Sermon on Doubt - Reverend Charles Royden
Poor old Thomas
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the
disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen
the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands
and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I
will not believe it."
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
He was not the only one who failed to believe, we are told that many of
the disciples doubted at first, but he is the one who is remembered. And
because we use the phrase ‘doubting Thomas’ pejoratively, we all know that
we must not doubt!
The problem is that we all doubt and I know how many people feel that they are fraudulent Christians because of the doubts. There are many Christians who feel that they have let God down and they perhaps should not even be Christians at all, because of their doubts.
So let’s think this morning for a short while about what doubt is and what we should do with it.
Doubt is when we find it difficult to believe certain things, we find some things in our communal faith difficult.
Our Lent course dealt with this in relation to the creation stories. Many people suddenly found it difficult to hold to the idea that creation occurred in six days, 5,000 years ago. Their faith was knocked. They thought that if you couldn’t sign up on the dotted line to believe the whole shooting match then you couldn’t be a Christian.
Doubt is also when we find it difficult to feel certain things. We might be able to say in our minds that we believe God is looking after Aunt Priscilla and that everything is going to be alright on the other side, but there is in our hearts that aching feeling of sadness and loss which challenges our faith.
That is at least a major part of what doubts it. Troubles of the heart and mind, which challenge our faith in God and question perhaps whether God is really there at all, or whether we are all just making it up.
So what do we do with doubt. !
The first things is to own up. Everybody has doubts and fears about their faith. There can be a terrible superficiality in churches when everybody pretends that they never have any doubt, that they are always so sure. This is a dangerous way to live our Christian lives, we are in denial of our own selves.
You will know that in our churches there is a team of folks who visit the bereaved. This is the time of life when people most need support and friendship, and just the human contact from a caring person is much appreciated. The pastoral visitors are not there to tell people how to cope, we try to listen but not to give too much helpful advice. But the one helpful thing which we can share with bereaved folks is the knowledge that most people feel the same deep sense of shock and loss following the death of a loved one. This is important when you are in the position of a bereaved person, suddenly some people realise that what they are going through, unbearable as it might seem, is perfectly normal.
So it is with Christians. The realisation that Bishops, priests, ministers and deacons have just the same doubts and fears as everybody else can be quite liberating.
Doubt is normal. And honest doubts is part of faith. I would much rather talk to somebody honestly who was struggling with their faith than listen to somebody who was deceiving themselves. The Victorian cure for doubt was to avoid too much inquiry. Charles Kingsley is said to have cautioned his wife over doubt by saying
‘Think little and read less’
But this is not to deal with doubt, it is rather to consign our faith to ignorance in the search of illusive bliss.
‘He that never doubted scarce ever well believed ‘
Wrote the poet William Austen (d1634)
I am not pretending that doubt is a wonderful thing, it is not it can paralyse us and prevent us from serving God or worshipping him. Yet every servant of God has had doubts, and it might seem that they are indeed a prerequisite for those whose seek to be honest before God.
Think of Moses, I cannot do this God, I cannot speak.
Think of Jeremiah, struggling with the doubts which characterise the deeply depressed.
Think of Peter who had a life which seemed characterised by dreadful times of doubt, which led him to deny Jesus three times.
Yet it is in doubt and the process of dealing with doubts that we grow and mature in our faith. Perhaps the theologian who looked on the most positive side of doubts was Tillich. He said
No one can say of himself that he is in a position of faith, every theologian is committed and alienated, he is always in faith and doubt.
What he was saying was that doubts and faith are twins. The opposite of faith is not doubts, the opposite of faith, the opponent of faith is unbelief.
It is often the most honest Christian who has doubts
Obviously if we are in denial we can believe anything, we can refuse to deal with our faith in a honest fashion and pretend to ourselves and others. Now there are some Christians who do seem to drift along with a very ‘simple faith’ and I don’t use the word in a negative sense. If that works for you then fine. But, many people speak of having a simple childlike trust and keep their doubts to themselves and that is not good. Do not be afraid to speak your doubts, share them with other Christians and learn from them. A doubts shared is a doubt less easily the cause of trouble, secret doubts can become fears which harm our faith.
It is also often the most thoughtful Christians who have doubts
We can be utterly naïve and think that the moon is made of blue cheese, that is not the kind of faith which I would want to encourage. It is good for us to think through what we believe and be able to give account for our faith. We do not have to pay lip service to things which we find difficult, we should talk about them, pray about them and see how they lead us into a deeper knowledge of God. I believe that the Christian faith survives questioning and the strongest intellectual inquiry.
A small compensation for the broadening of the waist with age, is a corresponding broadening of the mind. As children we see things in easy blacks and whites, as we get older we see more shades of grey. This is a good thing, it is a sign of maturity, even if it makes things less clear! It is sometimes said that the role of the preacher is
'to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable'
Occasionally we do the first well, but we must also do the second. It involves challenge and moving us all on in our understanding. Doubts can do this too. It reminds us that we do not have God all sown up in a box. God is bigger than the measure of our minds, we cannot contain God within our imagination or understanding, inevitably there will be much we do not understand. And isn't God all the more to be worshipped for that. Amen.