Doubt That Kills

Saint James Fordham • Lent 1a • Tobias Haller BSG
The tempter came to him and said, If you are the Son of God…

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and just a little while ago we sang a long litany that included a striking petition: our earnest appeal to God that we might finally one day “beat down Satan under our feet.” Satan is, of course, the Adversary, in particular humanity’s Adversary, from the time he misled Eve in the garden to the day he tempted Jesus in the desert, the greatest troublemaker there ever was. The trouble Satan makes comes in the most part through what he tempts us to do.

As I say, he’s been at it an awfully long time. Right from the beginning, Satan has been at his work of temptation. In the garden, as a snake in the grass, he tempted Eve. We all know what that led to. Later on, he tempted Jesus in the wilderness, coming at him at the end of a long and weary fast, when he was weak and famished, hitting him when he was down. In both of his assaults on humanity — humanity at its very beginning and at its culmination — Satan tempts his victims to doubt.

Now, doubt is not an entirely bad thing. A little healthy skepticism is an important part of common sense, particularly when you get an email telling you someone has found $10 million in an abandoned account and if you just send them all of your private information they’ll do the transfer for you. Right. Some doubt can save you from some trouble. But the person who doubts everything is in some ways as much a fool as the person who doubts nothing at all. Some doubt, then, makes common sense. But the doubt towards which Satan tempts Eve and Jesus, and all of us — every man, woman and child since — is not the reasonable doubt of common sense, but the unreasonable doubt that assaults both who we are and who God is.

This is the doubt that kills: to doubt God and God’s promises, and to doubt ourselves at the very core of our being. These two doubts, so pointless and so hopeless, are the doubts Satan lays before us, setting his snare: Who am I? and Where is God? These are the doubts that lead to despair and death of the soul. They make us feel like less than we are, and also rob of us of trust in the only one in whom we can become more than we are, leaving us high and dry in the desert of despair, of loss and isolation, ready prey for Satan to snatch us up and carry us off to hell. These are the two sore points that Satan has worked away at endlessly and tirelessly since Eden, and they leave their marks on the human soul like the twin punctures of a serpent’s fangs.

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The crafty serpent came to Eve, and the hidden assumptions behind the advice he gave to her planted those seeds of doubt. “You will be like God...” the serpent said. But Eve was already like God, made in God’s image and likeness. Satan put his advice in the future tense and conditional mood, as if to say, “You are not like God now, but you could be, if only you eat the fruit.” So the serpent led Eve to doubt herself, her own likeness to God, her very being. He made her feel like less than she was, and then offered a way to feel better about herself.

Does that sound familiar? Haven’t women and men been caught by the same nasty doubts ever since? How many products are are marketed precisely by making people feel bad about themselves and then offering them a quick solution. The modern day serpents whisper to us that we are too fat or too thin, that our hair is the wrong color, or not shiny or plentiful enough, and on top of that — we smell bad; and then offer us the diet plan or exercise machine, the hair color or shampoo or baldness cure, — and the mouthwash and deodorant. Satan was, it seems, the first creature to get someone to use a product they didn’t want and didn’t need. And he did it by getting Eve to doubt herself.

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He also got her to doubt God. That’s the second fang in the serpent’s mouth. Satan’s crafty temptation to Eve calls God a liar — “You will not die; you will become like God! God hasn’t told you the whole story! And how can you trust him if he isn’t on the up and up with you? Who is this God, anyway? Where is he? But look at that fruit; it’s a sure thing! It’s right here... Where is your God?” And Eve, without responding to the devil, silent in the face of the doubts he has raised, takes the fruit.

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How strong is the power of doubt! Eve has known God’s blessings all her short life. She’s never even been out of the garden, in which God has been such a gracious host. She has been cared for and watched over, God graciously providing for her every need. Yet against her whole short life’s experience, she is prepared to listen to the hisses of a snake in the grass, and turn from God in mistrust, without so much as a word.

Again, doesn’t this sound familiar? How many relationships have been wrecked through a casual bit of unfounded or malicious gossip? How many reputations have been ruined by false accusation, by devilish doubt ready to leap out against even the most trusted, most belovéd person, pouncing like a rattlesnake. Oh yes, Satan is still busily at work, and ever since Eve, people have been giving in in silence to the doubts that chill the heart and kill the soul.

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Yet Jesus shows us a different response to Satan and the doubts that Satan spreads. Satan confronts Jesus in the wilderness, and he bares the same two fangs of doubt he’s chewed on people with since time began. “If you are the Son of God...” he begins each assault. If? If? Is Satan trying to get Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God? You bet he is! And with his one-two punch Satan follows up with temptations that try to poke holes in Jesus’ faith in God’s providence, God’s protection, and God’s authority.

But Jesus, unlike Eve, knows that silence will not do to clear away these powerful doubts. Jesus knows that just ignoring Satan won’t make him go away! The hissing of doubt must be answered, the murmur of doubt must be silenced by the voice of faith. And so Jesus answers every doubt that Satan raises. He will not let the devil have the last word, and it is Satan who ends up retiring from the field, silenced at last by Jesus’ rebuke.

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Jesus talked back to the devil, to the one who tried to get him to doubt God and to doubt himself. We too can talk back to the devil, whether he appears in the guise of friend or family member, co-worker or public figure, or as that more familiar devil, that nagging little voice within you. You’ve heard him — don’t deny it! He is that little voice of insecurity who tells you you are less than you know you are, or that bids you not to trust the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.

To the voices that seek to whittle you down, to cut you into little pieces, to nibble at your insecurities, you can boldly respond, “Quiet! I am a child of God, loved by God and made in God’s image!” To the little devils who spread rumor and distrust, you can boldly respond, “I’ve known my friends far longer than I’ve known you, and I trust them more than I trust you.” And to the deep, evil voice that asks us “Where is your God?” we can confidently respond, God is with us, among us and within us, and we can go nowhere out of his providence, his protection, and his power.

We can talk back to all of these faithless chatterers, internal and external; and with bold words of rebuke beat down Satan under our feet. And there are few more choicely worded rebukes to the talkers of doubt (within and without) than these from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, with which I close:

Talk faith. The world is better off without
Your uttered ignorance and morbid doubt.
If you have faith in God, or man, or self,
Say so. If not, push back upon the shelf
Of silence all your thoughts, till faith shall come;
No one will grieve because your lips are dumb.+