Trust and doubt

Advent 4 – 2015

Luke 3:39-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who inspires our trust. Amen.

I once saw a sign outside a church that read: “When all else fails pray!” At first it took me aback, then I realised that it was an accurate description of the relationship that some of us have with God. Maybe I am speaking just for myself, but I suspect that I am not the only person who tends to rely on my own resources first and remember God second. On a day-to-day basis, I think that I place my trust in God. I certainly believe that God directs my life and that I don’t have to be concerned about the future. However, I have to admit that there are times, especially in times of crisis, when my first reaction is to think of solutions rather than to commit the situation to prayer and trust that God will provide me with an answer.

How far do you trust God? Do rely too much on your own resources or do you have complete confidence in God? Or – do you like most of us – vacillate between complete and utter trust and an anxiety that if we don’t do it ourselves nothing will happen. Most of us have a deep trust that God is with us, but that doesn’t meant that there are not times when we act on our own.

In this tension between trust and doubt we are not alone. Abraham left everything to set out on a crazy journey to a place that he had never heard of, led by a God who was not the God of his fathers. Yet he did not trust God to fulfill the promise of a son and took matters into his own hands. The people of Israel followed Moses into the wilderness only to waver when they got to the Promised Land. Elijah, who put to shame the priests of Baal, had moments when he thought that God had abandoned him. John the Baptist who, we are told, saw the Spirit descend on Jesus, still needed to ask Jesus if he was the one to come. The disciples, who at first so readily followed Jesus, had times of doubt – most visibly demonstrated by their absence at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and their lack of direction after his death.

Few of us it seems are able to completely let go and let God, few of us are able to surrender ourselves entirely into God’s care. At some points in our lives we find ourselves wanting to take control. We pray: “Your will be done” and then exercise our own will.

Part of the eternal struggle is our unwillingness to trust God and our determination to go our own way. We wonder why the world is as it is, yet fail to see that time and again, we take over instead of allowing God to take charge of world affairs. The story of Eden is played out every day as human being compete with God for control as our desire for independence leads to decisions that have disastrous consequences – for ourselves and for others. When Abraham and Sarah took things into their own hands, it had disastrous consequences for themselves and for Hagar and Ishmael. When the Israelites were too afraid to trust God to lead them into the Promised Land, they sentenced themselves to forty more years in the wilderness. When Peter didn’t accept that Jesus had to suffer, he was accused of being Satan. When we take things into our own hands, it can lead to disastrous consequences. When we act on our own behalf we interfere with and subvert God’s plans for us, we delay fulfillment of God’s promise and damage our relationship with God and very often with those around us. When we fail to place our trust completely in God, we prevent God from directing our lives in ways that lead to contentment and peace, for ourselves and for the world.

Trust exists when one person is willing to rely on another to the extent that they abandon control over the actions performed by the other and thereby risk a certain amount of uncertainty with regard to the outcome[1]. Trusting in God means handing over control and accepting that even though things don’t go the way we hope, God will be with us in the process and God will see us through to the end.

In Mary we have one example of trust outweighing doubt. Mary was deeply disturbed, agitated even by the angel’s announcement to her and her response was to challenge and to question how such a thing might be possible. Yet despite her fear and anxiety, Mary was able to stifle her incredulity and to accept not only that she would have a child, but that somehow in her conservative, closed society that God would find a way to protect both herself and her child.

Mary’s trust was not without cost. Almost from the beginning she had to let go of her promised son. Jesus caused anxiety by staying behind in Jerusalem to dialogue with the priests. On another occasion, he refused to see her claiming that those who believed were his mother, his sisters and his brothers, and all the time in the back of her mind is Simeon’s prophecy that: “a sword will pierce your own soul.” Finally, Mary has to accept and endure Jesus’ conviction and crucifixion.

Like us, Mary could not read God’s mind. When she said: “yes” to God, she did not know where it would lead her. She did not know that Joseph would still marry her, she did not realise that parenting her child would be painful and difficult, she could not have imagined that God would allow her son to suffer a slow and agonizing death and she certainly could not have imagined Jesus’ resurrection and the movement that grew up following his death and resurrection.

Like Mary, we cannot read God’s mind. We do not know what God has in store for us. We will, like her, have moments of uncertainty and doubt. But through it all we can be sure of one thing, that if only we hold fast to God’s promise, if only we have the courage to surrender ourselves entirely to God, not only will our lives work out for the better, but our very surrender to God will contribute to the salvation of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom.

[1] A paraphrase from Wikipedia.

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