John the Baptist was a believer in Jesus before it was cool. His preaching had focused on “he who comes after me”(John 1:27) who would be greater. After Jesus approaches him to be baptized, John acknowledges that Jesus is the one he spoke of—the “Lamb of God”—and directs his disciples to become Jesus’ disciples (John 1:29-37).
This is why it is so surprising to find John doubting Jesus. “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?’”(Matt 11:2-3). I have heard some Christians argue that John is not really doubting, but is asking on behalf of his disciples. Yet there is nothing in the text to indicate that. It appears to be a legitimate expression of John’s doubt: ”Are you the one who is to come?”. This situation is not playing out in the way John expected.
What do we do when we are in John’s position? How do we respond when our certainty turns to doubt?
Retreat to what you know. Jesus does not give John statements of reassurance. He tells John’s disciples to report “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”(Matt 11:4-5). John knows the prophecies of the Messiah—particularly in Isaiah—that speak of this kind of empowerment to heal and bless the needy. When we begin to doubt, there is comfort in returning to the bedrock of our faith and knowing that some things are certain.
Acknowledge your circumstances. In hard moments, our faith can be challenged. John is in prison because he has confronted Herod about taking his brother’s wife. It is extremely difficult to do the right thing and then suffer for it. Circumstances like these can lead us to wonder if we’ve gotten something wrong. It is important that we see the impact this has on our faith.
Reconsider your expectations. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”(Matt 11:3). If you are the Messiah, why am I in prison? When are we going to get this “kingdom of God” thing going? Are you the guy or not? Jesus is precisely fulfilling God’s expectations, but not John’s. This happens to us when we become frustrated that God won’t prove himself, speak to us directly, or solve all the world’s problems. Is it a problem with God—or with our expectations?
Just hang on. Jesus’ final word to John is “blessed is the one who is not offended by me”(Matt 11:6). I see this last statement as directed at John. Throughout the gospels, people regularly find reasons to be offended by Jesus and his teaching. They walk away. Yet there is a blessing here for those who refuse to leave Jesus in their moments of doubt. What we don’t understand—or are unsure of--now may look different when we have more information, different circumstances, or a little more time under our belt.
Sometimes certainty turns to doubt. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, “some doubted”(Matt 28:17). Yet when we move forward anyway, we often find deeper blessing.