The Benefit of Doubt
June 7, 2020
"I'm doubting a lot lately. I don't know any more what I believe."
Those words were spoken to me a few years ago by a church member. She still came to church regularly, but it was increasingly hard, she said, because so many of the words spoken, the hymns sung, the prayers, and the beliefs she once thought were necessary, just didn’t seem to ring true anymore.
She said she felt like an imposter. Doing what looked right, but on the inside, feeling like a fraud.
Everyone has a different story about how they might arrive at that place. In her case, within a five-year period she’d been through a divorce after her husband had gambled away everything, then her mother had died, and her only child had moved off far away to college.
By outward appearances she was keeping it all together. She had a successful career, she was busy with volunteer activities, she chaired a committee at the church.
She told me, "I know you're thinking this is all because of what I've been through lately. But all this crazy stuff has actually only opened the door to things I've been asking myself for a long time.”
The life she'd carefully constructed and the faith she'd grown up with – a faith that told her if she followed all the rules, life would be wonderful – all that had begun to feel like a hand of cards she could no longer play with.
She learned that real life wasn’t simple and always wonderful, not everything has a happy ending you can tie up with a bow. She’d discovered that life didn’t flow in a smooth progression from point A to point B. It felt more like wandering around in the woods without a compass.
Didn’t God care about her predicament? Was she being tested? If it was a test, she said, she'd just as soon skip class. Nothing added up, and if she couldn't count on everything she'd previously believed was true, then what else might be called into doubt?
And she said the thing she worried about most, was that if she doubted anything she’d been taught to believe in, then it would mean she was disqualified from believing and trusting in everything.
I’d heard similar stories before. We’re often taught – or we assume – that it’s somehow wrong or unfaithful to ever raise your hand and say anything like, “You know, I just can’t buy into the story of the virgin birth.” Because, if you don’t buy into everything, you can’t believe in anything.
I had that experience as a child. I was about eight years old, sitting in Sunday School with the other kids my age, and the lesson that day was about Noah’s Ark and the great flood. Our teacher read the part about the water covering the entire Earth. So I interrupted. I said, “But the Earth is so big. Maybe the flood just covered the part of the Earth where the story happened.”
My teacher was furious. He said, “If the Bible says, ‘the whole Earth, it means the whole Earth!” I then said something along the lines of, “I just don’t think that could happen.” And that’s when I was told I had to believe in the Bible or else, and I was expelled from the class and sent to go sit in the Pastor’s office.
The Pastor happened to be my dad, and when I explained to him why I’d been kicked out of Sunday School, he rolled his eyes and very gently told me it’d be better for me to keep my thoughts to myself with that particular Sunday School teacher.
I learned an important lesson that day. My dad did not disagree with my doubts or condemn me for having them. He still loved me and even supported me. He just affirmed that different people have different beliefs. And that was okay. The important thing was, we could all still love each other anyway.
And later I learned that doubt is a consistent theme in the Bible itself.
Sarah laughs in disbelief at the prospect of getting pregnant and bearing a child in her old age. Thomas demands physical evidence of the resurrection. The Psalms practically burst at the seams with anguished cries of abandonment and injustice, asking "Why, God?” "How long, God" and, "If you care for me, God, are you really there at all?"
And those questions from the lips of very faithful people continue to be spoken by anyone who's alive in this moment in time. Why? How long? Are you even there?
But my favorite doubting story in the Bible is one that I think most of us don’t pay much attention to.
At the tail end of Matthew’s gospel, the story goes that Jesus meets his disciples up on a mountain, and apparently, he’s about to leave them for the last time. Matthew never tells us Jesus ascends up into heaven or anything. Luke is the only gospel that mentions that.
Matthew just says Jesus – who’s risen from the dead at this point – appears to the disciples and gives them some marching orders: Go into all the world and make disciples. Teach them everything I’ve told you. And I’ll be with you forever.
But immediately before Jesus says anything, we’re told that some of the disciples doubted. We’re not told what they doubted, just that they doubted. Did they think they were hallucinating? Did they doubt that Jesus had really died? We don’t know; Matthew never tells us.
But here’s the remarkable thing: the fact that they doubted is even mentioned. Why not say, “And they all bought into this deal 100%. No questions asked.” I mean, if I was putting the finishing touches on my gospel, I would wrap things up with a completely solid ending, with all the loose threads neatly tied up. And the reader puts down the book and says, “Yeah!”
But no. Some doubted. Who were those guys? And why did Matthew even tell us about them?
Maybe it’s because Matthew was no dummy. Maybe he knew how the real world works. Where life doesn’t always flow in a straight line from point A to point B with no interruptions. Maybe he knew that safety and security are not always guaranteed. Maybe he knew that having questions and doubts are perfectly normal and okay.
And maybe – and I think most likely – Matthew knew that having doubts doesn’t mean you’re going to get kicked out of Sunday School. In this story, those doubts didn’t seem to bother Jesus.
Some doubted, and what does Jesus do? He proceeds to entrust those doubters with passing along his teachings and to tell his story to anyone and everyone. He tells those doubters to go and make disciples – in other words, to go out and recruit more followers and learners and doubters (just like they were).
Jesus never tells them to go and make proper Christians out of anybody. He never tells them to make sure that the people you recruit to this cause have to believe everything literally.
And he never specifies that they should only go out and recruit the right kind of people – you know, the ones with the proper credentials, and the right beliefs, and the ones who are the right race or the right economic status or the right background.
He says everyone, every nation, meaning all people – no exceptions – are welcome to be disciples. And disciples include people who doubt.
I don’t know about you, but for me that’s liberating. You mean it’s okay not to have to buy into everything? Apparently so.
Now, someone who’s deeply invested in making sure everyone does believe everything and is on the same page – someone like my Sunday School teacher (who was a really nice guy, by the way; I’m not trying to paint him as a jerk or anything) – but someone could ask, then don’t we have any standards for what you’re supposed to believe to belong to this outfit?
That’s a fair question. And a lot of people rarely ever think twice about it. Of course – some church might say – you must confess A, B, C, and D in order to call yourself a Christian.
But it’s important to understand that Jesus himself never put anyone to that kind of test. Sure, he made statements about who he was. But I can’t find anyplace where he said, “If you don’t believe thus-and-such exactly, well I’m sorry but you’re not invited to the party.”
People who came along later might’ve said that. Old men who developed church doctrine and dogma might’ve said that, but oddly enough, Jesus himself was pretty darned inclusive of people who didn’t share his religious views. It just didn’t seem to matter that much to him.
What mattered – and still matters – is less about what you say you believe, and a whole lot more about the way you behave. He never tells his disciples to test anyone on what they believed. He says, “Teach all those new disciples to obey what I’ve commanded you.”
And what did he command his disciples to do, exactly? To welcome the stranger. To heal and forgive. To reach out to the people who’ve been left out of the loop. To love your enemy. To do unto others as you’d have done to you. To bind up wounds. To take risks for the sake of someone else. To proclaim that God’s love extends to everyone and excludes no one.
There’s not a word about never having any doubts.
Because, seriously, who among us has never pondered things like, why good deeds are not always rewarded, while some truly wicked people prosper. Who’s never noticed the absence of justice, or never heard the cries of the helpless and oppressed?
Who hasn’t wondered in the past few months why and how a virus from a bat somewhere in China has totally thrown everything off the rails?
And in the past couple of weeks, who among us has not wondered, when in God’s name will we ever get it right and start doing right by our neighbors and friends whose skin happens to be a different shade?
And in the midst of all that, who among us has never wondered what in the heck a righteous and faithful God is up to?
For that matter, who among us during a church service has never nodded our heads in agreement and said Amen! along with the rest of the crowd, only to walk silently back to our car and ask ourselves, "But is it all really true? Although it’d probably be better to keep my thoughts to myself.”
I think Matthew – and Jesus – would say, don’t worry about yourself. The world is an imperfect place where questions and doubts are par for the course.
Your task in the daily swirl of asking and doubting is to understand that all people – even disciples – doubt. And doubting disqualifies nobody. It can even be a good thing.
The important thing is how we act. You’re a disciple, so invite others to join us in the cause of being disciples, by reaching out, serving, forgiving, reconciling, risking, healing, and giving ourselves away in love. Because the world needs us to do that.
So come on, doubters, let’s get busy.