Shadow of a Doubt

I had a friend in college who said that Jesus appeared to her in her dreams. The two had long and meaningful conversations. I was terribly jealous. I wondered why Jesus didn’t appear to me too. Then one night I had a dream about Jesus. He sat at the end of my bed and spoke to me. He didn’t look like I had imagined he would. For one thing, he had blond hair that looked like it had been shaped by a stylist. He grinned at me, his white teeth shining in the dark. He looked like the host from a TV morning show. But it was the conversation that bothered me most. He just wasn’t making any sense. When at last I realized that what he was saying to me was only gibberish, I woke up.

I have to confess that my first thought was, “Yeah, that’s about right. That’s just the sort of Jesus who would appear to me.” Not the Jesus I read about in the gospels. No, I get surfer dude Jesus with blow-dried hair and dental implants. Then, for a brief moment, I felt a stab of panic. What if it really was Jesus? What if, up close and personal, Jesus turns out to be a figure sold to me by the church’s public relations machine? Would I someday discover that what I believed about Jesus had all been a carefully manufactured façade? Like a celebrity who has evaded his handlers, would he prove to be only ordinary in the end? What if the light that had blinded me on the road to Damascus was only the flash of the paparazzi’s cameras? Or, perhaps even worse, what if I got to know the real Jesus and realized that I didn’t especially like him? I know that such a question is unimaginable to most evangelicals. But you have to admit that such a thing does sometimes happen in our other important relationships. We all have people to whom we must “relate’ but with whom we feel distant or uncomfortable. It may be a boss, coworker, parent, or sometimes even a friend.

Evangelicals often say that Christianity is a “relationship” and not a religion. I understand what we are trying to do when we say this. We want to humanize Jesus for people (as if the incarnation were not enough). We do not want them to confuse faith with the rituals that are associated with the Faith.  But sometimes I wonder if we make too much of it. Is it possible that the “relationship” frame is as liable to misunderstanding as the “religion” frame? Many of our notions of relationship are sentimental. This is especially true of our idealized relationships. What is more, many of our relationships (especially in the dating realm) are voluntary associations that are a function of personal attraction. We meet somebody and if we like them we enter (or attempt to enter) into a relationship with them. But what happens if, after we enter into a relationship, we find that we don’t like their personality as much as we thought we did at first? What if “relating” to the person makes us uncomfortable or our sense of that individual’s personality is elusive?

I am not suggesting that we may find, upon closer inspection, that Jesus really is the shallow creation of some public relations machine or that we will hate his personality once we finally come to know it. My point is that the rhetoric of ordinary relationships is probably not an adequate framework for understanding all that it means to be joined to Christ. Such language predisposes us to expect certain kinds of experiences with Christ that we rarely have. I can’t help noticing that Jesus’ own disciples did not always feel comfortable with him. Sometimes, like the disciples in the storm, it was because Jesus far exceeded their expectation (Luke 8:25).”Who is this?” they asked. There is a measure of distance implied in such language. The effect of such experiences on the disciples was not a sense of casual familiarity but one of awe and sometimes even terror. This does not change after the Resurrection. If anything, it intensifies the experience. When John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” comes face to face with the glorified Christ, he is so startled that he faints dead away (Rev. 1:17). At other times, the discomfort experienced with the disciples was because Jesus disappointed them. They looked for bread and Jesus offered himself instead (John 6:53-54, 60). They expected him to drive away their enemies. Instead, he surrendered to death at their hands and then walked out of the tomb they buried him in (Luke 24:19-24).

Either way, the disciples sometimes found their experience with Jesus to be profoundly unsettling. For those who were able to successfully make the transition from surprise or disappointment to faith, the result was not comfortable familiarity but a sense of mystery. There was apprehension (in the old sense of the word) but not comprehension. They were able to grasp something about Jesus but not with comprehensive understanding. John, who arguably “knew” Jesus better than any of the other disciples, tells us that such knowledge is yet to come for us (1 John 3:2).

In an essay on the subject of faith, Dorothy Sayers observes that a faith is not primarily a comfort, but a truth about ourselves. “What we in fact believe is not necessarily the theory we most desire or admire” she explains. “It is the thing that, consciously or unconsciously, we take for granted and act on.” Her friend and peer C. S. Lewis made a similar observation about faith. Faith, as Lewis defines it, is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” I am suggesting that the same thing is true of the “relational” faith that joins us to Jesus Christ. Although faith often includes an experiential dimension, it does not require a particular kind of emotional experience in order to be genuine. Instead, faith requires that I take certain truths about Jesus and his relation to me for granted and act upon them. The relationship that I have with Jesus Christ is not dependent upon the way I feel about the relationship. This relationship is a fact before it is an experience. As C. S. Lewis has wisely observed, it is not a mood. Indeed, according to him, one of the functions of faith is to teach your moods “where they get off.”

It was not a carefully argued apologetic that reassured me after waking from my dream. Instead, I was reassured by the Jesus I encountered in the Bible. He was nothing at all like the Christ of my imagination. He exceeded my expectations. He disappointed me too. Fairly often, I might add. On too many occasions I came to him like the disciples, with my own assumptions about what he should say and do, only to have those expectation shattered. I quickly discovered that the Jesus of the Bible was beyond my control. I could not manipulate him with my prayers, bribe him with my behavior, or wheedle him with my praise.

We often treat doubt as if it were mostly a matter of unsettled reason. If we can prove that the Bible is historically accurate or that it agrees with science, we feel that we will overcome the doubter’s objections. But I think there are other factors in play when doubt’s uncertain shadow looms over our hearts. Certainly, it is a lack of confidence. Like Eve, we hear a whispered question which undermines our thinking and unsettles our soul: “Did God say?” However, more than anything else, I suspect that most doubts arise from our own lack of imagination. We cannot really envision Jesus as he truly is. We prefer a more controllable version to the one we read about in the Scriptures. Someone who is more comfortable and predictable. If such a Jesus shows up in your dreams with his shining smile and comfortable patter, you should probably ignore him. He is only a figment of your weak imagination. He bears as little resemblance to the real Jesus as a kitten does to a lion.

Hope, Agony, & Prayer

There is a homeless man I often see on my walk to the train. All knees and elbows as he sits on the curb, he looks as if his bony form has folded in on itself in total collapse. He holds a cup in his hand, which he lifts high above his head as I approach. Waving it in my general direction he cries, “Can I get a blessing today?” His voice seems strangled, as though it pains him to ask the question.

An observation by C. S. Lewis about prayer brought him to mind this morning. In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis mentions a friend who is waiting for confirmation of a potentially catastrophic diagnosis and is experiencing the tormenting uncertainty that afflicts people in such circumstances. There is hope but there is also the agony of waiting. As you wait, Lewis notes, your thoughts run in circles. You alternate between expectation and despair. You pray, “but mainly such prayers as are themselves a form of anguish.”

When I was a young Christian, I thought the key to answered prayer was to be sure God would do as I asked. This posed a problem for me because I could never find that kind of certainty within me. It wasn’t that I doubted God’s capability. It was His willingness that was in question. I concluded that the purpose of my prayer was to prove to God that I was convinced. But how? Usually, it took the form of posturing. I labored to affect the right tone. I spouted affirmations and made declarations. Sometimes I shouted. If I did not weary the courts of heaven with my voice, I at least grew weary of it myself. And of course, when I was finished, I was no more certain of the answer than when I had begun.

According to Hebrews 11:1, faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” But I do not think this means that I must be convinced that God will do what I want in order to get answers to my prayer. It does not even mean that I must be sure that the thing I ask of God is a possibility. Jesus’ qualifying, “if it is possible,” in Gethsemane is proof enough of this (Matt. 26:39). Jesus’ many predictions of His own impending death make this request even more striking. He seems to have known that the request would be refused even before He asked.

This means that we can make our requests of God without possessing absolute certainty of the outcome. It also means that, even when we are persuaded that the thing we desire from God is unlikely, we have permission to ask anyway. We lift the cup of supplication high above our heads and cry out in the agony of hope, “Can I get a blessing today?”