Dealing with Doubts and Doubters
On Sunday mornings we're working our way through Luke's Gospel and this morning we're re-introduced to John the Baptist. John isn't personally present nor could he be. You see John had been speaking out in a politically incorrect manner: Herod was living in a sinful relationship with his brother's wife and John had denounced him for it. And what was the outcome? Herod had had John arrested and thrown into prison!
Since then John had languished in prison with his ministry effectively brought to an end. He would never see freedom again. However if John wasn't free to go where he chose he was allowed some visitors and his friends had access to him. And these friends, his old disciples, did visit him and they brought him news concerning Jesus and all that Jesus had been doing.
And what a story that must have been: they would have told John of the developing teaching ministry that Jesus had; they would have been able to tell him that Jesus was healing sick people from all manner of ailments; they could have told him of exorcisms; they could have told him of Jesus healing a centurion's servant at distance and surely they would not have omitted an account of how Jesus had raised a dead young man to life again! What wonderful things they had to share with John the Baptist!
All the more interestingly it had been John the Baptist who had first drawn his disciples' attention to this man Jesus from Nazareth. Surely John would be thrilled to hear their glowing reports about Jesus!
In the event John seemed to take some convincing instead of being thrilled John appeared to be perturbed by what he heard – he just didn't know what to make of it all. In short John was troubled by some serious doubts. Hearing these accounts of what Jesus was doing seemed to bring matters to a head for John and he wanted some answers.
Dealing with Doubts
Some of you may be troubled by doubts too. Doubts can assail both the believer and the unbeliever and we need to take them seriously.
The unbeliever will not be that worried by his doubts – he may actually use them to justify his refusal to come to Jesus Christ for salvation because until the Spirit works no man or woman really wants to exercise faith in Jesus anyway. When the Spirit does however to begin his work in a person's life then doubts can no longer treated as excuses and easily accepted instead they start to be seen as something that simply must be resolved.
The whole matter is somewhat different for the believer. When the believer is troubled by doubts he often compounds his own difficulties by assuming that doubt is the very opposite of faith and it is not! The opposite of faith is not doubt but unbelief.
In this incident John shows us an excellent way of how to deal with doubt:
He doesn't pretend he doesn't have any.
I suppose at this stage we should probably stop and ask ourselves just why John was assailed by doubts. It is important because when we are faced by a doubt we can all too easily beat ourselves up by thinking that we're unique, that spiritual people don't have doubts and so we can't be spiritual because doubts we most certainly have!
But wait a minute – who was John? He was a prophet and not just any old prophet he was the greatest prophet who was to come before Jesus burst on the scene. John's particular mission was to function as the forerunner the Messiah and he had carried out his task with boldness and with faithfulness.
Yet John had his doubts – you see spiritual people can be troubled with doubts!!
John had plenty of time to think while in prison and he may well have got himself into hot water by allowing his thoughts to run on in ways that were unhelpful. It may well have been that John had drawn some erroneous conclusions from his own preaching!
The Messiah John had proclaimed was a powerful Messiah full of authority and in this he was right but how come Jesus, whom he had identified as this Messiah, had left him in prison? How come he wasn't exercising his power in overturning the injustice of it all? John was perplexed – Jesus just wasn't doing what he expected him to do and it made him wonder this was a really a bad case of mistaken identity!
We too may have some preconceived ideas of what we think Jesus ought to do if he were really the great Saviour of the World that Christians keep going on about. We must be careful as we think because we may go completely wrong in what we expect him to do and then reject him because he doesn't match our to our expectations!
Let me give an example of what this might look like in everyday life:
We pray but we don't immediately get what we want – so we reject Jesus as being unworthy of our trust. But Jesus trustworthiness should not be linked to his willingness or otherwise to pander to our selfish whims and fancies. The Bible does not present Jesus to us as some sort of divine paracetamol designed to calm the slightest discomfort – he is the Saviour who deals with the problem of our separation from God because of our sin.
But John didn't reject Jesus because he didn't correspond to John's expectations, instead John sent two of his disciples to Jesus with his question.
he doesn't content himself with discussing with his disciples
he does address his questions directly to Jesus
If you have doubts then can I suggest to you that this is a pattern that you would do well to follow too.
Firstly, don't try to pretend that the doubts aren't there when they are. If you do that then you will only succeed in creating trouble for yourself. If you refuse to face doubts head-on then they are likely to sap your spiritual vitality and eat away at your joy. Just remember that people have had their doubts concerning aspects of the Christian faith over the last two millennia but the Christian faith has survived and not been destroyed. More harm is done by refusing to honestly confront your doubts than by facing them.
Secondly, while it may be helpful and in a measure satisfying to discuss with fellow believers ultimately the best way of dealing with doubts is to go to Jesus yourself. If you have doubts then humbly tell him – he didn't reject John the Baptist when the latter did just that and what makes you think he'll treat you any differently?
So John faced up to the fact that he had a doubt and he sent his disciples off to Jesus to ask him about it.
His friends went to Jesus and did just that. The importance of the question is underlined by the fact that Luke repeats it twice within the space of very few words.
The next thing for us to consider is just how Jesus responded.
At first sight it looks like Jesus didn't pay much attention to the question but in reality he gave the first of a two part answer:
he answered by deed
he answered by a word of explanation
In a very real sense John's problem was that he had seen without seeing. He was in possession of all the necessary facts but he didn't see how they fitted together and he failed to appreciate their significance. Is that true for us this morning? It probably is true for all of us to a greater or lesser extent but to you it may be a very big thing – you need to understand what all the facts you know about Jesus mean. (eg. the resurrection).
Jesus doesn't actually supply John with fresh information – John has already heard of the miracles performed and now Jesus simply performs more. Word had already been carried to John about what Jesus was doing and now Jesus crafts another message for John to hear.
So how does this help John?
Well, sometimes it is simply that we need to hear the same thing several times before the penny drops, or to put it more theologically, until the Spirit opens our heart and our understanding.
But there is something else too. The very words which Jesus employs in his message echo words with which John would have been familiar from the OT, from the prophet Isaiah to be precise.
Jesus message is found in v.22:
"Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them."
And in Isaiah 35:5-6 it is written:
"Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy."
And in Isaiah 61:1:
"The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;"
In these passages Isaiah spoke about the Messiah who was to come and Jesus was pointing out to John that this was in fact taking place in his ministry.
Now this was simple and clear for John to understand. There were perhaps many other things that he didn't grasp but there was enough here for John to realise that he hadn't been mistaken in the past when he had identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
In other words Jesus was telling John in the clearest terms imaginable that there was no need whatsoever to look for another for he, Jesus, was the One!
Do you see how lovely this reply was? How tenderly Jesus dealt with John! There were no harsh words criticising him for expressing his doubts, no reprimand for wavering saying he should have known better. No, Jesus restores and reaffirms John's faith with a helpful response designed to enable John see more clearly again. John was suffering for his faithfulness to the call of God and would soon pay the ultimate price for his commitment to speaking the truth and Jesus will not add to his burdens by scolding him or chiding him.
This is the character of the Saviour of the World! This is how he deals with serious enquirers so if that is you then you can expect him to be gentle in his dealings with you too. But if you play games with him and in the place of genuine serious questions ask foolish insincere questions then don't expect the same kind of treatment.
Information is not enough
It is vitally important that we both know the truth and understand the truth but more is indeed needed. Our own response to the truth is crucial too. The truth about Jesus must be individually received and embraced but it is possible to respond to the truth in a completely wrong way.
There is blessing and great benefit to be gained by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ but it is also possible to stumble when we are presented with the truth as it is in Jesus. It is possible to be offended by the truth and this will keep a man or a woman from Jesus.
But, you might ask, how can a man or a woman take offence at Jesus? What does it mean?
Well to take offence at someone or something means this:
you see something you disapprove of
you are hindered from acknowledging his authority
you are displeased/indignant because of him, his life, his teaching
Luke has already given us some examples of people taking offence at Jesus (Lk.4:16-30). When he preached in his home town synagogue at Nazareth they thought they knew all about him and weren't open to him. They listened to what he said but became more and more angry until they wanted to kill him. They had already made up their minds about how God would deal with people and they didn't appreciate having that way of thinking exposed and challenged.
If you have set your thoughts in concrete you too will take offence at Jesus when he says things that cut across your cherished thoughts.
Matthew tells us that the Pharisees were offended by Jesus because he wouldn't share their widely held views about the value of their religious traditions and practice (Mt.15:12).
The apostle John tells us that crowds of would-be followers of Jesus were offended by the Master's teaching when he made the terms of discipleship demanding – they wanted a saviour on their terms but not his and when he wouldn't dance to their tune they stopped following him.
And it is still possible to take offence at Jesus today – some reject him outright while others try to alter his teaching while still claiming to be his followers.
Why is this so? Here are just a few of the many reasons:
Because the natural human heart doesn't like to be told that there is only one way to the Father (Jn.14:6) – how arrogant!
Because the human heart doesn't like to be told that its best efforts are simply not good enough and a new start is absolutely essential (Jn.3:3)!
Because the human heart doesn't want a saviour who dies for sin, it much prefers the idea of a saviour who simply suffers in order to give us an example that we might follow.
Because the natural human heart doesn't want to hear talk about judgment and hell – universal salvation, we'll all be alright is what the sinner prefers to hear.
Because the natural human heart doesn't want to built upon the foundation of Jesus' teaching alone but wants to have an eclectic mix and match religion that isn't so exclusive.
Men and women take offence at Jesus when they find he doesn't use his power and authority to secure them pain-free, trouble free lives and when he doesn't intervene to prevent a loved one from dying or to deliver them from sickness, unemployment, failed relationships etc. etc.
Are you offended by Jesus?
Please God that none of us might be found in such a position. Jesus declared "Blessed is the one who is not offended by me." May God grant us all this blessing!