The Department of Social Services in Greenville County, South Carolina, sent the following form letter:
Your food stamps will be stopped, effective immediately because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.”
Dead people don’t usually have changes in their circumstances. Dead people usually stay dead. When Mary Magdalene went running off yelling, “He’s alive! He’s alive!” – who could be expected to believe her? I’ve sometimes put myself in the Biblical story, saying, “If I had been there, it would have been different.” But would it? I would have doubted to.
This morning we’re going to talk about doubt. There are two types of people here this morning. There are those who have never doubted the truths of Scripture. You have never wrestled with the question, “Did Jesus rise again?” For you, it’s certain. It’s a matter of faith. About you, Jesus said these words: “Blessed are those who haven’t seen me and believe anyway” (John 20:29). You are blessed people indeed, because God has given you a strong faith.
But there’s another category of people here. We could call you the doubters. You have a questioning mind. You need to examine the evidence, the proof for the fact that Jesus is who he claims to be. You wonder, “Could it be true? Is Jesus really risen from the dead? Has he really conquered death, with all that such conquest means? Or is the claim that he is risen just the deluded wish fulfillment of a few mean and women made unstable by grief? Is the whole thing a concoction, or is it true?”
It’s my premise that most of us, from time to time, are doubters. Some of us are occasional doubters. It catches us at odd moments and surprises us. Others of us are chronic doubters. We are always asking to see the evidence. We are always evaluating things. But not all of us have been given the privilege of believing without questioning. And it’s to this second group that I want to talk about today.
If you want a bad name, then admit to your doubts. Look at Thomas, which we read about in the Scripture. Thomas really wasn’t the doubting kind. When Jesus’ travel plans called for him to pass into very dangerous territory, Thomas said, “Let’s go too – and die with Jesus” (John 11:16). Hardly the words of a doubter. But for almost two thousand years, we’ve been beating up on Thomas for saying very honestly, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.”
My premise is this: most of us, at one time or another, will doubt like Thomas. Thomas’s doubt is our doubt too. Even the best person among us will occasionally feel the chill of doubt’s shadow. It could be as you bury a loved one, and wonder, “Is there really a resurrection? Is it real?” It could be as you talk to someone of another faith at work. You could say, “Is what I believe really right and what they believe really wrong?” It could be as you hear someone try to debunk Christianity. But most of us, from time to time, will doubt.
What does the Bible say about doubters? We need to understand three realities about doubts:
1. YOUR DOUBTS ARE NORMAL
One of the most frustrating thing about doubting is to feel isolated. We’re ashamed about our doubts. We feel that if we stand up and admit to our doubts, we’re going to make a name for ourselves. We feel like we’re second-class for doubting. As a result we keep our doubts to ourselves. We isolate ourselves.
When Jesus appeared to Thomas, did he criticize him? Did he put him down? Did he yell at him? Did he scold him? Not at all. He allowed Thomas to take the test he suggested; that he touch his wounds. He said, “Put your fingers here and see my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!” He opened his arms in love to Thomas, and Thomas believed. He said, “My Lord and my God.”
When you read the Bible, you discover that some of God’s greatest servants had temporary doubts about God. David in the Psalms says, “God, I don’t know what’s going on. Why are you allowing this? Why do bad things happen to good people?” Job says, “God, are you sure you really love me? Are you sure you know what’s going on? Are you sure you have the power to change my situation?”
Abraham didn’t believe that he was going to be a father at age 90. Abraham doubted God’s protection and told lies about his wife’s identity. Moses doubted that God would provide the food that they needed in the dessert. Peter doubted that he could walk on the water. The early church doubted that God had released Peter from prison in answer to their prayers.
Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest man who ever lived and even John the Baptist had doubts. One time John the Baptist was in prison, everything was going wrong, he was at a low ebb in his ministry. He sent some people to Jesus to say, “Was I wrong? Did I make a mistake? Are you really not the Messiah?” He had doubts. Jesus sent the people back to John to reassure him. He didn’t condemn or criticize him. Then Jesus turned around and said to the crowd, “John the Baptist is the greatest man who’s ever been born.” Right after John had expressed doubts about Jesus.
Many of God’s greatest servants have been occasional doubters. You are probably going to doubt – at least occasionally – too. Your doubts are normal. That’s the first reality about doubt that you need to understand.
2. YOUR DOUBTS ARE UNIQUE
One of the problems with doubt is that we lump all sorts of doubt together. We think that if we doubt, we’re throwing everything into question. We fail to realize that there are three causes of doubt:
The first type of doubt is caused by CONSCIENCE. It is the hardening of a mind to the truth. This type of doubt is sin. It is deliberate denial, disobedience, rebellion, and resistance. It is always condemned in the Bible. 1 Timothy 1:19 says, “Cling tightly to your faith in Christ, and always keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked.”
If your type of doubt is unbelief, you have a serious problem. Hebrews 12:15 says, “Look after each other so that none of you will miss out on the special favor of God. Watch out that no bitter root of unbelief rises up among you, for whenever it springs up, many are corrupted by its poison.”
CRITICS cause us to doubt God. Those people who challenge us, who ridicule your beliefs. The Bible talks a lot about scoffers. All of us have been in a classroom or at work where our faith was criticized and challenged. I heard about a young man in school. The teacher stood up and said, “The Bible doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to understand and nobody should even try to read the Bible. You can’t understand it at all.” The young man raised his hand and said, “Sir: The Bible is God’s love letter to Christians. And that’s what you get for reading somebody else’s mail.” Critics cause us to doubt God.
You don’t need to be afraid of critics. You don’t have to be afraid of asking tough intellectual questions. The Bible doesn’t ask you to check your brain at the door when you enter church. In fact, I think you’ll find that the Bible makes the most sense when you look at all the evidence. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions.
The third type of doubt caused by CIRCUMSTANCES. It is sometimes hard to make faith fit with the painful realities of life. Someone we love, dies. A child faces hunger. We lose a job, or a marriage. The hard realities of life begin to crush our faith. For a lot of us, there is a large gap between what we expect and what we actually experience. And as a result, doubts begin to enter into our mind about what we’ve been taught to believe.
Circumstances can cause us to doubt God. When our prayers are unanswered, when there’s a tragedy that strikes, when we’re faced with an impossible situation.
J esus is out on the Lake of Galilee with His disciples. He’s asleep and a great storm comes up. In Mark 4:35-41 the storm comes up and they wake Jesus up and they say, “Jesus, don’t you care if we drown?” That’s a typical reaction when we get under pressure. We start doubting. “Don’t you care God?”
Gallup has pointed out in the Gallup poll that 96% of people believe in God. It’s the type of God that they doubt. What is he like? Is he personal? Is he loving? Can he be depended on? Is he interested in me? Those are the kinds of doubts that people have.
I have never met a real genuine atheist who doubted God for intellectual reasons. The fact is every person that I’ve met who is an atheist doubted God because some Christian had burned him or her. It wasn’t an intellectual doubt. It was the fact that “When I was a kid I went to church or somebody hurt me or some Christian said ‘this’ and I thought ‘If that’s what it means to be a Christian, forget it God!'” A lot of “atheists” are simply resentful people who’ve been hurt legitimately by “Christians”.
Critics, our conscience, circumstances can cause us to doubt God. Your doubts are not only normal, they are unique.
3. YOUR DOUBTS ARE AN OPPORTUNITY
The strongest faith comes out of struggles with your doubt. When we see doubters, we tend to put them down. We think that they’re just religious weaklings. But those who wrestle with their doubt often come out with the strongest faith.
Thomas’s doubts were an opportunity for him. When he eventually saw Jesus, his doubts were answered. But he didn’t just walk away saying, “Okay, now I believe.” He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” His heart was changed. His doubts ultimately brought him to belief.
For the past few months we’ve been selling the Case for Christ in the foyer. The author, Lee Strobel, was an avowed atheist. To Strobel, there was far too much evidence that God was merely a product of wishful thinking. How could there be a loving God if he consigned people to hell just for not believing him? How could miracles violate the laws of nature? What about evolution? Didn’t science disprove the supernatural?
When his wife became a Christian, Strobel began a quest to discover whether or not the Bible is true. As a journalist and as a lawyer, he set out to ask the tough questions. On November 8, 1981, after two years of research, he pulled out a legal pad and began to list the questions and the answers that he had come up with. And he concluded:
I was ambushed by the amount and quality of the evidence that Jesus is the unique Son of God. As I sat at my desk that Sunday afternoon, I shook my head in amazement. I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber with much less convincing proof…In the face of this overwhelming avalanche of evidence in the case for Christ, the great irony was this: it would require much more faith for me to maintain my atheism than to trust in Jesus of Nazareth!
Sitting at his desk, legal pad in front of him, Strobel took the next step of committing his life to Christ. On November 8, 1981, he turned from being a skeptic to a committed follower of Christ. His doubts had led him to Christ.
Doubts are normal. Your doubts are also unique. Doubts can also be an opportunity. They can bring us closer to God, rather than driving us away from him.
Now, today is Easter Sunday. Just like Thomas, we are going to wrestle with issues of our faith. Some of us are even going to wrestle with the question, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Can I believe this stuff? Can I trust Jesus with my life?”
How do you deal with these questions? How do you keep your doubts from defeating you? Some suggestions from the Word of God:
1. ADMIT YOUR DOUBTS
Be honest. Say, “I’ve got some doubts.” You cannot overcome them unless you recognize them. So many people I know who are Christians are intimidated by their doubts. A doubt comes up, starts to creep into their mind, and they being thinking “Oh, no! I may not be a Christian. Maybe God won’t love me if I’ve got these doubts.” They can’t even face the fact that they have some legitimate, honest questions.
The point is that not even your doubts can stop God from loving you. Even if you doubt him, he loves you. That’s what the story of Thomas is all about.
Listen to this: honest doubt is better than dishonest faith. God is big enough for you to ask the tough questions. God isn’t threatened by an honest examination of the facts. Admit your doubts. Recognize that the doubts aren’t bad in and of themselves. Ask God to help you with your doubts.
Jude 1:22 says, “Show mercy to those whose faith is wavering.” Don’t condemn them. Don’t call them heretics. Don’t tell them that they need to have more faith. Show mercy to them.
I believe that the world is looking for a church in which they are free to ask questions; free to not automatically accept everything that is said. They are looking for a place where they can doubt and wrestle with the issues. Some may even continue to doubt in their first few weeks, months, or even years with us as a church. That’s okay. It’s a freedom that Jesus has given them. The sin isn’t in doubt. If your doubt leads to questions, and your questions lead to answers, and you accept the answers that God gives you, then doubt has done good work in your life.
This past fall, a seminar student went to his professor of theology and said, “I don’t know if I believe this stuff. I don’t know if I’m a Christian.” I know how some of us would have reacted. We would have asked what he was doing in seminary. We would have been shocked. We would have told him to grow up. The professor of theology didn’t. He prayed with him, and gave him a copy of the book that we have available at the back, called The Case for Christ. He encouraged him to read it honestly and prayerfully, and to ask the difficult questions. The student came back a few months later and said, “I believe. And my faith is stronger than ever. Jude says, “Show mercy to those whose faith is wavering.”
Do you ever have doubts? Congratulations! You’re human. Welcome to the club. How do you keep your doubts from defeating you? Admit your doubts and…
2. DOUBT YOUR DOUBTS
It’s ironic. We do the exact opposite. We doubt our beliefs and we believe our doubts. That doesn’t make sense. What we need to do is believe our beliefs and doubt our doubts. Doubt your doubts.
Solomon said in Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.” There comes a time when you need to doubt your doubts. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who haven’t seen me and believe anyway.”
What do you listen to the most? Do you listen to God’s Word or do you listen to your feelings? “I don’t feel loved…I don’t feel God in my life…I don’t feel like God has a plan for me… I don’t feel like I’m good enough…” Do you listen to God’s Word or do you listen to your feelings? Do you listen to circumstances or what the Bible says? Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t depend on your own understanding. Doubt your doubts.
Hebrews 11:6 says, “God and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.” If you begin to seek God – asking the tough questions – then he will reward your quest. Doubt your doubts, and honestly begin to seek after God beginning today.
3. BEGIN WITH THE FAITH YOU ALREADY HAVE
It may be just a little but you begin with the faith you already have. Mark 9 is a beautiful story. A man came to Jesus with sick son. Jesus looked at him and said, “I can heal him. If you will believe I will heal him” There was a classic statement that the man made: “I believe. Help me with my doubts!” (Mark 9:24)
Have you ever felt like that? Can you be filled with faith and doubt at the same time? Yes. You can have the faith that God wants you to do something and be scared to death at the s ame time. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is you go ahead and do it in spite of your fear. You can have faith and doubt at the same time. This man was filled with faith and doubt yet in spite of his honest doubts, he went ahead and went to Jesus and Jesus did a miracle. Jesus healed his son.
No matter how weak or how frail you think your faith is it’s enough. It’s enough to get you through. It doesn’t take much faith. Matthew 17:20 says, “If you have faith as small as the mustard seed nothing will be impossible to you.” In the middle of that verse it says “If you have faith as the mustard seed you can say to the mountain move and it will be moved.” Mustard seed faith moves mountains.
I’ve talked to people who say they don’t want to make any commitment or attempt anything or start a ministry until they have all their doubts cleared up. That’s not the way you do it. Then it wouldn’t require any faith.
What if you don’t think you have enough faith? Do what Bruce Davis did. Bruce was a member of the infamous Charles Manson gang. Those of you who were around then remember that in the sixties, they committed the most grisly murders in American history up to that time. They were all caught and eventually put into prison, and for the last 29 years, Bruce has been serving his life sentence in prison.
In 1974, God got his attention, and he realized the despair in his own life. He realized that he needed a Savior, but he didn’t have enough faith to believe. One day he prayed this:
“Okay, God,” he remembered saying while lying in his cell bunk. “You say you love me, and we both know that I don’t love you. You say you want to help me, but I don’t believe it. I’ve never done anything for you. But if you still love me and still want to help me, then do whatever you can.”
He said, “That was the ugly truth. It was all I could give to him.” But he said, “Little by little, God began to transform my life, and by God’s grace, in my 32nd year, I was saved.”
He now leads the prison chapel, Bible studies, and counsels others who are in prison for life.
William Rainey once said, “Why didn’t somebody ever tell me that I could become a Christian and work on all my doubts afterwards?” Every little step you take towards Christ moves you further away from doubt, discouragement, depression, and despair.
When Jesus saw Thomas, he said something to him that I believe he is saying to you today: “Stop doubting and believe.” Stop doubting and believe. There’s a time to doubt, but there’s a time to stop doubting, and to simply come to God and say, “God, I don’t understand everything, but today I believe. Today I trust you and ask to you become the Lord, the manager of my life.”
What was it that turned Thomas the doubter, the skeptic, into a believer? It was a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. If you’ve never had that, regardless of your religious background you need that. You need to meet Christ personally. What do you say? “Lord Jesus, I want to believe. Help me with my unbelief.” That’s it! That’s all. That’s good enough. Jesus healed a man for that very statement. “Jesus, I want to believe in you. Help me with my doubts.” That’s good enough.
Let’s close our eyes in prayer.
Some of you are really struggling with your doubts. Maybe you’ve wondered, “I don’t know if I could believe in God, in Jesus. I don’t believe I’m good enough. How could God love me?” Or maybe you’ve thought, “Maybe I wouldn’t be able to hold out as a Christian. If I committed my life maybe I couldn’t hold out and then I’d embarrass myself.” But deep down inside of your heart there’s a little bit of faith. And like a seed it’s beginning to grow in your life. You’re beginning to notice the difference in your life and in the lives of those around you. You can’t ignore it. Today is your day. You can let your faith sprout and blossom. Put your faith in what you can accept. That’s much more important than any doubts that you have about things that are hard to understand. I challenge you to take the first step today. Committing your life to Christ will give you a new confidence. You don’t need any longer to doubt the future or doubt God’s love or doubt the uncertainties of life. You can face them with confidence. The history of the Bible is that He takes doubters and turns them into believers. Abraham, Job, David, Paul, Thomas.
Pray this prayer in your heart right now. Maybe you’ve never even thought about opening up your life to Jesus Christ. Say, “Jesus Christ, I want to believe. Help me with my unbelief.” Say that honestly and sincerely. “Jesus Christ I want to be a believer. Help me with my unbelief. As much as I know how, Jesus Christ, I ask you to come into my life. Put your Spirit in me. I don’t understand everything but I’m asking you to do it.” You don’t have to understand it all. I don’t understand the chemistry of digestion but that doesn’t stop me from eating. Open your life up. “As much as I know how, Christ, come into my life. Be my Lord.” That means manager, director, call the shots in my life.
I made a decision like this several years ago and I’d have to say it was the most important decision I ever made – the one you’re making today. I didn’t understand it all but I just said, “God, I want to take the first step.” Today, you’ve done that. The purpose of this church is to help you grow and to understand more about your decision.
Father, I thank you for your word. Thank you that in spite of circumstances and our conscious and critics that we can come to you. Thank you that you understand us completely. Help us to admit our doubts so we can get them out in the open and struggle with them and overcome them. Help us to doubt our doubts and to believe our beliefs. Help us to begin with the faith that we already have. Help us to realize that it just takes a little faith to do great things when we put it in a great God. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.