Perhaps one of our biggest fears that we face in life is the fear of doubting. My guess is that many of us, myself included view doubting as something to avoid. We value certainty.
As the popular phrase goes, “The bible says it! I believe it! And that settles it!” I really wish our faith was that easy. The problem is that even the Bible offers conflicting answers to some of life’s most complex questions. In other words, contrary to popular opinion, the Bible isn’t designed to be an answer book. If it was designed to be that, then why in the world didn’t God shorten it from sixty-six books to just one book of Frequently Asked Questions with each answer non-ambiguous and no more than one paragraph long?
For my bible studies, I like to offer these two back to back verses from the Book of Proverbs as a case in point. Now, I always thought that Proverbs is more like what the other sixty-five books of the Bible should be…a listing of several clear directions of easy to understand proverbs of what to do and what not to do.
But here’s the problem. Even in the Book of Proverbs, these sayings can contradict each other and you’re left wondering which way to go. One of these examples is from Proverbs chapter 26.
Verse 4 gives us this pretty simple proverb to follow in life. “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” Now you’re talking! This is how the Bible should behave! That makes perfect sense to me. If somebody is saying foolish things to you, don’t engage them in a conversation because you’ll get nowhere. Now, that sounds like great advice. I think I’ll start following that very easy to understand word of wisdom.
But, listen to the very next verse that offers this proverb. Verse 5 instructs us to do the exact opposite when faced with the same situation. “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” Wait! Which is it, Mr. Bible? Should I answer or not answer someone who is speaking foolishly?”
Verse 4 says don’t do it because it will be foolish to do so. And verse 5 says to answer them because if you don’t, they’ll keep on being foolish.
OK, this is a perfect example of how the Bible really works. Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible is not an answer book that dropped out of heaven one day and fell into our laps. It’s actually a complex book written by many different authors over a span of more than a thousand years.
The Bible offers us incredible words of wisdom in how to live our lives and what it means to be a people of faith. But it also invites us to prayerfully discern how a passage of scripture or a bible story relates to whatever particular situation and context we may be facing. In other words, the Bible isn’t designed to spoon feed us simplistic answers. It invites us on a journey, a journey that includes times when it’s good to answer a foolish person as well as times when it’s not wise to answer a foolish person.
And the wonderful thing about this journey is that it’s OK to ask questions and express our doubts and fears along the way. The reason I know this is because the Bible gives us example after example of people who did just that. They asked questions. They expressed fears. They voiced doubts.
Like Abram from our Old Testament reading on this 2nd Sunday in Lent. He asked God a question. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?” Three chapters earlier, God had called Abram and his family leave to leave their home and become the father of a new nation.
It’s now three chapters later in the story. Abram and his family have sacrificed everything to follow God. They have arrived to the land that God wanted them to now live, but there was one problem. A big problem. Still no offspring. And this leads Abram to question God, to express his doubts that God was really going to keep his covenant.
Is it really OK for us to be good Christians and still doubt? When we doubt or question our faith, does that mean that there is something wrong with us? Actually, it means that we’re normal. That’s what it means. How do I know this? Because the Bible tells me so.
Take the Psalms for example. Sure, there are many Psalms that say that life is hunky dory and everything seems to be what it should be. Let’s praise and thank God for blue skies and answered prayers. But then there are other Psalms that question if God is anywhere to be found because sometimes it rains on your picnic, the medical tests don’t always come back negative, and the job you were hoping to get was given to someone less qualified.
When the Bible itself has people of faith questioning if God is even around, then it’s pretty reasonable to assume that it’s OK for us to have doubts and questions along our faith journey as well.
I was teaching a bible study at a church I was serving. One of the members of that bible study had recently been diagnosed with cancer. It was a scary time for her. During one of our bible study sessions, someone who meant well gave her a book to read that might help her through this unsettling time in her life.
The woman with cancer surprised all of us by shoving the book back into the arms of the person who gave it to her and with great frustration in her voice she said, “I just can’t take another (blankety blank) book to read about how I should deal with this. I’m sorry, but that’s just how I feel right now!”
Now, this was a woman of incredible faith. She attended church every week. She showed up to every single Bible Study. She was a trained Stephen Minister. She prayed everyday. She loved God. Had a heart of gold. But she was also human. And she had obviously reached a breaking point when her well intentioned friend offered her that book to read.
Her response reminded me of several people in the Bible like Moses, like Abraham, like many of the Psalmists, like the disciples. In other words, the Bible gives us permission to be human. And part of being human is that sometimes we are going to doubt. Sometimes we are going to have unanswered questions. Sometimes we are going to shove a book back into the arms of a well-intentioned friend.
This is why I’m thankful for people in the Bible like the disciple, Thomas who refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead until he saw for himself. Or John the Baptist, the who because he was in prison sent word to Jesus asking if he really was the Messiah.
Even Jesus himself when he was hanging on the cross asked, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
If we ever wonder if it’s OK to have doubts in our faith, the Bible should be a good indicator that it’s perfectly normal.
Right here, in the very first book of the Bible, Abram is questioning and doubting if God was going to keep his promise to make of Abram a great nation especially since he was still childless and he and Sarah weren’t getting any younger.
So here’s how God responds to Abram’s doubts. Instead of saying, “Here, read another book about faith,” God simply reassures him by having him look up at the stars and imagine that each one of those stars is one of his descendants.
At first, it seems like that visualization exercise does the trick for Abram because verse 6 says that “Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
But notice that the doubt resurfaces just two verses later because Abram asks God, “How am I going to know that I shall possess the land you have in mind for me?” Abram is the kid in the back seat who asks in a really nasally voice, “How long till we get there? How long till we get there?”
Questions, questions, questions. And notice that the Lord doesn’t lose patience even after this second round of questioning. This time, instead of reassuring him with another visual like he did with the many stars in the sky, the Lord actually raises the stakes by making a covenant with Abram.
Now, this is a really big deal, because when God makes a covenant, if what was promised does not happen than it’s on God. That’s what a covenant in the Bible means. It means that God will come through on his end of the bargain no matter how disobedient and no matter how many questions or doubts we may have.
One might say that God is not a very good negotiator because he’s basically saying that no matter what you decide to do, I’m already committed to making this thing happen. You can count on me even if you decide that you want out. Wow, that’s what I would call unconditional love. That’s what I would call, “Amazing Grace.” “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”
What does all of this mean for you and me? It means that if you ever experience doubt or uncertainty along your faith journey, just remember that God has you covered. Whenever you are facing something that’s too much for you to handle, God has you covered. Whenever your prayers don’t seem like they’re being answered, God has you covered. Whenever you doubt or even get angry with God, God has you covered.
The great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner shares this thought about having doubts, “Whether your faith is that there is a God, or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.” There’s the quote of the day. “They keep it awake and moving.”
In 1975, the Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh, went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa.
He was searching for an answer to some spiritual struggles. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked.
He answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.”
When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”
When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” Mother Teresa laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
The Lord didn’t offer Abram clarity. The Lord invited Abram to trust.
Our journey of faith isn’t about not having doubts. It’s about trusting the God who is all in and the God who can’t go back on his promises.
Whenever we face the fears of our own doubts, let’s look up at the stars and remember the covenant that God made with Abram.
Or better yet, let’s try a different visualization exercise. When you find yourself doubting, just look up at the cross, the cross that is always there to remind us of just how far God was willing to go.
My Fears Relieved: Doubts
Sermon Discussion Questions
Genesis15:1-12, 17-18 & Luke 13:31-35
March 17, 2019
When thinking about having doubts in our faith, it’s important to remember that the Bible is less of an “answer book” and more of a book that invites us on a journey where God promises to be faithful.
Share a time when you have doubted God or a question that you have about your faith that hasn’t found a complete answer.
The Bible is filled with examples of people of faith who also had a lot of doubts along their journey. The list includes Abram from our scripture reading where he questions if he and Sarai will have children as God had promised since they are advanced in years, Moses when he doubted if he would be able to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, Job who was trying to figure out why so many bad things were happening to him, many Psalmists who even questioned if God even cares, Thomas who wanted to see Jesus’ nail prints before he would believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and many other biblical names could be mentioned here. All of these biblical characters learned to trust God even though they sometimes doubted.
What helps you to hold onto your faith during times of doubts and unanswered questions.
The great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner wrote, “Whether your faith is that there is a God, or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Share a time where your doubts led you into a deeper faith.
In our scripture reading, when Abram expressed his doubts, God had him try a visualization exercise. He had him look up at the stars to remind him that this would be the number of his descendants one day. Pastor Robert shared that we can do something similar by either looking up at the stars on a clear night or even better, we can look up at the cross and be reminded of how far God was wiling to go for us.
What does the cross mean to you? How can it help you to trust God even though you may be struggling with doubts and questions about your faith?