Light & Life
March/April 2006
By Alan Dowd

“Who do people say that I am?”[1]  Jesus of Nazareth asked that question some 2,000 years ago, and people are still answering it today. 

To Christians, Jesus is nothing less than God. To non-Christians, he is nothing more than a man. It’s easy to hold one position or the other. What’s difficult is holding both, which is what Jesus challenges us to do.  

Son of Man
Jesus actually answered his own question on several occasions. Although he was called many names, from the ho-hum “son of Joseph” to the head-turning “Son of God,” he referred to himself as the “Son of Man” more than any other name: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,” he explains in Matthew’s gospel. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost,” he adds in Luke’s account.  

The notion that God wants to identify and connect with humanity so much that He would choose to humble Himself to the point of serving man and becoming man is at once sublime and staggering. David wondered why God would even waste His time thinking about man, let alone become one: “Oh Lord, what is man that you care for him, the son of man that you think of him?”[2] 

Not only did God care about man and think about him; He wanted to redefine His relationship with man. But how could that happen?  

Since man could not become like God, since Hisways and thoughts are higher than ours, as Isaiah put it, God would have to become like man. And so He did. The One who walked with Adam and wrestled with Jacob and reasoned with Moses, would become Immanuel—“God with us.”            

Humanity would never be the same, and nor would God. As the author of Hebrews puts it, Jesus “had to enter into every detail of human life.”[3] 

The If Word
Every detail. We accept that Jesus laughed and cried and sighed, that He worked and studied and worshipped, that He thirsted and hungered and bled, that He got angry and sad, that He went to parties and rode donkeys, that He had friends and enemies. We even accept that He was tempted to sin.  

But we seldom, if ever, contemplate how Jesus dealt with that uniquely human condition known as doubt. It hangs over humanity, mocking our plans and agendas and hopes and dreams. Even the most optimistic and confident of us, even the most powerful and prepared, deal with doubt. Why wouldn’t Jesus have to wrestle this same nemesis?

I would submit that He did.

It happened slowly, almost imperceptibly, at least from this side of the story. Shortly after that last meal with His friends, Jesus moved toward the cross by way of the garden of Gethsemane and experienced and expressed something akin to doubt.  

You can hear the uncertainty in His words and see it in His steps: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” He sighs. The sorrow is not caused by the cross and the pain it will bring, but by the separation from God and the emptiness it brings—an emptiness He has never known, an emptiness where doubt takes root. 

After walking just a few paces, He falls to the ground and asks, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me." 

If it is possible”? We humans know this kind of prayer all too well, the kind that is weighed down by doubt and desperation, the kind that seems unanswerable, the kind that underscores how alone and fragile we really are.  

In Mark’s account, Jesus uses the intimate and personal “Abba” to make his plea, underscoring his desperation. "Abba Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." 

But there is no answer, no descending dove, no booming voice from heaven, no whisper to reassure His heart. And so He makes one last push against the doubt and darkness: “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done.”[4] 

There it is again, the “if” word. Jesus had used it at other moments of His ministry, but never like this. In fact, Jesus once admonished a man for approaching Him in a similar manner.  

Mark tells the story of a desperate father who came to Jesus on behalf of his demon-possessed son. Moved by their condition, Jesus asks him how long his son has suffered. “From childhood,” he answers. “But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“If You can?” Catching him in doubt, Jesus throws the man’s words back at him to make a point. “Everything is possible for him who believes,” Jesus promises. And the man answers with perhaps the most honest and human words ever uttered to God. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”[5] 

But here in Gethsemane with heaven now slowly turning away, Jesus is reduced to echoing that nameless man’s weary request. 

This is not to say that somehow God is schizophrenically doubting God, but rather that the human dimension of Jesus is doubting His own course. Must He drink the cup of the Father’s wrath? The silence said yes. 

After being one with the Father throughout his time on earth, throughout time, throughout the time before time, He must finish His course on the cross alone. And in that aloneness, we see divinity collide with doubt. The resulting explosion echoes throughout time, ricochets across creation and expresses Jesus’ humanity more than flesh or blood or tears: 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[6]My God! This is what it feels like to look into the sky and to see only darkness, to beg for answers and to hear only silence, to cry out for Daddy and to feel like an orphan. This is what it feels like to be truly and totally alone, to be hopeless and helpless—and human.  

Sharing in Doubt
To experience such doubt, such aloneness, such separation, after being connected with God is arguably worse than living with the doubt and never knowing God.  

Yet this is how the Son of Man would seek and save the lost. He entered into every detail of what it means to be human so that He could do more than simply sympathize with the human condition.[7] He would embrace it—our weakness, our pain, our doubt. And because He endured the doubt and conquered it, we have sureness and certainty in Him.

[1] Mark 8: 27.
[2] Psalm 144.
[3] Hebrews 2:14-17; see also Hebrews 2:10-17, The Message.
[4] For all references to the Gethsemane monologue, see Matthew 26 and Mark 14.
[5] Mark 9:20-23.
[6] Matthew 27; Psalm 22
[7] See Hebrews 2:14, 4:15.