A sermon: Faith and Doubt


A sermon preached on August 12, 2007, based upon Luke 12:22 – 34 and Hebrew 11:1 – 3; 8 – 16, entitled, “Faith and Doubt.”

As is often the case, when I reached adolescence I became less and less interested in going to church.  I couldn’t see much of a connection between my life in the world with the whirlwind of emotions I was experiencing as a teenager and that place on Sunday morning where people dressed up and got real somber and stiff, sitting through long, boring services.  If you had asked me if I believed in God and Jesus, well, I probably would have said, “I have my doubts.”

I went off to college and in my sophomore year I took a class called, “Human Existence and the Christian Faith.”  I wasn’t sure what “faith” was, let alone the “Christian faith”, but the atmosphere in the class was captivating to me.  The professors and students were talking about “human existence” —  real human existence with all the anxiety that goes into being a human being, and that much, at least connected with me. 

The first book we read was by a theologian named Paul Tillich, who said that faith and doubt aren’t really opposites of one another; rather, doubt is a component of faith — that faith involves our relationship to the ultimate concern of our life, and if doubt isn’t present, well, we must not be dealing with the “ultimate concern.”  Or as somebody else put it, doubt was the “ants in the pants” of faith, keeping it moving, questioning, going deeper.

Well, that idea opened up the playing field for me, because I knew I had doubts, but Tillich was telling me that I was supposed to have doubts, and that my doubts didn’t take me out of the faith journey.  I wasn’t really the outsider looking in that I had imagined myself to be. 

And when I began to read the Gospels, there was much there that challenged my preconceptions of what faith involved.  For instance, in the words we heard earlier, Jesus challenges his disciples by calling them, “you of little faith.”  What is striking there for me is that he didn’t say, “You who have no faith.”  We tend to think of faith as something either you have or you don’t, but that doesn’t seem to be how Jesus saw it.  Elsewhere he refers to possessing faith “the size of a mustard seed.”  The mustard seed was the smallest known seed at the time, so to talk about that amount of faith was to talk about a small amount indeed, and yet he said that this amount of faith was enough to move mountains. 

Faith and doubt live in all of us.  Those who say they have absolute faith are deceiving themselves, and would probably do well to own up to those doubts that haunt them.  And those who say they are thorough going atheists, well, they may find it embarrassing to acknowledge the mustard-seed-sized child-like faith that lives on within them. 

I’ve managed to talk about “faith” now for a couple of minutes without actually defining what I mean by it, so maybe I should attempt a definition of faith, or specifically, what I think Jesus meant by faith. 

Faith is trusting that the creator of the universe is for you, or against you, or even indifferent to you, and acting out of this trust in your life.  It means that you (and everybody else, for that matter) is not just here by mere chance, but that God created each one of us intentionally, that God loves us, that God wants good for us. 

Jesus felt this so strongly that he referred to this Creator God as “Abba”, Daddy.  He seems to have believed that the best analogy we have for the relationship of God to human beings is that of a parent to a child, though even this is an imperfect analogy, since we human parents are imperfect in our love of our children. 

When you read the Gospels it becomes clear that for Jesus faith wasn’t believing in certain doctrines or reciting particular creeds.  The people whom he points to as examples of faith aren’t so much professing belief systems as they are simply acting out of a basic trust that God desires their best interests. 

Before long in the journey of faith we realize that trusting God doesn’t mean that everything will necessarily work out for the best in this world.  The world is, in many ways, a terrible mess, full of pain and suffering.  It is in reflecting on this rather obvious fact where our doubts tend to get expressed.  Faith doesn’t mean believing that every thing turns out happily ever after in this world.  And for those for whom this is what faith means, well, their doubts are doing them the service of pushing them to a deeper understanding of what faith is. 

Examining what faith meant to Jesus is helpful here, because Jesus clearly understood the evil and brokenness that is so routinely experienced in this world.  Even as Jesus counseled his disciples to trust God, he wasn’t naïve.  He didn’t think that when he finally got to Jerusalem to confront the entrenched powers, that the people in power would listen to him and say, “You know what Jesus?  We never thought of it that way.  You’re right.  From now on, we’re going to share everything God has given us.   From now on, we’re putting you in charge.”  No, he knew that when he got to Jerusalem he would end getting nailed to a cross. 

And so in the passage we just heard, the author of the letter to the Hebrews points to the incompleteness of our lives in this world of which we are all so painfully aware.  Although the heroes of faith, like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament got reassuring signs along the way that filled them with awe and provided great comfort — for instance, the child given to them in their old age — they died still living in tents, never having seen the completion of what God had promised to them. They were, as the author says, “strangers and foreigners on the earth.”  They were seeking their homeland, but on some level they realized that their homeland wasn’t  ultimately on this earth, it was in heaven. 

An essential part of faith, therefore is the conviction that there is a world beyond this one, an eternal world where God’s promises find their ultimate fulfillment.  The resurrection is the sign that Jesus’ trust in Abba wasn’t misplaced. 

So, how do we go about growing our faith?

First off, I don’t think we can manufacture faith.  In a certain sense faith is a gift of the holy spirit, and the spirit of God moves on its own, invisible, on its own time table. A farmer doesn’t make the harvest, but the farmer can do his or her part to help create a setting where crops could grow.  

There is a sense in which faith rubs off on us from other people.  People with more faith inspire faith within us.  So, hanging out with people who are on the same faith quest is essential.  Some will have more faith, some may have less, than us.  Those with less faith are important for us as long as they are consciously on the faith journey, because in encouraging the faith of others, our faith in turn is strengthened. 

I think the people in AA maybe get this more clearly than we do in the church.  What the folks in AA are trying to do is nothing less than grow faith, particularly in relation to the anxieties that would drive them to drink.  They know they need others — not just those with more faith, but also those with, at a given moment, less faith, because helping a stumbling sister or brother helps keep them on the path as well. 

It is also important to respect the place of our intellect in growing faith.  God created us all differently.  Some of us have a more intellectual bent, while others are more intuitive — more in tune with their emotional life.  No way is “right” — they’re all good.  But for those of us, such as myself, who lead with our intellect, it is important to have our intellect involved in the process, which is to say, that we come to a place where faith makes a certain sense.  This doesn’t mean that we succeed in “proving” the existence of God.  Since God is invisible, you can neither prove or disprove God’s existence.  But it is possible to come to a place where it doesn’t seem unreasonable — that having faith doesn’t require a mental lobotomy.

For me, for instance, it was important to distinguish between faith in God and faith in the Bible.  A lot of Christians, it seems to me, confuse the two.  The Bible is an important tool that we are called to wrestle with, but for me, to believe that the Bible is “the inerrant word of God” would require a lobotomy. 

I was talking to Darren Yacenko last week and he was describing what for him the experience of growing up Catholic was like.   He remembers the nuns teaching the story of Adam and Eve and being told that the meaning of the story was that it was wrong for them to want to know stuff — that asking questions came from the evil serpent; therefore just shut up and believe what you’re told without questioning it.  (Note:  not all Catholics take the mental lobotomy approach, and there are many Protestants who do.)  And so for anybody who is raised in such an environment, a refusal to undergo a lobotomy generally means leaving the Church. 

The faith journey is not unlike the process that a scientist pursues — that there is an experimental quality to it.  A scientist comes up with a theory, then runs experiments to test the theory.  If the data gained from the experiment increases the plausibility of the theory, the theory becomes stronger.  If the data requires that the theory be adjusted, so be it.  Good scientists realize that as useful as a particular theory may be in terms of predicting how things will operate in the world, it may, over time, prove to be flawed.  Newton’s theories, for instance, were extremely helpful for centuries, but in the past century, new data arose through experiments that suggested more was going on than Newton’s theories could explain.  And so Newton’s theories gave way to Einstein’s theory of relativity, which in turn will eventually give way to other, more accurate theories.

And so we are all a mixture of faith and doubt, which are both, in a sense, theories that have not yet been fully proven.  And so in a desire to grow our faith we undertake experiments designed to strengthen the faith hypothesis.   

Kids, don’t try this at home:   We could say to ourselves, “My trust in God is that God will watch over me in all situations, and to prove this, I will go wander about on a busy interstate highway.”  If, following our experiment, we are fortunate enough to survive our injuries and be discharged from the hospital, our assessment of data gathered from our experience would make clear that some adjustments to the theory are required:   Evidently God’s faithfulness doesn’t give me license to do something dumb and self-destructive. 

We venture back into the laboratory of faith.  We consider the fact that this God we know in Jesus seems to be very into creating loving community.   And so we decide to act on our trust of this God and undergo the risks involved in reaching out to people who are in some sense strangers to us in an attempt to build community.  When afterwards we assess how it went, perhaps there was some rejection to bear, but it wasn’t as awful as we had imagined, and along with the rejection there were instances of receptivity to our outreach, with some loving community born by virtue of our having stepped out in faith, and in this realization our faith is strengthened. 

Or maybe we realize that this God Jesus reveals to us is into forgiveness big time, and so we try to suspend our doubts and let go of some resentment and bitterness we’ve carried around with us, and lo and behold, we discover we, and the world, are better off for having acted on our faith. 

Or maybe we consider the fact that this God is concerned about feeding the hungry, but our doubts tell us we need all our money for ourselves to assure we don‘t starve tomorrow, but we attempt to act out of our trust that God will indeed provide for us the way God cares for the birds of the air, and we give away some of our money to those in greater need, and we discover that not only do we survive, but that our lives are blessed by the experience as well. 

Over the course of our lives, if we have been willing to make the little leaps of faith that test and deepen our faith and our understanding of how it is that God is there with us in our need, then we will be better prepared when, at the end of our lives, it comes time to make the greatest leap of faith of all.   Standing before the mystery that is death, we let go our tight grip upon this life, trusting that the Abba God who created us will be there once more to catch us with an eternal, loving embrace.  “Fear not, little flock, it is the Father’s great pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

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