Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Believe AND Doubt Not

Too often in our prayers we hedge our bets. We try to pray both sides of an issue, just in case God doesn’t
come through.
This has become especially apparent to me recently in praying with my children for the “little” issues that weigh on their hearts. I tend to avoid praying really specific things out loud in front of my children, lest God fail to “come through” and my children begin to disbelieve the power of prayer. But this kind of thinking is exactly backwards. I should be stepping out in faith and praying prayers that my children will be able to recognize as “answered” when God does in fact “come through.” After all, it’s His reputation on the line, not mine.
This realization came to the forefront the other day as I was translating James 1 and came across one of the Greek words translated “doubt” in the NT. Some interesting insights ensued as I looked into the nuances of this and other words translated “doubt” in the NT.
  • διακρίνω [diakrino - a “diacritical mark” (e.g. the little slanty line above the iota in διακρίνω) is a distinguishing mark]  – This is the verb translated “not doubting” in Js. 1:6. It is often coupled with the command or condition of faith, such as “if you believe and do not doubt”. In the active voice διακρίνω has the meaning of “to decide, to judge, to discern.” But in the middle and passive voices it can carry the meaning of “to doubt, to waver.” This meaning does not arise until the NT where it gets its meaning from the contrast to faith.
  • διαλογισμός (dialogismos – related to English “dialogue”)– only in Luke 24:38 when Jesus presents himself to the disciples and asks them, “why do doubts arise in you hearts?”. He then provides the proof needed to remove those doubts. This word has the more common meaning of “reasoning," “opinion” or “dispute”. It seems to mean “doubt” in the sense that one has conflicting opinions or arguments on both sides of a matter so that he cannot come to a firm conclusion.
  • διστάζω (distazo) – Used when Jesus chastises Peter for floundering when walking on the water in the question “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt. 14:31). This word carries the idea of “doubt, hesitating” and is used in the NT only of actions (cf. also those who doubted or hesitated to worship Jesus after his resurrection in Mt. 28:17 just before the Great Commission).
In response to their marveling at the fig tree that had withered under Jesus’ curse, Jesus tells the disciples,  “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt (διακρίθῆτε, a passive form of διακρίνω) you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.” (Mt. 21:21 ESV). There are two conditions listed. The first is to have faith and the second is to not doubt. While closely related, the distinction between the two should not be ignored.
Similarly, in James, the Lord’s brother commands the person lacking wisdom to ask God for it and follows with a promise that “it will be given to him” (Js. 1:5). But then comes the condition. “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting (διακρίνω), for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” It would seem that James, Jesus’ younger half-brother, learned a thing or two from his Big Bro. He combines the notions of having faith and not doubting in the same way Jesus does in Matthew’s Gospel. They are distinct ideas, not merely repetitions of the same thought. The charge to have faith is distinct from the charge to not doubt. To doubt is not the opposite of to believe. Rather the opposite of believing is disbelieving. Doubt is a wavering as the result of an inner conflict or argumentation.

What can we conclude from this mini word study?
First, we are to have faith in God. That is, we are to trust Him because He is faithful.
Second, if we want to experience the full potential of the power of prayer, we must do what it takes to rid ourselves of our doubts that cause us to waver, to hesitate and to have ongoing disputes in our hearts.
But how?
Part of the process for doing this, I believe, is doing exactly what Peter did in stepping off the boat. He exercised his faith in face of his doubts. He learned that Jesus would reach out His hand and not let him drown. We can do what the disciples did when they doubted the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection – we can look for more evidence and put ourselves in a place where Jesus can reveal himself to us personally.
We can respond as the father who brought his son to Jesus’ disciples for a failed exorcism and then, after getting in an argument with them, finds himself turning to Jesus himself for help. Upon hearing of the failure of his disciples, Jesus chastises “this faithless generation” and orders the boy brought before him. The man, in desperation pleads, “But, if you can do anything have compassion on us and help us.” Does this prayer sound familiar? Do you see the condition placed on it? Jesus does. His response is incredulous. “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”
Let’s stop here for a moment. This is where I live much of the time. I hear Jesus saying “all things are possible!” but I’m still pleading, “if you can…” “if it’s your will…” I live with “little faith” and am justly rebuked by Jesus.
“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” ” (Mk. 9:25)
This too is my prayer, my desperate entreaty. I believe; help my unbelief. I believe; help me doubt not.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hermes, Jesus and the Meaning of Life

After His resurrection, Jesus met the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not yet recognize Him as their resurrected Lord, but began to explain to Him why they are so downcast. They told him of heir hopes that were dashed when Jesus,  “a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people” (Lk. 24:19) was crucified and entombed. And now, on the third day since his crucifixion, they were bewildered, unsure of whether to believe reports about His resurrection.
Jesus chastised them, and then, as any good teacher would, he turned their conversation into a teachable moment.
25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Lk 24:25–27 ESV)
What I wouldn’t give to have listened to this conversation with Jesus (in English!). Oh, to have him “interpret” (NIV: “explain”) for me Moses and the Prophets!
What did this “interpretation” involve? What did He say? What verses did He cite? Did he work from the Hebrew Scriptures or the Septuagint? While we don’t have a record of what Jesus told the disciples, we can gain significant insight into a key interpretive principle recorded in the words of Luke.
But first, let’s do a little Greek!
The word translated “interpreted/explained” is ἑρμηνεύω (hermeneuō) from which we get the word “hermeneutics” (the art and science of [biblical] interpretation). It is etymologically related to the Greek god Hermes, who was the messenger of the gods credited with discovering language and writing.
Of course, the modern thinker rejects the idea that there is a “messenger-god” who brings divine language and meaning to us from beyond the mortal realm. Rather, each person is left to find (or create) meaning for him or her self. Indeed, many today question whether any message from or about the divine can even be meaningfully expressed. Others (e.g. Derrida) balk that any claim to possess “the meaning” is really a power play for a god-like control over others.
But in Jesus we have a clear affirmation that not only is meaning attainable – that interpretation is not a vain pursuit – but that He is the one who makes it attainable.
Jesus is our Hermes. He is the Divine Logos (Word). He is the real presence of God, communicating the divine essence to mortal man. He is the Word become flesh.
It is this reality that brings meaning to the Bible and to life in general. When Jesus interprets the OT for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he centers it’s meaning on His own life, ministry, death and resurrection. Only when bare facts and bare texts find their proper context in a proper relation to Jesus do they find ultimate meaning.
So, while we agree with the secular rejection of the Hermes myth, we do not reject the underlying premise that for language and life to be meaningful, it must have a divine origin.
Concerning Jesus Paul writes, “all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:16b-17)