Every week in common time, we end communion by singing “Halleluya! We sing your praises”, in which we claim that we are “strong in faith, free of doubt“. “And yet,” someone said to me recently, “I’m not free of doubt!” This came hard on the heels of a conversation I had with someone else, a deeply committed and faithful Christian who attends church most weeks, and who nevertheless has always struggled with any sense of a personal faith.
Faith and doubt: for most of us, they’re inseparable. And for most disciples for most of the history of the world, they’ve always been inseparable. Near the end of the gospel according to Matthew, the disciples encountered the Risen Christ. They worshipped him; and they doubted (Matthew 28:17). Most translations say “some doubted”, but this is squeamishness on the part of the translators, for the Greek is clear: They doubted. All of them, right there worshipping the Risen Christ, doubted. Here at Sanctuary, from Easter to Pentecost, we name this and promise to follow Jesus “even where faith and doubt blur into one.” So why, then, are we now singing a song claiming we are doubt-free?
One: Because faith is corporate. When we gather, we are held by the faith of the church, which has Christ as its head. Some of us gathered have a beautiful, pure, and confident faith; most of us don’t. It doesn’t matter. For whenever two or more gather in the name of Christ, we are held by the faith of the group which is headed by Christ, and Christ has more than enough faith for us all. So we can sing with confidence that we, together, are strong in faith and free of doubt, even when we do not feel that way personally.
Two: Because faith is not a feeling. Jesus is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), not us! In other words, faith is not a feeling which we can generate; and the sense of a lack of faith is nothing to be ashamed of. If it were, the Psalmists would never have complained that God hides from us (Psalm 88 is striking, but see also 10, 44, 102, and many others). Instead, faith is, quite simply, the reality in which we live. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we are reminded that we are made righteous not by our own efforts, but by “the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah” (not our faithfulness); and we live within the faithfulness of the Son of God (2:15-20). So our faith is simply a response to Jesus’ faithfulness: a commitment to trust in Jesus, and to live out this commitment no matter how we feel.
Three: Because it is a prayer, not a pronouncement. As I was pondering these things, I happened across a Hasidic tale about Rabbi Noah of Lechovitz. A student complained to him, saying, “I stand all day before my Creator and recite the sentence, “I believe with perfect faith …” and yet I am never absolutely certain that my faith is sincere. If I ever discover, God forbid, that my faith is faulty, then I am lying before the Creator.” To which the Rabbi replied, “‘I believe’ is not a pronouncement, but a prayer. A Jew prays to the Blessed Holy One, and says, ‘Master of the Universe, I believe — I want to believe. Please help me to truly believe.'” This echoes the father of a boy with epilepsy, who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Everything we do in the liturgy is a prayer. We pray “Lord, have mercy” and half the time can’t imagine we need mercy at all. We sing the Apostles Creed, and roll our eyes at various points. We commit ourselves to another week of discipleship by stating our readiness to yield every aspect of life to God’s “pleasure and disposal.” As if! But these, too, are not pronouncements, but prayers, designed to shape us into receptive and liberated followers of Jesus who are willing to risk everything for the joy of participating in God’s culture. In the same way, singing that we are “strong in faith, free of doubt” is also a prayer: that we might one day be strong in faith and free of doubt personally … but in the meantime, we will continue in faith “to proclaim the joyful Gospel!”
PS: Last year, Joel preached on “And they doubted,” finding them to be words of both permission and assurance. You can read his reflection here. You can listen to “Halleluya! We sing your praises!” here.
A reflection emailed to Sanctuary on 29 August 2018 © Alison Sampson, 2018. Hasidic Tale from Tales of the Righteous. Retold by Simcha Raz. (Gefen Publishing House, 2011). Image credit: Ryan McGuire, gratisography.com. Used with permission.