Thursday, September 10, 2015

Can Christians ultimately lose their faith if they doubt?

Matthew 14:25-32 "And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying,“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” 29 And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

What does it mean to doubt? This is the question I have had on my mind as of late. Christians will at some points in their Christian walk grapple with doubt. 
If a Christian doubts Jesus at any point in their Christian walk, can they ultimately lose their faith if they doubt? Questions such as these will be explored in today's post. The passage featured at the beginning of today's post depicts the famous account of Jesus walking on the water. 

Stepping out on faith in the wee hours of the morning
The winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee were threatening to swallow the disciples. Jesus had sent them ahead to the other side while He went up to the mountain to pray. Between 3:00-6:00a.m modern time, Jesus sensed His disciples were in trouble, and so He went out to them. The disciples saw Jesus and Peter shouted out to Jesus that if He were truly Jesus, then He was to bid Peter to step out of the boat and come out to meet Him. We can look at Peter's actions as impetuous. Nevertheless there appeared to be no doubt in Peter. His faith seemed at that moment to be bigger than the waves and stronger than the winds. So he stepped out - onto the water - and began to walk towards Jesus.

What led to Peter's doubt - anxiety
Doubt seemed a million miles away from this scene. Then it happened. Matthew 14:31 reads - "But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Peter "saw" the wind - that is to say - he saw the affects that the wind was producing. Peter's gaze shifted from the Master of the seas to the sea. He began to sink. What was it that made Peter doubt? One word: anxiety. Peter's anxiousness about the situation overuled (at least temporarily) what little faith He had. 

Taking a closer look at the doubt expressed by Peter
But now we must ask: what is doubt? The cause in this passage is anxiety. But what is there about doubt that distinguishes it? I ask this because the particular Greek word translated "doubt" in Matthew 14:31 occurs only one other time in the entire New Testament - Matthew 28:17. Whenever I see a word appearing once or twice in the entire New Testament, and only one author using that word, that gets my attention. In these two spots we find the puzzling fact that where doubt would seem to be the least to be (situations where Jesus is clearly demonstrating His Sovereignty), doubt is present. 

In Matthew 14:31, the word translated "doubt" refers to the uncertainty that arises when a person is toggling back and forth between one focal point and then another.1 Peter stepped out of the boat with his focus completely on Jesus. However, the strong winds began to divert his attention. Peter began to toggle and to waver. The spiritual eyes of the heart operate on a similar principle as our physical eyes - namely we can only give our full attention to one thing at a time. 

So in thinking about Peter, we can say that he perceived his ability to walk on the water to Jesus to exceed the possibility of sinking. Such a conviction derived from the faith that was already in Peter. How much Peter had exercised his faith prior to that point was going to be tested in this episode. Faith's perception is sculpted by what is unseen (Hebrews 11:1). The moment our perception of truth is informed more by what is seen, we have moved over into anti-faith or "doubt". Peter's anxiety (an expression of his switch to perceiving things with physical eyes) fueled the doubt that led him to begin sinking into the water. 

When Christians doubt, what keeps them from losing faith all together
I think it is important before closing out today's post to see whether or not Peter lost faith. Its one thing to have one foot in doubt and another in faith versus the condition of people prior to conversion, whereby they have both feet firmly planted in doubt and unbelief. What pulled him up? His faith or the object of His faith? Notice Matthew 14:30-31 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus pulled Peter up out of the water by the thin rope of faith. Peter had let go, yet the object to which His faith was tied to did not. 

Though Peter's hand of trust had let go of the line of faith, little did Peter realize that His faith was around the waist of his heart so-to-speak. God had given him the gift of faith to sustain him as a life-preserver. Even though his faith was "little" - nearly out of air - yet it was tied to the Sovereign Lord who pulled him out of those angry waves. This is what Christian theologians have historically referred to as the "perseverance of the saints" or "preservation by God".

Author John Piper writes in his book: "When the Darkness Will Not Life", pages 38-39 - "All the great doctors of the soul have distinguished between faith and its full assurance. The reason for that is that we are saved by the work of God causing us to be born again and bringing us to faith. "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). Piper later writes: "...which means that God is at the bottom of my faith; and when it disappears for a season from my own view, God may yet be there sustaining its root in the new birth and protecting the seed from destruction."

So as we see in this episode in Matthew 14, Jesus came out to the middle of the sea to sustain the small faith of a man who was willing to step out. I find it interesting that Peter was unable to answer Jesus' question: "Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?" There was no good reason. It didn't make sense. Christian doubts never do. Despite that reality, how the episode ends demonstrates the reality and superiority of true saving faith over doubt in the long run. The scene ends with the disciples (including Peter) affirming the Deity of Jesus in the boat. 

Doubts may come and go - and can and will - in the Christian life. Yet, true faith will affirm and overule the doubt that for a season attempted to clip its moorings from the Anchor - Jesus Christ. 

Final thoughts
We began today's post by asking the question: can a Christian ultimately lose their faith if they doubt? In our exploration of the account of Jesus' walking on the water and Peter's doubt, we saw that the short answer is "no". Why? Peter was sustained not by his faith, but rather by Jesus who was sustaining it. It is one thing to have doubt for a season. However, a true Christian won't persist and stay camped in such doubt without calling out for the Lord to come save them. Faith that is momentarily submerged under the seas of doubt will pop back up like a buoy and ring the bell for the Master of the sea to come and save it. I close with this reminder to Christians who are experiencing wavering faith in 1 Peter 1:5 "who are protected by the power of Godthrough faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."

1. When we speak of faith or doubt, we are talking about being persuaded about the truthfulness of an idea or more specifically, a statement that is called a "proposition". For example, the proposition "2+2=4" is true, regardless of how a person may feel. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 355, notes the following in it's article about religious doubt: "It should be noted that the proposition in question may in fact be true and even verified. Doubt or uncertainty relates to whether or not the proposition has been perceived to be true." The article then goes on to say: "The subjective attitude (of the person evaluating the proposition) need not have anything to do with the certainty (the degree to which a proposition has been verified or even to its truthfulness."