Being skeptical. Calling yourself a cynic. How does that sound to you? Chances are it doesn’t sound that bad. In a time when truth is considered by the world to be relative, when each one does what is right in their own eyes, looking at things through the lens of skepticism might seem like a good and even wise move.
Skepticism is doubt on steroids. It’s when the questions and mistrust in your heart have grown so much and spread so rampantly throughout that you are consumed by it. We live in a culture that celebrates this deformity. We even have subcultures like hipsters who revel in their disdain of others.
What does God have to say about this? How do we know when we are being intelligent and discerning or when we are being twisted by doubt? What do we do in the face of a world that thinks skepticism is something to be praised rather than eradicated? Dive in if these are questions that intrigue you….. or are you too skeptical to find out?
We usually use this section to tell a popular story or a more personal one from one of our author’s own lives. What I want to share with you this time is a story from the Bible. My reason is that this story has so much to it that I just couldn’t shorten it down for you. As you read, notice all the ways that cynicism and skepticism have spread throughout the Israelite nation. Even Elijah’s friends feel it!
I think it’s also worth sharing that the rituals performed by Jezebel’s priests were not silly or laughed at by those watching. On the contrary, they were impressive and amazing. It was probably quite a show to watch, and far outshined whatever that silly guy, Elijah, was doing. In a lot of ways, the priests of Baal had the best show in town. They were flashy and edgy and kept the audience guessing. They were, for lack of a better phrase, pretty freakin’ cool.
1 Kings 18
After some time, in the third year of the drought, the Lord said to Elijah, “Go and present yourself to King Ahab, and I will send rain.” So Elijah started out.
The famine in Samaria was at its worst, so Ahab called in Obadiah, who was in charge of the palace. (Obadiah was a devout worshiper of the Lord, and when Jezebel was killing the Lord's prophets, Obadiah took a hundred of them, hid them in caves in two groups of fifty, and provided them with food and water.) Ahab said to Obadiah, “Let us go and look at every spring and every stream bed in the land to see if we can find enough grass to keep the horses and mules alive. Maybe we won't have to kill any of our animals.” They agreed on which part of the land each one would explore, and set off in different directions.
As Obadiah was on his way, he suddenly met Elijah. He recognized him, bowed low before him, and asked, “Is it really you, sir?”
“Yes, I'm Elijah,” he answered. “Go and tell your master the king that I am here.”
Obadiah answered, “What have I done that you want to put me in danger of being killed by King Ahab? By the living Lord, your God, I swear that the king has made a search for you in every country in the world. Whenever the ruler of a country reported that you were not in his country, Ahab would require that ruler to swear that you could not be found. And now you want me to go and tell him that you are here? What if the spirit of the Lord carries you off to some unknown place as soon as I leave? Then, when I tell Ahab that you are here and he can't find you, he will put me to death. Remember that I have been a devout worshiper of the Lord ever since I was a boy. Haven't you heard that when Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord I hid a hundred of them in caves, in two groups of fifty, and supplied them with food and water? So how can you order me to go and tell the king that you are here? He will kill me!”
Elijah answered, “By the living Lord Almighty, whom I serve, I promise that I will present myself to the king today.”
So Obadiah went to King Ahab and told him, and Ahab set off to meet Elijah. When Ahab saw him, he said, “So there you are—the worst troublemaker in Israel!”
“I'm not the troublemaker,” Elijah answered. “You are—you and your father. You are disobeying the Lord's commands and worshiping the idols of Baal. Now order all the people of Israel to meet me at Mount Carmel. Bring along the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah who are supported by Queen Jezebel.”
So Ahab summoned all the Israelites and the prophets of Baal to meet at Mount Carmel. Elijah went up to the people and said, “How much longer will it take you to make up your minds? If the Lord is God, worship him; but if Baal is God, worship him!” But the people didn't say a word. Then Elijah said, “I am the only prophet of the Lord still left, but there are 450 prophets of Baal. Bring two bulls; let the prophets of Baal take one, kill it, cut it in pieces, and put it on the wood—but don't light the fire. I will do the same with the other bull. Then let the prophets of Baal pray to their god, and I will pray to the Lord, and the one who answers by sending fire—he is God.”
The people shouted their approval.
Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Since there are so many of you, you take a bull and prepare it first. Pray to your god, but don't set fire to the wood.”
They took the bull that was brought to them, prepared it, and prayed to Baal until noon. They shouted, “Answer us, Baal!” and kept dancing around the altar they had built. But no answer came.
At noon Elijah started making fun of them: “Pray louder! He is a god! Maybe he is day-dreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he's gone off on a trip! Or maybe he's sleeping, and you've got to wake him up!” So the prophets prayed louder and cut themselves with knives and daggers, according to their ritual, until blood flowed. They kept on ranting and raving until the middle of the afternoon; but no answer came, not a sound was heard.
Then Elijah said to the people, “Come closer to me,” and they all gathered around him. He set about repairing the altar of the Lord which had been torn down. He took twelve stones, one for each of the twelve tribes named for the sons of Jacob, the man to whom the Lord had given the name Israel. With these stones he rebuilt the altar for the worship of the Lord. He dug a trench around it, large enough to hold about four gallons of water. Then he placed the wood on the altar, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the offering and the wood.” They did so, and he said, “Do it again”—and they did. “Do it once more,” he said—and they did. The water ran down around the altar and filled the trench.
At the hour of the afternoon sacrifice the prophet Elijah approached the altar and prayed, “O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove now that you are the God of Israel and that I am your servant and have done all this at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you are bringing them back to yourself.”
The Lord sent fire down, and it burned up the sacrifice, the wood, and the stones, scorched the earth and dried up the water in the trench. 39 When the people saw this, they threw themselves on the ground and exclaimed, “The Lord is God; the Lord alone is God!”
Elijah ordered, “Seize the prophets of Baal; don't let any of them get away!” The people seized them all, and Elijah led them down to Kishon Brook and killed them.
Then Elijah said to King Ahab, “Now, go and eat. I hear the roar of rain approaching.” While Ahab went to eat, Elijah climbed to the top of Mount Carmel, where he bowed down to the ground, with his head between his knees. He said to his servant, “Go and look toward the sea.”
The servant went and returned, saying, “I didn't see a thing.” Seven times in all Elijah told him to go and look. The seventh time he returned and said, “I saw a little cloud no bigger than a man's hand, coming up from the sea.”
Elijah ordered his servant, “Go to King Ahab and tell him to get in his chariot and go back home before the rain stops him.”
In a little while the sky was covered with dark clouds, the wind began to blow, and a heavy rain began to fall. Ahab got in his chariot and started back to Jezreel. The power of the Lord came on Elijah; he fastened his clothes tight around his waist and ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.
You may have noticed how Elijah met doubt at every turn. The nation of Israel had been off the path of God for so long that doubt had spread like a rampant virus. No one knew what to believe anymore. It was so prevalent that they refused to have even an ounce of faith and looked at everything through a thick lens of skepticism.
That is not the life God desires for us to live. In fact, he designed it be quite different from that. He created this world to be enjoyed and valued. He wants us to explore it and take care of it. He calls us as believers to live a life of worship, and that means joy, faith, devotion, and love! None of those things fit with the sour scrunched up face of a cynic.
So take a look at your attitude toward God, life, and the world in general. Are you full of doubt to the point that you can’t even see the wonder of the Creator? Are you so concerned with finding cracks that you miss the beauty of the earth right in front of you? Do you value position and the opinion of others over the guidance and love of God the Father? I encourage you to go through all of this material and really take a deep look at the state of your heart and what God may be trying to show you.
Read through this Scripture carefully. Pay attention to what Paul praises in his young friend. Timothy was around your age when he was receiving these letters from Paul. He also lived in a town filled with non-believers. So this encouragement and advice given to him was not a small thing. We are just like Timothy, being called by God to live boldly for our faith. He asks us to be authentic in our community and to live courageously. It’s our responsibility to live according to God’s standards and that means ignoring what our culture tells us is good and respected. We are asked to be confident and hold firmly to our faith and the power, love and self-control the Holy Spirit gives us!
Father God, I know that you are sovereign. You created everything and you reign over the entire universe. But it is so easy to let that doubt in and begin to think that I know better, that I see things more clearly. I have been prideful and I have forgotten to have faith in you. Please help me begin to address infectious skepticism in my life. Give me grace and wisdom and courage to make the changes I need to make and submit in humility to your guidance and purpose. I trust that you love me and that you will begin to transform me and free my heart of cynicism’s grasp. Teach to me to have faith, humility, and joy and to understand what good doubt is rather than deforming doubt. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.
Here is the etymology (history of the word origin) of skeptic. Now, we talk about what good doubt is in another subtopic; but notice here how the word skeptic refers to a suspended judgment of opinion. It’s a permanent suspension when you are living your life with a skeptical attitude. Good doubt is a temporary and productive process where you eventually arrive at a solid truth that God provides us. This is where it becomes harmful to adopt the attitude of the skeptics in your life. Even on the big issues, God always provides us with answers – such as existing in love, joy, grace for others, and humility to his sovereignty and purpose. Keep these verses in mind:
Proverbs 2:6 “ It is the Lord who gives wisdom; from him come knowledge and understanding.”
James 1:5-8 “But if any of you lack wisdom, you should pray to God, who will give it to you; because God gives generously and graciously to all. But when you pray, you must believe and not doubt at all. Whoever doubts is like a wave in the sea that is driven and blown about by the wind. If you are like that, unable to make up your mind and undecided in all you do, you must not think that you will receive anything from the Lord.”
also sceptic, 1580s, "member of an ancient Greek school that doubted the possibility of real knowledge," from Middle French sceptique and directly from Latin scepticus "the sect of the Skeptics," from Greek skeptikos (plural Skeptikoi "the Skeptics, followers of Pyrrho"), noun use of adjective meaning "inquiring, reflective" (the name taken by the disciples of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who lived c.360-c.270 B.C.E.), related to skeptesthai "to reflect, look, view" (see scope (n.1)).
Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found. [Miguel de Unamuno, "Essays and Soliloquies," 1924]
The extended sense of "one with a doubting attitude" first recorded 1610s. The sk- spelling is an early 17c. Greek revival and is preferred in U.S. As a verb, scepticize (1690s) failed to catch on.
Considering the way that different struggles and sins push each of us toward adapting a skeptical attitude. Take some time to talk with God about your heart and pay attention to the things that come to the surface, particularly areas where you feel anger, resentment, and rebellion over against obeying God and keeping Jesus as the Lord of your life. After that, make a list of the different sins or tendencies you struggle with in regard to cynicism. Each day this week, take some time, do some reading of relevant texts, look up Scripture, pray, journal, etc, and start to address specifically these things on your list. Don’t forget to include God in this process as well as your youth leader, parent, and pastor.
For some insight into just how skeptical you might be in your every day life, take this quiz. It’s interesting that having this sort of pervasive doubt has actually been linked to heart conditions!
Romans 5:1-2 - Here we see how we are meant to experience life. It is a far cry from the deformity that skepticism reeks on our hearts.
2 Peter 2:10-15 - Scripture says some pretty strong things about people who openly slander the teachings of God. Their pride and rejection of his truth guarantees them destruction and pain.
Isaiah 40:13-16, 28 - A big part of the cynicism of our culture comes from pride. While you are precious and wonderfully made, God is always worthy of our humble adoration. Never forget that.
Isaiah 26:3-4 - A call to have faith and confidence in the power, purpose, and peace of the Lord.
Hebrews 6:7-8 - This passage illustrates how it is important for our hearts to remain open and receptive to God’s love and instruction. Skepticism often twists the doors of our hearts closed and fills our ears with cotton.
This clip is from The Messenger which tells the story of Joan of Arc. Here she is before the leaders of the church (who were really the leaders of France then) and she is asking for their support and belief in her ability to fight and her assertion that she was chosen by God. Notice the different reactions of the people in the scene. Some are extremely skeptical while others are just wishing and wanting to cast off the doubt and believe in what Joan says. Where do you think you would fall on that scale?
And here’s a fun scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl when Elizabeth Swann gets all of her skepticism about a ghost ship completely dispelled. Fair warning, it starts with the screaming monkey!
As you watch this clip, pay close attention to the different attitudes people with which people are living their lives. You will probably notice the some examples of what we have been talking about here. Which one do you respond to? Why? What is the bigger picture here? Meaning, what path do each of the life attitudes take you down? Keep in mind, we aren’t talking about emotions, which can shift and change over time; we are focusing on how people decide to act and live out their lives. Write or make a voice memo or video of your thoughts on this topic. Put what you really think right now, what you wish you think (even if it’s the same as your present life attitude), and where you see that taking you down the road.
Wanna have some fun looking at some of the craziest things this world has to offer? Then set your skepticism aside and take a look at some clips from the Ripley’s Believe It or Not TV Show. The Bee Man and the Cat who eats with a fork are my favorite!