What To Do With Our Doubts
December 11, 2022 |What To Do With Our Doubts | Matthew 11:2-11
This is the third Sunday in Advent. A time of anticipation and longing for the return of Christ. This advent marks almost 2000 years of expectant waiting for the Lord to return.
That’s a long time, much longer than the disciples originally thought it would be, longer than Paul thought it would be. Something can happen when we wait longer than expected? We can begin to doubt.
At New Beginnings, I often grabbed lunch or coffee with one of our Life Group leaders. One day, I had reached out to one of them, we had set a day to meet, a time to meet, and a place to meet. We were going to have lunch at Jucy’s hamburgers.
I showed up a little early (miracle), looked around and didn't see him so I had a seat and was looking over some notes for our time together. A few minutes passed and 11:30 had come and still he hadn’t shown up. I began to doubt. Maybe I had my days and times mixed up so I double checked. No, it was the right day and time. I decided he was probably just running a few minutes late and I waited a few more minutes. About 10 minutes past our scheduled time, that’s when the negative doubt crept in, maybe he blew me off, maybe he got wrapped up in something more important and forgot.
So I text him.
“Aren’t we meeting today?”
”Yes”, came the response.
”I’m here”, I texted.
”I already got a table, but I don’t see you." was his response.
Now, I’m thinking, what is happening?! I am waiting on him, now it sounds like he has been waiting on me. After calling him, we realized we were very much both on time, on the right day, at different Jucy’s. We had failed to nail down that small but very important detail.
Maybe you have had a similar experience. Waiting on a friend, waiting for a doctor’s appointment, waiting for test results, waiting for a package. Doubt can begin to creep in. Did they stand me up, is the doctor taking longer because I’m worse off than I thought, are the test results worse than they anticipated so it is taking longer, did my package get delivered to the wrong house?
Then there are those bigger doubts. When you haven't found a spouse yet and you just knew you would be married by now, you begin to doubt your past decisions. Or you haven’t had children yet, even though you just knew your family would already be growing, and you begin to doubt. You haven’t broken into the career field you thought you would be in, haven’t got the job you thought you would have, so you begin to doubt, maybe I got the wrong degree, maybe I took the wrong job, maybe I moved to the wrong place.
Then there are what we might call the giant sized doubts. Maybe God isn’t so good after all. Why would he let that young girl get taken that way? Why would he let that city get destroyed like that? Why didn’t he heal my wife, my husband? Why would he let such a good young man’s life get cut short.
Maybe we got it all wrong and he’s not coming back like we thought.
Maybe he doesn’t care about how bad the world is.
Maybe he can’t do anything about it.
Maybe he won’t punish the wicked, maybe he won't reward the righteous.
Big or little, insignificant or fundamental, doubt affects us all.
I am thankful that when we come to scripture we find men and women who struggle with doubt, and not just average, ordinary men and women, but characters right in the middle of the story, people God used and moved in their life, struggling with doubt. One such character is John the Baptist.
We talked about John’s ministry last week. How he came on the scene in a mighty way. This wild man, dressed in animal skins, living off the land, and crying out a message calling Israel to repent. We saw him stand up to the Pharisees and point to the coming judgment of Christ, assured of what is coming. It’s quite the picture. This week, we turn to John again, this time though, he has more questions than answers and more doubts than assurances.
We are going to look at his story in Matthew 11, beginning at verse 2.
This morning I hope to show you three lessons from our text that can help you in seasons or times of doubt in your own life.
Matthew 11:2-11 (ESV) 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.
The first lesson is that…
We should embrace our doubts
Now that may immediately strike you as in opposition to what you have learned in church. It is my experience that too often the church has refused to come alongside doubters, choosing rather to chastise, criticize, or condemn them. This has led to many people being afraid to share their doubts or worse to have them compound in such a way that they simply walk away from the church altogether.
Others won’t even step into the church because they have doubts and have been told or led to believe this is a place where doubts are not welcome.
Young men and women, having had none of their doubts addressed in their formative years, walk away from the faith because they aren’t equipped to handle the opposition to Christianity they face in college or in the career world.
God never asked us to deny our doubts or to stifle them, and if we simply look back over the history of the church we would find many of the giants of the faith, in and out of the bible, struggling with doubts. It is a normal experience and it is about time we treated it like such.
Doubt in and of itself is such a huge topic, let’s take and narrow it down for our purposes today. What kind of doubts are we talking about? This morning, we will primarily focus on the doubts of someone who has accepted that there is a God, which usually fall into three categories.
We can doubt God’s goodness (C.S.Lewis- loss of his wife)
We can doubt God’s plan (Jonah, John’s experience- unmet expectations)
We can doubt God’s methods (Peter- rebuking Jesus)
Rather than running from these, we need to embrace them. If John the Baptist embraced his doubts enough to send messengers to Jesus, then we ought to be encouraged to embrace our own doubts.
In doing so, we need to acknowledge that our doubt often arises out of a difficult situation or season.
We often don’t just doubt for doubt’s sake.
Seasons of suffering- John in prison
Times of loss- C.S. Lewis
Times of confusion- Peter, many of the Psalm writers bringing their questions and doubts to God
Our personal pain can often cause us to doubt God’s goodness, his plan, or his methods. Even Job, the great endurer, struggled with some doubt. Loss can make us feel like we are suffocating with doubts. Then there are times we just don’t understand, we cannot look at the way things are playing out and make sense of it, so it causes us to doubt.
The first thing we need to do in embracing our doubt is to ask, what is going on in my life that is feeding this doubt?
Unfulfilled expectations or desires, personal loss, confusion? Listen, identifying that doesn’t make the doubt go away, but it will put us in a better place to deal with it.
The second thing we need to do is ask, what is driving my doubt? That is, is it an intellectual doubt, is there some knowledge or thing that I have been confronted with that is causing my doubt. Is it emotionally driven doubt, is there some hurt, passion, feeling that is incompatible with something I believe to be true that is driving a wedge of doubt between what I feel and what I know to be true? In my study I read about a man who walked away from the faith and the church renouncing his belief in God because his young adult son had died without repenting and he would rather not believe in an afterlife than to consider that his son left this place and was faced with the consequences of his rejection of Christ.
Is it desire driven? That is to say, am I doubting it because if it wasn’t true then I could pursue my desire. For instance, if I am doubting God’s design for marriage because I want to divorce and remarry my secretary, that is a desire driven doubt. Am I doubting God’s standard of integrity for me because I want to cheat on my taxes? You see?
In the process of embracing our doubts we identify where they are coming from and what is driving them. We will talk more about this in a moment, but this is also a reminder when you are ministering to someone who is doubting, we need to be listening for the answers to these questions.
Coming back to John, it seems that his imprisonment coupled with the way Jesus is carrying out his ministry has brought to life this doubt in John’s mind. Is Jesus the one? I mean that’s the core of his question, isn’t it? Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?
Maybe he got it wrong, maybe he didn’t see what he thought he saw, maybe Jesus was just another teacher or a potential messiah figure who would ultimately disappoint. There had already been a few by Jesus’ day. But it is what he does with this doubt that leads us to our second lesson.
After being imprisoned and hearing what Jesus is doing, this doubt begins to grow in John’s mind, but rather than push it down, he embraces it and sends his disciples to Jesus, which is our second lesson.
Not only should we embrace our doubts…
We should bring our doubts to God
In seasons of doubting, too often we withdraw, rather we need to press into the word and people of God. Either because of what we talked about earlier and not feeling comfortable bringing our doubts up or worse, in my opinion, because we feel like a fraud.
How can we gather with God’s people and sing songs, and have discussion in our Bible studies, or listen to a sermon when we have these doubts swirling around? And so we withdraw. We think God may be mad at us if we admit our doubts out loud or bring them into his house!
Here is where Faith comes in. To quote Lewis from his book Mere Christianity.
“Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods… That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off’, you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist (p. 140-141).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
When doubt creeps in concerning things we have accepted as true because of current situations, emotions, or moods, faith is holding on to those things even when we don’t feel them.
This is why it is so important to draw near God in times of doubt rather than to pull away.
One very important way we do that is to gather with our brothers and sisters to sing songs that are true, read scripture, counsel with one another, pray together. We are called to bear one another’s burdens. We often think of that in the sense of our own responsibility but the inverse is true as well. We should allow our brothers and sisters to bear our burdens when they seem to overwhelm us.
Here is one of the most important truths we need to firmly grasp in our minds.
God is big enough to handle our doubts.
He is neither too small to bear them, too busy to hear them, or too distant to answer them. This is the testimony of scripture.
This is what John did, he brought his doubt to Jesus, right? He gathered some of his disciples, Luke tells us in his gospel it was two of them, and he sent them to bring his doubts to Jesus for an answer.
God is big enough to handle our doubts. He is neither too small to bear them, too busy to hear them, or too distant to answer them.
We need only to look at the way Jesus handled them to see what it is like to bring our own doubts to him.
He doesn’t get angry at John. Really John, you of all people…
He doesn’t rebuke him like he did Peter who rather than bringing his doubts, tried to rebuke Jesus.
He also doesn’t ignore John in his time of need. He receives his messengers and his doubts.
There are two things I want you to see here before we move to Jesus’ answer.
1. There is encouragement for the doubter
Jesus does not turn John away for his doubts, he doesn’t cast him out, and he doesn’t get angry, he gently and compassionately answers John’s doubts. We have no reason to believe he will not receive your doubts in the same way.
2. This is a model for us to encourage and come alongside our doubting brothers and sisters.
If we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus, if we are to allow his love to flow through us to others, then there is no better way than to follow his example and be merciful to those who are doubting.
Which, by the way, is exactly what scripture commands us to do.
Jude 1:20-23 (ESV) 0 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.
John, having brought his doubts to Jesus, gets a merciful response and an answer to his doubts.
Our first lesson is that we should embrace our doubts, our second lesson was that we should bring our doubts to God, our third lesson is…
We should trust God’s answers to our doubt
Is Jesus the one? That is the doubt. Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter.
He says, go back and tell John what you see and hear.
Luke adds this detail, Luke 7:21 (ESV) 21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight.
Jesus sums up his ministry by telling John’s disciples, tell John…
...the blind receive their sight
...the lame walk
...lepers are cleansed
...the deaf hear
...the dead are raised up
...the poor have good news preached to them.
Each of these is a reference to Isaiah’s prophecies concerning the coming Messiah and his kingdom. Each one also includes a reference to the coming judgment that John is confused about. Jesus says, the very scriptures concerning me, that you know, are literally being fulfilled in my ministry. If that is the case, then everything will come to pass in the right time, trust in God and trust in me.
Jesus leaves it to John to trust him or not.
Then Jesus gives John another truth to hold on to. Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Offended here is the idea of a stumbling block. Jesus essentially says, “John, I know you are not going to stumble, I know you have doubts, but I know you will see the truth.” Here is how we know John accepted Jesus’ answer, Jesus goes on to praise his ministry and character.
As his disciples are leaving Jesus thrice asks the people what they went out to see when they went out to see John the Baptist.
A reed shaken by the wind? No. John was no wavering weak reed but a strong voice.
A man dressed in soft clothing? No. John was no soft man, he was a tough and rugged voice.
A prophet? Yes, and not just a prophet, a prophesied prophet.
Indeed, Jesus says, there is none greater than John.
Jesus would not let the people think that because John had these doubts that he was any less of God’s man, that he was any less than faithful to his mission.
Doubt is fine, but when God answers your doubt, we put our trust in his answer.
This is where doubting believers and skeptical unbelievers are divided, while some of their doubts may overlap, what they do with God’s answer shows of what spirit they are.
Jesus changes his tone after our scripture to one of rebuke
Matthew 11:16-20 (ESV) 16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces 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. 20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.”
This is where doubting believers and skeptical unbelievers are divided, while some of their doubts may overlap, what they do with God’s answer shows of what spirit they are.
There will never be enough proof, there will never be enough answers for some people. The Pharisees saw and heard the same thing as John’s disciples, but they chose to not believe, it wasn’t enough. They rejected John for being too strict and Jesus for being too loose. What John did with his doubts and what the Pharisees did with their doubts were on the opposite sides. John accepted Jesus’ answer and rejected his doubts. The pharisees accepted their doubts and rejected Jesus.
Again I want to emphasize that doubt is a normal part of the Christian walk, but if you will not accept God’s answers to your doubt when you bring them to him and he clearly speaks to them, you need to ask yourself whether you are merely doubting or if you are rejecting.
A follower of Christ wants the truth, they love it, they seek it out over their own emotions, limited understanding and knowledge, they cling to it.
So doubt, embrace it, and then bring it to Jesus, and when he speaks to you, through his word, through a brother or sister, through your pastor, accept it, trust it, and put your doubts to rest.
A final lesson from John’s life before we close.
Even though John’s doubts were answered, he didn’t get out of prison.
Even though his doubts were answered, he would soon be put to death for the way he stood for truth and God’s law.
Having our doubts answered allows us to face whatever situations come, it doesn’t remove us from them. Holding on to our faith in the most difficult situations is what we are called to do.
John did everything he was called to do, he fulfilled his ministry by pointing the way to Jesus, Jesus says he was the greatest man to ever live, and yet he still ended up imprisoned and ultimately beheaded.
Friends, embrace your doubts, bring them to God, and trust him, so that you may be ready to stand firm no matter what comes. Amen.