Friday, January 20, 2017

P1 Distinguishing Between Doubt And Unbelief In Matters Of The Will And Mind

Image result for Mark 9:24
John 7:1-5 "After these things Jesus was walking in Galilee, for He was unwilling to walk in Judea because the Jews were seeking to kill Him. 2 Now the feast of the Jews, the Feast of Booths, was near. 3 Therefore His brothers said to Him, “Leave here and go into Judea, so that Your disciples also may see Your works which You are doing. 4 For no one does anything in secret when he himself seeks to be known publicly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.” 5 For not even His brothers were believing in Him."

Today's post will explore the distinction between doubt and unbelief. The above passage features Jesus in a conversation with his brothers who are related to him touching His human nature (Jesus, remember, had been virgin born of Mary, with her having His siblings born quite naturally after His birth - see Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:35; Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). In what is perhaps the most stunning detail of these verses - the Apostle John records that Jesus' brothers "were not believing in Him." What makes this detail even more shocking is the fact that Jesus' half-brothers acknowledge His miracle working power - however they failed to believe in the ultimate meaning of those works. How could this be? As jarring as John 7:5 is in the text, the detail certifies the historicity of the event, since truth history records "warts-and-all". The tension in this text concerning the unbelief of Jesus' half-brothers is explained quite clearly by theologian Dr. R.C Sproul in his St. Andrew's Expositional Commentary on John's Gospel, page 130:

"Let me tell you why I find this text so troubling. These were the people who had been with Jesus during His earthly ministry, watching Him day after day. In fact, they were His blood brothers and they had grown up with Him. They thought they knew Him. They thought they were on His team. However, they had their own agenda for Him. They were rooting for Him to go to Jereusalem to manifest His power. This tells us they were still unbelievers, outside the Kingdom of God."

In meditating on the above verses, I got to thinking on what distinctions there are between "unbelief" and "doubt". As a Christian, I wrestle from time-to-time with doubt - whether it be in matters of faith, practice, calling or God's purposes - as I'm sure any Christian reading this post does. 

In the opening picture of today's post, we see a conversation where a man asks Jesus to help Him in His unbelief. Though doubt and unbelief can overlap, the man in Mark 9:23-24 is having a crisis of doubt, since He is at least still reaching out to Jesus. Surely the moment one doubts cannot necessarily mean that one was never "in saving faith" nor possessing genuine faith at that moment. Doubt, when wrestled with and overcome, will validate the presence of genuine faith. Unbelief, as we will see below, when persistently entertained, may indicate the lack of genuine saving faith. 

We know that it is valid to distinguish between doubt and unbelief by how the New Testament portrays Peter and Judas

When Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus later restored Peter and reinforced Peter in His faith in a wonderful post-resurrection conversation with Peter in John 21. Jesus had predicted Peter's doubt in Luke 22:31-32 and attributed such to what Jesus called "the sifting by Satan". Jesus knew Peter would doubt while indicating that He prayed for Peter's faith to be strengthened so that he could later encourage the other disciples. So we know Peter wrestled with doubt - but it was not the final, chronic unbelief like what we find here in John 7:5. 

Interestingly enough, while Peter had ended up denying Jesus three times, another disciple of Jesus - Judas Iscariot - ended up denying Jesus too. Judas' denial was not just a matter of doubt - but full fledged unbelief (see John 6:70-71). His unbelief and the ultimate preference of money and safety over Jesus demonstrated that He never possessed genuine faith. Both Judas and Peter on the outside-looking-in appeared to do identical responses to Jesus with respect to their denials. However, in the final analysis, Judas' denial was chronic unbelief - like the brothers in John 17:5, whilst Peter's instance was a lapse in doubt.   

Beginning to make sense of the distinctions between doubt and unbelief

How do we make sense of this distinction between doubt and unbelief? In today's post we will deal with these distinctions as they operate in the realm of the choices we make and the thoughts we entertain concerning faith, evidence and truth about Jesus. Below we will offer the following distinctions to aid us in better understanding what can be a difficult subject when talking about matters of faith, doubt and the spiritual condition of people.

1. Doubt wrestles with the truth about Jesus; whereas unbelief wrestles against the truth about Jesus

Anytime we are dealing with doubt or unbelief, it first and foremost is a matter of the will. Both wrestle. Both are responding with respect to the truth of God's word, salvation and the Lord Jesus Christ. However, doubt wrestles "with" the truth in an attempt to attain clarity. Unbelief continues to wrestle "against" the truth despite what may be sometimes in the face of full clarity. Once a skeptical Mark Twain remarked of how it wasn't the things he didn't understand in the Bible that disturbed him in as much as it were those details which he did understand that troubled him the most. So doubt wrestles with the truth to attain clarity while doubt wrestles against the truth despite what may or may not be possession of clarity on the truth. Now notice a second distinction between doubt and unbelief....

2. Doubt seeks for better reasons to hold to faith while unbelief seeks after more excuses to reject the faith

If the first distinction has to do with matters of the will, this second distinction deals with matters of the mind. The linkage between the will and the mind can be described as the relationship between a follower (the will) and a leader (the mind). The mind of a person and the will of a person are linked together by the four-lane superhighway of the human conscience. Whenever you and I consider and weigh various options in our mind, those options and their conclusions travel from the mind to the will. We could say that the combined efforts of the mind, conscience and will roughly correspond to what the Bible refers to as the "heart of a man".

In the process of "making-up our mind" to the point where we act on our thinking, the conscience will contribute  - resulting in our actions being based upon either mere opinion or true conviction. I say all this to underscore the fact that the mind is just as much involved in our faith in the Lord as it is in situations where we see doubt or unbelief. 

Whenever we have doubts, the process of "weighing the options" is occurring. Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that "faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen." Whenever we are dealing with doubt as a Christian, we are in a search for better reasons for holding onto the faith we already possess. James P. Moreland and William Lane Craig spell out this distinction between doubt and unbelief in their volume: "Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview", page 96, as it pertains to the relationship of the mind to evidences and truth:

"But one must be careful here to distinguish between doubt as a method and doubt as a habitual character trait (this second category corresponds to our use of "unbelief" in this post). "The former (doubt) employs the use of doubt to develop knowledge. The latter (unbelief) is rooted in a skeptical character of the heart and is not completely desirable from a Christian perspective because, as Christians, we are to cultivate faith and knowledge while at the same time not being gullible or naive. If doubt, understood as a character trait, helps one avoid naivete, then it is an intellectual virtue. If it produces cynicism and a loss of faith, then it is an intellectual vice. Wisdom requires a balanced perspective."

Doubt then wrestles with evidence, information or truth to attain better reasons for holding to them. However, as the above quote indicates, doubt left unchecked and mishandled can lapse into chronic unbelief. Therefore we have seen the distinctions between doubt and unbelief in matters of the will and mind. 

Closing thoughts for today
In the next post will look at a third important area of consideration: how doubt and unbelief are distinguished in the realm of moral character development. For now, we will conclude with what we learned today:

1. Doubt wrestles with the truth about Jesus; whereas unbelief wrestles against the truth about Jesus

2. Doubt seeks for better reasons to hold to faith while unbelief seeks after more excuses to reject the faith

More next time...

No comments:

Post a Comment