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By David H. Roper

“Sometimes it seems pure natural to trust,
And trust right largely, grandly, infinitely,
Daring the splendour of the giver’s part;
At other times, the whole earth is but dust,
The sky is dust, yea, dust the human heart;
Then art thou nowhere, there is no room for thee
In the great dust-heap of eternity.”

—George McDonald

John the Baptist was languishing in prison when he heard of the works of Jesus. He sent two of his disciples to ask, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3).

Jesus answered: “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Matthew 11:5-6).

Jesus’ citation is a conflation of two passages from the Prophet Isaiah concerning the mighty works of the Messiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped” (Isaiah 35:5); “The LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1).

Jesus plainly asserts that his works confirm that he is Israel’s Messiah, but most significant is the omission of the line, “and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Jesus did not promise that John would be delivered from prison and indeed he did not, for he died there, beheaded by the maniacal King Herod.

Here is John’s dark night of the soul, a period of unhappiness and scepticism in which he wonders if it’s been worthwhile to leave everything to find and follow Jesus. Who, if we’re true to ourselves, has not harboured that thought?

Some individuals live in their heads; they’re born with a questioning, inquiring spirit and the dark unhappiness of doubt. They are predisposed to scepticism. It’s the way they are, the way God made them.

Other’s doubts are born of argument: a comment by a respected, but unbelieving university professor, a careless word spoken by a friend, an article in a magazine or on the internet, reflecting the spirit of this age. Or doubt may come through unrelieved suffering. All these inducements give logic to unbelief.

What then can we do when “doubt swells and surges, with swelling doubt behind”?

We can take comfort in the thought that doubt is not displeasing to God. He commended John in the face of his doubt and disillusionment: “Among those born of women there has not one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). God knows how frail and fragile our faith can be. He is wonderfully compassionate, and infinitely patient with our misgivings. He himself struggled with disappointment and was tempted in all points as we are. “A smoking flax he will not extinguish.” He understands like no other.

We can turn doubt into action. We can take up the very next duty—­we know what it is—the very next thing God is asking us to do. We can turn away from the things that debase us, win back what we have lost. Like Mother Teresa, who, if we can belief her biographers, floundered in doubt and despair in her final years, we can live a life of service in the midst of our uncertainty. No matter how dark things seem to be there is truth to be lived and, though it seems odd, sheer obedience can begin to restore our faith. As Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”[1]

We can pray, for nothing is of ourselves, not even faith. Faith is a gift of God. [2] “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” is the cry of an honest sceptic.[3]

Finally, we can ponder Peter’s response when Jesus asked his disciples if they would go away: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the only message that results in eternal life.”[4]




[1] John 7:17
[2] Ephesians 2:8,9
[3] Mark 9:24
[4] John 6:68


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