We’d like to share a recent sermon by one of our Church Anew Team Members, Pastor Gail Bach, who gave this sermon on being rattled by doubt on March 13, 2022. We hope it resonates with you today.
I HAVE DOUBTS
Let me begin this morning by being clear about something. I have doubts. Not about everything and not all of the time, but I have doubts.
Sometimes I have doubts about my abilities as a mother or wife. Sometimes I have doubts about the decisions I make.
But my doubts aren’t just about me. I have doubts about other things too. Doubts about things going on in this world. Doubts about what the future holds for next generation.
And to be totally honest, I sometimes have doubts about faith. The unanswered questions, all the hurt and brokenness and evil things happening, the why’s of this world and wondering where is God in the midst of it.
Now please don’t misunderstand me. For as much as I know I have doubts, I also have faith. I see the good in life. I have hope. And I’m pretty sure God understands my questioning. Who doesn’t question these things once in a while, right?
DOUBT IS NOTHING NEW
Our topic for today is “doubt” and I think there are a few things – hopefully helpful things – we can take away from some reflections about doubt.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that doubt is not a 20th or 21st-century phenomenon. Doubt goes way back. Remember Abraham and Sarah and how they doubted God’s promise that they would have a child? They were old! Sarah even laughed at God for suggesting such a thing.
And Job. His suffering was so great that he doubted that God really loved him.
And the disciples who wouldn’t take the women’s word for it when they reported that the tomb where they all had laid Jesus a couple days earlier was now empty. And Thomas – doubting Thomas - who had to see Jesus’ scars with his own eyes before he would believe that Jesus was alive.
The Bible is full of stories of people, good people, faithful people, who had doubts.
Fast forward many centuries to Martin Luther, firm as he stood on his beliefs about faith, he also struggled with doubt.
Even Mother Teresa, a modern-day saint, wrote how she struggled with doubt for decades.
Doubt is not a new thing – nor is it something only in the past. We all have a little doubt in us. Even with all of our advancements in technology, science and higher learning, we have doubts.
We still wonder why we can’t find a cure for cancer. We sometimes doubt the wisdom of decisions made by city planners, businesses or world leaders. The experience of a tragedy, suffering or grief can understandably be a trigger for doubt. We have doubts. It’s human nature to have doubts.
And doubt can make us uncomfortable. Doubt rattles us because when we doubt we can lose our footing. We’re unsure about which direction to take – it can make us feel like we’re walking in the dark. We don’t like how that feels. Yet we don’t talk about our doubts because we’re afraid of what others might think or say.
DOUBT VS. CERTAINTY
I’ve heard people say that having doubts – especially doubts about our faith – is not a good thing. That it can harm one’s faith, or worse yet, destroy it. Doubt has been described as the enemy of faith. I beg to differ… here’s why.
I believe that the enemy of faith isn’t doubt. It’s certainty.
Doubt can prod us to explore the things that cause us to doubt – and to learn and grow from that.
Certainty closes the door to other ideas which inhibits our ability to grow.
Doubt helps us see that sometimes we might be wrong or that there is more than one way to look at a problem.
Certainty just says ‘no, there’s only one way.’
Doubt reveals our vulnerability.
Certainty has too much of an ego to let that happen.
Doubt encourages us to question why.
Certainty refuses to ask questions and tells us to move on – and it’s when we stop asking questions that the real enemy of faith can do some damage.
WE BELIEVE AND WE DOUBT
You see, it’s not that we have doubts that’s the issue here. It’s what we do with our doubts that deserves our attention.
Having doubts is not a barrier to God loving us or healing us or working in and through us. What God wants is for us to bring our doubts into our relationship with God.
God would prefer our doubting and worshiping over our being certain and going it alone.
God would prefer our doubting and serving over our ignoring the needs of others.
God would prefer our doubting and questioning over our thinking we have all the answers and thus have no need for God.
Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. It is a part of it. It is an element of faith, and a very important one at that.
Faith and doubt are wound together within us working together to help us grow. And so we believe and we doubt.
In the passages leading up to our Gospel story today, Peter, James and John have just had a mountaintop experience with Jesus. It’s Mark’s version of the Transfiguration story. While they are on this mountain, both Elijah and Moses appeared and they speak with Jesus … and then God speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
If the disciples had any doubt as to who Jesus is, this experience should have changed that. For Mark, the scene is over as quickly as it began and the disciples head back down the mountain with Jesus. They had to quite literally be “flying high” from all they had witnessed while up there.
But things quickly turned from elation to chaos as they met up with the rest of the disciples. Whatever had happened, it couldn’t have been good because they were standing in the middle of a large crowd, arguing with some of the scribes.
When Jesus asked what they were arguing about, a man’s voice rises above the noise. It was filled with fear and panic as he responded to Jesus’ question. “Teacher,” he says, “it’s my son. He has a demon in him.”
Now the disciples are rattled because they had tried to help the boy. They had done everything Jesus taught them to help him, but nothing worked, and so they are doubting themselves and wondering, what did we do wrong?
The father asks Jesus to heal his son, but he has doubts of his own. He isn’t sure Jesus can help him either, so he hedges his request.
“If you are able,” he says. “If you are able to do anything at all, please help us.”
Jesus is a little insulted. “What do you mean ‘if you are able?’ Don’t you know that anything is possible for those who believe.”
And to this, the father replies, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
Jesus heals the boy. Perfect faith is not required in order for the boy to be healed. It’s not that the father’s faith was tied to a set of beliefs or doctrines. He didn’t recite a specific creed or statement.
It’s not that the Father had no doubt in his faith, it was whether or not he believed. He acknowledged his lack of faith, but he didn’t let that stop him from trusting Jesus with his son’s life.
It’s not that he had doubts that was the issue here. It’s how he dealt with them that was important.
FAITH AS TRUST
Faith is not simply acknowledging a set of beliefs. At its core, faith puts trust in a person – in Jesus. In this story, belief is portrayed as a matter of trust: trust in the power of God to transform a situation that seemed hopeless by human standards.
When you trust, you are willing to take risks, even when you doubt. They could be small risks or they could be big one, but you are willing to go there.
On the farm where I grew up, there was a field on what we called “the 40” where the only way to get to it was by crossing a bridge. The bridge was narrow and constructed out of a single culvert packed with dirt around it. There was always risk that after a hard rain, some of the dirt would have washed away or the edges would be too soft to handle much weight.
Every year my dad would ever so slowly and carefully cross that bridge with tractors, wagons, planter, cultivators and – of course – the combine. And I would hold my breath every time I watched him cross that bridge. If dad didn’t line up the wheels of his tractors and combines just right, there was a chance a tire could slip off the side of the bridge.
For many years - I was scared to death to cross that bridge. I had doubts about its safety. So for a long time, the rattling of fear and doubt would get the best of me and the only way I crossed that bridge was to walk. But I have to say, it bothered me that I couldn’t take that risk. While I wrestled with those doubts for a long time, I eventually accepted the idea that someone else might know more about that bridge than I did – and I drove across that bridge myself.
I still get a little rattled thinking about it, but it was that feeling of doubt that also spurred me on to take the risk and get across that bridge.
FREEZE OR FREE
Sometimes doubt freezes us. Sometimes it frees us. Doubt doesn’t ignore a fear or uncertainty. Doubt engages it. Questioning is not turning our back on faith, but thinking about it. In fact, I would suggest that doubt is a sign that our faith is alive and doing its work in us.
When something doesn’t align with our faith, doubt urges us to do some work to understand why. When we acknowledge our doubts and wrestle with them, it can ultimately strengthen our faith rather than weaken it. Our wrestling won’t always bring us to the answer we are looking for and sometimes the answers are hidden in God’s silence, but faith trusts that that is O.K. too.
God has revealed some things to us, and God has chosen not to reveal other things. And so we need to be comfortable in places of doubt – places of not knowing, trusting that God is at work. We have said many times, we don’t know God’s timing so we will have to trust in the sometimes slow work of God.
We are naturally impatient. We don’t like going through difficult times, narrow bridges or periods of silence for answers because they too make us a little uncomfortable and discomfort creates doubt. But doubt is to faith what silence is to music.
As we gather in worship, those silent times are a sign that something is about to happen. The organ is about to play or the choir is about to sing. Our noisy and rattled bodies are about to be quieted or comforted.
What would music be without the rest, without syncopated rhythm, without time to take a breath between one series of measures and another. Without the space created by silence, the music would lose an element of its beauty – and our rattled state would not find peace.
What seems like a negation is actually a necessity.
What makes us a little uncomfortable makes us ready for the next movement to begin.
Doubt is to faith what silence is to music. It helps us to anticipate and get ready for something we need or long for.
A FALTERING, FUMBLING, AND STRUGGLING FAITH IS ENOUGH
The response of the father in our Gospel text this morning encourages us to explore the interplay of faith and doubt, belief and unbelief. While it is nice to imagine that we ourselves are full of faith, and that our churches are filled with people who never experience doubt, the reality is that most of us have the tentative faith of the father in our story.
Yet this father is celebrated for acknowledging the mixing together of belief and doubt in his own life. Standing in front of Jesus, with his own child suffering from possession by a demon that threatens the child’s life, this man was willing to announce both his belief and unbelief.
This child’s circumstances, in many ways reflects the difficulties faced by Jesus’ disciples, who longed to make a difference in the world – yet who would also get rattled when the footings of their foundation shook.
We get rattled when that happens to us too. But our doubts stir in us a passion to go forward – to be bold – to find a way to hang in there and to take risks.
The events of the past couple of years, and more recently in the past couple of weeks, from the injustices to the endless pandemic and now the invasion by Russia into Ukraine, these events certainly have done their best to plant seeds of doubt in our minds. And like the disciples, we wonder what went wrong. We want to make things better. Yet it feels like the wounds are too deep and the brokenness far bigger than our efforts can take on. You can’t go through a piling on of events like these and not have questions of why and how long and “where are you God…?”
According to Mark, the answer is prayer. But that doesn’t mean that if only the disciples had remembered to pray first, they could have expelled the demon. Prayer doesn’t function as a magic formula, always giving us the desired result. Jesus says, all things “can be done,” but we know that for reasons we don’t understand, all things are NOT done – at least not in the ways we want.
Sometimes healing does not occur. Sometimes prayers seem to go unanswered.
But what prayer does do is point us back to God. Prayer is an expression of faith, giving voice to our doubts and our need for God.
In prayer, we cease looking at ourselves and look instead to God. In this, the father proves himself a model of faithful discipleship and his story brings good news to those who struggle with doubt: a faltering, fumbling, and struggling faith is enough, for God carries us the rest of the way.
We don’t have all the answers, and in some cases, any answers at all. We do get rattled and are often uncertain. And what we do have are doubts. Having doubts is not the problem. It’s what we do with them. And so as our doubts and our faith work together to stir in us and through us, we will trust that God is there, calling us to let our doubts do their work.
This week I invite you to write down one question – one thing you wonder about – and then tuck that little piece of paper into your wallet or purse. Carry it with you, reminding you that you have doubts, and inviting you to think about what you will do with them, how you will respond to them and how you live with them. Because it’s finally what we do with our doubts that matter.
Rev. Gail Bach is a graduate of Augsburg College with a major in accounting and worked in the corporate world before joining the staff of St. Andrew, overseeing the business side of the church. It didn’t take long to feel the pull to ordained ministry and after 9 years of attending seminary part-time Gail became the Pastor of Stewardship and Evangelism at St. Andrew. Gail and her husband Jim have two grown children and a golden retriever. They enjoy spending time outdoors fishing, walking in the woods, and doing a little golfing. When it’s cold or raining, Gail enjoys cozying up to the fire and doing a little cross-stitch.
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