“Faith and Doubt”    Genesis 15:1-21        May 17, 2009

 

SI:  We’re studying the life of Abraham. 

He is called, “The father of all those who believe.”

   His life demonstrates the nature of the Christian life and faith.

 

If you are a Christian, does that mean that you never have any doubts?

Did Abraham have any doubts about God? 

   Let’s read this story and see.

 

INTRO:  One of the most famous scenes in Pilgrim’s Progress is when

   the two main characters—Christian and Hopeful get off the path—

   and night comes, and they get lost, and are captured by a terrible giant—

   Giant Despair.

And he takes them to his castle.  Do you remember the name of his castle?

   Doubting Castle.

 

He throws them in the dungeon without food and water.

   Every day he comes and beats them with a club made out of a crabapple tree.

He says, look at the bones in this dungeon.

   These are the bones of other pilgrims who trespassed on my land.

   Your bones will be here too.

And Christian and Hopeful look at those bones and at the dungeon bars,

   and they start to doubt that they will ever make it to the Celestial City.

 

Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of the Christian life.

And what John Bunyan was trying to communicate is that Christians sometimes

   struggle with doubt.  In fact, at times doubt can be so strong

   that it feels like you are in a dungeon. 

 

Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography called, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.

   If you read it you will see that he wrote this part about Doubting Castle

   from experience.

Bunyan was a great man of God, he was one of the most influential Christians

   England has ever produced, and at the same time he struggled with doubt.

He doubted the existence of God, he doubted the promises of God,

   he doubted that he himself would make it in the Christian life.

He was full of faith one day and then struggling with doubt the next.

   But the Lord answered his doubts and he continued to believe.

How do you overcome the obstacle of doubt in the Christian life?

   How can you trust God and move ahead?

This story in the life of Abraham shows you the way.

   It’s a mysterious story with a strange ritual and visions—

   but once you see what God was telling Abraham, and how he was answering

   his doubts you will be amazed.

And you can take this and apply it directly to your own life—

   and move ahead by faith.

 

This story divides nicely into two parts, look at it under two headings.

1.  Verses 1-8  A case study of doubt

   We’re going to look at Abraham’s doubt as an example of Christian doubt.

   See what lessons we can learn from it for ourselves.

  

2.  Verses 9-21  God’s answer to doubt

   We’re going to see how God decisively answered Abraham’s doubt—

   and how you can apply this to yourself.

 

There is a sermon that Tim Keller preached on this chapter that I have drawn

   heavily from.  I’m so thankful for his insights and I’m glad to pass on to you.

 


 

MP#1  A case study of Christian doubt

In verses 1-8, Abraham’s experience shows us three things about doubt.

1.  Doubt can exist alongside great faith.

“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:  Do not be afraid, Abram”

   “After this” means after the events of chapter 14.

   After that successful battle in which he rescued Lot, Abraham was afraid.

He started worrying about his position in the Promised Land.

   Would he really inherit the Promise Land or would he be pushed out?

   So the Lord spoke to him and said:  Don’t be afraid.  I’m your shield and reward.

 

The exact wording is significant:  It says “The word of the Lord came to Abram.”

That phrase is used in the Bible to refer to one thing—

   direct, supernatural revelation from God.

None of us have experienced this.  When we say:  “The Lord told me . . .”

   we mean, I had an impression from the Holy Spirit.

 

It was not just an impression or a feeling.

   It was a distinct, audible, vivid, special revelation accompanied by a vision.

   God spoke.  His word came to Abraham.  “I am your shield.  I am your reward.”

How did Abraham respond? 

   How did he respond after this vivid, direct communication from God? 

Did he say:  I feel so much better now.

   I was starting to worry but now I’m not worried anymore. 

 

No.  This word from the Lord opened up something deep in Abraham.

   He said, God, since you’ve brought up the subject of reward—

   that child you promised, where is he?

Abraham’s response to this incredible revelation was doubt.

 

So the word of the Lord came to him again. 

   Took him outside and showed him the stars.

That’s how great your offspring will be.

   vs. 6 says Abraham believed and Lord credited it to him as righteousness.

But then just after that in verse 8 Abraham says again:  “But how can I know.”

   And we see that he’s still full of doubts.

 

Here is a man who is deep in the life of faith.

   He’s already stepped out in faith in some tremendous ways.

   He left his city and his family and whole way of life to trust God.

Here’s the man who is called the father of the faithful,

   he had a unique and vivid revelation—but he still doubted.

You shouldn’t be surprised if you struggle with doubt.

   It’s going to be present at some level or at some time in every Christian life.

   And it brings us to the second truth about Christian doubt:

 

2.  Doubt focuses on two objects—God and me.

First time Abraham expressed his doubt he said:

   “You have given me no children.”

The second time he expressed his doubt he said:

   “How can I know that I will gain possession of it.”

 

Did you notice the difference? 

The first time he expressed doubt in God,

   second time doubt in himself as a follower of God.

And those are the two focuses of Christian doubt.

 

Sometimes you doubt God.  Can I really trust him?

   If I obey him in this difficult area, will it really be a blessing.

But the other focus of doubt is yourself as a believer.

   Am I really going to gain possession of eternal life?

   Am I going to persevere as Christian, keep the faith?

That’s what Abraham was wondering.  Thinking about the threats,

   and wondering if he would be brave enough to stay in the land as a follower.

 

This rings true with my experience as a pastor.

   I’ve talked to Christians with doubts in both of these areas.

Some say:  I can’t understand what God is doing.  Does he really love me? 

   Why isn’t he answering my prayers.  Is he really working all things for my good?

 

Then some doubt themselves as followers of God.

   Am I really a Christian?  Am I going to make it? 

   I know God is faithful but what about my horrific failures?

Or it may be more intellectual: 

   I have doubts about the Bible or about the truth of Christianity, am I a Christian?

 

What about you?  Where is your doubt focused?

   Is it more on God himself?  Do you struggle to trust him?

   Or is your doubt focused on yourself as his follower?  Will you keep the faith?

That brings third truth about Christian doubt:

3.  It is never condemned but it is always challenged.

Look how balanced God’s response to Abraham was.

After Abraham said:  How can I really know?

   God didn’t say:  How dare you doubt me!  He didn’t condemn Abraham.

But on the other hand he didn’t say:  Your doubts are ok, just live with them.

   He challenged Abraham’s doubt. 

 

It’s a lot like Jesus and Thomas.

Thomas said:  I won’t believe unless I see his hands and side.

   If that was sinful, why did Jesus give it to him?

But at the same time, Jesus didn’t accept his doubt, he challenged it.

   He said stop doubting and believe!

Doubt is never encouraged, but doubters are completely welcomed

   and their doubts are addressed.

 

Tim Keller makes an interesting observation about doubt and churches.

In some conservative churches, doubt is treated as a sin.

   No one is allowed to express doubts or emotional struggles with God

   or intellectual struggles with the Christian faith.  Considered unspiritual.

 

Several years ago I read a testimony by a man who grew up in a Bible-believing

   church.  He went away to college and is beliefs attacked by his professors.

He started to have doubts so when he was home went to see his pastor.

   Pastor’s response was:  You’re sinning.  Get down on your knees and repent.

   An extreme example.  But Tim Keller’s point is well-made.

Honest intellectual or emotional doubts should not be condemned.

 

On the other hand, Tim Keller says, the typical liberal church glorifies doubt.

   It’s considered intellectually superior to be questioning and skeptical.

   It’s better to be gray than black and white.

Problem with that is that doubters are never challenged. 

   “Stop doubting and believe!”  That’s what Jesus said.

So as a church, shouldn’t be afraid to challenge doubts.

 

So if you are troubled with your doubt then you need to know that the Lord

   doesn’t condemn you for it—and your church shouldn’t either.

But if you are comfortable with your doubt, and unresolved,

   you need to know that the Lord doesn’t want you there.

He goes after your doubts.  He challenges them.  Wants you to have certainty.

   That’s where we go next, second half of this story which shows us . . .

MP#2  God’s answer to your doubt

In verses 9-21 God does something so incredible, that when he’s finished,

   Abraham has no more doubts.  And through this your doubts can be answered too.

 

God said to Abraham:  Bring me a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon.

   Abraham brought the animals and cut them in half.

Notice that God didn’t tell Abraham what to do—he just did it.

   There is something going on, something automatically understood, we don’t get.

But Abraham did.  As soon as God said to get these animals,

   Abraham knew what God wanted.

   He knew that God was about to make a covenant—solemn, binding contract.

 

In some ways Abraham’s culture was different from ours, some ways the same.

   We live in a writing culture, not a storytelling culture—but we have contracts too. 

Suppose you hired someone to put a new roof on your house.

   But when gives you the bill and it’s twice as much as he said it would be.

 

And you’re complaining about it to a friend about how unfair it is,

   your friend would say:  Didn’t you have anything written down?

Because if you have something written and signed you can go to the judge,

   and there will be consequences for this roofer breaking his promise.

That’s how it is, in our culture.  Contracts are made by writing and signing.

 

So you would say to the roofer:  How can I know for certain that you will give

   me the roof at this price you’ve told me.  How can I deal with my doubts.

And he would say:  I will sign.

   And with that your doubts are gone because you know he’s willing to pay

   the penalty if he does not fulfill his promise.  And, of course, you are also bound

   by that contract.  You’ve made a promise you must keep.

 

Abraham’s culture was a storytelling culture.

So rather than writing and signing contracts, they were acted out.

   They dramatized the consequences of breaking the contract.

Just like us, they had to have a way to make person accountable to keep promise.

   So animals were cut in half, and the two parties walked between the pieces,

   and they were saying with that action—if I don’t fulfill my side of the promise,

   may I be cut to pieces like these animals.

This concept of cutting was so much a part of making a covenant in the ancient

   world that the verb “cut” is always used instead of the word “make.”

   Vs. 18 “God made a covenant with Abraham,” is literally “cut a covenant.”  

The next time you need to get a new roof .  Why don’t you try this.

   Kill some animals in your yard and insist you and roofer walk between them.

   Sure to get good work at the promised price.

 

So Abraham cut the animals, separated pieces—and two amazing things happened. 

First amazing thing was who passed through the pieces.

 

The sun set and darkness fell, but it was more than darkness.

   There was a horror and dread about the darkness that Abraham felt.

And then he saw a smoking firepot and blazing torch pass between the pieces.

   Billowing smoke and blazing fire are images of God’s glory in OT.

   There was smoke and fire on Mt. Sinai.

 

So this image of God in his majesty passed between the pieces.

   God was saying to Abraham:  If I don’t bless you, then may I be cut off.

   May, I, God, the Lord, in my majesty and glory suffer death.

 

Maybe you’ve wondered:  Is it really true? 

   Is God working all things for the good of those who love him?

   Is he really there?  Can I trust him? 

We got an email this week from some Christian friends who have suffered

   blow after blow for the past five years—painful and bizarre health problems

   that have affected almost every member of their family.

Allison said:  Have you read the latest email from Charlie and Leslie?

   We just shook our heads and wondered:  What is God doing?

   Our friends have asked the same question.

 

But this is the covenant.  The Lord passed through the pieces.  And that’s for you.

   He’s saying:  Don’t lose faith.  I am with you.  I do know what I’m doing.

I swear on myself.  If I don’t keep all my promises, I’ll pay the price.

 

It was an incredible vision.  And it certainly erased many of Abraham’s doubts.

   But not all of them.  Because what’s the other focus of doubt?  Me.

   What about me.  Will I possess the land?

It’s one thing to have your doubts answered concerning God.

   After all, he’s God, and he’s bound to keep his promises.

But what about when I fail?  What about when I don’t live as a Christian?

   If I don’t live the holy and faithful life God’s covenant requires of his people,

   will God still bless me or will I be cut off?  Will I miss his blessing?

 

And here we get to the second amazing thing. 

   First one was who passed through the pieces—God did.

But the second amazing thing is who didn’t pass through—Abraham didn’t!

   God did not make Abraham pass through the pieces.

 

When covenants were cut in ancient world, both parties passed through.

   Or sometimes, only the weaker party passed through.

But in this covenant, God passed through alone.

   He did not make Abraham pass through.

In doing that the Lord was saying to Abraham:  I will bless you no matter what.

   If I fail, I will pay the penalty.  If you fail, I will pay the penalty.

 

That’s exactly what happened 2,000 years later. 

A dreadful darkness that fell at noon.

   Gospels tell us that darkness covered the cross and Golgotha.

And what happened to Jesus in those hours of darkness?

   Isaiah 53 says he was cut off from the land of the living.

   He paid for all your failures to keep the covenant.

 

And that’s the end of doubt that comes from your failure.

   How can you know that you will possess the land?

   When you look at your sins, failures, and weaknesses—how can you really know?

If you have entered into a relationship with Jesus—

   not only can you be sure he will not fail,

   but even your failure won’t get in the way of him blessing you.

Not saying won’t be temporal consequences to sin, there are—and painful.

   But even in the midst of them, Jesus is blessing you.

 

Do you see how this is the answer to everything?

   If you really believe this, then nothing can shake you.

Why are you worried this morning?  Why are you anxious?

   It’s because you’re afraid God’s not going to come through for you.

But he has given you a signed contract—here it is, Genesis 15.

   And he has proven that he will keep this contact even to his own hurt.

   You can trust him and let go of your worry.

Why are you bitter?  Why can’t you get past the wrong that person did to you?

   Why can’t you forgive? 

It’s because you don’t believe God loves you and cherishes you.

   But he does—enough to pass through the pieces alone so that you

   will never be cut off from fellowship with him.

If he loves you that much, you can handle and forgive the wrongs done to you.

 

There is not a struggle that you face as a believer—

   doubt, worry, bitterness, discontent, temptation

   that God does not answer through this bloody covenant.

You have to hold on to this.  You have to get it in deep.

   And when you do, you will be able to move ahead no matter what.

Your doubts may come, but they will not paralyze you.

 

When Christian and Hopeful where in the dungeon of Doubting Castle,

   the darkest time was Saturday night.

They prayed through the night, and as light began to break on Sunday morning

   Christian said:

    What a fool I’ve been, I completely forgot that I’ve got a key in my pocket

   called Promise, that will open any door in Doubting Castle.

Hopeful said, well get it out.  And they did, and the door to the dungeon opened.

 

Bunyan’s great parable is absolutely true.

   The Lord has given you the key to answer doubt.

   It’s his covenant promise.

And he’s given us a ritual to drive that promise deep into our hearts.

   I’m talking about the Lord’s Supper.

 

Do you know what we’re about to do? 

   We’re going to act out what Jesus did to secure the covenant for you.

His body was broken, his blood was shed—like those animals.

   He was cut off so that you never will be.

When you start to get hold of that so that it moves you—

   then not only intellectually, but experientially you have an answer to your doubts.

 

Come to the Table.  Commune with Jesus.  Leave Doubting Castle.

   And continue on the pilgrim journey he’s called you to live.