Friday, 27 December 2013

When faith falters

John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Luke 7:18

Have you ever been disappointed, perhaps even shocked, to see someone you thought of as a rock-solid Christian displaying doubt? It’s probably happened to most of us who have been Christians for any length of time. “I really can’t believe it!” we say. “He always seemed so strong, so convinced. He was the one who sorted out other people’s doubts! - I would never have dreamed his own faith could wobble like that.” 

Well, it happens, sadly. But perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a surprise to us. Here, after all, is John the Baptist, a powerful prophet of God, a man quarried out of the same sort of rock as Elijah in the Old Testament. This is the man who pointed his disciples to Jesus with the words, “Look! The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Who said of Jesus “He must grow greater, I must grow less.” Who declared that he wasn’t worthy so much as to bend down and untie Jesus’ sandal straps. Yet, amazingly, he sends two of his own followers to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we look for someone else?” As if to say, “Jesus, did I get it wrong about you? Was I mistaken all along?” His conviction seems to have evaporated. 

You could talk for ages about why this happened. But it would all be speculation. Certainly, John was cooped up in some horrible prison, having fallen foul of Herod the Tetrarch, so it is understandable if he was pretty depressed. Even the strongest faith is subject to physical and/or emotional stress. Sometimes people who are experiencing what might be called spiritual depression are not so much in need of prayer as of a bit of a holiday, or possibly a visit to the doctor. 

The most likely reason for John’s faltering faith is, very simply, that Jesus wasn’t turning out to be the kind of Jesus he expected. Judging by his words in Luke 3 John was expecting something dramatic, indeed ferocious, from Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (3:17). He saw the Messiah as primarily bringing judgment to a sinful nation - and Jesus simply wasn’t doing that. Hence his puzzled question. 

Several things are worth noting. First, how did Jesus respond to John’s uncertainty? Well, the great thing is that he didn’t tell him off or scold him. Indeed, he answered him very gently and sympathetically: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor” (verse 22). As if to say, “John, aren’t these wonderful, beautiful, powerful, compassionate things exactly what you should expect from the Messiah? Don’t doubt me, my cousin! What I bring may not be what you expected - but isn’t it far better? The fires of judgment will come, don’t worry - but they are not for now.” 

 I wonder how many people become Christians under false pretences? They are persuaded to trust in Jesus on the basis of something he never claimed to be or to do. And so they suffer disillusionment when things don’t turn out as they had hoped. This is the essence of the false but popular “prosperity gospel” - Jesus will make you always happy, always successful, always rich, always healthy. We need a fully rounded image of Jesus - not a false Jesus with just a few characteristics blown up out of all proportion. 

Second, let’s not be too surprised when trusted Christian friends, even public figures, fail us. And let’s not be too judgmental. What they need from us is what John needed from Jesus - support, love and understanding, not condemnation. What Paul says about the Christian who lapses into out-and-out sin applies, surely, all the more in this sort of situation: “ who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Galatians 6:1). 

And third, let’s not forget that if this kind of thing could happen to a mighty man like John the Baptist, it could also happen to you or me. Here is Paul again: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Yes, one day it could be you who is in need of comforting, reassuring words, and the support of understanding friends. 

Poor John! I feel deeply for him, don't you, sitting there in that prison cell and questioning the very thing that had given his whole life meaning. How utterly desolate he must have felt. And I am so glad that Jesus responded to him in such a loving way. Aren’t you?  

Lord Jesus, please help me when my faith falters. And help me too to be a good friend to those struggling through the darkness of doubt. Amen.

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