A friend of mine works as a church consultant to help churches and their leaders become what God has called them to be. A few years back he told me about a fascinating conversation he was involved in with a group of pastors. All of these men believed the Bible, had good and successful ministries and had served the Lord for a number of years.
But on this occasion they were talking about something you rarely, if ever, hear pastors talk about. What they were discussing were their doubts: their questions about Christianity, about their own faith, and about their ministries.
- One man said: “The story of Job really ticks me off. Yeah, in the end Job gets back his wealth and a new family but once you lose a child, you can never replace that child. That story, if you really think about, makes me mad.”
- The second man said: “When I read the story of Jeremiah it gets me depressed. Here’s a man who faithfully served God for years and yet, from a human perspective, there was almost no demonstration of success.”
- A third man chimed in: “I was in a church for over ten years and things were going well. But then a small group of deacons decided that they wanted me out and eventually I resigned. After I did so, the chair of the board came to me and said, ‘I’ll give you credit. You’re a man of integrity. You could’ve split the church but you didn’t.’ And now I’ve been out of a job for six months because I’m a man of integrity.”
- Then a fourth guy said, “Well, doesn’t it make a difference to know that when we go through hardship that somehow God thinks of us as a special person, and that we can be that individual?” Another guy responded: “That used to work, but it doesn’t anymore. I’m tired of being that special person. I’m tired of going through all that.”
Some of you might be thinking, “Well, if I had been there, we could have settled those issues and moved on to more important things.” Others might be thinking, “Well, no wonder the church is such a mess, if that’s the way pastors are.” But for some of you – especially if you’ve ever gone through some kind of suffering – those men were expressing verbally and publicly what you’ve thought about for years, thoughts you were afraid to share lest someone think you were unspiritual or ungodly.
You’ve even prayed, “Lord, I’ve tried to faithfully serve you. I’ve been committed to you and gone to church and done some ministry and given my money and tried to care for my family but now my health is fading or one of my kids has gone off the deep end or my job is being terminated or I just got word that a member of my family is dying of cancer. Lord, if you’re there, why don’t you help me?”
Is it wrong to feel that way? Is it unspiritual to have those kinds of questions, maybe even some pretty serious doubts about your faith?
When Life Goes South, It’s Natural to Have Some Doubts About God’s Plan (
John the Baptist found himself in a dirty, stinking Roman prison because he confronted Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee, for committing the sin of adultery with his brother’s wife. And as he was laying there – languishing in prison for doing the right thing – he hears about what his cousin, Jesus, is doing – or not doing. So he sends some of his own followers to ask Him: Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?
Now, from our perspective, this question seems a bit strange or, at worst, a bizarre expression of unbelief. After all, Jesus was preaching the Gospel and healing people, so why would the Baptist even raise the issue? But if we understand the history of the ancient world and the Messianic expectations of the Jews at this time, his question takes on a whole new meaning.
The primary cultural idol of the ancient world was Alexander the Great, who lived about 350 years before the time of Jesus. Within the span of about ten years, Alexander and his army conquered what today comprises Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and parts of India. He was named the Great because in the ancient world he was considered the most dynamic person who ever lived.
In addition to that widely accepted view, the Jews were consumed with a vision of the Messiah rooted in their greatest king, David. If ever there was a mighty warrior, it was David – the man who slew Goliath with a slingshot, outlasted Saul who tried to hunt him down, defeated the Philistines, conquered Jerusalem, and made Israel into a great power a thousand years before Christ. According to their understanding of the Old Testament scriptures, the Messiah was to be a descendent of David and by the time of Jesus, the popular view was that He would overthrow the Romans, take over the Temple and set Israel free from her oppressors.
Since the time he was a child John believed that, so he has some strong expectations of how the Messiah was supposed to act. The problem, from John’s perspective, is that Jesus is isn’t going around destroying wicked people, conquering the country or getting him out of prison. He’s just walking around Galilee preaching sermons, healing some sick people and having fun with His disciples. So the Baptist verbally expresses his doubts.
Jesus responds by telling John’s disciples to report back what they’ve heard and seen: “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised and the gospel is preached to the poor.” In other words, He says, ‘The facts speak for themselves.’
And then in verse six He makes an incredible statement: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” The word that’s used for stumble is the Greek word skandolizo from which we get our word scandalized. When Jesus doesn’t do what we want, when He doesn’t act like we think He should, when He leaves us to languish in a prison of physical or emotional pain or depression or unemployment or loss, are we scandalized by Him?
That’s not an academic question because the realities of life have a way of chipping away at our belief that God loves us and desires our good. When bad things happen we always ask: “Why didn’t God do such and such?” You fill in the blank: Why didn’t God heal my mom, save my marriage, get me married, find me a job, heal my failing health, protect those kids at Columbine, or save my husband, wife or child from that terrorist bombing?
I can guess that the Baptist – who knew what Jesus was doing – thought to himself, “Cousin, that’s great…the blind, the lame, the lepers . . . But I’m in prison and Herod’s gonna cut my head off!” I think we relate to that kind of doubt. “Jesus, I believe in my heart that you’re the Messiah but are you the Messiah for me? I’m hurting and you seem completely out of touch with my hurts and my needs!”
A number of years ago I was confronted with a decision that I knew would alter my life. I prayed about it a lot, then the night came when I had to make the choice. And when I was on my way to tell the person what I had decided, I prayed, “Lord, if I’m making the wrong decision, cause the car to stop or give me a flat tire – anything to stop me before I get to the person’s house.” But the car ran fine, the tires didn’t go flat, I got to the person’s house and told them I had decided to go a different direction. About a year and a half later, I sat alone in a parking lot crying my eyes out because from my perspective I had made the wrong decision. And I’ve asked myself some hard questions ever since: “Did God speak and I just didn’t hear? Did He mislead me? Doesn’t He care about my needs?”
Is it wrong to ask those questions? Is it ungodly to doubt whether or not God knows what He’s doing? Frederick Buechner says that, “Without destroying me in the process, how could God reveal Himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.” But some of you are thinking: What about James 1:6? He who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person, being double-minded and unstable in all his ways, must not suppose that He will receive anything from the Lord.
In light of that verse, we’d expect Jesus to really rip on John. Look at
Honest Doubts Don’t Bother Jesus When We Are Dedicated to His Design (
This is fascinating because instead of ripping on John, Jesus publicly praises him. In Jesus’ view, the Baptist was a great man because he faithfully completed his part of the story that God is writing. He was the prophet out in the wilderness; he was Elijah who came before the Messiah; he did prepare the way for Jesus. He wasn’t double-minded at all – he was incredibly focused, but it was his expectation of what God was supposed to do next that caused him to doubt.
That wasn’t just a problem for John. It’s a problem for us too because often we’ve been told that if we just stay faithful to Jesus we’ll be able to avoid heartbreak, suffering and pain. Then something bad happens – cancer, divorce, a car wreck, a job loss – and we get disillusioned and begin to doubt.
I know of a Jordanian Christian who came to the United States, got his education and went back to his home country – an area of the world where there were very few Christians. He was having an incredibly effective ministry where a lot of people were coming to know Christ. So he and his wife came back to the US to recruit some more people and get some more resources. While they were here, it was discovered that she had throat cancer. They were forced to stay here and there was no one to return and work with the Jordanians. He said, “God this is crazy. This is nuts. This makes no sense.”
Those are the kinds of things that cause us discouragement and doubt. But in all honesty, I’m not sure if our doubts are the problem nearly as much as the fact that it’s so easy for us to forget what Jesus promises His disciples. In
9/11 was a day that changed all of our lives. While it’s been almost five years now, I would guess most of us can remember exactly where we were when we first got the news. I was driving to work when the report came over the radio. Later on that day we watched it on TV. I couldn’t believe what I saw even though they kept re-playing that horrible scenario of those planes flying into the Twin Towers. And I remembered something I had read just a few months before: “The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.” That’s so beautiful, that’s so bright, and that is so unbiblical. I’d love to tell you, friends, that since we’re followers of Jesus that could never happen to us, that we don’t have anything to ever worry about. But I must tell us the truth: we have no control over how or when we die but we do have a lot of choice over how we live!
This interaction with the Baptist shows us that, in some ways, Jesus almost assumes that we’ll have some doubts. Yet it’s what we do with those doubts that matters. John was honest about his doubts; he didn’t hide them or hang on to them or leave them alone in the recesses of his heart and mind. He verbalized them and exposed them to the light. He faithfully did what he was supposed to do: he fulfilled his calling as the messenger who came before the Messiah, and then took his doubts directly to Jesus.
One of the books that I own is filled with illustrations for sermons and as I was working on this message I pulled it off the shelf and opened it up to the topic of doubt. The editor included a story of two men who were trying to orbit the earth in a hot air balloon. Their balloon was specially designed for the trip and it cost $1.5 million, but within hours after they started a clamp that cost $1.16 broke, causing kerosene to leak everywhere. They were forced to ditch the balloon in the ocean.
The editor then wrote, “It doesn’t take much to undermine a great enterprise. God intends the Christian life to be a triumphant journey but often we allow little things like doubt to scuttle God’s plan.” I could not disagree more. I’m not strong enough or big enough to scuttle God’s plan – even if I wanted too! Doubts can be distressing and they might even linger for months or years but God is far bigger than my doubts and by His grace I can work through them.
The problem isn’t that we’re going to have some doubts throughout our lives; the real problem is being double-minded about God and what He’s doing. Listen to Jesus in
The Demand for a Decision: Will We Dedicate Ourselves to Christ or Go Our Own Way? (
It’s not the sincere doubts of dedicated disciples like the Baptist that bother Jesus. It’s the fickleness of faith among those who know the good things that He’s doing; who hear the soothing words of His grace in their lives but can’t make a commitment. They’re like children who – regardless of what you do – can never be made to be happy. It’s not that they’re uninformed, unaware or dumb; it’s that they’re double-minded.
They didn’t like the Baptist because he was an ascetic and they didn’t like Jesus because He partied with some pretty unsavory characters. God’s purposes, plans and people didn’t suit their style, their tastes or their personal interest so they remained uncommitted and then, over time, drifted away from Him and His grace.
In his autobiography, Charles Darwin said, “I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. . . . Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress and have never doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.” But we need to remember that God’s designs often times don’t suit our personal desires. He’s got His own agenda that is focused on the salvation of the world by means of the cross, and we need to keep that in front of us as much as we can!
As Rick Warren rightly says on page one of The Purpose Driven Life: “It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by His purpose and for His purpose.”
The issue isn’t doubt; it’s dedication. Jesus calls us to make a commitment and then stick with it. As He argues in the last line of this narrative, “But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” He means that God’s plan will in the end prove to be the way of our salvation as well as our own happiness. Jesus would suffer death on the cross but God would raise Him from the dead and over time His kingdom would be established forever in the lives of millions of dedicated disciples. In the end, God’s wisdom always proves to be right because He knows exactly what He’s doing. We can cling to that even in times of trouble.
Last week we hired a man named Jay to move our church’s shed from the old campus to this one. When Jay started he got the shed about half-way up on his truck and then ran from one side to the other across the bed; as he did it was wobbling back and forth. And I was thinking, “It’s going to fall and be destroyed!” Suddenly I was having lots of doubts, thinking that we made a mistake to hire Jay.
Later, as we were driving I heard a BOOM from his truck and I was having more doubts about hiring Jay. But we stopped and took a look and he said, “Oh, the strap just got stuck and popped off; that’s no problem at all.” And when we finally got here he unloaded the shed, turned it 90 degrees, put it back up on the truck, and then moved it to the proper place. It seemed like it took him forever. He was charging us by the hour and I was thinking, “This was a huge mistake because it’s going to cost us $1000.” So I started praying: “Lord, just help him get it in its spot sometime before midnight.” You know what? After thirty minutes he got the shed in place, charged a fair amount, and even though it was really stressful I ended up pretty happy because Jay knew exactly what he was doing.
This morning some of you here may be thinking, “Lord, from my perspective it looks like I’m on the bed of the truck and you’re jumping up and down and I’m going to fall off. And I’m wondering, ‘Lord, did I make a mistake signing on with you?’” Friend, if you’re there, I want you to know that dedicating yourself to Jesus was the best decision you ever made.
Others may be feeling, ‘Lord, I’ve been dedicated but today I’m in a tough and tangled place and I have a lot of doubts.’ I want you to know that it’s OK to feel that way; you can go to Him with those doubts and by His grace you’ll work your way through them over time.
This morning may be a time when some here need to stop and say, “Lord, I’ve been double-minded. I haven’t been dedicated. I’ve been messing around with my faith but today I’m going to a draw a line in the sand and get committed to You and your purposes, regardless of the cost.”
Let’s remember that Jesus is not bothered by our doubts; those are part and parcel of a life of faith. What Jesus wants in the middle of all those doubts is our dedication to Him and His design.
Scott Wenig is Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Denver Seminary.