Feb 25 - Doubt

Doubt

February 25, 2018

Mark 9:14-29

 

DOUBT

February 25th, 2018

Mark 9:14-29

 

It was Palm Sunday, but because of a sore throat, 5 year old Johnny and his mom stayed home while dad and his two older siblings went to church.  When they returned from church, they were carrying branches of pussy willows.  Johnny asked dad what they were for.  His father told him, “People held them over Jesus’ head as he walked by.”  Johnny was upset.  “You’ve got to be kidding. The one Sunday I don’t go and Jesus shows up.

 

Maybe some of you feel that way.  Jesus hasn’t “shown up” for you and as a result you may be experiencing some doubt.  Doubt is what today’s message is about.

 

Be merciful to those who doubt.                   Jude 22

 

 

Maybe you remember the story about what happened after Jesus came down from the mountain where the so-called transfiguration took place.  Peter, James and John had gone with him and witnessed the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. 

 

When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them.  As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.  “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech.  Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground.  He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.  I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”             Mark 9:14-18

 

The teachers of the Law were the very same people as the scribes of the Pharisees.  They may have been arguing with the disciples of Jesus about the proper method of exorcism, or possibly pointing out that they cannot be following the right Rabbi, if they were powerless in this situation. 

 

Also, we might ask ourselves, if demon possession is only something that happened back then, not today?  Or perhaps, why is this particular demon rendering the boy unable to speak and producing fits that look very similar to grand mal seizures?

 

“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long do I have to stay with you?  How long do I have to put up with you?  Bring the boy to me.  So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion.  He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.  Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”  “From childhood,” he answered.  “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him.  But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  “If you can? said Jesus. Everything is possible for one who believes.”  Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!      Mark 9:19-24

 

You can almost hear Jesus sigh.  Oh boy.  They got it wrong ... again.  But the part that I want you to catch is the father and the interchange between him and Jesus, particularly Jesus’ response the man’s request:  “If you can do anything, please help.” 

 

Jesus points out to the man that all things are possible for the one who believes. 

 

Jesus is not saying, that absolute certainty is the secret to receiving something, anything, from God, much like the “name it, claim it” movement does. 

 

Jesus is simply saying, “If you believe that I can do this, then I can actually get something accomplished here.”  The man needs to believe in Jesus’ ability, not have faith in just anything - the universe, karma, or whatever else.

 

And what I want you to catch in particular, is how the father responds to Jesus:  “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.”  So really, what the father was saying is that, while he in fact believes that Jesus can do something for his son, he still had remnants of doubt

 

When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”  The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.  After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”  He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”[1]

                                                          Mark 9:25-29

 

This account raises a number of questions, particularly because we know that the disciples had previously successfully exorcised demons (Mark 6:7,13).[2]   

 

What is so different about this particular demon, that prayer and possibly fasting is necessary when exorcising him? 

 

And if prayer and possibly fasting is needed, why did Jesus do neither and was still successful?  Could that be saying something about his identity?

 

But let me get back to the father’s statement, “I DO believe.  Help me to overcome my unbelief.”  While he had faith in Jesus, he still had remnants of doubt.

 

So I want you to rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10.

 

If 1 is completely uncertainty, and 10 is complete certainty, where would you put yourself on the scale when it comes to

  • God’s existence

  • The applicability of the Bible (to your life)

  • The truth of Christianity (the identity of Jesus)

 

I would think that the father in our story, being a normal Jew during the first century, would have had little doubt about God’s existence and the applicability of their Bible, the Law of Moses and the OT prophetic and poetic writings that were considered authoritative at his time. 

 

Where there were likely lingering doubts were about the person, the identity, of Jesus, and therefore about what Jesus would be able to do.  Maybe he was somewhere in the middle between complete certainty and complete uncertainty when it came to Jesus.   

 

So, just in your minds right now, try to figure out where about on that sliding scale you are with regard to these three items. 

 

Now, if you listen to some people, you would think that they are completely certain about EVERYTHING. 

  • They are completely certain that they are always right. 

  • They are completely certain that those who disagree with them, are wrong. 

  • They are completely certain that their perception of reality is objective. 

  • They are completely certain that their political view is the only correct one.

  • They are completely certain that their interpretation of what’s in the Bible is the only possible one. 

  • They are completely certain that when they voice their convictions and beliefs, they are speaking the very words of God.    

 

They have the appearance as if they never question themselves, never question their convictions, never question their motivation, never question their objectivity, and never question their beliefs. 

 

I always think that it has to be a terrible burden to bear to always have to be right about everything. 

 

But there are Christians who would say, that, if you’re not completely, 100%, certain about God and the Bible and Jesus, there is something terrible wrong with you as a Christian. 

 

They would say of themselves that they have absolutely no doubts about what they perceive the Bible to proclaim. 

 

At first glance, absolute certainty would be great.  We would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God exists, that there is, in fact, a spiritual being who created the universe - even though we cannot detect him with our physical senses. 

 

We would know that the Bible is God’s message to humanity and totally applicable in everything it says, even though, at times, we may struggle with knowing exactly what it IS saying – possibly because there are a number of different interpretations of a passage, or simply because it’s hard to understand.

 

We would know that Jesus is in fact God’s son who entered history 2,000 years ago and was crucified as the atoning sacrifice for our sins - that his death overcame the gulf that exists between us and God. 

 

Those who say, that absolute certainty is required of Christians, often link it to a prohibition – the prohibition to question anything that, according to them, Christians are to believe.    

 

Maybe deep down there is the fear, that to admit to any uncertainty is to invite the ruin of their belief system, therefore, they can’t really allow themselves or others to question anything about what they believe.   

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against certainty.  Certainty is a wonderful thing - unless you’re wrong, of course. 

 

I mean, you would think someone who is willing to blow themselves and other innocent bystanders up in the name of God must be absolutely certain that what they’re doing is

1. what God would want them to do and

2. that by doing this it will propel them immediately into paradise. 

 

Of course, those who teach that nonsense most ardently to others, themselves never seem to strap on a bomb and packets of shrapnel.  Mmmm.  I wonder why? 

 

Look at these pictures and answer me this question.  Do you think that these individuals are convinced of the truth of their faith, the applicability of their scriptures, and the rightness of their cause? 

 

Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if they actually possessed the wherewithal to question their prophet, their Holy book, their tradition, or their religious teachers and leaders?  Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if they were allowed a modem of doubt? 

 

The reason why so many radical Muslims are against secular education is because it may put into question the doctrines of radical Islam.  In fact, the name of the Muslim terror group in Nigeria is “Boko haram”.  In the Hausa language it literally means, “fake (i.e., western or non-Muslim) education is sin”.[3] 

 

A tremendous amount of evil has been committed by those who seemed to be absolutely certain about the legitimacy of their cause.  This can be seen in the political realm.

 

Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Engels and Marx, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-sung - left extremists;

Hitler & Mussolini, a skinhead who killed a police officer - right extremists;

 

Those who are completely convinced of the rightness of their cause, end up being willing to commit the most horrible things in order to further or implement their ideology.  [By the way, we sometimes forget, that over the last 100 years many, many more people were killed by professing atheists than by religious people.] 

 

 

When it comes to Christianity, the same was true at one time ... in the middle ages in particular.  Those who were seen to somehow think or believe different from the official line, were called heretics and subsequently tortured and/or killed. 

 

Whether it was the slaughter of the Huguenots in France (1572), the killing of Anabaptists in Austria, the elimination of the Hussites in Bohemia and the Czech Republic during the counter-reformation (1545 - end of 30 year war),[4]  or the burning and drowning of so-called “heretics”, this murderous rampage was ordered by those who saw themselves as protectors of the only true faith.

 

Around the same time, there were numerous armed conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism, based as it was on the absolute conviction that denominational dogma was infallible.

 

The eighty years’ war in the Netherlands (1568 - 1648).

The French wars of religion (1562-1598)

The thirty years’ war (1618 - 1648), [almost 100 years after the beginning of the counter-reformation] resulting in the death of about 1/3 of the population of central Europe.  All of this in complete contradiction to the teaching of Jesus.

 

But things have changed, haven’t they?  We are no longer living at a time when certainty is the norm.  We are  living in an era, where Christians tend to waffle more than ever in their convictions. 

 

Most Christians today face doubts about the truth of their faith.  What has changed?

 

For one, more and more Christians have grown up outside of Christian homes.  I, for one, grew up in an atheistic home. So we may be confronted with a lot more skepticism about Christianity in our homes than past generations.

 

For another, back in the middle ages, most people had no personal access to the Bible.  For one, books were relatively rare and extremely expensive.  For another most people were illiterate.  Christians couldn’t check out for themselves whatever they were told … they had no way of verifying anything that they were being taught … so they simply relied on what they were told. 

 

Today, Bibles are readily accessible.  And when Christians read the Bible they may find some of it hard to understand.  Some passages may appear to be rather odd or harsh, given Jesus’ teaching about the nature and will of God.  Or the Bible may not seem to apply to everyday life.    

 

Thirdly, in our day and age, there is a tremendous amount of opposition to Christianity, something that simply wasn’t the case previously.  There are many people in our secular society who are really no longer open to considering the validity of any religion.  

 

They reject the idea of God and chose atheism, not because the reasons to do so are compelling or earth shattering, but by default, without really giving it much thought. 

 

It is also highly likely that Christians today are confronted in high school or university with the claim that religious beliefs are wrong because they clash with science. 

 

They may be told that religious beliefs cannot be confirmed by the scientific method, and therefore are nothing more than wishful thinking. 

 

It’s kind of odd that Bill Nye, the science guy, should be the one who saves the world[5].  Probably not Kevin,[6] definitely not Jesus, but Bill.

 

Bill Nye speaks out against what he sees as the conflict between faith and science.[7] 

 

Bill Nye advises, that when religious beliefs are put into question by science, they should be jettisoned.  Personally, I don’t believe that one has to choose between God and science.  To my mind, that is a false alternative.  Truth is truth.

 

Another outspoken critic of Christianity in his day, Voltaire (1694 - 1778), noted something along the lines of ....

 

Voltaire likely meant that it is absurd to take some belief at face value without questioning it at all, because you have no way of knowing whether or not what you believe is actually true. 

 

But his and Bill Nye’s criticisms are actually fairly mild compared to the so-called “new atheists”, who argue that religion is downright evil and destructive, based on their presupposed premise that miracles cannot happen.[8] 

 

By the way, new atheists really don’t give much scientific evidence for the non-existence of God other than the process of evolution (based on natural selection), the existence of evil or suffering, and the need for a cause or source of God, none of which are terribly convincing. 

 

With regard to suffering, Bertrand Russell once said that no one can sit at the bedside of a dying child and believe in God.  He was wrong.  I’ve been there.  Maybe so have you.

 

Another reason why Christians may be doubtful about the truth of their beliefs is because there is so much misinformation out there. 

 

Have you read “The DaVinci Code”?  Or “The Pagan Christ”?  One is pure fiction, the other a completely misinterpretation of the roots of Christianity. 

 

These books, and many more like them, are so full of inaccuracies and outright untruths it’s shocking.  And yet, Christians read them without actually taking the time to research whether or not what they are reading is historically correct.

 

I’m not going to go into details about all the reasons why I believe in the truth of Christianity – why I believe it to be both reasonable and believable. 

 

I won’t look at “spontaneous remission,” the need for an “ultimate cause,” the anthropic principle found in our universe, the mathematical improbability of spontaneous formation of life from nucleotides and amino acids, the complexity of nature, the fulfilment of prophecy, the willingness of the disciples to die for proclaiming Jesus as the risen Messiah, the positive life-transformation in the lives of many Christians, and on and on.  I’ve done all of that in the past.

 

What I do want to acknowledge today is that many Christians have doubt, to one degree or another for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned – or maybe for another reason.  It is why I like a verse in Jude.

 

Be merciful to those who doubt.                   Jude 22

 

Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, because they will be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7).

 

We should be merciful toward those who doubt.  And if we doubt, we should be merciful toward ourselves!

I think it’s OK to wrestle with our beliefs from time to time, which is different from cynicism, which simply rejects anything that cannot be proven conclusively

 

By now you should realize that I do NOT think that faith has to be completely blind, that in order to be a Christian one has to believe in something without ANY evidence at all. 

 

There is a big difference between irrational and rational faith.  I do not think that Christians have to abandon logic or science or knowledge in order to believe in what they do, or that the Christian faith has to be based only on wishful thinking.

 

On the other hand, I realize that logic and science and knowledge can take us only so far when it comes to matters of faith. 

 

Without abandoning reason, the best we can do, or any person who believes in God, is a decision based on what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called a leap of faith.

 

By this he didn’t mean that we need to choose to believe in something for no good reason, ignoring evidence, and embracing fantasy.  Kierkegaard was speaking about making an informed leap of faith.  Nevertheless, it will still be a leap of faith because it means to commit to what we believe in spite of our fears and doubts, and without a 100% guarantee that we are right.

 

I like the picture of a trapeze artist who has to let go and fly through the air without necessarily seeing the person who catches them on the other side. 

 

So what happens when I die?  When I let go of the high-bar on earth.  Will God really be there to catch me on the other side?

 

The one thing that does set Christianity apart from cult-like religions, is that having doubts is OK.  In a cult-like religion there is no room for doubt.  There is no room for dissent.  There is no room for questions.  All there is, is unquestioning subservience and obedience to the specific dogma set out by the cultic organization or the cultic leader. 

 

So to those of you who are having doubts, I would say, don’t panic.  It’s OK.  Everyone has doubts from time to time.  Some doubt can be good because it can motivate us to study and learn and it can get rid of false beliefs. 

 

Doubts can make us more patient and understanding of other doubters.  It can remind us of just how much truth matters.  It can make us humble. 

 

Whatever the case, one of the questions we should ask ourselves is, “Why am I having doubts?”, and “Where do those doubts come from?”  Or perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is, “Why has faith in God seem to have lost its appeal?  Why doesn’t it seem so real anymore?

 

A lot of people who end up walking away from God do so for personal, not rational, reasons.  It isn’t so much doubt, as it is lifestyle. 

 

For example, most humans like the idea of autonomy and self-determination.  It includes the idea that our personal choices are no one’s business but our own.  Another idea is that we will make it on our own steam and be the masters of our own destiny. 

 

A third aspect of autonomy is that we don’t like accountability, one of the reasons why some teenagers rebel against their parents, why young adults by and large don’t stay with their parents but strike out on their own, why there can be conflict between couples when it comes to control, and why people are loathed to join anything anymore.

 

I tend to think, that true autonomy really is an illusion.  Any psychologist or sociologist can confirm that we make a lot of choices based on irrational impulses, unconscious desires and connections, habits, paths of least resistance, peer and social pressures and the prevailing cultural winds

 

Nevertheless, for some people the idea of autonomy and a lack of accountability have become the biggest barrier to belief in God.  Some people truly resent God telling them how to live their lives. So autonomy from God may seem like a really good idea when one does not want to feel guilty about one’s lifestyle choices. 

 

If God in fact exists and he is moral, then we really are accountable to him.  By rejecting God’s existence, there is no need to acknowledge mistakes and sins and errors.  There is no fear of being held accountable for betrayal, greed, cowardice, compromise, untruthfulness, or anything else for that matter.  We can stop feeling guilty.

 

However, to resist accountability to God, in essence is to resist a relationship with God

 

And, true freedom from guilt really only comes when we confess and try to turn from our wrongdoing because that opens the door to forgiveness and healing and wholeness and eternal life. 

 

I want to close by reminding us of the passage I read at the beginning of this message – Jesus’ encounter with the father of the demon-possessed son.  “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!

 

Perhaps that needs to be your prayer today.

 

IS SOMETHING HOLDING ME BACK FROM MAKING AN INFORMED “LEAP OF FAITH”?

IF SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS IT, AND IS IT IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO KEEP ME FROM MOVING ON WITH GOD?

 

One day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, maybe fifty years from now, you will let go of the trapeze called life.  You will take your last breath, your hands will go slack, and life will fall away. 

 

The real question is what happens then.  Will there be someone to catch you as you enter eternity, or will you simply stop to exist and the universe will neither know nor care? 

 

Can you commit yourself to God, even if I don’t have absolute certainty?

 

[1] Some MSS: “by prayer and fasting.”

[2] In Mark 6:7, Jesus sends out the 12, giving them authority over evil spirits (cf. Matt 10:1; Luke 9:1 - both add that Jesus gives the 12 authority to also heal every disease and sickness).  In Mark 6:13 we are told they in fact cast out many demons and healed the sick after anointing them with oil (cf. Luke 9:6; Matt does not record what happened). In Matt 10:8, the commission is expanded to include the cleansing of lepers and raising people from the dead. 

In Luke 10:9, Jesus sends out the 72 and tells them to heal the sick.  In 10:17, they come back rejoicing because even the demons submitted to them in Jesus’ name.

[3] The word for education, “ilmi”, is implied.  Former colonial education was called “ilmin boko” = fake education. 

[4] The counter-reformation reduced Lutheranism in Poland, France, Italy, Ireland, Austria and southern Germany, Bohemia, Belgium, Croatia and Slovania.

[5] Bill Nye saves the word, TV show on Netflix.  First episode April 21st, 2017.

[6] Kevin probably saves the world - sitcom with Jason Ritter.  First episode dated October 3rd, 2017. 

[7] Nye, who considers himself an agnostic, comments that considering the actual age of the universe and the reality of evolution, young-earth creationism in particular is obviously wrong.

[8] Christopher Hitches, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett.