Doubt: It Ain’t What I Think

Sunday, January 19 (OS January 6), 2020: The Holy Theophany. The Baptism of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Epistle: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Something interesting happens in the conversation between John and his younger cousin. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” Can you not hear an older cousin or sibling say just these words to his junior?

But rather than arguing with him, Jesus responds gently. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

By His answer to John, Jesus transforms a moment of doubt into an occasion of faith. And not only this. John’s willingness, weak as it is, to do what Jesus asks becomes a revelation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. As we hear in the troparion for today, “When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed.”

Through the gentle touch of grace, doubt becomes faith and an experience of the overwhelming and all-encompassing love of God.

Living as we do in an age when we confuse faith in God with what we believe about God, it is easy to also confuse doubt with a lack of intellectual understanding or certitude. And yet, doubt is different.

In the Reform Orthodox Jewish prayer book, there is a lovely prayer. “I thank You O Lord for doubt, for by doubt You reveal to me the limits of my faith.” To doubt is not only an experience of the limits of my faith but, as we see in the Gospel, an invitation to grow in faith.

I think it is more helpful to think doubt not as the lack of certitude (intellectual or emotional) but as a distraction. I doubt not because I don’t understand God or because I don’t love God but because at the moment I take my eyes off of God.

The fact is, God is always more than my understanding of Him. And however much I love Him, because He is Infinite there is always more of Him to love if I can speak that way. Doubt is symptomatic of my shifting my attention from God but on the things of this world.

For St John the Baptist, the cause of his distraction was his fixation on his own limited understanding of righteousness and his own role in the coming of the Messiah. St Paul warns St Titus of doing something similar telling him that “ the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy.”

Paul goes on to say that we are saved through Holy Baptism–that is, “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior”–and for this reason, have become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

What we have received, we have received from above, from the Hand of God. And what we are to become, is beyond our ability to conceive because it too comes to us from above.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that at times I lose my way because I have lost my focus on Jesus Christ and the Kingdom. As I struggle to be faithful, to live in hope, and to accept in thanksgiving the gift that I and you and all of us who are in Christ have been given, it is little wonder that now and then we fall short and are distracted.

We are distracted precisely because the gift is more than we can imagine. The gift is beyond what we can receive. And so, inevitably, I run up against the limits of my faith, hope and love of the God Who, as St Gregory Palamas says, “is not only beyond our knowing but our unknowing as well.”

Whether in ourselves or others, we should judge doubt gently.

The reason why is that one of the great tricks of the Enemy is to confuse us. He whispers in our ear that questions and struggles are signs of our sinfulness. They might be. And at times, to speak only for myself, they are.

But even when they are, God uses our doubts as occasions for repentance, for growth in holiness and for a deepening of our love for Him and an awareness of His love for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! When we doubt, when we encounter the doubts of others, let us at that moment fix our eyes every more firmly on Jesus Christ.

Let us, by all means, confess with John that we do not understand. And if we do, we will hear that same gentle word of encouragement that John hears today from Jesus. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

It is in saying this, that God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit transforms our doubt into a deeper faith by revealing not things about Himself but revealing more fully Himself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love Casts Out Doubt

Sunday, May 5 (O.S., April 22), 2019: Antipascha; Sunday of St. Thomas; St. Theodore the Sykeote, Bishop of Anastasiopolis (613).; Apostles Nathaniel, Luke, and Clement. Martyrs Leonidas of Alexandria (202); St. Vitalis of the monastery of Abba Serid at Gaza (609-620).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

One of the best signs of the truthfulness of the Gospels is the willingness of the sacred authors to recount the moral failures of not just the apostles but all the disciples.

Peter denies Jesus and Judas betrays Him.

When the myrrh-bearing hear from the angel that Jesus is risen and are told to “tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you” (Mark 16:7, NJKV), they instead run away in fear, saying “nothing to anyone” (v. 8).

Likewise in today’s Gospel, we see Peter and the disciples hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” We need at this point to pause for a moment and consider more of the context–the timeline really–of what is happening.

Jesus appears to the disciples on Pascha, “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.” Earlier that day, He had appeared “to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons” (Mark 16:9). At first, she doesn’t recognize Jesus mistaking Him for the gardener. But when He says her name–”Mary!”–she immediately recognizes Him and hurries off to tell the disciples that the Lord is risen (see John 20:15-18).

Unfortunately, and this brings us to today’s Gospel, “they did not believe” Mary (Mark 16:11), her words “seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

Betrayers. Doubters, Cowards, Women. In the ancient world, none of these would have been considered credible witnesses because none could be honorable men. And yet, these are the witnesses that the Church offers us. Far from undermining the credibility of the Gospel, the weakness of the disciples highlights its power.

Turning now to the reading from the Acts of the Holy Apostle, and even though “many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles,” even though “the people held them in high honor” they were afraid to publicly follow the disciples. Like the disciples on Pascha, the people were afraid of the Jewish authorities.

Nevertheless, “believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” The reason is because the disciples were eventually able to move beyond the crippling fear and they experienced on Pascha and so counteract the fear felt among the citizens of Jerusalem.

St John Chrysostom explains it this way (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 12): “Earth was becoming like heaven,” because of how the first Christians lived. It was their “boldness of speech,” the “wonders” they performed that cause the residence of Jerusalem to look on the followers of Jesus as they were angels.”

As for the disciples themselves, “They were unconcerned about ridicule, threats, perils.” Instead, “They were compassionate and beneficent. Some of them they helped with money, and some with words, and some with healing of their bodies and of their souls; they accomplished every kind of healing.”

How did the grace of God bring about this transformation in the disciples? How did fearful doubters become bold apostles?

Love.

Of all those first entrusted with the proclamation of the Gospel, only one responded with obedience. It was only Mary Magdalene who did as she was told to do.

The reason, as St Mark highlights for us, is because of all the disciples of Jesus, only she knew evil and the power of the devil not simply as an external threat but an inner struggle. It was out of her that Jesus “had cast seven demons.” As Jesus tells us in another place, those “love much” who have been “forgiven much.” As for the one “to whom little is forgiven,” that is who repents only of minor sins leaving unmourned the more serious ones, “the same loves little.” (see Luke 7:47).

It was in her great love for Jesus that Mary found the courage to proclaim boldly the Gospel. This is important because, contrary to what we sometimes imagine, doubt is not a sin of the intellect but the will.

I doubt because I don’t love and I don’t love because I am afraid. I don’t trust God because I have not united myself to Him; I resist His will for my life, preferring my will to His. In its most extreme form, I prefer to fail of my terms to succeed on His.

But “perfect love drives out fear” and the “one who fears is not made perfect in love” (see 1 John 4:18). The apostles doubt, I doubt, because their love, my love, remains imperfect.

St John tells us that anyone who hates his neighbor is “a murder” (1 John 3:15) and that anyone who says he loves God but who hates his neighbor “is a liar: (1 John 4:20) and lives “in darkness” (1 John 2:11).

Jesus tells us what it means to love God perfectly when He says we are to love God with all that is in us and that we are to love our neighbor as our very self (see Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34).

The love of God is not an idea; much less is it a feeling. Rather, to love God is to unite our will to His. If I love God I will keep His commandments (see John 14:15). Love, in other words, is a matter of obedience.

And just as to love God is to be obedient to God, to love my neighbor means to want what God wants for him. I love you with a perfect love if I want for you all that God would give you.

To be sure, the will of God for me and for you is wider, deeper and broader than what we know. Nevertheless, we know what God doesn’t want. The Ten Commandments offer us a negative expression of God’s will for humanity.

And we know from the Scriptures and the fathers that God’s will for us is–in a positive sense–rooted in our participation in his very nature (2 Peter 1:4).

We come to share in the divine life through our participation in the sacraments of the Church. To share in God’s life means we must be baptized, confess our sins, receive Holy Communion. To these, we add daily prayer and the reading of Scripture and the keeping of the fasts as we are able.

Is there more to perfect love? Yes! But if we do at least these things, God will slowly reveal the fullness of His will for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The fearful, doubting disciples of Pascha we meet today will soon become bold witnesses for Christ through love! In these next few weeks, as we make the journey from Pascha to Pentecost, we are preparing ourselves for a new outpouring of divine love into our hearts. We have this period of rest, in anticipation of the renewal of our witness to the world.

So get ready! There is more to come!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory