Dig Deeper than Your Doubt
To be human is to doubt. We doubt if we are going to make it through an ordeal. We doubt if we are really loved. I even found that I wasn’t the only one who at some point doubted whether their life was ‘real’ and wondered if they were the lead in a show like The Truman Show. The doubts that all Christians face are whether Jesus is who we think he is. Was he just a good man, or not even that? Can the Bible be trusted? Is its testimony true? Does scientific research make religious belief a thing of the past? In Matthew 11, Matthew writes this about the doubts of John the Baptist:
When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.
2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John:“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to their playmates,
17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
Jesus had left the hillsides where he preached and he had gone urban. As he went from city to city John’s disciples showed up and they had been sent by John to deal with his doubts. The same John who had proclaimed the arrival of Jesus so boldly now felt differently in a prison cell. Jesus answers with a list of the miracles that are going on. He soothes John’s doubts and gives him reasons to still believe. However, Jesus does not rip into John for having doubts, he even praises John at this moment to the crowds around him. John is described as a prophet – a ‘truth talker’ – even when he has profound questions about Jesus arising from his doubts. John is compared to Elijah whom the people believed would be the precursor to the Messiah. Jesus uses the true identity of John to point toward the truth of his own identity as Messiah. So, even in a time of great doubt and weakness, John still is a testimony to God’s work through him.
In comparison to John the doubts of the people are used against them. Jesus says that they are like spoiled children who want John and Jesus to dance to their tune. He says that when they play a happy tune Jesus and John don’t dance. When they play a sad tune Jesus and John don’t mourn. He informs them that if they just thought a little harder they would see that God has sent Jesus as a social Messiah who now attends parties in the cities. He sent John as a powerful precursor who lived a life of austerity, but the people didn’t like that, either. Some people who doubt are not looking for solutions or relationship with God, they are just justifying their stubborn godlessness.
Why did John have doubts? Was it his imprisonment? I don’t think so. I think he had the courage to endure worse. I think that John struggled because he thought the Messiah would be something different. I think that John imagined a mighty warrior king riding in judgement. I think he imagined, as much of Israel did, that the Messiah would be a battle-hardened rebel with the charisma of King David. Jesus didn’t gather mighty men around him like David – he gathered tax-collectors, fishermen, and zealots. They didn’t hide in caves and train up a militia, they went from town to town bringing spiritual and medical aid. I don’t think that this made sense to John, so Jesus reminds him that Isaiah 29:18 point to a different kind of Messiah than John was possibly expecting. John would recognize the actions of Jesus as fulfilling prophecy in a different way than many expected and we hope that John was encouraged.
John’s response to doubt, though, is very personal. He doesn’t ask his disciples to spy on Jesus and take notes. He doesn’t ask for a book to read or a course to attend to deal with his doubt. I believe that if he was free he would have gone to Jesus himself, but because he could not, he sent his closest friends to have a personal conversation with Jesus. He deals with his doubts, not as a solely intellectual exercise, but as a personal exercise. He goes to the person and lets him defend himself.
In this way John serves as an example. He wants to maintain the faith that he once had. He wants to maintain his personal support of Jesus, but he is finding it hard. Jesus responds to him less harshly than the crowd because he sees John’s heart. John’s heart is turned toward Jesus and not away from him. That makes the world of difference. John does not give up his role as a prophet or ‘truth speaker’. He is honest and true about his doubt. He doesn’t hide it and he deals with it. His honest struggle is a lesson to us how to struggle. We seek out Jesus even when we doubt him and ask him to lead us forward. What John could have as a conversation with a physically present Jesus, we can have with God through prayer. Doubt leads to prayer at its outset. We bring our doubt into the light and reveal it to God.
John and Jesus are both proclaimers of truth. They are both prophets. However, the people’s doubt is equal toward both of them. They flock to them for novelty or personal need, but the deeper call to discipleship starts the people whining. Jesus’ life of engagement and enrichment leaves them critical that he is irreverent. John’s life of austerity and withdrawal leads them to conclude he has a demon. The heart of their doubt is revealed, they do not love God and only submit to him when they see clearly how God’s agenda and their own agenda intersect. Because God does not dance to their tune they doubt that Jesus or John can really be from God.
It is much the same today. People want to live the life that they have dreamed of. That life has a familiar pattern in the USA. At school age the dream is to be popular, good at sports, academically gifted, or good looking. After school these dreams don’t just fade away, but a person adds to them the desire for financial security, a fulfilling job, and a happy marriage. Although none of these things are intrinsically evil, they can be an evil if they lead away from the reason that we are alive. We are alive to experience union with God. All of these things, if enjoyed properly, should lead to God. That is true even if they are twisted or corrupted by sin. God is the only source of relief from the effects of a life gone wrong. Doubts about God’s goodness and faithfulness occur when a father dies, a baby is still-born, a job is terminated or our finances start running thin. This can lead people who want to be done with God to find their excuse. God was only useful when he served the dream in their minds, but now he has lost his usefulness and they ditch him for his failure. Those who know that life is about God and not themselves seek to understand why a good God has allowed hardship and God, who is the source of wisdom, gives them insight.
Do we have a relationship with Jesus that can withstand doubt? The Bible promises that God never sends anything our way that we can not ultimately handle. Many of us just walk away before we should. In times of doubt we should be wearing out our knees by crying out to God. We see that David prayed fervently when his life was in danger, we see that Jeremiah cried out to God when Jerusalem was destroyed. In the Bible godly people doubt, but in times of doubt their focus on God in prayer becomes more intense.
Times of doubt can be very isolating, especially if we let them be. However, think about how a wise person addresses doubts about their parents, a spouse, or the loyalty of a good friend. A wise person remains connected and even makes contact with the person they doubt if they are available. A wise person asks others questions and talks with and cries with others. It is a foolish person who isolates themselves and without pursuing others lets their mind construct a tangled web of deceit and evil motives. I have a tendency toward paranoia. I often think people think badly of me. However, a quick question asked in a positive tone usually shows that what I fear to be true is untrue. Quite often it is a shock to the person I ask. However, their patience with me has changed some of my assumptions about people. Do you check your assumptions or do you carry on constructing a caricature in your head? A lot of us do that with God. Then we ditch the caricature we have constructed.
I have known too many people who gave up on Jesus. One gave up on Jesus because of the first Gulf War. They saw too many people die and so they concluded that there could not be a God. They didn’t want to know how people through the ages have made sense of the existence of a good God and the problem of evil. Another gave up on God because she thought that God was too restrictive. She wanted to feel true freedom. However, her own definition of freedom led her to places that were disasterous. Some people think that the church is too restrictive of sexuality and so it can’t be teaching truth. They have left the faith so they can sleep with whomever they choose. Some people have even walked away from God because they made terrible choices after they had become a Christian and the God they have constructed in their mind doesn’t provide a way back after you have been saved.
However, for all the people above who failed, I know of others who have dug deeper than their doubts. They have wrestled with the problem of evil and found that there are answers for why there is evil in the world. Others have been suffocated by legalistic oppression, but then have found that God is a God of grace. God’s grace actually seemed all the more powerful to them because they had been given a God of rules and regulations first.
In many church environments we have divorced faith and knowledge. Faith is an emotional thing which we feel. However, faith is persevering with our beliefs despite our changing moods (Lewis). It is good to know God, but when we know a person in a relationship we grow in our knowledge of a person. Too many people have not made that connection with Jesus. They know him because at one point they ‘gave their heart to the Lord.’ However, it ends up just being an emotive instant. To truly give one’s heart to something means to pursue it relentlessly. That seems to be missing from many conversion messages. Are there people in your life who love Jesus by pursuing him? It is good to find those people and ride their coat tails for a bit. If we see what inspires their pursuit, even in times of doubt, we will find how to love God better.
Just like Jesus’ and John’s generation, though, our generation has become cynical and skeptical. Our advertising campaigns bombard us with untruths and half-truths. Movies promise a life that never exists. Our parents are sometimes hypocrites. Our schools tell us that there is no absolute truth (absolutely none!). The person who just doubts everything can appear very wise, but there is a wiser way. The wiser way is to ask questions when we doubt but push on to deeper truths. These truths that we find on the other side of doubt are bedrock. A vibrant faith needs the doubt so that we keep digging. A vibrant faith then builds a life on a surer foundation.
Read Matthew 11:1-19 again:
- What was Jesus doing when this passage takes place?
- Who questions Jesus?
- Why is Jesus questioned?
- How does he answer?
- How does Jesus use this as a teachable moment?
- How is John described by Jesus?
- To whom does Jesus compare John?
- To whom is Jesus’ generation compared?
- How is John’s ministry described?
- How did people respond?
- How is Jesus’ ministry described?
- How did people respond?
Answer these interpretation questions:
- Why do you think that John had doubts? What was his probable view of The Christ (Messiah)?
- Why doesn’t Jesus respond harshly to John like he does to others?
- How would Jesus’ answer have encouraged John?
- Why does John send his disciples directly to Jesus? Why doesn’t he just ask for the latest news from the man on the street?
- How would John’s knowledge of the Old Testament help him in a time of doubt (see Isaiah 29:18)?
- How can John be lifted up as an example when he has expressed doubts in Jesus?
- What does a prophet do? How are seeking truth, speaking truth, and doubt connected?
- What does verse 17 mean?
- How are John and Jesus different in their approaches to ministry?
- How are John and Jesus the same?
- How is the people’s response similar in the case of Jesus and John?
- What is different about the people’s doubt when compared to John’s?
Answer these application questions:
- What do people doubt about the Bible, Jesus, God? See how many reasons to doubt your group can think of.
- What are different ways people can respond to doubts about their faith?
- If a Christian has a weak relationship with Jesus, how will this affect them in times of doubt?
- If Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus, how can we stay relationally connected with Jesus when we have doubts?
- How does a wise person address doubts about their parents, a spouse, or the loyalty of a good friend?
- Do you know anyone who gave up on Jesus? Why did that happen?
- Do you know anyone who had real doubts about Jesus but pushed through? How did they come through?
- How does knowledge of the Bible help in times of doubt?
- How do connections with pastors, friends and family help in times of doubt?
- Would you describe your generation as cynical or skeptical? Why or why not?
- How does media promote faith or doubt?
- Does vibrant faith need times of doubt?