Mark 6:1-6 : Doubt, Unbelief & Faith - Experiencing the Difference

It had rained for several October days, and our dirt road—a narrow passage through the woods to our old home—was a strip of mud. But just how muddy it had become was not apparent until Bill, the local cement-and-gravel man, drove onto the property with his dump truck loaded with sand and crushed rock I'd ordered early that morning. My intentions for the day had included some improvement on our driveway. But that wasn't going to happen—on that day, anyway—because the eight rear, weight-bearing wheels on Bill's truck suddenly sank to the axles in the saturated ground. It didn't take long for Bill to conclude that he wasn't going to go any farther, and so he turned off the engine, climbed down from the cab, and stood for a moment looking quietly at the undignified posture of his vehicle.

Moments later he broke his silence. Like most taciturn rural workers, Bill frequently expresses his deeper feelings through the use of a special, somewhat limited, vocabulary of nouns and adjectives. In this case he used only one of those words, a monosyllabic one. But when Bill used it, it came out as if it contained two syllables. Although the word is only four letters long, it took Bill several seconds to complete its pronunciation. And when he repeated it in the same way several more times, I knew exactly what he thought about my mud and his stupidity for not foreseeing what was likely to happen on a dirt road after all that rain. Then, seeming to remember that I did not make it a habit to use the word he had just spoken, he turned and gave me a sheepish grin and mumbled an apology. Anxieties expressed, we began to study how we could pull the truck with its heavy load from the mud since every hour that it remained motionless would cost Bill significant business revenue.

And when we had a plan, we moved into motion. First, we off-loaded the rock and sand to lighten the weight on the wheels. Then we drove in my car to Bill's gravel pit, loaded his bulldozer on a flatbed, and returned to the site of the stranded dump truck. Bill, now confident that we would quickly have the problem solved, attached the ends of a chain to the back of the Caterpillar and to the front of the truck. He revved up the bulldozer's diesel engine and started to pull. I stood off to one side and watched as the chain became taut and began to bear the strain of the tug-of-war between raw horsepower and my muddy driveway. The mud won! The problem wasn't with the bulldozer; it was certainly adequate.

But the chain wasn't. It couldn't take the strain put on it. Good for some things, Bill's chain simply didn't measure up to this task. It broke as if it were a piece of string. Three times Bill used the remaining length of chain to pull on the front of the truck, and three times the chain snapped. With each failure, Bill expanded further on the vocabulary reserved for stressful situations. And he no longer bothered to apologise. Obviously, we needed a heavier chain: one that matched the demands of the situation. And only when we returned to the gravel pit and found one, did we get the job done. The bulldozer's power was more than adequate, and with the chain of greater strength, it quickly prevailed over the mud. The truck obediently came forth. That dumper truck is a picture, of you and me in life's darker moments: those times when we feel trapped in the mud of difficult questions and choices, or murky circumstances and painful consequences in life. When there is fear, dread, intimidation, or doubt; when there is a numbing sense of loneliness, insignificance, or apathy. Perhaps you could call those times, common to all of us, the muddy moments of personal experience.

We all have muddy moments. Some of us are more ready to admit to them than are others. Your muddy moments may differ from mine, but regardless of their variety, they are just as real to each of us when we get bogged down. Metaphorically speaking, when muddy moments come, we are likely to spin our "wheels," exhaust our "fuel," put wear on our "engines," and seem to get nowhere. It would be nice to think that we could go through life without ever getting axle-deep in muddy moments. But given our blind spots and rebel-prone spirits, given the unpredictability of other people's choices that have untold rippling effects, and given the random consequences of evil in our world, some muddy moments are a certainty for each of us and should be anticipated. As a businessman, Bill, the cement-and-gravel man, was realistic; he anticipated muddy moments in his business. And that's part of the reason he kept chains in his shed at the gravel pit. He had to be prepared to pull his machinery out of holes like mine. And when one chain couldn't do the job, he had another one that did. He would have been a naive truck driver if he'd trusted in his "luck" to keep out of muddy holes. No, he knew that he couldn't go out and make a living if he wasn't willing to take some risks that might eventuate in muddy moments. The chains were there to use when that happened.

We each spend a lifetime developing a view of life in this world that is like a chain. It is your view of life. It is your faith. It's your version of reality. I think of my faith as something like Bill's chains when I regularly ask myself, "Is my faith capable of standing up under the tension that goes between power and problem? Does it reach far enough? Does it hold when the mud is the deepest?" Your faith is not made exclusively for muddy moments naturally, but in those times of extreme duress your faith is put to the severest tests and shown to be adequate and realistic or not. In our gospel reading today we find people using three different kinds of faith chains. Doubting faith, Unbelieving faith, Saving faith. Lets consider each and decide which one best fits our faith today.

1. A Doubting Faith - The People Questioned Jesus : Mark 6:2

"When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. "Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!"

Its not wrong to have doubts or questions. I expect you to have them. I do. The true relationship of faith to doubt is closer to that of courage and fear. Fear, in fact, need be no threat to courage. What courage cannot afford is recklessness. Take a mountain climber, a Grand Prix racing driver or Army officer. Each one demonstrates a courage which controls his fear and subdues his emotions so that risks are made responsibly and actions in the face of danger are carefully calculated. It is the same with faith and doubt. Doubt is not the opposite of saving faith, unbelief is. Doubt is not necessarily nor automatically the end of faith. What destroys faith is the disobedience that hardens into unbelief.

From the moment we are born, we are all doubters. The first sound we make is a cry of terror. "What is this world I am entering?" we cry. "Will my needs be met? Why has my warm secure world changed? Can I really be sure someone out there will feed me and clothe me and care for me?" Nothing in the infant naturally trusts the universe to be fully sensitive to his needs. The baby wants proof - a full belly, dry clothing, a warm bed, above all, loving attention, those secure arms and that gentle voice and that eye to eye contact - then and only then will he begin to trust and smile. In an adult, doubt is but faith suffering from mistreatment or malnutrition.

Underneath everything lies trust. From friendships of children to agreements among nations, life depends on trust. Counting on people is trust. Enjoying people is trust. Trust is the shared silence, the exchanged look, the expressive touch. Crying for help is trust, shaking hands is trust, a kiss is trust. The highest reaches of love and life depend on trust. There are no more important questions in life than, "Whom can I trust?" And none more than the ultimate. "Can I trust God?" Jesus offered evidence of God's love to prove his claims. Jesus returned to Nazareth because he loved the community in which he had been raised as a boy even though a year before He had been rejected and evicted from the synagogue (Luke 4:16-30). He probably know each by name. This time, they did not evict Him: they simply did not take Him seriously.

Two things astonished these people: His mighty works and His wonderful wisdom. Now there is nothing remarkable in that - indeed I would expect people to find the claims of Jesus astonishing. If you don't then please check out the facts (booklet). Jesus claims to have existed before the world was created. He claims to be its creator. He claims to be both God and man. He claims to have come to earth to rescue you from sin and evil. He claims he will come and live with you in your body to enable you to become like him. He claims to hold your eternal destiny in his hands. If you don't find that astonishing. If you have never had any doubts about these claims then it can only be because you do not know that this is what Christianity is all about. His wisdom and miracles. Jesus invited analysis. The value of doubt is that it can detect error. We live in a fallen world. All is not true, so not everything should be believed. Doubt is the acid test for truth, the best solvent for error, the Geiger counter for detecting falsehood, the sieve to catch unwanted lumps of irrationality. Doubt acts like a sparring partner both to truth and error. It keeps faith trim and helps shed the paunchiness of false ideas. Like a terrier, doubt worries at weak ideas until they escape reinvigorated or collapse exhausted. If anyone says "Just believe" don't. If anyone has to say "Don't you trust me?" don't.

I encourage my children to question assumptions, to test theories, to doubt strangers. I encourage you to do the same. But I also invite you to consider that wisdom, to consider those miracles and ask yourself the same question these Nazarenes asked, "Where did this man get these things? What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!" The search for an answer will lead your doubting faith in one of two directions.

The facts will drive you to either saving faith or unbelieving faith, depending not so much on your heart and mind, as much as your will. For Jesus demands a response, repentance and faith, trust and obedience, a whole change of lifestyle from what we want to what he wants, and that isn't easy not always popular. Doubting faith. A good place to start, but not to remain.

2. An Unbelieving Faith - The Neighbours Offended by Jesus : Mark 6:3-4
"Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour."

It may sound something of a contradiction to talk about unbelieving faith.
But the reality is we all have faith. I'm reading a book at the moment by Martin Robinson called "The Faith of the Unbeliever". He points out that unbelievers do not believe in nothing. On the contrary they often have a very definite set of beliefs, which they may hold just as passionately as so called believers hold to their faith. Research has shown that typically, the faith of secular man in Britain today is centred around the following tenets.

1. Good actions are more important than right beliefs
2. Religion is intensely private
3. The church is largely irrelevant

We could debate the relative merits of these beliefs, as my father would say, till the cows come home. The issue that cuts through all the fog is what are we to make of Jesus Christ. And that brings us back to our story. What was the problem for the Nazarenes? Why were they unable to trust Him and experience the wonders of His power and grace as had others? Because like many religious people today who have spent much of their lives in church, they thought they really knew Him, when in fact they didn't know him at all. After all, He had been their neighbour for nearly thirty years, they had seen Him at work in the carpenter's shop, and He appeared to be just another Nazarene. The tragedy is that they ask the right questions but with the wrong attitude.

Prejudice so overrules all the evidence that they answer themselves, "Is not this the carpenter? the son of Mary?" The people were "offended at Him," which literally means "they stumbled over Him." The Greek word gives us our English word scandalize. "They could not explain Him, so they rejected Him." That is where scepticism becomes cynicism, where doubt turns into unbelief. (Isa. 8:14; Rom. 9:32-33; 1 Peter 2:8). Their questions of enquiry became rhetorical, with the sneer of prejudice and the sting of unbelief. That is why it is futile to argue with someone who will not face the facts - because they are no longer looking for an answer but an excuse. Don't give them one.

"Familiarity breeds contempt" is a well-known maxim that goes all the way back to Publius the Syrian, in 2 b.c. Its not always true because ironically most people become Christians through the influence of a relative or friend. Phillips Brooks put it best: "Familiarity breeds contempt, only with contemptible things or among contemptible people." The contempt shown by the Nazarenes said nothing about Jesus Christ, but it said a great deal about them!

A tourist, eager to see everything in the art gallery, fled from picture to picture, scarcely noticing what was in the frames. "I didn't see anything very special here," he said to one of the guards as he left. "Sir," the guard replied, "it is not the pictures that are on trial here—it is the visitors." A Doubting Faith, an Unbelieving Faith.

3. A Saving Faith - The Disciples Followed Jesus : Mark 6:1
Where is the evidence of Faith in this passage? Its there - can you see it? Mark 6:1. "The Disciples followed Jesus." Don't ignore or underestimate these profound words. Obedience is the path to faith.

3.1 Obedience is the Pathway to Experiencing Faith.
"If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." (John 7:17)

"Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him... If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."
(John 14:21, 23)

3.2 Obedience is the Pathway to Enlarging our Faith
"To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)

Jesus was inviting experimentation among those who had already begun to believe in Him. When we begin to learn to drive we think when we have passed our test we have learnt everything there is to know about driving. Wrong. We may know the theory, now we have to apply it. If you obey the Highway Code you are free to travel anywhere in the country, safely and speedily. Ignore the Highway Code and you drive at your peril. Speed or drive recklessly and you could easily loose your licence or your freedom. Only obedience brings lasting freedom.

3.3 Obedience is the Pathway to Giving Evidence of Faith.
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35)

That is what we are here for today - to give evidence before a sceptical world that Jesus is alive, that we have experienced his love and we want to share it. Lets sum up. To believe in Jesus, to experience a saving faith is to be in 'one mind', that what Jesus has said and done is true.
To disbelieve is also to be in one mind but in rejecting Jesus. To doubt is to waver between the two, to believe and disbelieve at once, to be in two minds.

To the Thomas's among us, Jesus says, "Stop doubting and believe". Back to the story of Bill and his chain. Chains are comprised of links. At the foundry each one is forged with the anticipation that it will stand up under an anticipated amount of stress. Some tiny chains are designed to support only a locket or a medal about your neck. Some chains are designed to constrain a prisoner. And some are made for lugging heavy logs out of a forest. The heaviest chains I've seen are used to raise ships' anchors from the floor of the seabed and pull heavy-duty dumper trucks out of muddy holes.

You don't want a necklace-strength chain to lift an anchor. And of course, you don't need a chain made for a ship to put around a person's neck. You do want a chain with links forged to face up to the demands of the situation. At each stage of my life I have needed a faith that not only made sense in the peak moments of success but also brought hope and new starts in muddy moments of failure. I have sought a faith capable of helping me accept the person I am who is nevertheless special and valuable in the eyes of the One who put the spark of life in me. There is a chain fit for every situation. When Bill needed one, it was ready, hanging in his shed.

For too many years I, and perhaps you, have been too comfortable with versions of reality or faith that, like a lightweight chain, are only useful for the good times. But life, as I am sure you have painfully discovered, has its muddy moments. And if we do not have a chain that is strong enough, the mud will win and drag us down. A faith that is not real-world tested might have the same problem. If you are looking for a chain that will pull you through the worst of this life and get you to heaven, then you need a chain made in heaven. Three chains. Three kinds of faith. Only one will do. Only one is strong enough. A doubting or unbelieving faith will not do. Make sure yours is a saving faith. A faith that is placed firmly and securely in your Saviour. Jesus the Lord. Then you will indeed find God is more certain, more faithful and more gracious than our doubting, faltering views of him.

Yesterday I discovered a prayer I had written in the front of a book in 1977, 22 years ago. You may like to join me. "Dear Lord, I have a doubting faith, help me find the answers to those doubts and learn to trust you. I have an unbelieving faith, forgive me for denying you and causing others to stumble. I need you saving faith. May the faith that I profess become the faith I show in my actions, and that my doubts no longer be unbelief and no longer founded. For Jesus sake. Amen"

"Dear Lord, Although I am sure of my position, I am unable to sustain it without you, help me or I am lost." Martin Luther

I am grateful to Gordon MacDonald and his book "Christ's Followers in the Real World" (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1989) for the story of Bill and his dumper truck.