Anatomy of the Soul: Doubt
I will confess to you all this morning that I struggled with this sermon—with how to talk about what I want to talk about. There is always something presumptuous about preaching if you look at it right, either the grossly mistaken idea that you yourself have hit upon a truth that must be shared, or the more correct but still mind-boggling one that the Holy Spirit has given you something to give to those who come to hear you. And this is under the best of circumstances. But to take up, as Bart and I have been doing for the last month, the emotional life of the human being and believer seems to me a bridge further, and to take up specifically the experience of doubt almost unimaginable.
I thought at first I should try to locate in my own history something that would prove that I am a reliable authority on doubt—a season of wrestling, a spiritual desert I have crossed, some great loss or trauma tailor-made to shake faith. This is largely the story that we know about doubt, that it happens because of something identifiable, and perhaps it lasts forever, like a spiritual scar after a great injury, or perhaps the resolution of doubt is part and parcel of the process of healing itself. We know this story in part because it is quite true: Sometimes what happens is that something happens, an accident, a death, a disaster personal or public, and it strikes a heavy blow. But we also know this story I suspect because it is the one that is easiest to talk about, I mean within the church, because in this story doubt seems to abide by the law of cause and effect, which means that it is knowable, predictable, even perhaps controllable, and at any rate extraordinary, the result of something unusual and bad but not part of the ordinary life of the believer. But beyond that story, true as it is, is another truth, maybe less palatable: That doubt is as common as dirt, and it is unlikely that any of us will reach the place Christ has prepared for us in God’s house without having to contend with it.
We often talk about doubt as though it is faith’s opposite—Jesus does say to Thomas, after all, “do not doubt, but believe”—but I would suggest that that’s not the case. Certainly they can be opposed, but the opposite of faith seems to me to be certainty, specifically certainty that the objects of faith—God’s existence or goodness, the promises of Christ, and so forth—are false, vain, foolish, and unworthy of attention. The opposite of faith, as best as I can see, is a serene and untroubled atheism, not the sort that writes shoddy books on why religion is a poison but the sort that never considers it at all. Any trouble of spirit, any wrestling, any disturbance, is the result of some faith, even a weakened or greatly shaken one. The desire to believe alone is a mark of faith; a faithless person doesn’t care whether they believe or not. Doubt is, if anything, faith’s frenemy, or its parasite: without faith, doubt couldn’t exist at all.
Our Psalm today is not unique in that in it the Psalmist cries out to God for aid and attention, but it is unusual in that there is no reason given for the doubt that is assailing them. We often see prayers for deliverance from enemies and that God might vanquish those who oppose the writer, but here, there is nothing: Just days of trouble, nights of supplication, and a soul that will not be comforted. Just like often happens to us.
Much of scripture tells us of people of great faith, prophets and miracle-workers, and exhorts us to have it ourselves, and so it is easy to miss how much doubt is also recorded in its pages. Abraham himself, the one whose faith was reckoned to him as righteousness and so who provides the whole template for our conviction that we are saved through faith, doubted God’s promise to God’s face. Gideon, a judge who led Israel in battle, wouldn’t do it unless God proved to him twice through miracles involving a fleece laid out on a threshing floor that God was involved. Job spends chapters and chapters questioning God’s goodness and justice and demanding to take God to court. The father of a boy with an unclean spirit asks Jesus for help and says “I believe; help my unbelief.” Peter, rock of the church and consummate placer of foot in mouth, is invited by Christ himself, standing upon the water, to come out onto it, and makes it a few steps, and even still is overcome by doubt and begins to sink. The saints under the altar in Revelation cry out to God asking how long it will be before God’s promises are fulfilled. And Psalm after Psalm wonders where God is. Common as dirt.
Which brings us back to the Psalmist upon their bed, plagued by visions of the past and the terrible fear that God has abandoned them.
Has God’s steadfast love ceased forever?
Are her promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?
And finally: It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.
“God may have loved others, but God does not love me.”
“God may have made promises, but those don’t count anymore.”
“God must not be paying attention; I must not merit God’s focus or action.”
“God doesn’t care.”
“God is angry; I have done something wrong, and God is punishing me with wrath.”
“God used to will my good, but does not anymore.”
Such heaviness, such a weight of tears. Doubt may be common as dirt, but it can be intensely painful. This single Psalm shows us every painful way it can touch us: Anger and blame—you keep my eyelids from closing—fear—I meditate, and my spirit faints—and grief: the right hand of the Most High has changed. And much like fear, like grief, and like anger, the done thing is often to hide doubt from each other and from God, to attempt to appear always at peace, always certain, as though showing our fear or opening our mouths in lament or crying out to the God we cannot muster much confidence in would be a strike against us instead of a vital strand in the web of community and exactly what we are shown as a model of faithfulness. Shame drives us away from God and from each other, when neither our fear nor our sadness nor our anger nor even our doubt are themselves causes for shame.
I want you to hear me here: Doubt is not a cause for shame. Doubt can be painful, but it is not a unique sign of our individual failing, and it is not a disaster. We may fear that this is the thing, this doubt, this question, this objection, this anger, this loneliness, this is the one that will bring the whole house down, that will sever our connection to God once and for all if we cannot power through it, if we cannot lay this doubt to rest. But it isn’t. It needn’t be. We did not build that house, and we cannot bring it down. God’s benevolence, the nature of God’s goodness towards us, does not depend in any way on our being fully convinced of any proposition about God. It is a cord that will not be cut. When we contend with doubt, we do so always within the arms of God, who is not troubled or hurt.
The agony of the Psalmist is not overcome by repetition of factoids about God, or by self-recrimination, or sheer force of will. It’s not clear in this Psalm that this doubt is overcome at all. But the Psalmist’s recourse is in recalling what they know God to have done: God delivered Israel through the Red Sea to freedom. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures this act, more than anything else, is the way that God is to be known and understood, as a God of power and might who uses that power and might for the wellbeing of people. To this day we know God best not through philosophy or syllogisms or careful analysis, but by what we have seen God do: Make the world; liberate a people; come to us in the flesh in Jesus Christ; choose to submit to death so that we never have to. And what this tells us, again, is best understood not through carefully articulated statements of doctrine, but simply through the recognition of God’s goodness, not abstractly, but in the sense of benevolence towards us. That’s enough. The rest, doctrines and facts and all of that, may come, or even come and go, and that’s fine. There is no need, no requirement, for us to understand everything.
This last bit, I think, can be challenging. Much of our confidence comes from knowing and understanding. We ride in airplanes with confidence because we know the statistics on the rarity of crashes, or how much training pilots undergo, or the physics of Bernoulli’s Princple. And this kind of knowing and understanding ultimately fails in the face of things of the Spirit, of which we are given to know or understand a portion, and much of which is categorically beyond us—why should we, with finite brains and limited physical strength and lifespans measured in countable years, be able to fully know infinite things? But we do not need to know to be nourished; much of the life of discipleship is accepting nourishment without understanding its source, as the Israelites gathered manna in the desert, each day just enough for the day, with more given each morning even to those who did not believe it would be. Which is to say, much of the life of discipleship may be accepting the fact that we will not, cannot, fully and finally understand, and so discovering what is truly enough for us.
In one of her letters, in which she talks about faith and doubt and the suffering it causes, Flannery O’Connor offers a straightforward assessment of the struggle to overcome doubt: “When we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead.” Just sit with that a second: “When we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead.” It’s never done; And she continues: “This goes on. You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty.”
I wonder how much distress we might save ourselves if we did not expect our spiritual housecleaning to ever be done, or if we reached for the deep strength of trust instead of the frankly brittle security of certainty. I am a person who loves to know; I crave certainty, I love carefully articulated doctrines. But in the dark of the night, in the face of suffering, in the storms of doubt, what holds me is none of that, but only the goodness of God, who helps me to trust; and who is always already helping all of us, who will carry us through every storm, whether we are sure about it or not. Amen.