20 March 2006

The laziness of unbelief

by Dan Phillips

Something in Luke 7:17-23 struck me afresh. Jesus had been performing miracles, and the word spread as far as John the Immerser. John sent some of his students to Jesus to ask Him, "Are you the Coming One, or shall we look for another?" (v. 20).

So, shortly after the incident of a Gentile's display of faith from a distance (vv. 1-10), we have John's display of doubt (or its cousin), from a distance. John is languishing in prison (cf. Matthew 11:2). He clearly is in something of a crisis of faith, and I doubt many of us are in a position to fault him too condescendingly.

How does Jesus respond?

Does He perform a wonder especially for John, a fresh proof or indication of His identity? Does He exert His power in John's life, from a distance? Does He "zap" him with a direct, sovereign-grace pick-me-up on John's faith? Does He psychologize, or offer extended counsel? He does none of those things.

I find Jesus' reply personally instructive, bracing, challenging: "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me" (vv. 22-23).

Candidly, it has always struck me that our Lord's answer seems a bit brusque. In effect, Jesus' response amounts to this: "You already know enough. You have access to enough facts. You possess enough information. What you need to do is remember and think about what you already know. So do that. Put it together for faith."

There is a laziness to unbelief, a laziness to doubt. It's easy enough to spot in the cocky, big-talking "skeptic," usually equal parts ignorance and arrogance. They hit one verse in the Bible they can't immediately understand, proclaim it an error, and research no further. One incomplete notion they have of God clashes with one superficial impression they have about life, and they pronounce the entire endeavor of faith pointless folly.

But at the moment John's situation has me more concerned with this same sort of laziness in Christians, in us, in me. Unbelief looks at a rough turn, a nasty twist, a horrid lurch, and simply stops thinking. Unbelief forgets everything we've learned about God from His Word. It forgets sacred history, forgets (or does not reflect on) the centuries related in Old and New Testaments. It learns nothing from church history, and the lives of the saints. It forgets our own history, forgets God's many mercies, graces, blessings, and acts of deliverance in our own lives.

Unbelief forgets all the truths we've learned about God -- His omniscience, His omnipotence, His wisdom, His goodness, His covenant with us.

Unbelief forgets all these things, plops down on the floor, folds its arms, and pouts, "That's it. God failed. He let me down. I'm done for. The whole thing is a sham." And there our lazy unbelief would have us sit.

We do then do a "thinking" of a sort, but it scarcely warrants the name. In an emotion-driven muddle, we build our case against God. We amass "evidence" of His shortcomings. We go on, perhaps, with the motions of being a Christian (because at heart we really do believe), but we're in a snit, a pout, a state. He let us down. So much for Him.

We feel that we're being smart and honest, but what we're being is lazy. We feel very strongly, and we surely don't understand the latest twist of Providence -- but we forget everything we knew, we embrace our feeling as if it were truth, and we sulk. We refuse to think it through. We don't insert Part A into Part B; we don't put apply we know from the Word to our experience.

That, I think, is why Jesus seems to handle John so roughly. But this harshness is that of the good physician, who would pluck out the actual cause of our misery, though the operation is painful. He knows that immediate pain is essential, if ultimate healing is to be obtained -- and he would have no less for his patient. As soon as the messengers leave, Jesus speaks His heart about John, praising him to the heavens (vv. 24-28). Jesus loved and prized John. This bracing response came not from real impatience or disdain, but from love. "Don't stay in a slump, John. You know better. Use what you know."

It is as Paul fires off to the Corinthians, who (among other things) were tolerating those who denied resurrection: "Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning" (1 Corinthians 15:34 ESV).

I will tell you from too much bitter personal experience: it goes down a lot easier when we preach this sermon to ourselves, than when we get to where we need to hear it from another. Best not to be the last to know, and deal with, the truth.

Dan Phillips's signature


Neil said...

I remember hearing a sermon once where the pastor was speculating on what was going through John's mind. He wondered if it was something like "This is not what I expected. If Jesus is the Messiah, then what am I doing rotting in this hole? What if I have failed? This isn't what I expected the Messiah to be like."

That's just speculating, but it's true that even John was taken aback by Jesus. That is encouraging to me in a weird way.

Jon Owings said...

Like John Piper says, "Unbelief in God's promises is the root of all sin."
Unbelief is lazy. It is the easy thing to do. It is our nature. Everyday I have to spot unbelief creeping into my life. If I don't shoot it down with God's word I am a goner.
Thanks for this post. It is good to remember even John had his problems with this.

Ephemeral Mortal said...

Thanks Dan,

for articulating this so clearly. I for one have serious problems of this nature from time to time. This is worthy of being saved and re-read when it rears its ugly head again.

DJP said...

I for one have serious problems of this nature from time to time

Brother, I wish I could tell you that I write this as a detached observer, rather than as a recidivist. But there's that pesky "honesty" thing....

Unknown said...

I for one wouldn't fault John the Infuser at all.

He had every right to question Jesus' identity. Virtually no one expected the Messiah to rule through suffering servant-hood; they expected a warrior. And what kind of messiah would let his forerunner go to prison? What Jesus tells John's disciples to relate is a bit more robust than "You have seen enough." He says, "The year of Yahweh's favor (see Isa. 61:1ff) has broken in to the middle of history, unexpectedly, and I am inaugurating it. Now align your expectations, John, with God's — such is His kingdom."

Good words about distrust, though.

4given said...

You wrote: "I will tell you from too much bitter personal experience: it goes down a lot easier when we preach this sermon to ourselves, than when we get to where we need to hear it from another. Best not to be the last to know, and deal with, the truth."

I always appreciate your transparency for it is never at the expense of the Gospel and typically hits dead-on target with, I would think, everyone. Very well said reminder to be always on the look out for such things in our own lives. It is that horrid thing of thinking of ourselves too comfortably, more highly of ourselves than we ought... or just merely not thinking at all.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This has long been one of my favorite passages in Scripture and I think that beyond laziness in unbelief there is selfishness in unbelief. While John’s unbelief could have extended from his refusal to look at the facts; however, I think it more than likely extended from his lack of personal prosperity. The key to understanding this is Christ’s reply, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” John was not doubting because he failed to see the evidence but because Christ was not rescuing him. We are all prone to doubting God in the situations when we should rely on Him the most.

Dan B. said...

This is a struggle for many Christians, even me at times. I've been looking for a job for almost six months now, and it's been quite a roller coaster of emotions. God has been gracious in giving me the strength not to fall into this type of doubt 90% of the time, but I slip occasionally.

Our pastor yesterday preached on John 11, where Jesus raises Lazarus. Martha and Mary sent to Jesus while Lazarus was still sick, and he did not come until Lazarus had passed. Our pastor pointed out that we can learn by Christ's delay in coming: we ought not judge God's love toward us by what's going on in our life right now. God is actively working, but He isn't on our timetable (which is the hardest for me to get at times!).

It's hard for us to step back and look at the grander picture, seeing all the blessings and grace that He has given us over our life when we are now stuck in a rough situation.

Thanks for reminder to get out of a "slump."

Suziannr said...

Let me add my thanks and AMEN!to your post. We need to be reminded of this Truth as often as possible as each of us will be confronted with the opportunity to fall into doubt regularly. Can we say sanctification? Constantly growing in the knowledge of our Lord. Thanks again for this reminder and for your honesty.

donsands said...

"Jesus loved and prized John"

My heart was very encouraged. Thanks for expounding on this wonderful passage of Scripture.

"we embrace our feelings as if it were truth, and we sulk".
And when we cry out to the Lord, He is so faithful to reply.

What a kind and gracious Savior we have. He is the "good Physician".

yo said...

Great post, brother. But be careful when you mention your weakness/struggles/challenges. You might come off soft and indecisive to Phil, and then there's nothing left for you but a bunch of emergent pipe-smokers over at BHT.

Better to feign absolute trust.

Mike Ratliff said...

Unbelief sprouting from laziness results in a deranged belief system based in, around and through "selective rationalization." Self-deception is always the easy way out.

In Christ

Mike Ratliff

Bethany said...

I was thinking about this exact topic this morning..thank you for the timely post.

Rick Potter said...

My son is going through a problem. On Saturday, the company he worked for set up a conference call with him. He had been suspended 3 days earlier for what the company called a "buddy punch". He had forgotten to punch out when he left early from work and as soon as he got home he called back to his work and asked someone to punch him out. Usually, his manager will go back into the computer and fix his time sheet to fix the wrongly punched time (this has happened before and every time the punch was fixed). However, this time was different, because the day he left early was to catch a flight to Colorado for a ski trip. When he got back to his work after returning from the ski trip a problem had developed. The money drop for that days ticket sales were missing. They knew he couldn't haven't taken it because he was in Colorado, but it still happened on the shift that he was supposed to be working on and the money was counted and "dropped" and signed for at the end of that days business - but somehow it still came up missing. During the conference call -He was fired along with the other person who worked that same shift.

He is an amazing young(24) Christian who loves the Lord deeply and he cannot understand why this is happening to him. Last night we talked about it and he cried. It broke my heart to see the world treat him in this manner but I explained to him that we could not expect the world to understand things the way we see them. I have a commentary by Philip Graham Ryken on Exodus and in it it has a section called "The Secret Of Being Content" (pg.674) which says: "God is all we need and therefore all we ought to desire. To be even more specific, all we need is Jesus. God does not offer us His son as a better way of getting what we want. No; God gives us Jesus and says, 'Even if you don't realize it, He is all you really need.' When we come to Jesus, we receive the promise of eternal life with God. We receive the promise that He will never leave us or forsake us, that He will help us through all the trials of life. What else do we need?"

I turned to that and let my son read it for himself. I will also print up your post Dan and give it to him. Thank you for your insight.


PS - If you have the opportunity I would appreciate your prayers for him. His name is Seth.

Away From The Brink said...

Fine post, Dan. I also sympathize with the one looking for work. I left my job last year to get out of a horrible situation. The struggle to find a permanent place has been very taxing.

Unbelief takes many forms. There is also that form that says, "God loves me but He has not helped me in my situation. So what is the practical difference between his loving me and not loving me"?

Self-pity stinks.