Nigel Berry — March 21, 2021
Picking Up: Pick Up Your Doubt
Good morning! Hey – thanks for joining today. I’m really glad to have you as a part of our faith community and I look forward to the day that I don’t have to speak to you from inside a tiny box. But to make it more enjoyable, I’d like you to pretend that the size I appear on your screen is my actual size in real life. Will that be somewhat distracting? Perhaps. But I think if you imagine me as a tiny pet, I’ll be able to hold your attention longer because when was the last time you heard a sermon from a guinea pig-sized human being? Now that I have your attention –
Last week my friend Tim led us into a conversation about the armor of god; ultimately inviting us to name the battles that we’re fighting and to bring those battles before God. To follow up on that theme, today we’re going to talk about doubt.
And this is a really, really important subject to talk about because doubt is a pervasive component of the human experience and it has been for a long time. It surfaces in all aspects of our lives ranging from governance and academia, world religions and philosophies, to social sciences and grocery shopping. I don’t always buy organic vegetables but sometimes I stop and think, “Maybe I should?” The point is, doubt has been with us for a very long time and, suffice to say, doubt is not going away anytime soon. So – we need to talk about this.
There’s something going on here…
In the short time that we have together, I’m going to walk you through a biblical consideration of doubt as we wrestle with both its rewards and its perils.
Now I recognize that, because we are a faith community that is diverse in age, experience, background, and relationships, that the subject of doubt itself may land in a number of ways. If I were to transport us back into our church building, my mind would imagine that a full section of chairs would feature people who are genuinely eager to talk about doubt. I can imagine a section of our sanctuary that is composed of members who feel anxious about the subject; waiting to see if their fears are going to be affirmed or assuaged. I can picture groups seated that wrestle with very different doubts ranging from, “Does God even exist?” to “Is it wrong to spend money on a hot tub while there are hungry people in my community?” Both are valid questions. I also envision a random person sitting alone on the back wall of the sanctuary who is actively recalling the band “No Doubt’s” discography because they are passionate about the 1990’s. You had me at 90’s music but if No Doubt made your Top 10 list of influential 90’s bands then please see me after the sermon, for prayer.
Regardless of where you are in your spiritual journey, I want to assert that doubt plays a persistent and crucial role in our relationships with one another and with the divine.
Fear of doubt
For many of us, doubt has a stigma to it. And not without good reason. Doubt is a very personal thing that has implications for how we evaluate our self-worth, identify our purpose in life, and how closely we allow other people to influence our lives. And this isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, doubt is one of the evolutionary advantages that kept humanity alive because doubt is inexplicably tied to our survival.
It provoked our ancestors us to ask questions like:
- Is this handful of berries going to kill me?
- Could I safely climb that ledge?
- Is that person a friend or a threat?
- And ‘should my children have a pet crocodile?’
In more modern times it still guides our thinking as we ask questions like:
- Am I 100% confident that I couldn’t transmit COVID19 to someone that is high-risk?
- Can I cross the street before that oncoming car reaches me?
- Is this route safe to walk after dark?
- And ‘Should my children have a pet crocodile?’
Ultimately, doubt helps to keep us alive.
Yet despite its apparent value, doubt can still be experienced as something deeply disorienting and uncomfortable to sustain. Therefore doubt becomes another paradox of the Christian faith, seemingly pitting one truth against another. ‘Doubting to thrive’ feels as paradoxical as Paul’s invitation to lose your life to find it and Jesus’ insistence that those who mourn, who are poor in spirit, and those who have been persecuted are “blessed”. And while it is paradoxical, the greater Church in the United States hasn’t done a great job of inviting us into the mysteries of doubt. Instead the Christian Church has, in many ways, portrayed doubt as an enemy of faith.
And shockingly, a combative approach to doubt often results in an aggressive response toward those who are wrestling with their doubts and this doesn’t offer a guiding or a sustainable framework for the challenges that life inevitably throws our way. Western Christianity has often dropped the ball here.
And there are a lot of reasons that resulted in how we got here including the impact of Modern philosophy on the wider church, the sheer terror of the World Wars and the ensuing “fight to be right”, and the myths of American exceptionalism. But we simply do not have enough time this morning to unpack all that so instead I want us to pivot toward a question that I’ll ask several times during our time together:
Could the God who brings life out of dust also bring life through doubt?
Doubt as Blindness
To help us make sense of this tension, let’s consider a story together this morning. If you like to follow along with your own print or digital Bible, our story starts today in the book of Acts, Chapter 9.
Many of us are familiar with the apostle Paul who not only authored a majority of our Bible’s New Testament but who also led the charge to bring the gospel of Jesus throughout the Hellenistic world. It’s at this point that I’ll stop referring to the apostle Paul as “Paul” but instead will revert back to his Hebrew name, Saul, which is how he was introduced to us in Acts chapter 7.
And just as his name is different, so is his reputation. Saul did not begin his story as a hero in the Bible. We could probably classify him as a villain – a zealous practitioner of the Jewish faith who perceived the burgeoning movement of Christianity to be a serious threat to Jewish faithfulness and expectation. In fact, Saul’s first mention is a reference to his approval as a crowd stones an early follower of Jesus, named Stephen, to death. If you’re not familiar with Saul’s story, you may be wondering how he goes from being an accessory to murder to becoming a dominant leader in the early Christian church. Well – let’s explore that. We’re going to pick up Saul’s story in Acts chapter 9. The story goes like this:
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind and did not eat or drink anything.
Sometimes when we read scripture, or when scripture is taught to us, we often rush to the end of the message – that part where “GOD WINS!” and everything that was hard or terrible turns out almost magically better in the next chapter. And we do this so much that it can overshadow our depth of understanding of the Bible. So to get more out of this story, I’m not going to jump to the part where Saul skyrockets to an unprecedented role of influence upon the Christian faith but rather I’m going to invite you to sit with me between the words of this story and explore where doubt may have played a role.
Now, Saul was always a man of conviction. He often seemed to believe things at a Level 10. So why would we think that a man like this would experience doubt? Well, imagine with me for a moment what it would be like to have a complete 180 from one of your closely held convictions. What is something that you believe to be unquestionably true? Something that you have no reason to doubt? Take a moment to ponder that. In fact, many of you can pause me right now to give yourself more time. Go ahead – I’ll still be here when you’re ready…
Got it? Now ask yourself, what would it take, or what steps would it take, for you to no longer hold that conviction? And, if you are so unwavering in your conviction that you would bet your life (or the life of someone else) on it not changing, you may find yourself identifying with Saul, the man who was so confident that Christianity was dangerous that it must be eradicated at any cost.
And so I would imagine that Saul’s encounter with the living Jesus was nothing short of a crisis. Can you imagine what was going through his mind? His entire vision of his future is now crumbling. If he was wrong about Jesus, what else could he be wrong about?
Blindness as Part of the Disciples’ Journey
So while we still hold onto the question, “Could the God who brings life out of dust also bring life through doubt?”, I want to pose another question for us this morning:
“Was Saul’s blindness a punishment from God or something else?”
Because on the surface, it kinda seems like a punishment. Saul was not cool. Stephen’s murder felt pretty OK with him and he was literally on a persecution roadtrip when Jesus confronted him. We have a problem with Saul and so it makes sense that God would too. But if not a punishment, what other purpose could this have served?
Belief & Faith
So, what if God wanted to open Saul’s eyes to something new, something better, but Saul’s beliefs were kind of in his own way. Saul came to a point, through the intervention of Jesus, where his beliefs were now in conflict with one another.
Saul believed that Jesus was dead and his body stolen AND now, he believed that the same Jesus just spoke to him.
Saul believed that those who put their faith in Jesus should be rounded up and tried in the religious courts AND now, he is actively developing a faith in Jesus.
Saul believed that Stephen was deserving of death AND now, Saul feels an openness to the same hope that got Stephen killed.
And so, at some point, something has gotta give. The old has to pass away for the new to come. And perhaps some of you have experienced this? Those moments when you think, “I was taught ‘A’ but ‘B’ makes a lot more sense”?
For example I grew up believing that the United States was a post-racial society but the lived realities of Black Americans eventually made a lot more sense.
I grew up believing in American exceptionalism but I discovered most high school history books offer very selective and limited historical perspectives.
I was taught in my high school youth group that the Bible could be thought of as
BasicInstructionsBeforeLeavingEarth but after a half-dozen seminary courses, I would define it now as ‘A collection of ancient near-eastern nomadic and civic literatures highlighted by historic, poetic, prophetic, pastoral, and apocalyptic genres which are believed to be divinely inspired by hundreds of millions of people across the earth.’
Saul will tell us later in his letter to the Hebrews that his desire is to see people move away from spiritual milk and begin consuming actual food. Milk is perfectly adequate for infants but it cannot sustain healthy growth. That growth is essential for us and if you’ve been on the other side you may have become lactose intolerant and going backward will make you physically sick.
This is what growth often feels like. There’s an uncomfortable middle, a place that is often described as the “intersection of Faith and Belief”. And that’s where I want to finish out with you this morning.
Now, the terms ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are often used interchangeably but they are not the same thing. I really appreciate Alan Watts’ definitions and I want to share them with you. Watts says that,
“belief is the insistence that the truth is what one would wish it to be… Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.”
All people possess faith and beliefs. There are self-identified truths that we choose to make up our reality and there are truths that we hold more loosely. And BOTH are essential.
I like to think of kites as our analogy – if beliefs serve as our anchor, faith is the kite loose in the sky, dancing as the wind blows. Now, if we are only what we believe, there is little joy or wonder in seeing a child anchored in a field, holding a kite to their chest. Upon seeing that you might conclude that kites are terrible toys. But if we live only by faith with no spiritual grounding, it is as if the line has been cut and the kite will crash violently into the earth because it has lost its tension. We may again observe that kites, are really bad toys.
This is why I believe Doubt serves as our string, creating tension as it strains between our hands and the kite above; straining between our firm beliefs and our wild faith. We also recognize that tension is uncomfortable but without it, the whole endeavor loses its joy.
And there’s a bit of an art to kite-flying. You have to learn when to hold tight, keeping the kite from crashing into a tree, and you have to learn when to provide slack. Kites, like faith, eat up the slack. They love it. BecauseProviding slack in the line when the kite pulls is the only thing that allows the kite to soar higher. So it is with faith. Making space for our doubts may feel like we’re opening ourselves up to chaos but we’re also giving ourselves the freedom to grow. The kite that is 30 feet in the air is always more inspiring than the kite that is 5 feet in the air.
So as we step back into our secondary question of whether Saul’s blindness was a punishment or something else, I find myself wondering if sometimes it is necessary for us to close our eyes before taking the next leap of faith? In losing his actual eyesight, Saul was really left with two options – remain where he was or to walk the road, blind as he may be. And it is no exaggeration to say that our understanding of God and the history of the whole Christian faith would look radically different had Saul not forged ahead into the unknown.
I often encounter people who feel abandoned because of their doubts and, too often, I see people who have actually been abandoned by their community because they arrived at a different place on the other side of doubt. I’m going to start winding us down in a minute here but I think it is important to say that God never weaponizes self-doubt in the way we do. God never weaponizes self-doubt in the way we do. While we may feel ourselves shifting in seasons of doubt, God does not. God remains steady and therefore God’s kindness, God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s presence isn’t waiting for us on the other side but stays with us right where we are.
I’m going to take a moment to get personal here – Almost 20 years of my life were grounded in the belief that I was supposed to serve as a Christian pastor in the Church. It was a belief that gave me purpose, and a vision, and direction. It gave me comfort and security. It had always been a great source of assurance for me until I felt the string of doubt begin pulling. There was tension, making me aware that I may be called into a space of greater faith.
And so there came a point when I was actively serving as a pastor that I realized things no longer felt right. I only ever opened a Bible to teach. Most of my prayers were public. My calling felt like it was dissolving into just a job – something to keep me occupied and to pay my bills.
My eventual breaking point was a baptism Sunday when lowering people into the water felt equivalent to washing dishes in my kitchen sink. And I’m sharing this with you because I want you to see how doubt can even play out in the mind of a seasoned pastor. It is hard to convey how much distress this admission caused me when I confessed these things to myself. I felt fake. Unworthy. Tainted by… just something. I felt ruined. There was no mercy that I was willing to extend myself.
I also want to tell you that I didn’t know what to do. I felt stuck in the tension between believing I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and… whatever else was out there – the unknown. The pull to the unknown was unsettling – frightening even. If I’m not a pastor, what am I? I had not wrestled with that question since high school. And this went beyond vocation – I didn’t know what this meant for my relationship with God. I had a million questions that I wanted to have answered immediately. Some of them were questions like:
Am I still being obedient to Jesus if I’m taking my skin out of the game?
How could God bless the unknown?
If I’m not leading, what do I have to offer?
And, yes – could the God who supposedly brings life out of dust bring life out of my doubts?
And, for better or worse, I’m not alone. I’ve heard from many men and women and even teens who have been disciplined, dismissed, pitied, or abandoned by their faith communities because they confessed a private struggle in a space that should have been safe for them.
Perhaps you’re wondering where I am today? Despite being a life-long follower, or well-intentioned follower of Jesus, it still took me the better part of a year to discern that the voices inside my head, damning me for being in the space that I was in, were not voicing God’s doubt about me. And that was a freeing realization for me. When I invest the energy to engage the discomfort within my own mind, it often enables me to sort through my mess of thoughts, and emotions, and convictions. If I’m brave to walk through it, or stumble through it to be more honest, I usually come out with more clarity than I had going in. And, many times, I invite a close friend or two to walk with me. No one says we have to do this work alone.
I’ve also discovered a renewed comfort in my belief that God is present in our doubts. You could probably say that is what kept my faith anchored in that season. And… in this season. And probably, hopefully, in the next one.
So hey – let’s wrap up. There are a couple things I want to highlight and the first one is that
- Spiritual doubt is a valuable stage, not a permanent state.
- If you’re in a place this morning where some of this story didn’t connect, because you’ve yet to wrestle with doubts or that season feels behind you, I want you to hear from me directly that that is OK. I don’t know if doubt can be forced and I don’t know what the value would be in doing so. But I do think this conversation is still important to engage with because if the wisdom writings of the Psalmists teach us anything, we know that ‘everything comes to pass’. If you’re in a tough season right now, it will come to pass. Are you in a really good season right now? Well… yeah. Sorry.
- And for some people, doubt tends to creep in slowly and builds over time. For others, it feels like a meteor just broke through the atmosphere of their soul. Regardless of how it may manifest in your spiritual walk, we need to understand that it has value and it doesn’t have to be a dead-end. Doubts may always be among us but not every doubt will necessitate a battle.
A second truth I want to share is that
- Dissatisfaction with your spiritual journey does not invalidate the lessons you’ve learned along the way. Saul found that his life of rigorous study and zealotry was a primer for his success as an early missionary. His dualistic, black & white thinking of right and wrong fueled his eventual throwdown to argue for the embrace of non-Jewish believers which, in his time, many disciples were not yet convinced of.
Now, I have my own disappointments with the Church and while there are a hundred things I would like to change about the Christian worldview I was offered as a child, some elements of it were truly wonderful and those have been gifts that still bless me today. One of those gifts was the cultivation of community. I believe I could have journeyed smoother without the “turn or burn” messaging I was given as a young man yet, while articulating my dissatisfaction comes easily, it is actually difficult for me to find words to express to you how much love there is in a Midwest casserole. The eagerness to help, the felt security, the feeling that my church was a second sort of family – there was goodness there. And I think messy goodness may be par for the course in this life. If so, there’s no need to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. So if you’re a self described recovering-fundamentalist, recovering-Catholic, recovering-whatever, I’m so glad to meet you where you are. Today. Recovery is just another way of being “born again”. In some time, we may be recovering from where we are today. I think that’s ok. It probably means that we’re growing. Finally, I want to say that
- Doubt may be a constant companion but it poses little threat to your calling or your identity as God’s beloved. As we imagined the big questions that Saul must have been asking himself and painfully wrestling with, I find it unlikely that he found all of his answers immediately. While the author of Acts, Luke, probably was not attempting to give a rigorous account of Saul’s conversion story, he added enough information to suggest that Saul was only sidetracked for a short while. Luke tells us that after arriving in Damascas a man named Anias was sent to Saul, by God, to restore his eyesight. After remaining with the the disciples for several days, Saul begins to preach the message of Christ.
While it is impossible to get a truly accurate timeline from Luke’s account, it does suggest that there was not a lot of time between Saul’s confrontation by Jesus and Saul’s response in proclaiming the gospel.
Saul, very likely, was still wrestling inside. While his personality and conviction allowed his actions to pivot more quickly than many of us might, on the inside, Paul was likely a bit of a mess still. God does not require us to have everything figured out before we can love others.
I’ve had the privilege of serving as a pastor for more than ten years, most of that time at our Vineyard Church. I wanted to use my platform today to confess to you that even most pastors have their own doubts – normal, everyday kind of doubts but also some really big ones too. I sometimes think that the church gets so caught up in the idea of its own witness to the world that it becomes afraid to show anything that makes it appear weak, insecure, uncertain, or struggling.
I don’t know where you are at today in your relationship with God and the church and with spiritual things. Maybe you’re ALL IN on this adventure and I’m glad! – because walking this road can feel lonely at times and I need a community to travel with.
Or maybe you have one foot in the church and one foot out the door and yeah – I get that. I get the tension of being drawn to Jesus but being put off by church culture or painful church experiences.
If you’re both feet out of the church, it is unlikely that you’re tuning in to this message. Maybe we’ll bump into each other at a Starbucks and connect in the way we both experience God in a cup of black coffee?
Regardless where you’re at, I hope that God was able to meet you this morning, wherever your feet have taken you. I believe that you are loved. I believe that you are wanted. And I have faith that God is not done with you yet.
So hey – next week, my friend Sam is going to lead us in a conversation on humility and I can’t think of a better topic to follow up with. It requires a significant amount of humility to let go of our egos and adopt a willingness to travel where the Spirit leads us. Sam is among my more humble friends – a gifted pastor in her own right but not one to shine the spotlight on herself. She walks the walk on this topic and we’re blessed to have her voice as an influential part of our community. So don’t miss next week!
And if you found this topic helpful, I would recommend following up with Brian McClaren’s book, Faith After Doubt and I’ve left my contact information in the sermon notes if any followup would be helpful. Let’s close our time today in prayer.