Friday, January 26, 2007

Unbelief and Assurance

Friends invited me recently to a Bible Study taught by a man very mature in his Christian walk, Jack, an excellent teacher with a heart for evangelism.

I went to the study as a way of encouraging my wife’s Dad, who’s been struggling to find his way after the recent death of his wife, after sixty years of marriage. I know some of the folks who attend, but would tend to stick with small groups of my own congregation.

As anyone of any maturity in Christ can tell you often happens, God used this divine appointment with me in a special way. Dad may have had his own appointment that night too, but there was a message for me, waiting at that table.

As a way of starting a conversation about the Assurance of Salvation, Jack started in Isaiah, with what he described as “messianic” text. The term “Messianic,” when used to describe portions of the Old Testament, describes those verses of the Old Testament that foretell or hearken to the promise of the coming Messiah, in the form of the Christ, the Son of Man, the Chosen One of God, the Deliverer, hence the term, “Messianic.”

Matthew spends the largest part of his Gospel account highlighting how Jesus fulfilled all manner of Messianic prophesies in the Hebrew testaments, many found in Isaiah, but also in Psalms, Daniel, Jeremiah, and later Prophets. I re-read Isaiah often, but I did not recognize this text (another occasion with which I think mature Christians will relate):
Songs of Praise

1 In that day you will say:
"I will praise you, O LORD.
Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
and you have comforted me.
2 Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust and not be afraid.
The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation."
3 With joy you will draw water
from the wells of salvation.
4 In that day you will say:
"Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done,
and proclaim that his name is exalted.
5 Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things;
let this be known to all the world.
6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
for great is the Holy One of Israel among you."
(Isaiah 12:1-6, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society)
“In that day, you will say, ‘I will praise you, O Lord.’”

To what day is Isaiah referring? The exuberant praise of Chapter 12 is preceded by prophesy in Chapter 11, about a Branch from Jesse, upon whom the Holy Spirit will rest. The Jesse to whom Isaiah refers is that same Jesse, son of Obed, grandson of Boaz and Ruth, and father of David the King, among whose descendants the Jews expect would appear their Messiah.

This descendant of Jesse would “delight in the fear of the Lord,” “with righteousness judge the needy,” and “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth.” Isaiah proclaims:
10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.
(Isaiah 11:10, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society)
In the context of the revealed Messiah, thus Isaiah professes, “In that day, you will say, ‘I will praise you, O Lord.’”

Jack then asked several of us, point blank. How confident were we of salvation, of eternal life with Jesus after death? Jack asked all of us to question our hearts, how sure were we? Did we have doubts? How strong was our belief?

How can a follower of Christ hear such praise and acknowledgement of Jesus’ divine nature, and the promises of salvation, read the triumphant passages of Isaiah 11 and 12, and not feel the lifting of his or her heart?

And yet, we may know of times ourselves, or perhaps on the part of brothers or sisters in Christ, when such temporary hopefulness is small consolation indeed, when it should make us feel triumphant.

Doubt happens. Commitment ebbs. Strength departs. Hope fades. Unbelief appears.

Jack didn’t ask me, but he asked the men next to me. One said, “Iffy.” Another said, “How strong should it be? Absolutely certain? Never a doubt at all?”

I thought about belief and unbelief and how we can feel both at the same time, a war within us, with each like a banner, beckoning us follow. Jesus’ own disciples struggled with their doubts, and weakened in their faith, when forced to confront the limits of their own powers and abilities. Peter managed a few steps across the water, before fear overcame his attention, and gravity his divine levitation. He likewise faltered and denied Jesus, and all ran away at Gethsemane.

My father-in-law, at a time of great struggle and loss in his life, seeks comfort and maybe answers from fellow believers who come alongside. “How did you learn so much about the Bible? How can you remember where in scripture to find what you want? There’s no way I can do what Jack and Freddie (another of our friends) can do, quoting scriptures all over the place. Not at my age!”

I love Dad for his honesty, and I share some right back at him. “I have to use the concordance, this index in the back that tells you where certain words appear. Then I only have to remember one important word.” As it happens, Jack’s challenge prompts me to look up the scripture that talks about belief and unbelief, the one I remember but can’t identify, and it turns out it’s in Mark:
The Healing of a Boy with an Evil Spirit

14When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.
16"What are you arguing with them about?" he asked.
17A man in the crowd answered, "Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not."
19"O unbelieving generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me."
20So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
21Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?"
"From childhood," he answered. 22"It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
23" 'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes."
24Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
25When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. "You deaf and mute spirit," he said, "I command you, come out of him and never enter him again."
26The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, "He's dead." 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
28After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, "Why couldn't we drive it out?"
29He replied, "This kind can come out only by prayer."
(Mark 9:24-29, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society)
That’s me, that’s many of us, like that boy’s father. “I believe, but help me with the unbelief I have in equal measure!” (For at those times, if I have more belief than unbelief my belief is sufficient for the fight.) Help us with our unbelief.

As I review Mark’s account, I’m struck by how the disciples found the challenge of the evil spirit, and the fact that none of their efforts could prevail to free the boy. Fully briefed, awash in the Spirit, in the presence of their Lord and the person of their Salvation, they were unable to do what Jesus had instructed, and told them they would have power to accomplish, in His name.

We receive the gift of salvation. We invite Jesus into our hearts. We seek forgiveness for specific sins, we maintain a spiritual inventory, we make amends for any wrongs we have done. We name and claim our victory in Jesus. And yet, we may still doubt, we find unbelief within our hearts and minds. How much like Jesus’ disciples, when they lost their focus on their Lord, and sought in their own strength to do the job He’d set before them. Is it lack of will, or commitment? Or habit of mind, or mental conditioning, or even patience? We have the tools, outside of ourselves, we know they work, but we sometimes don’t keep patience. In the Lord’s time just doesn’t seem soon enough sometimes, as if we knew better than He, what time is best.

Jesus told His disciples that "This kind can come out only by prayer." There are challenges we will confront which will be completely beyond our power, as there were for the disciples. Jesus points us to the Father, as only by lifting our problems to Him will we find any hope. We can’t, but He can. It’s all about where we focus our attention, not what we do or how we do it. Our own strength and power remains insufficient for the task.

This speaks to our attitudes, our habits of heart and mind, our obedience. Obedience often takes the form of waiting patiently upon the Lord. We can be certain of nothing, certainly not in ourselves, nor in the exact how or when of what the Lord will do in response to our prayers. We should be thankful we can be so in doubt and reluctant in our own strengths in these times, there are many times we delude ourselves into thinking we can do it on our own. At least when our courage fails, we’ll more likely turn to Him who saves. But He first and foremost calls us to obedience, and Godly fear (respect) for Him and His purposes.

When He answers, when His Holy Spirit moves in our lives and circumstances, how often we see, less a change in our environment, than we experience a change of self, in our perspective, our outlook, our attitudes towards what we confront.

Belief and unbelief, many of us struggle with both internal voices, sometimes in equal measure, and sometimes, with unbelief at least the louder of the two. It’s a personal and individual struggle to be sure, and I often hear from mature followers of the Faith, that we none of us should waste time comparing ourselves with our brothers and sisters. As we’ve each been gifted differently by God, we each of us as well must strive for deep relationship with God, and let Him speak into our lives of purpose, of praise, and yes oftentimes, of correction.

We find a way to block out the many dissenting voices in our heads that seek to distract, ensnare, impede, or misdirect us. These after all are a reflection of the power of this world. We need to listen for His voice.

Casting Crowns captured this perfectly in their song, The Voice of Truth. They use the two examples of Peter on the waves, and David before Goliath of the Philistines. When we consider the times we experience unbelief alongside belief, we try to put ourselves in the position of those who came before us, were strengthened and lifted up by God, and conquered both fear and challenge. But we hear those other voices, whether the accusation of the crashing waves, or the scorn of the Giant:
Oh what I would do to have
The kind of faith it takes
To climb out of this boat I'm in
Onto the crashing waves

To step out of my comfort zone
Into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is
And He's holding out His hand

But the waves are calling out my name And they laugh at me
Reminding me of all the times I've tried before and failed
The waves they keep on telling me
Time and time again. "Boy, you'll never win!"
"You'll never win!"
But if we would but choose to listen, we can hear that other Voice:
Chorus: But the voice of truth tells me a different story
The voice of truth says, "Do not be afraid!
"The voice of truth says, "This is for My glory"
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth
Fear is what keeps us stuck in ourselves. What God offers is for us to let God be God, let Him be glorified by being our Deliverer in time of trouble.

And what is the Voice of Truth trying to speak into our lives, our circumstances, our hearts and minds, our souls?

That we can dwell in the Assurance of Salvation:
10Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

Concluding Remarks

13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
(1 John 5:10-13, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society)
Jack finished his lesson with us that night with these, the verses that most concisely capture what God Himself tells us through the Good News of the Gospels, through Paul and all the Saints who’ve come before us, and lived the Christian life with complete confidence in the power of God to transform our circumstances by conforming His children more fully in His perfect image.

As Jesus assured us all:
24"I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
(John 5:24, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society)
And of that, we can be so assured.

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