Dealing with Doubt
We would like to all be bold followers of Christ who maintain absolute and unwavering confidence in our Great God. Unfortunately what we want and our experience are often entirely different. We want to be steadfast in our faith but there are times when doubt still creeps into our lives.
Chuck Swindoll notes three times when doubt is most likely to strike:
- When things we believe should never happen, occur. In this category we would put things like the abuse or suffering of a child; when a lie is passed off as the truth and sways the hearers; when terrorists strike.
- When things we believe should happen, never occur. These are the times when we expect God to say yes and He says No. Times when justice is perverted; when healing doesn’t happen; and when hard work doesn’t seem to pay off.
- When things we believe should happen now, occur much, much later. Think about Abraham as he waited for the promised heir as he watched the gray hairs multiply on his head. [Stress Fractures p. 212-218]
This morning we encounter John the Baptist in a time of uncertainty or doubt. As we approach our text John is in Herod’s dungeon. John landed there because he told the truth. King Herod (known also as Herod Antipas) had married his brother Philip’s wife (illicitly). John called Herod’s act what it was: sin. In an attempt to quiet John Herod had him imprisoned. Josephus notes that Herod the Great imprisoned John at Machaerus, a restored fortress east of the Dead Sea 1
John told people to repent of their sin because if they didn’t do so they would face judgment. He announced that the one coming after him was going to come in Judgment. When Jesus came on the scene John believed the wait was over.
As John sat in jail he heard about the things Jesus was doing. John had baptized Jesus and he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Him. But the problem was that Jesus didn’t seem to be bringing Judgment or even rebuking people for their sin. John may have even expected that the Judgment to come would set him free from prison. John began to wonder if maybe he had been mistaken about Jesus being the one who should come. This is where we pick up our text in Luke 7.
John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ ”
At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Luke 7:18-23)
Notice a couple of things: first, John went to Jesus with his doubts. Too often when people start to doubt they turn away from the Lord. They don’t understand what is happening so they walk away. In times of disappointment or trouble they conclude that God has failed them so they turn in another direction. John took the wiser course. Instead of turning away he turned TO the Lord.
The fact is that John was not wrong in his teaching, he was wrong in his timing. There will be a day when Jesus will come as a Judge over all the earth. However, for the time being Jesus had come to provide a way of salvation for anyone who would put their trust in Him. The Lord will judge the world but that time is still yet to come.
Notice something else: Jesus does not criticize John for having doubts. In fact, we see just the opposite. Jesus gave John evidence to strengthen his faith. He performed some miracles and told the messengers to tell John what they saw. Jesus didn’t simply say, “Yep, I’m the guy” and leave it at that. He pointed John to the evidence. He turned him to the Scriptures. Jesus knew that John would be reminded of Isaiah 61:1
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. (61:1)
He knew John would see that if Jesus is doing what the Messiah was predicted to do; He must be the one we have been waiting for.
There is a good principle here: when in doubt, look to the Scriptures. We should turn to the Bible not to find some text to prove we are right. We should turn to the Bible looking for truth and understanding. Our job is to listen to who God IS rather than what we want Him to be. We are all prone to misunderstand what God is doing. Perhaps this is why our Savior adds, “God blesses those who are not offended by me.”
The word for “offended” suggests the closing of a trap. God’s blessing would come to those who accepted Jesus’ credentials and believed in him rather than being “caught and trapped” by their false expectations and thus miss him completely.2
People today stumble over Jesus because they think they shouldn’t have any problems or struggles in life if they follow Christ. Others stumble over the teaching of Jesus that calls us to obedience, repentance, and surrender. They don’t want a Jesus that requires them to change. Others stumble over the narrow-mindedness of Jesus in telling us that the only way to Heaven is by embracing Him as our Redeemer and our Lord. In each case the people doubt because He is not what they think He should be. What we fail to see is that who Jesus really is, is so much better than what we wish He would be.
Jesus encouraged John to listen and learn. He called him to trust what He knew, not his personal expectations.
Jesus’ Endorsement of John
When the messengers left to return to John, Jesus talked to the crowd about John. You wonder if some of the crowd was talking about John. Maybe they were saying, “What has happened to John?” or “See even John does not believe in Jesus.” Jesus did not put Him down but testified to his faithfulness.
“What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’(Luke 7:24-27)
Jesus asked the crowd, “Why was John so popular?” Why did the people go out into the wilderness to see this man? Was it because he was able to ride the wave of public opinion? Was it because he was able to tickle the fancies of the masses? Nope. John wasn’t concerned about public opinion. He was uncompromising with the truth. He wasn’t flashy, just faithful.
Did they go to see John because of his appearance or his captivating personality? No again. In fact, John wore camel skin garments and ate locusts and wild honey. Most people probably thought John was an oddball.
Jesus contended that they went to see John in the dessert because they recognized he was a prophet. He spoke the truth of God.
Jesus said John the Baptist was the prophet who was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. He fulfilled the promise of Malachi 3:1. Then Jesus said,
“I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
It sounds a little like double talk doesn’t it? It is like saying “Today is the most beautiful day I have ever seen but every other day is certainly more beautiful than this one.” We would say, “What?”
Jesus said John was the greatest man born of a woman (he is greater than Abraham, Moses, David and all the other Old Testament saints). But . . . says Jesus, the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John. Jesus is talking about two different kinds of greatness. As far as good people go . . . John was the best. He was the best a man can be on his own. John faithfully declared the word. He was consistent in the way he lived his life. He possessed incredible humility as he stepped back and directed people’s attention to Jesus.
Though John was very faithful in pointing to the coming Kingdom, the person who puts their trust and confidence in Christ as the Lord and Savior of life is able to experience the Kingdom. This was a greater blessing.
Think about it this way: as beautiful as a photograph might be, it is not as great as that which is photographed. The person who enjoys reading a book is not as significant as the person who wrote the book. The person who wrote the book (if it is a biography) is not as great as the person being written about.
Until the death and resurrection of Jesus the door to eternal life was closed. Jesus had to satisfactorily pay the penalty of sin on the cross before we could be restored to a right relationship with God. John died before that happened. I am sure John will be with us in Heaven but while on earth he was unable to attain what even the weakest person can gain through Christ.
The Fickleness of Unbelief
The people who heard Jesus’ comments about John embraced what He said. They had been baptized by John. They knew the kind of man that he was. They could see that he was sent by God. However, the Pharisees and experts in the law scoffed at Jesus’ words. They had rejected John and his message. Jesus directed his next words at these men. The MESSAGE seems to communicate most clearly,
“How can I account for the people of this generation? They’re like spoiled children complaining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk but you were always too busy.’ John the Baptizer came fasting and you called him crazy. The Son of Man came feasting and you called him a lush. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
Jesus said these men were as hard to please as little kids. They were never happy. The Pharisees rejected John because he was too extreme. John lived an austere life. He withdrew from the crowds. He saw things only in black and white. He talked too much about sin and judgment. However the Pharisees also rejected Jesus for opposite reasons. Jesus hung out with the wrong kind of people. He went to parties. He had a great sense of humor. Jesus talked too much about mercy and forgiveness. He wasn’t rigid enough.
Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see that the problem was not with John or Jesus, the problem was with the Pharisees. They were closed to the things of God. The Pharisees believed things should be a certain way and anyone who did not think like they did was wrong.
There are lots of people like that today. Some would rather dismiss Christians as being narrow-minded or empty-headed than consider the message of the gospel. There are some within the church who are never happy. They frequently change churches because of the music of the church, the messages of the church, and the people of the church. They say the church is too boring or it is too much like the world. The church sings too many hymns or not enough. Sermons are too complicated or they don’t have enough “meat”. The people of the church aren’t friendly enough or they don’t think the people of the church are reverent enough. You get the idea. These people are generally unhappy and miserable.
Let me draw four conclusions. First Doubt is not sin . . .unbelief is sin. Doubt and unbelief are not the same things. Doubt is a matter of the mind. It means we cannot grasp something. God and His ways are bigger and more profound than we can grasp. Sometimes that leaves us confused. Unbelief is a matter of the will. It is a refusal to believe what is clearly understood about God. Oswald Chambers wrote, “Doubt is not always a sign that a man is wrong, it may be a sign that he is thinking.”
When the times of doubt come (and they will) our job is to turn to the Lord in prayer and look to the Word of God with fresh eyes (which is what Jesus directed John to do). Instead of concluding that God is not faithful; it is better to conclude that our understanding is limited.
Living Faithfully does not guarantee a smooth or easy life. John was one of the most faithful men who ever lived and he died after languishing in a dungeon. When we live fully for Christ we will become a target of the Devil and those who do not like our message. The Devil will seek to knock us out of the boat of faith by sending waves of adversity our way. There will be people who criticize. There will be people who try to exert pressure that could be social, economic, or even physical. We must remind ourselves that we are citizens of a better country. We are hid in Christ and we will live even though we die. You may not always know the details of your journey or clearly see where the trail is leading, but God will always give you enough light to take the next step.
Third, our text reminds us that a Critical Spirit may indicate a much deeper problem. If you are a person who is always critical about the church or other believers there is a good chance that the problem may not be the church or the other people. It could be that the problem is your own resistance to the things of God. Your critical spirit may indicate that you are resisting the work of God in some area of your own life.
When you see the critical spirit growing inside take it as a warning sign. Instead of picking at others – take a real good look at yourself.
Finally, we are reminded that the privilege of being a child of God is a privilege that should not be taken for granted. Americans often don’t appreciate the blessing we have been given to live in this country. We spend so much time complaining that we forget how blessed we really are. We have freedoms many in the world lack (such as the freedom to disagree). We live with an abundance most of the world cannot imagine. We should never take our freedom for granted.
How often we do the same thing in the spiritual realm? The heroes of the Old Testament longed to know God in the way that we have the opportunity to know Him. Jesus came to earth as the unique Son of God to reach out to us. He gave His life so we could be forgiven and reborn. If we can grasp even a hint of the nature of this blessing we would awaken every day with a song on our heart. We would face every trial with confidence. We would live every day desiring to cooperate with God’s Spirit to see the fruit of His love manifested in our heart, our character and our actions. And though doubts will probably still come from time to time, they won’t last long.