Good Christians Experience Doubt


1870 Tower Bell, FPCE  + second sermon in a series "The Sound of Good News" + Mark 9:20-27, 15:33-39

Author Brian McLaren writes, “For centuries, Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs. That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences …. What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to loving community for all?”[1]  It is toward answering this kind of important question that my current sermon series is offered.On the topic of doubt, one of my first thoughts is the vivid memory of a famous preacher who shared his story on television. He emphatically proclaimed that he had never doubted the existence of God, never doubted the creation of the universe in six days, and never doubted the literal accuracy of scripture. There had never been a question in his mind about the virgin birth, the substitutionary death of Christ for sin, his physical resurrection from the dead, or his bodily return. At the time, I was just beginning graduate school, and joked, “Obviously, he didn’t get his training at Princeton Seminary.” Our professors seemed able to call into question any part of the Bible, including the table of contents. When we asked questions, the less patient and generous among them could question our questions to the point of leaving us tongue-tied. The idea that a Christian could never in all his life doubt was completely foreign to my experience.More importantly, the notion that good Christians don’t doubt doesn’t seem to agree with the witness of scripture. Moses and Jeremiah seem to doubt God’s call, and God’s ability to strengthen them for ministry. David, who has been anointed to succeed Saul as king, doubts God’s power to make it happen, as we read in our Hebrew Testament lesson (1 Samuel 27:1-4): “I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul; there is nothing better for me than to escape to the land of the Philistines.” Those who follow Jesus doubt, as we learn in the famous story of Doubting Thomas (John 20:19-29), or our New Testament reading (Mark 9:20-27).  The father of the epileptic boy famously expresses the phenomenon of doubt, even when we desperately wish it otherwise: “I believe; help my unbelief!” Jesus himself went through dark moments of doubt. I don’t know any other way to plausibly explain the sense of doubt in his haunting, despairing question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).Many years ago, I read the books of a marvelous theologian by the name of Paul Tillich. Tillich was very skilled at taking traditional concepts of the Bible and Christian theology, and translating them into concepts and language modern for that time. One of the important distinctions Tillich made was between “faith” and “theology.” The way I remember it, Tillich said that faith is a primary phenomenon. It’s like what happens when God is revealed to Moses in a burning bush. It’s as if God reaches out and grasps hold of Moses, and in that moment, faith is born. It’s like what happens when disciples on the shore of Galilee recognize God in Jesus of Nazareth. It’s as if God reaches out, pulls away a veil so that they can see, and faith is born. Theology, said Tillich, is secondary reflection upon the primary phenomenon of faith. It’s Moses trying to make sense out of Yahweh appearing in a fiery bush. It’s Peter and Andrew trying to figure out what it means that God is present in the Nazarene preacher.Today, one of the big problems in the Church, that’s Church with a capital “C,” is that too often “faith” and “theology” are melded together as one thing. In some churches, you can’t question a doctrine like the Inerrancy of the Bible, or the Virgin birth, or dozens of other things, without your faith being called into question. And so people are trained – they are “chained” – with the notion that in order to be a good Christian, you must unflinchingly accept a certain set of doctrinal statements, some of which have no basis in scripture.Part of the wonderful freedom of our Presbyterian-Reformed-Christian tradition is the understanding that faith and theology are two different things. If someone comes to me to say, “John, I don’t know that I believe the part of the Apostles’ Creed that says, ‘He descended into hell’,” then I may say, “I’ve had questions about that, and about other parts, too. Let’s think about it, together.” If someone comes to me to say that they are no longer sure they can believe in God because someone they know died of cancer or was a victim of violence, or some other horrible circumstance has shaken the foundations of all they thought they understood, then I may say, “I’ve felt that way too.  Most of us have, at one time or another. Let’s talk about it, and pray about it, together.” In the Presbyterian Church, you and I can reflect, and reshape, and reform our theological understanding. Because faith depends on God, we can engage in theological reflection, confident that true faith cannot be destroyed. If it can be destroyed, perhaps God wasn’t in it in the first place.Martin Thielen, in a chapter of his book that has shaped this sermon series,, says that doubt is not the enemy of faith, but part of authentic Christian faith.[2]He offers the words of Tennyson, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” He reminds us that when Madeleine L’Engle was asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” she replied, “I believe in God with all my doubts.” These thoughts reflect my understanding of faith and doubt much better than those of the televangelist I mentioned earlier.Doubt can drive us into despair. I’ve seen that movement in lives of people I have served. Children grow up and grow distant, circumstances change, bad things happen to good people. People doubt that the God they knew, or thought they knew, really exists, or really cares, or really has power to change things. They move from faith and church with the bitterness of the man who once wagged his finger in my face, while spitting out the words, “I don’t believe in YOUR God.” I suppose fear about that fate helps to explain, in part, why some preachers are so anxious to convince people that good Christians never doubt.Some say that good Christians don’t doubt, and that may be a true experience for some Christians. But I say that often the path to a deeper and stronger faith leads through doubt. I’ve been a follower of Jesus for 40 years, and a pastor for more than half my life. I’ve never stopped doubting; I’ve never stopped believing, either. Doubt can be the motivation for chipping away at bad theology to shape a better understanding of what it means to be a Christian and to live a Christian life. Frederick Buechner, with prose more poetic than I can create, once wrote, “Faith is better understood as a verb than a noun, as a process than a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all.  Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway.[3]NOTES[1]Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the world’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian,” New York: Convergent Books, 2016, introduction.[2]Martin Thielen, “Good Christians Don’t Doubt,” chapter two in What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian: A guide to what matters most,” Louisville: WJK Press, 2011, pp. 9-13.[3]Frederick Buechner, “Faith,” in “Beyond Words, Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith,” HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, p. 109.