You may have heard many a sermon preached in Lent about the importance of overcoming temptation. Various temptations will have been mentioned – lust, greed, anger, hatred, envy, pride, etc.
But in the reading from Genesis we heard of the very first temptation ever to the first human beings: the temptation to doubt God. That temptation, which can be mild or agonising and takes many different forms, has afflicted humanity ever since. Temptation is not sin – only if we give in to it. But we can take comfort from the fact that this particular temptation comes to most people at one time or another and even afflicted Jesus.
The most fundamental form of doubt is to doubt the very existence of God
It is a great pity that in all the focus on Darwin at the moment because of the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th of the publication of The Origin of Species, in many of the programmes on the media, commentators are featured who are atheists or agnostics, such as David Attenborough, or a scientist featured last week on a series on Channel 4 about the History of Christianity. Very often such people know a lot about Darwin and a lot about their own subject but very little about theology – yet they consider themselves experts on making pronouncements against belief in God or Christianity. Equally frustrating is that we know, and they know, that there are thousands of scientists and a large numbers of top scientists who have no problem believing in God. One such is Dr Francis Collins, Head of the Human Genome project, doing research at the cutting edge into DNA – he knows most of what there is to know about evolution and how it is possible, and his faith in God is firm. Sadly he was not featured. But let’s not be taken in by the media and its one-sided presentations, but try to look at all sides of a debate.
People usually doubt God for two reasons – because they find it difficult to believe in a Creator or because of the problem of suffering. Tony and I watched a DVD about the life of CS Lewis – an atheist who became a believer because he could not escape God – who then allowed him to be tried and tested through personal suffering. In the end he came through the dark valley of grief with an even stronger faith than before. It is right to face up to doubts and to do all we can to consider them deeply, rather than gloss over them. But once we have become convinced of the existence of God let us hold onto that and tell the tempter, if he comes with further doubts, to get behind us.
In the wisdom of God, he chose the order of faith first before personal knowledge of himself. We can only truly get to know God when we have believed – and the greater the faith, the greater the knowledge.
Another form of doubt is about Jesus – who he was and what he did.
I don’t know if you have noticed in the temptations of Jesus, each time the devil whispered – ‘If you are the Son of God…’ Another fascinating thing is that when Jesus was about to ascend into heaven, the disciples gathered round and worshipped him – but a few in the crowd doubted. Not that it was Jesus or that he was risen but whether to worship him. They were Jews, after all, who believe ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one’. Many today believe Jesus existed – there is little doubt about that – but who was he really and should he be worshipped as God? It is a proper question to ask, but those early doubters did not have the advantages we have – of the explanations in Paul’s writings and in John, which have helped us to understand that God is complex and Jesus is his very image, the Word or Revelation issuing from God the Father. Once we have become convinced of that, even though we do not fully understand, we can resist those doubts of the enemy. Above all we can say we know God as Father, we know that God the Son has died to save us, we have the Holy Spirit to help and strengthen us. If that is the case in our experience, we have the beginnings of understanding of the Trinity and Jesus’ place within it.
The third form of Doubt is ‘Did God say…’ – the very doubt in the Genesis story.
The Tempter whispered: Surely they misheard God or misunderstood – or he was misleading them. Perhaps he was just a spoilsport who wanted to curtail freedom and enjoyment. If only Adam and Eve were to eat the forbidden fruit they could be like gods – they would be supernatural beings. A lot of people in the New Age Movement believe that, or people addicted to drugs. And don’t the bus adverts say – God probably does not exist so go out and enjoy yourself! What a con! It is not God who is conning us but the devil – he knows that we only find true fulfilment in God, and in following his will and walking in his way, otherwise we live for ourselves, instead of for him and others. Once we have discovered that ‘In his service is perfect freedom’ to quote the collect, then we must put all doubts behind us about that and go all out for our Lord. If we believe in the goodness of God and that his way is perfect, we shall find peace as we follow it.
The last form of doubt I will mention tonight is simply lack of trust
There are the fundamental doubts that we have touched on, which we need to think through before we become believers, or at least at some stage in our lives. They might be fleeting doubts or really agonising and we need to cry out to God to help us work through them. But there are also those day to day doubts in the Christian life. The Christian life is all about faith and trust, but doubt is the exact opposite – so of course the tempter will come many a time to cause our trust in God to wobble. If he can’t prevent us becoming Christians then he will do his best to undermine our trust so that we are weak and not much use in God’s service.
When we are with our grandchildren it is lovely when they reach out their hands on a walk, putting their small hands in ours. But sometimes they want to run on ahead or lag behind, when we can see all kinds of snares, so we reach out our hand to them – and occasionally they pull away because they have ‘better’ ideas. On a busy road that could be disastrous.
So in our Christian life, many a time we want to do our own thing, or we come across a problem and we begin to doubt God’s way. This might be a small thing or it could be a time when we cry out to God – What are you doing? – Are you asleep, or have you led us down the wrong path – Where are you in all this mess?
At such times, it may for a while seem like the heavens are as brass, but then God reaches out his hand and pulls us to his side once more – looking for that response of love and trust in his love for us, which is what the Christian life is all about.
It is vital to distinguish between the need to resist the temptation to doubt – that doubt which is negative and undermines faith – and the importance of pursuing the right kind of questioning. The Bible describes it as seeking and promises that those who seek will find. We need to resist the temptation to doubt, as Jesus did but Adam and Eve failed to do, but to pursue our honest questions about God and his ways, until we find the answer.
© Patricia Higton: see conditions for reproduction