The text about dealing with doubt below is largely as it was preached this morning at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York. I have tried to put the gist of what I added into  based on my notes so that you can see the difference between the prepared draft and the final sermon. Hopefully the gist of those more extemporaneous remarks will encourage you to listen to the message to see how I actually articulated it. My children’s message was the story of Jacob preparing to meet Esau and then wrestling with God, which we have always understood as a picture of faith. This is the inspiration for the picture that I’ve attached to this post, but I’ll leave the way the artist has chosen to interpret the event to you to ponder. New audio link.
[I started by naming the immediate objection one might make to this message concerning doubt by quoting from the Epistle of James in the New Testament where he speaks of doubt as wavering between two opinions (perhaps agnostic as to which is true or perhaps trying to hold to both at the same time). James says that the one who doubts, in this sense — a sense that he then will call being double-minded, is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. My point in beginning this way is to address the objection head-on to say that when I’m speaking of doubt I simply mean it as we usually use the word in English, unlike what James is doing in Greek, because I don’t want our usual response of doubt being bad to cloud listening to the rest of this message.]
One common strategy for dealing with doubt today is simply to ignore it – to just not deal with it at all. This strategy requires somehow managing to avoid any and all personal tragedies so that they do not come to the surface. And it requires avoiding arguments with unbelievers who believe that these doubts are the truth. But if you actually dealt with your doubt constructively, you would be stronger for it. A famous preacher once said, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” If you do not wrestle with God over doubt [like Jacob wrestled with God at the river Jabbock, cf. Genesis 32], then you will be defenseless in the face of a tragedy close to home and without any defense when an unbeliever does confront what you believe. Take the teenager who goes away to college because no teen that goes away to college will be able to continue avoiding their doubts. Of course, when they were back at home they could have learned strategies for dealing with doubt that work from Christians who have been wrestling with real life much longer, but they might not feel safe talking about their doubts or for other reasons they might just ignore them. And so when they go off to college, now they are in a setting where professors will teach these doubts as the truth. [Illustration of Astronomy class in college.] And because the teen has never dealt with those doubts, they might just begin to believe their doubts and at least for a time to fall away from God. Such a teen is defenseless against the arguments of the professor – they have no antibodies built up in their system, they have not thought through reasonable responses to the arguments of unbelievers and they have not wrestled with God over such things. They will be forced to either surrender to their doubts or hopefully they will find some Christians who will help them through it and they will be stronger in their faith for it. Nor did the ancient people of Israel have the luxury of avoiding their doubts. Listen to the psalm that Asaph taught them in the sanctuary at Jerusalem.
- We may believe that God is good to His people but if we are honest we all have our doubts about it and there are times when we may have really good reasons to doubt it.
- One really good reason to doubt that God is good to His people is our experience of personal tragedy. Asaph had a crisis of doubt because he thought the opening lines of the psalm were true — “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” — but then he went through some serious suffering. He tells us in verse fourteen: “For all the day long I have been stricken, and rebuked every morning.” So he knew suffering. And while we may think that God is good to His people – all the time – we live in the real world – a world where we will all face suffering to some degree. And it is those times when the suffering is great that may very well lead us to have a crisis of doubt.
- Another time that we might have a really good reason for doubting would be when we hear unbelievers questioning it. Asaph had a crisis of doubt because he believed that God is good to those who are pure in heart but then he sees the wicked prospering and people asking in verse eleven: “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” We too may think that ‘God is good—all the time—all the time—God is good’ (surely you have heard that litany at some point) but we know that in the real world wicked people can become rich – wicked people who very well may taunt us saying that God is not paying attention to us in the midst of our poverty by comparison. And it is the injustice of it all – that the wicked would prosper in this life and that the righteous would want in this life [especially the injustice of the wicked oppressing the righteous, even including by violence] – that can lead us to have a crisis of doubt. (And as for Asaph, he experienced both of these really good reasons for doubting that God is good to His people.)
- And Asaph almost slipped but then he discovered where he could find solid footing on which to stand.
- Asaph tells us that he almost slipped in verse two and gives us the reason in verse three “for I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Likewise, in verse thirteen he reflected on the fact that the wicked are always and ease and increase in riches saying, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” He had tried to do the right thing but seeing the wicked prosper led him to envy them and think that what he was doing was in vain. In verse twenty-one he describes his soul as embittered. So Asaph almost stumbled, he had nearly slipped, in the midst of his crisis of doubt. [To be clear, Asaph did stumble in the sense that he sinned — envy. I mentioned that Paul didn’t say that money was the root of all evil, Paul said that the love of money is the root of all evil (cf 1 Tim 6:10), in fact being wealthy isn’t a sin…(Though not included in my sermon audio: Before the offering I mentioned the documentary of Warren Buffett wherein it said that he gave the largest philanthropic gift in history when he gave much of his life fortune to charity and noted that in fact it was Jesus who offered the largest philanthropic (love of man) gift in history by giving His life on the cross. Incidentally I said that I came away from the documentary about this self-avowed agnostic with a rather positive view of the man, which I didn’t have before watching it.) When Asaph speaks of stumbling he isn’t speaking of sinning, which he confesses, but of moving away from God.]
- But then Asaph learned how to deal with doubt – he went to the sanctuary and learned their end. [I spoke about how in the sanctuary they did sacrifices for sin that point to Jesus, sacrifices were considered a kind of offering and the word offering in the Hebrew Scriptures means to come close to God or draw near to God. I also noted that these sacrifices were offered in a covenant of grace and not a covenant of works, Asaph was righteous by faith and such sacrifices weren’t good works but means of grace. Since Asaph doesn’t talk about sacrifices I didn’t want to belabor this aside, but only mention it because offerings are about drawing near to God — which is what Asaph is speaking about. (My Westminster Seminary professor Lane Tipton is to blame for this aside as I was listening to this podcast this morning.)] This is the first psalm of Book Three and it has much the same lesson as the first psalm of the Psalms. [I went back and read Psalm 1, noted that the way of the righteous is Jesus Christ (the way, the truth and the life), thus when Asaph is speaking about the wicked he is speaking about those in rebellion against God and when he is speaking of the righteous he is speaking about the righteous by faith. Indeed, the remarkable thing is that we all sinned and deserve death but Jesus (the blessed man of Psalm 1) died in our place, he took the judgment that we deserve. It was the yet-future death of Christ that is crucial for Asaph to be able to walk by faith with God and know that the wicked would perish from the earth.] Yet Asaph learned this lesson in the midst of suffering and mocking. Asaph found that you can deal with doubt by getting into the presence of God and there getting a new perspective on life.
- And so when you almost slip, you too can deal with doubt by getting into the presence of God and there getting a new perspective on life. [Here I went off on a tangent slightly to quote Tedd and Margy Tripp. The quote, which I came across on my website again recently, is available here. The quote notes that going to church shouldn’t be seen as optional or our children may look forward to the day when they can choose something else (my application: like when they leave for college, but it cannot be seen as optional then either). The point is that when we go through transitions in life like going to college or moving then we must get plugged into a local church. Then I moved this following idea to this place in the message from where I had put it originally: “Unfortunately, when a teenager goes away to college it can be easy to not get plugged into the life of a local church there – but it is vital that we encourage college students to do so lest they have no healthy way to deal with doubt.” I want to be clear that going to church isn’t a good work that we do, but the opposite–that it is resting on God and depending on Him for grace.] This is what we do each Sunday: we come together into the very heavenly courts of God to get reoriented for the week ahead. Getting into the presence of God gives us a new perspective on life. And we are surrounded by others who will encourage us rather than mock us. This time together allows us to get back on our solid footing and to actually deal with our doubts rather than to ignore them or surrender to them. The message [meditating on the instruction of God–see Psalm 1] reminds us to doubt our doubts and trust in Jesus. We will often learn ways to respond to the unbeliever who believes those doubts. [I had just added before the last sentence that a great way to respond to the unbeliever is to encourage them to doubt their doubts.] And we rediscover the big picture that the end of the wicked is destruction [which we deserve] but the end of those who trust in Jesus is life eternal.
[A note on this sermon: Using the example of going away to college reflects both something I learned by experience as well as something that makes the application concrete. Often it is when we hear an application that is speaking to someone else’s situation that we will hear more clearly how it applies to us personally.]