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Doubt - everybody's problem - Matthew 11:1-18

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 6th September 2009.

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In his book ‘Disappointment with God’, Philip Yancey quotes a letter which expresses the deep anguish and doubt of a Christian mother, Meg Woodson. Meg had lost two of her children to cystic fibrosis and her daughter’s death at the age of 23 was especially traumatic. This is how she describes her pain and doubt as she struggled to come to terms with what had happened: ‘I was sitting beside her bed a few days before her death when suddenly she began screaming. I will never forget those shrill, piercing primal screams…It’s against this background of human beings falling apart….that God, who could have helped, looked down on a young woman devoted to him, quite willing to die for him to give him glory, and decided to sit on his hands and let her death top the horror charts for cystic fibrosis death.’  There are Christians of course who think that doubt is never an option for the believer; that it is nothing short of sin, a denial of the faith. If that is the case then that puts some of the most famous Christians in history beyond the pail, like C.S Lewis for example. On the other hand there are those who consider doubt to be a great virtue. Some of you will remember when the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, denied the bodilyl resurrection of Jesus and central to his justification for adopting this position was that doubt was essential to faith for Christianity is not in the business of dealing with certainties. The thing is, there is an element of truth in both of these positions as well as a good deal of error. Some doubt is not an option for a Christian- for example doubting that Jesus ever existed. It may be the case that someone who is exploring the Christian faith is asking for evidence that Jesus existed and up to that point is holding back on any commitment, but for one who claims to believe in Jesus while at the same time entertaining the thought that he never existed is almost tantamount to unbelief. On the other hand a healthy use of doubt can strengthen faith. I certainly doubted many of Bishop Jenkins arguments which caused me to look at the Bible more carefully with the result that my belief in the resurrection of Jesus became all the more settled. So the place of doubt in the life of a Christian does need careful handling, it can be a help or a hindrance, which is what we are hoping to explore over the next few Sunday evenings under the title, ‘Dealing with Doubt’.

Sometimes words get much of their meaning in relation to other words. For example, the word ‘big’ gains some of its meaning over and against the word ‘small’. But what about the word ‘doubt’? Well, in a Christian setting we need to think of it in relation to two other words- ‘faith’ and ‘unbelief’.

So what do we mean when someone says, ‘I have faith’? I guess if ever there was a misunderstood word today it is that little word 'faith.' Part of the problem is that it is seen as something distinctly religious. The religious person has 'faith' whereas the non-religious person doesn't. 'Faith' is uncertain and takes over when the facts end. And that is a great pity really, because the Bible's use of the word 'faith' is not particularly religious at all. It is a very common word referring to something we are all doing all of the time. Perhaps for the sake of clarity we should drop the word 'faith' altogether and substitute some of the more ordinary alternatives. And the alternatives are these: 'trust', 'rely', 'depend'. And there are two reasons why these words are better than the word 'faith' to get over the real meaning. First, because faith isn't a thing we posses, it is something we do- 'trusting', 'relying' ,'depending'- there is no such word as 'faithing'. And second, they underscore the importance of the object of faith, for when someone says 'I trust', you ask, 'Trust in what'? When they say, 'I depend' you ask 'on what are you depending?' When they say ' I rely' well, the sentence is incomplete isn't it? You have to finish it by saying upon what it is you are relying. But if you simply say 'I have faith' it appears very mystical but doesn't tell you very much. And furthermore, it is the object of faith that makes faith rational in that you depend upon something dependable, you rely upon something reliable, you trust something that is trustworthy. And so everyone has faith. At the moment you are all exercising a tremendous amount of faith in your pew. You are relying on the pew to support you, and your faith in the pew is rational because it is the pew that is reliable. So what is it that is keeping you up at the moment? Is it your faith or your pew? Well, if you think it is your faith, try sitting down without a pew and see what happens! And therefore, in many ways it is the object of your faith that is far more important than faith itself. And that is precisely what the Bible teaches as we shall see.

But what about unbelief? This is the opposite of faith or trust. Sometimes unbelief is rational and justified. So if you are directed to a pew by one of the sidespeople and you can see that the wood has a giant crack down the middle, no matter what the sidespeople told you about the pew being able to support you, you would have every right not to believe them. But sometimes unbelief is not rational. Imagine that you have been visiting the same restaurant with your wife or husband for the last ten years on a Thursday night and every time the dinner has been brilliant. The steak is always cooked to perfection, the broccoli is tender and fresh. And it is Thursday night yet again and then you say, ‘We are not going there tonight, I believe that the food will be dreadful’. There has been no change of cook, no one has reported a decline in the standards in recent weeks- but you simply don’t believe it. Is that unbelief rational? Of course not.

But what about doubt? When you think about it doubt is a half way house between faith and unbelief. It is not ‘I am convinced and so I believe’. Nor is it ‘I am not convinced so I don’t believe’. It is, ‘I sort of believe but I am not so sure, I am hanging back, I am in two minds about this.’   And that is how the different words which can be translated ‘doubt in the New Testament are actually used. So for example at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Jesus is on the mountain with his disciples and we read that some of them ‘doubted.’ The word (distazo) can be rendered, ‘held back’ or ‘hesitated’. There is this reluctance to accept something wholeheartedly, in this case perhaps because it seems too good to be true- Jesus is alive!  Then there are situations in which folk are simply indecisive, in two minds, flitting between one option and another. This is what the apostle James targets in his letter when talking about prayer, ‘When a person asks, he must believe and not doubt (diakrino), because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.’ (James 1:6). And it often feels like that doesn’t it- should I do this or shouldn’t I? But then we have another word which also appears in James letter to describe another form of doubt, that of the ‘double minded’ person (dipsukos) (James 4:8). This seems to capture everything- hesitation, changing your mind one way and then another and so finding yourself stuck in a kind of no man’s land of not quite faith but not quite unbelief. It’s like the story of Buridan’s Ass. In the parable you have a hungry donkey that is half way between two piles of food. If it is going to survive it has to make a decision to eat one of them. But the donkey can’t make up its mind which to go for, it turns its head one way and makes for the grain, then stops and turns the other, then stops again and this goes on and on until eventually it is too late, he no longer has the energy to make it to either pile of food and so he dies.

Now that story actually highlights the importance of not ignoring doubt but dealing with it because some doubt can be fatal. Of course it depends upon what it is we are doubting. To be honest I don’t think it is going to lead to a major crisis of faith if we can’t work out where Cain got his wife from. But if like Meg Woodson who lost her daughter in that terrible way and she doubts whether God cares or acts but instead entertains the belief that, as she put it, God just ‘sits on his hands’, that is when doubt can slide into outright unbelief and so compound the tragedy. Not to believe that God is good, or caring or active in his world, even though at times we can’t quite make out how he is at work, will sooner or later lead either to outright atheism or having such a distorted and grotesque view of God you might better off not believing in him altogether, for what you are believing in is in fact a false God, an idol, and certainly not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So let’s take a look at an episode in the life of Jesus to see how he dealt with the doubt of the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, although he appears in the New Testament John the Baptizer in Matthew 11 and see what we can learn.

First the reality of doubt, look at v 2 ‘When John (the Baptist) heard was Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one to come, or should we expect someone else?’ You see John is not just in the dungeon of doubt- ‘is Jesus really the Christ or have we got it wrong?’ he is in a literal dungeon, suffocating in the fortress of Machaerus located in the burning mountains by the Dead Sea. Emotionally and physically, he was drained and not surprisingly he seems to be exhausted spiritually. The fact is because we are a unity, when we get run down physically, the emotions and the spirits also tend to plummet as well.  So it is here.  John has already publicly testified that God was going to send his King, his anointed one-the Christ- who would lay his axe to the root of the trees of our lives in judgment. He will come, said John, with a winnowing fork in his hand to sort out the spiritual chaff from the real grain. And John identified his cousin as the Christ, the one who was to come. But now it seems that he is not so sure. Jesus appears to be doing very little in the axe wielding department-so John begins to wonder whether he has simply made a mistake. But instead of letting the doubt fester, he sends his disciples to Jesus to get the answer.

Now there are several things we can learn about doubt from what we have just read.

First, doubt is everyone’s problem. Being in two minds about some aspect of our faith is not the preserve of spiritual pygmies who are not as sound or as well developed as some of the rest of us. After all, this is John the Baptist we are talking about! This is the cousin of the Lord Jesus; his mother was Elizabeth the cousin of the Virgin Mary. Don’t you think that from childhood he wouldn’t have heard stories about Jesus’ amazing birth- the visit of the angel, the shepherds, and the wise men, related by Mary via his mother? There would have been times during their childhood they would have met and played and talked, not least when as families they went up to Jerusalem for a major religious festival. This is the one who pointed Jesus out in the crowd as the coming Christ and fell down at his feet saying he wasn’t worthy to untie his sandals, what the lowest slave would ordinarily do, for he realized how high and exalted he was. He saw heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove and heard God’s voice proclaiming Jesus to be his son. And if you are still not convinced about the spiritual standing of John, take a look at Jesus estimate him in verse 11, ‘Among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist.’ So the point is this, if someone like John can find himself doubting, then don’t be thrown off balance if even after years of being a follower of the Lord Jesus you find yourself doubting too. It doesn’t mean you are becoming a heretic or you have somehow lost it, it means that you are simply human.

Secondly, doubt is not necessarily just an intellectual problem requiring good doses of doctrine. Getting to grips with reality, and so the truth, is important as we shall see, but all sorts of other factors can be involved in leading us to doubt. Sometimes there are just difficult circumstances which make you feel down. By all accounts John the Baptist was pretty much a macho kind of man- v7, ‘What did you see when John was at the height of his powers?’ asks Jesus of those who are putting the boot in, ‘Some limp feeble reed blown here and there, who was always on the lookout for a compromise, forever nailing his colours firmly to the fence?’ Or perhaps it was someone always on the lookout for comfort- wanting the easy life-dressed in fine clothes? Hardly, otherwise he would have been in a palace not the wilderness. No, what you got was what you saw- a prophet. In fact more than a prophet, for he was the one who was the object of prophecy itself, as we see in Malachi -the forerunner of God-the new Elijah (v 10, 13). Remember that during his ministry John lived in the hot Jordanian desert, eating wild locusts- real SAS material if ever there was. But even the toughest of us can be cast down when isolated, cut off from friends and family, living under unbearable conditions with no Christian fellowship and counting the days before we die. That was John’s situation. And so can we really blame him if he is now beginning to wonder whether he had got it all wrong? The days of crowds thronging to hear him preach now appear be like some long half forgotten dream. What about Jesus bringing in God’s Kingdom? It certainly doesn’t feel like that behind the prison walls- Herod seems to be the King firmly ensconced upon a throne not Jesus. And so no matter how robust one’s faith may once have been, it can take a pretty good hammering when the body is weak and the surroundings are bleak. Of course it may be that our upbringing has led us to have a doubting personality, just as some people are extroverts, others introverts, perhaps there is such as thing as ‘doubtverts’?  So you have Joan whose mother died when she was very young and was brought up by an overbearing critical father. She felt that she was always walking on eggshells; nothing she ever did seemed to be right. So should we be so surprised that doubt dogs her every step in adulthood, especially wondering whether she could ever think of God as ‘father’? All sorts of things can cause us to doubt which goes beyond the intellectual.

So what of dealing with doubt?

 The first thing we learn is that it is important to be honest about them. That is what John is doing, hence him sending some of his followers to Jesus. It is no good pretending they are not there, especially if they are as important as this- the identity of Jesus. We don’t know if John prayed about his doubts, he probably did, but John was not going to be so pietistic as to say, ‘All I have to do is trust God- or whistle a happy tune and I will be OK’. No, he took practical steps to get his doubts sorted out. It maybe that we do have doubts which are a result of not having the right information which results in wrong expectations; if so then in such cases we need to get the information. If you have doubts about the resurrection then there are plenty of books which you can read which will help you gain confidence. If you are wondering whether God can answer prayer, don’t let the doubts fester, talk to someone, one of the staff or get advice on where you can get satisfactory answers. But sometimes you know, we lay up trouble for ourselves for the future by not laying down firm foundations in the present, so that when our circumstances do take a dive, when trouble does come our way we just collapse. After all you don’t wait until you have to run a marathon before you decide to eat- you have regular meals and maintain a healthy diet so you can run when you need to. So it is in the Christian life. We neglect Bible reading, reading Christian books, church and homegroups at our peril. When the tsunami of family illness and tragedy hits, it will not be belief in a weak God who sits on his hands which will help us through the crisis, but only that of the great King who has our life in his hands will do. One of the most influential church teachers of all time was the Reformer John Calvin. His life was constantly in danger of assassination as a refugee, the city he lived in was often under the threat of fire and plague, and he himself was regularly ill with pleurisy, gout and terrible kidney stones, and just after under nine years of marriage while he was still under 40 his wife died so he was overwhelmed with grief. What got him through such misery? It was a strong view of the tender mercies of God he called ‘Lord and Father’ who superintended over every turn in life- something called Providence. He wrote, ‘Although we may be severely buffeted hither and thither by many tempests, yet, seeing that a pilot (that is God) steers the ship in which we sail, who will never allow us to perish even in the midst of shipwrecks, there is no reason why our minds should be overwhelmed with fear and overcome with weariness.’ We need to stoke up our faith to counter doubt.

But it is not just information we need, but emotion -truth given in a kind and tender way. That is what Jesus does: Jesus whilst not directly answering those questions does so indirectly and in so doing lifts the eyes of John and his followers above the circumstances to get a glimpse of the one who is the Lord over the circumstances -v4, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight ,the lame walk ,those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is being preached to the poor.’ Do you see what Jesus is doing? He is giving a summary of his ministry in the words of OT prophecy, especially Isaiah chapters 35 and 61, which read in this way: Is 35: 5 ‘Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a dear and the mute tongue shout for joy.’ Similarly Is 61: 1, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ In other words he is saying to John, ‘You can see by my ministry, through the preaching and the miracles, that they are the fulfilment of Scripture. Yes, I am the Christ promised which you rightly saw when you baptised me in the Jordan River. You started so well- hang in there cousin, ‘blessed is the man who does not fall away on my account.’ And while it is understandable as you lay locked away in the stifling heat of prison that you want to see justice executed and carried out quickly- God’s vengeance,-well, that part of the prophecy has yet to be fulfilled-in the future, but not just yet. So yes, I can see why you doubt John- but hold on, you were right all along.’ The root of John’s doubts, like those of dear Meg Woodson, is wrong expectations and these have to be corrected, but in the right way. Jesus is not hard on John, he is tender. And so should we be. In the next chapter we read one of the most beautiful and sublime descriptions of the Lord Jesus Christ- there it is in verse 20, ‘He will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick.’ And that is an example we should all follow.

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