This is from a series of posts which was copied with permission from Jordan Apodaca’s blog, “Thoughts & Anti-Thoughts,” which can be accessed here: https://jordanapodaca.wordpress.com/
This particular post, which allows comments, can be accessed here: https://jordanapodaca.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/acceptingrejecting-calvinism-pt-4b-the-benefit-of-the-doubt/
We doubt. Doubt is glorious. Only one who can doubt can believe, just as only one who can despair can hope, and only one who can hate can love.
— Peter Kreeft
(The following is a sermon I preached the first summer after my Freshman year at college:)
The Benefit of Doubt
Psalm 73 and Asaph’s Doubt
There once was a man who doubted his belief in God. It was extremely hard for him: he felt like his life was being turned upside down. He felt like, day to day, he lived with one foot planted in the world of belief, and one in the world of unbelief. One eye saw God’s grace and providence in the world, and one eye saw nothing but chaos and a gaping meaninglessness. Needless to say, this made life very difficult. But to make it even harder, this man was in the ministry: he was a worship leader. He felt like a hypocrite: everyone respected him as a man of God and as a gifted leader and musician, but on the inside he was beginning to doubt whether the God of the Bible really existed. The implications of denying his faith scared him: what would his friends think, what would his family think… What would he do for work? This crisis of faith grew worse and worse, and he couldn’t help wonder why, if God existed, he would leave him so miserable.
But, thankfully, one day, during corporate worship, God got a hold of his heart. In a single instant, God flooded his heart with a sense of his presence, and he answered all of the intellectual questions that had been plaguing him. This man came out of the darkness of doubt with a firmer faith, and he truly realized for the first time in his life that God is good. He wandered into the darkness, and God used that opportunity to shine brilliantly. And this man, like a true worship leader, wrote a song about this experience of doubt he went through. That song is located in your Bibles in Psalm 73. Turn there with me, to Psalm 73. Asaph The man I’m talking about is Asaph. Asaph wrote Psalm 73. Most of us know one verse from this Psalm: “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.” What most people don’t realize is that Asaph came to experience this truth only after a season of doubt. And in Psalm 73 he journals his journey from envy to doubt to grace to worship.
And just so you know I wasn’t fabricating the story: Asaph really was Israel’s main worship leader. When David became king, one of his priorities was to set up proper worship in the tabernacle. So David told the Levites to pick some men to lead the worship, and Asaph became the main worship leader. (And if you like Bible trivia: does anybody know what instrument Asaph played? 1 Chronicles 15:19 says he played cymbals.)
Verses 1-12: His Feet Slipped As I said, Asaph struggled with doubt. Look with me at verses 1-3.
73 Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart.
2 But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped.
3 For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
- In verse 1 he tells us what he’s going to doubt: “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart.”
- Then in verse 2 he says “But – even though this is true – as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well-nigh slipped.” So even though verse 1 is true – God really is good, especially to those with clean hearts – Asaph’s feet almost slipped. He almost tripped.
- Why did he almost slip? Verse 3: Because he was envious of the foolish and wicked when he saw their prosperity. He looked at the wicked, and he describes what he saw in verses 4-12:
4 For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm.
5 They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men.
6 Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment.
7 Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish.
8 They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily.
9 They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth.
10 Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them.
11 And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High?
12 Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches.
Asaph looked out at the world, and he saw a lot of wicked men. They look evil, act evil, and boast of their evil, they even mock God, basically taunting Him to punish them, and God does nothing. In fact, not only are they not punished; but they seem to be prospering! This isn’t just prosperity Gospel stuff: this is a serious problem in Asaph’s mind: God says he is going to take care of his people; Psalm 1 tells us that the way of the righteous shall be blessed and the way of the ungodly shall perish. But it’s the exact opposite. Asaph’s doubts are rooted in a real expectation he had that Scripture would be true. These are not frivolous doubts; Asaph trusted God; Asaph believed the Word; but it isn’t lining up with life and it’s causing an internal turmoil.
He saw the wicked prosper, and even though he knew in theory that God is good to those who keep their heart clean, his foot almost slipped.
Verses 13-16: He doubted that a God exists who cares about him.
What does he mean when he says his foot almost slipped? It means he doubted the truth of verse 1. He doubted that God was good, and he doubted that it was worth it to keep a clean heart. Look at verse 13:
13 Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.
14 For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning.
15 If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children.
- Want to know what he’s saying? It’s vain to live as if God existed. It doesn’t matter. It makes no difference. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:19 “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” And it’s as if Asaph is saying “what if we are the most miserable men?” What if the songs of worship I’ve been leading have done nothing. Nobody except us heard them. Nobody but us cared.
- Why exactly is Asaph doubting? Here’s what I think might have happened: Asaph had read the Word, he knew that the righteous was supposed to be blessed and the wicked were supposed to be cursed, but he looked around and saw the opposite: so the only logical conclusion for him is to say: the Scriptures must be wrong, because they don’t line up with reality at all.
So, let’s put it all together: Asaph saw the wicked, whom he described in verses 4-12. Seeing them caused him to become envious, which caused his foot to slip into doubt. And what he doubted were his theological beliefs: is God even good? Does it matter at all if I am a Christian? He may have even doubted the foundation of the Christian faith: Does God exist, and does He care about us? And as I suggested at the beginning, Asaph must have felt like such a hypocrite: look at verses 13 to 15 “Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. V14 For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning. V15 If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children.” V13 tells us what Asaph was really feeling: this is all in vain. And verse 15 indicates that Asaph knew he couldn’t share what he was really feeling: he still had to lead worship, and he must have felt so horribly hypocritical. And as if the pain of hypocrisy weren’t enough, he adds in the next verse: “V16 When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me.” He was stuck, and he couldn’t understand the reason for his doubts.
I can relate to both of these things. You may not have been here, but a while ago I gave a testimony on a Wednesday night about my own doubts I had my Freshmen year at college. Early on in my first semester I began doubting God’s existence. I would wake up and in fear, and often with tears, wonder why I kept pretending Christianity was true. And one night I was walking around outside when I received a phone call from someone who was despairing and needing hope. So I gave them, like I felt I should, the hope of Christ: I encouraged them about who they were in Christ and how God would take care of them. We prayed over the phone. And I remember this person telling me what a huge blessing this was. And then I went back inside my house – and in a room by myself I lay face down on the ground crying, because I was so confused. I related to verse 16: “When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me.”
And apparently, it’s not just me and Asaph. Recently the people with Gallup Polls tried to research two questions: “Why are people leaving the Church?” and “Why are they leaving Christianity?” What was it that made these people leave the Christian Church to either have only a vague belief in a god of some sort, or else to become agnostics and atheists? Surprisingly: not because of bad small groups, boring worship, or bad preaching. There are two fundamental reasons why people have been leaving Christianity in recent years.
- People had questions about Christianity they were afraid to ask. And they felt unsafe, as if they’d be ostracized if they asked about it. So they kept it to themselves, and eventually decided: there simply aren’t any answers – so they left.
- Some people overcame their fears and actually asked their questions, but they were either 1) dismissed (“Christianity is a heart issue, it’s a religion of faith, not reason”) or 2) badly answered. And like the first group, these people also concluded that there just aren’t answers.
Let us here, tonight, resolve not to treat people this way. Take their questions seriously. Make them feel welcome and loved even if they have doubts. Pastor Ron has mentioned Job recently, and he has asked what’s the value of the middle section with all the dialogue. If you learn nothing else from those sections, learn to hate bad answers.
Now I mention the results from this poll for two reasons. First, to prove that doubt is normal. Asaph and I and a lot of people have had doubts. As long as we live in a fallen world, even Christians can and will have doubts from time to time. And second, to argue that a healthy church will help people deal with doubt. But to do that, we need to understand doubt itself. So for the sake of your doubts, other Christians’ doubts, and the doubts that lost people have, let’s continue our exposition and see what we can learn about the nature of doubt and how God deals with it. God deals with Asaph’s doubts in two ways:
Solution #1 to Doubt: He Met God
First, God delivered Asaph from his doubts by meeting him directly in the temple. Look at verse 16-17: “When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; 17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.” Faith and doubt are not merely intellectual; it is also a spiritual matter. Look again at verse 3: what was the initial reason Asaph began to doubt God? His envy! His sin! All of us can relate: when do you most question God’s existence and love most regularly? It’s when we’re in sin. Why is this? Because of the simple reality that sin separates us from God. It removes our spirit from his. And we can’t physically see God, so when sin removes us from him it’s as if the signal on our phones gets weaker, we get poorer reception of his presence in his life, and soon we begin to wonder if anyone is hearing our prayers on the other end of the line.
There have been times in my life – certain times I was preaching or sharing the Gospel or praying or meditating on Scripture – where God just felt so real in the moment. And this is, I think, what happened to Asaph: although he was doubting God, he continued seeking him. He went into the temple, the sanctuary of God, and he continued seeking God until he found Him. Maybe he was praying, maybe he was worshiping, maybe he was listening to God’s Word being read, maybe he was face-down crying: but God met him in his spirit. So if you are struggling with doubt: continue seeking God. As Pastor Ron has said, the book of Job proves to us that God Himself is a sufficient answer to the hardest difficulties and questions of life.
Blaise Pascal was a brilliant defender of the Christian faith; during his life he worked on writing a book that was supposed to be his big work on why he believed Christianity was true, but he passed away before finishing it. What people found were his notes: they were these long strings with small pieces of paper attached to them, and on them he had written out different ideas for the book. So they just found these long lines of short thoughts; it was pretty interesting.
I mention him because of an insight he had related to this issue of sin causing doubt. His solution to doubt was to strive to live a more holy life! In his own words: he wrote that you should “Concentrate” on “diminishing your passions.” These sinful passions mess with our heads, and the more we indulge in our flesh the more it clouds our thinking and leaves us vulnerable to doubt the truth.
Solution #2 to Doubt: He Had His Questions Answered
Secondly, God delivered Asaph from his doubts by answering his questions. I just made the point that faith and doubt are more than just intellectual matters – but they’re not less. In other words, even though there is a spiritual dimension to faith and doubt, there is also an intellectual side as well. For Asaph, the solution to his doubts included not only meeting God in worship, but he had his thinking sharpened:
“Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.
18 Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction.
19 How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors.
20 As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when thou awakes, thou shalt despise their image.”
The main point Asaph was trying to make is that he finally realized that even though the wicked might triumph in this life, they ultimately will pay for their actions.
But the main point I want to make is that a part of doubt is intellectual. For me, reading apologetics and studying arguments for God’s existence was actually the main thing God used to restore my faith. I praise God for Christian apologists and philosophers who have written rigorous defenses of Christianity. I remember one night I read an article on the problem of evil and also the transcript of a debate on the justice and love of God in relation to hell – it brought tears to my eyes. That was the night where I felt like I could believe again.
Why We Should Wrestle with Doubt: The Benefit of the Doubt
So far, we have looked at Asaph’s doubts and how God restored him, and we’ve noted how faith and doubt have both spiritual and intellectual factors. And now I’m going to make one application for you: don’t ignore your doubts. Now, as soon as I say that, I need to also say this: because we are finite, we can never comprehend everything; and because we are sinful, a part of us will always doubt God’s goodness at one level or another. So leave room for mystery and still make the conscious decision to keep trusting God even when you have doubts.
But as you leave room for some mystery and as you continue making the decision to trust God: dig into your doubts. You don’t doubt for no reason. Our beliefs are interconnected, so if you are struggling to believe one thing that is true, that means there are probably other parts of your thinking that need to be fixed up as well. In other words, if you’re failing to believe one thing, it means that there is something wrong more foundationally that needs to be fixed. And by engaging that doubt, you can gain a much greater confidence and joy in your faith. This is what happened for Asaph. Look at three things Asaph learned, we can call these the four benefits of the doubt.
#1. In verses 21-24, he came to a new realization of God’s patience and guidance in his life: “21 Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins. 22 So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee.” This is the moment where Asaph realizes how sinful, brutish, and arrogant he had been. At some point in his doubts he went beyond seeking for answers to actually sinning against God in his attitude: and here he realizes how foolish he had been. But the next verse is so precious to me: “23 Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand.” The night that I was lying on my face, crying, confused, feeling like a hypocrite, all the sudden God came to me: though you have doubted me this whole time, I am here. Even when I doubted God, my hand was held tight by my loving father. That’s what Asaph is saying: even when he accused God of making the wicked prosper, God was taking care of him. He always does. And not only that, but he also realized that he will continue to take care of him: verse 24: “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.” Asaph looked back and said: you were holding my hand the whole time! And now he looks forward, and says: I know you will guide me the whole way.
#2. Second, in verses 25-28, we see that he came to have a new appreciation for eternity. “25 Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. 26 My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever. 27 For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee. 28 But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all thy works.” Asaph was doubting God’s goodness partly because he was failing to maintain an eternal perspective. Now, in verse 25 he realizes that he will be joining God in heaven, and the wicked will perish. Anything that helps us to maintain that clear focus on the meaning of life is a good thing for us.
#3. He has come to a new understanding of God’s sufficiency for his life. “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” He finally sees: even if the wicked are prospering more than he is, who cares? V25: He has an eternity to look forward to with God, and V26: God is currently the strength of my heart.
#4. And lastly, as a result of this experience, Asaph is now able to declare all thy works. He now has a story to tell: “Truly God is good. Let me tell you how I know that…”