Faith and Doubt

The Book of Hebrews names a number of people as being of great faith. We are looking at their stories to see how they might educate and inform us as we live our lives of faith as well.

The context for today’s discussion is the relationship between doubt and faith. Last week, we left Moses—one of the “greats” in Hebrews—in Egypt. Today, he has left Egypt and gone into the Midian desert, where he marries Zipporah, daughter of an Egyptian shepherd named Reuel a.k.a. Jethro. We pick up the story in the book of Exodus:

Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1-6)

God then gives Moses a mission:

 “Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” And He said, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.” (Exodus 3:10-12)

Moses has a lot of reservations about this, and he and God go back and forth:

Then Moses said, “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say? For they may say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’” The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” Then He said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. But the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand and grasp it by its tail”—so he stretched out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand— “that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” The Lord furthermore said to him, “Now put your hand into your bosom.” So he put his hand into his bosom, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then He said, “Put your hand into your bosom again.” So he put his hand into his bosom again, and when he took it out of his bosom, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. “If they will not believe you or heed the witness of the first sign, they may believe the witness of the last sign. But if they will not believe even these two signs or heed what you say, then you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water which you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.” Then Moses said to the Lord, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.” But he said, “Please, Lord, now send the message by whomever You will.” Then the anger of the Lord burned against Moses, and He said, “Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently. And moreover, behold, he is coming out to meet you; when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I, even I, will be with your mouth and his mouth, and I will teach you what you are to do. (Exodus 4:1-15)

Here we see the faith of Moses—or, more accurately, we see the doubt of Moses. In this passage he seems to be anything but a man of faith. He is laced with uncertainty and excuses.

We sometimes speak of doubt as a route to faith, but Paul Tillich, the great Christian writer, says doubt is not the opposite of faith—rather, it is an element of faith. Throughout the Bible, we see story after story of doubt expressed by the men and women of God. Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Job, Moses, David, Solomon, Gideon the judge, the parents of John the Baptist, Thomas the doubting disciple, and even Jesus himself in Gethsemane and on the cross speaks out to God: “Why have you forsaken me?”

God’s response to doubt is also variable. Job rails against God’s injustice and threatens to sue him in court for breach of promise. But God’s response to Job’s strident objections is at first silence. He lets Job sputter away, and then delivers an overwhelming and thundering response consisting of 77 questions about God’s creative power and his ability to sustain the universe. The response is forceful, yet patient.

To Moses, in contrast, God says: “My anger is burned against you.” He is frankly impatient, disgusted, and furious with Moses. Job’s doubt is overwhelming but based on reason and reality and argument. God’s response to Moses’ doubt is anger and disbelief, but he responds to Moses with four supernatural events: A burning bush that does not burn, a rod that turns into a snake, a leprous hand which is immediately healed, and a river Nile whose water turns to blood. Why does God use argument with Job but miracles with Moses to assuage their respective doubts?

There are so many stories of doubt in the Bible that one might think it is part of the human condition. It would be easy to draw the conclusion, I think, that we’re born with doubt, that we live with it and die with it. It is what it is; it is simply who and what we are. God seems to understand that we must doubt. Is it the condition of fallen wo/man to doubt? In the garden, it might be argued that Adam and Eve walked by sight and not by faith. But in 2 Corinthians 5:7 it says that we, fallen wo/man, walk by faith and not by sight.

One writer said that fear and doubt do not kill courage and faith but rather give birth to them, because you cannot have courage without fear, and you cannot have faith without doubt. But what is it that we do doubt? What is it that we fear? And what does God do to allay our doubt and fear?

Not long after Mother Teresa died, in explicit violation of her request that her letters be destroyed, the Vatican published them in a book published by Doubleday. The letters, which became known as the “dark letters,” reveal that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was deeply tormented about her faith and suffered periods of great doubt about God. “Jesus has a special love for you,” she wrote to the Reverend Michael van der Peet in September of 1979. “But as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and I do not see. I listen and do not hear.”

The Vatican ordered that the letters be preserved as relics of a potential saint, a Doubleday spokesman said. “I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God; tender personal love,” she wrote to one advisor. “But if you were there, you would have said: ‘What hypocrisy!’” Mother Teresa’s letters stand in marked contrast to the public image of a selfless, tireless minister for the poor who was driven by faith. How can a person with such doubt live such a life of faith?

Is faith what links fallen wo/man to God? Does a wo/man who is perfect (if there were such a person) need to have faith? Or is faith something of a condition of fallen wo/man? Is faith overrated? Is it faith that makes our spiritual world go round? Does faith smooth the way? Or is faith something that does not address doubt and does not even address fear? We are still looking for a working, usable definition of faith.

In Hebrews 1:1 it says that faith is to be sure of things that we hope for, to be certain of things which we cannot see. It was by their faith that the ancient men of old appealed to God. Does this definition of faith help? Is faith something for the inside of the soul, or is it something which helps us on our outside? Ahmed said last week that faith doesn’t guarantee a good outcome. What good is my faith then if it doesn’t smooth my ride?

Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher who said you should bury children at 13 and not dig them up until they were 20, also said this about faith and doubt: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people are so full of doubt.”

What are your thoughts this morning about faith and doubt about fear about courage? Is faith overrated? And what should we expect from our faith? Is it something for the inside or something for the outside?

Robin: Can there be faith if there isn’t doubt? Just thinking back to Eden: I don’t know that Adam and Eve had to have faith. God’s presence was with them daily. They had to have faith in his words to them, I guess. Adam doubted when Eve was tempted by the serpent. So maybe that’s not right. But still, faith is something that we’re told is necessary. But as human beings can there be faith if there isn’t doubt struggling with it in the first place?

Dewan: I think many people in the Bible struggle with doubt. Even David and Peter. But God used them. I think God doesn’t mind our doubt, if we are God fearing and seek him.

Don: You don’t see doubt as a sin, in other words.

Dewan: If we are God fearing and seek him, I think God doesn’t mind.

Carolyn: It tells us to test the spirit. Testing the spirit to know if it is a spirit of God is an element of doubt, yet we are told to test the spirit to make sure that we are in tune with the Lord.

David: If you define God as Goodness with a capital G, then Mother Teresa never lost faith, she always believed in Goodness. If you believe that you profess your faith by the way that you live it, again Mother Teresa never lost faith—she never stopped serving the poor. So we’re back to the definition both of faith and of God.

Ahmed: I think we all fluctuate between most of these conditions, according to the circumstances that we are put in. And I think it’s part of the journey that your faith is tested every now and then. You start with doubt, like Moses, but you can see that there was a transformation in him in the course of his journey, and in the end, when they were being chased by the army of Pharaoh and his companions said “They will catch us and it will be the end!” he said: “No, God is with me.” He had faith. So it’s a journey that people must pass through until they believe that their faith will be tested with challenges along the way and they should always reflect upon what it’s all about—why we are here, and what’s coming next.

Robin: If we were to define doubt as just lack of understanding—that we haven’t learned enough yet to dispel the doubt—it would seem to remove the connotation of doubt being sinful, rightly or not I don’t know. But it just occurs to me that it may be the crux of the matter that doubt is when you have not yet come to an understanding.

Jeff: I think Robin is onto something with this concept of lack of understanding. In my mind, as I’ve been thinking about faith over the past few weeks, the notion that doubt and faith are polar opposites seems too simplistic. Maybe the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty, or knowing, because if you know for sure that something is fact, then you don’t need faith. There’s no faith involved. So faith is really the connection between humanity and divinity, and our acknowledgement that we don’t know, and that it’s okay that we don’t know. Rather, certainty and “I know what’s right” is where we get into trouble.

Reinhard: I think the word doubt is fairly close to the word fear. If we have doubt, we fear the unexpected, the uncertainty. There are some similarities and some differences in setting between Peter and Moses. Moses knew very well the situation in the palace and was therefore afraid to confront the people in it. He had received a privileged education and was a good spokesperson, but he was afraid. He didn’t have faith at that time.

Same thing if you look at Peter. When he tried to walk on the water he had small faith. As long as he looked at God, he was okay, but when he looked at himself, he was uncertain and doubted and started sinking, When Jesus said: “Oh, ye of little faith!” he was saying that faith can grow bigger. But in order to grow our faith, we have to exercise it, just like physical exercise to grow muscles. We exercise our faith through challenges in life, and the result of what we go through makes us strong because we put everything in God’s hands. I think our daily experience in life brings us closer to God by exercising our faith.

Carolyn: We are told to control our thoughts, which sometimes can sway us one way or the other. With faith, if we constantly think and dwell on some of the thoughts that are negative to the situation, perhaps it diminishes our faith in God—like Peter looking away from God. We have to be able to put some thoughts out of our mind, we have to be able to control our thoughts so that the Lord can work within us to give us more faith. And that, to me, is part of spiritual growth.

David: Can you give us an example of the kind of thoughts that you would maybe put out of your mind? I think your idea is interesting.

Carolyn: Idols are something we think about constantly. We can make an idol out of everything. It’s on our mind all the time. And if we constantly have these thoughts, we’re going through a troubled time. God has promised but we don’t we give it to the Lord; instead, we keep rehashing it. He said, “Give it to me, let me have it.” And that’s where faith comes in: You need to give it to God, not rehash it all the time. He will take care of it.

That’s what Moses did when he walked on to dry land after crossing the Red Sea. He had one focus, and he wasn’t rehashing and worrying “Oh, could these men be hurting me? Could they be after me?” Our mind has to be under control of God in such a way that we have that close connection.

Adaure: When we’re looking at doubt, or Moses’s doubt, most of our definitions tend towards doubt stemming from ignorance or lack of understanding. Which makes sense, but maybe there could be another level to it—maybe Moses’ doubt came from awareness of his own faults, not from doubts about God. Seeing a bush on fire without being burned made him aware of his faults, his lack of power compared to the power of God. Perhaps his doubt was of himself as a human being but wasn’t actually ignorance or lack of understanding of himself per se.

Dewan: The Bible says God said: “My people destroy because of lack of knowledge.” I struggled my whole life, but I never doubted God.

Don: Moses is definitely struggling with God. And not only does he struggle with God, God gets pretty irritated at him—more than irritated: God’s anger burned against him. God was very, very upset with Moses. I think part of the reason is because he had just displayed supernatural elements that Moses would be able to harness in his work. And yet, despite his anger, he goes on to enable Moses by giving him some help. Why doesn’t he just tell Moses: “Listen, shape up guy. I’ve given you all this evidence of my divine power that’s going to be with you. Just shape up and do what I’ve told you to do!” Moses is such a whiner about his inability to do what God wants him to do. But no, God doesn’t do that. He goes ahead and gives him an enabling device—his brother Aaron. God is a pretty bad parent, it seems. He completely enables the kid; he doesn’t allow him to suffer the consequences of his own indecision and doubt. I’m quite concerned about God.

David: I think Adaure may have put a finger on it in talking about self doubt. What are we doubting—our intellect, or our spirit? Are we doubting the inner voice of God inside us? Or are we simply doubting our intellect? To me, much of so-called doubt in God stems from the intellect. People doubt that the Red Sea suddenly parted so people could walk across it. The intellect rejects that. It’s just nonsense. But your inner spirit may tell you something different—that there is indeed a real message in the story, there is in effect an opening of the Red Sea. So I think we need to be very careful in distinguishing between faith in something spiritual and faith in something intellectual.

Reinhard: I think emotion and rationality play a big role in our faith, too. To me, fear and doubt are emotions, but faith is an attitude. We have choice. Faith can be overruled by fear or rationality, like Peter, whose faith worked when he focused on God and played a role in his deciding to walk on the water. But once he looked at the storm, his reason challenged and overcame his faith. We all face such contradictions, such back and forth, in our lives and have to choose and make decisions.

Don: We’ve made the argument that doubt can be a healthy thing, that it can be an enabler to deeper understanding. It can set aside business as usual in terms of our thinking, help us to think outside the box, help us to grow in faith. Indeed, as we talked about the stages of faith, we talked about doubt or skepticism as the third stage which is clearly within the progression of faith.

And yet, there’s a certain kind of doubt, which is… let’s call it divine doubt, and a certain other kind of doubt, which is apparently demonic in origin. What defines those two different kinds of doubt? And what is it that is the object of doubt that makes one divine and enabling in terms of faith growth, and one which is destructive?

Jay: Doubt seems to be the tool of both good and evil. Several Bible stories tell of how God tests faith. Even in the beginning of James, it talks about how we should understand that our faith is being tested in order for us to build endurance. So it seems that doubt as a way of testing your faith may be a tool by which goodness strengthens. And yet, it seems as if left to its own devices, unchecked and unhampered, it can become extraordinarily destructive and spiral us into a place where our understanding of our connection to things that are divine doesn’t exist at all. It may lead to a lot of damage and misery.

Carolyn: Samuel’s mother prayed and prayed and didn’t waver one bit. She constantly put it before the Lord. I don’t think I ever read where she doubted. But she prayed and prayed until the Lord heard her. Sometimes when we have very stressful times in our lives, we pray and we pray and we pray and we expect and we feel like we have the faith, but the answer isn’t what we want always. I think this feeds doubt. We doubt ourselves_”Is it my lack of faith?” This is something I seem to run into every day when I talk to people who are really going through hard times and praying with all the faith they can. But we still have to give it to the Lord and let him be God.

Jeff: The crux of this problem is that the God doesn’t act how we think he should. And then we read in the Bible: “If you do this, God will do this.” But in our daily lives, we don’t see that. We may try to petition God in a way that we think is correct but then it doesn’t come to fruition. He reacts differently to seemingly similar situations. But it’s us as humans, trying to use our intellect, trying to rationalize, trying to say “This is how we think God should act.” And when it doesn’t happen, then that’s the source of doubt. Yet I’m tending to the idea that somehow faith is the bridge to that; faith is me acknowledging that what I think should happen is not necessarily correct. And that’s okay.

David: That’s what I understood Carolyn to mean when she was talking about putting aside the inconsistencies and focusing instead on what it is that you believe, ignoring your doubts.

Don: But whose job is that? Is it my job to put it aside, or does God have to help me? Moses got all the help in the world to put his doubt aside and he still wouldn’t shape up. Even Job who rails against God and then is going to sue him and so on at least gets God talking back to him. As Mother Teresa says, she prays, she labors, and she hears nothing in return. Doesn’t God have some obligation to help me allay my doubt? “The silence,” she says, “and the emptiness is so great that I look and I do not see, I listen and do not hear.”

Jay: On top of that, what about when I put my doubts aside and potentially God brings my doubts back? Poor Pharaoh recognizes that God is basically bringing plagues upon him, and God hardened his heart so that he keeps them and the plagues keep going. What about that?

Carolyn: How do we know that it is God who is bringing the doubts back? Does Satan put the doubts in our mind?

Jeff: It’s really hard to allow God not to owe us anything.

Robin: I think that Satan did initiate doubt. We see that in the garden. So it is his tool. We come to it naturally, having descended from our first parents. But Jesus addressed doubt and wanted us to have faith. So we don’t want to doubt and then just say, “Oh, well, I can’t help it, I’m only human after all.” He does want us to have that little mustard seed of faith. And mustard seed grows—it doesn’t stay tiny forever.

Jeff: So then can we will ourselves away from doubt? Can we force ourselves to believe?

Carolyn: I think we really can control our mind and know that we have given it to the Lord, and can leave it there and move on to other things that he has in store for us, rather than constantly bringing the same thing up that causes doubt in our mind.

Janelin: What you’re saying resonates with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), whose basic premise is that circumstances, whatever they may be (health issues, or whatever) create thoughts that lead to feelings (like fear or that “God has abandoned me” and so on). The feelings lead to action or inaction and the action or inaction leads to a result. The thing is, the results that we get aren’t always what we expect.

I think faith and prayer and working on thoughts—working on the very beginning of the cycle—is part of our growth in faith. You cannot just wish away doubt, but if you can make it a habit, like exercising your brain, to focus on certain thoughts like “God is with me. I am not alone” then it really does fade away some of the other stuff. It really makes a difference on how you eventually feel. The more you say it, the more you’ll think it, the more you’ll feel it to the core.

Jay: Janelin is perhaps describing the endurance that comes from faith testing that you read about in James. There’s no doubt that we tend to go back to “doubt comes from the devil and is evil.” But if so, why is God testing our faith? Why does the testing of faith tend to be talked about in the Bible as having some positive results, in the end? Is this God taking something bad and making it good? Or is it God utilizing doubt also?

Reinhard: When God created human beings, he gave them the right to choose. We see Moses and the Israelites receiving miracles during their journey, but human heart is never satisfied. God doesn’t have to put his power on permanent display. I think we have a responsibility too. God parted the Red Sea and provided manna and so on, but his people were stubborn and rebellious. They were never satisfied, which is maybe why most of them (I think all of them above the age of 40) never made it to the Promised Land except Caleb and Joshua if memory serves).

We have our part to play: It is to do God’s will. We are lucky: We know our Creator, we know there is a divine power. There are said to be some people who don’t know God. But while God always tries to reach down to us, by the same token we have to reach up to God. This is our responsibility. God cannot treat us like babies for ever. As intelligent, created beings knowing right and wrong, we have responsibilities. When we use our rational intellect, it maybe doesn’t fit what faith needs, but we still have our part to play. We have to reach up and not expect God to always come down to us

Don: I don’t know if I want a God who’s not on call 24 hours a day seven days a week 365 days a year! I want to make sure that if I need him he’s on call.

Reinhard: His door is always open. He’s always available. He doesn’t have to talk to us all the time, though he does so through the Bible and through prayer.

David: That raises the issue of whether we must actively worship through religion. Is going to church or mosque a necessary component of faith?

Don: That looks like a good place to start next week. We’ll continue our discussion of faith. We have much more to mine and many more stories to look at that show different aspects of faith. We’re still looking for a working definition. We’re still working on what the impact of faith is on the inner life, on the outer life, and whether we have unrealistic expectations. Is faith overrated? We have all of this to talk about in coming weeks.

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