Friday, May 5, 2017

I Doubt It! (John 20:19-31) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The mother of a Christian family wrote to her son who was in his first year of college.    She asked how he was doing and reminded him to study hard and that he was in her prayers.  He wrote back: “Hi Mom, I like college. I’m making new friends, but I can’t believe how much you have to study.  I have been extremely busy with reading assignments and term papers and lab work, and I’m having a terrible time in one class.”  And then in a creative paraphrase of II Timothy 4:7 the son concluded: “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, but I doubt if I'll pass chemistry. Your favorite son, John.”

Is it rare to have doubts? No, it’s something we must grapple with and live with every day.  It confronts us in all realms of life.  What do you have doubts about?   Is there one thing in particular that you have doubts about or many things?  How do you deal with your doubts?

For there is no shortage of things to have doubts about.  Like our safety as a nation in the light of terrorist attacks, doubts about the economy, about our elected leaders in government, is government really looking out for the welfare of the people?   We have doubts about job security and about decisions looming before us.  We have doubts at times in our marriage, or about a friendship, or about how we’re raising in our children.  We have doubts about our health.  Yes, doubt is no stranger.

Is doubt all bad?  No.  People have had self-doubts about whether they could achieve something or knew that others had doubts about them were spurred on to prove to themselves or others that they could be successful.  Doubt has been a positive motivator for many to reach higher, to excel, to persevere, and to succeed, whether in sports, in entrepreneurial endeavors, in careers, in inventing, in business, in education, in attaining goals.  Doubts can propel us to take risks and accomplish things we never dreamed possible.   I also believe a little skepticism is healthy.  Being gullible, naïve, overly trusting can sometimes as we know get us into trouble.

But the answer also depends on the nature of our doubts.  Doubts about what color to paint the kitchen is one thing; struggling with serious self-doubt about our abilities, our judgment or our self-worth is another thing entirely.  Not believing in yourself, losing faith and confidence in yourself, is something else indeed.   Struggling with deep doubts about being a parent, about being a spouse, about whether your marriage can be saved, about your competence at work or in school, can lead to pessimism, anxiety, and ultimately depression.  I don’t think it’s healthy to ignore your doubts.  We need to pay attention to them and examine them and deal with them.   Denial is rarely ever the right path.

What about doubts when it comes to our faith in God?   Scripture clearly shows that you should not berate yourself or feel guilty, or think you are spiritually weak when you ask hard questions or feel disappointed in God or angry at God or struggle at times with your faith.   Such times demonstrate an intellectually honest faith.   Just read the psalms in the Old Testament for examples of an intellectually honest faith.    Like psalm 43: “Vindicate me O God, defend my cause against ungodly people; you are the God in whom I take refuge, why have you cast me off?  Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?”  In other words, God where are you, why is this happening?

In II Corinthians we read: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”  The apostle Paul writes: “Now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.”  Anyone here ever feel like you are seeing dimly, when you’re trying to understand what God’s plan or purpose is for your life?   I have.  Christian faith is a living, breathing, organic relationship with God through Christ.  Faith is about trust and obedience.  And like any relationship, there is an element of the unknown, of mystery, of surprises, of questions, of disappointments, of unmet expectations.

Our faith ought to steady us, and often it does, but sometimes it does not.  Faith should instill confidence and peace, and often it does, but sometimes it does not.  Faith comes easy when the sun is shining and the sky is blue, but then the storms of life assail us.   When is your faith strong and joy filled?  When is your faith shaken?

I believe there is some of the disciple Thomas in each of us, myself included.  Thomas was a charter member of that 12 Step Program – “Doubter’s Anonymous.”  But just a minute, aren’t we all?   Thomas knows his own mind.  He saw Jesus buried.  He refuses to go along with the crowd. The problem was that Thomas had missed the celebration.  I hate when that happens.  He missed seeing Jesus’ spectacular appearance.   The other disciples tell him about seeing the Risen Lord, but he isn’t buying it.  Jesus once again appears to the disciples and this time Thomas is there.   Jesus says: “Have you believed because you have seen me?”  Thomas, I’m glad that now you believe I am alive.   Touch my hands and my side.  Jesus clearly loves Thomas.

But then the risen Lord says something no one sees coming: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Jesus is saying there are blessings when we receive a revelation from God like Thomas and believe.   But Jesus says, you are also blessed by God when you have not seen and yet believe.

Doubt is a part of faith because our human understanding is limited.  Faith in God is rooted in belief, assurance, surrender, humility, respect, gratitude and knowledge.  But it’s not rooted in sight.  It requires trust and obedience.    Faith and prayer confesses that we cannot control God to answer our prayers, and aren’t there times when you wish you could?   Scripture says:  “Fight the good fight of the faith.”  Faith is worth the fight.  I think this is another way of saying doubt is real and it must be struggled with from time to time.

Doubts remind us of the vicissitudes of life.   Sometimes a day is filled with amazing blessings and surprises and beauty and joy and wonder and humor.   I remember our indomitable church member Jack Farris, who if you asked him how he was feeling, would answer: “If I felt any better I’d have to go see a doctor.”   And then tomorrow comes and we are hit hard with all kinds of problems.  We find ourselves questioning, “Why Lord, why?”

Does God abandon us in times of doubt?  No.  Author Robert Louis Stevenson was a sickly child who was burdened by ill health for most of his life.  He died at the age of 44.  From skeptical beginnings, his spiritual journey eventually led him to become a man of radiant faith.  He started by debunking the Christian faith as the “deadliest gag and wet-blanket that can be laid on man.”  He referred to himself as a youthful atheist.  As he grew older, he began to have what he referred to as “his first wild doubts about doubt.”  Later, he commented: “Tis a strange world, but there is a manifest God for those who care to look for him?”  Near the close of his life, he wrote: “Faith is a good word to end on.”   Yes, sometimes doubt eventually leads us to faith.

I like what Dr. Lewis Thomas writes: “Much of God’s light shines in darkness.  There is enough darkness in each of our lives to cause us to wonder what, in God’s name, is going on.  Yet we would have to affirm that there is enough light in our lives to enable us to trust even when we cannot grasp what a particular event means.”

I believe that in times of doubt God brings the right people into our lives.  God gives us the gift of the church, like the disciples, who were there for Thomas.  Our faith is strengthened through the faith and presence of other believers.   It has happened to me personally.  I have also seen this over the years in the church, when people in difficult times tell me how their faith is inspired and encouraged by the prayers, visits, calls, cards, love and support of fellow believers.  The Holy Spirit links your sprit with the spirit of other believers in such times.

Like the story of Hans, a professor at a seminary who was devastated by the death of his wife, Enid.  Hans was so overcome with sorrow that he lost his appetite, and became depressed and didn't want to leave the house. Out of concern, the seminary president, along with three other professors, paid Hans a visit. The grieving professor confessed that he was struggling with doubt. "I am no longer able to pray to God," he admitted to his colleagues. "In fact, I am not certain I believe in God anymore."   After a moment of silence, the seminary president said, "Then we will believe for you. We will pray for you."  The four men continued to meet daily for prayer, asking God to restore the gift of faith to their friend.  Some months later, as the four friends gathered for prayer with Hans, Hans smiled and said, "It is no longer necessary for you to pray for me. Today I would like you to pray with me."

Our Easter faith proclaims that God raised Jesus from death to life.  Easter means that new life, new beginnings, new surprises are not only possible but a reality.   Fate does not control our destiny; God is ultimately in charge of life.   God is the ruler.  Jesus is Lord.  Jesus is with us through His Spirit.  Yes, sometimes we say – “I doubt it.”  But there are also times when we say – “Lord, I praise you.” “I believe in you.”  Thank you Lord.” And God’s people said:  Amen!

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