Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (June 24, 2012)
Many times in our lives we face the unknown, the uncertainty of the future or of an outcome we cannot see: a diagnosis of disease, perhaps, or an impending operation; the loss of a job or the tragic loss of a loved one. During moments like these we are told to hold onto our faith in God: that God is with us, and that God will be our solid rock to stand on. These are good sentiments, of course, and are usually said to us by friends and loved ones with the best of intentions. And yet it is during these times that we, like Job, have difficulty finding comfort in our faith. Instead what we experience is doubt and uncertainty. Perhaps we even become angry with God, questioning, “Why?”
It is times like these, when I find myself struggling with the human condition, particularly in a pastoral situation where I am expected to have just the right words to say at just the right moment, that I take great comfort in something that Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh (Episcopal Church of Scotland), once said: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”
I realize that this might seem counterintuitive on first hearing. It’s not typically what one hears from a pulpit, especially here in prosperous America, where many evangelical peddlers of popular religion will tell you the very opposite, i.e., that faith is certainty, and that doubt is the enemy – the very antithesis of faith. There are many churches on the American landscape that would be happy to tell you exactly what you should believe about any point of Christian doctrine or on any pressing social issue. They might even tell you how to vote, and do so with the utmost certainty that God is on the side of a particular candidate for public office or on the side of a particular political party. As much as we might think that we don’t like it when someone else tells us what to believe or how to vote, the paradox is that these are the very churches in America that are experiencing booming success.
And still Bishop Holloway’s statement bears repeating: The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.
Isn’t this what we learn from today’s lessons from Scripture? That faith is not a system of ready-made answers or a list of comforting sentiments that we pull out when we need them? That faith, while not to be confused with doubt and uncertainty, nonetheless must still exist in tension with doubt and uncertainty else it would not be faith?
Consider our passage from Job. You remember Job. He served God his entire life. He was faithful, stalwart, never failing in any of his duties or obligations to God as a master, husband, or father. He was greatly blessed by God, with lands, flocks, herds and sons. His righteousness is so noteworthy that even the angels in heaven take notice, including the adversary, Satan. As the story unfolds in the Book of Job, God asks Satan his opinion on Job. Satan answers that Job is pious only because God has put a “wall around him” to protect his favorite servant. However, if God were to allow Job to be afflicted, then he would surely curse God. God then gives Satan permission to test Job’s righteousness by afflicting him with curses. The story of Job is especially intriguing in that, while the reader knows the reason for his afflictions, Job himself is never made privy to “what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Tragedy falls upon Job. All of Job’s possessions are taken away or destroyed: 500 yoke of oxen and 500 donkeys are carried off by Sabeans; 7,000 sheep are burned up by “the fire of God which fell from the sky”; 3,000 camels are stolen by the Chaldeans; his house is destroyed by a mighty wind, killing off Job’s offspring. At this point Job shaves his head, tears his clothes, and says, “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return: the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” After all this, Job still does not curse God. Yet even then, his tribulations are not over. Job is then afflicted with dreadful boils. He is reduced to scraping his skin with broken pottery. His own wife prompts him to “curse God, and die.” But Job answers, “Shall we receive good from God and shall not receive evil?”
These are statements of a man of faith, and YET, if we had only the above statements to go on we might be tempted to equate faith with certainty. But as we see later on, Job was anything but certain. He struggled with his faith, he struggled through his faith. The messiness of doubt and uncertainty were very much a part of his faith.
Three of his friends come to console him. After seven days of sitting with him in silence, Job finally breaks his silence by cursing the day he was born. Each of his friends then take it in turns to convince Job that he must have sinned grievously before God, else he would not have been cursed. They exhort him to repent and be restored. But Job knows that he was blameless; he becomes angry with his friends, he becomes angry with God. He demands that God give him an answer.
When God finally does reveal himself to Job, he does not provide the answer that Job demands. Instead, God poses a series of rhetorical questions to Job, (questions that we all must face):
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
Essentially God asks, “Who do you think you are?” Even after God reveals his glory to him, Job is not given answers, but rather he is left with mystery. He is left to ponder the majesty of God. His questions remain unanswered and will remain unanswered. But in the “mystery” he discovers something about himself in relation to God, something that only faith can reveal: Job experiences his utter dependence upon his Creator.
Again, it bears repeating: The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.
Sometimes there are no answers, at least ones that we are privy to. And sometimes the questions, or our struggles with the questions, are more important than any answer that we can come up with, because, in the human realm, all answers are merely preliminary; all “truths” merely provisional.
The story in our Gospel passage also confronts us with a question, one that the disciples are left with to ponder: Who is this Jesus?
The scene is a familiar one. Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat while his disciples, fearing for their lives, struggle to maintain control of their tiny vessel during a ferocious storm. As the boat is being tossed by the waves and begins to take on water, they finally wake Jesus and say to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus then rebukes the winds and the waves: “Peace! Be still!” And a dead calm comes over the sea. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” It is at this point that we see the question of faith. The disciples are filled with awe – confronted with mystery – “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
The Church answers this question quite eloquently in the Creeds. For example, the Nicene Creed confesses “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.” But what does any of this really mean? These statements, as precise, as eloquent, as grounded as they are in the New Testament witness and in the faith experience of generations of generations Christians, are merely approximations of what we must ultimately assign to mystery. If the Christian faith could be reduced to the mere assent to a set of propositions, however eloquent, then what have we to do with faith? What happens when those eloquent propositions fail to answer the questions that often confront us? Why did my child die? Why do I have cancer? Why did I lose my job? What is the purpose of living?
Our “beliefs” (as opposed to our faith) are only propositions. They are not the objects of faith. We are not saved by doctrine or creeds or even the liturgy. Rather they are, at best, but witnesses to the object of our faith, pointing us to him – to Jesus Christ. “Who is this Jesus?” That is the ultimate question, which only faith can discover as it struggles to experience him, as the disciples did on that fateful day on the boat.
So we are left with these two questions: “Who am I? Who is Jesus?” These are the questions of faith. They challenge us to think big, to think beyond ourselves. They also challenge us to examine our innermost selves, to involve God. “Who am I?” and “Who is Jesus?” Such questions are life- and faith-changing. Look at Job. Look at the disciples. They were each and all forever changed, forever clarified, by these questions.