Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.Psalm 23:6
If you talked to one of your non-Christian friends today, and you asked them why they do not believe, what do you think that they would say? “I was never raised to be a believer.” “I had a bad experience in a church.” “There is too much evil in the world; either God is not good or God is not just or God does not exist.” Together, we as the church should try to address all of these. We can accept that we were not raised to be many things of who we are today, but that is because we also became our own person. Or we can ask, “If you have a bad experience with your spouse, do you quit going to your spouse? Then why do you do it with church? You even have the opportunity to try a brand new one with churches and it is much harder to do that with spouses!” We should give God another chance. Or even a third chance. But what I believe is the most important concern facing churches today, and probably is what makes the first two objections I have already addressed here exist, is that either God is not good or just or simply does not exist. I have heard people say directly to me on multiple occasions, “This proves that there is no God!” One person was having trouble paying for medical bills and would not have it when I told him that neither I nor the church had the money to cover such expenses. That same person had told me just a week earlier, “This proves to me that there is a God!” when he was in a car accident with a semi-truck and walked out unscathed, and I prayed with him and for him in the hospital. But for some people, anything that doesn’t go right for them is a reason to turn their back on God. And this is one of the major reasons – if not the only overarching reason – that churches in America are getting smaller and smaller on average. So if this is a major problem, how do we address it? First, which is our focus for today, we need to try to make sure that we are never the ones turning our backs on God after some sort of tragedy strikes. We need to build a solid foundation of faith and trust in God which we can hold onto when hard times come along. We have done that in our groups by following along with the books Soul Keeping, Whisper: How to Hear the Voice of God, and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith. Second, we need to learn how to address this concern with the world. It might be lending a listening ear for days, weeks, months, or even years, affirming that you are a safe space to talk about their frustrations knowing that you are not going to try to throw the kitchen sink at them with all those good Jesus answers. Or it might be affirming that it is okay to talk about anger, and to lament, even directly to God’s face. It might be lessening the fear to have that kind of open conversation. Hopefully by having the type of book group that we are having in church now, we are creating that kind of atmosphere. We are asking the hard questions. But also even for those who look on from afar, by its very existence we are sharing that it is okay to have these kinds of questions and fears about God.
So today, I have a unique challenge for you. Make a list of two columns, and on the first, write, “What causes my belief in God?” and on the second, write, “What challenges my belief in God?” Then, write as many as you can think of for each column, and share it with a friend. You’ll get bonus points if that friend is not a church member, and extra bonus points if they are not a church member anywhere. See if you can have an open and honest conversation about what you wrote. Almost monthly, I get asked the question, “How can I have faith when nothing is going good for me?” They either cannot find housing, or a life partner, or a job, or proper finances to pay the bills. One of my answers is that the disciples had nothing good going for them either. After Jesus died, and before the church blossomed as we celebrate on Pentecost, the disciples were lost, confused, and hated by nearly everyone. If we can compare our despair to anyone, they are pretty good candidates. I would not tell them in this moment to count their blessings. That would be insensitive to the question that they just asked. I say, “I get it. I’ve been there too. Do you want to talk about it? What challenges your faith the most?” This question – how can I have faith when nothing is going good for me? – is a major reason why people do not have faith today and also why many people lose it.
There is a story told in our scriptures today about something bad happening to a good person: “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time, she became ill and died” (Acts 9:36-37). Why did she have to die? Even though she was later raised up after the disciples prayed, imagine what the community had been thinking when she died: “How could the Lord let this happen? Imagine how much more good she could have done that has now been cut short!” We are no stranger to these kinds of inquiries. They are certainly not new to our times. But we can control our response. Rather than turning away from God for them, we can turn back toward God. We can pray about it. We can follow the example of the disciples. We may never know why Tabitha was raised up and why our brother or sister was not. We may even feel jealous for it. It helps my faith the most to assume that tragedy happens out of some random occurrence, and not that God planned it that way or that God knew it was going to happen and did nothing about it. I feel more comforted believing in a relational God than an all-knowing God, if I have to choose one.
Let me try to sum up what we have been talking about so far this Easter season and today. First, the disciples did not believe the news that Jesus was risen. They had their doubts. It is natural to have our own doubts and to waver in our faith too. If the disciples wavered from time to time, their stories are probably encouraging to us. We are not expected to be perfect. Second, when we have our doubts, it is better to stick together. Fighting alone, the disciples probably would not have done anything following the Resurrection. They would have each been too afraid of what the world could do to them. It is not bad to have that fear either. It is bad when we try to fight it alone, because most of the time we will not succeed. Third, it is even and perhaps especially when we and others are in the valley of doubt that we are called to serve God’s kingdom. To do that best, we have to have the right tools to not be led under ourselves, and also to lead others out of that dark valley. What better tool is there than Psalm 23 in Scripture? If you have enemies, if you believe that the world is trying to get you to throw in the towel, you have your counter right here:
I want to make it clear that we are becoming more spiritually healthy by accepting these truths in the midst of recognizing weaknesses. Even in the darkest valley, when we are surrounded by enemies, we have a table prepared for us in the midst of them. We know that we are protected from them by our Lord. We know that when we are exhausted from what life throws at us, we are refreshed by being led along still waters. We may not believe that goodness and mercy truly follow us every day of our lives, but, in fact, they do. There may be some bad things mixed in here or there, but the majority of opportunities that come your way are good. You can brighten the day of a neighbor. You can share your story with someone who needed to be encouraged. You can show someone mercy and surprise them. Our enemies include anything that causes to doubt the goodness and sovereignty of God, but God teaches that we should not be afraid of them because God is more powerful than they.
We ask a lot of you. The world asks a lot of you. When you start feeling like you do not live up to expectations, you begin to feel down on yourself. You enter the valley. Sometimes you are not sure you even want to come out of it. Other times you are not sure the way out. The valley is when you are self-critical. You put yourself down, you tell yourself you are not good enough, and you tell yourself that your friends and family deserve better. Has anyone here put themselves down? Perhaps especially the mothers out here who toil hard in raising a family but never seem to be good enough at it? This is one of the Devil’s weapons: put downs. It gets in our heads until we do not feel strong enough or worthy enough for God. You may have told yourself, “I am not important enough for God.” But the truth is, you are. God cares enough about YOU to walk with you beside still waters and to prepare a table for you, even while you are still surrounded by your enemies! You know what that means? We do not need to wait until we are with God in Paradise. God has prepared a table for us HERE. God wants us to come to the table in the here and now. And though we are still surrounded by our enemies, by that doubt, and self-criticism, and whatever else tries to keep us from God, God overpowers it all. We therefore can do the work of God both in the valley and on the mountaintop. Let us serve God, even amid discouragement. May all glory and honor be to God. Thanks be to God! Amen
9:36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.
9:37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.
9:38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”
9:39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.
9:40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.
9:41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.
9:42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
9:43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
23:3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
10:22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,
10:23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.
10:24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
10:25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;
10:26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
10:27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
10:28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
10:29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.
10:30 The Father and I are one.”