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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Jesus’s lack of faith: an Easter message

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

christ-in-gethsemane-p3I know. Easter is over. But it’s not.

Most Christians I know struggle with faith—sooner or later, for weeks, months, and years. It happens.

We might not pick that up from listening to TV preachers and presidential hopefuls, who speak of and for the Creator with an alarmingly casual sense of certainty. But these are carnivalesque caricatures of Christianity. For the rest of us, faith doesn’t come as easily. Faith is a struggle.

After all, life has ways of challenging a settled and certain faith—a death, divorce, illness, addiction, unemployment.

Along with big events like these, simple everyday living can stir up nagging doubts that are waiting just beneath the surface to erupt.

You might have made new friends who have a very different faith, or none at all, and yet their lives seem warmly compelling.

Or perhaps you read a book or watched a movie with fresh ideas that snuck up on you and triggered in you a lingering hesitancy about your faith. “Does God exist, really? Which God are we talking about, anyway? How can I really be certain about what I believe? Does any of this really matter?”

Yet, despite these common struggles with faith, too many Christian I know are laboring under the impression that “strong” faith means never asking questions like these.

In my own church experiences, the faith modeled for me was largely about gaining certainty about God, the universe, and our place in it. Sunday mornings centered on hour-long age appropriate Sunday school lessons and long sermons. Church seemed more like an intellectual exercise, a series of information sessions, diagrams, handouts, and overheads to help you gain unwavering confidence in your faith.

Conversely, if you didn’t know what you believed, something was clearly wrong with you that needed to be addressed with a sense of urgency. You were broken and needed to be fixed. And should you die in a state of uncertainty, your eternal destiny would no longer certain. There was a lot at stake about being certain in your faith.

And that’s where Easter comes in—that time when Jesus himself wasn’t sure about God.

Christians have historically believed that Jesus was “God with us,” the mystery of true divinity and true humanity. Jesus was sent by God to reveal God’s true nature to humanity, and then to suffer, die, and be raised by God from the dead. As John’s Gospel puts it, Jesus and his heavenly Father are “one.”

And yet even this Jesus, when dying on the cross at the hands of the Romans on Good Friday, had his doubts about God. Two of the Gospels (Matthew and Mark) tell us of Jesus’s sense of God’s abandonment, of God being a no-show at the very moment when the Son of God most desired God’s presence. On the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Not: “I am in agony but I am confident things will go according to plan. I’ll be raised in a couple of days, so I just need to gut it out.”

But: “Why does God leave me up here to die like this? Is this how it will all end? Where are you God?”

If Jesus can show this kind of uncertainty, this kind of “lack of faith,” who are we to say otherwise? If these words can be uttered by the Son of God, the Savior, should the rest of us be surprised when we feel a sense of uncertainty about God?

“Where are you God? I don’t know how to keep going like this. I want to believe, but I can’t. Help me.” Words like these areTSOC common in the Old Testament—in the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and prophetic laments. And no one less than Jesus himself models this sense of abandonment.

True faith—the kind that Jesus and the biblical heritage model—is not about having and holding on to certainty. Certainty comes and goes, but true faith recognizes and embraces the struggles, challenges, and doubts as normal and expected for the life of faith, which at the end of the day lead to greater spiritual depth.

This, at least in part, is what Easter is about.

[I explore more of these ideas in The Sin of Certainty, ready for preorder now and to be released April 5.]

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