Why Is My Doubt Stronger Than My Faith?

Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-51)

This Sunday, Grace and I are beginning a sermon series that, in many ways, has been a couple of years in the making.  Back in 2017, Grace preached a sermon on doubts and the questions and uncertainties we have as people of faith.  As part of her sermon, Grace had the ushers pass out index cards and asked everyone to write down a doubt they had, a question they had, and place it in the offering plate.

Some of you may remember doing that, and you may have wondered what happened to those cards.  Well, Grace took them and compiled all the questions into a single Word document that ran three pages long.  We looked at it together – such wonderfully rich questions, such honest expressions of doubts and uncertainties in the midst of faith.

Last fall, Grace and I pulled out that list of questions as we did our sermon planning for this year, and we chose six questions that stood out to us the most and might serve as a good outline for a new sermon series.  Which begins today.

And we begin with a question that, perhaps, summarizes all the rest; a question I imagine most of us have asked at some point in our life.  That question is printed in your bulletin:

Why is my doubt stronger than my faith?

I invite you to hold that question in the back of your mind as I read our scripture text for this Sunday, from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 13, verses 31-33, and then 44-51.  Listen to the Word of God:

Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 And Jesus said to them, Have you understood all this?’ And they answered, ‘Yes.’

This is the Word of the Lord – thanks be to God!

Would you pray with me?

Almighty God, speak to us a new word that informs, that challenges, that comforts, that inspires.  And walk alongside us, not as we avoid our doubts and questions, but as we step right into them.  In Jesus’ name we pray, AMEN.

***************

Have you understood this?  Jesus asked them.  They answered, Yes.

Really?

Really, nondescript crowd listening to Jesus?  You really understood that?

Just to recap here, Jesus just described, through five very short parables, what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Jesus loved parables, because parables were a way of sharing truth that made the listener work for it.  Usually Jesus’s parables were stories, narratives with characters and plot twists and all that.  Here, they’re short statements – technically, similes, just to make my high school English teacher proud.  

Jesus tells them through five simile-parables that the kingdom of heaven is like mustard seed, yeast, a hidden treasure, a merchant searching for fine pearls, and a net thrown into the sea.  Which I guess means he’s saying that the kingdom of heaven is wild-growing, uncontrollable, elusive, worthy of pursuit, and somewhat divisive…..

Have you understood this?  Yes….    (shake head, mouth “no”)

I mean, do you understand it?

Pardon my skepticism, but the crowd’s response here seems to smack of what a school class does when the teacher finishes a lesson that goes waaaaay over everyone’s head.  No one wants to be the one to say, Sorry, teach, we have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.    I mean, it’s possible the crowd understood what Jesus was saying about the intricacies of the kingdom of heaven, but I have my doubts.

Don’t we all, though.  Don’t we all.

Rodger Nishioka, well-known speaker and writer and former professor at Columbia Seminary, loves to say (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Thanks be to God that God’s grace for us does not depend on us having to understand it.”  It is a perfectly legitimate and theologically accurate statement – and yet, we really do want to understand things if at all possible.  So much of our world is built on the notion that a thing is “real” or “true” once we “get it.”  Problem is, matters of faith rarely work that way.

Take, for example, the mustard seed.  Listen again to what Jesus says:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.  It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

I have a distinct memory of the first time I heard this verse, or the first time I remember hearing it.  I was at some high school weekend Christian retreat – not Presbyterian, I think it was Young Life or Fellowship of Christian Athletes or something like that.  I remember one of our speakers preached on the mustard seed.  And near the end of his message, he had the other leaders pass out to every youth these small clear plastic orbs, about the size of an acorn.  And in the very middle was this tiny brown dot.  It was a mustard seed.  And the guy said, Keep this in your pocket, and know that if you have the faith of a tiny mustard seed, you can do amazing, amazing things for the kingdom of God!

I thought I’d long lost that plastic-encased mustard seed, but on a whim Friday night I looked in a little box where I keep odd trinkets and stuff, and lo and behold, there it was (I know you can’t see this, but I’ll put a picture on the website).  I think I kept this in my pocket for a little while after the retreat, but truth be told, I was 16 and didn’t feel like I was doing “amazing, amazing things for the kingdom of God;” so that probably meant my faith was even smaller than the size of that tiny mustard seed, and that just did not feel very encouraging.

It’s the danger of a simile misunderstood.  And it can lead to more than just discouragement.

In the past decade or so, there’s been a slew of studies looking into the religious life of people in North America and the changing landscape of faith.  A 2015 Pew Research study, for example, found that more and more people are growing increasingly uncertain about their religious beliefs – everything from specific creeds or doctrines to a belief in God at all.  When asked if they believe in “God or a universal spirit,” 89% of U.S. adults said yes – which was down from 92% eight years before.  Nearly one-in-ten said they didn’t believe in God at all, up from 5% previously.[1]

The important thing to know about the people in these studies is that they are not who we might stereotypically think – the “unchurched,” people never brought up in faith, people who have no concept or idea of God or Jesus or any of that.  Truth is, these are people of all stripes, including those raised in church, including those currently in church.  And it’s not a strictly generational thing, either – it traverses all generations, all ethnic and economic classes.  This ever-increasing group of skeptics and doubters is not some nebulous group of folks “out there.”  It is us. 

And while some of us are fully comfortable questioning beliefs and entertaining doubts, others find it to be disconcerting, unsettling, even alarming.  We typically don’t voice our doubts with others – with family members, friends, certainly not the pastor!  We don’t do this because our thinking is that others are getting along just fine in their faith, they don’t seem to have questions or doubts, they seem to understand just fine:

Have you understood this?  Yes…..   (shake head, mouth “no”)

And so we think to ourselves, well, maybe it’s just me.  Maybe my faith isn’t strong enough.  Maybe my faith is smaller than a mustard seed.

Oh God, why?  Why is my doubt stronger than my faith?

And so, our question today.  And what strikes me about this question, a question I am sure has been asked by many more than just the one who wrote it, what strikes me is that it makes an assumption about doubts: that doubts are antithetical to faith, that doubts and faith are like two magnets forever opposed to each other; like two boxers duking it out in the ring where one end “stronger” than the other.  That for every amount of doubt we have, we have that much less faith.

Try this on for size, people of God: what if none of that is true?

What if doubts are not the antithesis of faith, butactually part of it?  Literally, part of the whole messy experience of imperfect creatures trying to reach for the perfect divine; the “rub” that always happens with human beings seeing and hearing and feeling and touching, aspiring for something that exceeds our basis senses?

What if having doubts actually means having faith?

I mean, is that really such a crazy notion?  Our biblical story – the foundation of all we call “faith” – our foundational story is full of people who demonstrated what we would call ‘great faith” but absolutely had their doubts along the way.  Moses doubted that God was really calling him to speak to Pharaoh and lead the people.  Abraham and Sarah doubted God really would follow through on the promise of a child in their old age.  Jeremiah doubted God was going to have his back for speaking hard truths.  Elijah doubted God’s presence after his hollow victory at Carmel.  And Thomas, the patron saint of all doubters, Thomas doubted when it was the risen Jesus in the flesh right before him.

You want something a little more contemporary?  There’s Martin Luther, father of Protestantism and the reason we are who we are today, and the frenzy of doubts that nearly overwhelmed him and his work.  There’s beloved Mother Teresa, a paragon of Christian service and faith if there ever was one, who wrote extensively in her journals, shared with the public only in the recent years, about what she called her “dark night of the soul” and the deep, deep absence of God she felt throughout her charitable work.  And there’s the popular Pope Francis, bringing a revolution of sorts to the catholic church, who has talked extensively about the important role of doubt in faith, imploring the faithful – and I love this – imploring the faithful to “leave room for doubt.”[2]

How about that!  “Leave room for doubt.”   Think about that.  Think about having doubts, but instead of wondering if your doubts really are stronger than your faith or if your faith really is smaller than the size of a mustard seed – instead of all that, you say to your doubt, Oh, hi.  It’s you again.  Here, take a seat.

Hang out with that doubt for a little bit.  And hang out with it not as something to be ashamed of, not as something to fix.  Hang out with as if it is this interesting artifact you’ve found, or has found you, and you want to hold it in your hand and look at it a little bit.  Not out of fear, but out of curiosity.  Be curious with your doubts.  See them as an opportunity to learn something new about yourself and your ongoing journey of faith – a journey, by the way, that never goes in a straight line.

And then find someone – a family member, a friend, yes, even the pastor! – find someone to share that doubt with.  Be curious about it with them.  Because I promise you – I promise you – they have had doubts of their own; doubts they might be inclined to share with you as well.

What if we all left room for doubt in faith because we knew – we “understood” – that faith is nothing more and nothing less than a reflection of the kingdom of heaven in each one of us; that wild-growing, uncontrollable, elusive, worthy of pursuit at all costs, and sometimes divisive kingdom of heaven?  A faith that similes seek to unpack.  A faith the size of a mustard seed.

Nadia Bolz Weber, in a sermon of hers on the mustard seed, imagines a conversation between us and Jesus, where Jesus asks, So – how much faith you got?  and we say, Well, Jesus, it’s pretty small, actually; it’s about the size of this mustard seed.

And Jesus says, Good enough for me![3]

Leave room for the doubts, people of God.  Your faith – your tiny, wild-growing faith – will be all the better for it.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/04/americans-faith-in-god-may-be-eroding/
[2] https://relevantmagazine.com/god/7-prominent-christian-thinkers-who-wrestled-doubt.
[3] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/10/complaining-to-god-a-sermon-on-faith-doubt-and-mustard-seed-necklaces/