Unexpected Doubt

Unexpected Doubt

Sermon Podcast Audio 

Introduction

We are at the beginning of a new series we kicked off last week called “Unexpected: What You Never Saw Coming.” For four weeks we are going to be looking at the period of time right after that first Easter Sunday to see how everything that Jesus did during this period was totally and completely unexpected.

Last week, we looked at the resurrection of Jesus and how everyone was taken by surprise by that event. No one expected Jesus to rise from the dead, but he did. No one expected an empty tomb, but it was. And in this moment when Jesus came back to life, came the unexpected message that we too can have life.

Last week, Christians all around the world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. We sang happy songs. We wore our Sunday best and took family pictures. It was a great day. But for us here in Iowa, overshadowing the celebration were a couple of events you may or may not have heard about.

Many of us heard about the tragic events of last Saturday. Two policemen transporting someone across the state were struck head-on. The three people in that car were killed, as well as the young man who was driving the wrong way down the interstate.

What I didn’t know until after church last Sunday was that a sophomore from Waukee High School had taken his life Sunday morning. This young man was known by and a friend to several kids in our youth group here at Ashworth Road.

So, while we celebrate the resurrection and the life of Jesus, we have these events happening around us, events that give us pause and bring lots of questions to mind: Questions like, “Why?” and “How could God let this happen?”  “What purpose is there in this?”

These questions can lead to doubts about God and whether or not we can trust him. They are questions about life, meaning, and purpose, questions about the future, death, and eternity, questions about the reality and solidity of our faith.

Sometimes in our lives, either through events like these or dark periods we go through, there are times when God seems remote and we wonder, “Is this all true?” Or we read something on the internet that calls into question something we had been taught at church and believed our entire life. Or we hear some celebrity or talking head say things like “Religion is for those who don’t think.” As German philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “I had therefore to remove knowledge in order to make room for belief.”

What do we do with our doubts?  Some of you are sitting on the outside of faith, of believing. You have heard the claims of Jesus. You have a friend or a family member who talks about Jesus and God in a way unfamiliar to you, and your doubt has led you here to take a closer look.

Some are on the inside of faith. You are a Christ follower, one who is trying to live like Jesus lived, but for whatever reason, you are beginning to have some doubts about it. You want to talk about it with someone, but deep down you feel like doubts aren’t acceptable. After all, isn’t doubt the opposite of faith?

What I want to help you see today, is that doubt is normal. It is not intrinsically right or wrong.  Unexpected doubt will either sever or strengthen your faith. What might shock you is that unexpected doubt can lead to unexpected faith.

Doubting Thomas

When it comes to the Christian faith, there is probably no bigger name associated with doubt than one of Jesus’ own disciples. In fact, I am sure that many of you know who I am talking about: Doubting Thomas.

We find the story of Thomas in John’s gospel, in chapter 20. Let’s read about how he got this nickname. We will start at verse 24.

Now Thomas (also known as 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.” John 20:24

Let’s give a little background to the story. These events took place a week after Easter Sunday morning. Easter Sunday, the women had gone to the tomb. The tomb was empty. The women had heard the message of the angels and went to tell the disciples what they had seen and heard. The disciples, these guys who had given up everything to follow Jesus, reacted in disbelief when then women told them the story. 

“But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” Luke 24:11

These men thought these women were hysterical, crazy, out of their minds. They doubted the story. They did not believe.  And later that day, on Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples to prove to them it actually happened just like the women said. Luke tells the story.

And just a they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them.  “Peace be with you,” he said.  But the whole group was startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost!

“Why are you frightened?” he asked.  “Why are your hearts filled with doubt?  Look at my hands.  Look at my feet.  You can see that it’s really me.  Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do.”  As he spoke, he showed them his hands and his feet.

Still they stood there in disbelief, filled with joy and wonder.  Then he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it as they watched.

Then he said, “When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.  And he said, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day.  It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’  You are witnesses of all these things.” Luke 24:36-49

This is a story about some men who said they had encountered Jesus. (More on this next week.) So, Thomas gets a bad wrap as being the doubter, but clearly we see that every last one of them doubted. If I’m Thomas, I’m like, “What’s up with that? Seriously?! All of you sorry suckers doubt and yet I’m the one going down in history as Doubting Thomas? What a rip!”

But in this moment that Jesus appeared to the ten disciples on Easter Sunday, Thomas was absent, for whatever reason.  Jesus showed them his hands and feet, encouraged them to go ahead and touch him to see that this was real. He was not a ghost like they thought. And in this moment, the ten and the others with them believe. Their doubt is removed.

Now let’s fast forward to where we started. It was seven days later.  There were seven days of Thomas hearing about how they saw Jesus, seven days of “Thomas you should have been there. It was so amazing. We’ve seen him.”  And for a week, Thomas lived in this place of doubt, doubting their story, wondering what they actually saw because it couldn’t have been Jesus.

But that next Sunday, let’s pick up the story to see what happens. Back to John 20.

Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them.  The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them.  “Peace be with you,” he said.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands.  Put your hand into the wound in my side.  Don’t be faithless any longer.  Believe!”

“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me.  Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” —John 20:26-29

So, Jesus showed up, through a locked door somehow, greeted them the exact same way as he did before, and he looked at Thomas and said to him, “Go ahead. You said you need proof. Touch my hands. Reach and see where they pierced my side.  Stop doubting and believe.” Better said, “Do not become unbelieving, but believing.”

But simply seeing Jesus was all Thomas needed. We don’t see that Thomas even reached out his hand to touch him. He didn’t need to. For him, seeing was believing. And Thomas responded with one of the greatest confessions recorded in the Bible. He said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas may get a bad wrap for doubting, but we get some great insight into doubt and how God responds to our doubt from this story.

The Reality of Doubt

For many of us, when we hear about Doubting Thomas, we immediately think negatively about him. This isn’t a term of endearment. But as one commentator I read this week put it, maybe we should stop calling him Doubting Thomas and instead refer to him as Honest Thomas. He was honest, because at least he was willing to acknowledge and own his doubt.

Many of us live in one of two camps. We either see doubt as a virtue or as a vice. We either believe that it is great to doubt and question everything OR we believe that it is a sin to ever allow such thoughts in our minds and that it has no place in the life of faith. Which is correct?

Well, it can be either. Our culture tells us that doubt is great, the ultimate virtue and if you doubt everything you are somehow more intellectually superior than those with faith. It says, “doubt the existence of God and Jesus and the resurrection, because just questioning these things and living in some ethereal uncertainty makes you above everyone else.” It doesn’t. It just makes you unsure and confused.

Others look at doubt as one of the seven deadly sins. It’s not! But we shun anyone that asks questions; we cast them out of the community. And we have created an environment where genuine individuals, people searching for answers, do not feel safe in expressing their difficulty of belief. So they hide and struggle in the shadows, wondering what’s wrong with them.

Preachers have been less than helpful in this regard, unfortunately. All too often we tell people, “Just have more faith. Just believe,” as if that is reassuring on any level. This attitude seldom produces faith or confidence. But can we all agree today that if even the disciples struggled, maybe doubt is more common among followers than we like to admit? Maybe the Christian faith is not automatically free from doubt, and that it can even be okay if we have doubts.

Doubt is common. Author Phillip Yancey calls it the skeleton in the closet of faith. And today we are bringing it out into the open. The truth is, we all struggle with doubt at some time or another. Even pastors. There are no superheroes here. And as much as I wish I could stand up here and say: here are seven things to do to never doubt and to get rid of doubt, I can’t.

Doubt is real and happens to the best of us. We have to be careful of marginalizing those who admit it. Did you see how Jesus responded to Thomas? He didn’t come in and start yelling at him, saying “Thomas, how could you be so stupid? How many times do I heave to tell you this?”

Jesus doesn’t disparage or belittle Thomas’ faith. In fact, Jesus met Thomas where he was. He didn’t come in saying, “You want proof, want to see the scars? Too bad.” No. On the contrary, Jesus came in saying, “I will meet you at the point of your doubt.”  But in saying this, we need to probably do a little refining of our understanding of the word.

Types of Doubt

Doubt is simply this: to think that something may not be true or certain.  It is not the same as unbelief. And it is not the opposite of faith. Unbelief is the opposite of faith and it is the refusal believe. Doubt is simply uncertainty.

But I believe there are a couple of types of doubt: believing and unbelieving doubt. And there is a big difference between the two. Unbelieving doubt is dangerous because it keeps us from moving forward. It asks questions that it has no interest in answering. The goal of this type of doubt is deconstruction without attempting to reconstruct anything in its place. It is a skepticism with no desire for clarity, certainty, or assurance.

Believing doubt is the type Thomas had. It asks good, hard, honest questions, and actually looks for answers.  It strengthens us and propels us forward in faith.

Where an unbelieving doubt pulls us aways from God and destroys what little faith we might have had, believing doubt pulls us deeper, strengthening our faith to greater depths than before, solidifying our footing in the nature and character of God and the person and work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Tim Keller in his book, “The Reason for God” writes, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

Believing doubt is not a bad thing. Questioning is not wrong. It indicates you are seeking an answer. It matures us and our faith. Often when doubts arise, we often think, “God take me back to where I was before I had these thoughts.” But working through the difficulty, we understand we can never go back to where we were.  We will not be the same as we once were. We have been changed for the better.

So, what do we do with our doubt?

Dealing with Doubt

Maybe you are struggling today and this is what you’ve been waiting for: solutions in dealing with doubt.

Or maybe you’ve endured this message because you are rock solid in your faith and don’t ever struggle. If this is you, listen up so that you can help those struggling.

It begins with acknowledgement. Doubts will come. There is nothing inherently sinful about that, but you are responsible for how you respond to them. Find someone you trust that you can be open and honest with. Not just anyone will do. You need someone who can help you through this, not pile on you, but someone whose faith you can lean on. The temptation is to find others who doubt as well. Instead, find friends who are strong in their faith and breathe in their faith.

If someone comes to you with questions and doubts, create a safe space for them. Don’t ridicule or criticize. God might just be using you to strengthen someones faith.

Get to the root of your doubt. Are there serious questions you cannot answer about God, the resurrection, or faith? Or is the doubt caused by some circumstance in your life that you can’t make sense of?  Often in the middle of our own stuff we can’t see anything outside, certainly anything that could make sense. We need an outside perspective to show us that just because we might be going through something, it doesn’t negate who God is or what Jesus has done. Truth lies not in our circumstances, but in the person and work of Jesus.

Doubt your doubts. Consider why the questions you’re having might not be completely defensible either. Those outside of faith also doubt their beliefs. Atheists and skeptics wonder and question too. Recognize that the struggle doesn’t show you have no faith, but is actually a sign of faith.  And through the struggle comes deeper faith.

Keller also writes, “Deep faith is embedded and hiding itself in doubt.” Doubters can actually become the strongest believers. And what was once doubt can become the bedrock of an unshakable faith.

Know that Jesus meets doubt with revelation. God is not shaken by your doubt or your questions. Keep going back to what you know to be true and build from there. Don’t give up. Keep digging. Keep seeking until you find answers, with the understanding that confidence is not all or nothing. You can believe something and still need to increase your confidence in it.

And when God reveals himself, accept it. The amazing thing about Thomas is that he didn’t need to touch Jesus. Seeing was enough. Be willing to listen to those around you when they tell you that you might be looking at things from the wrong perspective. What you see as difficulty could also be seen as a blessing. When God reveals himself, don’t continue to question. Instead, listen and receive. Thomas’ response was “My Lord and My God.”

Conclusion

Doubts. . . we all have them.  They will either sever your faith or strengthen your faith. We wonder why the world looks the way it does. We wonder why God would allow terrible things to happen to us.

Some struggle with the doubt that Jesus could really sacrifice himself for them. But that doubt should be overcome with the truth that He went to the cross and died for them despite knowing who they are and all that they have done.

Can I tell you what happened to Thomas, that most famous of doubters? Scholars believe that Thomas traveled to India where he spread the message of Jesus, quite probably as the first missionary to the Far East. Not too bad for someone we still 2,000 years later refer to as Doubting Thomas. I guess he didn’t allow his doubt to lead him to unbelief, but rather, he took those doubts and came out the other side with a stronger faith than he’d ever had, a faith that led him to take the message of Jesus to the far reaches of the world and even give his life for the cause of Christ.

What about your doubts?  Will you keep your focus on Jesus even through the struggle? Will you allow your doubts to deepen your faith or will you allow them to pull you away?  Doubt is going to happen, but even when it does it always seems to catch us off guard.  Allow that unexpected doubt to create within you an unexpected faith.

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