Ricky Gervais is a well-known comedian. Raised as a Christian, he is now an atheist. A couple of years ago, in an interview, Gervais shared how his journey from faith to faithlessness began. He said, “I used to believe in God. The Christian one that is. I loved Jesus. He was my hero…I went to church and believed in God.” One day at the kitchen table, Gervais was drawing a picture of Jesus. His older brother Bob, 19, walked into the kitchen. And Bob asked his mom a question: “Why do you believe in God?” Bob didn’t mean anything bad by the question. He just honestly wanted to know. Were there good reasons for believing in God? Why should he believe in God? Their mother, however, responded negatively. “Bob,” she said, “shut up.” And Gervais, the younger brother whose hero was Jesus and who believed in God, was shaken by the exchange. Did Bob or their mother know something he didn’t? Maybe there was no God. Maybe there were no good reasons for believing in God. And that mini-crisis of faith began a journey that led Gervais away from faith.
We learn some lessons from this story. First, we learn that people of Christian faith have questions and doubts. It’s not unusual, especially for a nineteen year old, to have questions about the Christian faith. I suspect that some of you here this morning have questions about faith, have some doubts about God.
In his book You Lost Me David Kinnaman finds that 18-29 year olds with a Christian background often struggle with doubt.
23% have “significant intellectual doubts about their faith.” These involve questions about God’s existence, the reliability of Scripture, etc.
13% skeptical about church. Kinnaman calls these “Institutional Doubts.”
And 38% have doubts that were caused by crisis or suffering. Kinnaman calls these “Transitional Doubts.”
People of Christian faith have questions and doubts.
Second, we learn from Gervais’ story that adverse reactions to doubts can lead to adverse results. Because of the way his mother responded to his brother’s question, Gervais got the sense that it was not OK to ask questions about faith. It was not permissible to have doubts. And if Christianity was not a place where you could ask questions, he didn’t want anything to do with it.
Kinnman found the same thing among young people. In his book You Lost Me he finds 6 reasons why young people today are leaving Christianity. One of those reasons has to do with the way the church handles doubt. 36% said they didn’t feel they could ask “their most pressing life questions in church.” 10% said “I am not allowed to talk about my doubts in church.”
How should the church handle doubts then? What should we do about our own doubts? I want to address this by listening to 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 Corinthians 15. In these two chapters we find this: Christians live in the tension between certainty and mystery. [PP] In 1 Cor. 15, Paul addresses some of the certainty within the Christian faith. In 1 Cor. 13, Paul addresses some of the mystery in the Christian faith. At times Christianity is like a brightly lit road. We can see exactly where we are headed. We have certainty. At other times it is like a foggy road. We can’t see very far ahead. Christians live in this tension between certainty and mystery. Say, “I know.” Say, “I don’t know.” We live in the tension between those two statements. And doubts are a natural part of that tension.
Let’s listen to 1 Cor. 15. Paul is writing to some Christians about a Christian doctrine. Not only do these Christians have doubts about this particular doctrine, they no longer even believe in that doctrine. In v. 12 Paul identifies what they no longer believe—they do not believe anymore in the resurrection of the dead.
What does Paul do about this? He urges them to re-establish their faith in this doctrine. He urges them to once again say, “I know” about this doctrine. He asks them to come back to certainty about this doctrine: 15 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:1-8 ESV).
What’s Paul saying? He saying that there are some certainties in the Christian faith that must be embraced. There are some things that we need to have certainty about it. There are some doctrines about which we should not doubt. There are some beliefs we must hold fast to and stand firmly on.
Holding on to those beliefs and standing on those beliefs is part of what makes a Christian a Christian. Authors Ben Quash and Michael Ward put it this way: “From its very beginnings, Christianity said that neither your race, nor your sex, nor your social class, nor your age could ever be a bar to full membership of Christ’s body, the Church. Anyone could be a Christian: you didn’t have to be born in the right place at the right time to the right parents…What, though, was left to mark a Christian out from a non-Christian? The answer was this: your faith—what you believed in, as embodied in your practices and confessed with your lips.” The great news about the Christian faith is that Jesus demolished all the obstacles that once marked those who were “in” from those who were “out.” Birthplace? Demolished. Race? Demolished. Gender? Demolished. Income? Demolished. But what was left to mark a Christian from a non Christian? Your belief. Say this, “I believe in his death on the cross.” Say this, “I believe in his resurrection.” That’s what make you a Christian—that certain belief and your willingness to act on that belief.
This is what Paul’s saying in 1 Cor. 15. There are some things in the Christian faith you have to receive and hold on to and stand upon with certainty and with conviction. And if you have questions or doubts about them you have find ways to move beyond them.
And that’s important because cynicism and skepticism have become a fad in some Christian circles. In his book Faith Without Illusion Andrew Byers writes this: “So many believers have now slid into those dark pits that cynicism is becoming vogue in many Christian circles as a self-identifying trademark of a new spirituality—the edgy spirituality of the jaded. Since cynicism is emerging as a hip new way to be ‘spiritual,’ religious disenchantment is often hailed as a spiritual virtue.” In other words, it is vogue these days to be skeptical and cynical of basic Christian beliefs.
Scott Sernau writes this: “Our problem is not that we’ve been taught to question our faith, but rather that we’ve been taught to reject any answers. Doubt can be a state of mind—or it can be a way of life.” For some Christians today, doubt and cynicism have become a way of life.
But Paul wants to bring us back to a level of certainty and conviction. There are some things, like the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus about which we cannot be skeptical or cynical. We must boldly and unreservedly say, “I will embrace those truths. I will hold those truths—no matter what.”
Is there something you know without a doubt when it comes to God or Jesus or the spiritual life? Is there something you hold on to no matter what? Is there some firm ground in your faith you can stand on no matter what’s going on in life? Take a moment and turn to the person next to you and share that. Share this statement: “Without a doubt, I believe ____.” There is certainty in the Christian faith.
And yet, there is also a mystery to the Christian faith. There are some mysteries in the Christian faith that must be embraced. There are places in the Christian faith where the road is not as clear. Places where we are called to acknowledge a limit to our understanding. Times when we have to say, “I just don’t know.” This is what Paul addresses in 1 Cor. 13.
If you know 1 Cor. 13, it’s probably because you’ve heard it quoted in a wedding ceremony. If you’re ever asked to do a wedding ceremony, work in 1 Cor. 13 and you’ll be a success.
What many of us don’t realize is that this text has a larger purpose. It’s not just Paul’s romantic reflection on love. Paul is addressing another problem in the church. He’s writing to Christians who claim to know more than the average Christian. We would call them know-it-alls. These are Christians who have certainty about everything. Name any spiritual issue, and they can give you a firm answer. There is hardly any spiritual question to which they do not claim to have THE answer. Today we might call them fundamentalists.
But their over-certainty has led them to become prideful and arrogant. So Paul addresses them: 13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:13 ESV)
Let’s pay attention to the first part of v. 2: 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Paul is addressing that group in the church who claim to have absolute certainty about everything. And he’s warning them that they’ve missed the point. They don’t know a thing. Christianity is not centered on having all the answers. Christianity is centered on love—love of God and love of others. And that’s a lesson it takes a lifetime to learn.
Paul goes further later in this chapter: 8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor. 13:8-12 ESV).
Let’s focus on v. 9 and v. 12: 9 For we know in part…12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. We know in part. Let the gravity of that statement settle in. We know in part. In other words, there’s the big picture-the reality of everything about God and his work. And then there’s what we are capable of knowing—the part. No matter how many books you read, classes you attend, degrees you earn, and mentors you consult, there will be some things about God and his ways that you will not understand in this life.
For now we see in a mirror dimly. The city of Corinth was famous for its mirrors which were made of polished bronze. They were not necessarily the mirrors we think of today. They would have created an obscured reflection. If you’ve ever visited a restroom at a rest stop and looked at yourself in the mirror made of polished metal you get the idea. In other words, there are some things we can see about the spiritual life that are obscured. They are not quite in focus.
But there will come a day when we will see. Paul’s reference to being “face to face” seems to be a reference to the return of Jesus. When Jesus returns mysteries will be solved, questions will be answered, doubts will be eased.
But until then, there are some things within the Christian faith about which we must learn to say, “I just don’t know.”
Mystery is inherent in the Christian faith. And this is why doubt is not necessarily bad. Too often we think that the opposite of faith is doubt. That doubt is a lack of faith. But the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is unbelief.
Os Guiness writes, “Contrary to widespread misunderstanding, doubt is not the same as unbelief, so it is not the opposite of faith. Rather it is a state of mind in suspension between faith and unbelief.”
Neil Anderson writes, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is unbelief.”
Just because you have some doubts, doesn’t mean you are an unbeliever. A recent article in the New York Times explored this truth. In an op-ed piece, Maureen Down told the story of a friend named Robin. Robin was dying of cancer. Maureen asked a preacher-friend to visit Robin. The priest shared the story of the time he counseled another woman who was dying. He asked the dying woman if she was ready. If she believed. She replied, “I go back and forth.” And the preacher wrote that this one line characterizes many of us. We live our Christian faith “back and forth.” There are things about which we have absolute certainty. And there are things about which we have questions and doubts. And we live our faith “back and forth.” We live in the tension between certainty and mystery.
So what do we do? Where there is certainty, we stand firm on that certainty. We hold on to things like we just shared with the person next to us. There are many things we may not know. But what we can know is this: Jesus died for our sins. Jesus was buried. Jesus was raised on the third day. Jesus appeared. To know this with conviction is to know the most important part of the Christian faith. Where there is certainty, we stand firm.
But where there is mystery, we acknowledge our doubts and we celebrate the wonder. It’s important for us to acknowledge the questions we have and things we wonder about. It’s important for Highland to be a community where it’s safe to ask hard questions and express difficult doubts.
But it’s also important to, at some point, celebrate the wonder and mystery of our faith. There are many things we cannot explain about God but we can still celebrate. In her book Wonderstruck Margaret Feinberg writes of a time a few years ago when she and her husband Leif moved from one town to another in southeast Alaska. They had to take a long ferry late one evening as part of the move. Sitting in chairs, with the ferry rocking gently, the two of them fell asleep. Later that night, they woke up, got a snack, and settled back down to nap again. Just then, something caught Feinberg’s attention. She writes, Then something compelled me to look up, and a scene unfolded that I suspect caused at least one angel to gasp: the expanse of the sky transformed from inky blackness into an infinite canvas on which brushstrokes of apricot, sapphire, and emerald painted themselves into the night sky. Like an oil painting in progress, the colors refused to stand still. The hues danced as if listening to jazz. Iridescent shades sharpened then faded with wild fervor…The sky exhaled more hues than I imagined possible, and I found myself caught up in the wonder. Her husband Leif urged her to go to sleep. By this time it was 2:30 AM. But she couldn’t. She writes, I didn’t want to miss a millisecond. Wonderstruck by my Creator, this moment of spiritual awakening stirred in me a longing to experience more of God. Feinberg goes on to write that this is what God wants for us all of us. He wants us to be caught up in the wonder and beauty of his world and his work, his presence and his person.
And this, I think, is good advice. How much better to be caught up in the wonder of God’s work, even if we don’t completely understand it? How much better to be struck with awe at who God is, even if we can’t fully comprehend what he’s doing.
Life Center and Connection Only: I want to close by allowing you to do something about all of this. In your seat you’ll find a red balloon and a black balloon. The black balloon signifies a doubt you may have about God. The red balloon signifies a conviction or certainty you have about God. It can also represent a way in which you are wonderstruck at God though you cannot explain God. I want you to consider these issues. Which of these three statements are statements you need to complete today? I have certainty about God’s ___. I have doubts about God’s ___. I celebrate the wonder of God’s ___. Blow up the red balloon if you want to focus this morning on something you have certainty about or something you want to celebrate though you cannot explain. Blow up the black balloon if you want to focus this morning on some doubt you are wrestling with. Blow up both if you’d like. Then just hold them. Don’t tie them shut. When I signal, we’ll release the balloons at the same time. This will be a symbolic way of you raising praise to God for the certainty of faith, praise to God for a way in which you are wonderstruck at God’s mystery, or honesty to God about some doubt you are still struggling with.