Make Room for Doubters

Graham Johnston wrote about a conversation he had with a man in his thirties living in his hometown of Perth, Australia. He asked him, “Do you ever attend church?”

He replied, “Not really.”

“Do you ever wonder about spiritual matters?”

“Well, yes, who doesn’t?”

Johnston then asked, “If you have questions about spiritual matters, don’t you feel that the church could address some of those issues?”

His response was interesting: “The church is for those who already believe, not for people like me.”

Is it really? is the church only for naive adherents whose gullibility and enthusiasm keep them from thinking deeply? The Bible gives us a different picture.

The Gospel of Matthew closes with Jesus appearing to his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection. Matthew says in 28:17,  “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.” These were, apparently, disciples of Jesus who had not yet seen him in person. Were they among the five hundred Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:6?

In any case, Matthew includes them among the disciples. They just couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Matthew writes with sympathy toward these hesitant ones. D. A. Carson commented: “Jesus’ resurrection did not instantly transform men of little faith and faltering understanding into spiritual giants.”

Perhaps Matthew had in mind his own skepticism and that of the other disciples about the first reports of Jesus’ resurrection. Or he may have been thinking about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who at first did not recognize the Lord when he appeared to them on the day of his resurrection. Or Thomas, who needed extra confirmation before his incredulity could be dispelled.

“But some doubted.” Surely this tells us that there is room in the church for those with honest doubts. Jesus’ patience with “doubting Thomas” is proof of that. Thomas needed evidence for the resurrection and Jesus gave it to him. What was it that quieted the doubts of these Galilean disciples?

The authority of Jesus’ presence and his words (Matthew 28: 18-20) must have turned some of them from doubt to certainty. Perhaps they prayed, as you and I sometimes pray, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). This is the kind of honest praying that pleases the Lord.

Martin Luther put it this way: “Dear Lord, although I am sure of my position, I am unable to sustain it without Thee. Help Thou me or I am lost.”

One other thing that strengthened the faith of these early disciples, was the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a few weeks later. This was a  supernatural confirmation because it was a supernatural transformation. Believers today are given the same Holy Spirit who confirms the words of Jesus to us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

This leads me to the following conclusions.

  • We should talk openly to Jesus about our own doubts. Philip Yancey wrote, “But in honesty, I must admit that even now, after two decades of rich and rewarding faith, I am vulnerable to…doubt.” Jesus shows immense sympathy for our weakness, as he did with his first disciples.
  • Let’s be patient and gracious to others who express doubts. There is a role for the church to play in their spiritual experience. Often it has been the faith and unconditional love of church members that have helped bring skeptics to faith in Jesus.
  • Encourage the doubter to trust the authoritative word of Christ who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live” (John 11:25). It all comes down to faith in his promise. “Faith comes by hearing the message (in church?), and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17).

“The church is for those who already believe, not for people like me.” Well, it is true that the church is an assembly of believers. But there is also a loving welcome for the doubter who comes with an open mind to hear the word of Christ. Those with doubts “must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 24-25).

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner