Sermon 03-19-17: “Dealing with Doubt”

Do you ever have doubts about your faith in Jesus Christ? In today’s scripture, John the Baptist, surely one of the most headstrong of Bible heroes, expresses doubt in Jesus. He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the One”—meaning “Are you the Messiah”—”or should we expect someone else?” How could John, of all people, ask this, unless doubt is a normal experience for Christians? Nevertheless, God doesn’t want us to remain in a state of doubt. This sermon explores reasons we often doubt and potential traps we may fall into while we’re doubting. If you’re in a season of doubt, I pray that this message encourages you.

Sermon Text: Matthew 11:1-15

My boys and I have been bachelors this weekend, since Lisa and Elisa are out of town, which means we’ve had the TV all to ourselves. On Friday, we watched that recent Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips. It’s based on a true story about a cargo ship that got taken over by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. It was good—suspenseful—and Tom Hanks, as usual, was outstanding.

Last April, Hanks gave an interview to Terry Gross on the NPR interview show Fresh Air. He said something that may surprise you. He admitted that he was plagued by self-doubt. He said,

No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’…

There are days when I know that 3 o’clock tomorrow afternoon I am going to have to deliver some degree of emotional goods, and if I can’t do it, that means I’m going to have to fake it. If I fake it, that means they might catch me at faking it, and if they catch me at faking it, well, then it’s just doomsday.[1]

I guess I’m naive. I thought that acting was supposed to be about faking it, but what do I know?

Tom Hanks is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed actors in the history of Hollywood. He’s starred in some of the most beloved movies of the past 30 years, which have earned $8.5 billion worldwide. He’s won two Oscars and two Golden Globes—and he’s been nominated for a ton more. Literally a ton, if you could add up the weight of all those trophies. In 2014, President Obama awarded him a Kennedy Center Honors medallion.

If someone like Tom Hanks can doubt something—in spite of all this evidence to the contrary—is it any wonder that we Christians will sometimes also have doubts—about God, about Jesus?

You don’t believe me? Do you think that there are some Christians whose faith is so strong that they never doubt? Then how do you explain John the Baptist?

In today’s scripture, John is languishing in prison. He was put there because he was speaking uncomfortable truths about King Herod Antipas—specifically, he accused Herod of being in an adulterous relationship with his half-brother Phillip’s wife. Herod didn’t like that, believe it or not, and he was looking for a reason to put John to death. Soon enough, he would do so—which you can read about in Matthew 14.

Meanwhile, John, from prison, has heard about what Jesus has been doing. And he sends his disciples to Jesus, who ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Are you the one who is to come. John is asking, in other words, “Are you really the Messiah? If you are the Messiah, and everything I said about you is true, why are the Herods of the world able to keep on doing the evil they’re doing? If you are the Messiah, why is there still so much suffering? If you are the Messiah, why is all this happening to me? Was I wrong about you?”

Isn’t that remarkable?

This is John the Baptist we’re talking about! This is the one who “leapt” in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her cousin Mary told her she was pregnant with Jesus. This is the one who later pointed Jesus out to his disciples and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”[2] This is the one who said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.”[3]

And now… now this same John doubts that Jesus is the One.

And how does Jesus respond to John’s doubt? By paying him the highest compliment imaginable: “When you went out to see John preach,” Jesus said, “what did you go to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” He was asking this rhetorically. Everyone knew the answer was no. Far from being a “reed shaken by the wind”—someone whose faith was weak, whose opinions vacillated, whose convictions changed with the fashions—John was solid as oak. John’s faith was as strong as it comes. In fact, Jesus says he’s not only the greatest prophet Israel ever had, he’s the greatest man who ever lived up to that point: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

To say the least, Jesus isn’t angry with John because he doubts. He isn’t disappointed with him. He doesn’t blame him.

So… if it’s O.K. for John the Baptist to have doubts, why do you think something’s wrong with you when you have doubts? Our Lord understands. He has compassion on us when we doubt.

But let’s notice that the reason John doubts is often the same reason we doubt: Jesus isn’t living up to our expectations. In John’s case, Jesus wasn’t doing the things that he imagined the Messiah ought to be doing. John had preached that the Messiah would bring judgment on the land. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[4] Yet far from judging people for their sins, Jesus’ ministry, for now, was mostly about forgiving people of their sins. And even the miracles Jesus was performing—which were impressive—he was performing in the midst of nobodies in backwater towns around Galilee. It’s as if Jesus were doing these amazing things in Barnesville, when he should have been doing them in Atlanta. See what I mean? No offense if you’re from Barnesville! But Jesus wasn’t doing what John expected him to do—and that caused him to doubt.

What happens when Jesus doesn’t live up to our expectations? What happens when life doesn’t live up to our expectations? Do we doubt?

I heard an interview recently with a psychologist named Emily Esfani Smith, who has written a book about what it takes to live a meaningful life. She said that one thing we need to do is to see the way in which all the events in our lives weave together to tell a story: which means, “Taking your experiences,” she said, “and knitting them together into a narrative that explains who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going.” She said,

Storytelling is particularly powerful when it comes to dealing with a low point or an adversity that you’ve experienced because these are kind of blips in our narrative—these are places where the story that we’re living was not the story we expected to live. And so we have to integrate those experiences into our story and kind of understand how they shaped us.

She said that this involves what academics call “counterfactual thinking”:

Thinking about some pivotal event in your life and imagining that it hadn’t happened and asking yourself how your life would have been different if that hadn’t have happened. So if you went to X college, what if you had gone to Y college? You moved to X city. What if you had stayed home or moved to Y city?

Researchers find that this is a powerful builder of meaning because it helps you realize the benefits of taking the path you did end up taking.[5]

In other words, people who are happiest and most fulfilled in life are those who have learned to be grateful that their lives didn’t go according to their own plans. The low points, the adversity, the setbacks, the failures, the disappointments—all of these things, which we might have dreaded at the time, were good and necessary because they helped to shape us into the people that we are.

I completely agree—even though she’s speaking from a purely secular perspective. From a Christian perspective, however, this seems even more true. Why? Because we understand that our heavenly Father is constantly working through all the adversity, all of the setbacks, all of the failures, all of the disappointments in our lives. He’s constantly guiding us through thick and thin. He’s constantly redeeming these events in our lives—making them work out for our good, and for the world’s good.

Sure, things may not be going according to our plans—but don’t think for a moment that they aren’t going according to his!

So, like Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and faced one adversity after another, we can say of any evil or seemingly harmful thing that the devil sends our way: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”[6] We can say with Jesus, “In this world we will have tribulation. But take heart: Christ has overcome the world.”[7] We can say with Paul, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”[8] We can say, “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”[9]

If you believe this, will you say, “Amen”?

Last week, I had some business in Atlanta. While I was there, I went to a favorite coffee shop near Emory, to work on my sermon. And have you noticed sometimes when you’re at a restaurant or coffee shop there’s one person that’s just a little bit louder than everyone else—one voice that sort of carries across the room, and you can’t tune it out, no matter how hard you try? There was a woman who was sitting a couple of tables away from me at this coffee shop, and I couldn’t help but overhear her. I couldn’t hear what the young woman across the table from her was saying, but I couldn’t help but hear her. She was telling the young woman about her experience raising an autistic child. I quickly gathered that she was counseling this young woman, whose own child had recently been diagnosed with autism.

My ears perked up at one point when I heard her tell the young mother that she was a Christian—and especially a few moments later, when she said the following: “I believe that God has made your child perfect, just the way she’s meant to be. And the Lord is going to take care of her—and you—and give you all the love and support and strength you need to be a great mother to her.”

And I wanted to jump out of my seat and shout, “Amen!” What a great witness! I preached about witnessing just last week, and here was a perfect example!

But what she was telling this young mother, in so many words, was, “I know that what you’re going through is incredibly difficult. I know that having an autistic child, no matter how perfect and beautiful, isn’t what you planned on. I know that parenthood, so far, isn’t living up to your expectations. But don’t doubt for a moment that God has a plan for you and your child, and he’s working his plan. He’ll take care of you, if only you’ll trust in him.”

And so it is with us—with whatever challenges we face; in whatever difficult circumstances we find ourselves.

It’s clear from John the Baptist’s experience that doubt will, at times, be a normal part of our experience as Christians. It will at times even be a necessary part of our experience as God uses our struggle with doubt to help us grow closer to him. That being said, it shouldn’t be a permanent part of our experience. What does Jesus say in verse 6? “[B]lessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

So… what can we learn from today’s scripture about overcoming doubt?

First, notice what Jesus says to John’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” He doesn’t say, “Go and tell John all the things I’m saying and doing.” Do you see the difference? It’s not a matter of knowing up here [point to head] about Jesus; it’s a matter of experiencing him for ourselves. How do we experience for ourselves what Christ is saying and doing? First, through his holy Word. For us Christians, reading the Bible isn’t like reading any other book: we believe that something supernatural happens; we believe that Christ meets us through these pages and speaks to us. It’s not magic or superstition; it’s the Holy Spirit.[10]

So if you’re experiencing doubt, one of the worst things you can do is to stop reading and studying scripture. And obviously, if you’re not already reading and studying God’s Word, you need to start!

Second, we experience Christ through worship. Jesus promises that where two or three are gathered together in his name, he will be with us. This happens when we are gathered here on Sunday morning. He’s able to be with us, in a way that he couldn’t be with John the Baptist, because of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes Christ present to us; we can experience Christ in a way that John couldn’t—because the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet been given to believers like John, and the Spirit wouldn’t be until after Christ ascended to heaven. So we have an advantage that John didn’t have.

So if you’re experiencing doubt, another really bad thing to do is to drop out of church—or to stop going regularly.

Many years ago, when I was a teenager, the rock band U2 had a number one hit song called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Bono, the lead singer, was and is an outspoken Christian. But I remember when I first heard that song as a young believer I was a little bothered by it. In one of the verses, Bono is speaking to Jesus when he says,

You broke the bonds
And you loosened the chains
You carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believe it
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for 
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

And I wanted to scream at Bono: “What do you mean you still haven’t found what you’re looking for? Of course you have! You’ve found Jesus! What is your problem? Jesus should give you everything your heart desires. You’re not being a good witness by letting the world know that you still want something else!

Why is Bono expressing doubt in this public sort of way?

That’s what I thought at the time. But now that I’ve gotten older I think I know what Bono means: There’s a sense in which none of us Christians have found what we’re looking for. Because what we’re looking for—what we desire more than anything else—hasn’t happened yet; it isn’t available yet. Not on this side of eternity.

In other words, all of us Christians are, or ought to be, homesick. Paul says in 2 Corinthians that he and his co-laborers in Christ would “prefer to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord.”[11] The truth is, we’re not home yet. As Bono sang, all of us Christians are missing something. Even at our happiest, our joy isn’t yet complete. It can’t be. We experience Christ now to some extent, but not nearly to the extent that we long to experience him. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”[12] We look forward to that day. But it hasn’t happened yet.

My point is, don’t confuse your normal, natural homesickness—this deep longing for heaven—for doubt. And don’t let your homesickness cause you to doubt. You’re always going to feel that way until you die or Christ comes again.

1. “Tom Hanks Says Self-Doubt Is ‘A High-Wire Act That We All Walk.’” Accessed 17 March 2017.

2. John 1:29

3. Matthew 3:11

4. Matthew 3:12

5. “Episode 82: The Power of Meaning.” The Mockingcast. Accessed 17 March 2017.

6. Genesis 50:20 ESV

7. John 16:33

8. Romans 8:35-37 ESV

9. Romans 8:28

10. I believe this is one implication, for example, of Christ’s words in John 16:12-13.

11. 2 Corinthians 5:8

12. 1 Corinthians 13:12

5 thoughts on “Sermon 03-19-17: “Dealing with Doubt””

  1. I think you have the Bono thing right, or as another great Christian said:

    “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

    ― C.S. Lewis

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