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jonathan robinson: doubtful preaching

I don’t know about you, but I regularly lose my faith.  At least once or twice a year, sometimes more, doubts gather in my mind and heart, grow and nearly overwhelm me.  In those times I have learned to keep moving, to keep behaving as if I still believed.  This isn’t me being fake.  I long since worked out that my believing in God has very little to do with whether he actually exists or not.  Continuing to try to be faithful even when faith is gone is really the only practical thing to do.  Even when my faith is weak or lost, God’s faithfulness can be relied on, and, sooner or later, God always comes through, gives me a fresh glimpse of his grace or reminds me of an old truth, and “faith” returns.  Each time my faith comes back to me it is a little different, a little more complicated, a little less self-confident, but perhaps a little deeper and more real.

I don’t know about you, or if my experience is even common.  But I do know my experience isn’t unique.  Whether it is Abraham’s inability to trust God to provide an heir, or Elijah’s post-Carmel burnout, the psalmist whose only friend is the darkness, or Thomas’ demand to touch the risen Christ’s wounds before he will believe, the Bible contains plenty of doubters and their doubt.  In most instances doubt precedes a greater and fuller revelation of God.  Doubt is one of God’s tools for growing God’s people.

And yet, as preachers we know, or at least we soon learn, that conviction and certainty and dogmatism are what score us points with the congregation.  They want their preachers to preach faith and show faith without equivocation or hesitation.  They love to hear what they already believe proclaimed with unflinching certainty.  They want their preacher to model for them a faith that is without doubt, that is triumphantly certain in the face of all that causes doubt.  They want doubt to be mocked and trivialised, so that they can rejoice in the superiority of their great unassailable belief!

At least that is what some of them want, and we have to ask whether what they want is really what they need?  But some in the congregation will be like me, silently struggling with doubt, wondering about whether it is all a mistake, trying to wrestle with a God that doesn’t quite seem to be there.  What will help those doubters is to hear that they are not the only ones to doubt, that their doubts are a normal and healthy part of Christian growth, and that in their doubt God is working to make them a truer, realer, humbler, deeper Christian.   What will help them most is to hear a fellow doubter share from God’s word and their own life how God still loves, uses and grows doubters, not despite, but in and even through their doubts . . . This is a plea for doubtful preaching. 

Let me know what you think 🙂

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Jonathan Robinson is a Brit slowly going native in NZ, he’s been preaching for a decade and blogging for a year (http://xenos-theology.blogspot.com/ ).  He is a husband and father and in his spare time he works at Carey Baptist College and is writing a Masters thesis on 1 Cor 6:12-20.

8 Comments

  1. Greg Liston says:

    Thank you. I appreciated this post very much. It reminded me of this quote from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape letters that has been a lifeline I’ve hung onto more often than I care to remember:
    “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

  2. Thanks Greg, I must read Screwtape again sometime, I just found this quote from George Macdonald, also seems appropriate:

    “I cannot say I never doubt, nor until I hold the very heart of good as my very own in Him, can I wish not to doubt. For doubt is the hammer that breaks the windows clouded with human fancies, and lets in the pure light. But I do say that all my hope, all my joy, all my strength are in the Lord Christ and his Father; that all my theories of life and growth are rooted in him; that his truth is gradually clearing up the mysteries of this world.”

    From, http://undeception.com/doubt-is-a-hammer/

  3. Myk Habets says:

    Thanks Jonothan, good post. Personally, I don’t like, and I am suspicious of, preachers I hear regularly (on TV and online) who, in a lifetime of preaching, never seem to have had any trouble with any text or interpretation in their entire life! It is a fine line between people thinking the preacher doesn’t really know anything or any more than the congregation (so why are they up front speaking?!), and giving the impression they know everything (which we don’t and never will!). Thanks.

  4. Rosco says:

    Its a balancing act between portraying an honest christian struggle, and promoting an ideal to inspire us. We need both. Often preachers create an unrealistic expectation of faith and prayer, and when it fails to work, the believer gives up on God.
    Its been 8 years of hard struggle since I lost my faith and started back, and I wish it had bounced back quickly. Sometimes I hear what I am saying about God and think – what a load of bollocks! Thats not the reality of it at all. It helps if you quit using Jargon and faith words and just say plainly what you mean rather than dressing it up!
    When I preached earlier in the year on my experiences, I was surprised at the number of upright Christian folk who expressed doubt and their own struggles coming back to faith when they found it didn’t work as preached! Thanks!

  5. Paul Windsor says:

    Yes, I agree with you, Jonathan. A little honesty of this type in the sermon can be so liberating for people. Very important.

    However, when overwhelmed by doubts, preachers are wise not just to be open about them but also to return to the things about which they are convinced. The simple and big and familiar truths. This is where both preacher and congregation need to turn. Being open with doubts is one thing (which you affirm) – wallowing in them (which you are not affirming, but where the mood of the times can take us so easily) is quite another. If the ‘simple and big and familiar’ cannot be identified then the preacher should seriously consider taking time out from the preaching ministry.

    While other respondents are quoting big guns, a GK Chesterton one has helped me so much. He writes about the “dislocation of humility … what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place … Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man(!) was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed…” (Orthodoxy)

  6. A fantastic post, Jonathan,
    Paul is right that our culture can push us to trade convictions for accomodationism. And his advice is also good – a balance between unassailable certainty on one hand, and hopeless meandering on the other.
    As often – there are too many at both extremes and not enough inbetween – i think Laurie Guy (or someone he’s quoting?) called this “the collapse of the theological middle”?
    Since others are quoting, I’ll throw in a favourite lyric from a Jars of Clay song, ‘Oh My God’

    …You take away my firm belief – and graft my soul upon Your grief…

  7. Mark Maffey says:

    One could spend months preaching through Job, The Psalms dealing with the struggles faced by those on the Journey with God, as it states in Matthew 7 “Narrow is the way, difficult is the path”. I think that people in congregations are actually looking for authenticity from those who preach. The reality is that for all of us life has ups and downs, periods of certainty and uncertainty. Obviously as has been said in other posts there is a need for balance in our preaching,and first of all it should come out of time meditating upon the word, and seeking understanding, aligned with exegesis that is faithful.

    Psalm 142 vs. 5-7 – I Cried Out To You, O LORD

    I cried out to you, O LORD, I said, “You are my refuge”
    My portion is in the land of the living
    I am in the midst of difficulty; pressure is on me like a deluge
    Others against me are fighting and striving
    I am lonely, tired, and hungry for your presence, strength and courage
    Yet my troubles and struggles are me from you driving
    I feel under attack from all sides, under a constant heavy barrage
    I desire to be back in your presence to in you be living

    Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low
    Deliver me from my persecutors for they are stronger than I
    I am caught in a battle which is both long and slow
    I cannot fight it alone I am unable to win despite how hard I try
    You alone can overcome my enemies my hope in you I show
    I look to you, you alone are my help, and I don’t want to die

    Bring my soul out of prison, that I might praise your name
    The righteous shall surround me, for you shall deal bountifully with me
    You alone can raise me up, put my feet upon a rock, and remove my shame
    You alone can rescue and restore me, renew my vision through you I will see
    You can cause your angels to protect me; my life will never be the same
    You are the God highest, your love; your power is amazing in you I’ll be

    Mark Maffey, November 2005
    (NKJV)
    http://maffster.blogtown.co.nz/

  8. Mark Maffey says:

    I agree with Paul’s comment “However, when overwhelmed by doubts, preachers are wise not just to be open about them but also to return to the things about which they are convinced. The simple and big and familiar truths. This is where both preacher and congregation need to turn. Being open with doubts is one thing (which you affirm) – wallowing in them (which you are not affirming, but where the mood of the times can take us so easily) is quite another.” There is a need for balance, but I also believe a need for authenticity in what is preached. I believe this is a time where people do want preachers to reflect where they are at as it helps them in their journey. A meditation on Psalm 142 below

    Psalm 142 vs. 5-7 – I Cried Out To You, O LORD

    I cried out to you, O LORD, I said, “You are my refuge”
    My portion is in the land of the living
    I am in the midst of difficulty; pressure is on me like a deluge
    Others against me are fighting and striving
    I am lonely, tired, and hungry for your presence, strength and courage
    Yet my troubles and struggles are me from you driving
    I feel under attack from all sides, under a constant heavy barrage
    I desire to be back in your presence to in you be living

    Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low
    Deliver me from my persecutors for they are stronger than I
    I am caught in a battle which is both long and slow
    I cannot fight it alone I am unable to win despite how hard I try
    You alone can overcome my enemies my hope in you I show
    I look to you, you alone are my help, and I don’t want to die

    Bring my soul out of prison, that I might praise your name
    The righteous shall surround me, for you shall deal bountifully with me
    You alone can raise me up, put my feet upon a rock, and remove my shame
    You alone can rescue and restore me, renew my vision through you I will see
    You can cause your angels to protect me; my life will never be the same
    You are the God highest, your love; your power is amazing in you I’ll be

    Mark Maffey, November 2005
    (NKJV)
    http://maffster.blogtown.co.nz/

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