Intro – Bad Bet
An archaeologist digging in the Negev Desert in Israel came upon a sarcophagus containing a mummy. He called the curator of a prestigious museum and said, “I’ve just discovered the 3,000 year old mummy of a man who died of heart failure!” The curator replied, “Bring him in. We’ll check it out.” A week later, the amazed curator called the archaeologist. “You were right about the mummy’s age and the cause of death. How in the world did you know?” “That was easy,” the archaeologist replied, “there was a piece of paper in his hand that read, ’10,000 shekels on Goliath.’”
But the fact is, not one among us would have bet on David – the odds were so heavily stacked against him – no way could he have survived the show down with Goliath, let alone dream of defeating him – it was easy money.
We struggle with the possibilities. If “No” is the defining word for a 2 year old, “Why?” is the defining word for a 4 year old – “Why is the sky blue? Why doesn’t my goldfish fish drown?” And it comes back around when they’re 14 – “Why can’t I stay out until midnight? Why can’t I go to the party?” But for some of us we never outgrow the word. Our lives just seem to be lived in skepticism and doubt. We question everything. We wonder how others can be so certain and have such conviction, when we look at the same evidence and find no such reason for certainty. Our “why’s” turn into questions about God and about faith that plague us and torment us. “How do you explain dinosaurs? Why does God allow evil to exist? Why didn’t he heal my child when I prayed so hard for so long?”
To doubt is to be human. We are limited – our horizon is limited to a few moments ahead, our understanding scratches the thinnest surface of the mysteries of the universe, our faith constantly demands shoring up and signposts of assurance.
And we are among distinguished company – the Bible is filled with great men and women of God who expressed doubt – David, Job, Gideon, Solomon, Jeremiah, Sarah, Hannah. Even John the Baptist, struggled with his faith. In Luke 7, John is in prison, under arrest by King Herod, days from his own execution and wondering whether it was all in vain. And he sends his disciples to Jesus with a question – “Are you the One who was to come, or do we look for another?”
John wasn’t a featherweight in the faith. Out in the desert, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, like a prophet of old, challenging and confronting sin in common man, Pharisee and king alike. Jesus described him as the greatest “among those born of women” (Lk. 7:28). John had baptized Jesus and heard the voice of God from heaven affirming Jesus as God’s beloved Son. But now, away from the crowds, within the darkness of his prison cell, he wondered.
If it could happen to the greatest man born of women, then none of us are exempt. Doubts are inevitable for the weak and the wise. In fact, doubt is not the sign of a flawed faith, but an essential part of the process in coming to a solid faith. You see, doubt is not the opposite of faith, but the opportunity of faith, the growing pains of an eager seeking spirit. The true enemy of faith is unbelief, which refuses to consider. It covers its eyes and demands silence. Unbelief says, “I have made up my mind, no further exploration is needed.”
But doubt asks, “Why?” It questions and challenges and refuses to accept the party line or the pat answer. It scares parents to death when their teenager says, “I’m not sure I agree with everything you’ve always taught me. I’m not sure I even believe in God.” And we freak out and say, “Oh no! My child is leaving their faith!” No – your child is owning their faith. It’s when your child doesn’t question their beliefs, doesn’t struggle with their faith that you need to worry. Because without the struggle – if they haven’t wrestled with the tough questions and examined their faith afresh – it’s still their parents’ faith. And if your child grows up and at 35 still believes only because you told them to believe, that’s not going to be enough to weather the storms that will inevitably come. It’s when your teenager comes to you and says, “I’m not sure I believe in God” that you can say, “Yes, they’re on the right road.”
The problem is some of us get stuck in doubt. Doubt becomes a nagging, festering sense of discouragement and discontent that hangs over us, sucking the joy out of our religion.
And Satan uses our uncertainty and doubt. “Why” becomes his foothold in our life to create disbelief and disillusionment and finally disconnection from God.
He’s winning the battle with some of you. He fills your mind with questions and then says, “Go stew over that for a while,” and you do. You lay awake at night thinking about them. You sit in church and think about them. And they permeate everything about your faith until you even begin to question even that.
Let me share the story of one of the greatest doubters in the Bible. In John 20, we find Thomas. After the crucifixion, Thomas had taken off to be by himself. The other disciples were all gathered in the upper room – they didn’t have any more answers than Thomas, but they wanted to be together in their grief. Thomas just didn’t – he wanted to be alone. So when Jesus appeared among them and their doubts were erased, Thomas wasn’t there. When Thomas comes back and rejoins the group, they are all excited and tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas doesn’t buy it – “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
Thomas didn’t become a doubter over night. He was always the skeptic, unwilling to accept anything on someone’s say-so.
In the upper room a few days earlier, Jesus had announced to his disciples that he would be going away and preparing a place for them to come to him. And Thomas asks, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
When the disciples and Jesus were away from Jerusalem because of the increasing danger from the Pharisees, they learned of the death of Lazarus who lived in Bethany – too close to Jerusalem for comfort. Jesus tells them, “let us go to him.” And Thomas is the first to speak. He says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He’s not a slacker – he’s willing to go, and if necessary to die – but there’s a touch of melancholy, a bit of the pessimist in him. My wife calls it “Eeyore – It wasn’t much of a tail anyway.”
We get enough of a glimpse of Thomas to realize nothing comes easy for him. It’s not unbelief – it’s just that he has to wrestle with everything he does believe.
So a week later, Jesus appears again, and this time Thomas is with them. And Jesus knows what Thomas is going through, and so he turns to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” And you know Thomas’ response - “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’ doubt became the opportunity for an even greater faith.
So, how do you deal with doubt and disarm it?
You begin by defining your doubts. Too many times we let doubts slide into our lives and brush them off as just a feeling of unsettledness. We come to church and it just doesn’t feel right anymore. We look around and everybody seems excited about their faith, and talks about what God is doing in their life, and we think, “I don’t see much to get excited about, and I haven’t seen God show up in my life in a long while.” And the problem isn’t what’s going on out there, it’s what’s going on in here. The nameless doubt is the one we can’t deal with. Free-floating anxiety is what kills our faith. So begin by defining it and articulating it. Nail it down and give it a face. Articulate what you doubt and why. Share your doubts with someone who can help you search for the answers.
Sometimes doubts are the secondary infection. We’ve let sin creep into our life, and doubt becomes the byproduct. Sin is the infection that is wreaking havoc in our spiritual life and doubt is the nagging cough that keeps hacking away. And we keep taking cough medicine, but never going to the doctor and getting an antibiotic and so the cough continues because we haven’t dealt with the infection. We’re treating the symptom instead of the illness.
So the first step is to define and articulate the doubt.
Second – Share your doubts
Have you noticed how doubt always seems to flourish in isolation? Thomas is off by himself, John is in a prison cell, Gideon hiding in the winepress, Elijah running from Jezebel. Satan gets us off in a corner and works us over. And that’s why I am always so concerned when I see people who are struggling with something and they quit coming to church – and they say, “I just need to work this out by myself.” And I see Satan’s playbook open. When you are struggling with something – church is exactly where you need to be – that’s when you need your family most. Listen to the Hebrews writer – “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (Heb. 3:12-14).
Doubt is no time to isolate yourself. It’s no time to keep it to yourself. Don’t let Satan have you to himself.
Third – Pray your doubts
Mark Littleton suggests this formula: Turn your doubts to questions, turn your questions to prayers, and turn your prayers to God.
You mean we can take our doubts to God? Won’t he be offended? Not according to scripture – think how many times in the Psalms David pointed the angry finger at God and accused him of deserting him – think how Job, raked with pain, demanded an audience with God so he could confront him with the unfairness of his suffering. Or how Sarah would laugh at the ridiculous notion of a 100 year old woman having a baby, or Jeremiah would weep at the absence of God’s presence. The one thing they did not do was to turn their back and ignore God. The Bible’s greatest heroes aren’t those who had no doubts, but those who confronted and conquered them by giving them to God.
Fourth – Analyze the evidence diligently
Doubt rarely arises from a thorough study of scripture, but from an ongoing neglect of scripture. We get out of the Word, we quit reading and praying, and Satan fills the void with doubt.
Why won’t we confront our doubts? Because deep down, we’re afraid the doubts will win. We think Christianity is somehow weaker than its accusers.
You think evolution has the upper hand because some college professor belittles the idea of creation? I’m sorry – it takes a greater leap of faith to accept the outrageous inconsistencies and improbabilities of everything happening by random chance than to believe in the loving design of a God who created and sustains the universe.
Do you struggle with the resurrection? Shelves are full of books by skeptics who came to the evidence seeking to debunk the Bible and became the strongest defenders of the reliability of God’s Word.
When John asked if Jesus were the one, what was Jesus’ answer? It wasn’t, “Go back and tell him yes.” It was “Go tell him what you have seen – what does the evidence tell you?” When Thomas said he couldn’t believe, Jesus didn’t say, “Take my word for it.” He said, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” In other words, “examine the evidence for yourself.”
Honestly confronting the evidence will never destroy your faith, it will only confirm and strengthen it.
Finally, though, doubt your doubts. In other words, we need to accept our limitations in dealing with doubt.
The more I learn, I realize the less I know. When I finally discover answers, it just raises bigger and more complex questions. There are some things I don’t have the mental equipment to deal with – it doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer for my question, but I might not be able to comprehend it if I had it. Just because I don’t have the answer doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.
And in a similar way, the Bible wasn’t written to answer all of my questions. It isn’t a comprehensive scientific resource book nor a theological encyclopedia that reveals every nuance of God’s wisdom. In fact it leaves many mysteries unanswered. You remember God’s words in Isaiah 55, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
What it does promise, in Paul’s words to Timothy, is that it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Or in Peter’s words, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).
Everything I need to know to live a Christian life and receive God’s promise of salvation is revealed in the Bible.
The things I don’t know and understand don’t negate all the things I do. My confidence in God isn’t contingent on him answering all my questions and revealing all of his mysteries. That’s what faith is – confidently knowing that God will take care of the details. Paul said it this way – “we walk by faith and not by sight.”
I don’t have to have all the answers to put my faith in God. God is bigger than my doubts. And so I love the way Paul expressed his faith in God in spite of his own limited understanding:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 8:33-36)