Doubts: Part One

St Stephen's April 14th, 1991

Third of Easter

"Why are these doubts rising in your hearts?"

Someone whom I once prepared for confirmation comes to see me from time to time to talk about what she calls "her doubts".

She lapsed from churchgoing many years ago, which is a pity. Still, the fact that she still comes to see me quite often is a sign, I suppose, that all is not lost. But the most curious thing is that time after time she ends up by asking me whether I ever have "Doubt".

Now the short answer is of course that, like everyone else I do have what I would call "doubts". If I didn't I wouldn't be human for one thing; and for another, without the existence of doubt, faith would have no meaning at all. In a world of uniform light nobody would be able to understand what darkness meant and vice-versa; in a world of uniform temperature, hot and cold become meaningless. So too doubt and faith are complementary and until we die they will remain so.

"Why are you so agitated, and why are these doubts rising in your hearts?" said Jesus to his startled disciples when he appeared to them after his rising from the dead. Taken together with last week's Gospel (about doubting Thomas, you remember) this seemed to be a good time to look at the whole business of doubt more clearly.

Why look at doubts? As most of you know, it is my conviction that part of the answer to life's problems (of which doubt is one) is to try and understand them better. Those two little words "I see" when something which was meaningless begins to make sense of a sign that things will get better. The pain, the bereavement, the sorrow, the fear, the disappointment will be still be there; but those words "I see", means that we have started to come to terms with it even to get on top of it.

The fact that all four Evangelists, Matthew Mark Luke and John mention that the first Christians had doubts means that doubt is nothing new. That's something worth remembering too because it's a particular delusion of childhood and adolescence that "nobody has felt like I do ever before". Most of us realise by the time were grown up that this simply isn't true; on the contrary, every experience we have, both painful and pleasurable is well-documented in olden times not least in Holy Scripture.

But there are still some people who haven't grasped this at all. More to the point, when trouble comes to those who have grasped it, especially if that trouble is sudden, serious and unexpected, there is invariably a gap of time when the shock we have suffered prevents our faith from coming into action, and therefore doubts inevitably arise.

So the first answer to my friend's question "don't ever have doubts?" is certainly "yes: if by doubts you mean what takes control of the mind between the time that misfortune strikes and faith or trust or confidence regain control.

Now part of the reason I think why Jesus Christ chose to make salvation depend on being part of a church, a body, a corporate entity, rather than a whole lot of saved individuals who have nothing to do with each other, is that when any single individual is knocked sideways by misfortune, it's very much easier for them to regain their balance in the company of a whole lot of other people who was standing upright in a state of balance, but who nevertheless know what it means to suffer.

If you were to go through the life history of everyone in church here today you would find, I believe, a record of suffering, disappointment, adversity and sorrow that you would never have dreamt existed. Some of them of course I know about because you have chosen to tell me; some are known to me but not to others to whom you have chosen to reveal them; the point is that for all our demure appearance we are people to whom doubt and sorrow are well-known.

And yet because we are one body in Christ, and have remained so through good times and bad, these sorrows and doubts have not overwhelmed us.

There are other kinds of doubt of course, and next week we shall take a look at these. But the sort of doubt which comes to us as a result of misfortune or trouble is one of the most common, and needs, I believe, to be dealt with first.

If you search the Scriptures, especially the Book of Psalms, you will find passage upon passage written by people who have obviously been in deep trouble and in whose minds are many doubts.

Jesus's words "touch me and see for yourselves" give us the clue as to how we should begin to go about dealing with them. We need, as the first step, to touch the mystical Body of Christ. "Tell it to the Church" is that classical formula for dealing with doubt. Let me read you once again that splendid passage from the old Prayer Book, when the priest is instructed from time to time to say the following words to the people to whom he is ministering:

"If there be any of you who... require if further comfort or counsel... let him come to me or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's word and open his grief... that by the Ministry of God's holy word he may receive the benefit of Absolution, together with... advice... to the avoiding of all doubtfulness.'

So there it is. Doubts like this can be relieved... but only if we go about it the right way.

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