Leaving Christianity? |04.07.24| Doubting God pt.2
Drew Williams   -  

Matthew 14:22-32

Pastor Drew Williams

I love hearing stories of life change like we just watched.  I love it because it’s amazing to see how Jesus can transform us, and it changes everything. And in a few weeks, it’s going to be really exciting to celebrate baptism for many more people who are experiencing that life change and taking that next step in their apprenticeship to Jesus.


But it’s important to point out that even though there are many people who are growing in their faith in Jesus, there are even more people who are choosing not to follow Jesus any more.


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There are incredible stories of people experiencing the love of Jesus and responding to his call of grace, but there are also stories of people who used to follow Jesus, but are walking away, de-converting away, choosing not to have faith anymore.


This hits close to home for me, because when I was growing up one of my favorite people in the world was my gramma. She was kind and generous and could sing like a song-bird, but even though she had grown up in the church, and had even worked at a church in her twenties as a song leader, somewhere along the way she experienced some hurt that caused her to walk away.


Somewhere along the way, she couldn’t reconcile the things she read in the Bible with the hurt she was experiencing, and the doubts grew too large to overcome.


And by the time I knew her, she would describe herself as “spiritual.” She was constantly searching for meaning, for purpose, whether it was in the signs of the zodiac, or in numerology, or in spiritual retreats with priests and gurus.


She found solace in music, and she said she believed in some sort of higher power, but she wasn’t willing to believe in the faith that the church professed.


I’m guessing that you know someone like this, too.


Someone in your family who used to be really involved in church, but just hasn’t been around for a while. Maybe you know of the reason, or maybe you don’t even know if there IS any reason, they just walked away.


And if that describes you right now: you’re wrestling with all this and you’re still not sure you believe…thank you for being here. I’m proud of you for continuing to wrestle and search.


But I’ve got to speak to all the believers for a second first: there are lots of people who are choosing to walk away from the faith, and instead of shaming them, instead of blaming them, I think we need to take responsibility.


I’d ask you to be open-minded and consider how we as Christians might be getting some things wrong…to consider how we might do better.



And to guide our journey, we’re going to look at how Jesus handled the doubts of some of his followers in a story from Matthew. So please open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 14 (p12 NT).


As you find it, this story comes directly after Jesus and his disciples had just finished feeding over 15,000 people from a faithful donation of 5 loaves of bread and two fish.


Jesus’ teaching and healing had drawn an enormous crowd, and instead of sending everyone away to get food like his disciples suggested, he invited his disciples to join him in his work.


Jesus did a miracle to multiply the offering of the bread and the fish, and the disciples handed it all out, and got to see first-hand how big of a miracle this was.


But now it’s time to send everyone off to find a place to sleep for the night, and that’s where we join Jesus in our story.


[Matthew 14:22-32]



Jesus sends his disciples ahead to the other side of the lake and says he’ll meet them there. And maybe a couple of the disciples were like, “Isn’t Jesus coming? How will he meet us if we take the only boat?”


And the other guys are like, “How should I know?! But we just witnessed him do that incredible miracle, so…”


And Jesus dismisses the crowd and then goes off by himself to pray while the disciples set off rowing through the night, taking turns sleeping and rowing.


And it’s at the fourth watch of the night, sometime between 3am and 6am, that Matthew tells us the disciples are stuck out in the middle of the lake, 2-3 miles out, because they’ve been rowing against the wind.


And so they must be exhausted. Jesus told them to go, and they’ve been trying, but it’s been roadblock after roadblock, and they feel stuck.


Not to mention that they are also probably pretty spooked. Because there was a lot of superstition about the deep water, especially at night. You didn’t want to disturb whatever creatures might be down there. You didn’t want to get on the bad side of a water spirit, or the “god” of the lake.


And the wind has been against them the whole time. That’s a bad omen, almost as if they are being opposed by some spiritual force.


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And out of nowhere, there is this THING in the distance near them, ABOVE the water. It looks like a man, with the wind whipping his cloak all around. And all the disciples FREAK OUT.


They’ve been spooked all night, exhausted all night, and then they see a GHOST. “I KNEW it! We’re being attacked by a spirit of the deep! We’ve crossed over some evil graveyard. This is a HAUNTED area!”


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But then they hear the figure speak, and it’s the voice of Jesus, “Take heart – have courage. It is I – literally, he says I Am. Do not be afraid – do not fear.”


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And the only one able to respond is Peter, and he says, “If it’s really you, tell me to come out to you on the water.” Give me instructions and I will follow them.


And Jesus says, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water and came toward Jesus.


Isn’t this amazing?! He’s actually doing it! Peter is so captured by who Jesus is, by his compassion for people and his power to do miracles, and he just wants to be WITH him, so he says, “Tell me to come to you.” And then he WALKS ON WATER! His eyes are on Jesus, and he’s going toward him based on his faith in him.


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But then his eyes come off Jesus. He notices the strong wind, he gets distracted and gets scared, and he starts to sink. It’s not like Peter was going about his daily life and starting to wrestle with a theological uncertainty or a philosophical conflict.


He’s walking on water one minute because he’s trusting Jesus and wanting to emulate him, to do what he does, and the next minute his seasoned fisherman instincts kick in and he says, “This storm is actually pretty big.” His assessment of the risk pulls his focus away from Jesus, and he starts to sink.


“Help me Jesus!”


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And Jesus is right there with him and immediately reaches out and caught him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”


I wonder if it would be too bold to ask for a show of hands if you’ve ever had a spiritual doubt? Comment online if you would, “I’ve had doubts.” Thank you.


[SLIDE 10]

I want to remind you what we talked about last week. Your doubts don’t disqualify your faith.You can have doubts while still journeying with Jesus.


And even if you aren’t currently doubting, all of us are someone who can help someone else who is doubting.


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And to that end, I want to tell you that doubt is not the enemy of faith. Doubt is often an invitation to a deeper faith.


We’ll see how once we wrestle with Jesus’ question: “Why did you doubt?”


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It sounds like a simple question, but it’s usually pretty complex to answer. Why do you doubt?


For some people, they doubt because there is some question about God or the Bible that they can’t answer. Maybe they can’t reconcile an apparent contradiction they’ve seen in Scripture.


For others, they read an article about how science disproves the Bible.


For still others, they’ve made a close friend who follows a different religion, and they just can’t see how a loving God would say that Jesus is the only way. What about my friend who is such a good person and a devout Buddhist or Muslim?


And then when you start to think about the pain and suffering we experience in our world, the questions REALLY start popping up.


Why does God allow war? Why is there the atrocity of human trafficking? Why are children languishing in the system? Why are children starving to death because of the poverty of the part of the world they were born?


Why is there senseless death like the multiple car accidents our community has just experienced? Why didn’t my loved one recover from cancer, even though I prayed for them?


Why do children have to suffer when parents divorce?


Maybe for you the questions started because of church hurt. There was some Christian leader that you loved and respected who let you down or hurt you.


The pastor who exploded their church because of their secret sex problem.


The parent who on the outside loved Jesus, but secretly was unfaithful and wrecked their family.


The questions and doubts pop up and what I read in Scripture: loving others, living with integrity, strong faith and compassion…I don’t always see in the church.


And then we hear Jesus’ question to Peter, “Why did you doubt?”


And, to be honest, one of my first knee-jerk reactions is to get defensive, “Why did I doubt? Are you kidding? How can you NOT have doubts with all of the things we just mentioned?!”


But I think that my reaction is that way because for YEARS I have read that question, and heard it taught by other pastors, as if Jesus is ACCUSING Peter of something.

“Why did you doubt?! You were doing so good, and then you doubted and then you started to sink. Why did you doubt?!”


But if you look at Jesus’ nature throughout the rest of scripture, you see how much he LOVED Peter. You see how many times he invested in developing Peter.


Even right here in our passage, you see Jesus IMMEDIATELY reach out his hand and catch Peter.


What if this isn’t an accusation, but what if it’s an INVITATION?


What if Jesus is catching Peter and saying, “Why did you doubt, I’m here for you! Don’t worry, we can talk about it. We can journey together.”


That sounds a lot more like the Jesus who meets people where they are. That sounds a lot more like the Jesus who presses in to people so they can experience his love and invitation to follow him.


And the problem is, here in the church, we don’t often do that very well. We don’t usually handle people’s doubts very well. When someone admits their doubts, or starts asking questions we don’t know the answers to, we PANIC. We accuse. “Why are you doubting?!”


We unintentionally push people away!


And it’s no surprise then when they start to deconstruct their faith. Have you heard of spiritual deconstruction? Comment if you have.


In some churches, the topic of deconstruction is really controversial. It can get emotionally charged really quickly. And part of that is because there are so many definitions of what deconstruction even is.


And the reason it’s a big deal is because when deconstruction is done poorly, it can hurt people. The doubts and questions turn into knock-down drag-out fights. People get pitted against each other.


The person who is deconstructing their faith is usually hurt as well when a few Christians attack them for asking questions, or dismiss their doubts. And that can turn into them being bitter against ALL Christans, all churches, bitter against their parents…bitter at themself.


Deconstruction done poorly can hurt people, but done well, deconstruction is a sincere examination of your beliefs, and it’s a process of seeking to let go of what is untrue, so that you can hold on to what is true.


In other words, deconstruction done well is a form of discipleship. It’s part of the process of apprenticing ourselves to Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself modelled it…


[SLIDE 13]

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matt 5:43-44


Five different times in Matthew, Jesus uses the phrase, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”


He says, “Here’s something you THOUGHT was true, BUT…it’s not fully true.”


Jesus was deconstructing some of the pre-conceived notions and beliefs of people that were not true. He says, “Let’s pull apart the things that aren’t true, and build on what IS true.”


And Peter gets this attention over and over. In Matthew 16, Jesus says that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, but he’ll be raised to life on the 3rd day. But Peter says, “NO! Never! You’re supposed to be the Conquering King, NOT the Dying Messiah!”


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And Jesus says to Peter, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Matt 16:23

“You aren’t focused on what God is doing; you’re focused on what YOU think is right.”


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Jesus is deconstructing Peter’s wrong beliefs on what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah, the Savior. He says, “you thought I was supposed to be a conquering king, but I’m actually supposed to be a Suffering Servant.”


You thought I’m supposed to achieve victory through conquest and military might. But I’m actually achieving victory through sacrifice.


You need to LET GO of what isn’t true and hold on to what IS true!


And WE need this lesson as well, because all of us have things that we believe that aren’t true!


Here at New Life, part of our history is that this church was formed with a desire to return to the Bible. To treat the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. We base our beliefs on the Bible, not on what the world says.


And that is great! But the problem is that none of us are coming to Bible as a blank sponge ready to be taught. All of us bring our own filters to the Bible.


We read and understand the Bible differently from the people next to us based on how often we read the Bible, which version we grew up reading. Our family background affects how we read the Bible. How you were raised influences how you read the Bible.


Where in the world you were raised, what type of church you grew up in, maybe you didn’t even grow up in church…all of that affects how we come to the Bible.


And along the way, we pick up beliefs about God. And I’m here to tell you, some of the beliefs you have about God are true, and some are not! And this includes myself!


When I was growing up, we moved around quite a bit, and so that meant that I went to many different types of churches over the years of growing up. Some were traditional, liturgical churches. Some were “holy-roller” charismatic churches with TONS of music and people speaking in tongues. Some were laid back with how people dressed and whether the kids were involved, and some were uptight. They all loved Jesus, but they had differing beliefs on certain things.


We’ve all heard of the different beliefs people have depending on the type of church they go to. You’re either allowed to watch movies, or movies are from the devil. Some say no dancing, and some dance IN CHURCH.


Some churches tell you that you need to vote red in order to be a good Christian, and some church tell you that you need to vote blue in order to be a good Christian.


Churches disagree over what types of instruments to use, or no instruments at all. They say you need to baptize a certain way, or at a certain time to REALLY follow Jesus. And they all are trying to follow Jesus, but they hold on to certain things.


And HOW we teach our people those things all influences how we see God. For instance, if we think that God expects us to get to where He is in order to have salvation…if we think he is distant from us, frowning, and watching our every move, then we’re going to act a certain way.


We’re going to work really hard to act “right”, speak “right”, and think “right.” Because we’re afraid that if we act WRONG, we’ll be punished.

We’re afraid that if we speak wrong, we’ll be condemned.

We’re afraid that if we think wrong, we’ll be EXCLUDED from God’s presence and blessings.


But I’ve got to tell you, everything you believe about God – might not be true!


But when you DO discover parts of what you believe are actually untrue, or you misunderstood, or you don’t fully see the big picture yet…you don’t have to leave the faith!


Just let go of what is untrue and hold on to what IS true.


Megan and I have some friends in Houston who were battling with their two boys getting sick all the time. And after many months back and forth with the doctors, they discovered that there was actually mold in the walls of the bedroom and living room of their home.


And so they began the process of deconstructing and reconstructing. They had to get rid of the bad walls, and rebuild good walls. The whole house wasn’t bad, just parts of it! The answer wasn’t to burn down the whole house, but to work through letting go of what was hurting them and their kids, and rebuild around the parts that were helpful and healthy.


If we look at the person of Jesus, we realize that God isn’t some angry, bearded person standing far off with his arms crossed, judging our every move and waiting to pounce on us when we mess up!


Jesus, God in the flesh, SHOWS us that he is a guide, a friend, a leader who loves us and wants us to grow.


And doubt and uncertainty and questions are all PART of that growth. In fact, deconstructing and reconstructing our beliefs is all an important part of growing as a follower of Jesus who is learning to live in the way of Jesus.


When we discover something we have believed is actually not true, or is missing the full picture, the answer isn’t to walk away from the faith. The answer is to let go of what isn’t true and pursue what is true.


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That’s why we’re starting a 3-week Bible Reading Challenge as a whole church tomorrow. Because to be a church who bases our life on the Bible, we need to interpret the Bible through the focus of Jesus.


And I want all of us to build a daily habit of pursuing the truth of Jesus by wrestling with Scripture. Because Jesus isn’t afraid of our questions, and if he is who he says he is, then he can handle them.


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Doubt doesn’t have to be a dead-end. We let go of what isn’t true, and we pursue what is true, TOGETHER, holding each other up and pointing each other back to Jesus along the way.


That’s why we’re engaging in the Bible Reading Challenge together as a whole church family. Because we want to be transformed by Jesus together, and we do that through spiritual habits together.


So we’re going to spend the next few weeks reading through the entire Gospel of John, 1 chapter per day, 21 chapters in 21 days, so that we can fill our minds with the words of Jesus.


So that we can fill our time with the presence of Jesus. And so that we can fill our hearts with the love of Jesus.


So if you’ve never really built a Bible reading habit, start this challenge. Do this with us. Engaging TOGETHER with others is a great way to build a habit.


If you’ve fallen out of your Bible reading habit, do this challenge! It’s a great way to restart your habit.


Even if you’re already fully in a habit of reading Scripture every day, I ask that you consider pausing your plan for the next 3 weeks so we can engage in the Gospel of John TOGETHER.


And as we do this Bible Reading Challenge, and anytime you engage with Scripture in any way, you always ask the three most important questions for every follower of Jesus:


[SLIDE 18]

What is God saying to me from this passage? What is standing out?

What is God inviting me to do in response? How can I take a small step in following Jesus in this way this week?

Who am I prompted to share this with? Because sharing is part of how we apprentice to Jesus.


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So whether you have doubts and considering leaving the faith, considering just slipping away from church, or whether you love someone who is slipping away, I want to give you good news.


In many ways, Peter did too. He had major doubts. Part of his story is denying Jesus three times, abandoning him at his weakest moment.


And in John 21, after Peter’s doubt, after Peter’s denial and betrayal of Jesus three times… Jesus comes to Peter. And he restores him and forgives him by asking him, “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know I do!” “Then feed my sheep. Join my work.” And Jesus does that three times, fully forgiving Peter, going right TO Peter.


Just like he went right to Thomas in his doubts, he goes right to Peter and restores him and invites him to keep following, keep learning, keep growing and joining in with his work.


And then at Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended to heaven, who did God choose to preach to the huge crowd of people who had gathered? The day that over 3000 people were saved and believed in Jesus?


It was Peter! Whose faith was built AFTER his doubt.


[SLIDE 20]

Doubt isn’t the enemy of faith. Doubt is often an invitation to a growing faith.


And 30 years later, 30 years after being forgiven by Jesus, Peter writes this encouragement to followers of Jesus, “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:25


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Peter knew first-hand the love of Jesus, the grace and mercy of Jesus. He knew he was the Suffering Servant, not the Conquering King. He was the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us, and who guides us along the journey. Isn’t that good news?