The Summons to Seek (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 25)

NOTE: This is part 25 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

I hope by now it is clear that I am not advocating we do all we can to avoid our doubts and stuff them down. I am fairly certain that every believer struggles with doubt, sometimes very serious doubt, and stuffing it only leads to long-term cracks in our foundation—to a deep and built-in weakness in the very places we need to be strong.

I am instead advocating that we face our doubts, name them and bring them into the light. It is good to wrestle with what we believe. That’s how we discover things we’ve missed. It’s how we go deeper and learn more. It’s how we come to trade our old stories for God’s new one. If we have specific questions, we should seek out answers. We should pray, and read, and ask others for their perspectives, and humble ourselves enough to grow.

But when we do all this, we should know that eventually we’ll have a choice to make. A friend of mine, a Bible teacher named Alan Gilman, once told me, “I think it’s time we stop doubting our beliefs and believing our doubts. We need to believe our beliefs and doubt our doubts.” I don’t know if he came up with that or heard it from someone else, but it’s wise—immensely so. Eventually we’ll need to stop the wrestle and embrace what we believe as wholeheartedly as we can. Here’s the thing, though: this is not about simply pretending we don’t doubt or attempting to shore up our beliefs with apologetics, fleeces, or communal encouragement (all of which have their place). It’s about getting honest and then choosing to believe anyway, when we have seen that there are sufficient reasons to believe—and that there are also sufficient reasons to doubt.

John the Baptist’s warning about the Messiah’s fire and winnowing fork is frightening for a reason: not everyone makes it through. Some, faced with doubts, will choose their doubts. They will place their faith in them. They will believe their doubts, and they will be lost.

Others, faced with doubts, will choose Jesus.

Notice I didn’t say they will choose their old story about Jesus. It would not have done John the Baptist any good to cling to his old paradigm about exactly what the Messiah would look like and do, no matter how literal and biblical and conservative that story was. That story came straight from Scripture, yes—but it was missing pieces and others were hiding, and so the version of it that John thought he knew was wrong.

It was like trying to get the correct answer in a math equation when several of the factors are missing; it just won’t work until all the pieces are in place. And so some, faced with doubts, will realize that they do not understand everything and they cannot understand everything because even though we see vast horizons further than John did, we are still in the middle of the story and not all of the pieces are in place yet.

No matter how many true things we know, and no matter how important those true things may be (truth is always important), ultimately our faith cannot be in our particular understanding of a message. It must be in the Man. It must be in Jesus, the One who was to come. So rather than believe their doubts, some will believe in Jesus and believe that belief—that he can be trusted, no matter how unclear the story looks from here.

The Summons to Seek

Over the years, many have asked why God does not just make the truth plain and obvious. Why doesn’t he just appear in the sky in a big, explosive vision, declaring himself beyond any shadow of a doubt? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can say that it appears he does not do that because, on some grand scale having to do with his wisdom and character, that is just not how God operates. Jesus said:

Don’t give what is holy to dogs or toss your pearls before pigs, or they will trample them with their feet, turn, and tear you to pieces. Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:6–8)

There is something in the nature of God that honors holy things by reserving them for those who will likewise honor them—something that hides truth so that seekers will value it, invest their time and their efforts and their hearts in it, and find it. It’s not an accident that truth ends up hidden or even that God himself ends up hidden; it’s a part of his will.

It’s meant to draw us out, with our energies and or interest, the way a woman in an old-fashioned love story draws out a man’s energies and interest by holding back, revealing herself only little by little as he pursues her. Finally, she will reveal herself fully and give herself fully only when he commits himself, entirely, to her. It is much the same way in our dance with the divine. The hiddenness of truth is a summons to seek.

If we accept the scriptural account as true, there was one moment in history when God essentially did show up and say, “Here I am; you can’t ignore me”—and that was Jesus’s resurrection. But fascinatingly, on the same day Jesus rose from the dead, an alternative “truth” was also released into the world. In Matthew 28:9–10, we read of Jesus’s explosive encounter with the women at his tomb, including a promise to meet with the rest of his disciples. But immediately after that, Matthew records that the guards who had been watching over the tomb where Jesus lay went into the city with a message of their own:

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. (Matthew 28:11–15)

The fact of Jesus’s resurrection was immediately countered with an alternative “truth.” From that day forward, anyone who heard the story of his resurrection would be offered a counter-story, one that on the face of it seemed far more reasonable. “Haven’t you heard? That was just a story invented by his followers so they wouldn’t be discredited. What actually happened was that his disciples stole his body away during the night. You can ask the soldiers yourself—they’re around here somewhere.”

Interestingly, this idea of truth and counter-truth was evident early in Jesus’s life and ministry as well, when the Pharisees found it easy to dismiss him on the basis of his birthplace. “Search and look,” they said; “no prophet comes from Galilee.” They were looking for a Messiah from Bethlehem in Judea, the City of David, as prophesied by Micah 5:2. But it would not have taken much digging for them to realize that while he was raised in Nazareth, a city in Galilee without any apparent prophetic significance, Jesus had in fact been born in Bethlehem. A simple question to one of his neighbors or relatives would have told them that. But rather than ask, they took the more convenient answer and left the truth uncovered.

It seems to me that this idea of story and counter-story, truth and its alternative, runs throughout the history of the world and is in fact a spiritual principle of sorts. Why? Perhaps to preserve the role of choice in our relationship with God. We always have to choose, and any true choice requires more than one option.

None of this is to say, of course, that some things aren’t actually true, and that other things aren’t actually false. The choices are not equally valid, and truth can be found. But it takes seeking to figure it out. (Ask, seek, knock.) In the story of the tomb, the truth was there for the looking, but only those who cared enough to put in the effort would ever find it. Everyone else would simply settle for the easier answer—the alternative offered to them.

Moreover, even though truth can be found, not all truth is of the scientifically quantifiable, measurable-with-the-mind-and-the-right-instruments kind. Some truth has to be discovered with the heart; some truth has to be trusted in order to be fully known. This is the kind of truth that is relational—the kind that is expressed in the words “I love you” or “I’m on your side.” It can’t be boiled down to formulae. Its language is that of self-revelation and of informed decisions to trust.

John’s question, “Are you the One who is to come?”, set up an interesting dilemma. Jesus had not openly declared himself to be the Messiah, but he had been saying and doing many things that strongly pointed to that conclusion. He had been openly and publicly working miracles, demonstrating supernatural power over nature, disease, and demons. He had demonstrated a profound understanding of the Scriptures and taught with unusual authority.

On top of that, John had personal reasons to believe—things God had supernaturally revealed to him, not to mention his own miraculous conception, the angelic visits surrounding his birth and that of Jesus, and the prophecies his father Zechariah had given. So we have to wonder: What could Jesus have said or done that would have satisfied John? What exactly would have put his doubts to rest?

On the same level, what could God do that would satisfy us?

When we are wrestling with doubt, we tend to want one of two things (or, ideally, both). First, we want some kind of quantifiable proof. Second, we want a personal answer that explains things well enough, and reveals God’s heart deeply enough, to give our hearts peace and rest in the midst of our pain and our struggle.

Often, we mistake one for the other. We think that proof of God’s existence would satisfy our hearts, or that if we had a deep inner revelation of his love, it would lay to rest our more scientific questions. I don’t think this is case. In fact, our hearts and our minds live in (healthy) tension with one another, and doubt exists in this tension. We need reason and rationality—but in a relational universe, our demands for proof can quickly become unreasonable. It’s all too easy to be like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, who had witnessed his incredible miracles and power and yet still insisted that they needed a “sign” before they would believe in him. And we need revelation and personal experience, but they can’t settle all our questions—in fact they may just raise more.

For us, living in the modern world, doubt comes in from avenues John did not have to deal with. No one in his day seriously questioned the existence of God (at least, not in Judea). Religious pluralism and changing morality were huge issues in the first-century Roman world, but at least most people took the existence of the spiritual world for granted.

In our day, that’s not so; and we are far enough from the first century that some even question the existence or nature of the people who lived in it—Jesus, especially. In the first century, there was no claim that “science” could explain everything (although philosophy made a good run at the job). The secular, atheistic bent of the modern West can raise serious questions for us, as can globalism and the return of a pluralistic society.

But at the same time, we continue to wrestle with deeper questions, the same heart-level questions that have always mattered to human beings. We want to know if there is a God, not as a matter of scientific inquiry, but as the most pressing question of our souls. We want to know if there is a God because we need to know who we are, and if we are loved, and if we are wanted. Those are not questions we will ever answer with a calculator or a microscope.

To be continued.


This is Part 183 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Felipe Archer on Unsplash



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One response to “The Summons to Seek (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 25)”

  1. […] Part 183: The Summons to Seek (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 25) (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

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