Ninth Sunday after Pentecost / Ninth Sunday of Matthew, August 21, 2016
I Corinthians 3:9-17; Matthew 14:22-34
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
What happens if I doubt my Christian faith?
To some, the answer to this question seems to be just to dismiss the idea out of hand: You’re not supposed to doubt. You had better not doubt. If you doubt, then you don’t love God. If you doubt, then you are a bad person. If you doubt, I don’t want anything to do with you. If you doubt, there is something wrong with you.
But the doubts come anyway. What am I doing here? What if there is no God? What if when you die, that’s just it? What if some other religion is right and this one is wrong? What if I’ll never be good enough? What if God doesn’t really love me? What if I’m missing some fatal flaw that’s going to send me to hell forever?
What if all this is just a big joke?
Some people say that they never have doubts. For other people, some doubts occur occasionally, while others just won’t go away. They become nagging doubts.
Doubt can paralyze us. Doubt keeps people away from worship with the community. Doubt drives people out of the Church altogether.
Doubt seems so negative. Isn’t the Christian faith about believing? Is there any room for doubt in the Christian life? What do we do when we have doubts?
The memorable scene we read in today’s Gospel selection from Matthew 14 is very much wrapped up in all these questions about doubt. The scene opens with Jesus going to a mountain to pray and His disciples getting onto a boat. While Jesus was away from them their boat gets into trouble, being beaten by the wind and the waves. Then, late in the night, Jesus comes out to meet them, walking on the water. And they say, “It is a ghost!” Already, they are experiencing doubts.
The story continues with Jesus telling them Who He is and not to fear. Then Peter tests this “ghost” by asking Him to bid him walk on the water. So the Lord tells him to walk. And he walks. And then he saw the wind and began to sink. Peter’s doubts were sinking him.
When we experience doubt in our spiritual life, we often feel as though we are also sinking. This will be the end of us. There is no way to recover. See the wind and the waves? See how the confusion and the complication of this world toss us around and threaten us? And so we sink, and we lose sight of the Lord Who is the object of our faith.
If we are going to discuss the place of doubt for the Christian, we have to look at it closely. I believe that we can actually talk about two kinds of doubt, and both are typified in this night out on the water for the disciples.
The first kind of doubt is the sort that asks questions because it does not know the truth. When the disciples say, “It is a ghost!” it is because they do not know the truth of what they are seeing. And so they jump to conclusions. Their doubt is the questioning variety.
Is it okay to ask questions as a Christian? Is it all right to question the teachings and practices of the Church? Some would say it is never okay, that we should believe and practice our faith unquestioningly. I agree with them, but only in the sense that we do need to get to a place where we don’t need to question any more. So is it okay to ask questions? Yes, it’s okay.
Indeed, how can we learn anything if we don’t ask questions? Unless it is mature, faith without a question is just fanaticism. And fanaticism for a religion can just as easily become fanaticism against religion, just as soon as a question occurs and goes unanswered. And even an unfanatical Christian who does not question his faith can lose it if his childhood faith does not mature through asking questions and learning answers. I have heard more than one ex-Christian say that he asked questions but no one could or would answer them, so he left.
So the kind of doubt that leads us to ask questions because we don’t understand can be a good doubt. As George MacDonald, a Christian writer from the turn of the last century, once said, doubts are “messengers of the Living One to the honest” and “You doubt because you love truth.” These doubts are permitted by God to allow us to explore His presence more fully, to allow us to understand His teachings, to stir in us the desire to know Him better.
Notice what Jesus’ answer to the disciples is when they say, “It is a ghost!” He says, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” He reveals to them Who He is. He invites them to know Him, to encounter Him, and therefore not to fear. We don’t have to be afraid of these doubts. We have to let them motivate us to explore, to expand our faith, to bring us into contact with Him Who is Truth.
But there is another kind of doubt, and this is the kind Peter expresses when he sees the wind and begins to be afraid and therefore to sink. This kind of doubt is not the sort that leads to questions which have the possibility for exploration. Rather, this is the doubt that comes when we pay attention to the cares of this world rather than to Christ. And in this distracted attention, the evil one whispers to us, “God cannot save you.” He says, “Jesus is not real.” He says, “There is no point in your prayers or in trying to live virtuously.” And we believe those whispers, and we begin to sink spiritually.
Often when people experience this doubt, they may say things like, “I’m trying to believe, but I just can’t” or “This just haunts me—what if none of it is true?” Notice that these are not questions seeking answers. These are doubts that turn us away from real questioning.
This kind of doubt is actually what in our Orthodox spiritual understanding we call a passion. What are the passions? By passion we do not mean something we’re really interested in, like I have passions for Star Trek and reuben sandwiches, nor it is the kind of passion that is a deep motivation, like I have a passion for teaching the Gospel. In Orthodox spiritual language, the passions are those addictions that pull us away from God. We may think of lust or laziness or anger—these are passions, and they are addictive. Likewise, this kind of doubt is a passion, an addiction. This is why doubt can nag at us and haunt us—we are addicted.
So what do we do about the passions? The most basic strategy for dealing with passions is to cut off what is feeding them so that they starve, and then to feed the virtue that is the opposite of that passion so that it expands and develops. What is it that feeds the passion of doubt? It is putting our attention on the cares of this world.
When we look at the wind and the waves of life or even just become obsessed with sailing or navigating or fishing, but we take our eyes off the Lord Jesus, then we are feeding the passion of doubt and starving the virtue of faith. But when we take our eyes off the cares of this world and place them on Jesus—through prayer, worship, service, and giving—then we are feeding the virtue of faith and starving the passion of doubt. It’s really pretty simple.
When the disciples doubt and come to the wrong conclusion about Who Jesus is, He teaches them and encourages them.
When Peter doubts and then begins to sink, he cries out a prayer: “Lord, save me!” And Jesus takes his hand and pulls him up, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” Notice that Jesus says “little faith” and not “no faith.”
When we doubt with the passion of doubt, we should not believe the lie of Satan that tells us we have no faith. In reality, we simply have little faith. And we can use that little faith to say, “Lord, save me!” And then that puts our attention back on Jesus, and our faith therefore becomes stronger.
So there are two kinds of doubt. The first is the questioning kind that leads us to greater understanding and therefore maturity and peace in our faith. This doubt is good if used well. The second is the passionate kind that is addictive and turns us away from Jesus. This kind is bad if we feed it by putting our attention on the world and not on Christ.
At the end of the Gospel reading, Jesus and Peter get into the boat, and the wind ceases. And having both kinds of doubt addressed, we see that the response of the disciples and Peter is the same. The Gospel says this: “And those in the boat worshiped Him, saying, ‘Truly, Thou art the Son of God.’”
Do you have doubts that are questions? Don’t be afraid to ask your questions. We can explore the answers together. Even if there is no one here who has an answer to your specific questions, we can find out. And in the exploration, we will grow.
Do you have doubts that are full of worry and that haunt you? Take stock of where you’re putting your attention. Are you spending time with Jesus every day in private prayer and often in corporate prayer with other Christians? Are you partaking of all the sacraments that we should be receiving regularly, most particularly confession and communion? Are you giving of your time and your talents and your possessions? If not, then you are paying more attention to the wind and the waves than to the Jesus Who is walking on the water to meet you. Look back to Him. Starve that passion. Feed that virtue.
And then worship Him as those disciples did, saying to Him, “Truly, Thou art the Son of God.”
To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.