Am I Lost If I Have Doubt?

Part 6 of the series “Questions of Faith
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 23, 2011
James 1:4-8; Matthew 28:16-20

James 1:4-9 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; [8] for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

Matt. 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

I. BEGINNING

Protestantism has a lot of hidden pitfalls in it.  And no, I am not talking about committee meetings.  I am talking about some of the consequences of our theology.

Image courtesy of wordle.net

It was the central theme of the Protestant Reformation that a person was not saved by performing certain religious works (attending mass, saying prayers, purchasing an indulgence, and so on), but by “grace through faith”.  That was a nice and much needed reminder that God is the one who does the saving, not we ourselves.  I doubt the reformers meant for this to happen, but over time we Protestants developed our own checklist of requirements for salvation.  Sure, it wasn’t on account of “works of the law” but it was on account of having enough faith.  And faith was, primarily, the things we believed in.

Oh, we’ll say aloud in public that a person is saved by grace through faith, but deep down inside that idea terrifies us, because we all secretly wonder whether we have enough faith to make it.  ‘Salvation by grace through faith!’ we say aloud in church and then we retreat to the privacy of our own rooms and wonder why we have such a hard time having perfect faith.  We have questions.  We wonder.  We are not sure.

And then we see people who seem so… certain and we secretly covet that certainty.  People who have no doubts whatsoever.  Who seem absolutely convinced.  ‘Lord,’ we think, ‘If that’s what it takes to be saved, I’m lost. I have such doubt.’

Of course, even the people who are so certain, may be projecting a public face of certainty.  They themselves may be hiding a secret and terrifying doubt.  One of the most compelling scenes—and tragic beside—of the play-turned-movie Doubt is when the main character, a nun who had been so certain in her pursuit of a priest she believed was having an inappropriate relationship with a young boy, confesses that she has such deep doubt.  It is a confession that causes her to break down, such are the consequences of doubt when faith is expected.

II.  THE TEXT

And then we encounter a passage like that found in James’ epistle:

But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; [8] for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

That is not encouraging, is it?  The “one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind” and “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”  James seems to be setting a pretty high bar: do not doubt if you expect to be able to get anything from God.

Deep down, Bible passages like that make us cringe, for we wonder if we are thus excluded from salvation.  Are we lost because we have doubt?  Does God intend to save only those who banish all questions, all inquiry, all uncertainty, all doubt from their minds?  Only those with perfect faith shall pass.

And so we struggle to cast out all uncertainty.  To cast out all doubt.

III.  INESCAPABLE DOUBT

But can uncertainty even be avoided?  I doubt it.  It seems to be everywhere we go.  It even shows up in the scriptures, in places we don’t expect.

In the passage we read from Matthew’s gospel earlier, we have a curious scene.  The women have returned from the empty tomb.  They have told the eleven disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that the angel of God has told them to go back to Galilee where they will see him.  And we read:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

They hear this fantastic story from the women.  They go back to Galilee to the mountain they were told to go to.  There they encounter the Resurrected Christ and fall down before him, but some doubted?  What?

I mean, I know there’s a lot of doubt in this day and age.  People doubting whether the President (or now Bobby Jindal and Marc Rubio) were “natural born citizens”.  People doubt the findings of science with regard to evolution or climate change. People don’t believe anything they read or hear on the news.  People doubt all kinds of things.  That’s not strange or unusual.  But here the disciples encounter the Jesus raised from the dead and they still aren’t sure?  What are they waiting for, a sign from God?  I mean, another sign from God?

It seems that even with those who were present with Jesus, there was doubt.  Perhaps doubt is inescapable after all.

The more we learn about the universe we inhabit, it’s hard not to come to that conclusion.  The universe seemed to be such a predictable place.  The physicists had it all worked out.  Action and reaction.  Motion and inertia.  Kinetic and potential energy.  Force equals mass times acceleration.  Everything nice and consistent.

Except that certain observations of the universe brought some of those understandings into doubt.  Either our observations were wrong or our physics was wrong.  Along comes Einstein and turns the whole world on its head by promoting a Theory of Relativity in which time itself can be a variable.  Once even time became a variable, the sense that the world had become a lot less certain took hold.  This was due in large measure to the advancement of relativity in a host of other disciplines.  If velocity and acceleration were variable based on the observer’s point of view, then perhaps everything else was relative, too.  Morality.  Ideology.  Culture. Religion.  This kind of uncertainty terrified everyone, religious folks, especially.

And then along came the quantum physicists.  Werner Heisenberg argued that it was impossible to know both the location and the momentum of a subatomic particle.  One could know either where it was, or where it was going, but not both things at once.  It was a claim that caused Einstein to object famously, “God does not play dice with the universe!”  Einstein later retracted that objection when the evidence was clear.

And quantum mechanics only gets weirder.  It appears that an unobserved electron takes every single path on its way to a target, such that its position can only be stated as a function of probability.  That is, when asked whether an electron is in a given place, all a scientist can say is, “Probably.”  Probably?  This is science.  The folks with the microscopes and the slide-rules and all that precision equipment and the best description they can give of something that should be fairly easy is “probably.”

It seems, my friends, that uncertainty is written into the very fabric of the universe.  Doubt, it seems, is unavoidable.

IV.  THE IDOL OF CERTAINTY

Which makes it more understandable why there seems to be such a clamoring for certainty out there.  The world is uncertain.  From the subatomic particles on up.  Ultimately life is uncertain.  We all know we’re going to die, but we don’t know when, and that scares us.  The world itself becomes increasingly uncertain and people long for certainty.  They long for something to grasp on to.

Too often, the church itself presents itself as a certainty clearinghouse.  You want certainty?  We’ve got it for you!  It’s called the Gospel and once you believe in this, you’ll be all set!  You’ll never have to worry again!  Believe in this, and everything else is taken care of!

We market that so well sometimes that people really seem drawn to it like moths to a flame.  Some of the fastest growing churches are those that deal in certainty. But is anyone in those churches really certain?  Have they magically erased all doubt from their minds?  Probably not.  In fact, in many cases, not at all.  But it doesn’t matter, because the pastor believes for us.  The pastor believes on our behalf.  Our doubts are okay, because the pastor is certain.  But God help you if ever the pastor should admit that they have doubt.

In one of the largest churches in our denomination, a church of over 10,000 people, the pastor made a statement that he was no longer sure about his understanding of some of the verses in the Bible about homosexuality. That was it.  No longer sure.  He didn’t come out as a reconciling Methodist or seek to do anything about it.  He said he was unsure.  A thousand people left the church. A thousand people.

The pastor is not allowed to doubt.  Especially on an issue we need to be certain about. Because the pastor is supposed to believe on behalf of the congregation. And if the congregation and the pastor have doubt, then where are we?

But our existence is inherently uncertain.  The rules of the universe have randomness and chance built into them.  It seems that certainty is merely a salve that we try to give ourselves in the face of such uncertainty.  Certainty is the quick-fix that overcomes our doubt.  But in so doing, certainty becomes an idol.

The kind of certainty—that both the fundamentalists and the militant atheists claim—is idolatrous.  It does not exist. And it cannot save. It is a construct that is lifted up as a way to smooth over our own doubt.  It is a charm, a talisman that we use to soothe our troubled minds.

But it is not faith.  Not the faith we are called to have. Not the faith that saves us.

V.  WHAT FAITH IS

Doubtless, you will not find it surprising to discover that I am a fan of science fiction.  It is not a malady that I hide with any great skill.  But I don’t just jump on any old sci-fi bandwagon—I have some fairly high expectations when it comes to this stuff.  And so, I had my doubts about the merits of trying to reboot the cheesy 1970’s sci-fi TV series Battlestar Galactica.  Even as a kid I had known the whole thing was a ripoff of Star Wars and in those arguments that only kids and sci-fi nerds can have, I repeatedly took the position that the starship Enterprise could take the Galactica in a fight any day.  The show also had some pretty silly elements.  The viper pilots, for example, wore helmets that resembled Egyptian headdresses, because of a common cultural heritage.  (I am pretty sure that the actual Egyptian Air Force does nothing of the kind.)  And so, I was doubtful that trying to update this series would have any merit.

Until I finally got around to watching it, that is.  But in addition to exceeding my expectations as a sci-fi show, the program produced such excellent story lines and characters that I was hooked.  And then, it produced even more.

One officer, named Athena, had done something to betray the trust of the Galactica‘s commander, Adama.  After some mending in their relationship he assigns her to an important mission.  She is moved by this, but also a little perplexed.  And so she asks him, “How do you know you can trust me?”  He answers, “I don’t.  That’s what trust is.”

“I don’t.  That’s what trust is.”

It may have been the single best line of the entire series.  And I knew as soon as I heard it that it would preach.  Trust is not possible in the face of certainty.  Trust is acting in the face of uncertainty.  Trust is not in knowing; it is in acting in spite of the gaps in our knowing.

This is an important thing to understand because it informs our understanding of faith. See, one of the things we so often get wrong about our faith is that we misunderstand what faith means.  We think faith is about belief.  That faith is accepting certain propositions to be true.  Just think of the way we ask questions about faith: “Do you believe in Jesus?”  “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?”  We ask this question like we’re asking someone whether they believe in Santa Claus.  As if our calling as Christians is to believe in the existence of Jesus or to believe in certain things about Jesus.

But that’s not what faith means.  The English word “faith” comes from a root that means “to trust”.  It is at the root of the Greek pistis, the Hebrew emouna, the Latin fides.  We are not called to believe in God’s grace as much as we are to trust in it.  And trust implies some measure of not knowing.  But trust is not being derailed by not knowing, it is proceeding along in spite of it.  Doubt, it seems is not only not antithetical to faith; it is necessary to true faith.

In the third installment of the Indiana Jones movies, Indiana is confronted with three tests, the third and final being the most unnerving.  He is told he must take a leap across a seemingly impassable chasm.  There is nothing in front of him but the void falling away forever and the canyon wall on the far side, too far to jump to.  Knowing of nothing else but the black depths that face him, he steps off… and does not fall.  As instructed, he must make a ‘leap of faith’.   But without some measure of doubt, there is no leap.  There is no trust.  There is no faith.

VI.  END

And that’s a comforting thing.

Because it means we no longer have to pretend.  We do not have to present ourselves as something we’re not.   We no longer have to deny the basic reality of the world we live in or the way we feel about it.  We are free to doubt.

For it is in that doubt that we open ourselves up to wonder and mystery.  It is in that doubt that we keep ourselves humble and away from the idolatry of certainty.  It is in that doubt that we create the space for taking a leap of faith, of genuine trust.

That’s what I think James is talking about in his epistle: for him ‘doubt’ is not questioning certain propositions but rather it is not trusting, not being willing to take that courageous leap of faith.

For we will not always have the answers.  We will not have perfect knowledge.  We will wonder.  We, like the disciples atop that mountain, will doubt.  Yet that doubt does not prevent us from setting out in faith.  It does not prevent us from living into the reality we claim.  It does not prevent us from seeking to follow the one who said to us, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

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