Few things in life please me more than good conversation with good people. Saturday night I found myself in such a situation, sitting around a bonfire on my front porch; perfect ending to a restful Saturday. As we sat and talked about this and that, our conversation turned to a fairly serious one about upbringings. The guys I was with all share one thing in common with me: we were all raised in conservative, fundamental baptist homes. To be clear, I can't say enough about my parents, and I am certainly thankful for the environment I was privileged to grow up in. There are, however, struggles I have now that are rooted in how I was raised. Interestingly, some of my closest friends around the fire that night could relate pretty well. One thing I believe I may always struggle with is making my Christian faith a personal one. When you grow up immersed in church and private school, the Bible and its teachings can easily become a wooden, lifeless regiment that's just normal. You did the religious things you did and gave all the “right answers” because that's how life worked; that's what you were taught to do.
How do I make my faith in Jesus more than just routine? Everyone wants to have a reason for why they do what they do. Everyone wants to be able to give a confident answer to life's big questions. But what happens when we realize that all of that, regardless of what our childhood taught us, is really complex? What happens when we doubt our faith? Do you ever struggle with feeling like your relationship with God is something hollow and memorized? I do. My friends do too.
Big question: is that ok?
Is doubting the worst thing in the world? Should we be good enough Christians to have all the answers, figure out all the big questions, and have all our theology in a row?
The next day I go to the Easter service at my church, and somehow the teaching was asking the same questions four guys on a porch asked each other the night before. (Here's a link to the video of the sermon. I highly recommend it: The Threat and Hope of the Resurrection)
Several specific characters in John's gospel serve as case studies for us in how we doubt God. In chapter 11, Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. The passage examines how different people react to the idea of resurrection. The fact is that Jesus has become quite a polarizing figure; a lighting rod for either criticism or love. His radical statements about a divine power over death ultimately served as the catalyst for those who would crucify him. Resurrection was seen as either a hope or a threat.
The crux of the passage comes in verse 25-26. Jesus' words dismantle the propositional, traditional faith that Lazarus' sisters, Mary and Martha, talk about.
Jesus says I AM the resurrection and the life. Jesus says that resurrection is not an event. Resurrection is a person. Faith is not intellectual. It's personal. It's relational.
Jesus claims that anyone who receives him receives resurrection. Jesus says that the innate fear of death which all men are weighed down by is extinguished by the type of life he alone can give. He is personally the fulfillment of every Old Testament hope and every human longing. He says all of these things can be found in a personal relationship with him. That's a huge, crazy claim. And this is what's so polarizing about Jesus.
And what does he do next? Jesus brings a man who has been dead for days back to life in front of a slew of witnesses. This is the point where Jesus can no longer be written off as crazy. The miraculous sign had been performed, and it mandated a response. Scores of people saw something that didn't make sense to them – something they doubted. The question is how they would handle that doubt – rejection or acceptance. And guess what? The response was as polarized as ever. Many believed in Jesus; many others ran in a panic to the religious authorities. From that point on, those authorities began to plot Jesus' death. The Jewish official now felt threatened because they had something at stake. Rome could easily come and destroy them if Jesus caused an uprising. They had a fear of death. They thought their lives were threatened and disrupted by Jesus.
We do the same thing every day. We realize that if we trust Jesus, that makes him Lord over all aspects of our lives. We refuse him because we hang onto things we don't want Jesus disrupting. We are afraid to lose things. We're afraid to trust Jesus on his terms. The problem is not clarity; it's trust. Ironically, the Jews would soon use a Roman machine, the cross, to kill Jesus, only to have their livelihood stripped away several decades later by the Romans in AD 70. The very thing they gave Jesus up for slipped right through their fingers.
In chapter 20 Thomas, a disciple of Jesus, makes a statement worth looking at. He doubts Jesus' resurrection, stating that he will only believe if he touches the wounds of the risen Christ. When Jesus appears to his disciples, he shows a graciousness to Thomas even in his unbelief.
Somewhere along the way, plenty of us got the idea that we have to understand everything. We throw in the towel any time there is uncertainty or doubt. God doesn't ask this of us. We're asked to trust God as he holds Jesus out to us.
God is gracious to us in our doubt and unbelief. We wrestle with circumstances and ideas that we can't get our brain around. We continually try to make our happiness about our own performance and accolades. In reality, we are given the fulfillment of every human longing in a personal faith and a personal encounter with a personal God. This just requires belief and faith. Chapter 20:30-31 says John's whole purpose in writing his book was for the ongoing personal process of believing. That's what a personal faith is all about. That is real Christianity.
The question for you and me is the same as it was for Mary, Martha and Thomas: do you believe that I AM the resurrection and the life, and are you coming to me?