In 2002, Christianity Today did a cover article on Mary by Tom Oden and J.I. Packer. It was a helpful recovery of Mary for Protestants. Only a few years behind, our own Presbyterians Today has recently printed an article by Jon Sweeney entitled, “Mary, the First Disciple.” Although I appreciate making Mary accessible to a Presbyterian audience, I was dismayed with the thrust of the article.
Luke’s Gospel tells the story. Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
And then came Mary’s various words of hesitancy: “But she was much perplexed…pondered…afraid…’How can this be?’” [ellipses in the original]
Sometimes after her shock subsided, she replied: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She believed, and in so believing, became the first disciple of her as yet unborn son.
Even so, Mary was also the first person in the Gospels to demonstrate that belief does not come without some measure of question and doubt. Centuries of tradition have tended to erase that fact, making the images of Mary into unerring and unflinching gazes of certitude. Don’t believe it. Mary is the first and foremost disciple because she shows us how to wait on God, expect God, have awe for God, and hope for God, but not with an easy credulity. Hers was not an unquestioning belief; her mixture of doubt and faith is the sign of a mature disciple.
Now, questions do come up in the life of faith. As a pastor, I encourage my parishioners to wrestle with their faith, to ask tough questions. When I read the Psalms, I find the spiritual life to be a passionate one. The psalmist asks questions of God, he offers his laments to God, and he even gets angry with God. I don’t think that the psalmist is acting in doubt or outside the faith. Questions will come because conflicts come and choices are made. Jesus often asked difficult questions which shake our faith to the core.
Doubt seems to be a different thing. Rather than questioning how we should live or quibbling over a particular doctrine, doubt is about rejection or distrust. The model for doubt in the Bible is not Mary, but rather Job’s wife whose advice to her husband is “Curse God and die.” In fact, Mary’s faithfulness is placed in direct contrast to Zechariah’s distrust. After Gabriel foretells the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah says, “How shall I know this?” Zechariah seeks a sign, and Gabriel silences him because of Zechariah’s unbelief (Luke 1:20). In contrast, Mary asks, “How will this be, since I do not know a man?” Her question draws out clarification rather than expressing distrust. With Gabriel’s response that this would be a virgin birth, Mary’s question emphasizes the miracle of the story. Mary is not a model for doubt.
Nonetheless, I do recognize that doubt does happen. The best of us have had those “dark nights of the soul.” Some of us would even argue that our faith is better for going through them. Still, doubt is not a preferable state. Although most of us can identify with the prodigal son, we should not pattern our lives after him. For those crippled by doubt, God will not forsake. He continues to love us even when we reject him. However, mature discipleship is never a mixture of doubt and faith. To think otherwise is projecting our thoughts and feelings on the mother of Jesus.