Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Faith and Doubt

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 28:16-20; Job 19:23-27

            You might not expect a book called Blue Like Jazz to be about religion, but it is.  Fifty pages in, the author, Donald Miller, has a chapter called “Faith,” beginning with these words:

The goofy thing about Christian faith is that you believe it and don’t believe it at the same time. … I believe in Jesus; I believe He is the Son of God, but every time I sit down to explain this to somebody I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek convention who hasn’t figured out that the show isn’t real (p. 51).

The Christian faith is something you can believe and not believe at the same time.

            The Bible understands this.  After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples go to a mountain in Galilee to which Jesus directed them.  Verse 17 says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”  In Greek the verse is even more surprising.  It says literally, “Seeing him they worshiped, but they doubted.”  These were not two different groups of people, some who worshiped and some who doubted.  The people who worshiped and the people who doubted were the same people.  They had doubts about Jesus even while worshiping him, even after seeing him.  The Christian faith is something you can believe and not believe at the same time.

            It is sort of like Job in the Old Testament.  Job spends 20 chapters in the book of Job complaining about God’s injustice, bemoaning all the undeserved grief he has experienced.  And then, right in the middle of the book, he says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side…” (Job 19:25-26).  Job doubts God and believes in God at the same time.

            Donald Miller tells about a conversation he had with a friend from Reed College named Laura.  Laura came to him one day obviously distraught.  She said,

“I feel like He is after me, Don.”

“Who is after you?” I asked.

“God.”

“I think that is very beautiful, Laura.  And I believe you.  I believe God wants you.”

“I feel like He is after me,” she repeated.

“What do you think He wants?”

“I don’t know.  I can’t do this, Don.  You don’t understand.  I can’t do this.”

“Can’t do what, Laura?”

“Be a Christian.”

“Why can’t you be a Christian?”

Laura didn’t say anything.  She just looked at me and rolled her tired eyes. She dropped her hands into her lap with a sigh.  “I wish I could read you my journal,” she said, looking blankly at the wall.  “There is this part of me that wants to believe.  I wrote about it in my journal.  My family believes, Don.  I feel as though I need to believe.  Like I am going to die if I don’t believe.  But it is all so stupid.  So completely stupid.”

“Laura, why is it that you hang out with Christians on campus?”

“I don’t know.  I guess I am just curious” (pp. 52-53).

            Laura reminds me of the eleven disciples.  They went to Galilee with no proof except the word of the women.  They had not seen Jesus alive at the empty tomb.  They had not heard the message of the angels.  All they had to go on was the message of the women.  But on the basis of that message they went to Galilee.  Why?  Maybe they were just curious.  But because they went, they discovered that Jesus was alive and had a purpose for their lives, a purpose greater than they ever imagined.

            In contrast the elders and priests in Jerusalem did not go.  I talked about that during the sunrise service at the Cove.  The religious and political leaders heard the news of the resurrection from the guards, just like the disciples heard it from the women.  But unlike the disciples, they did not go to Galilee to see if it was true.  In fact they tried to suppress it.  Why?  Because for them, Jesus’ resurrection was not welcome news.  It called into question the whole direction of their lives.  It meant the end of their self-righteousness, the end of their illusion of being in control of everything.  The guards and their superiors did not want to find him.  They did not want the resurrection to be true.  It was too disturbing.

            But the eleven disciples were at least curious.  So they went to Galilee, and that is when Jesus and his mission for them became real.

            Several days after their conversation, Donald Miller got this email from Laura.  She said,

I read through the book of Matthew this evening.  I was up all night.  I couldn’t stop reading so I read through Mark.  This Jesus of yours is either a madman or the Son of God.  Somewhere in the middle of Mark I realized He was the Son of God.   I suppose this makes me a Christian.  I feel much better now.  Come to campus tonight and let’s get coffee (p. 58).

            That’s why we are reading through the gospel of Matthew in our church services this year.  If you at least hear the story, if you at least go to Galilee to look, you can find out the truth about Easter, and what it might mean to you.

            I confess that sometimes I too have doubts.  This is an embarrassing thing for a pastor to admit, but even after preaching about Jesus for 38 years, I still sometimes wonder.  How do I know there is a God out there, and if there is, how do I know God cares anything at all about tiny creatures in one lonely edge of the universe?  Do I believe in a loving God so I will feel less alone or less afraid of death?  Do I believe because my job depends on it, or my self-worth?  And how do I justify belief in a loving God when faced with the enormity of suffering in the world?

            I struggle with these questions.  But I keep coming back to the question of alternatives.  What is the alternative to Easter?  Is it to believe that Pilate finally wins?  Do I prefer to believe that political and military power can crush someone, and that’s it?  Do I prefer to think that a gunman can walk into a school and kill children, and that’s it?  Would I rather believe that evil wins and there is nothing we can do about it?  Without Easter, “life is but a walking shadow”—to quote Shakespeare—“a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”?  Is that what I prefer to believe?

            To be sure I have known many non-religious people who experience joy in life, who find a quiet satisfaction in relationships and who sometimes feel awe at the amazingness of life.  I think of Stephen Hawking, the physicist who recently died.  He spent his life exploring the universe, marveling at its intricacies.  Sometimes he believed in a Creator and sometimes he didn’t, but it did not stop him for treasuring life.  I know there are people like that, people who treasure life and value relationships without necessarily believing in God, let alone in Jesus.

            But for me, when I experience these things, I find welling up in me an emotion that can only be described as gratitude, and this gratitude comes not from feeling I have earned this life or won it in some cosmic lottery, but that I have received it as a gift of grace, and the experience of grace leads me to gratitude.  Do you see how those two things are connected?  The experience of grace leads me to gratitude, and gratitude seeks Someone to thank.  It seeks a Giver.  It leads me to God, and then to Easter, to the belief that God will not let this precious world and its people finally be destroyed by evil or idiocy.

            So even when I have doubts, I continue to believe.  I believe because I would rather serve Jesus than anyone else.  I believe because I would rather devote my life to sharing love than acquiring power.  I believe because I would rather seek Jesus and his righteousness than anything else this world has to offer.

            I believe even though I doubt, which is what it means to be a disciple.  Welcome to the life of blessed ambiguity.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7