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The Place of Doubt in Faith

When I was in my twenties, I struggled a lot with my faith. I had grown up in a traditional Episcopal home and, unlike many, had never really departed from my faith while in college. My parents lived in Mebane, only a half hour from Chapel Hill, where I went to school. My church was St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Haw River and my priest lived in Durham. I visited with my priest from time to time, even cutting his grass. I attended my home church St. Andrew’s occasionally and also went to an Episcopal church in Chapel Hill, Chapel of the Cross. Being a college student, my favorite service was the 5pm Sunday Eucharist, which gave me plenty of time to sleep after a night out. Even though I continued attending church while an undergraduate and graduate student at UNC, I struggled in my early and mid-twenties with whether I wanted to be a member of the Episcopal Church, whether I wanted to be a follower of Jesus, whether I even believed in God. While I didn’t know it at the time, my spiritual questioning was an important part of my faith development.

Today I’m beginning a four-part series entitled Faith and Doubt. We live in a time that values the material world above all else. To paraphrase that wise philosopher, Madonna, “We’re living in a material world and we’re material boys and girls.” Our educational system teaches us to be skeptics of what we can’t see or prove scientifically. Only science can show us what is true without a shadow of a doubt even though today’s scientific certainty frequently turns out to be tomorrow’s fallacy. This series will look at what it means to believe in God and to follow Christ in an age of doubt.

While people sometimes believe that doubt is opposed to faith, there are many examples in the Bible of faithful people with doubts. Even though Jesus had told his followers that he would be raised from the dead, the women in today’s Gospel from Luke are perplexed when they find the tomb empty. The disciples dismiss their report of the empty tomb, angels and the resurrection as an “idle tale” that they did not “believe.” Only Peter goes to the tomb to see for himself.

The story of the resurrection in fact is filled with misperceptions and doubts. The apostles think Jesus is a ghost, when he first appears to them. Jesus says, “"Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38 NRSV). It is only through their interactions with him that they finally accept him as the risen Christ. It is understandable that the first followers had doubts when they encountered Jesus after he has risen from the dead.

Just imagine your reaction if the risen Christ were to suddenly, out of nowhere, appear to you one evening when you were in your home by yourself. My first reaction would be to calmly jump right out of my skin. Jesus would have to calm me down just like he had to calm down the apostles. And what do you think your friends and family would say if you told them later that you had seen Jesus? Notice that I said if and not when you told them later, because you know exactly what would happen. While some would politely nod and smile, others would recommend a good psychologist to you or ask if you had stopped taking your meds.

It falls outside our normal experience. And that’s the key. It is outside our normal experience. Jesus is the key to something beyond our normal experience. Jesus is the key to God. He opens the door to God for us. It is understandable that people at times have doubts and questions, because God is beyond our full understanding. Our doubts though can actually tell us that we need to pay attention to God.

The author and pastor Brian McLaren writes, “(in life) sometimes doubt is absolutely essential. I think of doubt as analogous to pain. Pain … is a call for attention and action. Similarly, I think doubt tells us that something in us … a concept, an idea, a framework of thinking … deserves further attention.” If we are open to our questions, when we have them, they can be a vehicle for our spiritual growth.

Years after my spiritual struggles, I studied faith development and learned that those struggles were essential for my spiritual growth. People who grow up in a faith, as I did, at some point must make their parents’ faith their own. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that is what I was doing. It was only through this process of questioning that I was able to claim this wonderful faith for myself. The author Flannery O’Conner says that wrestling with our doubts is “the process by which faith is deepened.”

People sometimes feel it is unacceptable to attend a church, if they have doubts, or to admit that they have them. They believe they are supposed to have all the answers to be a part of a faith community. Faith though, like life, is a journey on which we must constantly learn to grow. The church, the body of Christ, must be a nurturing community where we can ask questions, share answers, make discoveries and ultimately through this process deepen our relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ. As flesh and blood creatures, we need other flesh and blood creatures to see God, to know what on our own we are unable to grasp. This is why God sent Jesus into this world, why Jesus sent his followers out into the world and why the Holy Spirit calls us together into Christ’s body.

Faith ultimately is less a question of beliefs than it is a relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ. If you think about how you became friends with someone, it’s through your interactions with that person; it’s through establishing a trusting relationship. The same is true with God. We work through questions that we might have with Jesus, with the one who through his life, death and resurrection opens the door of heaven for us. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, of which The Episcopal Church is a member, said that he was out running one day, struggling with a difficult problem, and said to God, “"Look this is all very well but isn’t it about time you did something – if you’re there.” Welby, in the tradition of Job and Jesus, cried out his question to God. We strengthen our relationship through praying, talking and listening, to God, and through talking and listening to others in the Body of Christ who share our questions, insights, sorrows and joys.

The resurrection ultimately invites us to new, deeper, richer life with God. This invitation comes not just to part of us, not just to the best parts of ourselves that we present to others. We cannot find full life with God that way. This invitation comes to all of us. God invites all of our being - doubts, warts, struggles and all. God loves all of us. If you have questions about the faith, call out to God, talk to me or a spiritual friend. If you do not have a faith community, become a part of Christ’s body here, or in another church, where your questions are respected, where you can deepen your relationship with God, where you can find abundant life, life overflowing with the renewing power of God, life overflowing with the life changing love of God in and through in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.