Haunted - Week Two: "Haunted By Doubt"


This week we are continuing the sermon series that will take us through the month of October--a series entitled, "Haunted."  The idea behind this series is something that we all share to some extent.

No matter who you are, or what your background might be you have something in common with every other person who is sitting in here today:  At some point in time you have had something happen in your past that caused you pain.  

Maybe you did something you regret.  Maybe you had doubts about your faith. Maybe you learned to be afraid.  Maybe you were hurt, wounded by someone.  

And for many of us those experiences feel like they happened yesterday.  We've been haunted by them, and because we've been haunted by these experiences in our past, they are affecting how we handle our present, and perhaps are ruining our vision of the future.  

Throughout this series we're going to be focusing on this simple, but life-changing truth: You don't have to be haunted by your past if you trust the One who holds your future.   You don't have to be haunted by your regrets, your doubts, your fears or your hurts.
Today we're going to be spending some talking about doubt.

I was present during the birth of each of my three boys.  It was epic every time.  I was not a great birthing coach, to be honest.  I would ask my wife really awkward questions while she was in active labor.  "Does it hurt?"  "Are you having discomfort?"  "How are those contractions?"  Perhaps the worst thing I said to her was when she was pushing Jackson into the world.  "You look like the Hulk!" I exclaimed in my excitement.  She doesn't remember any of the other encouraging things I said during Jackson's labor--but she definitely remembers me comparing her to the Hulk.

But despite my stupidity each of the boys came into the world just fine.  And afterward when my wife was holding them in her arms you could see in her eyes the fierce love and the fierce post-partum, Mama Grizzly gleam in her eye.  It was awesome.  If I had asked her in that moment if she would be willing to give her life for the bundle of joy that she was holding she would have scoffed at such a feeble notion.  The look in her eye--love mixed with mama bear protective glare--told me all I needed to know.  In that moment she would have killed for that baby.

And considering the words I had uttered about her and the Incredible Hulk were fresh in her mind, I kind of backed away a bit.

Seriously, the whole scene was just a miracle to me.  Seeing my sons being born... Seeing my wife gather them into her arms... Holding them and staring at their little bodies... Knowing that I would watch them grow up... All of the dreams and hopes and emotions were...  Divine.

In those moments I felt the presence of God so deeply that it felt like I was enveloped in glory.  Even now remembering those moments I ask myself, "How could I ever doubt the existence of God?"

Years later I found myself working at Florida Hospital as a chaplain on a night when a young child was brought into the ER after being pulled from the family pool which he had fallen into.  I was part of a team who were doing what they could to comfort the absolutely grief-stricken family.  The child was pronounced dead.  He looked like he'd just fallen asleep.  It was unimaginable.  The parents screamed out in agony, "Why?"  And there didn't seem to be any answer.

Even those of us who had dedicated our lives to answering that question had to pause for a moment when faced with that scene.

The Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, who was a Christian, once wrote, "The death of a single infant calls into question the existence of God."   Those agonizing, heart-wrenching moments lead us to the inevitable question, "How could a good God let this happen?"  How could a good God allow children to starve...?  To be butchered by radical fundamentalist Islamists...?  To contract deadly diseases because they have no way to fight them...?  To be sold into slavery...?

Once when Billy Graham was asked if he believes after he dies he will hear God say to him, "Well done, good and faithful servant," he paused and said, "I hope so."

Martin Luther, the great reformer, was approached by a woman who was plagued with doubt.  He asked her, "When you recite the creeds--do you believe them?"  She said, "Yes, most certainly."  "Then go in peace," Luther told her, "You believe more and better than I do."

Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish author and Holocaust survivor described his faith as "wounded."  He wrote, "My tradition teaches that no heart is as whole as a broken heart, and I would say that no faith is as solid as a wounded faith."

So, I believe and I doubt.  I find moments where I feel God all around me so heavily that it feels like I am clothed in Him.  And then there are moments where I wonder if God is there at all.

We've all had our doubts in the past and tried to reconcile them.   Maybe not very well.  Some of us have had tragedy strike us.  We've lost a spouse, a child, a loved one.  There is a hole in our heart they use to occupy, and we have tried in vain to find some reason, some purpose in it---but we're failing.  No trite words of comfort, no Hallmark poems are cutting it.

Some of us have begged God for answers, for some sign that God is there--and all we have received in turn is silence, and we are beginning to wonder if there is anyone out there who is even listening.  And when people tell us just to be patient and listen real hard---we want to hit them upside the head real hard.

Or maybe we look out into the world and see the poverty, the hunger, the disease, the terror, war, violence and hatred that seems to dominate the news cycles each and every day.  And even though we would love to find some way to make sense of it all, we are beginning to wonder if maybe humans are just destined to destroy themselves, and there really isn't any point to the universe.

We aren't the only ones in history to experience this kind of soul-wracking doubt.   The Bible is full of stories about people who struggled to believe and not doubt.  It's also full of encouragement for those who are in the midst of the struggle.

In the book of James we have some incredible encouragement from James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote the book--which is actually a letter to early Christians.  Here is the advice he gives in James 1:5-6:
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
Here's a way to translate this passage in language that will help us understand it a bit better:
"If you are struggling with doubt and you can't seem to understand what God is up to, or if God is there, or if God loves you--then pray.  God doesn't look down on you if you are doubting--even if you don't completely believe in God.  But here's the thing:  When you pray, you can do it wholeheartedly with the expectation that God will be there, will answer and will come through in the end. Because the alternative is a life where every single bad thing that happens to you makes you feel like you are bobbing up and down on the ocean waves during a huge storm."  
Or to put it another much shorter way: Prayer can keep you afloat in waves of doubt.  This is counterintuitive to most of us when we are doubled over in doubt. We experience the storms of doubt, the waves are crashing in on us, God is silent and then... "You want me to do what? Pray?"

Prayer in the middle of doubt is a defiant act of hope, a defiant act of faith.

And what is prayer in the middle of doubt if it isn't singing when your heart is broken?  What is prayer in the middle of doubt if it isn't lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness?  What is prayer in the middle of doubt if it isn't--in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr--planting a tree in the moment you hear the world is about to end?

Some cynical and skeptical people would have us believe that everything is meaningless in the end--that the best you can do is try to be a good person in the here and now.  Bertrand Russell, one of the godfathers of modern atheism wrote, "In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment.  Within this fragment the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and within the speck our planet is a microscopic dot.  On this dot, tiny lumps of carbon and water crawl about for a few years until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded."

That. Is depressing.

Woody Allen sums up how absurd this notion is when he writes, "More than any time in human history, humankind faces a crossroads.  One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness.  The other leads to total extinction.  Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Is this what we really want?

I will completely affirm the fact that Doubt and Faith are companions.  I believe this with all my heart.  There is nothing inherently wrong with doubting your faith, doubting what God is up to---faithful disciples have done just that for centuries.  Doubt and Faith might be companions, but one companion--Faith-- will get you out of the cul-de-sac.  The other will haunt you, and keep you riding around in circles.

So what can you do when you are haunted by doubt?  I think there are a couple of things that we can learn from a close reading of our passage of Scripture today.

To begin you need to "Let it Go."

This is point when we cue the music from Frozen.  I rather like that song, to be honest.  When I am in the car and it "happens" to be playing on the radio I try to sing it as loudly as I can.  You would probably not want to be in the car with me when this happens.

What I mean by "let it go" is not exactly what you might be thinking.  Let me explain.  When a musician prepares to play an instrument or sing a song they know that it is probably not going to be perfect.  There is little chance of them being in perfect rhythm or singing in perfect pitch.  So they have a choice--they can keep it inside because they know it won't be perfect--or they can just "let it go" and sing or perform it anyway.

John Ortberg once wrote, "If you don't want to go to the grace with all your music in you, you'll have to take a shot."  In other words, give faith a chance.  Put your words of faith out there.  Prayer your hope-filled prayers.  Ask God for faith.  Go all in.  And remember this more than you remember anything else--I'm not asking you to go all in with a system of belief, or a set of rules, or a denomination, or a religion.  I am asking you to go all in when it comes to belief in a person.  And that person is Jesus.

Once when Jesus was teaching a large group of his followers he said some difficult things about what it meant to follow him.  A number of the disciples turned away and left at that point.  Their doubt led them to embrace the certainty of unbelief over the uncertainty of following Jesus.  Jesus then turned to his twelve disciples and asked, "Will you not also go with them?"  Peter spoke up for the group.  "Lord, where would we go?  You have the words of life."

They were all in at that point--because they weren't following an idea, a systematic theology---they were following Jesus.

The second thing you can when you are haunted by doubt is to keep praying and keep walking.

Let me tell you about the strange case of Agnes.  Agnes was called to become a missionary at a young age, and so she went to the mission field--full of hope and promise.  But when the realities of her life's work fell upon her in force, she began to doubt.  She confessed that even though she was going through the motions of piety, "I no longer pray."  She wore her smiles, she related, as a "mask" or a "cloak," to hide the intense doubts that she felt about the presence and existence of God.

But she kept walking.  And eventually she began to pray again.  She kept praying and walking and one day Agnes discovered that God had been there all along.  We would know Agnes by another name--Mother Theresa.

Let me ask you a question in closing...

If you don't feel close to God any more... who moved?  I mean even if you don't really buy into God as Christians might describe and espouse God---you have at least a concept of God as this immutable, changeless, completely "other" being.

Is it possible that your doubts about God might have more to do with you--than with God?

I know people love to use this quote: "Even if you don't believe in God, He believes in you."  It's become so overused that I think we've lost the beauty of what it really stands for.

God is for you.  God is with you.  God will never leave or forsake you.

And we know this because of the witness of Jesus, who showed us what God is really like.  Jesus also demands something of us--He demands that we believe and not doubt.  That we choose one companion over another.  That we pray for faith seeking understanding and that our understanding will dispel our doubts.

Mother Theresa struggled for years with her doubts, but was finally able to speak with confidence about the joy of faith.  The evidence of God had been there all along.  "Never doubt in the darkness," she wrote, "what God has shown you in the light."

Open your eyes.  Open your ears.  Open your heart.

You don't have to be haunted by your doubts any longer.  The evidence of your faith--even if all you have is just a tiny speck of it--is all around you.  You are not defined by your past--you don't have to be haunted by it if you put your trust in the One who holds your future.

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