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When we doubt Jesus 


Doubt comes to us all - even John the Baptist is recorded as having doubts about Jesus. Let's not criticise or condemn, writes Colin Sedgwick 



“When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’” So we read in Matthew 11:2-3.

Why would John the Baptist feel the need to ask Jesus this question?

However you look at it, it’s strange. This, after all, is the man who had first declared to the world who Jesus was, with the wonderful words (and the pointing finger), “Look, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The man who declared himself unworthy even to untie Jesus’ sandals (John 1:27)... The man who baptised people with mere water, but who prophesied that Jesus would “baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11)... A man of total, burning conviction.

Yet here we see this brave prophet (remember, the reason he was in prison was because he had denounced Herod, the local ruler, for his immoral behaviour) - we see this fierce, uncompromising man expressing what sounds seriously like... doubt!

And I don’t think there’s any getting away from it: doubt is exactly what it was.

Why he should have doubted is a matter of guesswork - all sorts of suggestions have been put forward. To my mind they come down to two, both of which start with d.

Was it depression?

We tend to think of depression as a modern sickness, often if not always brought on by all the stresses and strains of modern living. But that is wrong. All right, it may have gone by different names (a couple of hundred years ago it might have been diagnosed as “melancholy”), but make no mistake, depression is as old as humanity.

And John the Baptist had good reason to be depressed. If nothing else, for a man who was used to being out in the open to be cooped up in some horrible cell must have been utterly crushing to his spirit.

Perhaps, too, he was suffering a reaction from his heroic confrontation of Herod the tetrarch. He reminds me, in fact, of the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 18 we read about Elijah’s spiritual battle, single-handed, with 450 prophets of the god Baal, a battle in which he completely trounced them. What a high! How his adrenaline must have been pumping!

But as soon as the evil Queen Jezebel threatens to kill him, what does he do? He crumples like a tin can: “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life” (1 Kings 19:3). He sits himself down under a tree and prays to God that he might die: “I have had enough, Lord” - surely the very voice of depression.

Here is a fact that we need to take seriously: even godly, faith-filled men and women can give way to depression. Let’s never think it couldn’t happen to us.

The other d is disillusionment.

Is it possible that John was simply disappointed in the kind of messiah Jesus turned out to be? Oh yes, Jesus was powerful all right. But was it the kind of power John expected? He had told his followers what they might expect from Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). A ferocious messiah. A judging messiah.

But what did he get? A messiah who touched the lepers and healed the sick, who comforted the poor and fed the hungry, who wept in the face of people’s despair and who (though John didn’t live to see this) died a death of excruciating pain and total degradation.

No wonder if John found himself wondering, Did I get it wrong? Was I mistaken all the time?

Sometimes people become Christians because plausible preachers or writers sell them unreal expectations. (A hymn I used to sing as a child promised us that, once you decide to follow Jesus, “now I am happy all the day”. Which I soon discovered simply isn’t true.)

Certainly Jesus promises joys and blessing beyond our imaginations; but he makes big demands too. Among other things he tells us to “take up your cross and follow me.” He warns would-be disciples to “count the cost” (Luke 14:27-28) before committing themselves. Ignore such sayings and disillusionment will very quickly set in.

I assume that Jesus and John the Baptist must have often talked together as they shared their sense of God’s destiny for their lives. But even that may not have prevented John the Baptist from nursing unreal expectations and thus experiencing a sense of disillusionment.

Whatever... one value of this story for us is simply this: remember poor puzzled John, please, when either (a) you experience doubt yourself and are tempted to feel guilty; or (b) when a Christian friend shares their doubt with you and you are tempted to criticise or condemn.

Remember the doubt of John the Baptist!

Here’s a prayer that might be helpful...

Lord, I believe - but sometimes I doubt.
Sometimes depression creeps over me and drags me down.
Touch me with your loving hand and help me to trust you,
whether the sun is shining or the clouds are dark.


Image | Unsplash

Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.

He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com


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