Can a believer be inoculated against doubt? If so, what would it take for someone to become immune from doubt? An angelic visit? A vivid vision of your immediate future? Hearing the audible voice of God?
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29
John the Baptist was a miracle baby. He was born to aged parents who were past the age of child-hearing. His father had an encounter with an angel who announced to him the birth of his special son. John was born and raised with a deep awareness of God and His presence. The next time we meet him is when he is around 30 years of age, has never had a haircut, and his breath smells like locusts.
¶ In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” ¶ Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Matthew 3:1-4
It’s difficult to imagine that the John the Baptist wasn’t aware of the ancient prophecies which referred to him. His father, a priest, would have certainly told him of the prophecies which foretold of his arrival (Isaiah 40:1-11). All of this – the circumstances of his birth, his own encounters with God, the prophecies from the ancient prophets about him (Malachi 4:5), and his fruitful ministry resulting in all of Judea coming to him to be baptised – would have given him great faith in God.
Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. ¶ But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Matthew 3:5-8
John the Baptist was faithful, courageous, and extremely godly. But, as if this was not enough, the day came when God-in-the-flesh came to him to be baptised as an example to all His future followers. John saw the Holy Spirit coming down from heaven as a dove and alighting upon Jesus, and then, he and everyone there heard the voice of God!
¶ Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17
So all of the things that we may think might inoculate a person from doubting God, John the Baptist experienced in spades. But then two things happened that even someone whom Jesus described as ‘there is none greater than John’ (Matt. 11:11) had a crippling moment of doubt.
WHEN JOHN’S MISSION WAS COMPLETE
And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, He is baptizing, and all are going to Him.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before Him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:26-30
Purpose is a powerful thing. When you’ve got it there’s a point to getting up each morning. Having and knowing your purpose enables you to bounce back from setbacks. But, when a person lacks purpose, even the greatest person, life can become difficult and that person’s soul can become vulnerable to depression—especially if they encounter a King Herod.
2. ABANDONMENT AND ISOLATION
For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. Mark 6:17-20
A feeling of abandonment is one of the cruelest emotions any person can experience. Abandonment makes a person feel like no-one cares. It leads to the unnatural state of loneliness and being deprived of the company of others. This can spiral down to negative self-pity. Loneliness has now reached epidemic proportions in our society. When we take a few moments each Sunday to greet each other with ‘handshake or a hug’ we are offering someone a temporary physical connection with another person that they may not have experienced in a week, or a month, or even longer. When I say, “There is someone here today who needs a hug”, I am not being trite.
¶ Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” ¶ As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ ¶ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Matthew 11:2-11
“Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” It’s a remarkable question from someone who had so many convincing proofs from God already. But it highlights that even the greatest believers need assurance. It highlights that even the greatest human beings become susceptible to depression when they are cut-off from the community of faith. It highlights what happens when our expectations of others do not correspond to reality—after all, if Jesus was the all-powerful—all-conquering messiah to come—why hadn’t He come to rescue John out of his deep dark dungeon? Christ’s answer for John is extremely telling. Jesus doesn’t condemn John for doubting. Jesus doesn’t give John some fluffy pastorism about hanging in the there or keep the faith. Instead, Jesus validates John’s question with the kind of answer that addressed his question. Our questions of God in our moments of doubt are not moments of shame. They are moments of honesty.
John’s question may have been a heart-cry to the Christ for rescue. That rescue never came the way John may have wanted. But I do wonder if there was some mystical grace infused in the answer and report that he received from Jesus that somehow gave him the comfort and strength to endure for a little longer in the confidence that God had not abandoned him despite his dire circumstances.
¶ But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. Mark 6:21-29
Christ’s response to the news of John’s death, which came at a time when His disciples excitedly reported all that had been able to do, is very touching.
¶ The apostles returned to Jesus and told Him all that they had done and taught. And He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. Mark 6:30-31
Following the way of Christ does not inoculate you from doubt or the circumstances which seem to foster doubts. Questions that are spawned from moments of doubt are not signs of weakness or even lack of faith. The One who does not break bruised reeds is the One who still answers our questions and then makes the most remarkable declaration, which is worth pondering today –
¶ I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Luke 7:28