When You Doubt
I remember a Sunday when I had made an offhand comment about “when I doubt”. Following the service someone stopped me and said, “I’ve never heard a Pastor admit that he sometimes doubted. It was refreshing and encouraged me.”
Alister McGrath said, “Doubt is natural within faith. It comes because of our human weakness and frailty.” Doubt and unbelief are not the same thing! Again, McGrath explains,
Unbelief is the decision to live your life as if there is no God. It is a deliberate decision to reject Jesus Christ and all that he stands for. But doubt is something quite different. Doubt arises within the context of faith. It is a wistful longing to be sure of the things in which we trust. (McGrath, “When Doubt Becomes Unbelief,” 8– 10)
R.C. Sproul writes,
Doubt can help lead us from error to truth, Doubt can be a vital tool for the achievement of assurance. To gain assurance of crucial truths often requires that we doubt promises we’ve accepted uncritically. Doubt forces us back to first principles. (Doubt and Assurance p. 10)
Os Guiness writes,
If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid of doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger still. It knows God more certainly and it can enjoy God more deeply. (Doubt p. 11)
I raise the subject of doubt because we are going to see an illustration of doubt from an unexpected source today: John the Baptist. The man who was tapped to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the same one who jumped in the womb when Jesus arrived and willingly baptized him calling Him the Lamb of God, is the one who has shaky faith in our text this morning.
I hope this encourages you. If John the Baptist had moments where he questioned his faith, it should not derail you when (not if) it happens to you. Let’s look at the text.
When Jesus had finished giving these instructions to his twelve disciples, he went out to teach and preach in towns throughout the region.
2 John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, 3 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”
We will read the story about John’s imprisonment when we get to Matthew 14. John was imprisoned because he called the immoral behavior of Herod what it was . . . immoral behavior. While John languished in prison he had to think and to listen to all the things Jesus was reported to be doing and saying. And this raised questions in John’s mind.
What Provokes Doubt?
Difficult times. It is most natural to doubt when life is hard. It is natural to wonder why things are happening the way they are if God is good and gracious as we say. People find their faith can be shaken when
- A loved one dies
- You get a bad diagnosis
- Children suffer
- There is a senseless act of violence
- A Natural disaster
- Accidents where many live but your loved one dies
- A relationship ends
- You are fired unjustly from a job
- Your friends turn against you
- The door of opportunity seems nailed shut
These are times when our faith is shaken. The reason is because we preach and teach about God’s strength and His protection and we feel it has failed. There is a very natural assumption that if we follow Christ our life will be spared many of the hard things that others have to face. We look around the church and most people are not facing horrible circumstances. When it happens to us, it feels unfair. You wonder if Christianity “works”.
I am sure John kept hearing the words of Isaiah that the Messiah was going to “set the captives free” and wondered why he remained in jail. He told everyone that the Messiah would come as a Judge . . . but nothing seemed to be happening.
When our expectations are not met we may start to doubt even though our expectations may not have been realistic. We may think we will conquer all our sin. We may think our problems will disappear. We may even think God is going to make us rich and keep us from any illnesses. When those expectations are not met we think the Lord has let us down or that we aren’t really a child of God because we continue to struggle.
Wrong Belief. We all have beliefs in our head that are wrong. That may have been the case with John. He pictured the Messiah acting a certain way and when Jesus did not act that way he questioned whether Jesus was the true Messiah. Jesus did not conform to his expectations.
The same thing happens to many in the Christian community. They walk away from the faith because they say, “It didn’t work.” At these time it is valuable to ask, “What did you think faith in Christ was going to do?” You will discover that some believe being a Christian means,
- You won’t have any problems
- You will be shielded from disease and heartache
- You will be prosperous enough to have what you want
- Your marriage will never be rocky
- Christian people will always be loving and holy
- You will understand everything written in the Bible.
The problem with all of these expectations is that they are false. None of these things are based on genuine promises of the Bible. Instead of examining the expectation, people too often dismiss Christianity,
Satanic Whispers Satan wants desperately to turn us away from the Savior. He wants us to waver in faith. He will suggest that God is not doing enough, you are not good enough, the people of God are not consistent enough, the evidence is not strong enough. He will suggest that the evil in the world proves that God is not loving (He tries to keep us from thinking that man might be more sinful that we realize). Satan will glamorize sin and demonize anyone who dares to call it sin. He does all this to put a spark of doubt into our head and then he will attempt to fan that doubt into disenchantment and then a departure from the faith.
John the Baptist was exhausted. He was a prime candidate for the whispers of doubt.
Dealing with Doubt
4 Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—5 the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. 6 And tell him, ‘God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.’ ”
What Jesus does is point John back to the Scripture and calls him to measure the Scripture by what is taking place. In Isaiah 61 it was predicted of the Messiah:
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
for the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed.
2 He has sent me to tell those who mourn
that the time of the Lord’s favor has come
and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.
Jesus was making the miraculous kind of difference the Scripture said he would make. That phrase at the end “God blesses those who do not turn away because of me” is like Jesus saying to John, “I know things are tough. Keep searching the Scriptures. Don’t stumble just because I am not doing what you expected me to do . . . look to see if I am doing what the Scripture SAID I would do.
It is always a good idea in the time of doubt to go back to the word of God.
- Remind yourself of who Jesus is. Look at the miracles. Listen to His Words. See His love, Consider His sacrifice. Stand on the reliability of the Resurrection. I think the evidence of the resurrection (get really familiar with 1 Corinthians 15) is one of the best doubt-busters in my own life.
- Re-examine the promises of God. Very often we claim promises that God never made! God never promises an easy life. As you examine the scriptures carefully you see that He has actually promised the opposite. What He has promised is His presence to strengthen us in difficult times.
- Immerse yourself in His Word. Hear again the message of the gospel. We were lost but now are found! We were dead but now we live! We are most susceptible to doubt when we stop preaching the message to ourselves!
Do not be afraid of doubt . . . see it as an opportunity to strengthen your understanding of, and your hold on, the truth.
Lee Strobel wrote,
Don’t you think God would rather have you be honest with him about your doubts than have you profess a phony faith? He knows what’s going on inside us anyway; it’s absurd to think we can mask our doubts from him, An authentic relationship means telling the truth about how we feel—and that’s the kind of relationship God wants with us.
The only way to grow is to ask questions. Ask God to help you with your doubt. Ask Him to lead you to the truth.
Submit to what you DO know to be true. In the time of doubt our job is to act on what we still know to be true. We must not let what we DO understand to be overshadowed by what we DO NOT understand. Stand on the truth. Trust His love, His wisdom, His grace. Sometimes we work through times of doubt simply by acting in faithful ways.
The Good News About John/The Better News for Us
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? 8 Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. 9 Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. 10 John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,
‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way before you.’
11 “I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is! 12 And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it. 13 For before John came, all the prophets and the law of Moses looked forward to this present time. 14 And if you are willing to accept what I say, he is Elijah, the one the prophets said would come. 15 Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!
Notice something; Jesus does not condemn John for doubting. He is not angry at John’s questions. He said John was the greatest of the prophets. He said the work was advancing forcefully through him and that he was the fulfillment of many of the prophetic expectations. It is high praise and it comes from the highest of authorities.
But notice what he says next; Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than Hs is!” Why is this so? John still lived (and died) before the work of salvation was accomplished. He was a wonderfully faithful man but he could only dream about the promise.
John will be in Heaven because of his faith but he and all the other prophets longed to see and experience what is commonplace to us.
- John could point to the promise; we can receive it.
- John was empowered at times by the Holy Spirit; we have him living in us.
- John understood the Law; we understand grace.
- John lived before the death and resurrection of Christ; we live after it which gives us a much different perspective.
- John had the Old Testament; we have both the Old and New Testaments.
Think of the implications of these words. First, we have been given a great privilege and we must never take it for granted. Think about Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and all the other prophets and servants of God. They longed to enjoy the blessing that we too often take for granted. They looked forward to a coming Messiah. We get to enjoy and fellowship with the present Messiah. It is a great privilege.
Third, we have less reason to doubt than John the Baptist. We have the New Testament. We have the record of His death and His resurrection. We have the Holy Spirit living inside of us. We are part of the Church. And we have all these additional years of the faithfulness of God to His people.
We will still have doubts because we still find ourselves drifting from the faith. However, these doubts should be much easier to address than they were for John.
Refining Our Expectations
One of the biggest reasons for doubt are the words of others,
- A Pastor doubts his calling because of his critics
- A believer doubts his salvation because of the condemnation of other believers
- A person doubts the validity of the faith because of the obstacles other believers put in front of him/her
- A person is disgusted with the faith because of the bickering between Christians and churches.
- A person questions central truths because of the “discoveries” of the various “scholars” of today.
Hear these words of Jesus
16 “To what can I compare this generation? It is like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends,
17 ‘We played wedding songs,
and you didn’t dance,
so we played funeral songs,
and you didn’t mourn.’
18 For John didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.”
Jesus warns his followers that they will face criticism and should not be derailed by it. John the Baptist was criticized for being too conservative, rigid, or legalistic. Jesus was criticized because He was too lenient. He hung around with sinners and He didn’t follow all the rules.
It is hard to believe, but sinful people do not like to hear that they are sinful and can only be made right with God through the gift of God in Christ. The world around us wants desperately to believe they can save themselves. They believe they are “good” and God would be a fool not to let them into His Kingdom.
When we stand and say: “only those who are truly broken by their sinfulness and run to Jesus for help and healing can be saved;” the world around us gets angry.
Don’t be afraid of doubt. See it as what it is: a warning sign to dig deeper, to understand more fully, and take a new degree of ownership of the faith. Don’t castigate others (including your children) when they express doubts or ask questions. Encourage them to bring those doubts and questions to God and His Word. Let them know that doubt is a normal part of growing in the faith.
God is not afraid of your questions. You shouldn’t be either.
©Copyright January 22, 2017 by Rev. Bruce Goettsche