This sermon is the first in a series of sermons by request. Someone contributed this question:
Do you ever come to a point where you doubt so that your faith is weak or lost?
So, can doubt destroy faith?
In short, it can, but doesn’t have to. In fact the opposite can be true.
We have this weird understanding of faith and doubt. Doubt, we assume means we are unsure, and faith is being certain. Right?
The two, we assume, are opposite ideas. Are they? Is doubt the opposite of faith? Is faith being confident and doubt being unconfident?
In short, no.
What is doubt? Doubt, if we understand it properly is not the opposite of faith, but the honest probing of faith; asking questions. Doubt does not say “I have no faith”, but “how deep is faith?” “Will my faith hold up?” and most importantly”who is this God I say I believe in? Is my trust placed in something worthwhile?”
These questions in and of themselves are not wrong or contrary to faith. In fact, sometimes it can be helpful to stop and take stock of where we are in our pursuit of God.
We have to be honest with ourselves in order to be truly open to the work of God to produce in us a fruitful and thriving faith. If we’re being truly honest with ourselves, we see we are rarely, if ever up to the level we strive for when it comes to our confidence and assurance that our faith is of real substance, that our faith will really produce anything.
Doubt can be healthy, if it is done in a certain way. Doubt can be dangerous if done in an isolationist way. It can produce a sense of hopelessness. It can lead to discouragement. It can draw us into dark places or it can point us toward a God who welcomes and draws us. Doubt should push us towards the God for answers and reassurance. Doubt should push us to pray and pursue God. Doubt should cause us to ask others around us tough questions. Doubt should cause us to dig deeper and live with more resolve. Doubt is only destructive if we don’t use it. It is dangerous if we give up seeking answers.
You’ll never run out of questions you could ask. If you aren’t asking, you may have stopped thinking. And that is just as or perhaps even more dangerous that asking serious questions about our faith. Comfort and complacency are toxic to faith.
Next issue: what is faith? Is faith certainty? No. God is not a mathematical formula we can “solve” and know with certainty. God is not the object of our understanding, but a person whom we relate to.
Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “God’s name is not known, it is wondered at.” Similarly, Evagrius of Pontus wrote, “God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.” (both quoted in Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way).
Faith in God is not mathematical certainty he exists, but confidence in the character of someone we have encountered. If you think you have God sorted out, you either are God, or else you’re self-deluded. God, we profess, is infinite, and because you aren’t infinite, you won’t get God “figured out”. As Kallistos Ware wrote, “Faith is not the supposition that something might be true, but the assurance that someone is there.” (Ibid.) You won’t sort out God, but you can absolutely have an encounter with him.
If you don’t have troubling questions, doubts, things that you can’t wrap your head around, I would suggest you may have a serious problem. You likely have an inadequate view of God’s “bigness” and God’s mysteriousness. You are likely a Westerner with modernist assumptions about knowledge, and a dislike of the idea of mystery. But from it’s beginnings, the Church was happy to say there is mystery, that God can’t be fully understood by us, but he can be embraced.
Faith and doubt therefore are not mutually exclusive. In fact, “doubt does not in itself signify the lack of faith. It may mean the opposite- that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it.” (Ibid.).
In Mark 9:14ff, a man came to Jesus pleading that his son be healed of a condition which involves seizures. He asks Jesus, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” “If you can do anything”…? Not a huge vote of confidence in Jesus’ abilities. What do you mean “if”? Of course Jesus can, right? But this man is not sold on Jesus’ abilities.
He’s probably heard rumours of miracles. He knows his son’s need. So he pursues Jesus. He hopes Jesus can. He asks him to. But he isn’t sure. He has his doubts. His son has had this condition since childhood. He hasn’t know his son without it. So the thought that he could be healed is a tough sell.
He seems convinced that Jesus would like to heal him, but isn’t sure if he can. In chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel is a story of leper who says “If you are willing you can make me clean”. In that case, the man knew Jesus could, but wasn’t sure if he would. Now, the situation is a bit different. This man is sold on Jesus’ compassionate nature, but isn’t sure if Jesus can accomplish this task.
In verse 18 we see that the man had first gone to the disciples, but they had not been able to drive out the spirit. Jesus had been up on the mountain with three disciples, at the Transfiguration. Earlier in Mark’s gospel we read of Jesus “deputizing” his disciples to drive out spirits (3:13-19). The disciples had been successful in driving our spirits and performing healings (6:7-13). But this one was proving impossible for the disciples.
One failure has caused this man to doubt that anything will make his son well. We do the same, don’t we? We see something not work out and wonder maybe God is not able. Set backs cause us to doubt our faith. We lose heart.
This is when doubt can get problematic. When we have a let down and suddenly the whole thing comes crashing down. But it doesn’t have to. Just because something didn’t go well doesn’t mean scrap the whole pursuit. Christians don’t typically respond to failure well.
So Jesus says if you believe, sure, it can happen.
Now, does this mean that God will heal every affliction if we believe? No. Far too many people have been victimized by disgusting televangelists and “healers” who say “you must not have had enough faith, or else you would have been healed.”
But Jesus, in this case, says, hey, do you believe I can? And the man says, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”… wait, what? I believe… help my unbelief.
Belief and unbelief are simultaneous ever present realities. We believe, but we have reservations. We like Jesus. We want Jesus. We want to be absolutely, 110% “sold out for Jesus. But somewhere, there’s this nagging, conflicting voice.
Jesus is a fraud.
Jesus can’t really do all that.
Maybe he can, but doesn’t really want to with me.
Maybe he was just a dude with a god-complex.
Maybe the Apostles just misquoted him.
Maybe the stories are inflated- myths which built up over time… you know, the fish was THIS big.
Maybe it’s all made up.
We have these doubts. It’s not just me, right?
Do these nagging doubts threaten our faith and salvation?
They can be a useful tool. They can push us to plead “help my unbelief”. We draw closer and closer to God by pleading, God draw me close so I can know more of you, so I can see more of your glory, so I can boldly proclaim your name to those around me.
Doubt happens. Even this man who was looking right into Jesus’ face had an “if” attached to his prayer.
Because we relate to God not as a mathematical equation, but as a person, doubt is always a possibility.
Is this God I profess to know, really there, or am I delusional?
Is this God really on my side? Is he really who I think he is?
Can this Jesus really heal my son?
I believe, help my unbelief.
So how can we make doubt beneficial and not faith crushing?
1. Be honest about it; honest with yourself, honest with God, and honest with Christians you trust. It can push you to a pursuit which will bear fruit. But the first step is admitting you have a problem. Cliche, I know, but it’s true. If you are struggling, don’t pretend that you aren’t.
2. Don’t tackle it alone. When doubts isolate you from community, that community will be less able to help. Seek out people you trust to confide in. Pray with people. Read with people. Listen to others’ stories. They may relate.
3. Give yourself permission to ask questions. If you don’t ask, you are infinitely less likely to get the answer. All too often people start a conversation with me “I feel silly for asking, but…” or “I’m sorry to bug you but…”. Fielding questions on these things should not be a burden to a Christian. It’s ok to ask. Remind yourself of that.
4. Pray about it.
- Seek God. If you are doubting him, go find him.
- Taste and see that the Lord is good.
5. Read about it. Dig through scripture, through good books, find knowledge. Let doubt motivate you to learn. Doubt and inquiry are good friends. Being a disciple means being a learner. Faith requires perpetual learning.
It is important to note that doubt is there, even among the apostles. Thomas doubted, and we often get harsh with him about. But Jesus says to him, come, put your hand here. Look, I have the answers you need. When Jesus called his disciples to commission them (Matt. 28:16ff), we are told “some doubted” (v. 17). The apostles had doubts, and Jesus sent them out anyway. Doubt does mean you are not a Christian, or that your faith is dying. It just means you have to ask some more questions.