On Faith & Doubt (Part 2)
Is it wrong to question your faith?
In the first of this essay, I began an exploration of John the Baptist’s moment of doubt. If you have not read Part 1, click here.
In Exodus 7:9 God forewarned Moses that Pharaoh would not believe his story that he had recently been visited by a god who desires to set the Israelites free. Therefore, God told Moses, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” Pharaoh, you see, just isn’t the sort of guy who will simply take Moses at his word. He’s the kind of person who says, “Oh yeah, prove it to me!”
What’s interesting is the fact that most religious people today seem to think that this approach is entirely wrongheaded. “You can’t prove religion,” they’ll argue. “Religious claims aren’t based on proof, they’re based on faith!” The odd thing about this passage from Exodus (and many others like it) is that Pharaoh’s demand for proof is never actually called out as an impious request. Rather, God simply instructs Moses to grant Pharaoh’s demand. In fact, the same could be said about Exodus 4 in which Moses wonders whether the Israelites themselves will believe his story, that God just spoke with him at the site of the burning bush. In that chapter as well, God promises to empower Moses to perform various signs that will basically “authenticate” his message. “If they will not believe you or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign (Ex. 4:8).
Mark chapter 2 records the famous scene in which the paralytic man was lowered from the roof while Jesus was teaching in Capernaum. You know the story—but think about Jesus’ final words to the crowd that day, “So that you may know the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” he looked at the paralyzed man and said, “Rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” The people who had gathered there couldn’t see with their eyes whether the man’s sins had been forgiven, but they could see that the man had been healed. So in other words, Jesus performed a visible sign to confirm the truth of the more important invisible reality, which at the end of the day, pointed to his divinity.
Now when you read accounts like these in the Gospels today, if you’re anything like me, on some occasion you might find some of the stories difficult to believe. It’s hard to believe that such a small amount of food was multiplied and ended up feeding over 5,000 people. I’ve never seen anything like that, and what would it have even looked like anyway? Of course, the opposite would be even harder to imagine. How could a man who claimed to be God, have attracted so many followers in first-century Judea, without performing any miracles?
In times of questioning, I suggest that we recall John’s moment of doubt (Lk 7:18-23). Earlier in his career, he had spoken with such confidence about Jesus, but now that he’s behind bars, he’s starting to wonder whether Jesus really is the promised Messiah. But when his own disciples came to him reporting the specific things they saw Jesus doing, the point was inescapable. There was a clear match between the reports of credible eyewitnesses and that which had been recorded so many centuries earlier by the Hebrew prophets of old.
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” As you reflect on the specific words of this question, you discover that there’s actually nothing impious at all to be found here. Granted, it’s somewhat surprising that this question is found on the lips of John the Baptist, particularly in light of his former bold pronouncements, but at the end of the day, this is still just a question. And how did Jesus respond? Did he say, “John, brother, how the mighty have fallen?” Or did he say, “Listen, John, you know better than to ask a question like that!” No. Instead, Jesus furnished John with very specific and tangible proof that served to vindicate and confirm his identity as Israel’s promised messiah. He didn’t direct John inward, but pointed him outward, to the events seen and heard by his closest disciples, and to the words recorded by the ancient Hebrew prophets.
Now, there’s one more thing we need to say about this passage before concluding. In verse 23 of Luke chapter 7, Jesus does perhaps give John a gentle critique. Backing up to verse 22. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” Then in verse 23, he says, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” This, it could be argued, was perhaps John’s greatest difficulty. He was in fact offended by Jesus who had sovereignly decided (for reasons known only to himself) not to intervene in his case. John believed that when the Messiah came, he was supposed to open prison doors and release those who were in the dungeons. Now, perhaps those prophecies were simply metaphors for the imprisonment of sin which John took too literally, or perhaps we could point out that there were literal fulfillments of these promises recorded throughout the book of Acts in which prison doors were literally opened for the apostles on various occasions (cf. 5:18, 12:7, 16:25-27). Whatever the case, John appears to have been somewhat offended that he, of all people, should be left to rot in prison. And as we know from other passages in the Gospels, not long after the events recorded in Luke 7, John’s head ended up being served up on a platter. So, in light of all this, the point Jesus seems to be making in verse 23 is that no one can order up his or her own providence. Sometimes God calls us to suffer, even when we’ve done nothing wrong, and sometimes he allows the wicked to prosper, even though all their business dealings are shady. God will sort all this out in his own good time, and here in verse 23, Jesus is telling John that providence is “my” business, and blessed are those who are not offended by me.
This is an important point because you’ll sometimes meet people who have totally given up on God. And as you talk with them they’ll often throw all kinds of arguments your way, explaining why they believe the Bible is a myth, or how it has been changed over the centuries, and no matter how patient you are with them in trying to correct their misunderstandings, they just keep moving from one excuse to another. And in some cases — obviously not in all — you may discover that the person you’re talking with was greatly disappointed by God in some way, and now simply prefers to wish him out of existence completely.
As with all his followers, including you and me, Jesus sometimes calls us to periods of suffering or even persecution. This is what theologians refer to as the “Theology of the Cross.” There are many hard sayings of Jesus recorded throughout the Gospels, but perhaps the hardest saying of them all is this strange idea that we should rejoice in our sufferings (cf. Mt 5:12, Lk 6:23). You can actually see Peter struggling with this idea recorded at the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus tells Peter that when he’s old, someone will “stretch out his hands, and another will dress him and carry him where he does not want to go.” The narrator then explains that Jesus said this “in order to show the kind of death he will glorify God.”
But then, just a few verses later, Peter sees another disciple and says to Jesus, “What about him?” Jesus then responded by saying, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” In other words, he was basically telling Peter, “Blessed are those who are not offended by me.” If comfort is your God, then Jesus will forever remain offensive to you. But if you follow the ancient promises concerning the seed of Abraham in whom all the world would be blessed, and the son of David whose kingdom would be everlasting, and Isaiah’s suffering servant who would be despised, rejected, and slaughtered like a lamb for the sins of his people, and when you discover that the most reliable and trustworthy eyewitnesses ever known in the ancient world, announced the historical fulfillment of all these promises, then we have a solid ground for our faith. It’s not a leap in the dark, but we can with confidence declare it to be certain and sure. Therefore, let us no longer worship and venerate the god of comfort. Let us rather turn to Jesus as the sovereign Lord of history, and let us serve him faithfully.
Do you have doubts? Do you sometimes question your faith? Don’t let them fester, but get them out in the open. Discuss them with friends, bible study leaders, pastors, and elders. There is nothing at all impious about asking difficult questions — in fact, people who are confident in their faith actually love getting questions like these, since, as the case of John the Baptist demonstrates, it often ends up providing another opportunity to examine the solid foundations of our faith. Alternatively, we also need to spend our lives thinking through difficult questions related to our faith so that we can be of assistance to others during their moments of doubt. This is what Peter was getting at when he instructed us to “always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us.” But, he added, be sure to do this with “gentleness, and respect” (1Pet 3:15).