John 20:19-31 “Is it wrong to have doubts and to question God?”
When you think of news stories that top the headlines, you don’t normally think of religious stories. If there’s any at all…in the newspapers they tend to be towards the back. If you’re looking online, they’re generally towards the bottom. But every now and then a particular religious story will really make waves and get a lot of attention.
Well, there was one such story just a few years ago that made international headlines.
It was in all the newspapers, it was all over the internet, and it was on just about every news show…the networks and cable. Not to mention…a few late night talk shows. Now in each of these stories, the tag line was almost always the same….”Archbishop Doubts the Existence of God.” Naturally, It was a big deal.
So here’s the gist of it. One morning, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury was out for a run with his dog and he suddenly began to wonder why God had failed to intervene and prevent the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, France.
Instead of keeping those questions to himself…he spoke very candidly about them in a later interview.
This is what he said. I’m quoting it verbatim. "The other day I was praying as I was running and I ended up saying to God: 'Look, this is all very well but isn't it about time you did something – if you're there'. "Where are you in all this?'” He goes on: “There are moments, sure, where you think 'Is there a God? Where is God?” Later on he says maybe these are things the Archbishop of Canterbury shouldn’t be saying.
It’s no surprise that everybody was in an uproar after that. I remember it clearly.
The International Business Times called it “the doubt of the century.” One popular atheist writer took to social media and proclaimed: “VICTORY!” The “Daily Show” account joked, “Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God. Adds: ‘But atheism doesn’t pay them bills, sooo ...”
Now this didn’t make the headlines, but I’m sure that Christian leaders from all over the globe were probably saying that he’d committed a grievous sin. Some probably were calling for him to step down.
What do you guys think, I wonder? Is that something he should or shouldn’t have said?
This week we’re concluding our sermon series “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” and this week’s question is a fitting end to all of it. I guess you could say it ties everything together. Today a young man has presented us with the question “Is it wrong to have doubts and to question God?” So in this sermon we’re going to be taking a look at the place of doubt in religious belief.
Hopefully along the way we’ll see not only how to dispel some of our doubts, but also how we can learn to embrace our doubts rather than letting them immobilize us and paralyze our faith.
To begin, I must say it doesn’t surprise me that this boy, who’s probably no more than 10, has such doubts. We forget sometimes that our children can be miniature philosophers. Just as we’ve seen over the past month in this sermon series, they ask questions about meaning, about life and death, identity. They ask about so many things that we probably haven’t thought much about since we were kids.
One of my favorite theologians, the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggested the primary challenge facing the Church in the United States in the 21st is the fact that for a lot of us…God’s no longer a primary actor in the story of our lives. It’s not meant to be a slam; it’s just the reality. We’re too busy. Our lives are too fast paced and hectic to slow down for God and to really think about these Ultimate Concerns.
So what do we do when one of our young philosophers ask us questions like these?
Or what happens when we end up in a situation like the Archbishop? What happens when something springs up in our path that causes us to ask questions about our faith or to have doubts about it? It could be a personal tragedy or some horrific world event. It could be something from your past that you’ve never worked through. It could be something intellectual. Maybe someone or something challenged your beliefs and its pushed you so far outside your comfort zone you’re not sure what to think anymore. You just kind of go through the motions.
Any number of things can cause us to question God and to have doubts about our faith. And if you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve never had any doubts. I have a strong faith’ you’ll probably end up in this spot sooner or later too. That’s just the way it is.
And when that time of doubt comes, we don’t make it easy on ourselves, do we? Chances are your first reaction to it…is to beat yourself up over it. You become your own worst critic. You think to yourself, what’s wrong with me? Why am I thinking like this? You might start comparing yourself to other people around you. Man, why can’t I have faith like so and so?
And you might think God’s angry at you. You might think He’s going to zap you with a lightning bolt if you don’t suck it up. Then that leads to guilt. You feel guilty sitting here on Sundays. You feel guilty taking Holy Communion…or you may skip it all together because now you feel unworthy of it. This is what happens when the hamster wheels of doubt start spinning uncontrollably. I’m sure a number of you have been there before.
Now do you know why that happens? Well, one of the major reasons is because we don’t think about our thoughts. We don’t think about our thoughts.
We have our thoughts of doubt and then we add thoughts of self-judgment, guilt, and condemnation on top of that. The hamster wheels just keep spinning and spinning like that.
But the reality is doubt is a part of our knowledge. It’s inherent in the constitution of the human mind. Put simply, it’s who we are. Doubt is in our DNA. Our faculties are finite. The more we think about, the more we’ll doubt. The more we know…the more we’ll see that we don’t know. Trying to run from our doubt would be like trying to run from our shadows.
Doubt is a permanent element in our lives and our doubts grow as we grow. Doubt is literally at the root of our intellectual growth.
And in most cases our doubts don’t interfere with our daily lives. Essentially all our knowledge is infected with some kind of doubt but we don’t let that stop us. We can’t be certain about much of anything…but we act. We form relationships and let new people into our lives even when we don’t really know them. We start businesses when we’re not sure if they’ll succeed or not. We’ll embark on things like new jobs and school in spite of all the risks.
So if we waited until we were certain about something before we acted….well, chances are…we’d never get anything done.
When you really think about it, we need doubts to, don’t we? I mean it’s hard for us to believe…but for centuries people thought the earth was flat. If you sailed to the edges of the maps of the known world you’d fall off the map and end up in outer space or something. Christopher Columbus doubted that and he sailed to the New World. Thank God for doubters, that’s all I can say. Doubt is the great destroyer of error.
The point is, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s nothing to beat ourselves up over.
But here’s the thing. Doubt looks different when we take it into the realms of morality and religion. If we start to have doubts about our convictions…it means we’re slipping. It means we’re deficient. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. And so we feel guilty for having doubts. We make it an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not have doubts.” And a lot of times we respond the doubts of other people unfairly and unsympathetically too.
We hit ‘em over the head with dogma and platitudes as if we have answers to every single question. “You need to pray more.” “Your faith isn’t big enough.”
It reminds me of this call center I used to work at. It was a sales job and we had a script that we used. You stick to the script or else. And that script had about a dozen responses for every objection the customer would come up with. Now is it any wonder that most of the employees didn’t work there for longer than a month or two? You know, to be successful in sales, the first thing you learn is to put the customer’s needs above everything else.
Every person has unique and individual needs, so you listen to them, you get to know them.
The key to being a good salesperson isn’t being a good talker; it’s being a good listener. So when somebody comes up to us, knowing we’re Christians…and they say…”where was God when my brother got sick?” and we look down at our cheat sheet…and we say “well, we live in a fallen world…” chances are it’s not going to work. Insensitive, stock answers just don’t cut it. And Jesus knew that.
The text that I picked for this question is read every year in the Lectionary on the Sunday following Easter. Now here’s the reason for that.
It allows us to see the reality that every one of Jesus’ followers were filled with doubt. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early on Easter morning. The sun was just beginning to rise and the shadows were long. A ‘messenger’ suddenly appears and tells her that Jesus isn’t there. She doesn’t believe it. And when Jesus approaches her she thinks it’s someone else. She’s filled with doubt. But Jesus doesn’t hit her with some kind of dogma or platitudes. He says her name.
And somehow…His saying her name overcomes her doubt…and she knows it’s Him.
So what happens next? She runs off to tell the other disciples what happened. And they think she’s crazy. Mary’s just being too emotional. Mary’s hallucinating.
Then, later that night….they’re all huddled together in the Upper Room and suddenly, Jesus miraculously appears to them. The doors were shut., the windows were closed. But there He is…and it scared the heck out of them. They weren’t high-fiving each other. They weren’t saying….”See, Jesus is back…you owe me 5 bucks.”
Nope. They suddenly thought they were in The Haunting of the Upper Room. They’re filled with doubt.
But Jesus shows them His wounds and then He eats with Him. He’s real. And so they overcame their doubts.
There’s no such thing as a stock answer to our doubts. We have to look to Jesus to meet our needs. We pray and we point. And doubt isn’t something to be afraid of or ashamed of either because here we see that doubt is at the very heart of the Easter message. And that brings us to the Biblical King of doubters, Thomas.
Now Thomas is an interesting figure, both in the Gospels and in the historical traditions that emerged about the rest of his life.
And even though we tend treat him like a bad Sunday school lesson: “for heaven’s sake, don’t be a doubter like Thomas!!” he’s always been a compelling figure to most believers. Why? Because he’s a kindred spirit; we can relate to him. Thomas is the guy who doesn’t have a blind faith. Thomas questions, he doubts, he thinks, and he ponders. Our little guy from the video would have liked him. See, whenever we meet him in the scriptures…he’s asking questions. He’s a realist.
For example, when Jesus is saying all this nice poetic stuff about mansions and preparing a place for them….he scratches his head and says: “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going and we don’t know the way.”
In our cartoon version of him, we think Thomas is the guy without much faith. But that’s actually not true. Remember Fides Quarens Intellectum…faith seeking understanding? That’s exactly what he’s doing. He wants to take it to a deeper level.
Now we don’t know why he wasn’t there that first night. Maybe he was out getting McDonalds for everybody.
Maybe he was like some of us when we’re really depressed. He just wanted to be alone. Maybe he just needed some time to think. But whatever the case, just like all these other resurrection encounters…when he’s told what happened he doesn’t buy it. He’s full of doubt. Maybe these guys were all so grief stricken they’d lost their minds.
But then Jesus meets Thomas’ unique need too. He needed empirical proof…to see and to touch. And notice how Jesus responds…He just gives it to Him. He doesn’t yell at him. He doesn’t judge him. He doesn’t berate him for having doubts.
He gives him what he needs and it enables Thomas to make the most profound declaration of faith in the entire New Testament…”My Lord and my God!”
So now here we are, 2,000 years later. Maybe you or someone you know is plagued with some kind of nagging doubt and it’s really hard to make that kind of confession of faith. If you profess your faith at all there’s no enthusiasm. No life. Just doubt and going through the motions. The question is…how can this story get us to Thomas’ enthusiasm?
Jesus says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ How is that possible?
Well, John tells us. Right here. “These things are written so that you might believe.” The story has its own clues and I’ll tell you….there’s four major ways to get past our doubts in this text.
First, offer it up to God. Like I said, the Easter story is filled with doubt and yet Jesus meets each one of their unique needs. With thanksgiving make your requests known to God and just say….Lord, I believe…help me in my unbelief. He knows that each and every one of us has doubts. He doesn’t judge you for it. He doesn’t condemn you for it. He loves you just as you are. So don’t be afraid to go to him and just offer up your doubts to God.
Secondly, when you have doubts…be in community. That was Thomas’ only mistake here. He left and went off on his own. We need our friends in the faith. We need one another. You know, when my mother died I could have fallen into a storm of doubts…of why’s and what if’s…and sometimes those are there. I can’t help it. But your love and support really kept me going…and it deepened my faith. Share your doubts with other believers. Remember, we are the Body of Christ.
Sometimes all we need is some words of encouragement or a comforting touch or hug.
When we come together as the Body of Christ, it’s through each other that we experience His healing love and presence.
Finally, you ask these questions. You bring them to light. And you do one of two things with them. So I’d like you to do something for me to help with this. I want each one of you to take a moment and write down in your sermon notes one question you have about God and your faith. Maybe it’s something that’s been nagging at you for years.
Maybe it’s something trivial like…”why did God create spiders?” I’d like to know that one too. Or why is my loved one is so much pain?
I want you to name it today and create the space for an authentic encounter with God. You have two choices after you write it down.
First, you can seek. Fides Quarens Intellectum. Seek understanding. Wrestle with your questions and see if you can find a way to answer them. Sign up and bring it to Coffee with the Pastor…but no guarantees there! Talk to other Christians about your doubts. Research. Read your Bibles. Read some books. In other words, be hungry.
As important as being in church or Bible study is…it’s not enough. We have to cultivate an eagerness for spiritual knowledge, for the things of the God.
If we don’t seek on our own, in our personal lives, our faith becomes stagnant. Your study of the Word, your study of the things of God…it leads to spiritual growth. The more you study, the more you’ll be mature and firm in your faith.
And then there’s one last thing you can do. You can learn to live with your doubts. When you go home, tear that bulletin up with your question and throw it in the trash.
Let that be a symbolic gesture…saying I won’t let my doubts control me or define me.
In the Book of Job, he went on doubting, complaining and questioning God for 38 chapters. Finally, God got tired of hearing all of Job’s doubts and He basically says to him “Be quiet and calm down Job. I’m tired of all your wailing and doubting. I’m here for you, I love you…but you’re never going to have all the answers to your questions in this life. Just keep calm and learn to trust me in spite of all your doubts.” That’s how faith works.
Its belief and hope and trust in an unseen reality in spite of all our doubts. Anything else, it wouldn’t be faith.
Over the past month we’ve learned to ask questions about our faith.
We’ve learned that asking questions is vital to our beliefs. And today we’ve learned that our doubts are what actually lead us to growth. But if we aren’t careful, we can let our doubts paralyze us. Our doubts and questions can become a waste of time, a waste of life, and a waste of our intellectual and spiritual energy. So sometimes we have to learn to accept our doubts and forgive ourselves for having them. Then we crumple them up, throw them in the trash, and move on.
The church historian Eusebius wrote that the disciple Thomas went all the way to India and founded several churches and a large Christian community there and was ultimately martyred for his faith. He got past his doubt.
And if all the naysayers had just taken the time to listen to the whole interview, they would have seen that the Archbishop of Canterbury got past his doubts too. Like Job, God didn’t give him the answers he was seeking. Instead, Archbishop Welby shifted his focus. This is what he said:
“We know Jesus, we can’t explain all the questions in the world, we can’t explain about suffering, we can’t explain about loads of things, but we know about Jesus. We can talk about Jesus…I always do that because most of the other questions, I just can’t answer. So when my life gets challenging, I keep going and call to Jesus to help me, and he picks me up.” Amen to that.
Thank God for Archbishop Justin Welby. Thank God for his honesty and thank God for his openness to share his doubts. Let’s follow in his footsteps. Let’s share our doubts and our questions with one another.
But in the midst of it, let’s just keep talking about Jesus…because sometimes…that’s all we can do.