Some people are natural skeptics. My Grandfather was one. When man first landed on the moon in July of 1969 and the TV pictures came back from the lunar surface, my Grandpa thought it was all being faked. He figured those pictures were coming from a desert somewhere in Arizona. Sometimes he was a fellow who didn't want to be con-fused by the facts. On the other hand, some folks tend to be gullible and will believe anything they are told. I had a friend in college, a girl who believed me when I told her we had a nuclear-powered coffee pot in our apartment. She never doubted anything she heard. Friends, when it comes to Chris-tian truth, God doesn't want us to be skeptics, but I don't think He wants us to be gullible either. In fact, our faith can be strengthened when we ask tough questions and even when we struggle with doubts. Today our topic is "Dealing with Doubt." Our text is Matthew 11:1-11. This is a fascinating passage be-cause here we find John the Baptist in the role of a skeptic, expressing his doubt. John questions whether or not Jesus is really the Messiah. This may seem a bit confusing. Almost every Sunday we talk about the importance of faith and trusting in the Lord. We often view doubt as the opposite of faith. How could a great man like John be a doubter?
As we explore our text today, I believe we will find that the Lord has some important words for us on how to deal with doubt. As we look at Jesus' reaction to John the Baptist, I think it will help us to be an encouragement to those who struggle with doubts, and will also enable us to better deal with our own questions. Let's pray that would happen.
There are four main points I want to make today: #1) Doubt is a reality, even among believers. Let's look at John the Baptist's question. John is called the Baptist, not because that was his dad's name or be-cause he was a Baptist deacon or anything like that, but rather because he baptized people, including Jesus. Matthew 11:1-3 After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Why was John in prison? He had publicly denounced King Herod, because Herod had committed adultery and married his brother's wife, Herodias. The King didn't like what he heard, got mad and threw John in prison. By this time there were a number of people who had become John's followers, or disciples, and they came and gave John a report about Jesus' ministry. John tells his disciples to go ask Jesus, 11:3b "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" John is a doubter. Some have sug-gested he is merely asking this question for the benefit of his followers, but that is not what the text says. John is uncertain whether or not Jesus is really the Messiah. Not long before, in John 1:36, he had proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God who would take away the world's sin. But now, he is not so sure.
It is important that we don't confuse John's doubt with unbelief. Os Guiness gives a very helpful definition of doubt in his book In Two Minds. He says, "When you believe, you are in one mind and accept something as true. Unbelief is to be of one mind and reject that something is true. To doubt is to waver between the two, to believe and disbelieve at the same time, and so to be in 'two minds.'" That is what James calls, in Chapter 1, a "double minded man," or as the Chinese say, "Doubt is standing in two boats, with one foot in each." That also reminds us that doubt can be a very agonizing and painful experience. But remember, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Unbelief is. The greatest danger, however, is that if not responded to and dealt with, doubt can lead to unbelief.
John's experience reminds us that no one is immune from doubt. Just like people who are in excellent physical health can still get a cold, people who are in great spiritual health can still be afflicted with doubt. There are other doubters besides John mentioned in the Bible. The apostle Thomas was. Do you remember what happened after the other apostles had told him that they had seen the risen Lord? Thomas told them, "I'm not going to believe you unless I see Him standing here and I can put my finger into the nail holes in His hand." Because of that one statement, he has been known for the past 2000 years as "Doubting Thomas." Of course, the rest of the twelve also struggled with doubt. They didn't take Jesus very seriously when He told them that three days after His crucifixion He would rise from the dead. When the women returned from the empty tomb that first Easter morning, the apostles were pretty skeptical. In the Old Testament we see Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, struggle with doubt. In 1 Kings 19, he is ready to totally give up and throw in the towel, even though the Lord had just used him to achieve a great victory against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. David certainly was a doubter at times. In Psalm 22, for example, David basically asks, "God, where are You? Why have You let me down?" Some of the great heroes of the Bible, people who at times demonstrated outstanding faith, still sometimes struggled with doubt.
Christians today still struggle with doubt as well. Francis Schaeffer was prob-ably the second most influential leader of evangelical Christianity of this century, right behind Billy Graham. Schaeffer was a man of great faith who helped so many skeptics put their faith in Jesus Christ. But he was also a man who went through an intense struggle with doubt. It happened in the winter of 1951-52. He was serving as a missionary in Switzerland and had already been in the Christian ministry for over ten years. But at that point, he felt he had to go back to the beginning. He had to make sure that Christianity was true. He spent hundreds of hours pacing around his hay loft wrestling with his doubts, until finally one day, by God's grace, he knew for certain that it was all true. I have mentioned before the sum-mer of 1976, after my first year of college, that I struggled with doubt. I had been active in the church for a number of years, but that summer I began to wonder, "Does God really exist? Why should I believe something just because the Bible says so?" Oh, I have had to deal with doubts since then, but never like that time. They were three of the hardest months of my life. I am grateful that God in His grace used some of Francis Schaeffer's books to pull me out of that doubt.
Friends, there are all sorts of different types of doubt that Christians can have. Some may wonder whether or not God really exists or whether the Bible is just a bunch of fables. Others believe in God, but have a hard time accepting that He really is good and cares about them. Many believe everything the Bible teaches, but have doubts whether or not they are truly a Christian because of a continued struggle with sin in their lives. Perhaps the most common form of doubt is when we wonder whether or not it really pays to obey God. Sometimes it seems a lot more fun and easier to do things our own way. There are various types of doubt, and my point is that no one is immune from them. It is reality. Some of you may have wrestled with doubt in the past. Others may have never had that experience, but that doesn't mean it is not around the corner. No matter who you are, or how old you are, it may be in the future. Some of you may even be dealing with doubts this morning. But, remember, doubt is a reality. It can happen even in the lives of the most devout believers.
But, this is #2) Why does this happen, why do Christians have doubts? There are probably as many reasons for doubt as there are people on the planet, but doubt often comes when we face opposition. Certainly John's doubt is related to the fact that he is in prison. If Jesus is really the Messiah, it just doesn't seem that his partner in ministry should be rotting in a dungeon. Doubt often springs up when we hear or experience something which conflicts with our values or views of the world. That is what often happens when Christian students attend the university. If you sit in a biology class where a very dynamic professor says that evolution is a fact of science, it is no surprise if you start having doubts about the accuracy of the Genesis account of creation. If you read a book which gives a sympathetic description of another religion, such as Islam, all of a sudden Jesus' claim to the only way to God starts to seem a little extreme. Now, I'm not saying that Christian young people should not attend secular colleges and universities. The objections that opponents of Christianity raise can be answered. It is certainly better for Christian students to find these answers instead of sticking their heads in the sand and pretending only an idiot would reject Christianity. My point is that we should not be surprised or panic if doubts arise in this type of setting. When we face opposition, when our beliefs and values are challenged, it is natural to have some ques-tions.
There are other reasons for doubt too. When we face cancer or another serious illness, doubt often hits. When someone close to us dies, or when our little baby is born handicapped, it is not uncommon for doubt to arise. Sometimes just being physically tired or emotionally exhausted becomes fertile soil in which doubt can grow. A lack of genuine Christian fel-lowship, just not having the encouragement of other believers, can make us vulnerable to doubt. Now, there may be some Christians who are never afflicted with doubt because they have basically been isolated from beliefs that are contrary to Christianity and have never really faced tragedy in their lives. But remember, "A ship is safest in harbor, but that is not what ships are made for." Christians are not meant to be insulated from the possibility of doubt. Never to have a question about the truth of Christianity is not really a goal for which Christians should strive. When we live in the real world and seek to serve the Lord in that world, there will probably be times when we face some doubts.
#3) What then is the proper response when we, or someone we know, experiences doubt? Well, let's look at Jesus' response to John the Baptist's question. We might expect Jesus would scold John and say, "What is wrong with you? Of course I'm the Messiah. Don't be so stupid." But, Jesus simply answers John's question: 11:4,5 "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 the good news is preached to the poor." Then after John's messengers leave, Jesus turns to the crowd and begins to ask, "Who is John?" 11:7b-11a "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: 'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you!' I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist;..." Jesus' response to John's question helps us deal with our doubt. Often people deal with doubt by trying to ignore it and pretend it is not there. They are afraid if they admit their struggle, it will evoke a negative response from others. If you tell a Christian friend you have serious doubts about the reliability of the Bible, you will probably make your friend uncomfortable. When a teenager expresses doubt about Christianity, the response of many Christian parents is to scold and say, "You should not have those questions." Even in the church, we some-times encourage folks to keep the hard questions with which they struggle to themselves.
But, we need to remember what I said a few minutes ago. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but unbelief. Unbelief is a sin, but doubt usually is not. Thomas Jefferson said, "Government, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." In other words, citizens must always be very careful that government does not get out of control. I think the same thing can be said about doubt. It is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Doubt is certainly not one of the seven virtues. Though we might overreact to doubt, some, especially in liberal churches, treat it much too lightly. There are some circles where people are encouraged to celebrate their doubts, but it is hardly worth celebrating. If not dealt with properly, doubt can be very dangerous to our spiritual health.
Yet, times of doubt can have a positive impact in our lives. Doubt can help us discard some false beliefs and discover more of the truth. Friends, there is no virtue in believing everything we are told. It is good to have doubts when we read a Weekly World News headline which says Elvis is living in Montana. In Acts 17, the church in Berea is commended because they don't believe what Paul tells them. They have doubts, they check it out and see if it is consistent with what Scripture teaches. A faith which is not built on truth is a worthless faith. If our doubts help us discover truth, it will strengthen our faith.
Friends, I know that the struggle with doubt that I went through 20+ years ago was one of the most painful times in my life. But, without it, I don't think I would be in this pulpit today. If it were not for that time when I really had to search my soul and ask why I believed Christianity was true, I don't think my faith would be as strong as it is today. Just as metal can be refined and strengthened by fire, doubt can refine and strengthen our faith. But, it will only do so if it is dealt with in the right way. If left untreated, doubt can lead to unbelief. That is something which is very destructive to our souls.
#4) So what then is the remedy for doubt? Let me mention four things that we can do to deal with doubt. First, determine the cause of doubt. If you are going through a tough time, recognize this may be con-tributing to your doubt. Someone has said, "Never doubt in the darkness the things you know to be true in the light." There is some real wisdom there. When you are going through a real hard time, when someone close to you dies, or you are seriously ill, it's very natural that doubts may arise. Some-times we need to address those root causes. If you are physically exhausted and strug-gling with doubt, the best remedy is not to stay up all night trying to find answers to your questions, but rather get a good night's sleep. It is amazing how differently things can look in the morning after we do that.
Secondly, we need to look for good answers to honest questions which we have. That is what Jesus gave John. He didn't say, "John, just believe in Me. Just have blind faith." Instead He gave evidence. Matthew 11:5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. And, friends, Christianity is indeed built on evidence. 1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched --- this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The Christian faith is based on real events which actually happened: The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not a fairy tale, it is the truth. There is no reason why we should ever be afraid of discovering what is true. When we really seek the truth, I am confident we will find Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, when we struggle with doubt, we need to make sure we don't neglect reading the Bible and finding Christian fellowship by going to church. Now, those may not be things you feel like doing when you have doubts about Christianity. Yet, just like we need to take medicine when we are sick, even though we often don't feel like doing so, we need spiritual medication to help us overcome diseases of the soul. The Bible and a local church are the primary tools that God uses to strengthen our faith when it is weak. If you have friends or family members who are struggling with doubt, please remind them of this fact. Doubts don't tend to take care of themselves. They need to be dealt with, and it is best not to try to do so on our own.
Fourthly, always give God the benefit of the doubt. Even if it gets to the point where you are not sure that God really exists, keep on obeying Him. Keep on reading the Bible. Keep on praying. Don't give up. These are things which can help you overcome doubt, and it is also a wise course of action. If God doesn't exist, you have lost very little by seeking to follow Him. If He does exist, however, to ignore Him would have tragic consequences.
Friends, from our text today Jesus shows us that having questions doesn't mean we can't move from doubt to faith. It is important to remember that the degree of certainty we have is not nearly as important as the object of our faith. The illustration I like is crossing a stream in the winter time. If the ice is a foot thick, it doesn't matter if you have questions or doubts about whether or not the ice will hold you. Even if you are really, really heavy and really, really scared, you are not going to fall through. You can safely cross that stream if only you are willing to step out and do it. Friends, even if you sometimes struggle with doubts, if you put your trust in Jesus Christ, you will never be disappointed. That is part of what Jesus means in Matthew 11:11b ...yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Knowing Christ, sharing in His kingdom, is the greatest privilege on earth. Even though our faith may sometimes be weak, if we are a genuine Christian, Jesus will never let us down. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:13 ...if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself. Friends, don't let your doubts get you down. Ask God to help you deal with them, and ask Him to allow you to experience His grace in your life in such a fresh way that it will drive out any doubts with which you struggle and help you to move from doubt to faith.
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