October 29, 2012

Barriers to Faith: Doubting God's Existence Part 2

We are currently in a series called Barriers to Faith. We are looking at things that keep us from getting where want or need to go, and for many in our world today, Doubt is a big part of what holds them back. It is their barrier.

And we are not talking about just having a hesitant feeling toward something. There are people with serious doubts even in regards to God’s existence. And it isn’t just for the outsider or the atheist. There are times when those following Jesus struggle with doubt.

Thomas, one of Jesus’ followers, is the Patron Saint of all who doubt. He refused to believe the wild stories about Jesus’ resurrection just because the other disciples said they saw Him. He said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25). Because of his doubt, he has won the title, Doubting Thomas.

Doubting Thomas. How condescending. As someone who never takes something at face value, I find this intolerable. Simply wanting someone to demonstrate some evidence should not cause a person to be labeled for 2,000 years!

Thomas, like me, would have sent every one of those emails back to the other disciples with the appropriate link to Snopes.com.

Put yourselves in Thomas’ shoes for a moment. Have you ever seen a resurrection before? Have you ever heard someone tell a ghost story or story that just seemed too good to be true?

Thomas simply wanted some demonstration that what was being said was true. I can relate to that.

But doubt can be scary. As a child I remember how some questions were not appropriate to be asked in church. Don’t be a Doubting Thomas! Simply take it on faith is what they said; as though faith meant somehow believing something that was unreasonable or unbelievable, but you accepted it anyway!

We even have a term for it...blind faith! If you find something unbelievable you should just step out and believe it because that is what’s expected of you!

But it is my belief that while there is no way to prove God’s existence beyond the shadow of a doubt there are explanations or proofs that add up to reasonably point to God’s existence. Christianity is not just blind faith. You do not need to check your brain at the door. You do not need to set up a battle between faith and reason and doubt.

You can be a thinking, reasonable, intelligent person and find credible reasons to believe in the Christian message.

So what is doubt?It is important to understand what we mean when we talk about doubt. The English word “doubt” comes from the Latin word “dubitare.” It means having a double-mind; to have a divided heart. It standing, undecided between two choices, and being unable to make a commitment to either one.

A great mental picture is of a person attempting to get out of their canoe and on to a dock. The movement of the canoe makes them nervous so they hesitate...and then the they fall into the water. Doubt is having two minds. It is being indecisive about a Truth. It is being indecisive about God or Jesus or the Christian faith.

The danger many Christians fear is that with doubt ALWAYS leads to falling into the water. Everyone of us knows someone or has heard of someone who after years of growing up in the faith or after having accepted a belief in Jesus left the faith due to doubts.

An all-too-familiar story goes like this. A young person has been raised in the church. They have a faith experience with God. They are active in the youth group. Then they go off to college where they are introduced to various other faith systems. Despite all the doom and gloom predictions of their church they discover many people of other faiths and some who have no faith at all who are extremely intelligent and thoughtful and sometimes more moral and caring than those in the church back home.

They sit in on the college classes and hear well-reasoned and thoughtful explanations against faith. They points of view that seem reasonable...especially when compared to the training they received growing up. But they are also alienated from church, and friends, and anything familiar...and their faith begins to suffer...and doubts creep in.

Doubt, though, does not have to have the upper hand. You can have doubt and you can survive. You can make it through to the other side.

I love the story from Mark 9. Jesus is on his way down the mountain having just been transfigured. He arrives to find his disciples and the crowd in a heated exchange because the disciples attempted to free a man’s child from demon possession and were unable to do so. Jesus offers to help the child...

Starting Mark 9:22-24 the boys father says,

“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!”
I love this story because it is so true to my experience, and the experience of so many whom I have spoken with who deal with doubt. But it also shows us the proper attitude we should have as we wrestle with doubt.

So often we beat our selves up when we have the times of doubt. We think, “How stupid of you! You are a Christian and you have doubt! You think you can just go to church and ignore this?”

Sometimes we just have to approach God with the honesty of this father, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Don’t beat yourself up when the doubts come. Just because we have some doubts doesn’t mean we don’t have a sincere faith. This isn’t an all or nothing endeavor. I have doubt, therefore I have no faith. That is just not biblical.

Doubt is to faith what fear is to courage. Courage is not facing down danger without fear. Courage is not being controlled by that fear so you can move forward and do what needs to be done. So it is with faith and doubt. Faith is not the absence of doubt. It is understanding our doubts so we can move forward.

So this morning we are going to look at one last passage in our discussion about Doubting God’s existence.

Romans 1:18-22,
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

So are some of the sources of our doubt?

We doubt because of...
Immorality and Self-interest“18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.”

For Paul, a rejection of God’s existence is rooted in the fact of people’s sinfulness. rejection of God’s existence is not rooted in in careful reasoning, but rather in rebellion. People hold Truth down with their sin.

There are some people for whom their doubt is rooted in honest questions and an intellectual search for Truth. But is it so hard to believe that it is beneficial to a person’s lifestyle and chosen beliefs system to reject a belief in God. Let me put it another way, if the God of the Bible is real, wouldn’t the activity and choices and lifestyles of some people be threatened?

Imagine that if I were given the opportunity to speak Larry Flynt, the infamous publisher of Hustler magazine. Let’s say I fly out to his house, and I am given an opportunity to share my faith him and some reasonable proofs for God’s existence. At the end of our time, Larry...I can call him that now because we have a form of a relationship...Larry says to me, “You have convinced me!”

I am excited because Larry is about to accept Jesus.

But he says, “I have one more question for you. If I adopt your Christian belief systems, do I have to stop having sex with anyone I want? And, do I have to stop publishing my magazine which brings in millions of dollars?

“Well of course, Larry,” I would say. “God has called us to live a holy life that respects women as human beings and called us to live by a sexual ethic that holds to a monogamous lifestyle. So yes, these are some things you would need to change.”

Do you think, for just a second, that Larry Flynt might have a vested interest in there being no God?

Can you imagine that so many others in our world might have a vested interest, a bias in their heart for there being no God in existence? Because if the God of the Bible is real we either have to accept what He says as true or we have to reject him.

This is where that verse from the Old Testament comes into play in Psalm 14:1. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.

This verse gets quoted by Christians all the time as a response to atheists. They say, “See to deny God is to be a fool. You are a fool!” But the biblical definition of a fool is someone who commits sins and does their own thing believing they will receive no punishment or there will be no judgment.  

Because sin has affected us to the very core of our being, we are biased. We want to believe that we are just fine, and that our sin will not separate from God. But only the fool, the one who does whatever they wish, says, “There is no God to hold me accountable! I can do whatever I want.”

Is it so hard to believe that our doubts are often rooted in our desire to hold on to our way of doing things? As way to do as we please? That sometimes we have a prior commitment to doing things our way and if there really is a God then it might just get in the way.

Aldous Huxley in Ends and Means, 1937 famously, and honestly wrote these words, "I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption... The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves...the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation..."

The second source of doubt...

Ingratitude“21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

Doubt can creep into our lives because we have ingratitude.

So often we say, “If only God would heal my father, help my spouse not leave me, supply my financial need...If only God would do these things then I would always believe in Him!”

But the Bible, especially the Old Testament, shows time and time and time again that no matter how big God’s demonstration we live only in the moment.

The Israelites saw 10 amazing plagues and punishments come upon the Egyptians, and then they saw the Sea opened up before them so they could walk across on dry ground. They saw a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day leading and guiding them...and it wasn’t even 2 weeks into the journey when they started to grumble about food and wanting to return to Egypt because they somehow couldn’t muster the faith the believe that God, who had done all of these things, could provide them with food.

How often we forget what God has done. How often we ask for God to move and and work and accomplish some things in our lives...and then when they happen...just move on with our lives without a single word of gratitude to the God who supplied our needs.

Hosea 13:6, says, “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.”

I grew up in an impoverished family. We survived because of the welfare program. That childhood has left me with wounds and scars...especially in regards to money. So when I faced the issue of tithing...it was a difficult issue for me.

But then someone taught me the principle of gratitude as it relates to tithing. Malachi 3:8-10 says, ““Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”

God accuses the Israelites of robbing Him because they refuse to bring their tithes to him, but he also points out that it is connected to their level of gratitude. They don’t bring the tithe in because they aren’t grateful and they refuse to recognize that everything they have comes from God’s hand. Then he gives them this promise...If you simply recognize that I give it to you...then blessing upon blessing will overflow your life.

So often we cut ourselves off from God’s blessing because of our ingratitude toward him. We ask and we do not receive from Him because we are not thankful...we forget what He has done for us in the past. Our lack of gratitude gets in the way of our ability to receive.

Another source of doubt...

Inadequate FoundationsDoubt is often the result of knowing what we believe, but not knowing why we believe it. People often have this fear of theology and philosophy and apologetics because they are afraid of big words or something. Building our foundations is one of the sure ways to know not just what we believe, but why we believe it.

Have you ever seen an old house with a bad foundation? Parts of it are leaning. There is nothing plumb in the house at all. It might even be crashing down around us.

It is easy to build our faith on a weak foundation. A foundation of emotion or internal response...that is a good thing to start our faith with, but will not last. We have to build a strong foundation.

I have a friend who has always been a bit of spiritual nomad. He chases after so many different things and questions the Bible and God on so many different aspects...and what I have found is that many things he questions and believes simply because they seem good to him. They fit his biases. But they also answer questions in his mind about the Christian faith...that if he had built solid foundations...would not exist.

How is your foundation? Do you know why you believe what you believe? Do you have a regular time where you study the Scripture to understand what they are saying about God and Jesus and the Christian life? Do you spend time reading and growing in your knowledge of theology and philosophy...not the big words...but growing in your understanding of you faith?

Another source of doubt is

IdentificationThis is a quick and easy point to make. It is easy to allow doubt to creep in because so many people do not want to be associated with other Christians.

It is not that the evidence for God and the Christian faith has been weighed and found wanting. It may not have even been weigh. The problem is that I don’t want to believe because I have had a bad experience with God’s so-called people.

They had a previous religious experience and they were hurt, or had unanswered questions or were rejected or went unloved.

Some do not want to have to listen to our radio stations.

Some believe that the Christian faith requires us to vote a certain way or relate to science in a certain way.

Some have met THOSE kind of Christians that rather than lead people closer God actually push them away because they look nothing like Jesus.

But if this is the source of our doubt...don’t let other stand in the way. I don’t reject marriage because some idiot down the street can’t get his marriage right. No, I work to make my marriage work. The same is true with faith. Just because someone believes they can act like a jerk and still call themselves a Christian does not mean that God is going to allow them to get away with it in the long run.

Another source of doubt...

Ignorance about God“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools...exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

This is a case of mistaken identity. We don’t know what God looks like. We have a mental picture of what we believe God to be like. We assume we know what God will look and act like...so we miss him.

You will often hear people say things like, “I can’t believe in a God who...” or “I can’t believe in a God that would do...or allow...”

The problem is not that they have rejected God. The problem is they don’t know what God is like in the first place.

When someone says, “I don’t believe in God!” I will often ask, “Which God don’t you believe in?” After a few minutes of describing “God” I realize we are not talking about the God as revealed in the Bible.

If you want to know what God is really like...we simply look at Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 in The Message says, “Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son, God created the world in the beginning, and it will all belong to the Son at the end. This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature.” Jesus “perfectly mirrors God.” In the NIV it says Jesus is “the exact representation” of God.

If you have question about what God is like...how God would treat people...how God responds to people...how much God loves people...we need only look at Jesus.

The final source of doubt is

IndifferenceThe biggest issue is often not that people are radically opposed to God. It is not that they have some grand intellectual argument against God. They are often not immoral heathens. The simple reason is that they just don’t care.

If you ask many people about God they will have never really thought about it. “I just don’t care. I have never looked into it,” they say. It is not a hardened atheistic position, it just isn’t that important.

Lee Stroebel, the author of a book titled The Case for Christ was one of these people whose doubt was rooted in indifference. Maybe God is there, but big deal. He was an award-winning journalist for the  Chicago Tribune.  His life was going along great. He had a great job, a beautiful wife, and a great house. He described his life this way.
It was as if I was driving my sports car down the road.  One arm was around my wife and the other arm I was waving at people and everyone was saying, “Look at the Strobel’s.  Aren’t they amazing?  What a beautiful young couple. How successful.   That approach to life in which I was utterly indifferent to God really worked when the road in front of me was straight and true.  But when my life hit a curve, I needed someone whose hand was on the steering wheel.   
My life hit a curve when my father died. I felt like I was spinning out of control.

At some point in our lives we will hit an unexpected curve. We will face a death of a loved one. We will fail in a business. We will succumb to an addiction. Our spouse will divorce or separate from us. We will face an impossible financial crisis in our life....Our life will hit a curve. And it is when our lives hit those curves that God’s existence becomes completely relevant.

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