Hesitation and Doubt

The story is told that Leonardo da Vinci worked away on a large canvas in his studio.  For a while he worked at it – choosing the subject, planning the perspective, sketching the outline, applying the colors, with his own inimitable genius.  Then suddenly he stopped working on it.  Summoning one of his talented students, the master invited him to complete the work.  The horrified student protested that he was both unworthy and unable to complete the great painting which his master had begun.  But da Vinci replied: “Will not what I have done inspire you to do your best?”

Think of the great compliment da Vinci had just given the young student, yet the young student hesitated. He doubted he could do what was asked of him. Not unlike the apostles at the scene of the Ascension: When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted… (Mt 20:17)

We are a little uncomfortable with that doublet:  worshiped, doubted.  I mean these are the apostles – they have been with Jesus for three years and have seen incredible signs and wonders, the lame have walked, the deaf hear and mute speak.  Surely these apostles would be people of great faith.

Ok, maybe it wasn’t all of them; you know, only some doubted, right?  Shouldn’t the text read When they saw him, they worshiped, but some doubted… But alas, the word some doesn’t appear in Greek. Even the scholars are bedeviled about this. There are many scholars who hold that the peculiar grammatical structure of the Greek allows the word “some” to be understood even if it does not actually appear in the Greek text.  OK, great…. We should all feel better now.   But….the same construction occurs 17 other times in the gospels and no one seems to think it necessary to add “some” to those verses.  One scholar was honest enough to write: “The verse wouldn’t make sense otherwise. No one can worship and doubt at the same time.”  It does not make sense….

Maybe that is the itch we can’t seem to scratch, the thing that gnaws at us: how can you worship with doubt in your heart?  Are we somehow diminished in our faith?  Are we lost, but going through the motions?

I think the problem is that people equate “doubt” and “disbelief.”  As Cardinal Newman said, “a thousand doubts, disbelief do not make.”  We are too quick to see only the dark side of doubt.  In Greek the word also means: “hesitate.”  In Matthew’s telling of the gospel, this is the first time Jesus appears to all the disciples.  That would be enough to give me pause, to hesitate…. and so let’s not confuse the issue. These disciples paused, hesitated and in that moment, they doubted, they questioned, they asked could this be possible?  They took their life and their experiences seriously and asked, how is this possible?  And yet they worshiped right there and then, doubts and all.

Maybe Scripture can give us some broad insights about doubt.  It seems to me that when I read the whole of the gospels there are three kinds of people

  • Those people in the gospel who never have a doubt – they are just so sure they are right.  They’re called the Pharisees
  • Those people in the gospel who worship in all the right ways, doing everything just right.  And yet their worship was all for show. Oh yeah… and they’re called the Pharisees

Mark Twain had it right “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure… that just ain’t so.”   Doubt has a positive side too – it is the harbinger of curiosity, it is light of inner reflection, it is the energy to know more and to believe more strongly.  That’s why I am partial to the third kind of biblical folk:

  • And there are the people who worship and doubt – and they’re called disciples.  Like Peter in Matthew 14:31 – he sees Jesus on the water, walks upon the waters himself in order to reach his Lord, but then he hesitates… he doubts, sinks and is rescued – but when he is in the boat, along with the other disciples, he worships.  (And interestingly, this is the only other place in the gospel that “doubt” appears and it too is connected with worship)

Doubt means there are two compelling ideas that are tugging at your sleeve – “Pay attention to me.” Such as:  Jesus rose from the dead –vs.- people don’t do that.  Jesus ascended into heaven –vs.- that is just legend.  All power has been given to Jesus – vs.- well, it sure doesn’t seem that way.

There are two things that I know: (1) these are not scientific propositions that can be proven to every one’s satisfaction and (2) through the gifts of the promised Holy Spirit,  …I trust. I believe. I commit my life to the Truth

So I proclaim to you:  What is true is this: Jesus rose from the dead in his Resurrection. He ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God.  All power has been given to him.  We as a church are witnesses to these things.  This I believe.  And – here’s a third thing I know: (3) Even in those who experienced all these things first hand, even with all that, there was not perfect faith.

It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshiping / hesitating / doubting community of disciples to whom the mission is entrusted.  They were men and women who, despite their doubts, trusted in God.

So, there it is… the mission is entrusted to us

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

We are sent, doubts and all.

And we will hesitate – but we will worship.  Worship right until that day when all things come to pass. When all things are in Christ. And we will hesitate no longer. And at long last we will worship without lingering doubts. Our mission will be complete.  And we will rest in God – have no doubt about that.

Image credit: Giotto, L’Ascensione, Scrovegni, 1305, Chapel, Padua, Italy | Pubic Domain

1 thought on “Hesitation and Doubt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.