There are those among us who desire to love God with their whole heart and find no reason to hope in themselves or in this world. They find their chasing of fleshly desires and the opinions of other people to be bondage and not freedom. To be sure, they have doubts. They have hard questions about hard things. But their doubting questions are honest. You will not find them among the scoffers.
Others see things in reverse. Their hope is that their worldly desires, comforts and ambitions would satisfy them. For them, bondage is anything that might restrain their pursuit. To them, the God of the Christian scriptures is a tyrant and the Gospel becomes chains and shackles. It should not be a surprise that some like these who leave the Christian church would speak of leaving in terms of liberation (Psalm 2:3).
Over the past week, I’ve listened to the stories of a couple of people who once professed faith in Christ and were leaders in their churches and other organizations but have now left Christianity and are following their own paths in life. One, after running through the typical list of objections to the biblical narrative and scoffing at the biblical answers, spoke of the sense of freedom he now has. He expressed his freedom in terms of not having to believe certain things he didn’t want to believe. The other fellow told his story of feeling guilt over his failure to measure up to moral and religious standards. He put his new agnosticism quite plainly: “You believe what you want to believe,” he said.
We can agree on that statement. We do believe what we want to believe. Those who sincerely desire the grace of God will hold fast to Christ through their doubts. And those who just as sincerely desire that anything but the Gospel be true will reject the the God of the Christian Scriptures even if they were to see someone rise from the dead (Luke 16:31). We do believe what we want to believe.
The text for Sunday’s Easter sermon, John chapter 20, features one of those who had doubts – Jesus’ disciple, Thomas. Thomas wanted to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But there were many things he didn’t understand. There were many things he found hard to believe. In John 11, Thomas believed that he and the rest of the disciples were going to their deaths in Judea when Jesus had told them that they were going to raise Lazarus from the dead. In John 14, Thomas expressed doubts about the way to God’s presence when Jesus had said, “You know the way.”
Thomas was not alone. A read through the Gospels and Acts will reveal that no one displays unreserved faith in Christ. There are few like the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10) whose faith is commended by Jesus. Even of the eleven disciples who weren’t devils (John 6:70), Peter denied that he knew Jesus when he thought it might be dangerous to acknowledge Him, and all the rest fled at Jesus’ arrest. These are not expressions of minor doubts!
What is it, then, that separates the doubters from the scoffers? What is at the root of the difference? An example may help. Contrast the reactions of people who witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus recorded in John 11. They all witnessed the same event. They all possessed the same knowledge. Some saw and believed (verse 45), while others considered the whole matter a threat to their status and position (verse 48). The first group believed and followed Jesus and were probably among those who welcomed Him at His “triumphal entry” (John 12:13). The second group plotted to put both Jesus and Lazarus to death (John 11:53; 12:10-11).
Here we have the difference in a simple but graphic illustration. The desires of a person’s heart predispose him or her to believe God or to not believe God. It really does come down to what a person wants. The one who wants the Gospel to be true will believe in spite of doubts. The one who wants something else to be true will not believe in spite of all evidence. We know it to be true in other areas of life. Faith is no exception. We believe what we want to believe.
Given this principle, what needs to change about a person for faith to become reality and not simply a profession and tradition? The Scriptures are clear in many places: the desires – “wants” – of the heart must change. A person who wants to please the flesh may fight their own desires to keep up the outward elements of religion for any of a number of reasons including the community, appearances, livelihood. But, in the end, the profession is in vain. In our age in which it is increasingly unpopular to identify with various biblical doctrines, the number of those giving up the religious fight will increase. For those whose hearts are changed to desire the “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forever more” in the presence of God, there will be doubts and questions that may remain unanswered for all of their lives, but their faith will be more than appearances. With “Doubting” Thomas they will say of Christ, “My Lord, and my God!”
If you find yourself scoffing at the claims of Christ, be afraid for your eternal soul! Ask yourself, “What is it that I really want?” And pray God to give you a desire for Himself – one completely different than what comes naturally to sinners like you and me.
If you find yourself desiring and loving God and all He is for you in Christ, you will have doubts from time to time, but you can be confident that God will reveal Himself to you in gracious, comforting, loving ways and will answer those doubts and questions at the time they need to be answered!