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This is the fourth sermon (first HERE) in a series entitled “The Shadow of a Doubt.” Rev. Talbot Davis preached this at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.
I have known for several years that on some level behavior precedes doubt.
In other words, we don’t arrive at our shadow of doubt by objective analysis of relevant facts; instead, most of us begin to act a certain way and then circle back around and develop some doubts to substantiate that behavior.
We don’t think our way into doubting. We (mis)behave our way into it.
It’s the kind of thing Psalm 14 teaches if you take the time to dig. So I dug. And along with that study came the bottom line for doubt’s origin here:
Doubt justifies disobedience but surrender magnifies understanding.
We like finding out where things come from, don’t we? The origins of things. That question is the source of some of the human race’s most intense scientific speculation: where did the world (and the universe it’s in) come from and where did our particular human species come from? And scientists have reached some kind of consensus that in the recesses of time there was actually a BIG BANG that is ultimately the source, the origin, of all we see. Agnostics give that Big Bang a scientific explanation; people of faith tend to say more simply: God spoke – BANG – and it was. But we’re interested in all kinds of origins. On things bad and good; ugly and beautiful. Where did the HIV virus originate? Where did the beauty of a monarch butterfly originate? Where do mosquitoes come from? (Wetlands!)
And on the more positive side, what parent hasn’t dreaded that moment when your eight-year-old turns and asks, “where do babies come from?” We’re interested in origins; we like to know where things ultimately come from. But have you ever wondered where doubts come from? Their origins? What is the Big Bang that tends to produce doubts? I mean, we all have some level of doubt – it’s why this thing is called the Christian faith, not the Christian certainty. But where do they start? Whether it’s the kind of doubts and uncertainties that I’ve decided I can live with – what’s the deal with dinosaurs? what about people who never hear about Christ? – or the kind of doubting you may have seen or gone through in college – you know, when the college professor of philosophy or comparative religion was so smart, so shrewd, and they have a knack for chopping the Christian faith of their students right down. You knew at some level you weren’t educated or mentally agile enough to engage in debate, and so your faith felt like it was perpetually stuck in a second grade Sunday School class: why do you believe? Because my parents did. It’s hard to measure up. Where do those kinds of sophisticated, superior doubts come from?
Or even worse, the kind of doubt you may have seen or lived when you ultimately decide, “nope, that’s not me anymore. I used to believe a little but no more.” Where do those doubts come from? And will locating doubt’s Big Bang origin in any way help us to stop dwelling in its shadow and move beyond it?
This may make Psalm 14:1 seem like an odd place to answer those questions, beginning as it does with more than a little aggression:
“The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.'”
So from the perspective of biblical wisdom, disbelieving in God’s existence or living like you do is the apex of arrogance and folly. And given our image of the super-intellectual doubter – people like Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Christopher Hitchens – you might think the next line in Psalm 14:1 would be: “he sits in the ivory tower and writes books,” or “he hangs out with East Coast elites and pontificates at trendy bars,” or “he corrupts the minds of young collegians,” or “he weighed all the options carefully and still made the wrong choice,” or “he dug for bones for a living and became convinced there was more evidence for dinosaurs than for God.” I mean, really, that’s our expectation for a description of how it happens that a person comes to believe in his heart there is no God.
Except that’s not what comes next in Psalm 14:1. Instead, look at 14:1b and c:
“They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.”
Ahhh, the Psalm goes immediately to deeds: what people do; how they act, how violence and revenge govern their interactions. And then the Psalm becomes incredibly comprehensive in 14:3:
“All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
By the way, Paul, in writing the New Testament book Romans uses this Psalm and this verse in particular to articulate a compelling argument on our sin nature. It’s where we get the term “original sin.” Yet from the perspective of the Psalm’s logic, it’s almost like it works backwards. These deeds, this corruption, that totality of sin piles one on top of the other, act upon act, and finally the perpetrator – the one Psalm 14 calls the fool – decides, “Nope! There is no God.” See, I look at the way the logic flows, I look at what it doesn’t say and the conclusion is inescapable: the disobedience, the behavior, the sin, the deeds come first and then the doubt follows. We don’t come by our doubts innocently.
It’s very rare that people explore all the options and come to a head-only belief that there is no God, or at least one who is remotely interested in what we do. It’s much more common that people behave in a certain way, adopt a frankly self-centered mode of living and then, as if to substantiate it, decide and declare that any God who might possibly disapprove simply does not exist. Here’s how it circles back around: doubt justifies disobedience.
It’s a pattern I’ve noticed in atheists both famous and anonymous. You investigate their back stories and it is almost never an unbiased review of evidence that led to their conclusion; it starts with a behavior, a pattern, an outlook that gets settled deep inside the person and then it becomes, “oh, I don’t believe in the God who didn’t want me to do that thing.” Doubt is to justify what you are already doing. Remove God, remove guilt, remove accountability, remove correction. You remove God so that you can become one and then do as you please. I’ve seen it all over, even in church. Money, sex, and anger seem to be the primary areas.
In our denomination we have a whole collection of church leaders in other parts of the country who’ve decided they are smarter than the Bible when it comes to sexual boundaries. It’s not the doubt of atheism like what appears in Psalm 14, but it is the doubt that can cause you to decide the Bible no longer applies. And these leaders and teachers often couch their suddenly-smarter-than-the-Bible position in terms of helping others and extending love. Yet when some of the stories go a bit deeper you discover, “Nope. There’s quite a bit of self-interest involved. People want to indulge themselves sexually and still keep their jobs.” Doh! Less principle and more convenience. Doubt justifies the disobedience that’s already going on. I may be a know-it-all, but I am not smarter than the people who wrote the Bible when it comes to boundaries for sexual intimacy.
I tell you all that to say this: if you are harboring doubts, if you are thinking of leaving the faith because of questions you have, what’s really going on? What’s honestly behind it all? Is it the desire to spend your money as you wish and not as some 3,000-year-old text commands you to? Is it the anger you want to express, either physically at those you love or digitally at those you hate? Is it the affair you are contemplating, the one you’re having, the one that just ended? Are you truthfully, honestly like the nervous guy who came to the confessional booth one time and blurted out, “my sin is full of life!” Will you be honest enough to acknowledge the sort of selfish, mostly ego-based origin of all those doubts? Will you take that kind of personal inventory? It’s not that you truly don’t believe in God, you just want to remove God so you can become one . . . do whatever . . . the hell . . . you want to do. Doubt justifies disobedience.
However. Except. But. We’re not at the end of Psalm 14 by a long shot. Look at 14:6:
“You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.”
The strong-armed atheists of this Psalm don’t know that the people who appear weak and humble and pitiful actually have the Lord on their side. And in that refuge there is a marvelous combination of strength and clarity. Look at 14:7:
“Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!”
There is coming a time when oppression against believers ceases and faithful people know the source of their deliverance. Not the Big Bang of their doubt, but the Big Bang of their deliverance! They’re given the insight here to see below and beneath the surface events – why it is that seemingly wicked people prosper on earth – and into the heart and will of God. You know what that means? Doubt may justify disobedience but surrender magnifies understanding.
Yes! Sometimes you’ve got to do in order to know. You follow the instructions, the commands, the teachings without complete clarity and along the way you discover: “Oh, I get it! That’s why he says to live this way!” It’s the pattern of the entire Bible! Abraham: Go. Leave your family, your property, your business, your 401K, and go to a land you don’t know. Lord, can I have the agenda for the trip? No, just go. Along the way you’ll understand. And so he did. Moses, take your people and get out of slavery on the other side of the Red Sea. Do what I say and leave now. And Moses answers, what’s the plan? what shall I tell them? Tell them my name and who I am and that’s enough. Along the way, you’ll understand.
And Jesus to Peter, the fisherman son of a fisherman. Peter, come follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men. Peter: who’s keeping the books? (Judas!) Who’s your right hand man? What’s the plan? When are you coming back? Jesus answers: Not for you to know the times and seasons, Peter, just come with me and you’ll discover along the way. People: they all followed first and comprehended second! As if it is, “Oh, once I did this, I got that!” And it hasn’t stopped being true!
It’s true with generosity: what would more strengthen your doubts than this archaic Old Testament notion of 10% going to God and then a New Testament crew of people who gave more than that! It’s so tempting to say, “I don’t believe in a God who would ask that! Doesn’t he know I’ve got taxes, alimony, insurance?” Yet I hear from those of you who follow on this – word after word after word – and you say “I did it and it worked! I understand!” Goodness, in our own house we’ve been committed to some New Testament levels of giving for years and my wife’s company was sold to private equity. Everybody around Julie lost their jobs. Except her. No explanation but God.
It’s true in the realm of sexual intimacy. Talk about an area where people want to doubt so they can justify behavior! But then, I run across these exceedingly odd yet inordinately blessed couples – young adults and middle age! – who wait, and they realize that abstinence before marriage reinforces fidelity after it. Oh! This command that cramped my style ended up saving my life! I get it now! The same is true with how you express your anger, how you refrain from gossip, how you bless people you could manipulate. Just because you think it doesn’t mean you must say it. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. You show your relational power by restraining it . . . and then God lets you know this is why it works better. It’s just like Jesus.
If you’re in the middle of a season of doubt, surrender to that which you do not fully understand. Follow first, and comprehension will come. Because here’s what I truly believe happens when you surrender to that inconvenient, unpredictable, madly-in-love-with-you Savior: you start on a road in the dark but the longer you walk, follow, and submit, the more clear become the ways and will of God. And you’ll experience the Big Bang, not of doubt, but of your own living relationship with Jesus Christ.