Doubts Part Two

St Stephen's

April 21st, 1991

In last Sunday's sermon we started to look at the whole business of christians having doubts. The reason for a doing so was the fact that all four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John clearly state that the first Christians were all stricken with doubts as a result of the shameful death of Jesus on Good Friday -- doubts which his Resurrection and appearances to them on Easter Day and during the following six weeks did not immediately dispel.

The point I made last Sunday was that those kind of doubts which come in the wake of some great personal disaster, so far from being something people should be ashamed of having all blamed For it, on the most understandable things in the world. I likened it to someone being knocked off their balance, slipping on the ice, and falling over. Our first reaction should be to run and help them up, not blame them for falling over; and if they are cut and bruised and shocked we should give them first-aid and stand by them until they have recovered. It's the job of the Church under these circumstances to support and to stabilise, not to pass judgment on the fact that people's faith gets bruised as a result of bereavement, disappointment, sickness or personal failure. The Church should strive to be a casualty department for the wounded not a magistrates' court for the wrong-doer.

But there are other sorts of doubt besides the sudden, and disorientating disaster-following kind just mentioned. At these I now propose to look.

The second sort of doubt is not one which strikes us suddenly but one which grows insidiously in our minds and souls over a period of time.

In this way such doubts resemble weeds, which grow unperceived at first in the garden of our souls but which end up (if untreated) in taking the whole thing over.

Or those of you who don't have gardens may find it easier to think of doubts as being like those faults which develop in their house or their car. It starts as a small thing - a squeak or rattle or a slight underperformance in the case of a car; a small crack in the masonry or a patch of damp on the walls in the case of a house. But, like weeds, if rattles and cracks aren't properly investigated early on and given the proper treatment, the chances are that whatever is wrong will spread and do a lot of damage before being brought under control.

Now, how do such doubts get into the garden of our soul, and how should we deal with them?

Well, sometimes the answer to the first question is that we simply don't know where they've come from. They just 'happen'. But in a great many cases they worm their way in either because we have grown slack about our religious duties or have started taking them for granted.

For instance people who stop coming to Mass on Sunday regularly but who instead 'every other Sunday', or 'when they feel like it', or 'when it happens to be convenient' are particularly at risk. Doubts begin to flourish very quickly under those circumstances.

Equally at risk however are people for whom churchgoing has become such a routine that much of the time their minds are on other things during the Mass. Unless we are continuously trying to direct our attention towards God, and away from all the distractions which draw it away from Him, it's not surprising that spiritual weeds begin to take root, and cracks begin to open up in our faith.

Of course it isn't possible to avoid distractions completely. There will always someone sitting near us in church who sings out of tune, or has a new hat, or a bad cough. Or the building may be cold, or the seats are hard. But it's only when we allow such distractions to interest us more than God himself that doubts begin to seep in.

When we are troubled by doubts of this kind, the very worst possible thing is to do nothing about them. They won't go away. They spread and grow. What is worse, they will become so much part of our spiritual garden that we become used to them -- even to the point of being afraid of having them taken away.

 

Yes, that's true. People become very attached to their doubts. Once our taste for faith has become dulled or lost, the appetite for doubt grows correspondingly. Like grievances, doubts are things which we begin by harbouring, and end up by nursing, until they grow so big they become an integral part of us.

There are two other kinds of doubt that I would mention before offering a plan for dealing with them.

The first is our doubts about other people, especially our fellow Christians. It's very easy, especially if we dislike someone, to start having doubts about them, not least their sincerity. And once we start doubting someone else's sincerity - Oh Boy! How those doubts do grow! From that moment everything they do or say goes to feed those doubts until they become fully-fledged convictions part of our Creed you might say "I believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and that Mrs Blenkinsop is a hypocrite", is an attitude towards that lady who has so often given us offence.

For suchlike doubt the remedy is called "giving the benefit of the doubt" to the person who has offended us. Always assume initially the no offence was intended.

After all we habitually give ourselves the benefit of any doubt that it's going. We blame our tiredness, our health and, our worries, the weather or whatever, for the fact that we are irritable, or depressed, or unsociable. May it not be that Mrs Blenkinsop is just as sorely troubled by her financial worries, her husband, her children, or the threat of being made redundant? For all we know, in God's eyes Mrs Blenkinsop may be battling heroically against desperate odds.

The other kind of doubt I would mention is self-doubt. Now, in one sense, having doubts about oneself can be a sign of grace, even of humility. The person who is completely lacking in self-doubt tends to be both unbearably confident, and insensitive towards other people's feelings.

But beware of the opposite! Self-doubt can itself become a habit by which one says "I'm sure I could never manage that". Beware, because "managing that" may be precisely what God is asking or commanding us to do.

St John refers to this in his letter. "We are now the children of God" he says "it does not yet appear what we are to be in the future". In God's hands we are meant to be becoming something different from what we are that's certain. So that attitude "I couldn't manage that" is denying Him the chance to make us into the very creatures He created us to be.

So there are three kinds of doubt, different from the "shock-doubt" that we looked at last week. They are what I would call "Lazy Doubt", "Neighbour doubt" and "and Self doubt". How do we go about treating them?

Well, the first step in each case is the same: we should bring our doubts to God. Many of you have discovered, as I have, that it helps to involve a fellow Christian in the process. Certainly I have found that myself, particularly with Self-doubt. It's ever so much easier to get to the point and stick to the point, if one has been helped by someone else to see just what 'the point' is.

The second weapon we have against such doubts is what we might call "the right use of the Imagination". Each one of us has been given a imagination by God as part of our survival-kit in life. To get the best out of it we need to learn how to use it: for, correctly used, it can make all the difference, when troubles come, between sinking and staying afloat.

The third weapon against doubt are the Sacraments:

In our Baptism we were made children of God. No doubts can ever un-make that any more than a person once born can become 'unborn'.

In Holy Communion we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ no matter how we may be feeling or whatever doubts may assail us.

In the Sacrament of Anointing with Oil or Unction we have the assurance that God and his Church are standing by us in all our troubles and distresses.

So in reply to the person I told you about last week who is constantly asking me "don't you ever have doubts?", the answer is emphatically "Yes".

But that question is like asking someone "don't weeds ever grow in your garden?"

The answer is "of course they do, all over the place, all the time. But by the grace of God it is possible to detect them and pull them up thereby ensuring that the garden of our soul doesn't become a jungle, and that the good seed which God has planted in it has a chance to come to fruition".

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