This is the sermon I delivered at a Profession of Faith service at Bethel Christian Reformed Church on August 22, 2010.
Oh Me of Little Faith
Jesus’ disciples would be great guests on the show “Ghost Hunters”. One more than one occasion, they’ve claimed to see a ghost. Listen to these stories, first from Matthew 14:23-33 and the second from Luke 24:36-43.
The disciples have witnessed the impossible – a person walking on water and walking through a locked door. No wonder they thought they were seeing a ghost, what else but a ghost could do these impossible things? It is not that the disciples were superstitious – they’ve been following Jesus for some time and have seen impossible acts performed by Jesus – water turned into wine, blind people made to see, paralytics able to walk, the sick and demon-possessed healed, dead people return to life, and now this – walking on water and through doors. If anyone shouldn’t have been surprised at the events in these stories you would think it would be the disciples. And yet, here there are, in a boat and a locked in a room, terrified out of their minds, completely unsure about what they were experiencing.
It is easy for us to criticize the disciples for the clear lack of faith in these stories. Even Jesus seems to chastise them for their doubts. Both Peter and Thomas appear to be guilty of allowing their doubts to defeat their faith. They know who Jesus is and what he is capable of doing, they’ve left their jobs and families to follow him, and yet, time again, both in these stories, and in others, the disciples seem to have a very shallow and weak faith. We like to think that if we were in their shoes, our faith would be deeper and stronger. We would know better. We would be able to see and understand everything that was going on. Our faith would prevail over doubt. However, it is wrong of us to criticize the disciples for allowing their doubts to win over their faith. Furthermore, it is wrong for us to assume that Jesus is suggesting that doubt is the opposite of faith. So what do these stories tell us about faith and doubt?
Most importantly, these stories remind us that the Christian faith is not about following a set of doctrines, membership in a denomination, or adherence to a particular tradition. Christianity is about following Jesus, nothing more, nothing less. The Christian faith, in a nutshell, is about being a disciple of Jesus. In following Jesus, we are putting our faith in the promises of God to love us no matter what and to free the entire universe from sin and death. In other words, for the Christian, faith is a way of life, the way of Jesus, the way of love, forgiveness, and redemption. A life lived in covenant with God.
But saying that the Christian faith is a way of life rather than a set of beliefs does not get to the heart of what faith is and the relationship between faith and doubt. The Greek work for faith used in the Bible comes from a verb that means to trust, to have confidence, to be reliable, to be assured. These are all relationship words. If Christian faith is about following Jesus, then faith is primarily about a relationship. Our faith is rooted in our relationship with Jesus; it is not based on our adherence to a set of doctrines or a certain tradition. That is not to say that doctrine and tradition aren’t good and important things – only that they are secondary to our faith. They help explain our faith and give it shape, but we should never reduce our faith to them. Christian faith is about one thing – our commitment to following Jesus.
For many Christians faith equals certainty, certainty in terms of something provable beyond a reasonable doubt. For them, Christian faith is true, not because of the person we have faith in and the promises he makes, but because the central tenets of Christian belief are provable and resist all claims to the contrary. This makes Christian faith into something like a mathematical equation or a science experiment and completely overlooks the fundamental aspect of Christian faith – our relationship with Jesus. This kind of faith is not based on trust, confidence or faithfulness; rather it demands certainty and requires absolute proof. In other words, for them, faith is primarily a matter of the intellect. It requires the ability to rationally agree with a “truth claim”.
However, to insist that Christian faith is first and foremost a matter of the mind is dangerous and it misses the necessity of following with our entire lives – with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is dangerous because it reduces the truth of our faith to a series of statements and overlooks the fact that the truth of our faith is not found in statements – it is found in the one who calls himself the Truth. When faith is reduced to a series of statements it becomes easy for people to disagree with and walk away from the faith, even if the statements are. People are more likely to become Christians not because of their ability to rationally assent to the truth claims of Christianity but rather because of the radical love and acceptance shown to them by other Christians. We forget that people followed Jesus not because of his doctrine but because of the way he related to others and how he accepted the most hated, despised, and rejected people of his day.
The reduction of faith to an intellectual matter also explains why there is often so much hostility between different Christian denominations – when faith becomes a matter of doctrine, it is easy to condemn those with whom we disagree. Schisms are all too common in the church. Non-Christians are completely accurate in their description of Christians as hypocritical; we claim to be people of love and yet we can’t seem to love each other. We become more concerned about who is right and who is truer rather than faithfully following Jesus. We forget that faithfully following Jesus can take many shapes and colors and that this is a good thing because it adds depth and fruitfulness to Christian tradition.
And yet, there is a tendency by Christians, especially Christians from the Reformed tradition, to make faith all about doctrine. This explains why we are so allergic to doubt; why we assume that doubt is the enemy of faith. When we make doubt the opposite of faith, we assume that faith is a cognitive operation However, as we’ve seen, Christian faith is anything but an intellectual game, it is a relationship. That’s not to say that we can’t think about our faith, only that our faith cannot be reduced to a system of beliefs. In the words of one theologian, “Christianity is not a message which has to be believed, but an experience of faith that becomes a message”. (Edward Schillebeeckx)
Because our faith is about a relationship, it requires the same things as any good and healthy relationship – loyalty, commitment, trust, and, most importantly, love. In professing your faith, you are making a commitment of “troth” to Jesus, dedicating your life to following him. The word “troth” is an old English word. You may have heard it used to describe an engaged couple, for example, he is her betrothed. In other words, he has promised to marry her. The word troth has two basic meanings. The first meaning is trust. In professing your faith, you are putting your trust in Jesus, you are committing your life to him. Faith is about trust, not certainty – certainty demands explanation; faith requires no explanation. The second meaning of the word is truth. In professing your faith, you are taking Jesus at his word; you are accepting that his promises to you are true, not because he can prove them as such, but because you have faith in him. Faith is trusting in the truth of Jesus. In professing your faith, you are making a “love claim” – that you love Jesus and also that you accept Jesus’ love for you.
However, none of this suggests that doubt is opposed to faith. The opposite of faith is not intellectual doubt because faith is not simply a matter of the mind. The opposite of faith is fear. Did you know that the most repeated command that Jesus gave to his disciples was “Do not be afraid”? A fear-based person is someone who is consumed with worry and anxiety. Jesus frequently reminded his followers not to worry. In our readings for today, the disciples are terrified – their fear causes them to doubt what they are really seeing. But, they are not having intellectual doubts; they are scared out of their minds! Jesus’ first words to his disciples are words of comfort – “Do not be afraid”, “Peace to you”, “Do not be frightened”. The disciples’ fear prevents them from seeing Jesus, from trusting him. Fear distorts the sight that comes through faith. If they had no fear, their faith would allow them to see and accept the impossible possibility of Jesus walking on water and through locked doors; it was only after Jesus comforted them that their fears subsided and their faith was restored.
Peter’s doubt is caused by fear. He is afraid and unsure of what is going on. He demands certainty – “Jesus, if that’s you, then call out to me”. Jesus calls out to him and Peter nervously gets out of the boat. Peter’s demand for certainty will not be satisfied in a situation like this – certainty is concerned with the limits of the possible. Walking on water is impossible. So, Peter’s fear gets the best of him; he doubts that he is seeing clearly, he doubts that it is possible to walk on water, he doubts that it really is Jesus who is calling to him. Peter doubts because he is afraid. He doubts because he demands certainty in an impossible situation. O Peter of great fear and little faith!
Thomas’ doubt is caused by fear. He is afraid and unsure of what is going on. One of his best friends was just brutally tortured and crucified. He demands certainty – “I’ll only believe that Jesus is really resurrected if I can touch his scars!” Thomas’ demand for certainty will not be satisfied in a situation like this – certainty is concerned with the limits of the possible. Resurrecting from the dead is impossible. So, Thomas’ fear gets the best of him; he doubts the claims of the other disciples that they have seen Jesus; he doubts that it is possible to rise from the dead; he doubts that Jesus will return to them as he promised. Thomas doubts because he is afraid. He doubts because he demands certainty in an impossible situation. O Thomas of great fear and little faith!
And yet, we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize Peter and Thomas for their fear and lack of faith. How many of us in the first situation would have responded any differently? Would any of us have even dared to get out of the boat? Peter desperately wants to believe that Jesus is calling him, that it is possible to walk on water! And what about Thomas, the disciple who has received the unfortunate nick-name “Doubting Thomas”? Would any of us have responded any differently than Thomas? Thomas was being brutally honest – he refuses to ignore the tragic events of Jesus’ arrest, torture, and death. He doesn’t not want to mock Jesus memory with wishful and delusional thinking that Jesus might somehow be alive. Our lives exhibit the same type of fear shown by Peter and Thomas. Our fear causes us to lose faith in Jesus, the one who makes the impossible possible. Like Thomas, we experience dark times in our faith that causes us to lose hope in God’s promises. We allow anxiety and despair to cloud our faith. We become disheartened and forget to trust that God is with us always, not matter what. Our fear inhibits our faith.
Then Jesus comforts the disciples and reminds them that their fears are needless and misplaced. Once in the boat, Jesus touches them, their fear disappears and their faith in him is restored – “Truly you are the Son of God!” Once in the room, Jesus comes to Thomas and allows him to touch his scars, not simply to meet Thomas’ demand for evidence, but to show Thomas his identity, that it really is Jesus, the one who was tortured and crucified, who is now, impossibly, standing before him. Upon touching Jesus, Thomas’ fear disappeared and his faith in him is restored – “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus touch woke the disciples up from their fear induced state, bringing them back to reality. It seems that the only thing able to restore the faith of the disciples was Jesus touch. But what would happen to this group of terrified disciples who locked themselves in a room once Jesus left? How could they fulfill Jesus’ final instruction to them to “go and make disciples of all nations” when they were so prone to fear?
Jesus knows that faith in him requires his presence. So he promises his disciples that he will send them the Holy Spirit to comfort them in their fear and to empower them for the mission he has given them. Blessed with the Holy Spirit, the disciples had absolutely nothing to fear. They were equipped for their mission to share and spread God’s love to the world. One needs only to look at the boldness of the disciples and the early church – they were fearless in their proclamation of God’s love, even in the face of persecution and under the threat of death. They were not afraid because, in the words of John, they knew that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Their love of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit were the foundation of their faith. Faith is about love, commitment, and trust. Fear is the enemy of faith because fear is suspicious of love, it breeds lies, and it instigates mistrust and doubt. Fear distorts and destroys faith.
And this is precisely why doubt is not the opposite of faith. When we fear our doubts, we allow fear to defeat faith. Yet, there is nothing negative or destructive about doubt in and of itself. It is only when we allow fear to erode our faith that doubt becomes dangerous, when we demand certainty instead of trusting in God’s promises. Fear – not doubt – poisons faith. In fact, doubt can be a good thing for faith. St. Augustine describes it this way – “doubt is but another element of faith”.
If doubt is an element of faith, then we cannot overlook its importance. When faith welcomes doubt, faith is strengthened. If faith is the ability to see things the way they really are, then doubt can help us put things into focus. Being honest about our doubts is important – we need to express our doubts in order to strengthen our faith because our doubts can help us see things from a different angle, they can help us ask important questions, and they can prompt us to go deeper. We experience God’s love more deeply and freely in a place of wrestling and doubt than if we had all the answers. When we echo the words of the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”, we do not mean “get rid of my doubts” and “give me absolute certainty”, we mean, help me trust in you fully and completely, especially when anxiety and fear start to take over.
We do not need to protect ourselves from doubt, we need to positively and constructively deal with our doubt. In fact, as Pastor Timothy Keller notes, “A person’s faith can collapse if she has failed to listen patiently to her doubts”. We need to be honest and open with ourselves and each other about our faith and our doubt. The church must be a safe place in which we can express our doubts in order to encourage and build each other up in faith. However, too often church is a place where we clam up – we fear expressing our doubts because we are afraid of what other people might say. We want to protect ourselves and our faith.
And yet, protecting ourselves opens the doors to fear. But, as we’ve learned, we need to protect ourselves against fear because fear destroys faith. Fear is what causes some to viciously hold onto traditions, to be unwilling to change the way we proclaim the gospel in our changing world. Fear is what the Pharisees were guilty of and it is what many Christians today are guilty of as well. Fear destroys faith. When you hold onto a tradition, are you doing it because of faith or because of fear? Fear is what prevents people from accepting God’s forgiveness and love. Fear is what prevents people from following Jesus. Fear is what prevents people from loving their neighbours. We become averse to risk – we like Jesus’ ideas and what he stood for, but when it comes to putting these things into practice, we freeze up with fear. Why are we today so fearful? Because we have ignored the Holy Spirit and have allowed ourselves to be distracted from the true nature of our faith, our relationship to Jesus.
A sign of strong faith is the ability and desire to ask questions; a sign that fear has overcome faith is when you are so certain of something that you refuse to ask questions. That is not to say that strong faith does not involve confidence, only that the confidence of strong faith is dynamic, open, and non-dogmatic because it ultimately is based upon trust. For millennia, people were certain that the earth was flat; it was accepted as fact. However, there were people who, while originally certain of the earth’s flatness, began to question their long held assumptions. Just because they changed their beliefs does not mean that they were not serious about their belief in the flatness of the earth. Rather, because they had strong faith, they were able to ask questions. Some of you are probably thinking, we that is all well and good for scientists, but it has nothing to do with Christianity. However, if that were true, then we would all be Catholic. Martin Luther, a committed Catholic monk, would never have questioned the church regarding the sale of indulgences. Luther’s questioning of certain church practices was rooted in his very deep belief and commitment to the Catholic Church.
Questioning and doubt are fundamental aspects of faith, so much so that, faith which does not doubt is dead faith. Because doubt and faith are not opposites, having doubts does not mean that we are not trusting God enough, that we don’t have enough faith. In fact, in his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul notes that he will only boast in the weakness of his faith because he accepted God’s promise that God’s grace is sufficient, that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Our faith is strong because of God’s love; only his love strengthens our faith. Similarly, in his letter to the Roman church, Paul notes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” because “all who are lead by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Paul continues, we don’t have a spirit of fear because we have the Holy Spirit. Because of our faith, “we are children of God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”. He is the one upon whom we cast all our anxiety because he loves us. We can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
This is what the disciples forgot in the boat and when they locked themselves in the room. This is what we forget when we let fear win over faith and when we try to ignore our doubts. Christians more than anyone need to be honest and upfront in expressing and dealing with their doubts. One of the most common perceptions of Christians by non-Christians is that they are arrogant in their beliefs. Sadly, this is true – too often Christians demand conformity to a certain set of doctrines they themselves hold, but that, if they are honest with themselves, they have doubts about them. Struggle is an important part of faith – it strengthens and nourishes faith. We need to openly discuss our doubts, not only with Christians, but also with non-Christians. We discuss them with Christians to encourage and build each other up. We discuss them with non-Christians in order to honestly acknowledge that we don’t have all the neat and tidy answers to life’s problems like we think we do, that the only answer we can give is Christ, a total dependence on him, particularly in the midst of the struggles of life.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that often our faith is not as strong or spectacular as we want it to be. And yet, the good news is that Jesus doesn’t require a faith-checklist to follow him, he doesn’t have a blueprint of the perfect Christian in mind – he came for those sick with sin, he knows our weaknesses, he knows how small our faith is, and still he welcomes us with open arms and calls us his sisters and brothers, not because we are able to prove the greatness of our faith, but because we are willing to trust in him. And even in those times when faith in him seems impossible, he comes to us with words of comfort and peace.
Have doubts? Have little faith? Don’t be afraid. Don’t worry. Jesus loves you, o you of little faith. His love is sufficient for you. Amen.