September 18, 2016

I Doubt It

I want you to create a picture in your mind for me this morning.  I want you to imagine the perfect Christian.  What does he look like?  What does she wear?  What does he do?  Where does she work?  What exactly does he believe?  What kinds of things does she struggle with?  Where does he go to church?  How does she raise her kids?  Who is this person?

Now, let me ask you a bit more specific a question about your perfect Christian: Does he have any doubts?  Are there any specific things she just isn’t sure about when it comes to God?  I don’t know about you, but for me, when I imagine such a person, I have a fixed image of a person with absolutely no doubts at all.  He is totally sure when it comes to his faith and doesn’t waver a bit in what he believes.  Ever.  I suspect that for many of you the same thing is true.  Our image of the perfect Christian is often one who never experiences any doubt at all.  In fact, we can make that statement a bit broader in scope.  Our idea of a perfect person is one who never experiences any doubt.  There is a notion common today both in the church and out that faith or belief in something necessarily precludes any vagaries of doubt.  We are to believe with our whole heart if we want to experience the benefits of whatever our belief happens to be.  For instance, how many times have you heard someone offer the encouragement to students that they can be whatever they want to be if they will just believe it with all their heart?  The advice is nonsense, of course, but it highlights this notion of the value of doubtless belief.

And yet…all of us experience doubts.  We experience all kinds of doubts all the time.  Even as Christians we experience these doubts.  All of us.  In fact, you could argue that there are only two kinds of people in the world: Those who have experienced some amount of doubt in their lives, and liars.  So are we all just bad Christians?  Surely not, but still the doubt lingers there.  The net effect of all of this, though, is to put us in a place where we feel like we have to hide our doubts and act as if we have a great deal more confidence than we sometimes do.  Yet what does that accomplish but to put us in a place of rather marked duplicitousness wherein we wear one face for the world while another sits front and center on the inside.  All the while we bear this burden that we not only don’t want to talk about, but which we eventually cannot talk about because we’ve lost the ability to do so.

This morning and over the next three weeks we are going to take some active steps toward recovering this lost art.  This morning we are beginning a brand new series called I Doubt It.  In this series we are going to look at this issue of doubt and the role it plays in our lives.  We are going to also look at some specific kinds of doubting and talk about how we can counter these.  Indeed, not all doubting is the same or comes from the same place.  If we treat it as if it does, we won’t be able to offer any meaningful solutions to it.  Ultimately, the goal of the next few weeks is to try and create a context and climate for us to be able to be honest about where we are in our faith and the struggles we are having.  If you aren’t struggling with any doubts at all, that’s great.  You can be an encouragement for the rest of us.  But for everyone else, holding onto your doubts and pretending they don’t exist isn’t helping anyone, least of all you.  I want you to know that while it’s not necessarily a good thing to have them, it’s okay that you do.  Beyond even that, though, I want to give you some tools that will help you resolve them.  Along the way we are going to ask some big questions, wrestle with some tough truths, and we’re going to be confronted with some uncomfortable realities.  But when we come out of it, you are going to be in a place where a more confident faith is yours for the taking.

What I want to do for the rest of our time together this morning, though, is to establish a baseline from which we’ll be able to operate for the next three weeks.  We’re going to talk this morning about what to do when we doubt more generally.  In order to do this, I want to take you into the Scriptures.  You see, doubt is something that appears on the hearts, minds, and lips of a number of different folks in the Scriptures.  The Biblical authors were consistently honest about the status of the hearts of the followers of God they featured in their stories including their doubts.  Sometimes folks handled their doubts well.  Sometimes…not so much.  Abraham and Sarah fit squarely into this latter category.  They together doubted God’s ability to give them a child so late in their lives as He had promised.  As a result, they conspired to bring about this child by other means, namely, a relationship between Abraham and Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar.  The result of that has spelled trouble for the whole world ever since.  In our last sermon series, Going It Alone, we saw several of the judges whose poor handling of their doubts only served to further the spiritual decline of the people they were leading.  The people themselves doubted God’s goodness and faithfulness to bring them into the Promised Land when ten of the twelve spies Moses sent to scout the land before they entered it returned with terrible and frightening reports of the strength of the natives and Israel’s dim prospects of conquering them in spite of what God had promised then.  Peter doubted Jesus’ words in the face of being positively identified as one of His followers on the night of His arrest and trial, and denied the charge vociferously three different times.

There’s one man, though, who experienced doubts that were perhaps even more dispiriting than these but who handled them in a way that is worthy of our emulation.  It’s a man, though, from whom you would never expect this kind of doubting.  I mean, if we could craft again a picture of the perfect and most confident follower of Jesus this guy would fit the bill to a T.  And he doubted.  This guy’s name is John the Baptist and many of you know some of his story.

His story begins almost as remarkably as his cousin Jesus’ own story does.  His birth was announced by an angel to an old man and his wife who had been barren throughout their many years together—sound familiar at all?  When he was about six months along in his development he leapt in his mother’s womb when he felt the presence of his Lord who was Himself only about three months along in Mary’s womb.  Surely somebody who recognized and celebrated who Jesus was when he was still in the womb is going to be absolutely faithful to Him no matter what!

After his birth John drops out of the scene until about thirty years later he comes wandering out of the wilderness dressed in camel skins and subsisting on a diet of bugs and wild honey.  He also came with a message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  He began attracting huge crowds, drawn out by his powerful message of repentance and a call to return to the covenant faithfulness that was supposed to be their defining character.  As a sign of this repentance John baptized people in the Jordan River thus earning him his nickname.  Eventually Jesus Himself came to be baptized.  John began to protest, but Jesus insisted and so in a scene that features all three members of the Trinity, John baptized his cousin just like he had everybody else.

Here again, John drops out of the story for a while as Jesus’ ministry takes off.  We find out later that just because Jesus’ ministry started didn’t mean John’s stopped.  In fact, a bit of a competition began to develop among their respective followers which Jesus resolved by moving somewhere else.  For his part, John continued to boldly blast the nation for their sins and to call them to repentance.  Eventually, though, his boldness reached a little too high.  He called out Herod Antipas for having an affair with and eventually marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias.  This was a bridge too far for the king who had thus far viewed him as merely a curiosity.  Truthfully it was Herodias herself who was the driving force behind Herod’s moves against John.  Herod had him arrested and though he would occasionally bring him out for some spirited and enlightening conversation, John was otherwise left to rot in prison.  The cousin of the Messiah was rotting in prison.  I think we can safely agree that this was not how John expected his life to go.

So then put yourself in his sandals a minute.  For the entirety of your life you have thought of yourself in a single set of terms.  Not simply did your parents drill this into your head, but somehow you instinctively knew it on your own.  You received messages that you knew were from God and could not have come to you by any natural means.  You were to prepare the people to receive your cousin, the Messiah, as their Lord and Savior.  For generations there had been a prophecy among the people that before the Messiah came a prophet was going to return in the spirit and power of Elijah (which was understood to be a lot) who would prepare the way for the Lord.  There were prophecies about you in the Scriptures just as there were prophecies about your cousin.  Everything you saw and experienced confirmed what you understood your mission to be.  And then you were arrested by a cruel and capricious leader because his wife didn’t like something you said about him.  And you sat there in prison.  You sat, and you sat, and you sat.  And don’t think that this was prison like some of our prisons are today with a variety of modern amenities and luxuries available to him.  This would have been a damp, dark, cold dungeon with nowhere comfortable to sleep, meager rations that left you malnourished, and living in your own waste.  How would you feel?  What would you think?  What kinds of questions would you ask about God and His Messiah—the Messiah you had been as sure as the world you were heralding?  How about this: If this guy really is the Messiah, then what am I doing here?

John asked the same thing.  Check this out with me in Matthew 11:2: “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”  Jesus, are you the guy, or have I been wasting my time?  Are you the Messiah, or am I rotting in this dungeon for no reason?  Has there been a real purpose to my entire life, or have I been chasing meaningless fantasies the whole time?  Again: put yourself in his sandals.  This was a guy from whom we should not expect any doubts.  But in this kind of a situation, how could he not begin letting some of those questions to creep into his heart and mind?  There in the squalor of that cell the questions were the only thing he had.  And while they may have started off subtle and small, as they rattled around in his head and heart they grew louder and louder until they were demanding to be answered.  And so he did the only thing he could: he sent a couple of his faithful followers to find out.  He didn’t hold his doubts inside any longer.  He got them out.  He expressed them in the direction they needed to be expressed.  He took them—or at least sent them—to the source in order to get them resolved.

Listen to this again: “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”  How embarrassing, right?  Jesus at least would have known these men were coming from John.  There’s a good chance the disciples did as well.  If they had any kind of distinctive clothing to mark them as John’s followers—which wouldn’t have been an unusual thing for that day and time—most of the crowd gathered around Jesus when they arrived would have known they were from John as well.  And so here was John, the man they all agreed with a prophet from God—the first prophet in 400 years—asking if Jesus really was who he had been telling everyone he was.  Doubts like that can wreck a reputation to say nothing of a career, especially his particular career.  I mean, if word got out that John was doubting his mission nobody was going to trust that he was able to really speak for God anymore.  If you have doubts like these, the best thing to do is to just keep them in, right?  Once they’re out and everybody knows about them you have to actually deal with them.  You have to deal with them and basically start over from scratch when it comes to building your life and image.  Who in their right mind would put themselves through that?  Well, as it turns out, only someone in their right mind.

Look at what happened next: “And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’”  And I know that all sounds a bit cryptic, but Jesus basically tells them, “Yeah, I’m the guy.”  In other words, He reaffirms John’s faith.  Now, He doesn’t change John’s situation, but I don’t think John really needed that.  Oh sure, he wouldn’t have refused it, but if Jesus really was “the Guy,” then he knew his suffering and sacrifice were not in vain.  This was particularly good in light of the fact that not long after this Herodias finally got her way.  She used her daughter to manipulate her drunk husband in public into giving her the gift of John’s head on a silver platter.

Oh, and that last thing Jesus said about those who aren’t offended by Him being blessed, that was a little bit of a dig at John.  It was a reminder that His mission supersedes our plans and purposes.  And if that was how the story ended, it would honestly be pretty disheartening.  A guy who shouldn’t have had any reason for doubts experienced some anyways and Jesus scolded him for it.  What hope is there for the rest of us?  I guess we really do need to keep our doubts under wraps.  But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.

Look at v. 7: “As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see?  A man dressed in soft clothing?  Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.  What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.”  Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.’”  Got that?  Jesus Himself proclaimed in public that there was no one greater in this world than John the Baptist—the man He had just lightly scolded for doubting.  So what gives?  Which is it?  Is John shameful for doubting or the greatest man ever?  Both.  He shouldn’t have doubted.  His faith had wavered and he should have known better than that.  But that doesn’t take away from the fact of who he was and his faithfulness to God’s call on his life—faithfulness played out in part by being willing to express his doubts honestly and with humility.

So again, was there shame involved?  Yeah, there was.  But the honor was much greater.  And the lesson for us is clear: when we have doubts about our faith and its practice and application, we can’t hold them in.  We can’t deny them and pretend like they don’t exist.  That will only hurt us in the long run.  It will serve to poison our souls and the poison of unexpressed doubt can be faith-killing.  Instead we must get them out.  When you doubt, let it out.  When questions and doubts begin rattling around in your head and heart, don’t hold them in, let them out.  When you doubt, let it out.  When life veers off in a direction you never expected it to go leading you to wonder about the goodness of the God you have long been professing to serve, let it out.  When you doubt, let it out.  When you come across something in the Scriptures or a point of Christian theology that leaves your head spinning, let it out.  When you doubt, let it out.

We all occasionally have or experience doubts like John did.  We all have or will face the situation of what to do with our doubts.  Let me give you three concrete things you can do with them to get them out so they don’t wreck your heart and faith and then we’ll be out of here.  First, be honest about them.  I can’t emphasize this enough: there’s simply no use hiding the fact that you are struggling with doubts if you are.  Yes, you may successfully maintain your external reputation as a “good Christian” in front of your Christian peers (your non-Christian peers aren’t going to care), but when the doubts start to spread their poison on the inside because they haven’t been let out, you’ll become little more than a whitewashed tomb.  My grandparents who have passed are all buried in Mount Washington Cemetery in western Independence.  I grew up going there fairly frequently to visit my dad’s dad’s grave who died before I was born.  It’s a beautiful and old cemetery set in a wooded area with lots of large and rolling hills.  As you drive through the grounds there is what looks like an old stone church that is the resting place of a very wealthy Kansas City native who died many years ago.  It’s an absolutely beautiful building from the outside.  On one trip through the cemetery, though, we noticed the front door was open.  Curious we went inside.  It was a wreck.  Some vandals had broken in, wrecked the place, and spray painted Satanic symbols all over the walls.  It was sad to see behind the door of this beautiful building.  When we hide our doubts instead of letting them out, our lives become like that chapel.

But, we can’t stop there.  We must go on to the second part: seek answers for them sincerely.  Today it is fashionable to doubt, even in the church.  There are some professed Christians who write about the benefits of doubting as if having doubts is somehow inherently praiseworthy.  This is absolute rubbish.  While experiencing doubt is normal and we should not be condemned for it, it’s not healthy in and of itself.  It means we have a hole somewhere in our faith and practice.  That is what it is, but we do need to get it filled before it causes us undue problems.  No, the truth is that far too often we let our doubts become excuses for what is really just spiritual or moral laziness.  We’re tired of living the Christian life while all the non-Christians appear to have all the fun and the doubts give us a good cover for walking away from it all for a while (or forever).  This achieves for us exactly nothing.  To simply express doubts is functionally meaningless if we do not go on from there to seek out answers.  In fact, they can even serve to injure the faith of those around us.  Jesus had some things to say about people who do harm to the faith of others.  They weren’t very nice.  When you doubt, let it out, but then go on to pursue answers for the doubts until you find them.  The fact is: there aren’t any unique doubts.  Any doubt you’ve ever had has been had at least in form if not also in substance by someone else.  Lots of someone elses.  What’s more, some of these someone elses have thought through the doubts and found entirely satisfactory answers.  In fact, there’s a good chance there is more than one satisfactory answer to your doubts.  You merely need to do the bit of research it will take to find them.  I’m here to help you with that.  The alternative is to simply spout your doubts which neither honors God nor does it do anything positive for you.  The doubts don’t go away because you haven’t resolved them.  You’re just living with a fractured faith or else a really pathetic excuse for not doing life the way you know you should be.  When you doubt, let it out…and then figure it out.

Yet even seeking out answers for your doubts isn’t enough in and of itself if you don’t do something with the answers.  Thus the third part here is to grow through them.  As Jesus gently pointed out to John, doubts represent places where our faith is weak.  While that’s not a good thing, it does present us with a positive opportunity to grow our faith and its application in those areas.  We need to take these opportunities and capitalize on them.  Once we have found the answers to our questions—and again, the answers are out there, we need only find them—we need to apply the answers to our own life and faith.  For example, say you are having some doubts about the character of God.  As you do the work to realize that His character can in fact be trusted, you can put the implications of this character into practice in your life and become stronger in your faith.  Or perhaps you’re doubting the worthwhileness of the time you have given to the church, especially in light of the many of things you can imagine you could have spent that time doing.  After a little bit of work, you see that for a follower of Jesus being a vital part of a body of Christ is essential not only for your own healthy growth and development as a Christian, but also for the proper functioning of the body itself.  With this doubt affirmed, you grow through it: you commit yourself even more fully to your local church than you had been before.  Or how about this: you are struggling some with doubts about the reliability of the Scriptures.  After sharing this doubt with a trusted brother or sister in the faith you do your homework and you discover that the Scriptures are absolutely reliable from start to finish in everything they affirm.  But you don’t stop there.  Armed with this new knowledge you recommit yourself to living your life according to the deep truths of the Scriptures and also to sharing their value with everyone whom God places in your path.  What began as a doubt—something that was not by itself a positive, but which has been transformed into a positive by the application of grace and wisdom—has now become a more confident faith that is ready to engage the world for Christ.  When you doubt, let it out.  When it’s out, figure it out.  And when you figure it out, play it out.  When you doubt: let it out, figure it out, and play it out.  That’s the path and if you’ll follow it, there is no doubt that will be able to stand in your way.  When you doubt, let it out.  And come back for the next three weeks as we talk specifically about how to counter doubts about the reliability of the Scriptures, goodness of God, and the worthwhileness of the life of Christ.  See you then.