I am calling this episode “The slippery slope of doubt” because if any of you have ever made your way down a slippery slope then you know how fast things can go south once you loose your footing. When I was in college at Idaho State University I drove the city bus for the city of Pocatello, Idaho and the bus I typically drove was an older bus that had the retarder on a switch. For those of you who don’t know what a retarder is, it is basically an engine or transmission brake that helps to slow the vehicle down without using the actual brakes and is commonly used on heavy vehicles like buses and big rig trucks.
Anyhow, one snowy winter day I was assigned one of the brand new buses and just about the time I got to the top of a steep hill a car pulled out in front of the bus. I decided not to hit the brakes because I was afraid that the bus would slide, so instead I opted to just remove my foot from the accelerator and let the vehicle slow down on its own. Of course, since it was not the bus I usually drove, I forgot that the retarder on this bus was activated by releasing the accelerator instead of by applying the brake or hitting a switch. This bus was designed in California where there is no snow or ice, and the idea is to save the brakes and somehow save fuel. Since I forgot about the retarder, I completely removed my foot from the accelerator and the retarder came on hard, causing the bus to slide. After spinning in a complete circle, the bus slid sideways down the entire length of the hill. Luckily we didn’t hit anything, though judging by the smell, at lest one passenger had to change his or her shorts.
Why did I tell that story, well, partially because it involved a slippery slope, but also because I always like to tell bus stories since I have so many of them since I drove a bus for over eleven years.
I recently watched a documentary on Jim Jones, the infamous cult leader that forced hundreds of people to kill themselves when he realized he was loosing his power, and it occurred to me the that Jim Jones and those like him must have been inspired by the devil. On the program, one of Jim Jones’ surviving sons said that his father didn’t want to go alone and wanted to take as many people with him as possible, and that got me to thinking. The devil knows he has lost, at this point he has to know the game is up and there is no possible way for him to win, but misery loves company and he wants to take as many with him as possible. You see, the devil knows that if he can cause people to commit atrocities in the name of God that it will not only cause people in that generation to loose faith, but also in many generations to come, and there is ample evidence that the devil uses this strategy often.
Jones started out as a Bible preaching pastor who taught and lived the word of God, but when he got a little taste of power he got addicted and quickly devolved into a madman whose only concern was keeping and growing his power and influence, regardless of the cost. In the beginning Jones likely brought people to Jesus, but later on he not only took people away from Jesus but also took their lives.
Of course, Jim Jones was not the only notorious person who claimed to be Christian and poisoned the water hole, so to speak. There have been a lot of televangelist and other prominent preachers who have caused multitudes to question their faith by lying, caring about money more than people, preaching one thing and living another, cheating people and otherwise being despicable and reprehensible human beings, all the while claiming to be a special messenger of Jesus Christ and that they have a special relationship with him. It is always wise to critically examine anyone who claims to have a special connection to God above the average person.
People look at those horrible people who claim to be Christian and think, “If this is what Christianity is all about, I want nothing to do with it.” Jesus said, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” (Luke 17:1-3 NIV).
” In other words, we will all do things that may cause others to question their faith in God, but we should strive to not cause offense, especially intentional offenses for personal gain, and causing someone to doubt is not looked upon kindly by God. I would imagine that when Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, David Koresh and all of those who led multitudes astray passed from this life they found out just how true Jesus’ statement was once, and those who lead people astray who haven’t passed yet will learn how true it is when they die if they don’t correct their actions while they still have a chance.
Even for those of us who have not had our faith shaken by horrible, famous men who claim to be men of God experience small things that cause a loss of faith on some level. In the most part, doubt is insidious and starts off small and harmless but if allowed to grow it can become devastating and difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.
It is a lot easier to loose faith than it is to maintain faith, though it is much easier to maintain faith than it is to regain it. All who loose faith do so by degrees and I doubt anyone has ever gone to bed as a devout believer and woken up in the morning as an atheist. The process begins slowly, and once we start to compromise on our beliefs and standards it is a lot easier to be rocked by the storms of life. Jesus knew that trials would come and he warned us about it when he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid,” (John 14:27 NIV).
When everything is going according to plan and it is smooth sailing it is easy to believe in God, but when things start to go wrong and the storm is bearing down upon us and driving our vessel far away from our goals and dreams we despair and give in to doubt. Usually doubt doesn’t start off as serious doubt, but it is like a volunteer tree that springs up beside the house and is harmless at first, but if we allow it to grow it will become huge and crack the foundation, sometimes even destroying the house. Doubts are natural, and if I said I never have any doubts I would be dishonest, but we should take care of them and not allow them to destroy our faith in our savior, Jesus Christ.
Allowing ourselves to entertain doubts is a slippery slope. As I said a few minutes ago, no one goes to bed a stalwart Christian and gets up the next day void of faith, it happens by degree. We may start of agreeing with some professor who says some aspect of the Bible, such as the exodus, can't be true because no supporting evidence has been found, and once the door is open it can lead to throwing out the entire Bible. Every year more evidence for The Bible is found, and just because we have not found evidence for some aspect of the Bible does not meant that it doesn't exist.
When we compromise our standard or our faith, for whatever reason, we are starting the slow descent into unbelief. I am not saying that we should not question anything, because as history has adequately demonstrated, people who never question anything are more likely to wind up in box cars on the way to gas chambers or in line for the Koolaid vat with a gun trained on them. What I am saying, however, is that part of faith is trusting God when we don’t have all the answers and when it doesn’t seam to make a lot of sense to do so. Just because we don't have all the answers doesn't mean that God is lacking or that there is cause to doubt his existence. People often overlook proof for God because it doesn't meet their predetermined criteria for evidence.
A lot of doubt starts off with a simple statement we heard in class, such as there is no evidence for a great flood, or something we heard or saw on the television or some some comment from a friend or an article in a magazine. The devil wants nothing more than for every one of us to go to hell with him, and he will do anything to get us there, including causing us to loose our faith in God. We don't have do do any great sin to go to hell, we just have to not believe in Jesus. When we hear something about Christianity we don’t understand, of course we should check it out, but we should not immediately assume the worst and throw out our belief because of a simple doubt.
One of the things that causes doubt is when we cherry pick the Bible and believe what suits us but ignore or downplay the rest. If we believe that parts of the Bible are true and worthy but that other parts are not worthy of consideration as they are just the words of man than we are opening the door to a complete and utter loss of faith. We can’t take the Bible piece meal and think we are faithful; we either believe the Bible and take it at its word or we are not Christian. It may take some people more time and more prayer to get to that point than others, but believing God is exactly who he says he is has to happen in order for us to truly follow him.
Pastors are people whose job it is to help others to have a relationship with God, but they are people non the less, and as people they are not perfect, or even close to it. When we hear a pastor say something we don’t agree with, or do something that is questionable, we should not let his actions, or her actions, as the case may be, cause us to doubt God. Even the greatest heroes in the Bible, the people that God used in the mightiest ways, were imperfect people and did things that we should not emulate.
Even small deviations can cause huge changes if they are not corrected. If you aim a rocket at the moon but, after takeoff, the flight trajectory is changed by a fraction of a degree, the rocket will pass the moon by many miles. I am not one of those math people who will go through the trouble of figuring our how many miles a half of a degree would get us off course in the 238,855 miles between earth and the moon, but suffice it to say that even a small deviation would cause the rocket to miss the moon by a long ways. Also, it is of note that if we miss it by a mile we might as well have missed it by a million miles because the result is exactly the same. Despite some of the popular opinions on the subject today, the Bible tells us that there are only two possible places to go, heaven or hell, so if we miss heaven by an inch we might as well have missed it by a million miles as the result is the same. The thing that is extremely hopeful about this is that all the big thing we have to do to have the correct trajectory is to believe in Jesus and believe that what he taught is true, and of course we have to follow him.
If we fail to read the Bible one day it is easier to not read it the next and the next, and so on. If we skip church one week it is easier to skip the next, and the longer we are away the easier it is to stay away and the more difficult it is to convince ourselves to return. If we skip our prayers one day we are likely to make it a habit and stop praying altogether.
A failure to pray is usually one of the first steps and early indicators of a lack of faith, and it is extremely easy to neglect prayer and to go from praying multiple times per day to not praying at all. Once we skip prayer one day we are on the downward slide toward no prayer at all. Sometimes we don’t pray because we don’t think we have the time, and other times we don’t pray because we don’t think we will get a favorable answer, or any answer at all. Sometimes we fail to pray because we feel that we are not deserving of God’s grace
By the way, we are not deserving of God's grace, and that is why it is grace. If it was a just reward than we would be earning our way to heaven and would not need God, but we will never be good enough and we are saved by God's grace and love, even though we can never deserve it or earn it.
When we compromise our standards it causes a loss of faith and even small compromises to our standards or faith can have monumental effects, just like the analogy of the rocket and the moon I used earlier. There is a poplar story of a man who pitched his tent and in the desert and when a sand storm came up his camel begged to be allowed to stick his nose into the tent so that he didn’t have to breathe the dust, and then he begged to be allowed to put his head farther in so he didn’t get sand in his eyes, and then begged to come in farther so he could keep the sand out of his ears, and in small degrees the camel worked his way into the tent, and eventually, the camel was inside the tent and the man was outside in the sand and the wind.
There is a song by the singer Meatloaf where he says he would do anything for love, than he mentions a few things he won’t do and says, “I’ll do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” A lot of us make the claim that we would do anything for God, but we won’t believe in God when things don’t go according to plan or when we hear some claim against some aspect of the Bible that has little or nothing to do with the validity of the message the Bible shares.
We often let small things erode our faith until there is nothing left. A single grain of sand that gets into the cylinder can entirely ruin the engine. Sometimes it doesn't matter how many faith affirming events have happened in our lives, when one thing goes wrong, especially if it is a big thing, we let it bother us and our faith suffers, and when our faith suffers so does our relationship with God.
Even though the apostles were with Jesus every day and saw him do many miracles they were still taken with doubt once in a while, and even though Thomas is the one we typically think of when it comes to doubt, all of the apostles doubted from time to time. When the apostles saw Jesus walking on the water they were scared and thought he was a ghost or something, but when he called out to them to let them know he was Jesus they were somewhat calmed and Peter asked to be called out to him. At first Peter was doing well and his faith in Jesus allowed him to walk on the water, but as soon as he allowed the storm to distract him from the savior he started to doubt and he began to sink, and if you recall from later in the Bible when he jumped off the ship and swam to shore to get to Jesus, Peter knew how to swim.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. (Matthew 14:22-36).
In order to whether the storms of life we must keep our eyes on what is important, and nothing is more important than Jesus. I like to tell the story of a corn farmer in Nebraska whose farm was the pride of the county because his rows were always to perfect and so straight. One day the farmer decided it was time to teach his son how to farm, and after teaching him how to use the tractor, he said, "Now it is time you learn how to make those perfect, straight rows. You pick an object on the other side of the field and you head straight for it, you don't go right or left, you just go straight. Do you got that son?"
"Yea, I got it," the son said, and with that the farmer went in to town to run some errands.
When the farmer returned late that evening and saw how crooked the rows were he almost cried. No only were the rows not straight, but they were not the same width and some rows crossed over other rows, and there were large areas in the center that had not even been plowed.
The farmer went out into the field and caught up with the young man and said, "Shut the tractor of and come down here, son."
The son shut off the tractor, climbed down and followed his father to the edge of the field. The farmer pointed out the the field and asked, "What happened? I told you to pick a point on the other side of the field and to aim right for it and not go to the right or the left."
"I did that," the young man said.
"Do these rows look straight to you?" the farmer asked.
"No they don't, but I followed your directions exactly."
"Than what happened?" the farmer asked, a bit flustered.
"Well," the young man said, "the darn cow kept moving."
We need to keep our eyes fixed upon something that will never move and will never change, and that thing isn’t a thing at all, it is Jesus. It doesn't matter what society does or what society says is acceptable and what is not, the standard set by God doesn't change, and neither does the love and forgiveness that is offered. Jesus doesn't change, so if we are changing to conform to the world it takes us away from Jesus and we will follow a Jesus other than the Jesus of the Bible, and that will cause us to loose faith, and our salvation, I dare say.
Despite all of the miracles Peter had witnessed, he still allowed the cares of the world and the storms to cause him to doubt when he tried walking on the water, and that was far from being the only time the apostles doubted. When the apostles were rowing furiously against the storm and Jesus was sleeping they also doubted, and they were a little upset that Jesus was sleeping while they all thought they were going to die. Basically they were like, "Come on man, we are about to die an you are just laying there sleeping! Don't you even care that we are all going to die?" They seamed to have forgotten all of the miracles Jesus did and let their fear get the better of them and overcome their faith.
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:35-41).
Ships don’t sink because of the water around them, they sink because of the water that gets inside. The smallest boat can survive the worst storm and the biggest waves so long as none of the water gets inside. If a boat starts to take on water the first thing to do is to find out where it is leaking and to try and repair it, and equally important is to get the water out of the vessel using a bilge pump, or a bucket if that is all you have; the important thing is to get rid of the water. If all of the water is not removed from a boat it causes problems including electrical, mold, and rotting wood, all of which are disastrous.
When doubt starts to take hold we need to get rid of those doubts because if not they will completely kill our faith in God and our relationship with him. It is OK to not know everything and I suspect we will not know how everything works in this life, and a knowledge of all things is not required to be saved, just a faith in God and the salvation offered through Jesus.
A lot of people have shallow faith and they abandon ship as soon as they encounter something they don’t understand. In their mind set, if God cannot be rationalized and categorized than they can’t believe in God. A lot of people who claim to believe in God have precisely as much faith as an atheist does, and by that I mean that what they say they believe in no way impacts the way in which they life their lives.
I think one of the big reasons people sin, and sin so frequently, is that their faith is weak. If we convince ourselves that it is OK to do something we know is not OK we shift the goal post the wrong direction and then it is easier to justify other sins. The more we sin the weaker our faith gets and the weaker our faith gets the more we sin; it is a cycle and the two, sin and lack of faith, feed each other and can lead to our destruction. When we sin our sin makes us reluctant to pray because we don’t want want to be confronted with our sin; we are not ready to abandon the sin and we don’t want to be convicted about it. Again, many people don’t pray when they sin because they don’t think they deserve to talk to God and they don’t think God wants to hear from them. God always wants to hear from you and is always glad when you speak to him and ask for his help.
When we lose our faith we also damage our faith, so regaining our faith isn't as easy as just finding our lost keys or sunglasses. Once we allow ourselves to believe that perhaps Jesus isn’t all that he claimed to be or that the Bible is faulty, it takes a lot to convince ourselves otherwise. Doubt causes a wound and it a wound that is difficult to heal without help from Jesus, and honestly, I am often like the father who came to Jesus and asked for his son to be healed but when Jesus said anything is possible if he believed he said, “I believe,” and then “Lord, help my unbelief,” (Mark 9:14-29 NIV). I often know that my faith is not where it should be, but I still have enough faith to ask Jesus for help with my faith.