when i feel doubt

The following is the manuscript of a sermon I preached in chapel today on the topic of doubt.

I’m not sure I’m the best person to call upon to talk about feelings. After all, what do Emperor Palpatine, Friedrich Neitzsche, Elon Musk and Chad Ragsdale have in common? We all have the same Myers-Briggs personality profile. (INTJs unite!) Some not very nice people call it the know-it-all personality – the kind of robotic, “facts don’t care about your feelings” personality. Honestly, if I had feelings, I imagine that would really hurt.

But to be honest, I love speaking on the topic of doubt. I think it’s true (at least it has been true to me) that few people feel doubt more profoundly or are hunted by doubt more doggedly than a person who has allowed themselves to live under the illusion that they should have all the answers. People who dare to teach apologetics often exhibit this particular illness. The hypocrisy that some people wear is a false righteousness as a cover for sin. The hypocrisy that others wear is a false certainty as a cover for doubt.

So what do we do when we feel doubt? How do we deal with doubt? How do we live with doubt? It seems that when doubt enters into your life, it’s like someone has suddenly hit the dimmer switch. Images – once clear and vibrant – now seem washed out by an intrusive darkness. The confidence of a person walking fully in the light is replaced by the hesitant, unsteady walk of a person waiting to step on a mislaid toy or run his shin into the edge of a coffee table.

You were sure of yourself – sure of your ability, sure of easy or eventual success – and suddenly you run into that wall. You fail. You falter. You find that you’re not so sure. Maybe you weren’t who you thought you were. Maybe you aren’t who you led others to believe you were. Maybe you don’t have what it takes. The world gets just a bit dimmer.

You were so sure of others. You knew who you could trust, who you could rely on. You were sure he had your back or that she would always be there for you, and suddenly, you find that you’re not so sure. The world gets just a bit dimmer.

Or what about God? You were sure about God. You were not only sure that God was there but that He was present – present in your life and in the world. In His love, He would never abandon or forsake you. Your confidence never faltered. But suddenly, you find that you’re not so sure. A stray question gets stuck in your mind, and it attracts even more questions. Or tragedy strikes. God suddenly seems distant. God seems uncaring. Or maybe nothing at all happens. Life is kind of ordinary and you feel let down. Where is the excitement and the thrill of God? You find yourself suddenly in doubt. The world gets just a bit dimmer – just a bit darker.

This kind of doubt goes beyond just our thoughts. We assume that the brain is the factory of doubt, but it is actually much deeper. In my experience, doubt is much more about a deep, troubled feeling in the gut than it is about a particular way of thinking. This kind of doubt feels like Gollum stalking us across the plains of Mordor. Or, to use a more biblical metaphor, this kind of doubt feels like dying of thirst.

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?

My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.

By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”

10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

I first became aware of this psalm by singing its words while sitting around a campfire at Lake Region Christian Assembly.  I’ve got a problem with the song though. The words of the psalm and the tone of the song seem to be completely mismatched – like a scream-o version of Silent Night. We sing the words of Psalm 42 like they are the words of Psalm 23. But there are no still, quiet waters in Psalm 42. There are torrents and waterfalls and the chaos of the deep. In fact, water is an image that winds its way through this psalm. David is dying of thirst but he’s surrounded by water.

In verse 3, he says that he thirsts for God, but in a cruel irony he is only able to drink his own tears. In verse 4, he complains that not only are his tears his drink, but his very soul is being poured out like water. Verses 5 and 11 have the psalmist crying out that “my soul is disturbed within me.” But the word translated as “disturbed” here was used frequently in the OT for the roaring of the sea. His soul roars like the sea even while he is dying of thirst. In verse 6, the psalmist locates himself in the land of the Jordan which has led many to think that the psalmist is writing this near the headwaters of the Jordan River far from Jerusalem. Is he writing it within earshot of the bubbling river? Finally, verse 7 says famously, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” I think The Message captures the meaning of this verse well: “Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me.” All he wants is a drink – what he gets is wave after crushing wave.

Water is often a negative symbol in scripture – especially in the OT. Water represented chaos, fear, the unknown, often even judgment. It was a place where you needed to meet God’s salvation. It’s not by accident that we find the words of this psalm on the lips of Jonah from the belly of the fish. This is not a psalm that sits peacefully around a campfire. This is a psalm that paces anxiously. David is not sentimental about this deer. David is jealous of it. The stupid deer gets to have his thirst satisfied, but I’m sitting here longing for God and dying of thirst.

I think we’ve misidentified the genre of this song. Eugene Peterson translates verse 11 this way: “Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues?” I think that’s right. This isn’t a cozy campfire song. This is David, beat up acoustic in hand, singing the blues. You can always recognize the blues. It’s got a distinctive cadence and sound – a distinctive note called the blue note or the worried note. It’s a note that’s just a half-step flat. It’s a note played intentionally off key. And that’s where the blues lived – in the flat notes, the worried notes.

This psalm is filled with worried notes. I’m a million miles from nowhere. I’m far from home. I miss the old days and the old ways. I miss worshipping with my people and with my God in his holy city. I miss feeling alive instead of half dead dying of thirst. I’m mocked by my enemies. “Where is your God anyway big man? Not so big anymore!” Their mockery would mean nothing except that in the darkness of my doubt I’ve been asking the same thing. I want to meet the living God. I NEED to meet the living God. My soul is troubled. I’m the man of constant sorrow. I’m cast down. I feel it all the way down to my bones. I can’t choose to stop needing water. I also can’t choose to stop needing the living God.

Augustine once said, “You have made us for you, and our heart is restless until it finds it rest in you.” Blaise Pascal famously said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator made known through Jesus.” In our nature we need God, just as we need water. Oh, people will try to fill that gap with other things. They will try to quench that thirst with other waters. They always have, but it never lasts and it never satisfies. I could prove it to you, but maybe you should just read Ecclesiastes.

And so, to need God, but to find yourself in doubt of God may lead you to feel sort of like David. “As a deer desperately needs water, I desperately need God, but I’m only met with chaos and worry and doubt. I remember you God, but it seems you’ve forgotten me.”

Can you identify?

Can I talk to the freshmen? You’re a long way from that CIY. You’re a long way from that church camp. You remember, when the presence of God felt so real, when your faith felt so alive. Maybe some of you halfway through your first semester can identify with David – that feeling of being a long way from home and a long way from God. And you find yourself doubting. Was any of that real? I want to go back to that place, but I’m afraid I can’t.

Can I talk to the sophomores? I changed majors three times my sophomore year. It was a terrifying year. I went to school vaguely feeling a call to ministry. By my sophomore year, I wasn’t so sure. Surely there are other people who can do the whole ministry thing. What was I thinking? Did I have what it takes? Did I even want to have what it takes? I was hearing the worried note sounding all around me. My anxiety melted into doubt – doubt of my calling and even wrestling with doubt of God. Is God there? Does he care about me? Is he faithful? Because it was easier to doubt my calling if I could justify it with doubting God.

What about you upperclassmen – the grizzled veterans? You’re balancing so much school, life, relationships, and questions about what happens after graduation? Has that weariness drained your enthusiasm? Has it made you a little cynical? My observation through the years is that many students have at least one gut-punch semester – a sickness, a death in the family, a broken relationship. Have you had a semester where deep was calling to deep – wave after wave was crashing on you – and you find that your soul is downcast and disturbed?

There is not a person in this room who can’t identify with this these feelings. There is not a person in this room who hasn’t at some point or another struggled with feelings of doubt. There is not a person in this room who hasn’t been stung by the mocking question, “Where is your God, anyway?” Maybe, if you’re honest, that question has come from your own lips.

A friend of mine asked that question just this last weekend after the devastating shooting in Texas. “Where is this god of yours?” After growing up in church, she has experienced a radical break with church and with God. She now lives as a vocal skeptic. One of her primary problems is that she believes that every belief statement must be known with absolute certainty. Faith is irrational to her. This has kept her far from God and has given her an extremely unhealthy, naïve belief in the explanatory power of science. I’ve tried at different times to explain to her that all people walk by faith which also means that all people must walk by some doubt. To doubt is to be human. Doubt is one of the things that separates us from the robots. A robot never doubts anything, but humans are unique in that we know just enough to know how much we don’t know. The question is not whether we will or will not have faith. The question is about the faithfulness of whom or what we have chosen to place our faith in.

So for those of us who have placed our faith in God, what do we do when we feel doubt? Well, I think I know what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t be surprised by it or ashamed of it. No, what we must diligently guard against is doubt that is allowed to calcify into unbelief and rebellion. It is this kind of doubt that Jesus warned us about in the parable of the farmer sowing his seed. You know the parable. A farmer goes out to sow his seed. He sows it rather indiscriminately. Some falls on the path and never takes root, some falls on fertile soil and produces an abundant harvest, but there are these other two soils.

Some fell on rocky soil, but because the soil was shallow, the plants didn’t develop any roots. When the sun came up they withered. What I want to suggest from this is that we come to see doubt as an opportunity for growth. Doubt can very easily turn to unbelief when our faith is shallow and without roots.

Alister McGrath says that, “Doubt is probably a permanent feature of the Christian life. It’s like some kind of spiritual growing pain. Sometimes it recedes into the background; at other times it comes to the forefront, making its presence felt with a vengeance.”

Similarly Tim Keller says, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

Be very careful of a faith which has no struggle. Be very careful of an easy faith – a faith that never asks any questions, that never struggles with mystery, or that is never frustrated by ambiguities. Because such a faith will never grow the type of roots needed to survive the heat of the day. To be honest, I get more nervous about a person who claims they never struggle with doubt than a person who does.

Are you having doubts? I won’t say, “Good!” It’s a weird thing to wish pain or suffering on someone. But, on the other hand, doubt may end up for your good. Your doubts may be just the opportunity you need to develop deeper roots in your faith. I know it’s a scary thing to doubt, but we worship a big God – a God who is always bigger than our capacity to master and comprehend.

The story is told of Augustine walking the beach in Carthage while in the midst of writing his epic book on the Trinity. He encountered a child digging a hole in the beach, as children tend to do. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I’m emptying the contents of the sea into this hole.” Augustine responded as any good know-it-all would, “Child, you will never fit the contents of the sea into such a small hole.” The child returned the question, “How can you expect to contain the vast mystery of God in the mere words of a book?” Touché.

Doubt is an invitation to go deeper, an invitation to learn, to study, and an invitation to wonder at the mysteries of God.

Jesus also says in the parable that some of the seed fell among thorns. Jesus says that this is the person who receives the word, but it is unfruitful because it is choked out by all of the worries and anxieties of this world. When you are feeling doubt, come to see doubt as an opportunity for recalibration. When we become obsessed with our doubt, it grows. The anxieties and worries of this world only feed our doubt. If I tracked my various seasons of doubt they would virtually all overlap with seasons of fear or anxiety in my life. Those fears and anxieties became breeding grounds for doubt. What is needed, what I still need in those moments is to be recalibrated, to be re-centered away from myself and my anxieties and focused instead on the realities of a living God.

That’s what the psalmist does in this psalm. He repeats the same line. It’s his chorus. In the midst of his thirst and his doubt he chastises himself with these words: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” But this isn’t psychology. This isn’t David trying to talk himself back into faith. This isn’t psychology. This is liturgy. This is worship. This is recalibration. This is the remembrance that only comes along with worship – Our God is the Rock. Our God is Living. Our God is our Hope. Our God is Savior.

Hebrews says – to a group of Christians who seemed to have been really struggling with their faith – Our Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He also says in chapter 12, “Fix your eyes on Jesus so that you won’t grow weary and lose heart.” Life has a way of knocking us out of calibration. What we need is to be brought back to the realities of a God who hasn’t changed even if our circumstances have. We need to be brought back to the realities of a God who hasn’t left us even when we are a million miles from nowhere and a long way from home.  Recalibration. Our doubts are an opportunity to re-center ourselves on God. Our doubts call us to worship.

You know what haunts me the most from this psalm? I see the desperation and the thirst from David, and I’m jealous of it. Jesus promised us water to thirst no more, but there are far too many days where I have my thirst quenched from other waters that can only temporarily satisfy – temporary pleasures, meaningless diversions, self-centered pursuits. Oh God, give me a dying thirst for You!

The patron saint of doubt in scripture is an unnamed father in Mark 9. I read this story with new eyes the other day and I broke down. The person that Jesus encounters in this story is not a philosopher looking for a debate. He is not a theologian or an apologist looking for answers. The person that Jesus encounters is a dad. He is a dad agonizing for his son who is dying. And no one can help him. Please, Jesus, save my son. I believe, but help my unbelief. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have perfect faith. I believe, but help my unbelief. It is the honest prayer of a desperate doubter. God, I believe. I believe enough that I even believe that you can work in the midst of my doubt.

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