We can think that to have doubts is to lack faith. But doubt is not the opposite of faith. To suggest that it is, is to confuse doubt with unbelief. Doubt is something only a believer can experience, for we can only doubt what we believe. Doubt is to belief, what temptation is to sin – a test.
In fact, in those times when we have to engage with doubt, honestly and frankly, we find our relationship with God grows stronger and more intimate as a result.
BREAD OF LIFE
One of Jesus’ extraordinary statements was that he could offer life: “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life… has passed from death to life,” he said (John 5:24). How could he say this?
On one occasion he stunned everyone by producing sufficient food for a crowd of five thousand from five loaves and two fish. The time when Jesus performed this miracle was Passover – the time when everyone remembered God’s liberation of his people from Egypt. We can understand the crowd’s response, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” They saw Jesus as a modern-day Moses – someone who could free them from Roman rule. But, having a bigger and better plan, Jesus withdrew from them (John 6:15).
In fact, Jesus commented: “…You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26-27).
There are two kinds of bread – bread for our physical bodies that will one day die; and bread for our spiritual existence that is destined to last forever. ‘You have seen a miracle,’ Jesus said, ‘but you do not see the sign.’
Jesus doesn’t just see empty stomachs, but empty souls, empty lives. The miracle of turning the loaves and fish into more than sufficient food to feed the crowd was a sign of Jesus’ capacity to feed our deeper spiritual need and give us life.
UNBELIEF AND DOUBT
In John 6:60-69 we read: When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Jesus was a controversial figure. As people came to know him better they were strongly divided in their opinions about him. So, whereas they had begun to come to him in thousands when they saw and experienced his amazing healing powers, large numbers turned away from him when he challenged them with the deeper issues of life and what he had to offer. Number crunchers today might say his ministry was a failure.
Disbelief and doubts arose when Jesus said of himself, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). In the conversation that follows, it is clear that Jesus’ hearers didn’t get it when he contrasted the experience of life now – one that perishes – and the experience of life eternal.
‘Which life is the one really worth working for?’ is his challenging question. But his hearers then, as we can be today, were too focused on life now and finding political solutions.
As the crowds departed, Jesus challenged the Twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?” We can feel the intense sadness of the moment for him. It is a sadness that all faithful ministers of God’s Word experience when people refuse to listen to God’s truth.
Responding on behalf of the Twelve, Peter said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” It’s the response of someone who, as we see elsewhere has real doubts, but who by God’s grace, believes.
Collect – Almighty God, we confess that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: keep us outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, so that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, Lent 2 – adapted)
© John G. Mason