Faith, Doubt and Disbelief

A Sermon by Rev. Ian A Arnold
Preached in Brisbane, 5th June 2011

Matthew Chapter 28, verse 116 & 17: “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. And when they saw Him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.”

Unexpectedly so

Most of us, I’m sure, on first reading this, find it surprising, if not extraordinary. This was just forty days after the Lord’s Resurrection and over the nearly 6 weeks since then He had appeared to His disciples and other followers at least a dozen, if not many more times. At some point they (the disciples) were given instruction by Him to go to Galilee for what would be a parting meeting. It was to be what is referred to as His “Ascension”. And yet, for all that, “when they saw Him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.”

But ‘Why?’ we ask. How could they not have recognized Him? What could possibly have given rise to even the slightest doubt?

Being careful to criticize

Let’s be careful, though, of taking some lofty, critical, stand in this regard!

The reality is that none of us is consistently and unendingly steadfast where our faith, and our belief in spiritual realities, is concerned.

We can be strong and sure at one time and weak, faltering, uncertain and unsure at another.

What seemed beyond question to us at one point is clouded with doubt at another.

It cannot, however, but be the way!

And what is very significant, important for us to realise, and reassuring, is that it is actually meant to be this way. It is as the Lord would have it be. Ebb and flow; sureness and doubt; conviction and unsureness; faith and uncertainty.

In the Bible

Keeping this in mind, it can’t then be wondered at that doubt is so often featured and responded to in many places in the Bible here. It is a consistent theme, for instance, throughout the Gospels, people doubting the Lord –

Doubting who He claimed to be

Doubting His powers

Doubting His words and teachings

Doubting His work and mission here

Apart from His “opponents” John the Baptist at one point wondered and doubted. Even from prison he sent 2 of his followers asking Jesus, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:23).

Then there is the widely known incident of Peter who began to sink when walking across the water to Jesus. “O you of little faith“, Jesus said, “Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).

Earlier, and when in his enthusiasm, Philip excitedly told Nathanael about Jesus, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph“, Nathanael skeptically replied, “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1: 45 & 47)

And though they had been with Jesus for some time, and seen demonstrations of His miraculous powers, it seems never – at first – to have occurred to the disciples that He, Jesus, had it in Him to perform the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. (John 6:5)

Then there is also the Old Testament’s many places where doubt is the focus.

At one point, out of the depths of his despair, Job complained, “I cry out to you, but You do not answer me…with the strength of Your hand You oppose me.” (Chapter 30:20, 21)

You also have such as Psalm 37, beautifully worded as it is, and a response to people’s doubts based on the seeming prosperity of the wicked. “I have been young” wrote the writer, “and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread.” (Verse 25).

And one of the most memorable and reassuring passages in Isaiah is a response to doubts people obviously had:

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel: ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my just claim is passed over by my God?’

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. There is no searching of His understanding.

He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength.

Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Chapter 40: verses 27-31)

This, too, is certain, that Jesus Himself doubted – most memorably when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and during the crucifixion. At the time He spoke from Psalm 22, indelibly imprinted on his mind as it was:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?”

(Verses 1 & 2)

I am reminded, too, of the brutally honest statement of the father of the epileptic boy for whom he sought healing from Jesus. “Do you believe?” Jesus asked him. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” … I believe, for all that I have lots of doubts as well.

Nothing is so certain that we can’t but believe it

When it comes to matters of belief, faith and spiritual realities, nothing is so certain that we can’t but believe it.

There always has to be room to question, to think about, to have doubts about it.

It might be

Your belief in God

Your faith in His care over you

Your trust in His strength to see you through a particular difficulty

Your sureness about life after death

Your confidence that you were created to live a life of value and purpose.

The thing is, the way things seem – or, appearances – so often heavily suggest otherwise. It seems to us at times, doesn’t it?

That life is random and uncontrolled

That with no hard evidence otherwise, there can’t be a world beyond this one

That too many things go wrong, too many disasters happen, too many innocent people suffer, for us to be in any way certain that God exists or cares.

And so here we are – you and I – living our life in the middle between, on the one hand, things we incline to believe in, have been reared to believe in, have come to believe in, and which at times make good sense to us and, on the other hand, the way things appear or seem to be.

What is wonderful

What is wonderful is that we have the capacity – given to us by the Lord – to wrestle with this uncertainty, to explore it, and to reach our own conclusions about it. And when we do we enter into the fullness of what it is to be truly human – our own person. It’s how, and why, we have freewill.

As with everything, faith struggled for is always going to mean more than faith handed to us on a plate. This is why we, as a Church, do not legislate or regulate people’s thinking with regard to drinking coffee, vegetarianism, uranium mining, or whatever else may be the current focus of community anxiety.

So much is, and can be, easily and readily taken on board and subscribed to. We hear this, we hear that, sometimes persuasively. It has perhaps been drummed into us, that it is so.

But it lies there on the surface until it is challenged by a development in the way things seem; different now from what we were previously happy to say we believed in.

When appearances tend to get the upper hand.

What is crystal clear is that we come into our times of doubt when appearances, or the way things seem, bear down persuasively on us and threaten to get the upper hand.

We might say, “I believe that God cares for me and watches over every detail of my life”. After all, this is precisely what He said and promised. (See Matthew 10:30) But then things happen, maybe in a succession, which really bring it all into question. We wonder and doubt whether what we confidently believed in is true after all. As is so succinctly said, and taught, “Worldly things darken heavenly ones and so make them subject to doubt.” (AC 4099)

Temptation

It’s helpful to know that these very times of doubt and questioning are in fact times of temptation.

We don’t have to feel guilty about them. Not at all.

At the heart of all temptation is doubt: doubt about the existence of the Lord; doubt about his mercy; doubt about his care; doubt about His values and the ways He urges on us.

Temptation comes about when appearances start to be exaggerated in our mind, threatening to take over.

Dealing with doubt

What, then, might be some strategies for dealing with doubt?

Firstly, and if at the time we can be sufficiently objective about it, we need to remind ourselves that doubt is not just normal, but necessary and of the Lord’s order.

And if at the time we are too consumed with doubt, hopefully someone near to us can and will remind us that this is so.

Secondly, it can also help, even a great deal, to re-connect with the Lord here in our bible, in our times of doubt. Psalms 23 and 46 are excellent just to quietly read to calm the turmoil doubt is causing us.

Thirdly, it is just so important to hold on to this, that the way things seem is rarely if ever a reliable yardstick for measuring or knowing the way things actually is! “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense” is a line in one of our Hymns.

My senses don’t pick up half of what our dog hears, sees or smells. So how trustworthy can they be?

The fact that I or you can’t get our mind around God’s care in a given situation; even a massive disaster; doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Wrestling with doubt

The great American Statesman, Scientist and Philosopher, Benjamin Franklin, once wrote, “Any belief worth having must survive doubt.”

It is the fire through which and out of which the pure silver of a living, enduring and life transforming faith emerges.

“Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed them.

And when they saw Him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.”

And that’s a healthy, positive, thing that they did!

Amen.

Readings: Matthew Chapter 28

Arcana Caelestia 4099

“Worldly things and heavenly things accord with one another in a person when the heavenly have dominion over the worldly, but they do not accord when the worldly have dominion over the heavenly. When they accord, truths within man’s natural are in that case multiplied, but when they do not accord, they decrease in number, indeed they are destroyed since worldly things darken heavenly ones, and so make them subject to doubt. But when heavenly things have dominion they shed light on worldly ones, set them in clear light and dispel doubts. Those things have dominion that are loved more than anything else”

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