God gave us the gift of uncertainty. Without it, we couldn’t have faith. That sounds paradoxical. Doesn’t it? Jesus says to the apostle Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.” (John 19:27) So it seems as if Jesus himself is telling us that doubt is the opposite of faith.
As it turns out, Jesus is teaching Thomas, and he is teaching us, something more nuanced and something considerably more helpful to us. Following Jesus is more about trusting him enough to follow him in the midst of life’s uncertainties than it is about intellectual certainty.
What we generally mean today when we say “believe” is not really what Jesus had in mind. And the kind of doubt we encounter so often in the contemporary world is not the doubt that nagged at Thomas.
When we compare faith and doubt, we sometimes slip into thinking of believing as an intellectual process. That ties us into knots of our own making, not Jesus’.
Modern thinking about “belief” started with Rene Descartes. He argued that a proposition is true only if we are completely certain about it. So, we should refuse to believe any statement about which we could be even the least bit uncertain. Belief and uncertainty are mutually exclusive in the Cartesian scheme of things.
We are not Cartesians, but his influence is alive and well. We live in a world that equates believing–at least believing when it comes to spiritual matters–with being unshakably certain about a set of propositions. Following the same flawed line of thinking, some people are convinced that any doubt at all invalidates or at least impoverishes the belief in those same propositions.
For instance, we might say that believing is being certain about statements like the following:
There is a God.
Jesus is God incarnate.
Jesus is risen from the dead.
Let’s call this intellectual believing. Intellectual doubt is it’s opposite. Plenty of agnostics and atheists and even people of faith have articulated reasons for being intellectually uncertain about propositions like this.
This kind of intellectual uncertainty does not preclude the sort of belief to which Jesus calls us. That’s because Jesus is not asking us to achieve an unshakable intellectual certainty about him. He is calling us to follow him. He invites us into what you might call a living belief.
Living belief involves confidence in Jesus’ reliability, even when this confidence lacks the intellectual certainty of a logical proof. Living belief is what we do, not just what we think.
There are times in life when you just have to take the next step. We often do not have the luxury of intellectual certainty about the relevant, often urgent questions. If we don’t choose a path, circumstances will choose one for us.
You know the kind of question I mean.
Will this strategy work for my struggling child?
Will I have the courage to tell the truth in this relationship, and what will happen if I do?
Can I really make it work if I pursue that dream?
Instead of certainty, we find ourselves facing the uncertain in some pretty important places in our lives. We have to believe in something–in someone–to take the next step, and there is no way to know how things will work out until we’ve actually taken the next step.
Living belief is what following Jesus is all about. We may not have it all figured out. Explaining and defending every line of the Nicene or the Apostles’ Creed might be beyond our abilities, but we have made a habit of relying on Jesus.
We might not be able to explain why there is suffering in the world, but we turn to God to pull us back together when we’re unravelling from stress or disappointment, to console us when we’re shattered by cruelty, to pick us up and brush us off when we’ve fallen flat on our face.
We may stumble all over ourselves trying to tell somebody else how it is that the infinite God could take on flesh and become a man, but we whisper “Help!” to Jesus in the dark, tell him “Thanks!” when the test comes back negative, and gasp “Wow” like he’s watching a gaudy sunset with us.
Nobody I know can provide unassailable scientific proof of the resurrection, and yet we take risks with our heart in this life that only make sense if we trust God’s promise that he is already making a new heaven and a new earth.
We fall in love. We forgive. We raise children. We give our money away. We refuse to turn our backs or to run away or to give up when all the smart money says to cut our losses.
It’s not that we’re a bunch of dim bulbs. God created us human beings to be finite. We can understand many things. We can even be intellectually certain of many things. But there is much that we cannot fully, exhaustively grasp.
Uncertainty is a dimension of our lives, a dimension through which God does some of his very best work. The challenge is not to eradicate uncertainty, but instead the challenge is to learn to rely increasingly upon Jesus to guide us through the uncertain seas of our lives.
Let me illustrate what I mean by way of fiction. In his science fiction novel Perelandra, C. S. Lewis tells the story of the Adam and Eve of Venus, or what he calls Perelandra in the book.
Perelandra is a world covered entirely by water. There is only one island, called Fixed Land. The sea is filled with large, floating rafts of vegetation. Since they are not attached to the sea floor, these raft-islands perpetually drift with the tides. There is no telling where they will wind up.
God allows Adam and Eve to venture onto the Fix Land during the day. But their true dwelling place is upon the raft-islands. God instructs them that they should never spend the night on Fixed Land. In other words, they must trust God to take them to where he wants them to go each day.
They have no idea where the tides will take them. And yet, they are to trust that God will be with them overnight and that as the next day dawns they will be where God wants them to be.
This kind of belief in God involves uncertainty. If they could predict where the tides would take each of these vegetation-rafts, they could chart their own course just as surely as they could determine their location by staying put on Fixed Land. Instead, going to sleep each night on a raft the Adam and Eve of Perelandra put their lives entirely in God’s hands.
This sort of belief has always been a tall order, but maybe especially for us 21st Century Westerners. We live in a cynical age. Trusting in the sincerity and reliability of institutions and leaders warrants sneering condescension. A vocal, influential spirit of the times says that everything and everybody lets you down eventually.
Lots of organizations and individuals tell you that they’re on your side and that they’re there for you, but for cynical ears that sounds like just a clever power play. Media pundits and social commentators frequently assume that everybody is out to manipulate everybody else in pursuit of their own self-interest.
There is always a hidden agenda. Trust is for rubes. Only the most naive among us believe anything else.
This may sound to you like the triumph of doubt. I suggest to you that it is nothing of the sort. Instead, cynicism is an escape from doubt into certainty. It happens to be a bleak certainty. But cynicism is a sort of dogmatic certainty nonetheless.
Now let’s be very clear. Contrary to what Descartes thought, certainty is not the infallible mark of truth. Certainty can be the rigid posture of a mind so fixed on an idea that it cannot be disturbed by any life-experience. Cynicism can be a sort of blind dogmatism.
Cynics assert the self-interestedness and ultimate unreliability of everything and everybody. They interpret everything through this lens, and so they protect themselves from the pain of being let down. No one is reliable, so belief in the sense that Jesus has in mind is never a living option.
Thomas doubted. But he was certainly no cynic. He was ready to follow Jesus to his death. Remember the story of Lazarus. When Jesus decided to return to Bethany to raise his dead friend, the disciples warned him not to go. They knew that the religious authorities were out to do him in. Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
It was one thing to face the prospect of dying for Jesus. The appearance of the risen Jesus posed a different and even more challenging question to Thomas. Will you live for Jesus? Will you take your next step assuming that the one who died for you has risen to take the next step with you? Every next step. Every day. Will you believe?
Will you love and not count the cost? Will you defend the weak, tell the awkward truth to the powerful and comfortable, love the unattractive and off-putting, forgive the unrepentant, show charity to the boneheaded, give mercy to the reckless and shattered, and share with the selfish?
There is just no telling where following Jesus will take you. But believing in Jesus means that we turn tomorrow over to him. Starting with today. We follow Jesus into eternity one day at a time.
This sermon was preached at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana.