What to do with your doubts

Do you ever have doubts?

Doubts about God, perhaps, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. Or maybe your own salvation, or that of someone you love.

Some days you believe without reservation, but other days you struggle.

What do you do on those days?

You may not discuss it, at least not openly, fearing that other Christians will question your faithfulness or doubt your integrity.

If you were a good Christian, Satan whispers, you wouldn’t have doubts. Ever.

Which isn’t even close to the truth.

I love the story of a daddy whose son was possessed by a demon. In desperation he brought the boy to the Lord’s disciples, but they couldn’t help.

Jesus could, of course, and he did, but not before he engaged the man in a short dialogue. Please read and reflect on this story, particularly the conversation between Jesus and the worried father:

And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:14-29).

We have no idea what this man’s background was, but I’m encouraged by his honest response to the Lord’s mild rebuke:

I believe; help my unbelief!

That’s something I’ve asked the Lord many times.

On the surface it sounds contradictory, but it’s not.

As one commentator writes, it’s been the “frequent experience of disciples of all times” (J.A. Brooks).

We believe, but that faith is sometimes (often?) tinged by doubt.

We hope, but that hope is sometimes dampened by uncertainty.

If you doubt, it means you’re in the flesh and therefore fallible, a place where we all live, at least for now.

It doesn’t mean you’re a skeptic or an agnostic or that you’re weak.

It means you live on this side of that final day.

Don’t lose heart . . . pray what this boy’s father prayed.

Ask the Lord to strengthen your faith and shine his light into the dark corners of doubt.

Do you believe?

Of course you do.

Now ask the Lord to start working on those areas of uncertainty. He still answers those prayers today.

One thing changes everything

It’s amazing how much one thing changes everything.

It happens in life—a job, a marriage, a baby—and your world is never the same.

It also happens in areas that matter even more.

The apostles were sometimes so spiritually obtuse, or at least it seems that way to us.

They once tried to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem to die . . . for their sins, and ours. How couldthey?

Why would they think of calling down fire from heaven on a village of people who wouldn’t listen to them?

How could they leave Jesus alone on the night before he died?

The truth is, they weren’t any different from us—no less spiritual or mature. No more shallow or superficial.

But they could only see a portion of the picture that was yet to be completed.

As Mark finishes describing the Lord’s transfiguration, he gives us a clue:

And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean (Mark 9:9-10).

That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it?

. . . what this rising from the dead might mean.

They had no idea, not really. Not having the advantage that we have of reading the completed canon, they struggled.

Why does he talk about dying? What’s this about a cross? And a resurrection?

Then they went to an empty tomb on a Sunday morning, and it changed them.

Forever.

Peter denied Jesus on the eve of the crucifixion but later gave his life for his faith.

His good friend James ran from the soldiers in Gethsemane but a few years later lost his head to an axe when he wouldn’t stop preaching about Jesus.

In fact, all the apostles except John were executed because of Jesus.

The resurrection changed everything about them—their convictions, their lives, their faith.

Has it changed yours?

Do you look more at this world or the next?

Has the temporal superseded the spiritual?

When our faith starts to weaken, we need to go back and visit the empty tomb again.

Skeptics don’t know what to do with it. They’ve set forth various guesses to explain it away, but all of them fail.

The truth is, Jesus came back to life early on the third day. The tomb was empty, and everything changed.

When you believe it, really believe it, you’ll approach each day with a different perspective.

One day—maybe not too long from now—this life will end.

What then?

What lies on the other side of the grave?

Jesus told Martha at her brother’s funeral, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

We believe Jesus rose from the grave, so we know he’ll raise us up to eternal life at the last day.

And that makes all the difference.

What Jesus teaches us about church growth

I don’t know how well Jesus would fit in as a guest speaker at one of our church growth seminars.

Luke starts one story about Jesus with these words: “Now great crowds accompanied him . . .” (14:25).

That sounds encouraging, doesn’t it?

After all, Jesus came to offer salvation to everyone in the world, so it seems that big crowds would’ve delighted him.

We certainly like numbers. We count every head and post the results on an attendance board. We track the numbers and scratch our heads when they go down and pat our backs when they go up.

We especially like it when they go up.

But something about the big crowds bothered Jesus, so he turned and faced them:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

How’s that for a church attendance punch-in-the-gut?

I can almost see Peter pushing his way toward the front of the crowd gesturing frantically for Jesus to change his sermon topic. Doesn’t he know that’ll push people away?

Maybe the reason for Jesus’ odd approach lies in two key words in this passage. Here are the two verses together . . . read them again carefully:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (emphasis added).

Perhaps there’s a difference between accompanyingJesus and following him (which is what “disciple” means).

Maybe Jesus looked into the hearts of the big crowd of folks and recognized that they weren’t really interested in discipleship. Many of them were just hangers-on who hoped to get some of the fringe benefits of being in the same vicinity as the Lord . . . they had either seen or heard about his feeding, healing, and helping thousands of people, and they hoped he would do something miraculous for them.

What about us?

Are we accompanying Jesus or following him?

Are we tagging along with the church crowd as long as it makes us feel good, or are we really following Jesus?

There’s a huge difference.

Jesus is saying that discipleship means something much more than having your name in a church directory. It means putting him and his kingdom above all else, including family.

I’m guessing Jesus’ words on this particular day put a dent in the attendance numbers.

But he’s looking for more than just attendance, mereaccompaniers.

He’s looking for disciples.

On God’s time

One of the frustrating limitations of our humanity is how we view time.

We remember the past, of course, and we worry about the future, but mostly we focus on the little block of time that is right now.

We want what we want today, not next week or next month and certainly not next year.

And we want God to operate on our time schedule. If we ask him for something, and we’re pretty sure it’s within his will, why doesn’t he just go ahead and give it to us? And if it’s all the same to him, today would be perfect.

This leads to a lot of hand-wringing and frustration.

It’s hard for us to remember that even when God intends to do something, he often takes a while to do it.

Remember the Exodus story in the Old Testament? God’s people had been in Egypt for about 400 years when he finally decided it was time for them to possess the land he had promised Abraham.

But even then, when the time was right, he took a lot of it. Years and years of it.

He sent Moses to Egypt with instructions to ask Pharaoh to let the people go.

Moses apparently thought it was going to be just that easy . . . that he was going to march into Pharaoh’s palace, make the request, and he and the people would be on their way.

It didn’t exactly happen quite like that.

Pharaoh flatly denied the request, then punished the Israelites by making their already miserable lives even more unbearable.

Here’s Moses’ response: “He turned to the LORD and said, ‘O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all’” (Exodus 5:22-23).

That won’t be the last time Moses questions God.

And most of us have been in his sandals, haven’t we?

Job loss? Cancer? Infertility?

Doubts? Faith struggles? Stress and worry?

Why does God so often put suffering between us and where we want to be? Not just that, but why does he wait so long to take us where he wants us to be?

There’s no simple answer to those questions, and certainly not in a short devotional.

But what Moses and the people had to learn was that God accomplishes his purposes according to his own schedule and according to what he knows to be best.

Understanding that won’t make the struggles go away, but perhaps it’ll help us draw nearer to God when they come.

Moses, with all his faults and doubts, did what we all need to do:

“Then [he] turned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, . . .”

If you’re a Christian, God hasn’t promised you an easy trip to the promised land.

But he has promised you he’ll take you there . . . on hisroad, in his time.

A short, honest prayer

When’s the last time you prayed a completely genuine prayer?

For some of you it was this morning.

For others it’s been awhile.

Prayer—because we do it so often—easily becomes ritualistic. Like brushing our teeth or making a pot of coffee, we do it without thinking.

Have you ever gotten out of the shower and suddenly wondered if you washed your hair?

You probably did, but you don’t remember doing it because you were thinking about work or the kids or that weird-looking mole instead of shampoo.

That’s one reason I love hearing new Christians pray–they haven’t done it much. They didn’t grow up in the church and they don’t know the “right” way to pray. They’re refreshingly candid.

They haven’t been around church long enough to learn the clichés. They haven’t been cornered by the prayer police on what’s appropriate and what isn’t.

They just sorta tell God what’s on their heart and ask him for what they think they need.

Jesus tells a short story about a tax collector who hadn’t been taught to pray. He didn’t grow up in Sunday school, and most religious people despised him.

But God smiled when he heard the prayer.

He didn’t string together three or four adjectives to describe God. No clichés or pious-sounding phrases. He didn’t brag about his humility.

He just cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

I suppose he didn’t know what else to say.

But it was enough, according to Jesus.

“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified . . . . For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).

I suppose I’ve heard thousands of prayers in my life, and I’ve never heard one that short or simple.

Give it a shot today.

In your prayer time, think about every single word.

Cry out to God. Confess your secret sins to him. Tell him what’s on your mind.

But whatever you say, mean it.

If you’re like me, after 10 or 15 seconds you’ll start throwing in some of the same things you always say.

Just stop and start over.

Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it honest.

Pray as if it’s your first time.

The danger of religion

I think religion’s danger is that it gives us false comfort that this is what it means to know God.

Remember the Pharisee’s prayer?

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12).

Five.

That’s how many times he uses the first-person pronoun “I” in that short little self-congratulatory prayer.

“Are you saved, Mr. Pharisee?”

“Of course I am. Look at everything I do and don’t do.”

“So you’ve never sinned?”

[Long pause]

“Well, sure, but not nearly as often as most. See that tax collector over there? That’s what a real sinner looks like.”

The Pharisee’s major problem was that his religion had skewed his view of himself. He honestly thought he was on good ground before God because of what he had done, and, perhaps more importantly, what he hadn’t.

The tax collector, on the other hand, who presumably had very little religion, was on much better footing with God.

Why?

Because he knew he desperately needed God for salvation. He knew he had nothing to bring to the table.

“Are you saved, Mr. Christian?”

“Of course I am. I’ve been baptized, and my church attendance is almost perfect. And besides, I don’t drink, lie, or cheat on my taxes.”

None of us would say that, of course, but I’m afraid that sometimes we think it, if only subconsciously.

It’s all because we love to create ways to measure faithfulness. We look at things we can see and quantify, like attending church, committing sexual sins, or giving financially to the church. They tell us what we think we need to know about our faithfulness.

But the most important question is this:

Do our hearts belong to Jesus?

If they do, then sure, many of the outward signs will follow.

The problem is . . . in different ways we can motivate ourselves into doing the outward part while ignoring the heart.

That’s why religion is dangerous. It helps us avoid asking the tough questions about where our allegiance really lies.

With God or the world?

Religion versus Jesus

Is it possible to hate religion but love Jesus?

That’s the theme of a popular video that’s gone viral over the past week or so.

As I wrote Friday, sometimes it reflects disdain for the church, which is unhealthy and wrong.

But on the other hand, I think they’ve got a message we need to hear. They’re critiquing something that’s very real in some of our churches.

The problem is . . . it’s possible to be religious but not a Christian. Wear the right name, sit in the right pew, sing the right songs. Get baptized in the right baptistery.

But all of that can be empty, lifeless, superficial.

We might have religion without relationship. We can go to church and not know Christ.

That should scare us, because it’s particularly tempting to those of us who are serious about faith.

Satan loves nothing more than collapsing our faith into the outward exercise of religion. He likes it when people substitute skin-deep ritual for soulful spirituality.

Religion doesn’t scare him, but a relationship does.

That’s why he absolutely loved the Pharisees. He had them exactly where he wanted them—all covered up in religion and law and rituals.

But they didn’t know God, who had gotten lost in all of the religious trappings.

And it’s still happening.

If you find yourself being more dedicated to religious exercises than to loving Christ and the people He created, your religion might’ve gotten in the way of Jesus.

Should we hate religion? Only if by “religion” we mean the religious baggage that obscures the Lord.

But when we truly love Jesus, we’ll love His people, we’ll want to worship and obey Him, and we’ll want to be a part of His church.

Whatever we do religiously must be motivated by our love for the One who died to save us. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a kind of dead religion that never saves anyone.

Why I hate religion but love Jesus

“Why I hate religion but love Jesus.”

That’s the title of a short video that’s gone viral over the past week. It’s pretty hip, catchy, slick.

It’s not new, though. Not really. “I want the man but not the plan” is how they worded it a few years back.

And honestly, I have mixed feelings about what these folks are saying.

Some people reject organized religion out of selfishness or arrogance. They don’t like being a part of any kind of group that might restrict their freedom to do what they want. They don’t want anything to do with the trappings of religion, like public worship, joining a local church, or being accountable to church leadership.

If that’s what they’re rejecting, they need to know that Jesus created the church as a community where believers can grow and worship together and encourage one another. It’s a group of Christians who try to follow God’s plan for leadership, worship, outreach, loving the lost, and serving the community.

And yes, sometimes the church is a place where believers who are caught up in sin can be confronted lovingly by fellow believers (cf. Galatians 6:1).

Is that the kind of religion some people hate?

If so, they’re missing out on a big part of discipleship.

This is how Jesus felt about the church:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Paul wrote “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

The church matters to God.

He loves it. He died for it.

I can’t accept Jesus and at the same time reject the body of believers to which He adds me when I’m saved. Jesusis the church; it’s His body.

So if that’s what folks mean when they say they hate religion but love Jesus, they’re missing the point.

But perhaps that’s not exactly what they mean. Maybe they’re defining “religion” differently . . . in a way that might have something important to say to us in today’s church.

We’ll consider that in our next devotional.

Are we there yet?

Anyone who’s traveled with kids knows well the questions they ask.

“Are we there yet?”

“How much longer?”

“Are we almost there?”

“I really don’t think I can wait that long.”

It’s not terribly fun on a ten-hour-drive, but in that anticipation is a hint of something within us all.

The New Testament has what scholars call aneschatological outlook, which is a fancy way of saying its writers constantly look ahead to the Lord’s final return.

That’s one of the things we think about when we fast. The bridegroom has been taken from us, and we can’t wait for Him to come back (Matthew 9:15).

But it’s not just when we fast. There’s a constant sense of awareness that this world isn’t really where we belong. We’re here for now, but we’re just passing through. We feel an allegiance to another kingdom, one we can’t wait to see.

That’s what Peter’s referring to in this passage:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11-13).

Waiting for and hastening the Lord’s coming, Peter writes.

Sometimes we get tired of the journey and frustrated with all of its obstacles.

Sickness, discouragement, sin, disappointment. These things hurt, but at the same time they remind us that we’re headed home, even though the trip feels like it’s taking way too long.

The old spiritual says it well:

This world is not my home, I’m just a’ passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

One time John heard the saints crying out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long . . . ?” (Revelation 6:10).

Maybe you and I aren’t too different from our kids in the back seat.

Are we almost there, Lord?

Thoughts on how to fast

Many Christians want to fast, but don’t know how.

We probably don’t need to complicate it too much. The only wrong way to fast is to have impure motives, something Jesus warns us about in Matthew 6. If you’re doing it to impress people or to earn credit with God, you might as well not do it.

Fast with one goal in mind: to engage in self-denial as an act of devotion to God so that you might hear His voice more clearly.

If you’re serious about the spiritual disciplines, including fasting, you should read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, an excellent study on how to grow in your relationship with God. In his chapter on fasting, he suggests these steps, which I have found helpful.

Begin with a partial fast of 24 hours. For example, after you eat lunch one day, do not eat until lunch the following day. Drink water or fruit juice, but eat nothing.

After you’ve tried this once a week for several weeks, fast for the same period of time, but drink only water.

Then after you’ve done this successfully several times, move on to a 36-hour fast. After your evening meal, do not eat at all the next day, then break your fast the following morning. You will have skipped three meals.

Foster then writes that we should “seek the Lord” to see if He wants us to go on a longer fast. If so, we can fast for three to seven days, or even longer.

It’s important to remember why you’re fasting. Let your hunger pangs remind you to draw closer to God. If your work/family schedule allows it, read your Bible, pray, and meditate during the times you would normally eat.

A friend of mine goes on a 12-hour fast every Monday (from breakfast to dinner), and during his lunch hour he goes to a local chapel and reads the Bible and prays.

Family obligations might make it impossible for you to have a devotional during mealtime (kids still want to be fed!). Perhaps your spouse can offer extra help during your day of fasting, and then you can do the same for him or her another day. But focusing on God doesn’t always require being alone. Let your fasting remind you throughout the day of your devotion to God, even when you’re busy serving your family or engaging in responsibilities at work. Ask God to use the discipline to draw you close to Him.

Fasting may not go well the first time, or even the second or third time. In many ways, it’s like physical exercise. You’ll become better at it as you work at it, and as God works on you.

Commit to it, and don’t quit. God’s people have used fasting as a discipline to draw closer to Him for thousands of years, and He’ll use it to shape your heart for Him.