How to Have Faith in the Face of Unanswered Questions

There are things about God you and I will never understand.

I’m being reminded of this a lot lately. As I teach through the entire Bible, chapter by chapter, questions arise.

Questions I once asked but now know the answers to… Questions I once asked but never found the answers to… Questions I once asked but was too lazy to go find the answers to… Questions I now ask and go find the answers to… Questions I now ask and never find the answers to… Questions I now ask and am too lazy to go find the answers to… And questions those I’m teaching ask that I’ve never considered…and may or may not know the answers to.

[See the analyticalness in that last paragraph? I have to cover every base, every combination and permutation of options. It’s a sickness, really.]

My natural bent is to feel unsettled when I have questions I can’t answer. I like information. I like all the information. Having it gives me a sense of control–a false sense, by the way–and when I don’t know something, I feel uneasy.

This feeling once drove me to totally deny Christianity and the existence of God. Because Jesus couldn’t be proven in a lab, I would not accept His claim to be God as a possibility.

Do you know what changed my mind about Jesus?

I’ll give you a hint: I never got all my questions about Him answered to my satisfaction. I didn’t finally meet someone who could smush Christianity into my tiny box-of-logic.

What changed my mind about Jesus is 1) I realized I needed God, and 2) the God of the Bible made a lot of sense to me. Notice: the Bible didn’t make total sense to me.

As I began to study the Bible with an open mind, God began teaching me about His character. I discovered more and more who He is and what He is like and, conversely, what He isn’t like.

Over time New Testament scriptures proved true in my own life, enhancing my trust in the Bible’s validity, and, in turn, in the Bible’s descriptions of God as wholly trustworthy and good.

I still had plenty of intellectual hurdles I couldn’t clear in regards to Christianity. And I still do. But I’m a lot more comfortable with the unanswered questions than I used to be. Because the questions I can answer–Will God forgive me? Will He abandon me? Does He love me? Is His Word true?–all confirm His character.

So when someone asks a question like, “When babies die, do they go to heaven?” I can say, “I don’t know–the scriptures don’t expressly speak to that–but I know God is good and just and loving, so I trust Him to do the right thing by those babies.”

And when someone asks, “Why did God even give Adam and Eve the option to disobey Him in the garden? Why even plant that tree? He set them up for failure. Who is kidding who?” I can say, “I don’t know why God allows evil. It may not make sense to us, but I know God is wise and in total control, so I trust Him to use evil for good.”

To put it philosophically, the sensibility of God (that is, the fact that He makes sense), does not depend upon man’s (in)ability to completely make sense of God. There are things about Him that will never make sense to us humans. But He has given us enough glimpses of Himself in the scriptures for us to reasonably believe He does, in fact, make sense in all ways. It is not He who is illogical from time to time but us.

And that thought provides me comfort and peace in the midst of unanswered questions.

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Overflow

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

Paul wrote this to the Christians in Rome as a blessing after exhorting them to be unified and accepting of one another.

Not unlike the Romans, God is attempting to teach me about the power and freedom of acceptance and trusting Him with the question marks in my life.

This preposition-laden verse catches my eye because Paul is saying a lot of important things in one poorly crafted sentence.

(Can I say that? Can I say his grammar was awful and the English translators need some lessons on when to use commas? I digress.)

It strikes me that God has a job–to fill us–and we have a job–to trust in Him. As we trust, He fills. The two actions are meant to occur simultaneously.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that if we don’t trust, He won’t fill. However, I’m willing to bet that more often than not we have to get the ball rolling by trusting Him first.

Why?

Because of what God is filling us with: all joy and peace.

Dare I say it is probably impossible for us to experience all joy and peace while not trusting Him?

I do.

I dare.

So we start trusting Him, and He fills us, and we skip off into the sunset, hand in hand, in this beautiful unending bliss of simultaneously trusting and filling forever and ever, amen.

At least that’s how it is supposed to be.

I find it interesting that God doesn’t only fill us with joy or peace but with both. Again, perhaps we can’t have one without the other.

I also find it interesting Paul asks God to fill the Romans with all joy and peace. Not some; not a lotAll.

In the same vein, God fills us with these things. He doesn’t just offer a little of each; He gives us as much as we can take.

Paul isn’t shy about praying for an abundance of awesomeness. Maybe I shouldn’t be either…

So we trust God; God fills us with all joy and peace.

But why does Paul want this for the Romans?

Well, the obvious human answer is because joy and peace feel good. Paul must want the Romans to live their best lives now…or then, as the case is.

Maybe. But the scripture says more.

We trust God; God fills us with all joy and peace, “so that you may overflow with hope…”

Ahhhh.

Paul wants the Romans to overflow with hope, and their trusting God is the first step on the path to get there.

When God fills us, on account of our trusting in Him, we overflow with hope. He fills us with all joy and peace, and then we flat spill over with hope.

Wow.

I can’t remember the last time I brimmed with hope. I have to admit it sounds appealing.

Why would Paul want the Romans to overflow with hope?

Maybe because it’s a privilege Christ-followers have that is worth taking advantage of…non-believers don’t have access to the True Source of hope.

And/or maybe because when we reflect hopefulness to the world, they are attracted to Christ in us. Our overflowing with hope is an evangelism tool, if you will, which sounds like a win-win to me.

What’s interesting is the cooperation between God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit in this process. God does the filling with joy and peace, and the Spirit empowers the overflowing of hope. I don’t really know what to do with that observation, but I’m sure Paul stuck it in there for a reason.

All this to say, trusting God sounds like a pretty good idea.

I know, anti-climactic.

On Doctrine and Why You Don’t Have to Have it All Figured Out

While studying Church history from Christ’s death to Martin Luther (1500s), it is interesting to me that I have yet to agree 100% with any one person’s doctrine. I don’t even fully agree with those who, like I do, hold scripture to be the highest authority and earnestly seek to believe and apply all that it teaches.

I’m a Protestant, and I don’t even agree with the founder of Protestantism on all points (Luther believed infant baptism regenerated their souls and doggedly defended transubstantiation).

This observation tells me two things:

1) It is highly unlikely there exists one person with totally correct doctrine, and

2) That’s okay.

The first point should serve to humble me regularly, as it implies I probably don’t have totally correct doctrine.

And the second point should serve to remind me my salvation nor my value in God’s eyes depends on my having perfect theology. Nowhere does the Bible say we have to have all of our theological ducks in a row to have a relationship with God and eventually enter His Heaven.

The Bible teaches this: if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

See? No mention of having all the right doctrine, just some of the right doctrine.

These thoughts prompt me to give myself grace while studying God. It’s okay if I don’t figure it all out

And, equally important, these thoughts encourage me to show other believers respect, love, and grace if they hold a belief I don’t.

How to Not Sin When You Don’t Like God’s Plan

I’m thinking of starting a series called, “Stuff Jesus Did that We Label Sin but Shouldn’t Because Jesus Did that Stuff”.

(It’s a working title.)

As I read through the gospels, I see a lot of things that fall into this category. I am often scratching my head (not literally though; my dandruff is under control. But if yours isn’t, no judgment here. Scratch away).

Many of the things Jesus says seem harsh and unloving at times. I wrestle with how to reconcile those statements with His sinlessness when if I said the same words today, everyone would think I’m a big fat impatient jerk.

This morning I was reading in Mark about Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and, again, I found myself wondering, “Is He sinning?”

Now, of course, He isn’t sinning anywhere ever in the Bible (or out of the Bible, for that matter), but you get my point: as I read I had to open up my mind a little bit and try to figure out why what appeared to be sin wasn’t actually sin and what that means for us.

At this point, details would be helpful.

Jesus is in the Garden, full of sorrow, presumably regarding His impending arrest, mauling, and crucifixion. So Jesus did the best thing He could think of when He was “full of sorrow to the point of death”: He got alone and prayed (Mark 14:34-36).

(That’s a whole different post, but it’s a pretty short one, so let me sum it up: when we feel that way, we should do what Jesus did, too.)

On we go.

This post wants to focus on the content of the prayer (I asked it; it told me).

“[Jesus] fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘AbbaFather,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”

What is Jesus really saying here?

Jesus is telling/asking God to change the plan.

To me, that communicates Jesus doesn’t trust or agree with the plan. And not trusting God seems like a sin. Disagreeing with God is unwise, at best. It smells of rebellion.

Maybe I am reading my own life into this situation: when I ask God to change the plan, I know it comes from a place of not trusting Him.

But that can’t be so with Jesus because He is sinless. He is not distrusting or disagreeable with the Father or unwise or rebellious in any cell of His body.

So what’s the difference? How can Jesus tell God to change the plan and not sin, but when I tell God to change the plan, it’s usually rooted in sin? 

I think the answer is two-fold.

First, Jesus had the correct understanding of what asking God to do things differently is: not a sin. Asking God to change the plan is simply not a sin in and of itself. We may have been brought up to think it is, but, apparently, it’s not because of the sheer fact that Jesus did it. It is perfectly acceptable to God for us to suggest alternate ways of doing things when His ways scare the crap out of us. But I think most of us wrongly assume it is always a sin to “help” God brainstorm options that are more palatable to us.

(For more on this, go read all the times Moses petitioned God to change His mind/plan. It happened a lot, and God didn’t ever call it sin or dole out a punishment to Moses for objecting to God’s plan. This, logically, does not guarantee God didn’t consider Moses’ objecting sinful, but it makes a pretty good case.)

The second difference is how Jesus couched His request that God do things differently.

Before He told God to change it up, Jesus said, “Everything is possible for you.” Jesus acknowledged God’s omnipotence. Jesus was saying, “I know, Father, that You have the ability to change the way this thing is going to go down. I wouldn’t bother to ask if I didn’t believe that with My whole heart.”

In my estimation, Jesus’ prefacing His request with this admission is an expression of trust. It’s also an acknowledgement that Jesus can’t change things Himself; He is under the Father’s sovereignty and is letting God know He accepts that.

After Jesus told God to take His cup, He ended His prayer with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” In other words, Jesus was saying, “I realize the fact that whatever You decide to do – go ahead with Your original plan or adapt things at my request – it will be the best choice.”

Again, Jesus is showing complete trust in God and deferral to the Father’s ultimate authority. Jesus is expressing that while His mind might believe a different plan would be better, His heart’s true desire is to do what the Father wants done.

And I think Jesus’ framing His request this way is what determines He is not sinning for desiring a different course of action.

Where the rest of us get tripped up is we either don’t believe God can truly change things or our hearts don’t truly want what He wants. Or, worse, both are true of us. 

After a brief consultation with His disciples, Jesus prayed one more time. He determined His job was to get on with things, and if God wanted to answer His prayer and change the plan along the way, that was up to the Father.

So that’s just what Jesus did. “Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Mark 14:42). He embraced the path God had set before Him head on and trusted God to make it lead exactly where the Father wanted it to.

All this to say desiring things to go differently than how God appears to be making them go is not the sin. Doing things differently than how you know God wants them to be done is the sin. It’s in the doing things our own way that we express disregard for His omnipotence and sovereignty. It’s in the doing things against His orders that we show Him we really don’t care about His will at all; we want our will to be done no matter what.

As usual, it’s about the heart. If our hearts are right, like Jesus’ heart was – yielded to God’s wisdom, love, and ultimate authority – we can ask Him to change anything without sinning in the process.

 

How to Reduce Fear and Increase Faith

In Mark 4 Jesus asks His disciples two questions I think He asks you and me pretty regularly, too.

His inquiries are made to the disciples at the end of the story of how He speaks to the wind and the waves in a “furious squall” and they immediately die down.

After calming the storm with just three words, “Quiet! Be still!” Jesus says to His disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:39-40).

It struck me that what Jesus is implying is that if they had faith, they wouldn’t have fear. Faith and fear, then, are opposites.

If we find ourselves fearful about something, the best prayer we can pray, it seems, is, “Lord, increase my faith!”

How does God increase our faith?

First John 4:18 reads, “…perfect love drives out fear…” And this description of what love does comes right after John’s defining what love is: God. “God is love,” (1 John 4:16).

So, God is love – perfect love, of course – and perfect love drives out fear. Logic tells me, then, that God drives out fear. But it’s a particular aspect of who He is that removes fear from our hearts: Love.

If you’re still with me, I believe God increases our faith in Him by driving out the fear in our hearts via His making us more and more aware of His perfect love. 

The better we understand His love for us, the calmer we are and the more easily we trust Him, whatever may come.

I think it’s worth noting Jesus’ second question is, “Do you still have no faith?” He didn’t expect the disciples to have perfect faith, just some faith. But, apparently, they didn’t have any at all.

It would make sense to me that fear and faith are inversely proportional: the more we have of one, the less we have of the other.

I was tempted at first to write they cannot coexist, that when we feel or have one, we cannot feel or have the other. But I don’t think that’s true.

We are fallen and will never have perfect or complete faith in God about anything. Our flesh and Satan whisper doubt to us all the time, scaring us. But the more we focus on God’s love, the louder our faith will be and the quieter our fear will get.

The last part of these questions that caught my eye is the word still. “Do you still have no faith?” I can sense Jesus’ exasperation that after all the disciples had seen Him do, all they’d heard Him say, all they’d experienced with Him, they still didn’t believe Jesus knew what He was doing when He told them to set sail that night? They still didn’t believe Jesus would protect them no matter how terrible the storm got or how soundly He slept?

Why didn’t they have faith in their teacher who was obviously divinely anointed?

Because in the moment they forgot everything they knew about Him. They forgot the miracles they’d witnessed Him perform, the healings they’d seen Him do, the wise teachings they’d heard from His mouth, and the hints He’d been dropping that He was the Messiah.

Instead of recalling the truths about Jesus – the things that would have given them faith – the disciples focused on the wind and the waves threatening their lives. They focused on the fear.

We have to train our minds to remember all the ways Jesus has been faithful to us throughout our lives. We have to think about all we’ve been through with Him, how He has blessed us and protected us in the past. Especially in the middle of a fear-inducing storm, we have to focus our thoughts on His impeccable character and unfailing love for us.

To reduce fear and increase faith in our lives, we need to study His perfect love and remember all He has brought us through.  

True and False Disciples

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” – Jesus

As I read Matthew 7 this morning, this verse caught my eye. Actually, the heading above this verse that the NIV publishing people added caught my eye. It read “True and False Disciples”.

I found this concept interesting. We frequently hear about true and false prophets and teachers – in fact, Jesus has just been talking about false prophets the verse before – but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the phrase “true and false disciples”.

A “false” anything is never good. Whenever we read about “false” people in the Bible, they are masquerading as something true and pure, usually purposefully (though not always) conniving to trick people into believing they are the real deal.

Can “disciples” do that? Can people pretend to be Christ followers but not really be believers? And, if so, are those who are “false disciples” always aware they are faking it, or do some of them genuinely believe they are biblical Christians?

The “false disciples” in this verse and the next are characterized as being people who a) believe Jesus exists, b) revere Him in some way, c) do supernatural things, like drive out demons and perform miracles, “in His name”, meaning they d) believe they are doing things that honor Him or, at the very least, require His lending them His authority and power (Matthew 7:21-22).

Why in the world, then, would Jesus reject these people, indicating in no uncertain terms that they are not true followers of Christ (Matthew 7:23)?

Jesus tells us why he would reject these people (and anyone else) back up in verse 21: they did not do the will of His Father in heaven.

How did they not?! They did all kinds of Christiany things. How can Jesus say they weren’t doing the Father’s will, and why does that have bearing on their salvation if we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9)?

Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly what they weren’t doing, but we can deduct that what they were doing was not enough to a) earn their salvation, b) make them authentic Christ followers, and c) put them in God’s will.

In essence these people thought they were doing what God wanted them to do, but, somehow, they were not obeying Him.

Given that their external actions looked good, perhaps the problem of their disobedience was internal: their hearts weren’t in their actions. They were doing these “good things” for the wrong reasons, the primary of which was to earn a spot in heaven.

Earning our salvation is not God’s will. I know this because it can’t be done. There is no one righteous, not one (Romans 3:10). Jesus rejected these people because they didn’t have faith in Him to save them. They were trying to do it themselves.

If that’s not you, that’s great. If you know you are saved not because you do anything right (let alone everything) but because you believe sinless Jesus died on the cross for your sins, taking the punishment you deserve, giving you the reward He deserved, and the Father agreed to not hold you eternally accountable for your sins because you believe these things, that’s wonderful.

But don’t miss that verse 21 still has a strong word for us who have our salvation theology ducks in a row.

Jesus says of us kind of people, us “true disciples”, that we do the will of the Father.

Obedience – ACTING according to His will as it is laid out in scripture – is the sign of true, saving faith. Obedience doesn’t earn salvation, but it is the mark of the one who has been saved. Obedience is the proof in the pudding, if you will.

“Belief” that is not followed by obedience was never belief in the first place. This is true in all areas of our lives: we only do that which we believe.

For instance, I can say I believe eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly is best for my body. But I don’t do anything to act in accordance with that idea. In fact, I do the opposite. I eat junk and sit 15 of the 16 hours I am awake every single day.

Why? Because I am not truly convinced I ought to do otherwise. My twisted logic, my actual belief, is that making the food and exercise choices I make is somehow better than making the choices I don’t make. Yes, I will intellectually agree that I believe my body would be better off if I made healthy choices. But when the rubber meets the road and I have to make decisions, my “belief” is betrayed by my opposite actions. My true belief, whether I am conscious of it or not, is that unhealthy choices are better in some way than healthy choices.

We always act in accordance with our actual beliefs.

If you want to know what a man believes about anything, then, including God, watch what he does. If he runs in the opposite direction of the things espoused in scripture, no matter what he tells you or himself (we are super good at fooling ourselves), he is not a Christ-follower. If he does his best to pursue what God tells him to do in scripture, he is a Christ-follower.

Action is evidence of belief, for better or for worse.

What do your actions say about what you truly believe?

(Side note: you might argue that if we looked at the actions of the “false disciples”, we would say they are believers, doing things Jesus commanded His disciples to do. But if you observe them just a little while longer, you hear them appeal to Jesus that they should be received by Him because of their actions – not on account of their faith – a blatant violation of scripture. Their true beliefs come out in their actions – they are doing good things to earn salvation – and then verbally when they are informed their actions aren’t going to save them.)

Relying on God

If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. – 1 John 4:15-16

The chick on the Bible study video, Kelly Minter, honed in on the word “know” this morning… she pointed out the Greek is more specific. “Know” here doesn’t mean intellectual assent, like I know my telephone number. Rather, this particular “know” means to understand as a result of experiencing, like I know my husband as a result of interacting with him daily and deeply for 10+ years.

We are to know the love God has for us because we’ve experienced it.

Bible study lady was making a fascinating point, and she proceeded to examine other times John uses both kinds of “knows”, but I found myself zeroing in on a different word in verse 16: rely.

We know and rely on the love God has for us…

It struck me that rely is a verb. It’s an action. To rely on God is an action we have to deliberately take or it won’t be done.

As I pondered what it is to rely on something, it also struck me that it can’t be done halfway. You either rely on something, or you don’t. But you don’t “sorta” rely on something. To “kind of” rely on something is to not rely on it at all.

Sometimes I get hungry. But I hate cooking. So I go to a restaurant and rely on people there to cook something for me. Except on Christmas Day. I know that 99% of restaurants are closed on Christmas Day, so I don’t rely on them to feed me then. (I rely on my mother-in-law then, but that’s neither here nor there…) What I’ve never done is “sorta” relied on a cook at a restaurant to feed me. I’ve never brought my own sack lunch, just in case my meal was burned or the chef got sick. I’m either all in or all out, wholly depending upon the restaurant or not depending on it at all.

In fact, I can’t think of one situation in which I’ve ever “kind of” relied on something.

So when John tells us to rely on the love God has for us, I’m fairly certain he means to whole-heartedly count on that love. Which we can do, logically, given that we know His love is trustworthy from past personal experience.  

We are being called to trust God’s love 100%. We are being commanded to put all of our hope in the fact that God loves us… no matter the trials that may come… no matter the suffering we will endure… no matter the bleakness of the current state of affairs. We can and should totally rely on God’s love for us.

Two emotions surface for me thinking about this concept:

First, I have a sense of utter desperation. Waking up to the news telling me about the slaughter of Christians all over the world countless times in the past six months is enough to make me feel like I can’t rely on anything for safety and protection from the evil in this world. If people are executed in American churches, the “safest” places on earth to worship, where else are we going to go to protect ourselves? My feeling of desperation says, “Thank God we can rely on the love God has for us because we can’t rely on anything else…” 

Thankfully, though, that first sentiment quickly gives way to another: peace. The love of God is not some consolation prize. We don’t merely rely on His love because that’s all we’ve got to choose from. (We can find plenty of other woeful substitutes with which to self-medicate… or so I’ve been told…) No, we stake our lives on God’s love for us, trusting Him and Him alone to take care of us in all the right ways at all the right times, because His love is rock-solid. It is wholly trustworthy to support us and nurture us all the days of our lives. The fact that I can rely on something as infallible as the love of God for all my needs is a reassurance like no other.

But just because it makes sense and brings me peace, it doesn’t mean relying on God’s love for me is easy. It’s not because relying on God isn’t my default setting. I’m a fallen human, just like you, so I’ve been programmed to rely on me. And that’s what I do unless I make the intentional decision to consciously rely on God. And the moment I stop focusing my thoughts on doing so, I slip right back into “self-sufficiency” without even realizing it.

Since I can’t rely on myself to rely on God’s love for me, it’s apropos to end with this: I’m going to rely on God’s love for me to help me rely on God’s love for me.

(I think those are His favorite kind of requests, by the way… when we stop pretending like we can do any single positive thing without Him wholly equipping us to do so… we are a desperate people… thank God we have a God who loves us and who not only allows us to rely on Him, He invites us to rely on Him.)