January 08, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
This morning we begin a series of four sermons on Faith and Doubt. Often viewed as polar opposites of believing, faith and doubt are actually more binary in their dependent relationship with each other in the spiritual life. Hence the optimal word in this series title is AND, Faith AND Doubt, because they support each other, something I hope we will all appreciate as a result of this series.
So here are a few goals I recommend for these weeks ahead:
1—First, for folks who struggle with doubt, and I don’t mean occasional questions about God or religion, I mean those whose doubts keep them up at night, doubts that gnaw at you. If that describes you I hope this series will help you see and explore doubt as a needed tool of faith. Something that is a part of faith not opposed to it.
2—Then another goal for those whose faith is strong, I hope this series strengthens that faith even more so, as you consider questions you perhaps haven’t before, or at least haven’t felt inclined to probe. I hope you find the questions and ideas in this series taking your faith to a deeper place, giving you even greater appreciation for your faith, or perhaps changing, even improving, the faith you have.
3—Then, for our church, I hope this series will make St. Luke’s a safer and more sensitive community for people to ask their questions and express their doubts. Too many churches are good at giving answers, and I have spent too much of my ministry trying to be an answer giver. In fact, you’ll hear me share some of my regrets in ministry over ways I responded to doubters and seekers. To have an answer without taking the journey that gets you there, usually arrives at a shallow and somewhat insecure faith. But a church that honors peoples’ struggles and makes it okay to say, “I don’t know” is a church I believe will thrive in our current and future society.
4--Finally, I have a goal for all of us individually and that is to I hope this series will help us understand better why we practice the faith we do. Why do we come to church? Let’s say you attended three out of four Sundays in worship, and spent just half of your life doing so, that means you would have spent roughly 1600 hours of your life in worship, and that’s just Sunday mornings! That’s about the same amount of time as the average college student spends in class earning a degree. So what is the degree you hope to get from going to church? What do you hope it will do for you? If our lives were like paper to be written on, what story do you think God would want to write on us over the course of spending hours in worship, and maybe even more engaging in spiritual practices?
With that thought, let’s begin our series in prayer…
There’s a story about a family riding home from church. The mother asked the son what he learned in Sunday School.
The boy said, “We learned about Moses crossing the Red Sea.”
The mother said, “What did your teacher say about that story?”
The boy paused for a moment and then he broke into a remarkable narrative. He said, “Well, old Moses got mad that this guy Pharaoh was holding people hostage. So he warned him to let the people go or he would be in big trouble. Pharaoh said, ‘O.K.’ Moses then loaded the people up in a bunch of humvees and they started off. Then Pharaoh changed his mind. He called out his army and tanks and half-tracks and began chasing Moses. He even called in an air strike. When Moses and all these people in buses got to the Red Sea, they knew they were trapped. So they made sandbags and created two walls so they could walk through the sea. Then they put explosives in the sandbags and when Pharaoh’s army followed them, they detonated the explosives and the water crashed on Pharaoh’s army. The father stammered, “Is that what your teacher taught you?” The boy said, “Well, not actually, but Dad if I told it like she did you’d never believe it.”
Do you remember the first time you had your doubts about stories of faith? Or faith itself? Or God? How old were you? Do you remember what your questions or doubts were? And was it okay to ask your questions?
Many people find religious institutions to be the least safe place to raise their doubts. In his book Faith After Doubt, Brian McLaren points out that 65 million American adults alive today have dropped out of active religious attendance and the number grows about 2.7 million each year. Many of the reasons revolve around doubt. People doubt God, the Bible, or doctrines and practices required by their church. Many leave because they doubt their church or synagogue or mosque as an institution worthy of their trust. As McLaren says, “Whatever the focus of their doubts, at this very moment, hundreds of thousands of people are watching their doubts grow and their religious identity weaken.” (pXV)
So this is an important time to talk about faith and doubt. Many of you shared the doubts and questions of faith that bother you. Look at some of the things people in our church submitted:
“If God has a plan, why bother praying for certain outcomes?”
“Does God forgive? I have my doubts about God’s willingness to forgive some of my past mistakes.”
“If God is love why has religion, biblical interpretation, personal belief gotten in the way?”
“My husband and I have a grown son with the dual diagnosis of drug addiction and bi-polar disease…trusting God has been a struggle for us. I’m hoping the new sermon series will help.”
We will look at more questions you’ve sent in the coming weeks. Historically Christians have probably felt uncomfortable sharing their doubts because of the way doubt seems to be shunned in scripture. Look at a few verses from the New Testament.
“(Jesus said) if you have faith and don’t doubt, you will…say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the lake.’ And it will happen.” (Matthew 21:21 CEV) How many of you already feel disqualified from faith?
“…for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” (James 1:6 NRSV)
If you think that sounds discouraging look at the next sentence: “For the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:7-8)
According to the Bible doubt sounds like a bad idea, but actually there is a hint of hope in these verses. You see the word doubt means double-minded, literally the ability to hold together two contrasting ideas at one time. James compares doubt to the wind that changes direction and that is perhaps a helpful analogy. In sailing you don’t just move in a straight direction toward your target. You have to tack, that is, harness the wind to pull you in one direction for a while, then harness it pull you in the other. All the while you move closer to your object.
Faith and Doubt are like tacking in sailing. They are contrasting forces but not opposing ones. They can work together to move us closer to God. We see this very idea in today’s scripture story about a man whose son is described as being tormented by a demon. We know today by the descriptions of his condition that the boy has epilepsy. He convulses, falls to the ground and becomes rigid, grinds his teeth, even loses control of his body and falls into the fire. His condition has plagued him all his life. This happened even while Jesus was standing there talking to the father. What develops is a very interesting dialogue about faith between Jesus and the dad.
The father says to Jesus, “If you are able to do anything, help us! Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!” Notice the punctuation marks. Two exclamation points, which is interesting because the New Testament was first written in Greek, and ancient Greek did not use punctuation marks. No periods, commas, or otherwise. So the New Testament as we have it today reflects additions since first being written. When people say they read the Bible literally, that’s an interesting statement, because where you put a period or exclamation mark can radically alter the meaning of a statement.
Such is the case with Jesus’ response. If you look at some translations like the New International Version, or New Living Translation, or the Common English Bible, they use a question mark, so that Jesus says in response to the father, “If you able?” That would give the impression that Jesus is being rhetorical in a sarcastic way. The father says, “If you are able to do anything, help us! And Jesus says, “If you are able?” The emphasis would probably be on the last word, able, as if Jesus is getting his feelings hurt because his power is being questioned.
But New Testament scholar Eduard Schweizer disagrees with that interpretation. He would agree more with the NRSV, the English Standard Version, the Good News Translation, and others that use an exclamation point instead of a question mark, because that takes the emphasis off the word “able” and puts on “you.” The father says to Jesus, “If you are able…” and Jesus responds, “If you are able!” What that does is take the focus off of whether Jesus’ has power to heal, and puts attention on the man’s faith, and whether he trusts in the Source of Jesus’ power. It focuses on his trust in God.
And so Jesus continues and says, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” And what this father says next is one of the most profound statements in the New Testament. “I believe; Help my unbelief!”
I believe, he says. He states that with certainty, but he acknowledges at the same time that he wrestles with unbelief. Both are present together. And so Jesus doesn’t chide him for saying such a thing. He doesn’t say, “Well when you get your faith intact, give me a call.” No, he heals his son.
What we see in this man is an important insight into faith, that belief and unbelief, faith and doubt can coexist. And even more than coexist, they are co-dependent. Faith needs doubt in order to grow. Doubt is what keeps us from believing anything and everything. Doubt keeps us from being gullible. Doubt is what keeps our faith from settling on an object that is anything less than God.
Theologian Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith.” Frederick Buechner suggested the same in a little more whimsical way, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Do you ever get discouraged by your doubts? Do you feel something is wrong with you because of your doubt? As if you are losing your faith? If so, then perhaps it will be helpful to consider a couple ideas. One is that faith is a gift which God grants us. Our believing, our faith, is not something we generate.
I like the verse in Ecclesiaster 3:11 that says, “God has put eternity in human hearts.” That verse suggests that the yearning for eternity, for God, is a desire God gives us. We didn’t invent this idea. Faith is God’s offering, which it means it’s very object lies beyond us. We don’t control it. Faith is more than a feeling of confidence and certainty, yet our human nature prefers things nailed down, under our control. The very nature of faith challenges confidence and certainty. So what happens is our human desire for certainty pulls toward settling for beliefs, ideas, understandings that may work for us for a while, but eventually we will need to move beyond them. Doubt is what keeps us from holding onto anything we want to give us absolute certainty that is not God.
Doubt usually means there is something we are being invited to move beyond. In the case of the father in this story, he was being challenged to let go of his search for the miracle worker who would give him what he needed and instead put his trust in God. Remember what he said to Jesus when he brought him his son and the son’s condition? “I asked your disciples to cast it out but they could not do so.” He was looking for the right person, and Jesus was inviting him to look to God.
Is there a belief or idea about God you feel challenged to move beyond? Maybe you grew up in a faith tradition that equated faith with rejecting certain people, but that idea is no longer working for you, yet its scary because you feel like that moving past that belief means letting go of faith.
Maybe you’ve been taught to interpret the Bible a certain way, but you are doubting some of those interpretations, but moving beyond feels like throwing out the Bible altogether.
Maybe you’ve been led to believe that if your faith is strong you will always feel a certain way. You will always have a conviction and never question, but that feeling or certainty hasn’t been there for a while, and now you are doubting if God still cares or if God is even there.
Even the disciples had doubts in this story. When they were alone with Jesus they asked, “Why could we not heal the boy?” In other words, what’s wrong with us. They were operating with an assumption that if their faith was right, they should have been able to heal the boy. Again, where’s the focus? On their ability.
And again, Jesus doesn’t chastise them. He simply told them that such a thing requires prayer. What does that mean? It means there is no easy answer. Everyone has to work out their doubts with God. You have to be willing to seek God and work through the hard things that are not easy to let go of, the old ideas, the tired beliefs, the practices that no longer work, and be open to God speaking to us in surprising ways that bring us to new places of faith.
That’s hard, because it means we may never go back to the old places. The old ideas, the old experiences that made us feel right and connected to God, have to be let go, and there’s often a sadness in that. But our faith becomes less dependent on those things and we discover what it means to become more dependent on God.
Do you have any big doubts today that are unsettling? Perhaps it will help not to look at your doubts as an enemy but a friend of faith. What questions might your doubts be asking you to ask? Have your doubts come to prod a new level of searching? Are your doubts inviting you to consider some new understandings of God?
One of the hottest shows on television in the last 15 years is The Big Bang Theory. And one of the central characters is the ridiculously brilliant, and annoyingly confident, Dr. Sheldon Cooper (pic). Well his character became so popular CBS created a spinoff show called Young Sheldon, that goes back to his childhood in Texas. The voice of the adult Sheldon narrates different experiences from his growing up.
One episode is about a time a tragedy occurred in their town and it became a faith crisis in the life Sheldon’s very devout mother. It raised doubts for her that caused her to stop going to church and even saying grace before meals. Take a look at this closing scene of the episode (video clip)…