Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Power of Doubt

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2-3)

In the dark of his dungeon, John the Baptist was not only expressing his doubts about Jesus, he was experiencing profound doubts about his own calling and purpose. Had he blown it? Did he anoint the right person as the Messiah? If so, why was he wasting away in Herod’s prison awaiting execution? Did he waste his life?

From the womb John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit. Rather than follow his inherited position as a priest serving in the Temple, he went out into the desert to preach repentance of sins and to announce the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. People responded to his message. They came in droves and lined up to be baptized and make themselves ready for this coming Messiah. Even the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law made the journey into the wilderness to hear him and to be baptized. John’s entire life was spent in anticipation of the Messiah, “preparing the way of the Lord”, pointing people to Jesus and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He must increase, and I must decrease.”

But, now, in the cold, dark prison cell he begins to doubt himself. “Did I do the right thing? Did I really hear God’s voice saying that Jesus, my cousin, was the Messiah to come? What if I blew it? What if my entire life was a mistake, a joke, a failure?”

Have you ever felt that way? Ever doubted yourself? Ever doubted God? If not, I encourage you to brace yourself for this doubt. I’ve never met anyone who was a true follower of Jesus who didn’t have regular seasons of doubt and a crisis of faith or a “dark night of the soul.”

Back in 2003 our family was told we had to move out of our duplex apartment and find another place to live. With only two weeks left to find a new home, we had nowhere to go. My desperation and fear drove me to the breaking point. I remember driving around alone in my car and ranting at God, “Don’t you care that our family is about to be homeless? Are you listening at all? Where are you God? Why don’t you answer our prayers?” Eventually I pulled over and parked the car. With tears in my eyes I screamed at God. I cursed. I pounded the steering wheel in disgust.

Once I let it all out I took a deep breath. Wiped my tears. Apologized to God for my tantrum and waited in silence for an answer that did not come.

Ever been there? Ever had God take your life on a sudden detour? Or waited for God to answer and receive only silence?

If so, I’m fairly certain that you’ve also taken a lot of comfort from the Psalms. Nearly everyone I know who has read the entire Bible from cover to cover has told me that this is one of their favorite books in Scripture. Why? Because it’s so brutally honest. Over and over again, David cries out to God saying, “Where are you, oh God?” “Why do I cry out to you day and night and you will not answer?”.

I think one of the all-time darkest Psalms has to be the 88th one. After seventeen verses of anguish, David ends by saying, “You have taken from me friend and neighbor— darkness is my closest friend.”

Wow. Imagine singing that one on Sunday morning.

But David’s Psalms are real. The pain is real. The doubt is real. And it’s ok.

Not that any of us should camp out in the land of doubt, but God isn’t intimidated by our doubt. He isn’t surprised by our lack of faith. He isn’t shocked by our frustration or anger or pain.

I love the verse where Jesus says, “If you being evil know how to give good gifts to your children…” (Matthew 7:11). He’s not fooled about who we are. He knows us, and yet he still loves us.

As David reminds us, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”(Psalm 103:13-14)

Notice in 2 Timothy 2:11-13 the way God deals with our faithlessness:

“For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

See that? If we lose our faith, God will not let go of us. He will continue to hold on tight and never let us go.

There's a great story about the great evangelist Charles Finney who would regularly tell his converts that they were not truly converted to Christ. Imagine that. A famous evangelist urging his newly converted to doubt their faith in Christ.

The story goes that he would cast doubt upon their faith in Christ and send them away saying, "I don't think you really are a follower of Jesus yet". After a few weeks the person would invariably return and declare that they were now a true follower of Jesus. Finney would then find a reason to doubt them once more and send them on their way again. Eventually the person would return, declaring with fire in their eyes that they "knew" they were a follower of Jesus. When Finney could no longer dissuade them he would let them go with a nod, "You might actually be a follower of Jesus after all".

If anything, Finney employed doubt to test the faith of those who claimed to be genuine disciples of Christ.

Whether or not you agree with Finney's tactics, please don’t miss this important point- God uses your doubt to test the depths of your faith too.

In our opening passage, John, the Baptist, had a moment of doubt. He begins to wonder if he screwed up his life or if he missed God’s ultimate purpose for his life. In response, Jesus asks him to consider all that was going on around him:

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

I love how Jesus answers John’s question by simply pointing out the fulfillment of the prophetic scriptures concerning the Messiah and the Kingdom from the prophet Isaiah. In this way, Jesus is saying to John, “You did it. You were faithful. The work you started is still going on. Your life was not a waste. Your work is complete.”

As the disciples of John leave with this encouragement, Jesus then affirms the ministry and character of John the Baptist to the crowd saying, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:7-11)

Do you get it? John doubts. Jesus affirms. Then he praises John, the doubter, as a great prophet of God and he wraps it up by saying that if we are the least in the Kingdom – maybe even bigger doubters than John – we will still have an opportunity to be considered even greater in the Kingdom of God.

Doubt is not the end of our faith. Sometimes it can actually be a lever to lift our faith out of the depths.

“You do not want to leave me too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Peter replied, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life.” (John 6:67-68)

1 comment:

Jon Philpott said...

Thanks for this. I was just in a place of doubt recently