Let’s Make a Deal
Week Three: “Dealing with Doubt”
Okay. Let’s just put this out there. I sometimes have doubts. Like pastor and author, John Ortberg, in his book, “Faith & Doubt,” If, when I die and go up yonder, I see Jesus face to face, and the room He promised to prepare for me in His Father’s house, and there is no more sin, death, sickness, or sadness, I’m going to be a little bit surprised. “Oh! It IS all true!”
On the other hand, I fully believe that God is real, that he created us in his image and one day had to send his Son to die for us, then rise again from the grave so that we might have everlasting life. And, I fully embrace my new life in Christ empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. I believe all this to be true!
I have faith…AND I have doubts. I remember 3 years ago this August, when a three year-old little boy was accidentally run over and killed. I remember in November of 2017 when our dear friends the Wardlaw’s lost their unborn baby, Maribel Elise, and how it occurred to me how terribly unfair that was. So many wicked, evil, and greedy people get away with so much in this world and yet these precious children never had a chance to live in it.
Five weeks ago Jimmy and Denise Woods lost Jimmy’s 38-year old son to a sudden heart attack. Last weekend a new couple in our area, Dave and Karen Meredith, buried their 19-year-old son after a tragic and unnecessary accident suddenly ended his life. And this 4th of July holiday, two young people lost their lives in an ATV accident while Jimmy and Margie Thompson lost their house to a fire.
God could have altered the circumstances of each one of these tragedies, but He didn’t. Heaven, it seems was silent. It can make the strongest of Christians begin to doubt God’s activity…or lack thereof…in the lives of the ones he came to save.
There are all kinds of circumstances where we may question God’s involvement, or the lack thereof. Why, after years of prayer, does our spouse still drink too much, or is involved in other addictive behavior. Why don’t we get any relief from our financial struggles, even after following Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace advice? Why does God send people to Hell for being other religions, or for practicing homosexuality, or for any number of other things. After all, we may argue, it doesn’t seem fair to condemn someone to Hell just because they live in a part of the world where they’ve never heard the Gospel. [NOTE: God doesn’t send us to hell. We send ourselves there by failing to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.]
All these doubts—and they’re as many as there are people in this room—can cause us anxiety because, after all, we are people of faith. We should not be doubting God, right? Well, there are certainly some who make that claim. Personally, I’m wary of folks like that. These are usually the same folks who have an answer for every question, and they KNOW they’re right!
But I think that most us—if we’re honest with ourselves—have doubts. Does this make us sinful? Does it make us any less a Christian? Or does it even mean we may not be “real” Christians after all? That’s what I want to wrestle with this morning. And to do that, we are going to look at a few individuals found in the Gospels.
The first is the most famous doubter in the Bible. He’s one of the Big Twelve. In fact, “doubt” has become synonymous with this apostle, so much so that the word has been dubiously added to his name. You know him…you love him…his name is… “Doubting Thomas.” That’s right.
What do we know about Thomas? Not much. He was also known by the name Didymus, which comes from the Hebrew and Greek words both meaning ‘the twin.’ He got his name, “Doubting Thomas,” because of a post-resurrection experience where Jesus appears to some of the disciples, but Thomas was not with them the first time.
John 20:25 says, “So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he [Thomas] said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.'”
Eight days later, Jesus appears before His disciples again and Thomas was with them. Here’s what happened: Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (John 20:26-29).
Even though Thomas earned a negative label, he was not lacking in courage and loyalty. When the other disciples tried to keep Jesus from going to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead because of the danger from those in the area who had just earlier tried to stone Him, Thomas said to them, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16). Thomas also asked Him one of the most famous questions in an effort to follow Jesus where he was going. He said: says, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ John 14:5-6.
I suspect the disciples were no less doubting than Thomas was before Jesus’s first appearance to them. After His death, they were in hiding in fear behind locked doors. It was only after Jesus appeared to them that they finally believed. It’s interesting that on Jesus’s second appearance, it was Thomas who made the first public profession of Jesus as being both Lord and God. So, maybe we should not judge Thomas too harshly; if we were in his place, I suspect we too would have doubted.
The second character of the Gospels I want us to consider seems like a more unlikely traveler in the “land called Doubt.” After all, he was created for such as time as this. Even in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. He grew up under Nazarene vows, not drinking wine or cutting his hair. He lived among the very conservative Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who were instrumental in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Clothed in camel’s hair, this man drew large crowds out into the wilderness to hear his message of repentance. He was destined to announce the coming of the Messiah and usher in the kingdom of Heaven when he told the crowds, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight His paths.” You know who I’m talking about? Of course, John the Baptist.
Let’s pick up his story from the 11th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. John had been thrown into prison for criticizing Herod about marrying his brother’s wife, an incestuous relationship. He had been there sometime between six months and two years and became so discouraged that he asked two of his disciples to go to Jesus and ask Him this question: “Are You the One who was to come, or should we look for someone else?”
John had prepared his entire life for his brief cameo on the stage of a new era…God with us…Emmanuel. The light had come into the world and it was John who first said so! John is the one who saw Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The anointing on his life had to be exceptionally powerful because his ministry defied logic. Thousands of people from many nations came to the middle of nowhere to hear this man preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
God had revealed to him that through a visible sign from heaven he would know who the Christ was. He would see the Spirit of God descending upon the Messiah in bodily shape as a dove. That’s exactly what happened when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. At that time, John was absolutely certain that Jesus was the Christ. He had zero doubt. He was so adamant about it that he said, “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One” (John 1:34).
And yet, this outspoken forerunner of Jesus—the one we often call the last Old Testament Prophet in the order of Elijah—finds himself at a point of doubt. After being imprisoned for a period of time, he began to doubt.
“Are you the one? Is Jesus REALLY the Anointed One who will restore Israel? Because if He is, then maybe being stuck in this prison…or even dying all alone in here…will be worth it.” John—a true, committed believer—doubted.
The fact that this GIANT of our faith faced doubts brings me comfort. This leads me to the first observation about dealing with our doubts: IT’S OKAY. You may be like me and don’t want to be considered weak, or weak-minded, or lacking faith in Jesus Christ if you experience doubt from time to time. You may sometimes live in the land of doubt, while that land is located within the country called “FAITH.”
Doubt is not the same thing as living without faith. And, as it turns out, there an awful lot of doubters within the Christian community. I discovered many quotes from famous Christian writers over the ages who also dealt with doubts. Let me just read you a few:
Eugene Peterson, author of the paraphrase, The Message, said: “Belief in God does not exempt us from feelings of abandonment by God. Praising God does not inoculate us from doubts about God.”
C. S. Lewis wrote this rather honest and humorous self-reflection: “I think the trouble with me is lack of faith… often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address.”
The great 16th century theologian, John Calvin, wrote: “Surely… we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”
20th century theologian, Paul Tillich, said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith… Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”
I like what Frederick Buechner wrote: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Madeleine L’Engle, author of fictional novel, A Wrinkle in Time, said: “The point of doubt is to keep you open to God’s revelations. If you don’t doubt, you don’t change. If you have to have finite answers to infinite questions, you’re not going to move.”
So, the bottom line is this. It’s OKAY to doubt. You’re not weak-minded or marked for hell for your doubts. Breathe. Keep asking the questions.
How did Jesus deal with John’s doubt? Well, He certainly DIDN’T respond the way most of us do. He didn’t tell his disciples to go back and scold John for his doubts. He didn’t rebuke him for lacking faith. He didn’t call him a sinner for doubting.
No, here’s what Jesus said: 4Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor. 6Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of Me.
Jesus didn’t try and make John feel better by letting him know He understood his pain or by making a few complimentary comments. Jesus reserved those comments till after John’s disciples left, when he said, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28).
What was Jesus trying to tell John through his messengers? He is telling John to look back to God’s Word for his answer. John, a Rabbi in his own right, knew the Hebrew Scriptures back and forth. He would have immediately recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah,
5Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. 6Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah. (Isaiah 35:5-6)
This is the second observation about dealing with doubt: Trust God’s Word to guide into all truth.
Okay, I will mention one more Gospel character who displayed doubt (there were others, to be sure). We all know this apostle for his keen ability to put his mouth in gear before he does his brain. He blurts out stuff all the time: “Lord, it’s good being on this mountain with you, Moses, and Elijah. Let me build some shelters for us and we can just hang out up here away from all that riff-raff down below.” Okay, he didn’t quite say it that way, but I think that could have been what he meant. Or how about this doozey: “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” Of course, Jesus shot right back and told him he would deny Him three times before the rooster crows. Who am I talking about? Yes, Peter.
Matthew 14 records an amazing story of Jesus walking on water and, once again, Peter blurting out, “Lord if it’s really you, tell me to come out to you.” Jesus say, “Step out of that boat, Pete!” Peter steps out, takes a few steps, and then begins to sink. “Save me!” He cries. Of course, Jesus does. Then he says this to Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
The Greek word used here for doubt is distázō. It’s a compound word: dís =”two, double” and stásis, = “stance, standing”. In other words, going two ways, shifting between positions; choosing “a double-stance, vacillate, waver. You see, doubt is NOT the opposite of faith…UNBELIEF is!
This leads to one final observation: DOUBT…if left unresolved…can become DISBELIEF. When we simply choose NOT to accept the objective truth God reveals to us through His Word and lived out in the lives of Spirit-filled followers of Jesus, THAT is unbelief.
Doubt is wavering between believing something to be true and thinking it may not be. Peter believed that Jesus was walking on water…He even believed that Jesus had been sent by God as the Messiah. But Peter struggled to believe that the Word Jesus spoke to him was greater than the reality around him…so he began to sink.
Jesus’s question to Peter is a good one for us, too. “Why DO we doubt?” As we’ve covered, doubt can be the engine to a deeper faith. It can be the “ants in our pants” to get us moving with God. If we keep asking the questions, seeking God for answers, then that is a GOOD thing.
But doubt can also be the result of something entirely different. It can creep into our lives through disobedience and sin, and sin is a faith-drainer. We can choose to ignore God’s Word…the Holy Spirit’s prompting…the community of faith activities that grow us in Christ. We can spend every weekend at the lake or on the golf course. We can ignore when God is calling us to forgive others and to love our enemies. Our hearts can grow cold…our ears become deaf…and our eyes blind to the working of God in our lives.
We may even THINK everything is hunky-dory…when in reality, we are being set up for a great fall. Without even noticing it, we’ve become a Doubting Thomas by our “inactions” and our failure to seek truth in God’s Word and through His people. And when tragedy strikes—and it WILL strike—we blame God. We refuse the comfort found in His word and His people.
So, what can we do to stave off such a disastrous fate? Here are a few suggestions for how to deal with doubt in an honest, biblical way:
Admit you have doubts. Again, it’s okay. God is big enough to handle your questions. King David certainly had doubts. Even Jesus, while struggling for his life on the cross, questioned God’s presence, quoting Psalm 22:1: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Mark 9 records the story of Jesus casting out an impure spirit from a boy. His disciples tried but failed. Jesus comes on the scene and after asking the father how long the boy had suffered that way, the father indicates it’s been a LONG period of demonic possession.
He then says, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus kind of rebukes the dad, “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” I think that’s the gist of this idea that faith and doubt are not opposites but unexpected partners in this journey with God. Let’s admit we have doubts and be okay with that.
Return to God’s Word for truth. In that same song David wrote about feeling abandoned, he also wrote this in verses 9-10: Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. THIS is truth! We may doubt God’s activity in our lives, but God’s Word says something entirely different! Last week I gave a number of assurances and encouragement from God’s Word. Check them out through our website…
Remember the Good Times. We all have times in our lives when we can point to good things happening and we are so grateful to God. We thanked him for sparing our lives from cancer… or helping us overcome some great financial or work-related obstacle. We can draw from our memories and the memories of our trusted brothers & sisters in Christ to affirm that God IS who he says he is and WILL do what he says he will do.
Cut OTHER Doubters some slack. Jude 22 tells us to “have mercy on those who doubt.” It is easy to judge, condemn, and look down on doubters as if they are second-rate Christians. But to have mercy on those who doubt is to be there for them, comforting and building them up. Remember, you’ve been a doubter before…and you likely will be again.
Be ready to live with mystery. Sometimes we want all the answers. We want complete understanding before we commit to God. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. While God has revealed so much to us through His Word, there are the “secret” things that belong to him alone. Do we fully understand the Trinity? How God created everything out of nothing? Why God allows stillborns and SIDS deaths? Don’t know. But what we can comprehend is enough for us to rest in God when mystery arises.
These past few weeks I’ve invited you to make a deal…dealing with disappointments, discouragement, and now doubts. The bottom line is this: You are not alone in times of despair. God is with you. He loves you and so do the people of God. God offers you peace passing all understanding through the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. Do you know Him? Do you want to? You can. Admit you’re a sinner, not able to save yourself, and you need Jesus to save you. AMEN.