Would you describe yourself as gullible or skeptical? I must confess that one of my guilty privileges is having fun with gullible people. I once convinced a lady that I had invented a solar-powered flashlight that unfortunately only worked in the daylight. I would slowly work up to wilder ideas to see what I could convince her of. I will assure you that I never do that in a pastoral setting.
Perhaps one of the reasons that I enjoy gullible people is that I am the complete opposite. I am a skeptic at heart. I was a skeptic as an atheist and I continue as skeptic as a Christian. The difference being that I am no longer skeptical about the existence of God or the truth claims of Christianity. But there are plenty of other things for me to skeptical about. I am that annoying person who sees stories on email forwards and social media posts who does the research to discover that, as moving as the story might be, it is false. I’m sure are plenty of people who wish I wouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.
I don’t apologize for my skepticism. It was actually my skeptical nature that led me away from atheism and to a belief in God. But what does that look like once you are a Christian? What questions are allowed? Should we work hard to bury our doubts, just willing ourselves to accept claims or circumstances that are difficult?
Recent research has revealed that one of the things that has led to less young people in the church is that the church has not always been a safe place to question. Hard questions are hushed up because we are afraid of what will happen if we let them in the open. Ironically, shutting down questions is a quicker way to unbelief than wrestling with the questions.
John the Baptist
One of the most important figures in the New Testament is that of John the Baptist. The first century Jewish historian Josephus only mentions three New Testament people and they include Jesus, James the brother of Jesus and John the Baptist.
John had a very specific role to play in the work God was doing. God called John to prepare the way for Jesus. He did that by preaching a message and offering a baptism of repentance. Not only did John baptize many Jews, he even baptized Jesus. It was at Jesus’ baptism that Jesus received the Holy Spirit and began his ministry. We cannot overemphasize how important John the Baptist was.
Having said that, John’s life was not easy. In fact his hard-line preaching got him into trouble. Although Luke doesn’t mention it here, in Matthew’s version we are told that the reason John sent messengers instead of coming himself was that he was in prison. He spoke out against Herod and his wife and this would ultimately lead to his imprisonment and beheading. I am sure that John would have felt a disconnect between what he understood as his role and his being left in prison on death row.
But even aside those circumstances, the situation as Luke presents it reveals some hard questions from John. “Are you the one?” What is John doing here? He is expressing doubt about the identity of Jesus. John thought he knew who Jesus was. In fact in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel we have both their pregnant moms meeting and John, still in the womb, recognizes the fetal Jesus as the One. It all made sense at the baptism. But John had an idea of what the messiah would be like.
Remember that John prepared the way for Jesus with a message of repentance. The next logical step for the messiah would be to come with judgment. Judgment against unfaithful Jews and, even better, judgment against the Romans. But that is not what John was hearing about. What he believed about the messiah and what he knew Jesus was doing did not fit together.
Instead of going into detail about the differences in various Jewish messianic theories, I want to focus on something else. How did Jesus respond to John? Did Jesus condemn him for his doubts? Did Jesus shut down his questions? Jesus provides the answers to John. John had a mistaken understanding of how the messiah would operate and so Jesus provided the information to correct that mistake. Not only that, we see that Jesus highly praises John. Jesus calls him “more than a prophet” and even says “among those of women there is no one greater than John.” Jesus both accepts and encourages John the Baptist as a doubting and questioning man of God.Jesus both accepts and encourages John the Baptist as a doubting and questioning man of God Click To Tweet
Do you ever question God? Are there times that you wonder about things that others seem to just take for granted? I mentioned that I came out of atheism but kept my skeptical nature. There were some rough times in those early years. Was God real? Had I made just an emotional decision? Was the Bible true? It never felt appropriate to ask those questions. People were more willing cast out the spirit of doubt than answer my questions.
Some of my friends in church seemed confused by me. I would question some of the things said in the sermons and sometimes even claim that the preacher was wrong. How could I question such things? Everything that came from the pulpit came directly from God, right?
You may not have the same skeptical nature as I do, but I suspect that you have had some John the Baptist moments. It may be regarding theological questions. You may have read stories in the Bible and found them hard to believe at best or disturbing at worst. Why is God so wrathful in the Old Testament? How could a virgin have a baby? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Your questions could also include thoughts about why God allows suffering or how people claiming to be Christians could commit evil and violent acts.
Do you have those questions? You have permission to wrestle with these ideas, not from me but from Jesus. Jesus did not condemn John, nor will he commend you. My counsel to you is that you not abandon the faith because of these questions or doubts. Hold on to what you know is true, and search for the answers for what you do not know. Too many people have given up simply by hitting the obstacle, when the obstacle is there for us to climb over. It may take some time but it is worth doing.
For others, it is not so much questions about theology or the Bible but about life circumstances. Just as John the Baptist likely did not expect to end up in prison, we probably find ourselves in circumstances that we didn’t expect. There is no way that on my wedding day that I would have predicted that my two oldest children would end up in a group home because of autism and that I would only see them every two weeks. That is not the life I expected. But that is life and here I am.
What has happened to you? You may be the victim of abuse. You may be struggling with a serious diagnosis for yourself or a loved one. You may be wrestling with mental illness. You had a picture of the way life was supposed to be and it did not work out that way. You face disappointment and regret on a daily basis.
What are you supposed to do? Traditionally the church has said that you should paint a Christian smile on your face and pretend that everything is okay. Be a good witness by being fake. Is that really what God wants?
Do not get me wrong, I do believe that we should try and focus on the positive and that we must trust God in the good and the bad. But that does not mean that we can’t ask God the hard questions. “Why has this happened to me?” “God, where are you?”
This is biblical. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk cried out: “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2) David pleaded with God: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) It was from one of the Psalms that Jesus on the cross spoke to his Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Mark 15:34)
If Jesus is allowed to ask that hard question, then we are allowed as well. Having questions and doubts does not make us bad Christians. It makes us honest Christians.
John the Baptist was an incredible man of God. He was chosen to prepare the way for the Messiah. John the Baptist actually baptized the Son of God. What an incredible man. But John the Baptist questioned what he did not understand. John the Baptist doubted.
What are your questions? What are your struggles? The questions may be in your head or they may be in your heart. The point is that your questions matter and Jesus is not afraid of them.
Jesus both accepts and encourages John the Baptist as a doubting and questioning man of GodChristianity invites questions, wrestles with circumstances and speaks to reality. Click To Tweet
Jesus responded to John with grace and love. He will do the same thing for us. Christianity is not a faith that is meant to crush questions. Christianity invites questions, wrestles with circumstances and speaks to reality. Be honest with who you are and be aware that this is a safe place to explore and express those questions.