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Exhortation – Doubt

January 2019

The boy with the unclean spirit

We find in Mark the scene of a desperate man, a father, with a son who has been horribly sick for some time with seizures and convulsions, often causing him harm:

“And someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able. ’And he answered them, ‘O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me. ’And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us’ “(Mark 9:17-22 ESV).

We can appreciate the massive trauma this situation would cause for the whole family, and the risk the man had taken to present himself and his son before Jesus.

“And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible for one who believes’. Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ ” (Mark 9:23-24).

And as the story goes, the boy was healed. But doesn’t that statement appear a little odd? “I do believe, help my unbelief”. Is he contradicting himself? Does he believe or doesn’t he? Or could it be that he believes the gospel message, he even believes in Christ as Messiah, but he still struggles with doubt? After all, don’t we do the same? We have faith, but our faith is assaulted and fraught with doubt. Even Christ’s own apostles, who were first-hand witnesses of Jesus and his miracles had doubts. Of course they believed, but quite clearly, they doubted too, on occasion.

Others who doubted

“The disciples of John (the Baptist) reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And when the men had come to him (Jesus), they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” ’In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them,
‘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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me’ “(Luke 7:18-23).

So, we find in these verses the doubt of John the Baptist, who was the greatest prophet who ever lived, the forerunner ofthe Messiah, and who was miraculously born late in life to Zacharias and Elizabeth. He had seen Jesus come down to the Jordan and had baptized him, heard God affirm him as His son in whom He was well pleased, and seen the Holy Spirit descend upon him. John even said he has to decrease so Jesus may increase. Yet now, in this part of his life, he had doubts that Jesus was indeed the Messiah that he himself had preached.

But what we have to realize is John the Baptist is not alone as a great and holy man of God who experienced doubt. Great heroes of faith throughout the Old Testament had some pretty huge doubts. Abraham, the founding father and patriarch, was filled with doubt when God told him that he was going to have a son. This was because he was old and had never been able to have children with his wife, Sarah, who laughed when she was told this too. But we know that their doubt became faith, and she, too is included among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. In that chapter of faith we also find Moses, who, when God told him to lead the people out of Israel, said he couldn’t do it. 7 am nobody. How can I go to the king and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exod 3:11). And we know he became the greatest leader in Israel’s history, leading the people out of Egypt, and for forty years in the wilderness. Moses also became a hero of faith. Gideon doubted he was a mighty warrior from God, when God identified him as such. He did not believe he could carry off a great victory, but he did, and his doubt was resolved into faith.

So, we can find fairly easily, both in the Old or New Testament, that there were many who experienced doubt, but who subsequently became people of great faith in the LORD.

The advantages of doubt

I’d like to talk about how doubt can actually be a good thing. Let us put it like this; regarding the truth of the Bible, doubt is not a bad starting point. It’s just a bad finishing point. The starting point actually has the potential to serve us very well. The capacity to doubt or to question is connected with rationality, and part of our rationality is to be able to discern what is true and what is not. After all, God created mankind to whom He was to reveal His truth. Wouldn’t it be essential to give His people the ability to sort out the information and come to the correct conclusion?

In Acts 17:11, a pattern was established by a group of Jewish believers, in the town of Berea, as they searched the scriptures to see if these things they were hearing were so. That’s a healthy skepticism: the kind that serves us well when we go to buy a car from aused car salesman. We do not want to be sucked into something that is not quite right, so we do our homework. The problem was that for many who saw Jesus’ works and miracles, doubt was the beginning and the end.

They walked away in disbelief and never gave it another thought. Doubt as a starting point has the ability to help strengthen our faith, but as an ending point, doubt has the ability to destroy our faith entirely.

John the Baptist

Coming back to John the Baptist, we find that John was in prison when he experienced this period of doubt. He had been put there by Herod because he had rebuked Herod’s sexual immorality. Conditions likely were pretty terrible. Matthew 11 mentions that Johns disciples reported back to him, back and forth, on the works of Christ. But being in prison for months, John began to doubt that Jesus was the coming one. He had the testimony of angels, a voice from the heavens, and heard of his miracles, yet he still had growing doubts.

John the Baptist, being stuck in a filthy prison, might question if this was indeed his reward for a life of faithfulness, ofpreaching and baptizing. He was suffering and might have questioned if this was his the reward for being the forerunner of the Messiah, being the most exalted of all prophets. He had breathed clean air, the beauties of creation had been all around him, and now he was confined and locked up. Maybe he thought Jesus could do something about it?

And I think this is an opportunity to highlight what we all can learn from this: that doubt comes from our inability to deal with negative circumstances, when we perceive ourselves as being faithful. There is one believer in the New Testament who illustrates that profoundly. He had only been abeliever for a few moments. He was hanging on a cross. He said to Jesus, “Remember me when you go to your kingdom”. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. When the other thief was taunting Jesus, the believing thief said, “We are getting exactly what we deserve.” He was not saying “Lord, Lord, I’m a believer, why is this happening to me?” He had no life of faithfulness to parade before God. Those who are very much aware of their sin and weakness likely will not be overcome with doubt when life goes bad; they see that as consistent, as the consequences of this life of sin and weakness.

Even in our own lives, doubts may come if we convince ourselves that we are loyal to our Father. We are faithful, we have lived and served Him and He ought to take special care of us. Suddenly everything can get turned upside down: the loss of a child to faithful parents, the loss of a life partner through death or through immorality, loss of a job, a friend, cancer, illness, and on and on. Ultimately what we need to understand is that there is no promise in this life that you are going to be healthy. There is no promise that you are going to be rich, or that you will have a successful career. Sure, there is the promise of health and joy when we share in the kingdom to come, but the harsh reality is that in this life, here and now, what we are promised is what was promised to Adam and Eve: pain and suffering, injustice, hardship, struggle.

Our misconceptions

Consequently it is obvious that our personal circumstances and hardships can definitely cause us to doubt at times in our lives. We doubt because we are
swayed by popular influences or circumstances. I believe John was a victim of the current Jewish misconception of Messiah, which was setting Israel free from Roman occupation. Abrahamic blessing would then flood the land, there would be health, wealth, and prosperity. All the wicked people would be thrown out, as John himself preached, in a judgement of fire. The glory of the Kingdom, with Jesus as King, would come to Israel, the desert would blossom like a rose, lions would lay down with lambs, and everything prophesied about the glories of the kingdom would come to pass.

John may have had doubts and thought that maybe Jesus was just another prophet leading up to the Messiah, which is perhaps why he specifically asked if he was indeed the coming one? John may have heard, from his disciples delivering him messages, how Jesus spoke of his death, that he would be going to his Father’s house. Peter’s response to a similar situation to this was, “You’re not going to die. You know the plan. The plan is you’re going to live. The plan is you’re going to conquer. You’re going to be the leader and the King of the world.” And Jesus’ response? “Get behind me Satan. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man”.

But Jesus’ response to John’s question was for his disciples to go back to John and tell him what they had seen and heard, right after Jesus performed many miracles: that the blind were seeing, the lame were walking, the dead raised, the poor had the gospel preached to them. With that as a response, we might think, doesn’t John already know that Jesus can perform miracles? So why did Jesus respond like this, after being asked if he was the Messiah?

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall
be unstopped” (Isa 35:5).

“… the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Isa 61:1).

The answer

So this was Jesus’ way of indirectly saying: Yes, I am the coming one. If you know this you should believe that the word of God is truth, instead of trusting in popular options and conceptions, and instead of getting caught up in our personal circumstances. John wasn’t rebuked, he wasn’t shamed because he doubted. Jesus simply encouraged him to turn back to the truth, to the Word of God to find what he was looking for.

And that really is the power of Jesus’ response here. We all need real answers to our questions and to go back to the Word of God as the source of truth. Doubts will continue to come into our lives, but we can rejoice in the midst of them if we keep in mind the truth upon which our hope stands: knowing that God has an answer to all those who seek it. The truth of the word will continue to preserve us, developing a character that is stronger in faith and less wavering in doubt.
Lord, we believe; help our unbelief.

Nick Boyle (Saanich Peninsula, BC)

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