When I was serving a church in Virginia, a member of my congregation shared with me her struggles with mental illness. She had been diagnosed at the age of 22 with bipolar disorder. She was 35 at the time I met and got to know her. You would never have known if you had met her that she struggled with this illness. She kept it very secret, both because she did not believe others would understand and because she had to. She worked for the State Department, and she felt she would lose her security clearance if she disclosed her disorder. She did receive medication treatment, but paid for her visits to a psychiatrist and for her medication herself rather than using insurance, because she wanted to make sure that the State Department never found out about her illness. She was very good at her job, had a very strong faith in God and, and was a lovely woman.
However, eventually her illness got out of control, and she found herself in the midst of a major depressive episode. Her best friend found her one evening passed out in her apartment. She had taken several bottles of pills. Fortunately, she reached the hospital in time to save her life. After she physically recovered from her suicide attempt, she was moved to a psychiatric inpatient hospital. I was allowed to visit her after she had spent about 10 days in the hospital.
I was shocked when I saw her. She was always a very thin woman, and she was now even thinner than I remembered. She looked miserable and very pale. I asked her how she was doing, and she told me, “I’m much better. I don’t want to die anymore, but I do have some very serious questions for God. However, I am really struggling because I feel incredibly guilty for having these questions.” I tried to assure her that it was ok to have questions, doubts, anger and so forth toward life, God and anybody and anything else. However, she just was not able to get beyond what she had been taught in her childhood: that having faith meant never having questions, doubt and anger toward God. She was never able to express her questions, doubt and anger to me or to God.
When she was released from the hospital, she found that she had lost her security clearance and therefore had lost her job with the state department. She loved her job, and it was a huge part of her identity. Her depression worsened, and unfortunately her second suicide attempt was successful. I will always wonder how things might have gone differently for her if she had been able to ask her questions, express her doubts and vent her anger. I will always wonder what suppressing these things cost her.
So many of us have been taught or have developed the idea that the opposite of faith is doubt. So many of us have the idea in our heads that asking questions of God is evidence that our faith is not strong enough. I believe that we are mistaken in our thinking. I think the opposite of faith is certainty and that our questions and our doubts, when looked at and expressed openly and honestly, can lead to a stronger, deeper and more mature faith. When we ignore and suppress our questions, anger and doubt we deprive ourselves of opportunities to grow and move further away from the divine rather than closer.
And Scripture supports my belief. There are many times in Scripture when holy faithful people ask God questions and even challenge God, and none of them are condemned by God for doing so. Moses, Job, Thomas and even Abraham are just a few people found in Scripture who find themselves asking questions of God and even expressing confusion, doubt and anger with God. God is patient and responds to each one. God does not condemn any of them. I think this is because God understands that to be human is to ask questions.
We humans are able to see complex things and to understand that there is much about this world that is confusing and mysterious. We know that there are many things that happen to us in this life that are difficult and painful. God created us and God knows this about us too. God knows that we need to ask our questions and we need to share our feelings with each other and with God, even those feelings that make us uncomfortable like anger and fear. God knows that faith is believing in things that are not knowable, so of course we will have doubt and questions from time to time.
Look at the story of Abraham. Abraham is clearly a man of great faith. At an age when he and his wife Sarah should have been relaxing into retirement, God calls them to leave everything they know, their home, their family and their friends, and to set out on an improbable journey to an unknown land. I don’t know about you, but I am not sure I would have said yes to such a call. But Abraham and his wife Sarah do say yes. They leave everything that is familiar to them and set out on an arduous and dangerous journey because God promises them that He will bless them and make of them a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham and his wife Sarah obviously have great faith. But this does not mean they have certainty.
Our passage from Genesis for this morning finds Abraham and Sarah 13 years after God had initially promised them that they will be given a child and become the parents of a great nation. And yet, they still have no children, and now they are very old. Abraham still believes in God. Abraham still has a relationship with God, but he is clearly having some uncertainty about God’s promise to him and to Sarah. Abraham is beginning to hedge his bets.
He says to God, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?. . . You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” It was common in Abraham and Sarah’s day, if a couple found themselves childless, to adopt a slave born in their household as their heir. They would raise this slave and this slave would inherit all they had after their death. In return the slave would take care of his adopted parents in their old age. The fact that Abraham and Sarah have done this is evidence that they are far from certain that God is going to come through on his promise to them. Abraham has questions and doubts, and he openly expresses them to God.
And how does God respond? Not with anger, condemnation, or judgment. God responds honestly and with love. God says, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” No anger from God, no threats of sending Abraham to hell, no shame, no condemnation.
And Abraham, through his expression of his questions, is brought to a place of even greater faith. “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” I know that I have all sorts of questions for God. I ask God questions all the time. I am far from certain in my faith. I wonder why the woman whose story I told at the beginning of this sermon had to struggle with such a terrible condition. I wonder why children are allowed to die. When I see the news of the millions of people fleeing places like Ukraine because of the evil of one leader, I wonder why so many people have to suffer on this earth because a few people chose to use their power badly. I wonder why babies get cancer, why women miscarry, why good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people.
I hear words from Scripture such as the Magnificat spoken by Mary before Jesus was born in which she proclaimed that God “has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with God things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” I hear these words and yet I still see people without food. I still see the proud and powerful lording it over those who do not have power, and I ask God, “When are you going to act? When are these words going to come true?”
I continue to lack certainty about so many things in this life, and yet somehow when I express my questions, my doubts, my anger with God, my faith grows stronger and not weaker. I don’t get certainty, but I do receive strength.
I wonder what questions you have for God? I wonder what you need to share with God? May you have the strength and courage of Abraham to share what is in your heart with God. Amen.