and the Doubter
J. R. Miller, 1905
"Are You the One who is to come—or should we expect someone else?" Matthew 11:3
No other loss possible to a human life is so deep, so poignant, so desolating, as the losing of the sight of God's face in the darkness, the fading out of belief in the unseen world, in the divine Fatherhood, in the eternal goodness, in the immortal life. One of the strangest experiences in the story of John the Baptist, was his doubt of the Messiahship of Jesus. There are many godly men who in certain experiences, have like questionings.
Again and again, after great sorrow, Christian people are found doubting. In some cases the doubt takes this form: "Surely God is not the God of love I have been taught that He is, or He would not have darkened my life as He is doing." In other cases the feeling voices itself thus: "God must be punishing me for sins I have committed; or He is displeased with me for my failures and neglects in duty." Or, the person feels that God Himself has failed in His promises. "I have cried to Him—but He is silent to me. He does not regard my distress. He has no pity upon me. He has altogether forgotten me!"
We are taught that the note of joy never should cease to be heard in the Christian's life, that we should praise God at all times, that we should rejoice evermore. That is, indeed, the way our Master would have us live. He has overcome the world, and would have us share His victory.
Yet there are times in the lives of many saintly believers, when from some cause or other—the Father's face is hidden for a season. We do not forget that even Jesus Himself, in the terrible darkness of His cross, lost, for some moments at least—His consciousness of the divine presence, and cried, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?" One writer says he wishes the evangelist had forgotten to put down this cry of Jesus on His cross. But we may be glad that he did not forget it, for if ever we have such an experience, we know now that it is not a mark of desertion, since even Jesus once felt the same.
John did just the right thing with his doubt. He did not nurse it in his heart, and brood over it in his dungeon. If he had, his faith would have died out—and the bitterness of disappointment would have overwhelmed him. That is the mistake some people make with their doubts and questionings. They nourish them, and the doubts grow into black clouds that quench every star. What John did—was to take his question at once to the Master. He did not want to doubt; he wanted explanation, that he might continue to believe. The only true thing for one who has doubts—is to go right to Christ Himself with them! Faith is not lost—only there are things which cannot be understood. These the Master will make plain.
It is profitable to learn how Jesus dealt with His friend's doubt. He did not work a miracle and bring him out of his dungeon. When we are distressed by the ways of God with us, and begin to think that He is not dealing with us in love, and then cry to Him, "Are You, indeed, our Friend, our Redeemer? Is this love—this strange way by which You are taking us?" He may not change His treatment of us; the pain may become no less poignant, the sorrow no less bitter. This may not be His way of blessing us.
John was suffering in prison, for faithfulness to his Master and to truth. We would think that Jesus would have sent him a message of sympathy in his suffering. There is great power in even a word of encouragement, when one is carrying a heavy load, or passing through a fierce struggle, or when one is in danger of fainting and giving up. It would have seemed like our Master—if He had spoken to John's messengers some approving words about their master, which they might have reported to him when they went back to the prison.
After they had gone, Jesus did speak to His own disciples and the people such words. He said that they must not think of John as a reed shaken by the wind, as a man whom softness and luxury had spoiled. Of all men that had been born—there was none greater than John. Would it not have made John in his prison braver and stronger to endure his confinement, if his disciples had returned, saying, "Jesus spoke most approvingly of you and of your work. He said this and this and this about you"? But there was not a word of such praise, not a word expressing sympathy with the caged lion in his chains within his bars.
Jesus knew best how to deal with His friend. Perhaps a gentle message would have unmanned the noble hero. Perhaps commendation would have made him less able to endure the solitude of his dungeon. Our Lord wants to make us brave and strong. He does not pamper us. Some people live on compliments and flatteries. They have become so used to being praised for everything they do—that if praise is not given them—they fret and repine! They are like children who have been rewarded so often for being good, for getting their lessons, for doing home tasks, and for keeping sweet—that if the reward is not given—they sulk and do nothing they should do. Reward is sweet—but to work only for commendation is one of the lowest forms of selfishness!
There are some people who want always to be sympathized with, and who are hurt when a friend fails to say at every complaint they utter, "I am very sorry for you!" No mood of life is more unwholesome than this craving. It indicates pitiable weakness, selfishness of a most unmanly kind! We do others great harm—when we humor such demands in them. We should seek to make our friends more self-reliant, instead of indulging their infirmities and fears.
There is a time for sympathy—but sympathy must never be enervating. If one comes to you in your sorrow, he must leave you more able to endure your sorrow, not with self-pity in your heart. The effect of too much that is called comforting, is to make the grief seem greater, and the heart less able to bear its load! But not thus, did Jesus comfort John. The effect of the message He sent was to quiet and reassure him, to give him new confidence, and then enable him to continue in his prison courageously and victoriously to the end. Jesus wanted John to believe in Him without any concession to John's wishes, without a word of praise or sympathy. He did not make it a whit easier for John to believe. He treated him as a hero, and a hero John proved.
Jesus answered John's question by continuing in His work of mercy. The people were thronging about Him as they always were, bringing their sick, their blind, their lame, their lepers; and all who were brought to Him, He healed. Then after the messengers had been watching the gracious work for a time, Jesus said to them, "Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news." This was the answer to John's question, "Are You the Messiah?"
When today the questions are asked, "What are the real evidences of Christianity? What are the highest proofs that Jesus Christ was the Son of God?" the answer may be made in the very words which the Master spoke to John's messengers. The strongest proof that Christianity is divine—is in what it has done and is doing for the world. Does anyone doubt that Jesus was God's Messiah? Show him what the name of Jesus has wrought! Every sweet home in Christian lands is an evidence of Christianity. Every hospital, every asylum, every institution of charity, every orphanage, every school for feeble-minded children, every home for the blind—is an evidence that He who came was indeed God's Anointed One!
There are three things about doubting—of which we may be sure:
One is, that our Master is very patient with us—when we find it hard to believe. It is not always so with our human friends. Some of them are impatient with any question implying uncertainty of belief. There are good men who resent even the most honest doubt in others—as if it were a grievous sin! But Jesus will never treat our difficulties in believing, in this way. We may tell Him just what it is we cannot understand, and why we cannot quite believe—and He will listen to us patiently, explain the hard things, and teach us faith. We may never be afraid to bring to Him any doubt or question that perplexes us.
Another thing to remember, is that while Jesus is very patient with honest doubt, and deals with us gently—yet we rob ourselves of untold joy and blessing, when we give way to questionings. Doubts are clouds in the sky which hide the blue and shut out the stars. Faith is infinitely better than doubt. It shows us the glory of heaven; it greatly enriches all human blessings; it makes life a song and a triumph.
This, too, we should not forget—that doubt never is necessary. It was not necessary in John's case. Nothing was going wrong with the Messiahship of Jesus. Nothing was really going wrong with John's own circumstances. They were very hard, it is true—but John was fulfilling his mission. If he could have seen all things as they appeared from God's throne—his doubt would have become joyous faith. There are painful things in every life, sometime, somewhere. We see only one side of the experience. Or we read the serial story only part way through, not waiting for the final chapters, and at some dark point we begin to doubt God's goodness and love. We need only to wait a little longer, and we shall see the beauty. Here is where faith wins its victory. Faith has such confidence in the power, the wisdom, and the love of God—that no matter how things seem—it trusts and sings. We should seek to lose all our doubts, in the joy of believing.