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The Faith of Uncertainty

A sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

(sermon audio recording available here - note, some divergence between manuscript and recording. Photo by Mishal Ibrahim on Unsplash.]

If there is one non-scriptural quote that has made the biggest difference in my spiritual life it is probably the assertion from Anne Lamott that,

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”[1]

I’ll repeat that: the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.

Having grown up in a Christian sub-culture that stressed apologetics to prove all the essential truth claims about God, the idea that we are NOT actually meant to achieve certainty in our faith was a revelation for me.

It was the fullness of grace, when - before - grace had always felt conditional on my performance of faith.

It was the reassurance that my day-to-day lived experience, with its questions, and doubts, and the full range of human emotions, did not mean I was doing faith wrong.

Perhaps most importantly, it was a release from the inevitable fear that comes from the belief that faith equals certainty… because if that’s true, then anything other than certainty is dangerous.

Today’s gospel story certainly hits on the topics of fear, and faith, and doubt (as they intersect), but I have come to believe that the real lynchpin to understanding this gospel account is to look for the ways that the desire for certainty drives the story.

I believe that when we do that, we see how true Anne Lamott’s assertion is that certainty is the real opposite of faith,

and in doing so, I believe we can find an invitation to the kind of relationship with Christ in which doubt is not an existential threat to our faith… a relationship in which we can join Peter in calling out to Jesus even in the midst of moments of doubts.

My evidence for seeing the urge for certainty at the center of this story comes from three key points in the narrative.

The first clue is in the reaction of the disciples to the storm, versus their reaction to Jesus walking to them across the water.

Many of Jesus’s disciples were practiced fishermen, which means they would certainly have experienced storms on the water before, in which the boat was being battered by waves and driven by the wind.

They would have been familiar with the experience AND they would have known the reality of the danger they were in. There were no life jackets or coast guard to save them if the boat was swamped. Storms on the Sea of Galilee are no joke, no matter how experienced the sailors.

However, the story does not talk about them being afraid until they see Jesus walking to them across the waves. Only then are they “terrified,” “crying out in fear” because they think they are seeing a ghost.

Which - OK, that’s probably unnerving - but also telling.

They are not afraid in the face of a very real and physical danger with which they are familiar;

But they are afraid of something they don’t understand, despite the vague immateriality of the supposed threat.

They would rather face a demonstrable threat that they know, than something that makes them question reality. They are more afraid of uncertainty than they are of the storm.

The second clue that uncertainty is really at the heart of this story is in the strange way that Peter initiates his venture out of the boat.

The request is strange enough on its own! if Jesus was heading to the boat, why would Peter need to come across the water to Jesus? Why ask for such an extreme and unnecessary miracle as the ability to walk on a storm-tossed sea?

But it’s the phrasing in particular that I want us to notice: “Lord, if it is you…”

It is a familiar phrase, because this same conditional wording is the way the devil tempts Jesus back in the wilderness in Matthew chapter 4… calling him to prove his identity.

In the case of the temptation in the wilderness, the devil’s motivation is clear… he is trying to manipulate Jesus.

But what is Peter’s motivation? He’s not trying to get Jesus to do something contrary to his mission. So, it must be that Peter is actually unsure… and he cannot tolerate the uncertainty.

The uncertainty about whether this apparition is really the Lord Peter thought he knew, but who is not revealed to have the power to ignore gravity and master nature.

It is so unnerving to Peter to not understand that he is willing to put himself into potential mortal danger to assuage this discomfort.

That’s how much it matters to Peter to restore his sense of certainty.

The final evidence I see in the text is a bit more ambiguous, but I think it shows that Jesus also sees the controlling role of uncertainty in these events… and recognizes the urge for certainty as the true barrier to faith.

When Jesus saves Peter from sinking he asks, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

It seems like a direct contrast between faith and doubt… but Jesus is actually holding Peter’s “little faith” together with his doubt.

Because, if doubt really were with opposite of faith, he couldn’t demonstrate both.

Moreover, Jesus never limits his question to the second half of Peter’s brief journey over the waves.

There is no reason in the text to think that Peter’s faith only shows itself to be “little” once he starts to sink.

It’s just as possible that the problem is revealed by Peter’s request… by his driving desire for Jesus to prove himself to Peter through the extravagant display of power.

And to this point, Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor has an insight that both argues in support of my interpretation and demonstrates its relevance for us:

“In this story, as in most of the other embarrassing stories about Peter, he is speaking for us. Is there anyone among us who has never asked God for an exemption? Please, God, suspend the rules just this once and make me know that you are there. Heal me, help me, talk to me out loud. Leave me no room to doubt you and I will believe.”[2]

It is when we define doubt as our problem that we pray the wrong prayer… asking God for irrefutable proof, for certainty, rather than valuing whatever little faith we have.

But, as it turns out, Peter’s “little faith” was enough. Even without the certainty he craved, when he began to sink his heart’s cry was “Lord, save me!”

Because doubt and faith CAN coexist. And together, they can make us even more aware of our need for God.

They can find us in the middle of the storm, fully aware of our own failings, and still able to cry out to the One who will always hear us without us or God needing to prove anything.

When I was looking up the exact source of the Anne Lamott quote I shared at the beginning of this sermon, I discovered that there is more than just the one sentence that has been engraved on my heart.

In elaboration, she writes, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

THAT is the kind of faith for which I long… the kind of faith that I think we and our world all need… the kind of faith that cannot be derailed by all of the evidence of mess, emptiness, and discomfort that we WILL find all around us.

As much as we long for certainty, for assurance that we have all the answers and the storms of this world cannot touch us, that has never been God’s promise.

God’s promise is to be with us in the mess. To never leave us alone and hopeless. To suffer with us and to therefore assure us that our suffering is never evidence of the failure of our faith.

So, when you are caught in the storm, and the waves are battering your boat and the wind is driving you off course, and the way that Jesus is approaching you is not the way you expect or understand…

Remember that certainty is actually your enemy. It’s the false promise of invulnerability.

And you don’t need to reject your questions, or doubts, or even your fears.

It’s always OK to cry out, with a tremulous, confused, doubt-filled voice: “Lord, save me!”

That is true faith.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. [2] Barbara Brown Taylor. From the sermon, “Why Did You Doubt?” published in Bread of Angels, Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997, p. 121.


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