But Some Doubted:
Jesus’ Response to the Hesitation of our Hearts
This past Saturday, I experienced one of the greatest challenges of my life: coaching Sammy and Avvy’s preschool soccer team. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was legitimately very difficult. The weather had taken an unexpected turn from sunny and 80 degrees the day before to mid-forties and drizzle the morning of their game. After a good pep talk about per-se-verence, we somehow managed to motivate eight preschoolers to run around a field trying to kick a tiny soccer ball towards a goal. Getting it into the opposing team’s goal… well, that was just icing on the cake.
Sammy, my four-year-old, was still all smiles. She was having a blast. Unfortunately, her little sister, Avonlea, didn’t feel the same way. Avvy refused to step out onto the field, instead choosing to stay on the sideline clutching my leg.
After about ten minutes we had a coaches meeting and decided our kids had enough; they were literally in tears, not because they were upset, but because the cold was stinging their eyes so badly. Realizing that Avvy was going to miss her opportunity to play, I leaned down and asked her if she wanted to go out onto the field to kick the ball.
“I can’t daddy!” she cried.
As a dad, it was so hard to see my daughter so paralyzed with fear. I knew it wasn’t the cold. It was doubt: Not that she doubted the physical existence of the ball, or that she could physically kick something. It wasn’t that kind of doubt. Instead, it was more of that hesitation sort of doubt, the fear of running on that giant field with a hoard of other kids… it wasn’t safe, it was unfamiliar, it was intimidating. I could see how overwhelmed she felt and no matter how much I urged her to go out and play, she just wouldn’t budge.
Looking back to that moment, I realize now that we are all just like that – we read about God’s great love for us and the desire he has for us to live a life that’s full, meaningful, and purposeful, but we hesitate. We stay in our own comfort zones and don’t take risks because if we don’t ever risk, we won’t ever fail.
We settle for less and wonder why the testimonies of not just the Bible, but of other Christians around the world, seem to be so utterly different than our own experiences. Why is that?
Because we doubt. And we all doubt. But it’s not the kind of doubt you might typically associate with Faith… it’s the doubt that the disciples felt when they were spending those last moments with Jesus as he gave them the vision for the kingdom of God before he ascended.
But some doubted
Sometimes the Bible throws a curveball so subtle that we miss it the first hundred times we read it. Matthew 28 is a chapter many of us have read many, MANY times, and personally, I never noticed the little detail, caveat let’s call it, that Matthew throws in right at the end of verse 17:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. (Matt 28:16-17)
Did you catch it? Matthew drops this little phrase at the end: “but some doubted.” If you really think about what this means, it’s a total theological hand grenade. What do you mean “some doubted”? Jesus is right there! In the flesh! He literally ate breakfast with them.
The amazing thing is that “but some doubted,” is actually the start of some amazing news for us today as Christ followers, and it all has to do with what the word “doubt” means.
Many of us think of doubt in the way it is often used in the New Testament: unbelief. The word that’s typically used in the original Greek text by the writers for this kind of doubt is the word apistos. Pistos is the Greek word that’s often translated as “faith” or “belief” so a-pistos would be the lack of faith or belief. Apistos) means doubt in an intellectual sense, like the kind Thomas had when he showed up late to the resurrection party and expressed his skepticism that Jesus actually came back:
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (John 20:24-7)
Jesus tells Thomas to stop doubting and believe, that is, Jesus addresses Thomas’ intellectual disbelief that a resurrection actually occurred (apistos) with physical evidence of his body and tells him to believe that he was really back (pistos). This is not the kind of doubt that we see in Matthew 28; it wasn’t that anyone there was skeptical that Jesus was actually standing there in front of them in the flesh… it was a different kind of doubt.
Matthew, in 28:17, uses a different word: Distadzo. The word distadzo carries with it the sense of fear, anxiousness, and hesitation. It’s a doubt not of the mind, but of the heart. How can this be? It’s too much. This isn’t possible. In fact, translating verse 17 “but some hesitated” might be a more accurate way for us to understand what was going on. Incredibly, there’s only one other time in the Bible that this word is used – again by Matthew – to describe how Peter was feeling as the waves started crashing into his face as he walked on the Sea of Galilee to meet Jesus on the water:
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” ] Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt (distadzo)?” (Matthew 14:28-31)
It wasn’t that Peter doubted that Jesus existed. It wasn’t that Peter didn’t believe in himself or his ability to keep walking (because… well no one has that ability). It was a hesitation and fear. He let the overwhelming reality of his circumstances cloud out his sight of Jesus, and that caused his heart, and his feet, to sink.
Stepping out of the boat… again
So what’s the point? The point is, while we like to talk in the church about the apistos kind of doubt, trying to craft better and more airtight apologetic arguments to beat away the skeptics, detractors, and liberal philosophy professors, the truth is, most of us struggle with this distadzo kind of doubt way, way more. It’s the doubt that grips your heart when you think to yourself – Oh, I know God wants me to experience being a part of a community, but gosh my work schedule is so overwhelming, or I know my pastor told me that I’d be great at working with kids but what do I know about teaching kindergarteners, or I can’t possibly give my money to that missionary… I barely have enough for myself.
The fact that the word distadzo was used only once before to refer to Peter’s hesitation and fear in the face of overwhelming circumstances makes me wonder if Peter wasn’t again the one struggling the most with doubt – not that Jesus had returned, but that what Jesus was inviting them into was for him… or even possible. In the same way, hesitation, fear, doubt… it’s paralyzing the church today. And frankly, it’s paralyzing you. Maybe it’s because of past failures, or because of the overwhelming needs you see all around you, whatever the case may be, Jesus is inviting us into the adventure of a lifetime (literally) and most of us can’t leave the sideline.
What’s the answer? Just believe in yourself? Muster up more courage? Certainly not! I mean… let’s face it… what Jesus wants for us IS impossible. Make disciples of all nations? Reach the world? Rescue people from eternal death? Nope. I. Can’t. Do. That. And that’s not Jesus’ response to their distadzo doubt either. Instead, he offers them this:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Did you catch it? His response to our fear, hesitation, and doubt… is himself. Instead of saying, “suck it up and get out there!” Jesus gently says, “I want you to get out there… and I’m coming with you. I have all the resources and power to make this impossible thing possible. I want you to go with me.” It was for the disciples, and for Peter, a chance to relive that moment in the boat when Jesus said: “I want you to step out of that boat and come with me.”
God’s not looking for the most qualified, most courageous, most talented people in the world. No. He made YOU. He wants YOU. Any time you feel like sitting on the sidelines, just remember Jesus promised he’s inviting you to run, not just for him, but with him.
After about ten minutes of the kids running around in the frigid cold, we decided to go ahead and call the game. It’s not like anyone was keeping score, and honestly, the parents looked more miserable than the kids did. But just as all the kids were running off the field to go get their snacks, I asked Avvy one last time:
“Do you want to run out there? I’ll go with you!”
Avvy looked up at me and, with a timid smile, nodded her head yes. She put her shivering hand in mine and we ran towards the ball together. She kicked it downfield, chased it down, and put it in the net. As soon as the ball crossed the goal line, it was like her little body burst into flames she was so excited. The rest of the day all she could talk about was playing soccer and how she wanted to be out on the field again.
That’s the kind of life we were meant to live. Not hesitating on the sideline, but on fire, running with our Jesus.