YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL
July 20, 2008
Do you feel like you are stuck in a prison of doubt or questioning? Are you waiting day after day for God to answer you, to heal you, to free you from your prison? In the third sermon of this series, Ben continues his discussion of his own personal journey of doubt and how God worked in His life to bring clarity to ambiguity, answers to questions, and understanding to uncertainty. He will lay out a few keys that unlocked different doors in his life that led him out of the prison of doubt.
Last week was a great Sunday in that we had an opportunity to write our own Psalms. Everyone here had the opportunity to write a question that they had for God or maybe a doubt that they had about God. Maybe you don’t even believe God is there. You could have written that down on your card. The card said, “God” comma, and we left the card blank for most of the service. Then we filled it out at the end. Literally, there were thousands and thousands of cards.
These are all the questions represented, and I’m reading my way through every one of them. There are thousands and thousands of questions. It’s going to take me a while, but I appreciate your willingness to ask these questions. I’m praying over all of them and want to read them all.
Next week, speaking of questions, we’re going to do something different during our teaching time. We’re going to have a time of open Q&A. I primarily designed the Q&A for people who are more skeptical in nature. Maybe you have some friends, co-workers, or family members who have questions about God, who don’t believe the way you believe, or maybe they just want to ask some questions. I invited a friend of mine, William Dembski, to come and be my guest next week to help me answer some questions. Dr. Dembski has a Ph.D. in philosophy, a Ph.D. in mathematics, a Master’s in statistics, an Undergraduate degree in psychology, and a M.Div. from Princeton. He’s an idiot! But anyway, he’s only a little bit older than me—that makes him what, about 38? He’s a great guy, and he’ll be here through this time of open forum—questions and answers, it’s going to be a great Sunday. You’ll enjoy hearing what Bill has to say.
Speaking of questions, there was a guy a long time ago who had a really good question. I’ve had the same question. It’s found in the Bible in Matthew 11. Matthew is the very first book in the New Testament. The guy who had a question was named John. This is not the John who wrote the Gospel of John. This is the John who had the funny last name—The Baptist. I see John the Baptist as some type of proto-rapper individual. He was just out there a little bit. He lived out in the desert, eating locust and wild honey, wore weird clothes, and said strange and disturbing things. John was not a Baptist, nor a Catholic. That was just his name, because that was his method of dunking people. So John the Baptist has this question. It’s an interesting question. It’s a question that a lot of us have asked before.
I’ve asked it a lot. It’s in Matthew 11, “After Jesus had finished instructing His twelve disciples, He went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John (that’s John the Baptist) heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask Him, ‘Are you the One who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
Back then, for centuries, the Jews had been expecting a Messiah to come deliver them from their oppressors. In this context, the oppressors were the Romans. They believed the Messiah would come set up this golden age where He would restore the Davidic Kingdom, and then would reign and rule from Israel for eons to come! John was wondering, “Are You the One?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see; the blind receive sight, the lame walk, and those who have leprosy are cured! The deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor! Blessed and happy is the man who does not fall away on account of Me!”
Now, if you’re an inquisitive person, and I know you are, you’re wondering, “Why is John in the pokey? Why is he in prison?” Well, I kind of like to see it like this: We sometimes read the Bible and make it too archaic; I kind of like to report the story as if we were watching Entertainment Tonight, or perhaps TMZ. I know none of you watch that. It starts off like this: “Yeah, what have you got?” “You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve got King Herod! He has taken his brother’s wife to be his own wife!” “Man, you’ve got to be kidding me!” “No, I’m not kidding. And get this, there is some crazy, whacked out evangelist guy who called him out on it. Now Herod has thrown this evangelist guy, John the something-or-other, into prison!” “You’ve got to be kidding?” That’s why John was there. That’s the gossip that was buzzing around Palestine around that time. John the Baptist was a guy who was famous—a celebrity in his own right. He was thrown into prison because he called out this so-called King Herod for his adultery and unfaithfulness.
John is in prison and he’s waiting. I’m sure he was thinking, “Oh, don’t worry! I’m going to get out of here. You see, Jesus—He’s the Messiah. He’s the One who’s going to spring me out of this joint and He’s also my cousin. It’s going to happen.” He just waited and waited and waited, but nothing happened. So John just continued to wait, “Jesus is going to get me out. He’s going to kick the Romans out of power! We’re going to be in power. We’re going to have the political power. We’re going to take over this world, and things are going to be great just like the prophets of old said.” He waited day after day, but nothing happened.
Finally, it says here, John began to question. I like what one commentator said, “Here you have in Matthew 11, not the beginning of some pristine faith, but actually you have the inception of doubt.” You have this guy, John the Baptist asking, “God, why am I here?” “John, you are here to prepare the way for the Messiah!” That’s what John had been doing his entire life. He had been saying, “Hey, you better get right because the Messiah is coming. You better get your act together. You better start repenting. He’s coming.” Then when He came, he said, “There He is right there!” “You’re talking Yeshua from Nazareth?” “Yeah—Jesus from Nazareth!” “Are you kidding?” “He is the Messiah! He will take away the sins of the world!” Then he comes and baptizes Jesus! John the Baptist is one of the most important prophets and figures in the entire Bible. He was so large and so big, people wondered, “Is John the Baptist the one?” Other people wondered, “Is he Elijah come back to life?” Or perhaps he had come back in a different form, because Elijah didn’t die. People were wondering this about John the Baptist; but here’s John the Baptist, this big wig stuck in prison, and he is doubting. He is wavering. Someone asked Jesus, “Are you the one? Or should we expect someone, or something else?”
John doubted in prison. In my life and my journey, I was stuck in the prison of doubt. We all have our prisons, right? We all have our cells; things that we’re stuck in. Have you ever been where John the Baptist is? Hey—you’re here, you’re enslaved, you feel like you’re in this prison, whether it’s a sickness, trial, or a question? You are wondering, “Hey God! When are you going to answer me? God, when are You going to heal me? I’m waiting God for You to set me free and answer me!” You wait day after day, month after month, but nothing happens. That’s what was happening to John the Baptist. He doubted. That’s what was happening to me.
Last week, I left my story where I was in graduate school in seminary, and I was drowning in a sea of doubt. Now I’m kind of changing metaphors on us. I was really imprisoned by these doubts and questions I had about the existence of God, or the non-existence of God, or the Bible, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Koran, or the Torah—whatever holy book you want; or maybe Darwin had it right, and I was locked in this prison of doubt for a long time.
I think it’s important to note that there are different kinds of doubt. There is healthy doubt, to use therapeutic language. There is healthy doubt, and there is unhealthy doubt. The healthy doubt is just doubt. It’s just asking good questions like some of the questions that people gave last week, which were simply good questions. I like what Fred Buechner said about doubt, “Whether your faith is that there is a God, or that there is not a God; if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself, or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” So there are good doubts; there are great questions that you and I can ask and they kind of serve as ants in the pants that keep us itching and moving to find out and seek out answers.
I would say if you have some good healthy doubts and good questions; don’t be intellectually lazy, or theologically lazy or slothful. Look for answers to those questions. There is good doubt.
Then there is bad doubt. There is unhealthy doubt. It’s like anything when you think about it. If you’re angry, and it’s good to be angry—the Bible says be angry; yet don’t sin. Be sensitive! But if you’re too sensitive, or too angry, that can lead to depression. Fear is a good thing. I want my children to be afraid of certain things. Fear is a good thing, but if you have too much fear in your life, what happens? You become paranoid. It’s the same thing with doubt. Doubt can be healthy; doubt can be good; doubt can be a part of faith. That’s why I called this message Doubting Faith. It’s a double entendre. But doubt can warp, and it can turn into something that can be deadly; it can be almost diabolical; it can definitely be debilitating. It can take you to a place where you don’t want to go, and it took me to a place where I felt like I was in prison. Though I could get out of myself, there were still other aspects of this prison that I had to go through, and I always had that ball and chain of questioning, of doubt, of analyzing and of uncertainty dragging around on my ankle. Kind of like the same deal Martha Stewart had when she got out of prison—the little anklet. I was dragging this thing around, and I couldn’t get free. I wanted to get out of this prison; but I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t do it. It’s the dark side of doubt when it immobilizes and paralyzes you, and you live in a state of constant ambiguity and uncertainty.
Let me read you a question, a doubt. It says, “So many unanswered questions live within me; afraid to uncover them because of the blasphemy. If there be God, please forgive me when I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven. There is so much convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me; and yet the reality of darkness, and coldness, and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul!”
Who do you think wrote that? By the way—that card didn’t come from one of these buckets, but it belongs here. Mother Theresa wrote that. She was a pretty strong lady of faith and courage, but she had times in her life, many, many times for many decades when she had extreme doubt and despair. When you’re stuck in the prison, you want to get out, don’t you? I do! You’re trapped in prison! “I’ve got to get out, and find my way through the wall! Somehow, some way, I’m going to dig may way through with a little chisel and a hammer, and I’m going to cover that up with a poster, and I’m going to get out that way. Or I’m going to jump in the old laundry truck when they come through. I’m going to get out of this prison.” I was the same way, “I’ve got to get out of this prison of doubt. I can’t live here. I can’t live like this. I am going absolutely nutty, bonkers, and crazy. Either I want to be in, with God; or out, without God. This in between is worthless.”
I tried many things to get out. The first thing I tried was discipline. If I could simply be more disciplined and read the Bible more, and pray more; then that will get me out of doubt! I remember in my apartment years ago, I had this closet. I could actually walk inside it, and that’s where I prayed. The Bible says “Pray in your closet”, so I prayed in my closet. I read my Bible in my closet. But as much as I read the Bible, and as much as I prayed; it didn’t work. I thought I’d be disciplined through obedience. So I did whatever God told me to do! If I was driving on the freeway, and there were hitchhikers—I pulled over and they jumped in. “Where are you going?” “I don’t know!”
I remember one time, I was at this park near my apartment, and there was this guy who was a street person. He was drunk, and I started a conversation with him. I remember he had Mad Dog 20-20. I don’t know why I remembered that; but it’s not my favorite drink. Anyway, I took that Mad Dog 20-20 and poured it out, threw it out in this pond, and we began to talk. He needed a place to stay, and I said, “Why don’t you stay at my place, my apartment?” So I invited him over to my apartment. I think he spent the night there. It was so funny—my roommate had not a clue. He woke up in the morning, and there was this guy on the couch.
So I tried reading the Bible, and discipline and prayer, and helping people who were hurting. All those things are good, by the way! I encourage you to read the Bible as much as you can; to pray as much as you can; and to do things for people who are hurting as much as you can. Yet, at the same time, as I did these things, my motives were tweaked, and that still didn’t get rid of the doubt! That still didn’t free me from this prison that I was in.
I also thought I might be demonic, so I tried to get a demon cast out of me. I went down front at a church. The guy was praying for people, and it didn’t take, or the demon didn’t leave, if it was demonic! I wish it would have been! It would have been a lot easier if you could just kind of go, “Get out!” Or, “Get off! Stop this doubting!” But it didn’t work that way, and it just kind of persisted there…
What I tried the most during this time, and it’s what I think a lot of people try, both those who had considered themselves philosophical naturalists and atheists, or Christians, is that I really wanted this iron-clad certainty. I thought to myself, “If I can have certainty; if I can have rock-solid certainty about the existence of God; about the veracity of Scripture; about the reality of Jesus Christ; then all my doubts would be gone. Rock-solid certainty. But I discovered that certainty—the kind of certainty that a lot of us crave and want—it’s really a myth. That kind of certainty doesn’t exist.
As I really read the Bible, there’s a place in the Bible in II Corinthians, chapter 5 where it says, “You should walk by certainty, not by sight.” No—it doesn’t’ say that, right? It says, “You should walk by faith, not by sight.” Walk by faith; not by certainty.
When I heard that, years ago I was stuck in the prison of doubt going, “Hey—let me out of here!” I didn’t like it. Because every time I would come to church; any time I would get around Christians, they were saying, “Well, that’s great. You can do this, you can have this. All you’ve got to do is have faith. Right. God’s going to do this in your life! He’s going to do this, and this…All you need to do is have faith.” I was saying, “Whoo—I’ve got that. Faith is what I don’t have. Faith is what I want. If I had faith, I wouldn’t be in this prison! I wouldn’t have these problems. I understand that. Give me the faith, right?” But I really didn’t want faith, looking back on it, I wanted certainty.
By the way—no one has this rock-solid, absolute certainty. Not the so-called intellectual, academic who thinks God is anything but a fairy tale. Not the fundamentalist, Bible-toting, pew jumping, chandelier swinging Christian. So don’t be led—“Well, there are people in the Western World—there are people of facts who live by their minds and reason; and there are people of faith!” Bologna. Everybody, every belief system has faith and facts! Certainty is a myth. I couldn’t get out. Certainty did not get me out. I thought I had certainty for a while. I read a lot of books, but I couldn’t get there. So, I was still stuck. I like what Anne Lamott said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”
Now, about this time, something happened in my life, and I should say not something, but someone happened in my life – questions and doubt are very personal. If you come from a Christian background, you know that you can have a personal relationship with God, though at times it seems very impersonal, doesn’t it? You can have a personal relationship with God, so doubting is the personal thing; the existence, or non-existence of God. So when I began to get free from this prison of doubt, it was someone rather than some thing.
As I was getting ready for this weekend, there were probably twelve to fifteen keys that unlocked different doors in my life that led me out of the prison of doubt! Don’t panic, don’t worry! I’m only going to deal with probably three keys, quickly, for you guys this morning.
The first key began when I started listening to this radio show during chapel. Seminary is kind of a strange graduate school situation. You have chapel at 10:00 every day, Monday through Friday. So instead of going to chapel, I skipped! I was a bad Christian, a bad future preacher.
I skipped—I don’t know why I did; I just did. I would get in my car and listen to this fuzzy, AM radio station. I would tune to this guy by the name of Malcolm Smith. Malcolm was a guy originally from England, and he was simply a Bible teacher. But he taught about the same thing almost every single day. He sounded so smart with his British accent, and I had heard this word he talked about so many, many times; but it had never really sunk into me. When this word, and the reality of this word, or the Person behind this word began to sink into my heart, and my mind; it began to slowly, slowly open and push open the door, or one of the doors of the prison of doubt. There were other chambers I had to get through; but the word, the first key was the key of charis.
Derek Webb is a friend of my brother’s, who was in the band known as Caedmon’s Call, and he has the word charis tattooed on his thumb. Now I’m not into tattoos per se, but if you’re going to get one, that’s not a bad one. Charis. Now maybe you’re wondering what the word charis means? Charis is the Greek word for the word grace. So every day, Malcolm Smith would end up talking in some way or another about charis, about grace. What is grace? Grace is God’s undeserved blessing or favor in our lives. I began to discover slowly that I was a wreck. I was a wretch. I was a sinner. I was sick. I was a doubter. I was a skeptic. I was an idiot. I was all these different things; therefore, I qualified for charis, or grace.
Now you say, “That sounds pretty depressing. That sounds really negative!” No it’s not. What did Jesus say? “It’s the sick people who need the doctor!” See, the problem in my life for so long was, I didn’t think I was sick. But it was through charis, through grace that I realized I was sick, broken, and that I did need a rescuer, a Savior! Charis began to work in my life, and I began to not only think, but to feel and know that Jesus Christ actually came, died, and rose again for me, and that He really did forgive me of all my sins. I realized that God is even big enough to forgive the sins of Christians, which was quite a relief to me; because I did all my great, glorious, pretty cool sinning as a Christian. Sorry—that’s just the way it worked out. I don’t mean to mess with your theology. God can forgive even Christians. That was a good thing to know. I also knew that I could be a child of God, and I also knew that God would accept me perfectly, because He accepted me not on the basis of what I had done, but on the basis of what He did through Christ. Then I realized too—we’re getting too much here—sorry. But it relates to grace, and that is that this Gospel, this grace is completely outside of me! It is external from me! It is objective in one sense. It can’t be touched. It has nothing to do with me on some level, which is a great relief. That’s a whole other message. Anyway, it was great. It’s charis, it’s grace. It’s outside of me and had nothing to do with me. It’s what Christ did. My righteousness and my acceptance—all of this is outside of me. It is external.
That’s a great thing, because so many times, I based my life and my spirituality on my emotions, on my circumstances. It’s good to know that my acceptance and your acceptance is outside. It’s in Christ.
The first key was grace, charis. The second key goes back to verse 3 in our text when John asked, “Are you the One, or should we wait for someone else?” The second key is Christ. Christ! I believe what God’s Word teaches about Christ, that God—ultimate reality, Heaven, has actually come to earth in a real life human being. God went to a lot of trouble to become a human being, and I think we forget about that. Christ freed me up. John who wrote the Gospel said, “In the beginning was the Logic. In the beginning was the Reason, and the Reason was with God, and He was God! The Reason, the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we have seen His Glory, the Glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth!” Paul said, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all Creation; for by Him all things were created; things in this temporal realm on earth; things in Heaven whether thrones, or powers, or rulers or authorities—all things were created by Him, Christ, and through Him. Through Christ, all things hold together!” It’s amazing! God come to earth in a person? How can all that happen? How is that possible? Christ! The Incarnation was a major key, and it’s still a major key that pulled me out of that prison.
I got a letter, or correspondence I should say, about a year ago from a guy who was locked in the prison of doubt. I don’t know him personally, but through correspondence, he seemed like a great Christian guy! He’s married and has kids. He grew up in a Christian home, and went to a Christian university. He was very active in his church, and was giving and was involved in missions, the whole deal. But about four or five years ago, he started reading all these books. He sent me a list—120 to 150 books. I’m talking about very difficult, tough, scientific, philosophic rationalistic books; both Christian and atheistic. In the process, this guy lost his faith and became an atheist. He hasn’t told many people. He lives in a different state. I entered into the dialogue with him, and I wrote this down for him, because when I talked to him on the phone, I wanted to share this with him. I want to read you my response that I gave to this guy. I said, “Christianity is a story, and not an argument. Christianity is a story about Jesus. It’s that complex; and yet that simple. Like me, you don’t want to live out the implications of your new-found faith in lucky mud. That’s why you stay married, and that’s why you love your kids. That’s why you still love your wife, though she doesn’t get you at all right now. Maybe by committing more leaps of faith than a fundamentalist Baptist layman, you can contrive the compelling argument to stay committed to the blobs of matter you call your wife and kids.
But at the end of the day, that’s not the real reason you stay. Like I used to be, you are torn, split, conflicted, filled with cognitive dissonance, doubting and despair. Yes, I know. I’ve been there. You’re not a committed atheist at all. What you believe is what you do. Faith is more than mere mental cognition, or agreement to the fact. Faith is what you did last month. That’s why I call you a doubter and not an unbeliever. You still go to church and appreciate sermons on grace, tithing, etc…Every book you’ve read (these are books he read in his research that led him to atheism) is about a person with a story—a story, a world view that affects everything about how they research, what they research, and why they research. No one is honest. No one is a true seeker. No one is objective. This is where post-modern epistemological humility helps. Read Michael Polanyi. That’s why I threw out Jones and other apologists at the time of my extreme doubt, disbelief and despair. I said to myself, ‘They’, referring to Christian apologists, are biased. All their research is biased. Everyone they interview is biased. Give me some objective researchers. But, after rubbing shoulders with, and talking to, and debating some of these scientists who are not believers; I found them to be just as biased, or more biased than the Christian apologist! No one researches in a vacuum. There is no such thing as brute facts. No brute facts. Only God has that ability. If I were not a Christian, I would be a cynic, or a Buddhist. That’s just me. I wouldn’t be a philosophical naturalist. Again, I’m more philosophical because I believe it’s broader and addresses the human problem holistically. Like the old me, you are a rationalist; Dakar, Hume, Russell. Unlike the new me, you are not at a place to accept paradox, or mystery, and your belief system at this point, though you were already doing that, but just don’t see it. Like the old me, you’re almost completely ignoring starting points, the will, emotions, life stations, family dynamics, the history of Christianity, the history of philosophy, the history of how science came to be, and the inability to produce a credible and livable world view. A two year old, or a village idiot with a good sense of humor – Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens – can deconstruct. It takes a whole lot more to build something.”
“You really need to rethink Jesus! Sorry—it’s that simple. Though the liar, lunatic Lord argument has its holes; it’s ultimately about Him. At the end of the day, I like Jesus. I like what He said. I like what He did. I like how He died. I like how He came back to life. I like the movement He started; the movement, not all the people in it. I really do! I like how He doesn’t fit neatly into mine, or any other box. I like Him; but He still shocks me and challenges me beyond words. Because of what I do, I’ve been able to talk with, and get to know some extremely bright, degreed people over the years; to eat with them, debate them, to question them, and to have them question me. I’m not that impressed anymore. It helps, but I’m not that impressed, or intimidated. Again, I may die with Soren Kierkegaard, or Karl Bart, and that’s okay.”
The last key is commitment, and risk. G. K. Chesterton said, “What’s the purpose of an open mouth but to chomp down on something? Some food? What’s the purpose of having an open mind, or being open minded if not to close your mind down on someone, or something, and then live your life on the basis of that commitment and risk?”
If you are a searcher; if you are a seeker; if you are a Christian, Jesus is well worth the risk. He’s alive! He can change your heart. He can answer a lot of your questions. Some of the questions He won’t answer, but He’ll give you the charis.
Dear God, thank You that You are indescribable, and You are so much more than we can imagine. God, You are so big; yet You became so small in Jesus. God, may we never cease to be blown away by that reality.
God, I thank You that You are a God who accepts where we are with all of our questions, and all of our doubts, and all of our pains. God, for some of us here, doubt is not even an issue! We all have our own issues, our own prisons that we find ourselves in. Give freedom here, today, Lord, to people who need to be free. Give answers to those who need answers, and give mystery to those who need mystery.
God, I pray that You would help us all to be seekers of You, and seekers of truth. For those who are here who would say, “I’m open minded. I’m still circling the airport.” I pray God that You would help them land, somewhere, some day. God, some need to do that today. They need to walk down these aisles and say, “I want God to set me free! I’ve tried to get myself out of the prison I’m in, and I can’t do it. I want Him to set me free.” Lord, may they walk and come down front today. In Jesus name…Amen.