won’t even recognize that he’s doing it. You just know something is going on.

But know this: if Jesus is real and if what he said is true, then he is in the habit of pursuing people like me and you. He is the good shepherd who goes after the sheep that wandered away.

So says the prophet Ezekiel:

For thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. … I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak …”

I don’t expect my posts to cure you of your doubt; my intention has been to help you make the most of this period. And I don’t think I can honestly do that if I didn’t tell you this:

Jesus hasn’t given up on you.

He is still seeking, working, wooing.

You just don’t know it yet.

Doubting Disciples: Why God Might Not Show Himself

The last post in this series discussed how Jesus might speak through unexpected sources. Today, I want to put forth a reason why the two disciples on the Emmaus road might have been kept from recognizing Jesus in the first place.

Remember, they were discussing current events when Jesus approached them. They think he’s a stranger. Jesus asks what they’re talking about, and the two disciples kind of look at each other before they explain what’s been going on:

Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?”

And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet might in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened.”

They go on to explain how certain female disciples claimed that angels had declared Jesus alive. The disciples went to the tomb and found it empty, like the women said it was, but there was no sign of Jesus.

This is one of my favorite parts of this story. Try picturing Jesus’ face as his own disciples confide in him (unknowingly, that is) that they “had hoped” their teacher would redeem Israel. The implication of failure is obvious. So is the scent of disappointment.

And it’s at this moment that I wonder if Jesus didn’t disguise himself because his disciples wouldn’t have been honest if they had known they were talking to him.

The game we play in church is often the game we play with God: we say and do the right things because that’s what we think they and He want us to do. And if you have questions and doubts about Christianity, then you keep those to yourself because sometimes, the very last place to be open about your thoughts is in church … and with God.

Maybe that’s why Jesus isn’t showing himself to you like you’re begging him to do in your prayers. You might think his silence will be the end of your faith. Maybe he’s trying to get you to a place where you can actually be open about the fact that you’re struggling.

And if it takes withholding His presence to draw out the real secrets of your heart, then maybe that’s what He’s going to do.

Because you can’t receive answers until you’ve learned to ask the right questions, and you can’t ask those questions if you’re not honest enough to admit that you have them.

Someone might point out that Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of belief; I even pointed this out in my previous post. But notice that it’s not the end of their relationship.

Jesus takes the time to speak to them.

He explores the Scriptures with them.

And, at the end of the day, he still sits down to dinner with them: a sign of friendship.

They are still disciples. He is still the teacher.

He is still invested in them. Concerned with them. Devoted to them.

And before they could realize that, they had to walk by themselves, convinced that their Lord was no longer around, and say the things that we’re often afraid to say.

Doubting Disciples: Help Comes from Strange Places

In the last post, the two disciples headed to Emmaus were coming from a place of deep confusion and possibly regret. They had faith that Jesus would be the one to rescue Israel; the nation’s leaders, instead, had conspired in getting him killed. And when Jesus died, their beliefs about him and God were called into question.

During their journey, a stranger walks up beside them:

“While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

It’s not explained how the disciples are kept from recognizing him. Did Jesus’ body, post-resurrection, not resemble what he looked like before his death? Was the memory of the disciples temporarily disabled, at least as far as they remembered their teacher’s appearance?

We’re not told. Instead, the two disciples get into a conversation with this stranger, who rebukes their weak faith:

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. … When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.”

There’s much more to this entire passage that we’ll explore, but for now, something crucial needs to be pointed out:

Thought-provoking and life-changing experiences come from strange and unexpected places.

If you’re in a place of doubt, then you already know this. I’ve never read a book or talked to a person with the expectation that their words would unsettle me to such a degree that I’d start to seriously question things.

I’ll bet that it’s the same with a lot of readers: you didn’t expect that conversation to unnerve you, but it did. You didn’t plan on someone asking you a question that you couldn’t answer, but they managed to do it.

They planted a question that slowly started to chip away at your firm foundation.

More often than not, you won’t realize the impact that such encounters have until after they’ve happened. They’re not planned and often can’t be anticipated. But when they happen, they make an impact that lasts far longer than the actual experience.

And I think the same holds true to a person who’s doubting and is being pursued by Jesus.

Just like your questions came out of nowhere, I think some of the answers to those questions are going to come unexpectedly, too. And when they do, I think some of them will come from some unlikely sources.

Maybe it’ll be from someone at church who, for whatever reason, you’ve never gotten to know and with whom you didn’t assume you had anything in common. But one day, they say something that sounds like they’re speaking from your heart instead of their own.

That’s one possibility. Another one is in the form of someone whose views are radically different than your own. In the past, back when you were firm in your beliefs, you might have considered them to be a lesser-type of Christian or even a heretic because what they preached wasn’t at all what you would preach. You’re a young-earth creationist and they think evolution is a valid scientific theory; that kind of thing. But now, because your beliefs have come loose, you’re open to hearing what they have to say … and for the first time, you realize their arguments have some merit.

This type of re-discovery can happen in a number of ways. It doesn’t even have to be a Christian speaking in order for it to happen. It can come from a book, song, or television show. Maybe it’s a life experience that someone recounts or even a snarky comment.

The two disciples didn’t expect the stranger to provide them with such intriguing insights into their own scriptures. They certainly didn’t talk to a stranger and expect to find Jesus.

But they did.

And so can you.

Want to know how to make the most of your doubting period? Be open to the possibility that God is going to speak to you in ways you couldn’t plan for or ever imagined. It might be a long while before you even realize that He’s the one who’s talking to you.

But be on the lookout, doubters.

Jesus walks in when you least expect him.

Doubting Disciples: The Setting

The new series on this blog, “Doubting Disciples,” will look at what Luke’s account of the Emmaus travelers might have to do with our current skepticism. Not among New Atheists (I hate this term, by the way) but among actual Christians who are no longer satisfied with certain theological answers and sometimes question if they want to keep to the faith at all.

I’m among that group, but I’m not writing to answer everyone’s questions. I hope instead to share some ways that this period of questions-with-little-answers can be beneficial.

To do that, we first need to understand what’s happened in Luke 24. It’s Resurrection Day. Easter. The account tells us that the “very day” the angels announced to the female disciples that Jesus had risen, two of His male disciples are traveling to Emmaus, heavy with sorrow.

We don’t know specifically when they joined Jesus’ followers, but we know enough about his followers at that time to guess why they might have joined. What they might have seen in Jesus was that he was the answer to God’s old promises, those guarantees made by the prophets that Israel’s God would intervene in the world again, restore His people to their former national and spiritual glory (which included overthrowing her enemies), and deliver justice to the world.

Some prophets saw the central figure in this divine rescue to be a new king David. The prophet Daniel saw this mystery ruler as the “son of man” who would triumph over the beastly pagan authorities and be given the kingdom by God.

So they might see Jesus healing the blind, lame, and dead and see the hand of God moving again. They might hear Jesus teach that the kingdom of God was at hand, and their expectations start to rise.

Sure, it didn’t always look like how they expected, but something was happening. And the longer they stayed with Jesus and the more they saw what he did, it’s not hard to imagine that they eventually learned to trust that this unexpected series of events was what the prophets had urged their listeners to expect all along.

What they weren’t expecting is their leader to be killed by the very Jewish authorities that ought to have embraced him. Jesus couldn’t overcome the Romans; he clearly didn’t look like a king. If he was the Son of Man destined to rule, then the cross had not only proven him an impotent leader but a false prophet as well.

And so the journey to Emmaus finds the two disciples in the exact same place that you and I are in:

Disappointment with God.

Confusion.

Wondering if this pursuit is even worth it anymore.

For these two disciples, Jesus had started to become the answer. For however long they were with him, he was the proof that their faith was not in vain. And when he died, faith turned into questions. Expectation morphed into disappointment. Their loyalty to Jesus was a house built on a rock; now it seemed the rock itself was situated on sand.

And you?

Maybe you learned alternate interpretations of the “hell” passages and started to wonder how else your church has gotten it wrong. Or you’ve started to question the concept of biblical inerrancy because you’ve read verses that are contradictory and hard to reconcile.

Or (and this is one of my personal struggles) you keep seeing that in terms of values and lifestyle, there’s not much of a difference between how you live and the actions of people around you who don’t claim faith in Christ at all. So why bother distinguishing between the two groups when they, by how they live, sometimes have little distinction at all?

However you started walking on the road you’re on, it started with some sort of disgruntlement. The old answers don’t help anymore, like your doubt is a virus that has evolved against the medicines developed to fight it.

I can’t give you some magical answer to make things better. Instead, here’s what I encourage you to do, if you haven’t done it already:

Be honest about what you’re feeling and thinking.

You can’t genuinely expect to make the most of this period in your life if you’re not willing to be honest with yourself, of all people. And you’ll never find what you’re looking for if you don’t understand that you need help in the first place.

You’re on this path. Don’t pretend that you’re not.

Next post in the series: “The Value of People You Don’t Know”

New Series: ‘Doubting Disciples’

No passage in all the Bible is forming my thoughts on wrestling with doubt than Luke’s account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. And no Scripture is going to play a bigger part in the new series on this blog: “Doubting Disciples.”

Through reflections on it over the last week, I’ve seen some things in Luke’s writing that strongly resonate with where I am right now. I don’t have all the answers for people asking questions, and I never want to be the kind of person who is so quick to respond to your question that you start to become uncomfortable talking to them in the first place.

Instead, I hope this series provides some new ways on looking at those theologically uncertain periods of our lives. While there are a few points I’ll make, I think the following is the central theme to the series:

Doubters don’t need to hear rehearsed answers or take a crash-course in apologetics. We need an experience with the resurrected Jesus.

I hope the next few posts are encouraging and challenging to you.

Blessings.

~Justin