Disbelieving for Joy
We’re missing some needed disbelief in our Christian experience. I don’t mean the kind that causes us to ultimately doubt what God promises us is true. I mean the kind of disbelief that the disciples experienced during their first meeting with Jesus after he rose from the dead.
Luke 24:36–53 recounts the full story. The disciples, minus Thomas at least, were gathered in Jerusalem in what we assume is the upper room. John 20:19 says that they were hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews,” most likely because they feared the possibility that they would also be targeted by the religious authorities who arrested Jesus. And, suddenly, without warning, Jesus was standing in the room greeting them with the words, “Peace to you.”
I always wonder if Jesus spoke those words loudly, really shocking them. Because their reaction was not a pleasant surprise. Not like the surprise you would see if a beloved friend showed up unexpectedly. Jesus was supposed to be dead. Some of them (John, at least) had even been near the cross to watch him die. Jesus’s body was then prepared and buried, and the tomb was sealed. So he was really dead. But suddenly, without the rattle of a latch or the creak of an opening door or the sound of approaching footsteps on the floor, there he was. Jesus. Standing in the middle of the room, speaking to them.
In describing their initial reaction, Luke suspends his normal economy of words, saying that they were terrified, filled with fear, and thought they saw a ghost (Luke 24:37). Their shock is reflected in Jesus’s words back to them, “Why are you troubled and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (24:38).
Terrorized, frightened, troubled, doubtful. These are the unflattering words that characterize the disciples’ first reaction when Jesus comes to renew his fellowship with them. Hardly a hero’s welcome for one who has just vanquished death forever.
Jesus responds by offering proof that he is really alive, that he is no ghost. He shows them his wounded body, his scarred, nail-driven hands and feet, marks that he will bear for eternity. At this point, the evidence is irrefutable. But now the disciples disbelieved again. Only, this time it is a different kind of disbelief. Luke literally says that they still disbelieved for joy and amazement (24:41). It was not an unwillingness to believe, but an inability to believe.
Have you ever had something happen to you that was simply “too good to be true”? Maybe great news you did not expect to hear. Or a surprise gift that was thrilling beyond anything you expected. Or your biggest dream suddenly came true. The overwhelming surprise of a waitress working overtime to support her young children and a husband on life-support, who receives $12,000 in tips from concerned and loving patrons. The astonishment of a mother and father whose son suddenly surprises them by returning early from his military tour in Afghanistan. There is protective mechanism in our brains that doesn’t want to let us believe what we are experiencing is really happening to us, even though it’s true. We disbelieve, but it’s a disbelief motivated by sheer joy or utter amazement.
That’s what the disciples experienced on the evening of the resurrection. Jesus was alive, actually alive. He died, but he was no longer dead. And here he was, with them again. It was nearly impossible for them to take it all in.
But, you see, that’s not the way for us most of the time. We have heard the story of Jesus’s resurrection and have read it on numerous occasions. We’re familiar with it. And if we ever had a sense of joy and amazement at the fact that Jesus came bodily from the tomb, maybe we no longer experience that same sense of wonder. Or the wonder at Jesus’s death in our place on the cross, or the wonder that he actually loved us enough to save us. We believe too easily, too casually. And we’re not the better for it, but the worse.
To the degree that we lose our sense of wonder at the Lord, we also lose our ability to express genuine worship and devotion to him. If we lose our identity with the sinful woman in Luke 7, who was so overcome by Jesus’s forgiveness that she literally washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, then we end up more like the Pharisee, Simon, in story, who did not even offer Jesus the social graces common for an honored guest.
We need to recapture the spirit of Simon Peter after the great catch of fish in Luke 5, who, shaking with his own sense of unworthiness, could only cry, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” We need to relearn the response that Mary had toward Jesus in John 12, when she broke the jar of expensive ointment and poured it over Jesus’s hair as an act of love and devotion. We need to come alongside Thomas in John 20, and put our own fingers in Jesus’s hands and side, and cry, “My Lord and my God!”
We can experience that same sense of wonder if we will walk with these stunned believers in the pages of Scripture; if we will drink deeply from the words of men like David, who lived much of his life overwhelmed by God’s deliverance; if we will reflect faithfully and consistently on the doctrine of our salvation in Paul. And if we ask the Lord to give us a fresh sense of wonder at all he has done for us, asking him to help us once again struggle to believe.