The Thin Line Between Faith and Doubt: How Mary Excelled Where Zechariah Stumbled

Two encounters, one angel, different outcomes.

That is the simple sum-up of Gabriel’s visits to Zechariah and Mary.

But there’s a lot more to it than it sounds.

How Shall I Know this?

Alone in the temple, performing his priestly duties, Zechariah suddenly saw a flash. It was Gabriel. He came with news.

Elizabeth would have a son who would do mighty things and be great. This was too good to be true.

So Zechariah asked, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years’ (Luke 1:18).

Now, this could easily pass for a harmless question.

But, wait for it. Here is what he got in reply, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you this good news. But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time’ (Luke 1:19-20).

How Can this Be?

Fast forward six months later; Gabriel appeared in Mary’s house. When he ended the announcement of the messiah’s birth, Mary couldn’t believe her ears. She asked, ‘How can this be, seeing I know not a man?’ (Luke 1:34).

That sounds familiar, right?

This time, Gabriel said, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35).

The Question of the Heart

If you think about it, you will be wondering if there is any difference between Zechariah’s question and that of Mary. But, the mere fact that Gabriel reacted differently to these seemingly similar queries draws the eye to a second look.

It all had to do with what their heart was saying.

Your mouth could be responding as if in faith, with your head playing along but what your heart is really saying is what tells if there is faith or doubt. 

A Doubtful Request for Proof

And if you ever thought it is only God that sees the heart, then, Gabriel just proved you wrong. Check that scripture again.

It was because Gabriel could peep into Zechariah’s heart that he discerned that Zechariah did not believe his message.

The problem was not only that he doubted, but also that he was seeking proof.     

When he said, ‘How shall I know this?’ He was saying, ‘Can you give me a proof that this will be true?’ ‘Can you give me evidence that all these things you have said will pan out exactly?’

I Know God doesn’t always turn down our requests for proof. He doesn’t always pick you up on it. When He does, you probably don’t need it or He expects more from you. Or there’s something you haven’t dealt with.

The problem in this instance? It stemmed from doubt and God expected more from him.

Zac’s query was simply a skeptic press for validation.

He got just that, but at his own detriment.

A Sincere Interest Drawn From Faith

Mary, on the other hand, asked hers from a depth of sincere interest. ‘How can this be?’ was an honest desire for extra details. Having believed the message, she was curious to know how the event will play out. She didn’t doubt neither was she asking for proof.

The angel knew this and, did not hesitate to reveal more to her.

See, God often responds favourably to our requests for explanation.

But, only when it arises from faith.

Mary and Zechariah: Comparison and Contrast

In all fairness to Mary, her curiosity was justified. Zechariah had more reasons to believe Gabriel outrightly than she did.

Zechariah had been praying and waiting, a long time for a child. Mary obviously had not! Was he not expecting an answer to his prayer? Meanwhile, Mary did not need a child. Why should she believe some strange news about something totally out of place at that time in her life?

Zechariah was married (though aging) but Mary was not. To believe a supernatural message of conception should be easier for a married man than for a virgin.

Besides, he could have easily viewed it as a visitation from God. Being much older than Mary, with a greater likelihood of hearing or reading about similar divine intervention stories (such as Abraham and Manoah), he had a foundation for faith. But Mary’s case was unprecedented and unheard of!

It can be taken for granted that Zechariah, being a priest would understand more about God’s ways – His specialization in difficult or impossible cases and the ministry of angels. But we cannot say the same about Mary.

In addition, as a priest, one would expect him to have a closer relationship with God than Mary. As such, it should be easier to exercise spiritual virtues like faith. Alas, it was the virgin with no known spiritual garb that did better.

Why Mary Believed an Incredible Message

So what exactly informed Mary’s position of faith? From where, did she draw confidence to quickly believe the angel’s outrageous message?

The answer is implicit surrender.

That’s right.

Notice that after Gabriel’s additional explanations, Mary queried no further. Rather, she declared, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word’. In other words, whatever you deem fit; whatever pleases you to do with me, just go ahead!

That tells you the kind of person she was all along.

She had reasons to be worried and skeptical but she was not moved. She did not bother about how Joseph, her fiancé will react; how her family would receive the news or what people will say.

Who would have believed such weird story of a child from the Holy Spirit? The Jews at that time were far from God and John was yet to bring revival!

Mary was standing on the pillars of unreserved surrender. And whenever this is the case, it becomes somewhat easier to believe His words – no matter how outrageous.

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