How many times have you, if you’re waiting or hoping for something to happen in your life, resisted talking about it, thinking you would jinx it? If you’re like me, you don’t want to “jinx” any number of things — from that new job you’re hoping for, to the fact that you haven’t caught a cold yet this year!
When I step back and think about this, I realize it’s irrational. I realize it’s based on doubts about what I believe to be true of God: that God wants us to be fulfilled, living into our calling in the world. God is certainly not sitting out there somewhere, waiting for us to reveal our deepest desires so that God can then make sure not to let those things happen. In fact, that is contradictory to everything I believe about God’s good nature.
And yet, I still have these irrational bouts with doubt.
Irrational bouts of doubt
The disciples in Matthew 28 who were witness to Christ’s Great Commission seem to have experienced a similar bout with doubt. We’re told that when they see the resurrected Jesus, “they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matt 28:17). “How?!!” we may wonder. Sure, we doubt, 2000-plus years removed from the Jesus who walked and talked and taught and ministered in the flesh. But c’mon disciples! They had all the advantages we lack – how could they doubt?!
This, on the one hand is inexplicable and yet it is also refreshing. If people who lived and worked with Jesus could still experience doubt, we should be comforted in knowing that there’s nothing unusual in what we go through with our own doubts and questions.
What’s interesting is the Great Commission comes close on the heels of this expression of doubt. We often skip over the disciples’ struggles with doubt and go right to the part about our call in the world. But read contextually, the Great Commission equips us to deal with our doubt by putting faith into action. The requirement to go into the world and spread the message of Christ can address the existence of doubt in our lives in three ways.
Christ assures the disciples of who he is
Immediately following the disciples’ statement of doubt, Jesus reminds them of who he is. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” he says. The subject of Jesus’ authority comes up in several other places in Matthew. First, we see Jesus resisting temptation in the wilderness when Satan promises him authority over the kingdoms of the earth (Matt 4:8). But, foreshadowing this later statement, Jesus refuses with knowledge that all earthly authority has already been given to him.
Jesus demonstrates authority over the physicality of our humanity, casting out sin, disease, and affliction (Matt 9:6-8). We’re also told that Jesus has been given a share in the reign over God’s creation (Matt 11:27) — he is vested with divine authority as well.
So in this first statement in response to the disciples’ doubt, Jesus says so much in just a few words about who he is and what he’s up to in the world. He reminds his disciples that he is fully with them as human, yet beyond human capacity, and in this he embodies the fullness of heaven and earth. In a seemingly simple statement, Jesus is explaining to his disciples the complexity of his humanity and divinity, letting them know that their faith is not misplaced.
Christ sends the disciples into the world
Read in the context of the disciples’ doubt, the Great Commission is offered as an antidote. By placing the Great Commission directly following the statement of the disciples’ doubt, I think Matthew is doing a few things.
It reminds the disciples – those in Jesus’ day and us now – that we can take action to address doubt. The insecurity and fear that often accompanies doubt can be incapacitating. While I think doubt can be experienced alongside faith – the two aren’t mutually exclusive – I certainly don’t believe that doubt is a comfortable state in which to live! Nor is it one that Jesus wants us to dwell on.
Instead, Jesus tells us to Go! Teach! Lead! Disciple! These actions suggest that doubt is worked through (though not necessarily erased) by inviting others into discipleship even though (and maybe especially because) we don’t have it all figured out. We can still be a witness, a spiritual leader, a guide.
And isn’t it interesting that people who may not “have it all together” by the world’s standards are leading the way in inviting people to follow Jesus, who modeled a lifestyle that is inherently counter-cultural. Perhaps, then, it’s not so surprising that Jesus would call a group of doubters to help spread the message of the resurrected Christ.
Christ reminds the disciples of his work in the world
Jesus tells the disciples to, “Remember! I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The Jewish people in Jesus’ day, and for hundreds of years prior, were good at remembering. At least, they were supposed to be!
They were a people of oral tradition who were instructed to tell and re-tell stories about what God had done for them, where they’d seen God in their lives individually and collectively. They were to write these things on the tablet of their heart, bind them on their foreheads, speak them when they went out and when they came in. Their days were full of ritualistic meaning and remembering. Even today, the Jewish faith observes many such remembrances.
Why? Because we forget. Left to our own devices, we’re not so good at remembering. Even when I sit down at the end of the day I sometimes have a hard time jotting down a few things in my gratitude journal, although I know that I have seen God in ways that I’m grateful for. But calling specifics to mind can, sadly, be difficult – even on a good day!
We need reminders of what God as done for us – both on a personal and communal level – to support us during times of doubt that will inevitably come. These reminders likely won’t assuage all doubt, but they provide us with a framework through which to view doubts as they arise. A framework where we know God is faithful because of the work we see in our own lives and in the life of our faith community.
The Great Commission is certainly a roadmap for how we can start putting our faith in action – and it’s also a powerful way to work through our doubts, knowing that we don’t have to get everything “just right” to live out our call to God’s kingdom.
Alexis James Waggoner is a theologian and educator. She is an adjunct professor and a minister of religious education. Her organization, The Acropolis Project (http://theacropolisproject.com) is dedicated to raising the bar of theological education in communities of faith. She also serves as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and is passionate about ministering to women in places where they are often marginalized. She has an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York, a husband of 13 years, and a baby named Junia.