International Street Signs are now commonplace. We know that you can’t make a right turn if there is an arrow turned to the right with a line through it. It would be interesting if there were signs posted around the church. In addition to sin which is forbidden by God, there seem to be a number of others things that are forbidden or at least unacceptable in church. There seem to be some honest and true things that, when said, seem to make everyone really nervous,
- I am struggling
- I’m afraid
- I’m worried
- I struggle with prayer
- I don’t understand the Bible
- I have doubts about my faith
It is a shame that such is often the case because these are actually honest admissions by real people. This morning we will address the issue of doubt.
Admittedly doubt is a great tool of the Devil. In the Garden of Eden, Satan’s goal was to get Adam and Eve to doubt God’s motives in telling them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Jesus was tempted by the Devil, Satan tried to get Jesus to doubt whether God would provide for His hunger, whether He would be faithful to His promise, and to whether it was worth following the Lord.
There are times when we all face doubt. There are times in the course of life when we wonder whether we are being faithful or gullible and whether we are following the truth or are giving our life to a lie. In our text this morning John addresses times when “our heart condemns us”; times when we doubt.
This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
From this text let’s notice several things.
We need to face the reality: people doubt. It is interesting that John talks about WHEN our hearts condemn us. Doubts will come into our lives and it is normal. Think about some of the Biblical examples,
- Abraham and Sarah both doubted that Sarah could have a child at 90
- Moses doubted that he could lead the children of Israel
- Habakkuk had his doubts about God’s justice
- John the Baptist sent messengers to ask Jesus if he was really “the one who should come”
- Thomas doubted that Jesus really rose from the dead
There is plenty of doubt in the Bible. God does not condemn the doubter. Honest doubt is normal and can lead us to more firmly grasp the truth. Doubt becomes sinful when it becomes the reason for pushing the truth aside.
There are two different areas of doubt. First, we may doubt the facts of the Gospel. We may wonder whether God really exists, if He really did make the world in six days, or whether there was an ark, or whether the Red Sea really parted. We may doubt whether the Bible is accurate, whether Jesus really did miracles, and whether he truly rose from the dead. We may question whether God really cares.
Sometimes this doubt arises from antagonists. We live in a society that is constantly claiming the truth of Christianity is wrong. But these doubts may also come because of a personal crisis. We feel abandoned and alone and we wonder if there really is a God.
This kind of doubt is best met with study. There may not be answers to every question but there are solid, Biblical, and reasonable answers for most issues, if we will take the time to look. Josh McDowell’s “More than a Carpenter” and Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Jesus” and “the Case for Faith” are good places to start. If we see the trustworthiness of the truth about God it will put to rest many of these doubts.
Second, We doubt our position. There are times we doubt whether or not we are truly a child of God. I think this is the kind of doubt John is addressing. It comes into our hearts when,
- We see the inconsistency of our lives
- We see others who seem to be much farther along in the faith
- Prayer seems to be an empty exercise…God seems far away
- The Bible seems like a puzzle when we read it
- Inside we feel like we simply don’t measure up
We must understand that doubt (in and of itself) is not sin. Doubt is a product of intellectual honesty. God is not afraid of our questions. In fact, I believe God provokes our questions to get us to dig deeper. Henry Drummond said this about doubt,
Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honest; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness. Loving darkness rather than light—that is what Christ attacked and attacked unsparingly. But for the intellectual questioning of Thomas, and Philip, and Nicodemus, and the many others who came to Him to have their great problems solved, He was respectful and generous and tolerant. [Wiersbe, Listening to the Giants p. 115-116]
Three Things to Rely on When Doubt Comes Upon Us
As we look at the passage I think we can find three things to look for and rely on when we feel that we are not really a part of his family.
As we read the passage in context we see that John had been talking about the importance of love. In verse 18 he said, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” John follows this sentence with, “this then is how we know we belong to the truth”. This tells us the first thing to rely on is the evidence of Christ at work in your life.
John is certainly not saying that reason is not important. He is not saying that theology is unimportant. We are to love with actions AND IN TRUTH. John emphasizes the importance of truth throughout the letter. However in this text, John is says we need to look to see if the truth is being lived out in our lives. Christlike love is not natural, it is evidence of something supernatural inside of you.
The question is not: “Are you perfect?” It is not even, “Are you where you think you should be or even want to be?” The question is: Do you see evidence of Christlike character in you? Jesus told us to look at the “fruit” of teachers to see whether they were from God or not. It is the same with us . . . look in the mirror; reflect on your life; see the change that God has brought to your living.
19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.
Second, we need to rely on the character and promise of God. John says,
For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. (v.20)
I don’t think John is trying to threaten us here, he is encouraging us! I believe John is saying: God is true to His Word, and is not subject to the fluctuation of our emotional states. Let me illustrate.
A little boy is in bed and he comes running out of his bedroom frightened because he is sure there is some monster in his room. Dad doesn’t grab his gun and go racing to the room and start blasting away (I hope). No, he will go into the room, turn on the light, and help the little boy see that the shadows that frightened him are being caused by a tree outside his window. He will show him that no one is under the bed or in the closet as he thought. He will explain that the sounds that scared him was actually produced by the furnace turning on and off. The dad knows the truth.
We are like the little boy. Our faith fluctuates. Our feeling of assurance of our salvation is often like a roller coaster. But God knows our heart. He knows whether or not our faith is genuine. He knows whether His Spirit resides in us. This truth is not changed by our feelings. In times of doubt we must look at what God says rather than focus on our emotions.
Someone has said, “Never doubt in the darkness what God has revealed in the light.” In His book, Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis wrote,
Now Faith … is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. [p. 109]
The third thing we can rely on is the internal testimony of God’s Spirit. John said in verse 24 that “we know that he lives in us by the Spirit He gave us.” Later in 4:14 John says, “We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”
In Romans 8 we are told,
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:15-16)
I know from my own experience that in those times when I feel I have failed miserably, when my motives have been called into question, and when I don’t feel particularly godly, there is a whisper inside of me that assures me that I belong to Him. Those are the times when I sense the Spirit saying, “Bruce, don’t trust your feelings . . . trust me”. I can only conclude that this is what John is talking about.
So, in times of doubt we need to rely on,
- The evidence of God working in our lives
- The reality that God’s promise is sure no matter how we feel
- The witness of God’s Spirit that whispers His love to us
Any or all of these things might help you regain your assurance in times of doubt.
A Benefit of Confronting Our Doubts
John tells us when our hearts do not condemn us, when the doubts are addressed and overcome, then,
we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. (3:21-24)
John says we should address this issue of assurance because once we are sure that we belong to Him, we will pray with new confidence. Not only will we pray with confidence but “we will receive from him anything we ask”.
Be careful here! Some people read only the part of the verse they want to hear. They are like the child who hears “you can have a cookie” when what was really said was, “You can have a cookie as soon as you finish your homework.”
Hear what Johns says: we will “receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”
It would be like an employer saying, “As long as you are doing your job and have the best interest of the company at heart, I will always be responsive to your requests and comments.” In the same way, if we are seeking to actively follow the Lord and desire His will for our lives, our prayers will be answered.
John says believing his commands has two dimensions: first, “we believe in His name”. To believe in his name means we see Christ as he actually is and put our trust in Him for our salvation. Second we love one another, or live out our faith in practical ways. If we believe, we will love. And when we follow Him in this way, we know that God will hear and answer our prayers.
Let’s get very practical. Let me give you some six principles for dealing with doubt.
- Find the root of your doubt. Identify the underlying cause of your. Is it coming from,
- Intellectual challenges to your faith (someone said something that made you question your faith)
- Emotional baggage. Are you having trouble believing in God because you had a bad relationship with your earthly father and you are afraid and unwilling to trust the Heavenly Father?
- Arrogance – (some people are so proud that they cannot trust God because if they believe in God they would have to adopt a position of humility which they are unwilling to do).
- Spiritual Lostness – Is it possible that you doubt your standing with God because you have never put your trust in Jesus for salvation and new life?
- Sin – Are you hiding behind doubt as a defense mechanism so you won’t have to deal with some personal sin?
- A Personal Crisis – Has your faith been rocked by circumstances you don’t understand?
- Be honest about your doubts. Be honest with God and be honest with caring Christian friends. As you read through the Psalms you will see how often the authors of those Psalms were honest about their own sense of confusion and at times abandonment. God does not condemn you for doubting. When we have honest doubts He will lead us to the truth that will set us free.
- Keep doing what is right! An athlete gets out of a slump by going back to basics. In the time of doubt, we must do the same thing. We must take tight hold of the truth of the gospel and renew our trust in Christ. Work hard to act on your faith (even though you don’t feel like it) by loving others.
- Reaffirm the truth of God’s Word and subject your emotions to the Word rather than the other way around. Determine to stand on His truth not your feelings.
G. Campbell Morgan had already enjoyed some success as a preacher by the time he was 19 years old. But then he was attacked by doubts about the Bible. The writings of various scientists and agnostics disturbed him (e.g., Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and others). As he read their books and listened to debates, Morgan became more and more perplexed. What did he do? He cancelled all preaching engagements, put all the books in a cupboard and locked the door, and went to the bookstore and bought a new Bible. He said to himself, “I am no longer sure that this is what my father claims it to be—the Word of God. But of this I am sure. If it be the Word of God, and if I come to it with an unprejudiced and open mind, it will bring assurance to my soul of itself.” The result? “That Bible found me!” said Morgan. The new assurance in 1883 gave him the motivation for his preaching and teaching ministry. He devoted himself to the study and preaching of God’s Word. [Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching& Preachers, Moody, 1984, p. 211]
- Develop a plan of action. If you doubt, don’t just give up! Look for answers to your questions. God is not afraid of your questions.
- Practice Preventive Care The best way to stay physically healthy it to care for your body. We must exercise, eat well, and work on reducing stress in our lives. In the same way we need to care for our Spiritual Health by regularly reading the Bible, consistently talking with God in prayer, maintaining the habit of regular worship, and being involved with other Christians in a group that encourages growth (small group, Bible Study, Sunday School Class).
Every one of us will face doubts. These times can either paralyze us or they can help us grow. It all depends on how you respond to your doubts. We can continue to “play the game” and pretend that everything is fine. But as we do, we will drift further and further from God. Our relationship will become superficial. Or we can be honest about our questions. We can bring these questions to the Lord and look for honest answers. And I believe if we do this our faith will be real, it will be strong, it will be sure. God is not threatened by our questions. We should not be threatened either.