You think of yourself as a Christian and you’re trying to be a faithful believer, yet sometimes you just can’t help but have doubts. Thoughts that maybe God isn’t really paying attention to you, working things out in your life for good. Or that He doesn’t have your back, they just creep in; you can’t help it. To top it off, you meet people who seem to have a rock-solid relationship with God where they are so sure of their beliefs. They never seem to doubt anything about God, who He is, and His role in their lives. Do you ever wonder why you can’t be like that? Ever think, “What’s wrong with me?” You don’t want to doubt, but you do. In this episode, the Rev. Mark Schaefer discusses his sermon on faith and doubt (John 20:19-31). His insights are both encouraging and inspiring. Don’t miss this one!
Table of Contents
- I Don’t Want to Doubt, But I Do
- Doubt and Faith Are Equated
- What is Faith?
- It’s Time to Worship
- A Faithful Space for Doubt
I Don’t Want to Doubt, But I Do
Bob: You consider yourself a believer, and you try to be as faithful as you can. But sometimes you just can't help but have doubts, ideas that maybe God isn't really paying attention to you. He’s not working things out in your life for good, or that he doesn't have your back. They just creep in, you can't help it. You see these people who seem to have a rock-solid relationship with God, where they are so sure of their beliefs.
They never seem to doubt anything about God, who he is and his role in their lives. Maybe you think, "Why can't I be like that? What's wrong with me? Am I missing some God DNA or something? I don't want to doubt, but I do." Ever think that, or know someone who has? Then our guest today is speaking to you.
Our guest today comes to us with impeccable credentials. He received a bachelor's and master's degree from the State University of New York at Albany in Russian languages and literature. A jurist doctor, a law degree from the George Washington University, and a Master of Divinity degree from Wesley Theological Seminary. In July, our guest will begin serving as senior Pastor at St. Matthews in Bowie, Maryland.
Recently he was senior Pastor at Cheltenham United Methodist Church in Maryland, and prior to that, he was both campus minister and university chaplain at American University in Washington DC. I commend to you his 2018 book, The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue.
In this episode, we're discussing his sermon on John 20, verses 19 through 31, entitled Questions of Faith: Am I Lost If I Have Doubt? which can be found in both text and video at inspirationalsermons.com.
Blessed Are You Who Believe
Bob: Our guest today is one of the best preachers in America, the Reverend Mark Schaefer.
Delighted for you to be here. Pastor Mark, John 20, verses 19 through 31, I'm sure if people heard us recite it, they would know it well. Can you remind our listeners what's really happening in this passage and what's the context around it?
Mark: This is one of the resurrection appearances in John's gospel. It is the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the upper room to all of them, except for Thomas. The point is made that Thomas, when he rejoins the disciples does not believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead. This makes his famous statement that "Unless I see the holes in his hands and put my finger in his side, I'm not going to believe."
The story continues that a week later they were all in the same place and Thomas this time was with them. Jesus offers to let Thomas put his finger in his side. But Thomas confesses his faith in Jesus as the risen Lord and is then praised, although somewhat backhandedly, by Jesus. He says, "Blessed are you, who you have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who believe without having seen."
This becomes the coda to the first resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene. The one that comes after that that emphasizes those who are struggling with doubt about whether the resurrection of Jesus is real or not.
Bob: We call him doubting Thomas. There’s this connotation to the word doubting. That somehow Thomas is less faithful than the other disciples, less trusting, less resolute? But you say, maybe not really.
Mark: It is a problem. Doubt does have a negative connotation, especially in Protestant Christian circles. The idea that he is doubting, that he doesn't accept on faith the testimony of his fellow disciples is this tremendous weight around his reputation in the early church. Today, we use the phrase doubting Thomas to refer to someone who has a hard time accepting things at face value or trusting in reports.
It's entirely unfair to poor Thomas. If it had been Peter who was missing, or James or John, they would all have had the same exact reaction. But here Thomas then becomes emblematic of the doubted full response which is then not praised as the faithful response, as those who believe without seeing.
Bob: Pastor Mark, you brought up the tradition of Protestant denominations. Why does the word faith become a little more difficult for us? Remind our listeners about where this all came from and how it's evolved to be maybe a single focal point for us in Protestant Churches.
Mark: Part of it is it's a byproduct of the reformation. When we threw out the magisterium and the tradition of the church as authoritative on theological issues, we were left with Sola Scriptura. Luther's doctrine that Scripture alone was sufficient for theological understanding and for salvation.
If you reduce all of your theological authority to a written text, then faith in that text, that trusting in that text, becomes paramount. To the point where, because we don't have anything else as a sort of vehicle of authority. We don't have an oral tradition, or we don't have this handed down tradition.
How Faith Became Equated with Belief
Mark: We don't have a mystical tradition like the Orthodox do. What happens is a lot of weight gets put on the text. So that if you begin to doubt, if you begin to question the text itself and what it says, then that has become equated with faith. That faith becomes in effect believing these things.
Luther got rid of the idea that we were saved by the things that we did. Then we quickly replaced them by the things that we believed. I don't think that was Luther's intent. Then you see this sort of reinforced over time as Christianity comes into conflict with modernity. We see groups doubling down on taking the text literally.
We see the fundamentalist emerge, emphasizing five fundamentals that you must believe in order to be a good Christian. It becomes a question where faith then becomes identified with belief. Part of that's also a translation question. The Greek verbs for belief and faith are the same verb. Sometimes, believing in Jesus Christ, it could just as easily be translated, have faith in Jesus Christ or trust in Jesus Christ.
Some of it is an English language phenomenon. A lot of it is an English Protestantism phenomenon – an American Protestant phenomenon of seeking certainty in the text because we have no other real avenues for church authority.
In those denominations that have something a little more than the Sola Scriptura, like the Anglican tradition, their three-legged stool of faith, tradition and reason. The Methodist one, the faith, tradition, reason and experience, you tend to see a little bit less of that. In the Calvinist traditions, the congregationalist traditions, you tend to see a lot more emphasis on faith as belief and acceptance of creed and doctrine.
Christ Invites to His Table All Who Wish to Receive
Bob: You explained that all of that emphasis on faith was bolstered by the development of our creeds over time. That we stand on those creeds and there's this connotation of belief to include certainty. In fact, Pastor Mark, you actually recall a particular worship service where the Pastor almost seemed to require that kind of certainty.
Mark: Absolutely. I was attending a worship service with someone I just met. She invited me to come to Maunday Thursday services. The Pastor stood upfront and held a loaf of bread and the wine. He said words that were very familiar to me in my Methodist tradition. "This is not our table. This is the Lord's table and Christ invites to his table all who wish to receive."
Then he said, which I was not used to, "However, if you have any doubt as to your commitment to Christ, then you should not take this cup. For this will be for you the cup of judgment." He went on to exclude non-communicant children because they don't understand what they're getting themselves into.
This was all very shocking to me because the bar seems to be incredibly high. If you have any doubts, if you were not worthy, I kind of recoiled and looked around at my new friend and her friends. None of them seemed to mind or notice. They were either very certain or they weren't about to admit that they weren't.
I just remember thinking, "I don't see how that is compatible with a means of grace, which is what the communion is." Now, I understand it's a different theological tradition, a different understanding.
They Worshiped Him, in Doubt and in Faith
Mark: It felt that that was a requirement that I don't know anyone can really meet. At least not honestly meet.
Bob: It seems though Jesus didn't require that, number one, but also it seems devoid of all honesty. How many folks can honestly state they don't ever doubt, they never have any doubts at all? Even you point to Scriptures as well that we see doubt even therein and you refer to Matthew 28. Can you remind our listeners what happens there as well, Pastor Mark?
Mark: Matthew 28 is the resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples in Galilee. In Matthew's gospel, the disciples wait until Galilee to see the risen Christ. They go to the mountain he told them to go to. There he is and it said, and they worshiped him, but some doubted.
What I find fascinating about that is, this isn't even they're out getting the groceries or whatever Thomas is doing. They're there, and they see him and they doubt. That to me is just so incredible, that even in that moment, people are like, "I don't know."
Bob: It makes Thomas looked pretty good, actually.
Mark: Exactly. The Scripture often to me is a key to its own interpretation. There's little clues in there that gives you how you should not take this, either literally or take this understanding. One of them is right there. Because this is also right before the Great Commission.
Jesus then turns right around and sends them out and into the world. It doesn't say he cures their doubt. It just says he gives them the Great Commission.
What is Faith?
Mark: That to me means that doubt is much more central to faith than I think most of us are willing to admit.
Bob: Pastor Mark, what is faith then if it’s really not belief? How would you define it?
Mark: Faith for me is trust, first and foremost. We are asked to trust in God. We are asked to trust in Christ. We're asked to trust in their promises and in the vision of the world. The Kingdom of God that they have said is coming into being, that living in a trustful way is what faith is.
This to me, the fact that that does not require certainty, becomes self-evident when you really stop and think about it. The best illustration of this was in a television show, a science fiction show, Battlestar Galactica. Not the old “schlocky” one from the 70’s, but the reboot one in the early 2000’s.
There's a conversation in that show where one person is being sent out on a mission by the commander. There's reason for suspicion, there's reason to question her loyalty. She says to the commander, "How do you really know that you can trust me?" And he says, "I don't, that's what trust is." I remember I was watching this on a DVD. I remember pausing it and thinking, "Oh my God, I have to write that down."
Bob: That's theological.
Mark: That preaches. That's all I could think of, that preaches. Then a certain level of anger that whoever these science fiction writers were, they were getting it right better than the church often was.
Trust Doesn’t Require Certainty
Mark: No, because it was such a profound statement, that trust doesn't require certainty. In fact, with certainty, it's not actually trust. It doesn't take a lot of trust for me to stand on a giant slab of granite. A big rock mountain. It doesn't take trust crossing a rope bridge, one of those rickety rope bridges. That takes some trust. That takes a leap of faith on some level because you're not sure.
It becomes the more laudable thing. When people say, the things that we admire in bravery and in sort of courage, they're not things that are safe. They're the things that people don't know how they turn out. We admire people who make commitments in love because they can't know that this is going to work out.
Bob: But they still make those commitments.
Mark: That's a faithful act. Why people cry at weddings is not because they're sad or something. It's because, when does this ever happen that people are willing to make this kind of leap of faith together? It's powerful and moving. When we talk about faith as having power, to me that's what it is. It's living boldly into something we're not entirely certain of.
Is there really the ultimate victory of good? Will justice reign, will suffering cease, and sorrow cease, will all of this fade away and God is? We're not entirely sure, but we go and we live our lives as if that's going to happen. We create that reality, and it's powerful and meaningful. That's what faith is. It's cheapened if it's just made equivalent to believing a set of propositions.
Bob: We move forward in spite. Doubt does not paralyze you.
Mark: I don't know, nevertheless, here I go.
It’s Time to Worship
Bob: There's a great story out of World War II, a true story. Where a number of those who were in the Nazi death camps were gathered together as Jews. They would get together every evening. Over time, they began to feel that God had left them. So they decided to get together and have a trial and put God on trial.
Both side had an attorney, and they accused God of abandoning his people. They roll out all the evil things that were happening to God's people and to the Jews, and they convicted God. Before they could actually provide a sentence, they had to break up because they said, "It's time to worship."
Despite everything that you see and the doubts that you have, to still move forward in their faith, that's interesting. To me, it's inspiring, Pastor Mark, that doubt doesn't paralyze you. It still enables you to move forward, in spite of the fact that I can't know for sure.
I think also to Abraham, he's a model. We call him a model of our faith. Scripture even says that his belief was reckoned to him as righteousness, but he doubted. He took matters into his own hands, having a child through Hagar.
He passed his wife off as his sister because he didn't think God would keep him safe. So as you say, there is little in Scripture to suggest that faith is certainty. If it's not, then it's got to have some element of doubt. It's got to be part of it.
Mark: In fact, faith without doubt, I think it's missing an essential element of what faith really is. The very element that gives it its power.
The Loveless Critics and the Uncritical Lovers
Mark: The story about the trial of God is so fascinating to end that trial. Because we have to now worship the God that we've just accused of failing to exist meaningfully for us. It’s so interesting because it reminds me a little bit of William Sloane Coffin's comment on patriotism.
He says there are two kinds of three kinds of Patriots, two bad, one good. There's the loveless critics and the uncritical lovers. He said those are the two bad kind. One just criticizes with no love and the other just loves with no criticism. He said, whereas two Patriots engage in a lover's quarrel with their country, symbolic of God's lover's quarrel with us.
I always found that so meaningful because to me, faith is not about like, "Well, here's what my Church teaches me and I accept it 100%." It's also saying, "I'm not really sure. God, is this really the best thing?" To be able to ask those questions, especially since, as you say, the Biblical witnesses rife with that.
I was doing a Bible study the other day, where Abraham basically bargains God down to 10 righteous souls and Sodom and Gomorrah. It's sort of like, people are not used to seeing the patriarchs push back on God like that.
It's so interesting this idea that like, "I'm not sure that's a good plan, God." When you step back from it, you say, "Well, what is this person talking about?" That's exactly it. It's the dynamic of unknowing actually creates a faithful response.
Bob: If the father of our faith can do that, well, then I feel okay.
Mark: Exactly. We just got some major credibility there.
Doubt and Faith Are Not Opposites
Bob: You end this sermon with a fascinating approach to Thomas' name and what that might mean to really understanding faith. Can you tell our listeners about that?
Mark: Sure. I had a friend who once pointed out to me that Thomas meant the name Toma. In Aramaic, it means twin. We get that he's called the twin because it'll tell us that in the parenthetical afterward. But the name itself means twin. So it seems like Thomas is a nickname. The question was, and my friend would say, "Whose twin is he?" How do you have one twin?
I remember thinking about this. He basically said he thought that what this meant was that Thomas looked like Jesus. That was why they nicknamed him the twin. Because if you have a group of a Master and disciples, one of the disciples is called the twin. And you'd never say who his twin is, then it must be the Master.
Bob: The scripture always talks about brother of, son of, and in this case you never hear about Thomas' twin, if he actually had one.
Mark: There's no mention of that. Also, they need to identify Jesus in the garden. Perhaps it's because someone else there looked a lot like him and they didn't want to arrest the wrong guy. But then I began to think about this theologically.
If Jesus and Thomas are in this relationship where Thomas is Jesus' twin, Jesus models perfect faith, and Thomas models doubt. What this means is that faith and doubt are not antithesis. They're twins. That they're bound up in relationship like a yin and a yang. They are part of one thing.
A Faithful Space for Doubt
Mark: I found a quote by Kahlil Gibran that said that “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” It was actually in a reflection on Thomas, on the story of Thomas, that he wrote that. It's so powerful to me because what it does is it creates a faithful space for doubt.
It really tells us that doubt and faith are intimately bound up in relationship, that they're not antithesis. That if you have doubts, it doesn't mean you can't be faithful. It means on some level that you can be more faithful than people who are proceeding with blind certainty.
Bob: Exactly. To me, it's inspiring. It's encouraging because it tells people they don't have to try to be something they're not.
Mark: Or engage. You mentioned my book, earlier, and people ask me why I wrote it. I said, "Well, I wrote it for two groups, the certain and the uncertain." For permission to the certain, to let go of that house of cards certainty that they're propping up with every kind of cognitive dissonance, plugging their ears, and shutting their eyes that they can.
They have doubts, but they can't admit them to themselves because they're afraid the whole thing will collapse. To them, I say, "Doubt away."
And to the people who are uncertain, who acknowledged their doubt, but then feel like they're doing faith wrong, I'm telling them, "No, actually. That's the right way to go about it."
Bob: That is faith.
Mark: There's been a tremendous amount of spiritual violence done to people who have admitted their doubt. They've been told they have no place in the community of faith. They're lost, they're reprobate, whatever you want to tell them.
One of the Mysteries of Faith
Bob: They don't belong. There's something wrong with them. They're not strong enough. In some churches, apparently, you can't even come to have communion.
Mark: Exactly. Which is right, which is one of the mysteries of faith, by the way. So like, if this mystery is too certain for you. A lot of people would gladly join with Communities of Faith. And explore what they believe if they knew that their doubts were welcome.
Bob: It's inspiring for a lot of people who don't come to church because they feel like, "Well, I don't have that gene. I can't stand up and say the same things. I'm not sure. I think God's out there, and I believe you when you say that he wants good for me.
But I just don't know how it's going to happen. I don't know if I can completely trust him." The fact that we create a space where they do come to church, where they can flesh out their questions, that's really an important thing.
Mark: I know of people who have told clergy, "I just can't accept that whole Virgin birth thing. So I just can't be a Christian." Imagine that it's just because you, intellectually accepting this claim, that's what your identity and salvation hinge on. It's not possible.
Bob: That's it. I challenge anybody to explain to me the Trinity in perfect certainty. I don't get it.
Mark: The Cappadocian fathers couldn't do that.
Bob: That's part of the mystery.
Mark: When I would teach that in my undergraduate classes, I would give them a five-minute sketch of the shield of the Trinity. Father, Son, the Spirit is not, is, and all that stuff.
The Certainty of Uncertainty
Mark: Then I would say, "You get it?" Of course, they just stick their heads. I'd say, "Don't worry. There are people at the seminary next door been studying this for years that don't understand it."
Bob: Still don't get it and can't explain it. Well, Pastor Mark, thank you very much for walking us through this wonderful, uplifting sermon. I hope our listeners find your book, The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue. Published by Wipf and Stock, came out in 2018.
I'd love for our listeners to check out your sermon in its entirety at inspirationalsermons.com. Pastor Mark Shaffer, one of the best Preachers in America. We appreciate very much your time today.
Mark: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a lot of fun.