The Honest Skeptic
Rev. Kit Billings
January 15, 2006
Doctrinal Reading: Heavenly Secrets n. 7298
Be it further known that it is according to the laws of order that no one ought to be persuaded about truth in a moment, that is to say, that truth should be so confirmed in a moment as to leave no doubt whatever about it. Why? Because the truth which is so impressed becomes persuasive truth, and is devoid of any extension, and also of any yielding quality. Such truth is represented in the other life as hard, and as such that it does not admit good into it so as to become of serious use in life. Hence it is that as soon as in the other life any truth is presented before good spirits by a manifest experience, there is soon afterward presented something opposite, which causes doubt.
In this way it is given them to think about it, and to consider whether it be so, and to collect reasons, and thus to bring that truth into their minds rationally. By this there is effected an extension in the spiritual sight in respect to that truth, even to its opposites; and thence it sees and perceives in the understanding all the quality of the truth, and thence can admit inflowing light and energy from heaven according to the states of the objects—for truths receive various forms according to the circumstances. This is the reason why the magicians were allowed to do as Aaron did (when he and Moses went before Pharaoh and Aaron’s staff was turned into a snake); for thereby doubt was excited among the sons of Israel about the miracle, whether it was Divine. And thus an opportunity was given them of thinking and considering whether it was Divine, and of finally confirming themselves that it was so.
Consideration. Reflection…thinking about whether something Divine (perhaps some aspect of God’s Word) is true or not. Have you or someone that you know ever heard a Christian clergyman (or perhaps even a layperson for that matter) ever say to a child or an adult that is questioning an important aspect of the Bible or of some issue within faith itself, “Don’t question this; just believe!” If your answer were yes, then I would say that the person that shut down or squelched the reasoning and questioning of that child or adult was making a serious mistake.
Why would I say such a thing? Because, in order to achieve spiritual understanding about one’s own beliefs or tradition and about the Lord and His Word, which is relevant within a living and saving faith-life, we need to have our questions, our doubts and are mental and emotional struggles. They, in fact, are often the means or stepping stones by which genuine and authentic faith may grow! And we see the importance of everyday folk who have doubts and skepticism being supported and encouraged by the Lord within this story of Nathanael being called into discipleship—for indeed, Nathanael was a genuine and honest skeptic.
Nathanael, he was quite a character, wasn’t he? It was a rather auspicious beginning he had with the Lord. He is a good and important disciple for us to know about and learn from in our own journeys as followers of God, just as the other eleven are too. The most obvious characteristic of Nathanael was his skepticism. In fact, he probably could have qualified as a Missourian. “Show me first” could have easily been his motto. I believe that Nathanael reminds us that a journey toward God can and should be one of tremendous honesty and realness. Nathanael helps us to understand the importance of the “Honest Skeptic” within ourselves, and that God welcomes such people (and such character traits inside of us) within His fold.
Do you ever find yourself feeling skeptical about the Lord and His Word? Does your heart and mind seem to fluctuate in their faith and perception about God and spiritual truth?
Experiencing doubt and struggle at times as we journey through our spiritual development and regeneration is a common thread among people who desire a real and honest faith. Let us see where Nathanael and Jesus shall take us today concerning the vital issue of dealing with our doubts and skepticism on the road of life and faith.
Right now we are journeying through our Season of Epiphany, which is a season of Light. The Divine Light and Truth of God shines out into Heaven and into the cosmos emanating from the Lord’s Divine Love, thus His Love and Truth flow forth together—they are One. Given that God is Love and Truth itself, it makes sense that He has created us with two fundamental spiritual capacities or powers that are receptive to His Love and Wisdom: our theology refers to them as our WILL and UNDERSTANDING. This morning I’d like to share with you about the latter of the two, the more mental side of us, which was built by the Lord to receive His Light of truth. For you see, it is this element of our humanness that can receive and experience a truer understanding of things, and therefore a living and growing faith in Christ as our Savior and in the truth in His Word, which sets us free from our doubts.
Faith, as we find it defined within our New Church theology, is spiritual eyesight or perception about high things, and it contains within it hope in the Lord to manage and work within things that cannot be seen and quantified by natural measurements. Our theology defines faith in another way also, as the FORM of spiritual love, or rather, as love for the Lord taking form within the human mind, created out of God’s Light entering us from deep within. Faith, as the Lord taught, is one of three crucial elements of our salvation, in addition to loving God and living a life according to the Lord’s commandments. Having faith in the Lord means we personally are growing in the perception that Jesus Christ is Divine and that He (being God-Visible) is the most powerful Being and force in the universe. Faith in the Lord actually grows and is determined by how much love we have for Him, and it is developed by living a good life in accordance with the Word. Faith is fed by means of the Lord’s truth in His Word. This creates fertile soil within the human mind that enables God to plant and grow His goodness inside of our “natural” or everyday conscious mind, that lower part of our minds that’s in need of regeneration. It is this process of God changing and transforming our “natural minds” that saves us. For then our whole being is conjoined with the Lord—and Christ’s love, truth and light shine through us!
But this is a long and important process, a long and dramatic journey of gradual growth and change.
We reflected last Sunday about the Magi who help us to understand that spiritual life in the Lord is often a long journey, one which calls us to keep our eyesight heavenward, open to being led by even the guiding Light from God’s Word represented by the star that led the Wise Men to the infant Christ. The Magi were great seekers who understood the science of correspondence within the natural metals and plant life of the Earth, which inspired them to give gifts that represented the core essentials of a saving life in Jesus Christ. They presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, which correspond to spiritual love, faith and choosing obedience (which may often feel bitter in fact) to Christ and His Word.
But walking the long journey of life as a seeker of the Lord presents us with some deep challenges, would you agree? For often, those who choose to follow in the footsteps of the Magi find themselves coming into periods of doubt, struggle and temptation, as our young faith in God is attacked by evil spirits intent on killing it. This is reflected prominently in the Christmas story as revealed in Scripture, and in many other places besides. The Gospel of John begins by revealing that the Lord is the Light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it. Notice too that the shepherds in the fields we are told were watching their flocks by night. The Bible is replete with stories involving these two opposites, light and darkness. Genesis begins with those awesome words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
Mystically and spiritually speaking, there are many stories and
passages in God’s Word that take place in or mention darkness…the
shadowlands…or the nighttime. Recall
how Nicodemus came to the Lord in the nighttime, which represented the
spiritual darkness he was in while seeking the Lord’s Light and truth for his
life. And what about the part of the
Lord’s own journey as He entered Gethsemane that tells of He and His disciples
going their in the night. Psalm 23
speaks of the psalmist walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
Darkness, evening, periods of obscurity, shadow and doubt, are part of the legitimate spiritual journey of life. There are times of Epiphany indeed, and there are also important times of spiritual darkness, temptation, and the honest struggle to find and know the Light. The typical journey of spiritual development, in fact, will be an oscillation between spiritual daytime and spiritual nighttime, which is why life in our natural world oscillates as it does between day and night. The Lord wants His followers to understand this dramatically by means of two awesome signs from Him: the first being the movement of our waking life on Earth as going from daylight into nighttime, and then back again and again; the second is God’s poetic use of language in the opening verses of His Word closing out each day within the Creation Story with the following words: “And there was evening, and there was morning—”, et cetera.
Saving and maturing faith, it turns out, needs time to develop. It needs your choice to cooperate with the Lord in growing in spiritual love for Him and built up by means of truths we find in the Lord’s Holy Word.
Each of the stories of Jesus calling one of His new disciples into following Him reveals important spiritual truths or issues for us to consider and understand. Nathanael helps us to be okay with the fact that there will be many folks who start their genuine search for the Lord in a state of honest skepticism. And on another level, he also reminds me that as my spiritual journey moves and cycles, as I move in and out of temptations, that genuine skepticism, doubt and/or questioning is healthy and useful. The Lord calling another disciple, Thomas, also known as “doubting Thomas” reflects this as well. Notice how Jesus did not reject either of these disciples who questioned basic things. Nathanael’s first words to his friend Philip after Philip had shared his own person belief that he and others had found the long-awaited Savior of Israel, the Messiah were, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
How often have first-time visitors of a church entered through the front doors thinking similar thoughts as this follower of Christ: “Is this Jesus character all that people say He’s cracked up to be? Has my friend been duped into some kind of weird religion? Am I nuts for being here today? Will I ever really see or experience the Divine?” Philip, the other disciple featured in our Gospel lesson this morning, gives us the answer, “COME, AND SEE.”
Doubts, wonderments and mental-spiritual struggles are part of the landscape of a good, healthy spiritual life. They are also important in a worldly sense since they keep us from being suckered in by the many con-artists and sales-pitchers who want to sell us everything and their grandmother in order to earn a living. The Bible tells us to “not believe every spirit, but to test the spirits” (I John 4:1). I Thessalonians 5:21 says, “Test everything. Hold on to the good.”
Spiritually speaking, some healthy skepticism leads us into the greatest adventure in life we could ever ask for: to come to church with an openness regarding our questions and concerns. Our skepticism and reasoning, when they are led by a sincere longing to know and understand and have faith in God, and therefore in God-Visible: Jesus Christ, lead us into authentic living, because most of us will have our fair share of fluctuating faith and understanding regarding the Lord and His Divine Word of truth. And when we are going through such internal and mental struggles on our journey of spiritual growth and development, as long as we can be real and open about it, then the Lord’s attitude with us is like His attitude toward Nathanael, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
And when we, like Nathanael, are truly walking a sincere road of struggling faith in life at times, then our journey through those struggles and temptations can lead us into perceptions and faith as great as what that disciple came to that day he met up with Jesus for the first time, when he said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” And then if that awesome perception weren’t enough, look what Christ follows it with! He said to Nathanael, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Gulp! If that doesn’t take your breath away, I don’t know what can? In other words, journeying to move into an authentic, sometimes skeptical, relationship with Jesus will open your life up to the most amazing spiritual truth and love anyone could ask for. And even more importantly, by being open and real about our sincere skepticism and wonderments we are ultimately led by the Lord into a form of faith that is truly OUR OWN. It will not be a spurious and false faith created out of someone else’s journey and tradition, but instead OUR OWN. God’s truth, when it grows inside of someone’s mind by means of chiseling it out of tough, and sometimes fun, struggles through discernment, and especially by means of trying to LIVE IT OUT genuinely in one’s own life experience, turns into saving faith. Saving faith is worth the struggles and doubts and temptations I go through, because that is faith in God-Visible, Jesus Christ.
Our theology describes the living drama within each individual’s heart and mind in amazing ways—as amazing, colorful and intriguing as the literal story of God’s Word itself. Built out of a careful study and meditation upon God’s Word, and from its literal and inner levels of truth, New Church theology reveals great things for us to consider when we are dealing with ourselves and our journey of finding saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Saving faith, our theology asserts, involves much more than a one-time confession that Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior. It means striving every day to walk the road of life with belief in Him—believing that He is God-Visible who brings saving and regenerating and healing Divine Love into our world (and also into our personal lives and struggles); saving faith is believing that the Lord is the most powerful Person and force in existence (which means that Love Itself is All-powerful!), who has every element and detail of life in His providence and hands, and that the Lord is moving our entire existence in His direction, since He is the only actual active force, while everything else in the universe is responding to His Life and power. Saving faith, as God’s Word reveals, involves daily trying to look toward the Lord and acknowledge His power and work in everyone else’s life and mine. It is a depth of perception that yearns to look beneath the surface of things at God’s great activities moving everywhere!
Saving faith is born out of a life living in accordance with God’s commandments in His Word (which is a whole other sermon really). Saving faith involves a wonderful and marvelous blessing in life, which is the drama of God’s Light actually flowing into and through the “supraconscious degree of our minds” (that higher, and often subconscious level of what we are inside!) and down into this natural degree, our “everyday conscious mind”, creating what our theology calls ENLIGHTENMENT. And it also involves something else, which Nathanael’s character reminds us is important, and that is a depth of faith that is built up by means of careful reasoning and reflection as we journey into understanding. Really understanding spiritual things…it’s one of the best healthy “highs” I know of, because it is born out of the Light shining from God’s Heaven into your own, individual mind, and it feels terrific to understand spiritual things.
Actual living and saving faith in the Lord is brought to life inside of people through a great and multidimensional way. And part of that multi-legged construction is a slowly-slowly growing faith in the Lord born out of one’s own reasoning, and therefore honest questioning. In short, we are meant to understand. Not only do we need an accurate knowledge of the Lord and His Word (which is our major source of spiritual truth), we need a form of faith that has been engineered by means of reasoning and meditation upon divine things. If we didn’t, then why would our Lord’s Word say such things as:
“Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord. (Is. 1:18)
“Let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me.” (Jer. 9:24)
“He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have anabundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.” (Mtt. 13:11-12,19)
“I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father.” (John 16:25)
“You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we know what we worship…” (John 4:22 emphasis mine)
These passages are but a few of many that illustrate how important it is that our saving and living faith inside of us be constructed out of reasoning and understanding, in addition to a growing knowledge of God’s Word and a life of following God’s commandments.
But you know, sometimes our doubts and skepticism and questioning can go too far, and lead us away from the Lord’s living truth in His Word and into hurtful and painful falsities of many kinds. This is what the demonic people in Hell delight in, is drawing us into falsities in order to destroy our faith in God, as they inspire us to want to trust only in ourselves instead of on the Lord and His Word. This warning can be a deep reminder to us that as any genuine disciple or follower of the Lord must do, we need to daily want to follow the Lord as our Divinely wise and loving Shepherd. We must want to be led by Him through the Light of His Word. Philip, Nathanael, Andrew, Peter and the others are a part of God’s Word to help us not forget that a daily follower of God is a faithful one who needs ultimately to follow the truth given by Jesus Christ. Praying that the Lord would guide us through our doubts while we immerse our minds in the literal and inner depth of Light we find in the Word, facilitated by the sound doctrine and teaching within our New Church theology, will always bring us safely home, guiding us into faithful life through understanding in Christ.
If you have doubts that you
struggle with, if you don’t have everything all figured out and tied in a nice
bundle, but you really would like to find out what God has for you, then you
have come to the right place and to the right Person. For indeed, the Lord Jesus delights in revealing heaven to honest
skeptics. He makes great use of even
sharpening our understanding of heavenly truths by making use of their
opposites, as doubts can lead us therefore into a carefully reasoned form of
faith. This is probably the heart of
Jesus’ final words to Nathanael. He
promises Nathanael answers, answers to even bigger questions than he has
now. Jesus refers to Jacob’s dream of a
ladder with angels coming and going up to heaven and then down to earth, in Genesis
28. Christ claims that He is the one
who makes such revelations of heaven unfold before our understanding. And as Christ’s follower, Nathanael will
come to know and understand such things.
The same is true for any honest skeptic who comes to the Lord seeking answers. If you come, doubts and all, and are willing to learn, listen, and eventually obey, there is no limit to what God has for you. I pray that this New Year will be such journeys of openness, learning and discovery for us all as our Lord and Savior bids us each to “Come and see!” Amen.