Series: I Don’t Know What I Believe
Sermon #1: Certainty, Not Doubt is Opposite of Faith
By: Donnell Wyche 02/18/2018
Your Faith Isn’t Strong Enough So You Will Fail Every Time
Have you ever played a strength testing game at a carnival, or seen one on TV or in a movie? It has a lot of names, High Striker, Strongman, etc. You get a hammer or mallet, and based on your own strength, you have to hit the lever hard enough to get it to ring a bell. If the game is rigged, you will be tempted to win the game by a smaller person who is able to hit the bell every time, then when you arrive believing that you are stronger, you fail. Every time. You fail. Part of the game is proving that you are strong enough so when you lose, you are humiliated. The game is structured to get you to try over and over again to prove that you are strong enough.
For many of us, this is how we approach our faith or have been instructed to approach faith. If I can get my faith up above the 50% mark, then God will do _____ (whatever I want). This approach says that our faith is as strong as we are certain. And if our faith is strong enough then we can accomplish anything.
We take this view of faith and read it into scripture as well,
21Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21-22)
I can’t tell you how many tears of frustration I’ve cried because the mountains in my life weren’t cast into the sea. I just figured that I would never have enough faith and without faith, how could I please God? This was a crazy catch-22. And when I turned to my authoritative interpreters for help, they said, “Just believe,” but I thought that’s what I was doing, so I didn’t understand what they meant. All I was doing was believing, yet nothing changed.
With this view of faith, our doubt, our questions, our wrestling, our struggles become the enemies of our faith.
When we take this picture and play it out, what it says is God is waiting in heaven to heal us, bless us, and deliver us, but God’s hand is stayed because we lack faith.
Because we question.
Because we struggle.
Because we doubt.
All God wants to do is intervene and release the kingdom, to open up heaven and pour out blessings, but God can’t because we don’t have enough faith or the faith that we do have hasn’t reached the threshold that activates God’s ability to intervene.
I want to note that this develops a picture of God who is cruel, brutal, and capricious.
This isn’t faith.
This is a form of magic.
God Calls Us to Faith Not Magic
Magic is what we do, or say, or the behaviors we adopt to influence or manipulate the “spiritual realm,” “the powers,” or God to get them to do what we want. We muster up all of our strength and convert it to certainty, which then activates our faith and forces God to act on our behalf. Simply put: We say or do this, God (or the force we are trying to control) does that.
I remember as a young believer praying for someone who had a terminal brain tumor. Our faith community believed that if we would pray without ceasing for their healing that they would be healed. I want to be really careful here because I believe that God hears every one of our prayers and I’ve seen God do miraculous things both in my life and in the lives of others through prayer. But as a young believer who wasn’t quite sure that God would really heal this person, I remember to this day the guilt and shame I experienced when they died, and I was told they died because “we,” but I only heard “I,” didn’t have enough faith.
This is what I mean when I say this is like magic or a formula because it makes God’s ability to heal contingent on my behavior. God in one sense loses God’s agency (God’s ability to act independently) because God just becomes a power that I can control and wield. If I have enough faith then that activates the God’s special healing power to do what I want with it. But I still had my questions like this one, “Why would God heal or save someone based on my ability to eradicate my doubt?” What if I have questions, or concerns, or anxiety? What if I’m biologically wired to evaluate, to reason, to argue, to consider, to rationalize, does that mean I can’t have faith? This approach to faith also applies to our evangelism. If I don’t share the Gospel with every non-believer then I am condemning them to hell, all because I am afraid to ask people if they know Jesus in the pardon of their sins. This drove a lot of my early evangelism. As I look back, I realize now that I didn’t really care whether the person was entering a mutually beneficial relationship with God, I just cared that I could stand before God and say “I did everything I could get people saved, so I deserve to be here in heaven with you forever.”
I firmly believe that Jesus has the keys to life. I believe our best life is one lived in mutual trust with God, a life that is surrendered which allows Jesus to lead us, love us, save us, and transform us. You can decide this morning to surrender and ask Jesus to lead you, to save you, and to transform you.
Magic is all about the behaviors we do that benefit us, while faith asks us to adopt a relational posture and have trust in the One in whom we believe.
God doesn’t ask us to practice magic, God call us to have faith, to develop mutual trust. In this sermon series over the next six weeks, we want to take a look at biblical faith, faith that is full of wrestling, doubt, uncertainty, and sometimes even fear. We want to take this lenten series and cultivate our faith by learning that God makes space for us, for our reluctance, for our questions, for our willingness to develop trust. I want to consider how our doubts and fears can help us have a deeper, lasting, more fulfilling relationship with God.
I want to start with the call of Abram as we make our way forward towards the cultivation of faith that’s relational, interdependent, and mutually trusting. God makes a seven-fold promise to Abram that includes an heir. The promise calls Abram to leave Ur, Abram does so. He packs up his wife, servants, and family and makes his way. Along the way, his nephew Lot gets captured, so Abram has to go to battle. After the battle, Abram meets and offers a tithe to the high priest Melchizedek. In Chapter 15, we pick up Abram’s story in progress:
After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
2But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3)
God opens with a phrase that will be repeated over and over again in scripture:
Do not be afraid.
But Abram is afraid.
Why has fear cropped up in Abram? He just won a decisive battle. He just had this powerful encounter with God through the High Priest Melchizedek. So why is Abram afraid?
Abram’s afraid precisely because of these events. Abram just won a decisive battle, but it could have gone the other way and then what? What would happen to his wife, his nephew Lot, his wealth?
In the story God is quick to reassure Abram. But we only need assurance when we are afraid or doubting.
Just pause with me and consider that God has already made a seven-fold promise to Abram. But Abram is afraid, so after calling Abram to abandon fear, God makes another promise to help remove Abram’s fears an doubts.
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.” (Genesis 15:1-3)
And I just love how Abram responds, “I hear what you are saying God, you’re be my shield [yup], my great reward [uh hun], but what can you give me?”
I read it as, what can you give me that I can see, I hold? How do you read it?
Why is God reassuring him? Maybe it has to do with Abram’s fears and doubt.
Abram is asking a questions,
Is God who God says God is?
Is this promise keeper who Melchizedek says he says he is?
Can the promise keeper be trusted?
Will the promise keeper keep his word?
What do we do with our doubts? We are called in scripture to cast our fears onto the Lord, but what do we do about our doubts?
Have you been told that doubt threatens your faith? Or that you can’t doubt, you just have to have faith? Or you just have to believe? If so, forget it. Doubt not’s the problem, certainty and unbelief are. Certainty is the opposite of faith, not doubt. It’s okay to doubt, in one real sense, our doubt is an essential part of what it means for us to be human. Certainty is an idol. Jesus says in John 5: 39-40,
39You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5: 39-40)
The point Jesus is making is the love of knowledge was a tripping point; to quote JI Packer, the Pharisees knew about God, but actually didn’t know God. You can make the knowledge of God an idol, then you don’t have to actually worship God.
Returning to Abram: Abram wants God to come through on God’s promise. Abram wants an heir. If Abram had lost that battle to rescue Lot that would have been the end of the story–no fulfillment of the promise. So Abram’s getting antsy, he wants to make sure that God comes through with an heir. Abram wants what he was promised, he wants to become a great nation. He’s asking God, “Where’s my heir that you promised?”
2But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)
Abram’s effectively asking God, “How are you going to bring life from death? Sarai, my wife, is barren, so she can’t produce an heir for me, so Promise Giver, what’s the plan?How are you going to do what you said you would?”
See Abram doesn’t step up the High Striker and say, I believe you, so I will expect that my wife will conceive. Nope. Abram says, I have the evidence that she is barren, so how are you going to come through?
God answers by making another promise, your offspring will be like the stars in the sky, count them if you can.
4Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” 5He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be. (Genesis 15:4–5)
In this back and forth, Abram is basically saying “I’m not so sure that you will do what you promised.”
Instead of demanding something from Abram like more loyalty, trust, faith, or even an offering, God instead shifts the burden to Godself. This is what a mutually beneficial relationship looks like, one that built on mutual trust. God says, I will do what I say, which will allow you to trust me.
We develop our trust in God by accepting that what God says is true.
We develop our trust in God by having faith in God’s ability to come through.
We develop our trust in God by believing that God is competent.
We develop our trust in God through the testimony of others.
We can imagine that it would have been simple for God to demonstrate God’s power and authority to accomplish what God promised, but that’s not what we see in this exchange; instead, what God does is extend the promise. This isn’t what I would expect God to do here. I have this inner voice that says, “If you would only just believe, or trust me more, or depend on me, then you would see the promise that I’ve made to you.” But instead God increases the promise and shifts the responsibility to Godself.
This is striking to me, God shifts the burden of fulfilling the promise to Godself. It’s independent of Abram. God doesn’t need Abram’s faith, loyalty, or an offering to accomplish what God wants to achieve in Abram’s life. God is freeing Abram, which does something powerful; it prompts Abram to believe the Lord.
6Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.