“But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:6-8)
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46)
When Elizabeth’s child John, still in her womb, leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, it was a sign John knew exactly who Jesus was even before he was born. If ever there was a sign of reassurance of what a man knew, surely this was it. Later on in his life, when John was baptizing people in the Jordan while preaching of the coming Messiah, he saw Jesus coming and proclaimed immediately, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Was this a man who had any doubt at all who Jesus was? However, after spending time sitting in Herod’s dungeon where his beliefs became costly John sends his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else” (Matt. 11). What happened to the confidence? What happened to the reassurance? Would this sort of doubt not, according to the passage from James above, remove any reward coming to John from God thereafter? Are we to believe the one who came to herald Jesus’ coming, and then baptized Him, never received a reward from God?
And what about Jesus’ desperate cries to His Father upon the cross? Had He not many times told His disciples that He must be delivered up to the Romans, suffer, be crucified, and rise again to complete His mission on earth? Yet upon the cross the perfect God-man revealed some measure of doubt. Can any of us say we have never doubted God, the many things we cannot control, or His plan for us – ever? Does that then disqualify us from God’s blessing according to James?
I would propose just the opposite is true. I believe unless you have known what it is to have experienced these doubts you can’t be truly following Jesus. Hebrews 12 tells us the Lord disciplines everyone He loves, and scourges every one He receives. In the Greek, the word for discipline means to chasten, and the word for scourge means, literally, to flog or whip. The Jews feared the Roman scourge more than just about anything but death, for it meant suffering excruciating pain at the end of a multi-thonged whip. Depending on the offense, it could mean one laced with pieces of metal or glass intended specifically to remove the flesh from your back, like the one Jesus endured before His crucifixion.
God severely tests everyone whom He receives (Prov. 17:3, 1 Cor. 3:13, 2 Cor. 13:5, Rev. 3:10). He does this to prune, mature, and test our faith. How could God possibly gage the extent of our faith if He never drove us to the point of doubt, for until we reach that point the test never elicits a result. Putting it another way, if we never witnessed the kingdoms of hell on earth how would we come to know or desire the kingdom of heaven? If we never witnessed evil in this world, how would we know or desire good? If we never witnessed hatred, how would we know or desire love? Doubt reassures us of the existence, or non-existence, of faith. Ironically, I would propose doubt reassures us there is a God, because doubt gives our God a reason to shine! Did He not say, “In [your] weakness [My] power is perfected?” How do we become weak if not through the doubts of this life? How is His power perfected if not shining in to our weakness?
Returning to our story about John the Baptist in his moment of doubt, we see how Jesus reacted to it. Was it to shame, or to admonish John? Was it to say, “We’re done here you doubter. Don’t expect to receive anything from Me!” Far from it. Matthew records, “As [John’s disciples] were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet…Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!’”
Jesus wanted John’s disciples to hear Him say, “This momentary doubt does not change who John is, for John did not make himself or anoint himself. I did. John may doubt in Me, but I never doubted him.” We may doubt, but when we do we must remember to see ourselves as Jesus sees us, and not give in to the shame the Devil wants to lay on us. We must remember during momentary times of doubt “we are new creatures in Christ…a royal priesthood and a holy nation…more than conquerors.”
If all of this is so, what about James’ assertion those who doubt should not expect to receive anything from God? Read what he says in verse 8, where he makes the same distinction the Bible says many times determines whether our sin is forgivable or not. The question in such matters is always is it temporary, and do we remain repentant and teachable? Or is it a matter of practice, not repented of that has made us numb, lukewarm, or hard-hearted? James qualifies the type of doubt he’s speaking of when he describes it as causing constant double-mindedness and instability in all ways.
James is not describing someone struggling with momentary doubts. This is not John the Baptist sitting in a dungeon wondering, as we all have from time to time, “Where are you God?” He is speaking to people for whom doubt has become a practice. If you want to see the difference between life and death when it comes to sin, do a word study on “practice.” When we practice unrepentant sin, doubt, or any other means of disobedience to God over an extended period of time we eventually become lukewarm, then numb, and finally hard-hearted. When we get to that point we are in the throws of the most dangerous of all conditions for a believer in the Bible: lawlessness. Yet, like the story of the smallest candle dispelling darkness from a large space, it only takes one moment of humility, repentance, and confession to erase all the sin and doubt we can possibly pile up in our lives.
If I might re-word Paul’s teaching to the Ephesians concerning another sin [anger], “Doubt, and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your doubt [thus making you double-minded and unstable in all your ways]. And do not give the Devil an opportunity [to turn temporary doubt into a lifestyle].” When we answer the clarion call of both John and Jesus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” the light of grace runs to our aid and the darkness of lawlessness vanishes! So take heart! If God is testing you it means He loves you, and has something unique and wonderful for you to do in His kingdom. If you doubt, it’s all part of life following Jesus. Like any other sin, it’s not that you doubt, it’s what you do with doubt that counts. You can either let it destroy you by allowing it to become a practice, or you can let it prune and sanctify you by remaining faithful, repentant, and humble through the process. Choose the latter!
*Credit: This blog was inspired by a sermon by Ray Pritchard (https://youtu.be/zct1DQhGI90)