Part 2a of 6

Suffocating Doubts

King’s Dilemma

It was the dead of night and Dr. King placed his phone down after receiving another death threat. “Listen (n-word), we’ve taken all we’re gonna take from you, before next week you’ll be sorry.”

What would you do in this situation? God has placed in your heart a burning desire to right wrongs and free captives, but no one is listening. No one cares. And your life, and the life of your family, are in danger. Facing threats and danger, Dr. King turned to God for help. He responded with prayer: “God, give me strength to love my enemies and to do good to those who despitefully use me and persecute me.”

He tried to go to bed beside his sleeping wife, but sleep eluded him. He got up from his bed and went into the kitchen, desperate for comfort, guidance, and relief. He made some coffee, sat down at the table and began to wrestle with God about his decision to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, which was scheduled for the very next day. He was afraid for his wife and daughter and he was afraid for himself.

How did he deal with his fear? He prayed, “Lord, I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter.”

Dr. King sat at that table, desperate for answers and locked in a struggle with his fear. He prayed for God to give him guidance. He asked the Lord simply to tell him whether to go ahead or go back. “Hear my prayer. O God, Heavenly Father, out of whose mind this great cosmic universe has been created, toward whom the weary and perplexed of all generations turn for consolation and direction, I come before You for guidance.”

Besides his fear, there were so many doubts. He was so tired of the struggle for civil rights. He doubted his own efforts, others’ faithfulness to the cause, even the outcome of his fight. He was just a pastor taking on a nations’ social stronghold and the president of the United States. Should he go forward? Was he jeopardizing his family for no reason? What if he was all wrong in this relentless quest he was on?  He begged for God to speak to his doubt, “God, remove doubt from my heart. Show me the way. May my decisions be made with certainty, strength and courage. Are these bold plans Your will?”

That night, faced with doubts almost-insurmountable, he asked God whether He should go forward or stay out of the action. God answered a very clear “Go!” And the course of history was changed forever. His doubts did not stop him from taking action. “He forged ahead anyway, letting his doubts accompany him but not impact him, and he ended up changing a nation” (Alex Carmichael, http://moodnudges.com/martin-luther-king/).

Dr. King’s response was again one of prayer, “Oh God, gracious, heavenly Father, I thank You for the creative insights in the universe. I thank You for the lives of great saints and prophets in the past, who have revealed to us that we can stand up amid the problems and difficulties and trials of life and not give in. Grant that I will go on with the proper faith and the proper determination of will, and I will be able to make a positive contribution to this world.” www.beliefnet.com/prayables/prayer-galleries/dr-martin-luther-king-jr-prayers.aspx?p=7

A Look Backward 

For those of you just joining these devotional excerpts, we are studying a very difficult topic: what to do when the heavens seem deaf to our cries. Unanswered prayers affect our emotions, our wills, and our minds. Many times they even derail our faith, leaving us stranded in a dry desert, bereft of God’s presence, joy and abundance. This desert often feels like a prison: boxed-in, hopeless, lonely, long, and full of fear. 

Over the last couple of weeks, we have explored two differing-yet-connected thoughts. First, we sought to process a dungeon mentality. What types of circumstances lead to desperate prayers? What does a sufferer’s dungeon look and feel like? What happens in our soul when God will not answer our prayers or even address our pain? How do these feelings and thoughts affect our faith? We sought to answer some of these issues through the real-life examples of people suffering in real prisons; people like Joseph, Jeremiah, Paul, Silas, and our key character, John the Baptist. Additionally, we looked at examples of people in an emotional prison: Job, David, Ethan, Heman, and some Korahite worshipers. Because of their vulnerability, we learned how the law tends comes to come alive in each of our emotions and actions. This law has to be addressed with grace and thankfully, the psalms and the book of Job led us through that process.

Secondly, we sought to answer the question, “What do we do with a God who will not answer our prayers? We saw the ‘ah-ha’ moments in each person’s lament where grace brought truth to bear on the negativity that roiled within each soul. Those glory-moments showed us that God may not answer our prayers as we desire, but He always answers the cries of our souls. And He answers with a revelation of truth, of who He is. As the Master Healer, He begins His best work on the inside of us: revealing our skewed perspectives, our wrong attitudes and His perfect ointment of love.

The whole thrust of this devotional series is to know how to be counted worthy of the sufferings of Christ. This concept screams loudly from two main passages: Acts 5:41 and 2 Thessalonians 1:5. In order to flesh out what Jesus calls ‘worthy’, we will be working through the story of John the Baptist in Luke 7:18-34. I will be bringing in a lot of other Scripture beyond this basic passage, but John’s story will provide the basic framework for our entire study. Each week I will be giving you the next installment of an acronym based on the word WORTHY. 

The first devotional, though split into two parts, was intended to help move a sufferer in a prison of unanswered prayer from a Dungeon of Denial to God’s perspective, where an unchanging circumstance is actually a Delightful Display of His glory. As a result of this exchange of perspectives, a person in a sufferer’s dungeon can hope to W – Welcome her prison of unanswered prayer as a promotion instead of a punishment.

A Look Forward

Last week, we began the process of defining John the Baptist’s prison and correlating that to our own lives. Today we will move into John’s story more deeply, breaking apart the pieces of Luke 7:18-20. Let me list those verses here before we get moving on our journey today, “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?’ When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’”

I have entitled this devotional Suffocating Doubts because when the prison walls close in around our lives, our souls are swamped with doubt and often, unbelief. When these doubts rise up within us, squelching the flame of God’s truths flickering in our souls, they give way to fear and shame. These paralyzing emotions will, in turn, cause us to hide from God or if dealt with properly, engage God more intimately. Like Dr. King on the eve of a history-changing decision, we want to learn to run to God and be counted worthy of those same suffocating circumstances. This section of John’s story will hopefully, help us understand how to handle all of the emotions that give birth to suffocating doubts arising out of our negative circumstances.

I will give you the next letter in our acronym W.O.R.T.H.Y. “O”  stands for Offer all your doubts to God, but you will have to read a while to fully understand this nugget of truth. The concept of what to do with our doubts is one I will attempt to explore over the next three weeks. Yes, you heard me right. This one thought about what to do with our doubts is coming to you in three separate installations. Today, I will attempt to process through John’s doubts, the birthplace of doubt, and the difference between doubt and unbelief.

Let’s get started with a reminder of the suffering of unanswered prayers…

John’s Dilemma

We learned last week that John the Baptist was thrown into prison because he had the audacity to rebuke Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. “It is not lawful for you to have her,” John bluntly stated (Mt. 14:4). Herod wanted to kill John for his brazen confrontation, but he was afraid of the people, so he incarcerated him instead (Mt. 14:5). Herodias, also, nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him, but she could not because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man (Mk. 6:19-20). She did get her way eventually, but that is a story for another time.

The two most powerful people in Jerusalem’s government wanted to kill John. No one else came to his rescue. Not the religious leaders, who had some sway. Not any of the people he had baptized; surely some of them had some power. Not his friends, though they attempted to encourage him. No one moved on his behalf, especially not the one person, Jesus, who could have done something about his situation. And that was the crux of John’s dark dilemma.

Our passage in Luke opens up with this telling statement, “John’s disciples told him about all these things” (Lk. 7:18). The passage goes on to show that “these things” being relayed sent John into a whirlwind of doubt. Why? What was going on in John’s heart to cause him such consternation?

In the chapters prior to this mysterious verse, Jesus had been very busy. One day in the synagogue, He drove an evil spirit out of a man (Lk. 4:31-37). Right after that exciting act, He healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a high fever (4:38-39). In fact, he healed a whole lot of people that evening and exorcised many demons (4:40-41). Between miraculous acts of mercy, He took the time to preach the kingdom of God (4:42-44, 6:17-49). Concerted prayer led Him to call twelve disciples to his side (5:1-11, 27-32, 6:12-16). In one of the towns, He healed a man with leprosy (5:12-16) as well as a paralytic (5:17-26). After an incredible teaching tour (6:17-49), He healed a Roman’s servant from afar and raised a widow’s son from the dead (7:1-17).

Healing. Wowing the crowds. Confronting the religious leaders. Raising the dead. Casting out demons. Becoming the talk of the town (4:37). Preaching about the Kingdom. Teaching His disciples. Answering difficult questions with wisdom and grace (6:3-5 for example). All of these miraculous stories and unparalleled events preceded Jesus all the way to the bars of John’s prison. These stories about the supernatural acts of Jesus’ mercy were the “things” that John’s disciples related to him.

Why would ‘these things’ upset John so much? Why would such incredible stories of good news rock John’s belief system? I think there are three rationales for John’s nosediving faith; rationales that stem from very positive spiritual foundations. However, sometimes the strongest of faith has the hardest time understanding why God seems to go silent. John’s positive resume and his response to God’s seemingly uncaring attitude can echo our own faith-suffocation. His story mirrors why we sometimes fall into doubts about the very God we profess to love and serve. And it’s often because of our spiritual resume that we begin to doubt.

John’s Spiritual Resume

John’s resume reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ column on sainthood. In talking about John later, even Jesus spoke highly of him, “Among those born of women there is no one greater than John…” (Lk. 7:28). None of us have the credentials to lift a finger to John’s spiritual stature, but these three categories that make John stand out are the same categories that seem to top all of our spiritual resumes as well. 

SIGNIFICANCE: By definition, significance has to do with importance. It is the quality of being worthy of attention. At its basic meaning, the significance of something or someone shows its worth. In the Christian world, we have given this word a whole lot more weight than ever before, for it is now attached to our self-confidence and innate worth. We even describe churches, ministries and the global work of missions by their significant impact on the earth. There are many ways we could measure significance, as we shall see by the life of John. Whether we should or not, we often base our significance on some of these platforms.

Social Status: John was related to Jesus. Luke 1:36 tells us that they were connected either by blood or by marriage because Mary and Elizabeth, their mothers, were relatives. No more specifics are given, but to be related to the Messiah? Now, that is an element indicating an honorable social status.

Spiritual Status: John lived in the days of great oral tradition where stories were passed down word-of- mouth through the generations. I say this because I am sure that Zechariah’s prophecy over the new-born John would have been relayed over and over to him as a child, especially as it was an oral culture. In that Spirit-filled speech, Zechariah called John a “prophet of the Most High” (Lk. 1:76a). Not only would he be a prophet, but he would go before the Lord to prepare the way for him (Lk. 1:76b). Luke 3:4 picks up that theme to make sure that his readers know that John was the forerunner of Christ. He was the one who became the very fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 40:3-5. His was the voice in the wilderness calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’ (Lk. 3:4).

John had a lot of spiritual significance. He was both God’s prophet and the fulfillment of God’s earlier prophecy. He was the announcer of the Messiah; he literally went before Jesus, preparing His way and straightening paths before Him. 

Seniority: We know when John’s ministry began for there is a clear date given in Lk. 3:1: in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. This is an extraordinarily precise date and I believe it was given because Jesus’ ministry followed soon after. According to history, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar happened to be A.D. 29 (http://www.ncregister.com). This predates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry by just a little bit. In other words, he had ministry seniority over the Messiah Himself.

Spokesman: Just after the impressive litany of political leaders is laid out, Luke clearly states the beginning of John’s ministry, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert” (Lk. 3:2). We don’t know why John was living in the desert except that Luke 1:80 tells us that he lived there until he appeared publicly to Israel. Did you understand the import of that statement though? The word of God came to John! This was a stamp in John’s timeline of calling very similar to other prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel; even Samuel, the priest. When God’s word came to John, it kick-started his ministry because he went around preaching a baptism of repentance after that (Lk. 3:3). Like any Old Testament prophets, when God’s words came to John, he became the very spokesmen of God.

Substantial Stage: John had the surprise of his life one day when Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me” (Mt. 3:13-14)? But Jesus told him this amazing fact, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15), meaning that Jesus wanted this done in this way because “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism” (MSG). Because John knew the role Jesus would play, that He would be a main player on a substantive world-wide stage, he consented to the task of baptizing Jesus. He baptized the Messiah; I just wanted you to realize the significance of this task. He might have even seen the Spirit of God descending like a dove and the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:16-17). This was not a back-stage moment. This was probably one of the most significantly-staged events in all of biblical history.

SERVICE: This word is used in many contexts, but I am choosing it because of its other-ness impact. We often find our significance in the things we do, create or conquer. No one had a more significant kind of service than John, as we shall see.

Sacrificial: John’s service to the kingdom was incredibly sacrificial. It was solitary since it began in the wilderness or desert, as some translations read. John sacrificed time with his family and friends to be alone where God could work in him. Not only that, but he sacrificed social solidarity. In other words, he was a bit of an odd duck. Matthew tells us that His clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey (Mt. 3:4). The last reason why his ministry was sacrificial is because he lacked stability. As soon as the Lord spoke to him, he went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching and baptizing (Lk. 3:3). He became a missionary, moving often from place to place. Like Jesus, he had no place to lay his head (Mt. 8:20).

Special: John had a ministry tailor-made for him and for the events of God’s kingdom calendar. We already talked about his calling, where the word of the Lord came to him and he became the spokesman of God. But in addition to his prophetic type of ministry, John preached great sermons. In fact, besides baptizing, effective preaching was what John was most known for. He was sanctioned by God in his approach to ministry and steadfast in carrying it out.

Substantial: Luke describes his service to God as “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3:3). He literally prepared the way for the Lord (v 4) by calling people to produce fruit in keeping with repentance (v 8). His sermons may not have been socially-acceptable – “you brood of vipers” (v 7) – but they were substantial in their depth. They covered the coming wrath (v 7), repentance (v 8), hypocrisy (v 8), the power of God (v 8), impending judgment (v 9, 17), generosity (v 11), worker integrity (v 13), and financial contentment (v 14). Besides all of these topics, John pointed to the ministry of Christ: that He would come to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (v 16), that he would judge mankind’s works (v 17) and other good news (v 18).

Single-minded Stance: John never backed down from the purity of his message. Sin was sin and only repentance could hold off the coming wrath of God. He even took this message to the palace, where he rebuked Herod for taking his brother’s wife and for a lot of other evil things he had done (Lk. 3:19). He was so single-minded in his straight-forward approach that it landed him in prison for his efforts.

Selfless: John was very other-centered. He seemed content to be sidelined in order to elevate Jesus’ significance, “after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry” (Mt. 3:11), or the “thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Lk. 3:16). He elevated Jesus’ ministry over his own, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mk. 1:8).

Skilled: We know that John was good at preaching for people thronged to see him. They did not just go down to the corner synagogue to fit a good sermon into their schedule. No, they traveled out to the wilderness to take in the odd sight of a man in camel hair preaching about their evil deeds. Not just a few people came to hear him either; literally crowds came out to hear him. Obviously, he was a skilled preacher.

Successful: John was very successful; he had incredibly lasting impact. Many people – crowds even – accepted his message, for they were baptized by him as well as coming to hear him (Lk. 3:7). Even people outside of Israel heard his message like Apollos, who later became a Christian evangelist. Apollos was from Alexandria but Scripture tells us that he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though “he only knew the baptism of John” (Acts 18:24-25).

Submissive: He tried to argue with Jesus over the baptism order – who should baptize whom – but when Jesus gave him convincing Scriptural evidence, John submitted to Jesus. His self-effacing stance gave way to pure submission and he baptized the Messiah with his own hands.

SECURITY: Security has the connotation of being free from danger or threat, but it also speaks of certainty, reliability, dependability and solidness. This is the part of the definition I am trying to bring out here. Many objects, people or ideas become the foundation of our security and John was no different. He was secure in his…

Source: I want to mention this again, because I believe it is important for our later discussion. John was in the desert when the word of the Lord came to him (Lk. 3:2). This leads us to the conclusion that John was sure about his calling.

Skills: John was a gifted orator. The first way he is introduced in Matthew is that he came preaching in the Desert of Judea (3:1). The word ‘saying’ is used an awful lot where John is concerned and he did fulfill the prophecy of a voice calling out in the desert (Mt. 3:3). Even though he was standing for truth, it was his vocal skills directed Herod’s way that landed him in his prison cell. Gifted he was; subtle, not so much.

Subject: This point will be very important for our later discussion. It is important to note that John began his service to the kingdom by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt. 3:2). Luke informs us that he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Lk. 3:3). Later on, though, repentance language morphed into “wrath is coming” language (see Lk. 3:7, 9, 17). The main thrust of John’s sermons dealt with the judgment of God.

Scriptures: It is obvious to me that John was a man who knew the God of the Scriptures. He believed in God’s sovereignty. He references God’s power a number of times, “For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Lk. 3:8) and “but one more powerful than I will come” (3:16). He believed in God’s salvation, which was a direct quote from Isaiah 40, “And all mankind will see God’s salvation” (3:6a). And he had faith in the Jewish solution, “he has raised up a horn of salvation for us…salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Lk. 1:69, 71, 74-5). And he thought he knew the schedule of the kingdom, “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt. 3:2). All of these expectations contributed to a sense of security about John’s mission and effectivity in his Judean world. 

John’s resume was enviable and his faith was unmovable, or was it? Despite the confidence he had in his significance, service and security, and despite his unwavering belief in the Messiah, he still fell down under the weight of doubt, giving rise to the question, “Are you the one?” Even the immensity of John’s belief system could not quell the questions that rose up from within his soul. John’s faith was in crisis.

Echoes of Eden

John’s faith crisis sounds very familiar to me, mostly because it is the leading story on the front page of the newspaper of history. Your story and mine began with these words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The Voice spoke and wondrous formations and works of art just came into being. The pinnacle of that splendid tapestry of achievement was the creation of mankind. On day six, God spoke these words, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish…birds..livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27).

Could there have been any greater significance? Created in the image of God. Perfect social status. Perfect spiritual status; they walked and talked with their masterful Potter in perfect synchronicity. They had absolute seniority. Adam and Eve were the perfect firstfruits of all their kind, with absolute reign and rule over their kingdom. They spoke for God. Genesis 2:19 says that God brought all the animals to the man to see what he would name them. As God spoke creation into being, Adam would speak their significance and uniqueness into being by calling them each by name. There could not have been a more substantial stage for faith to grow. Perfect harmony. Perfect intimacy. Perfect love. Nothing in Eden was a back-stage moment. It was one of the most significantly-staged events in all of history.

And what about their service? Adam and Eve were blessed by God, meaning that all that they were and did were a result of God’s favor. His specific mission for them included being fruitful and increasing in number. They were to fill the earth and subdue it. They were to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground (Gen. 1:28). They had the perfect mission endowed by a perfect God.

Adam was put in the garden to work it and take care of it (Gen. 2:15). Some words here speak volumes about their service. That word ‘put’ is the Hebrew word yanah, meaning “to rest, settle down and remain…be quiet…make quiet, to lay down or set down, place, be granted rest..open space” (ESV Strong’s). This was not a service that was to be rendered in stress or anxiety. Literally, their service was perfectly restful and full of open space. They were granted a special ministry, sanctioned by God.

Not only were they set down in that garden to rest in their service to God, they were to work the garden. This word ‘work’ means “to work, to serve, to till” (ESV Strong’s), but there is an additional thought here that my CWSB Dictionary brings out. “When the focus of the labor is the Lord, it is a religious service to worship Him. Moreover, in these cases, the word does not have connotations of toilsome labor but instead of a joyful experience in liberation.” Do you see the most perfect aspect of their garden-service? It was worship, and this is the work I have written in my Bible over the top of the NIV word “work.” Their service to God was both restful and worshipful.

But that is not all. There is one more important word in Genesis 2:15: the words “take care.” The ESV Bible renders this word, samar, as keep. It means “to hedge about (as with thorns), i.e. guard; generally, to protect, attend to…watchman” Along with this guarding mentality, there is the added connotation of retaining, treasuring up in the memory, observing covenant or commands, performing a vow, and keeping oneself from or refraining (ESV Strong’s). In other words, inherent in Adam’s service was the thought of obedience. This is the word I have written above “take care” in verse 15. This guarding, obedient expectation is filled out in the very next two verses, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). Perfect guarding and obedience took place within perfect parameters.

In addition to this perfectly restful placement, perfectly worshipful assistance, and perfectly obedient service, God also asked Adam to name all of His creatures. “So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field” (Ge. 2:20). In short, Adam had perfect dominion in the midst of his God-given creative service; he had perfect job security.

Adam’s service was skilled because his creativity was perfectly endowed. He had a successful ministry as long as he stayed within God’s perfect boundaries. He was submissive and selfless and single-minded in his fulfillment of God’s perfectly-proffered commands. His creative voice was perfectly sanctioned by God, giving way to creative empowerment and obedient actualization. Adam was perfectly content in his restful, worshipful, obedient service to God.

But what about his security? Well, he had security in a perfect Source. He was made in the very image of God. Nothing could have given him greater security. He was secure in his skills: increasing, filling, ruling, guarding, naming, obeying, and becoming one flesh with his wife (Gen. 2:24). Interestingly enough, he was also secure in the subject matter of innocence; he and his wife were naked, and they felt no shame (Gen. 2:25). They were secure in God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s obvious honor bestowed upon them in incredible blessing. Lastly, they were secure in God’s Word, His Scripture to them: “do not eat from that tree.” His parameters were not confining or restricting; instead, they initiated a sense of incredible security in their hearts.

But one day, perfect significance, service, and security were obliterated. Doubt was introduced into the garden by that evil lizard: Satan.

Eden Shattered

One day, the crafty serpent came up to Eve with an agenda. At the top of his checklist that day was the introduction of doubt because he knew the endpoint of doubt and where it would eventually lead. He spoke these incredibly life-altering, mind-dividing, Eden-shattering words, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’ (Gen. 3:1)? And with that question, all thought of Eve’s significance in God, service for God, and security in God went out the window. You see, at the top of Satan’s not-so-overt agenda, he has purposed to create doubt about what God has said to us about who God is and who we are in Him.

Well, Eve had never had the occasion to question God. She lived in harmony and perfection. The word ‘doubt’ was not even a part of her vocal repertoire, let alone the feelings that accompanied it. She began to think and out of that meditative contemplation, she said these words, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden… or you will die” (Gen 3:2-3).

Good job, Eve. You did pretty good on that interpretation except for three small, itty-bitty, inconsequential words and phrases.

The original command was given to Adam and in the timeline of Genesis, the parameters were spoken before Eve was even formed (Gen. 2:17). It was directly after this 2:17 charge was issued that God said man being alone was not good. Is it a coincidence that the serpent approached Eve first? I do not like to speculate, but it is very curious to me that Satan approached the only one who had not originally received the message.

Adam’s injunction was very specific, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” When Eve reiterated God’s words to the serpent, she actually deviated from three very clear statements. First, she did not specifically mention the name of the tree in the middle of the garden. If she had spoken the words, ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil,’ God’s exact words, they may have jolted her into remembering all that was said.

Secondly, she left out the connection between eating and dying. In God’s rendition, ‘for when you eat of it, you will surely die,’ the eating and dying are laid out clearly side by side. If Eve had spoken God’s exact words, she would not have introduced the next step in her downward slide. Eating of it – not the words she substituted – was the disobedient act that would lead to the death.

The last thing she forgot to say was ‘surely.’ She made mention of the final step, but neglected the gravity of its depth. In forgetting that word ‘surely,’ she lessened the impact. These three lapses in memory led Eve to deviate from the meaning of God’s original intent.

Not only did Eve begin to doubt God’s words and deviate from their originality, she also began to distort God’s meaning based on assumptions. The words I left out when I quoted them above were these: “and you must not touch it, or you will die” (v 3). Since doubt had already infiltrated her mind, she began to assume things about God that were not true. He had never said the tree could not be touched. She presupposed this statement based on what she thought she knew about God. Surely if God was mean enough to kill her when she ate, He was mean enough to kill her even if she just touched the tree. Or possibly her presupposition was framed in the positive, If a good God would want us not to eat, sure He wouldn’t want us to touch it either. Assumptions about God can really, truly be deadly. Eve speculated about God’s character through the screen of doubt that had already begun to veil her thinking.

The serpent jumped on Eve’s deviated, distorted response very quickly. “You will not surely die” (v 4), he said to her. Doubt opened up a can of worms, so to speak, in Eve’s thought processes. With her shaky response, Satan knew he had the advantage. Instead of sugar-coating the truth, he could boldly state an outright lie and get away with it. “The first doctrine to be denied is judgment” (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary), a doctrine that is stated clearly in Matthew 7:13, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction…” and 7:26-27, “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand…” You all know the story: the rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew and beat upon the house until it fell. Clearly, not listening to God’s words leads to destruction. Satan’s temptation moved from doubt to bald-faced denial, but he did not stop there.

With that denial of God’s clear boundary, the serpent turned the screw a final twist, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v 5). Denial led to outright deception. Was it true that God knew their eyes would be opened? Yes. Was it true that they would know good and evil? Yes. Was it true that they would be like God in all of that eye-opening, knowing sort of revelation? Absolutely not.

That word “knowing” is not just a general knowledge; it constitutes an experiential knowledge. God is good; He doesn’t just know about good. And God understands that evil exists, but He is never tempted by evil (Jms. 1:13). He does not know it experientially, for He is holy. What Satan was withholding from Eve was that she could never have the knowledge that God holds and still remain pure and holy. It was the ultimate deception.

Not only that, but the enticing thought that she could be as God was seemingly intoxicating. Imagine being like God. All that power and knowledge and wisdom. But what Satan did when he introduced doubt into Eve’s mind was to pit mankind against God. Instead of resting in Him, worshiping Him only, and obeying Him, Eve was seduced into thinking God was a rival and enemy. “So the tempter pits his bare assertion against the word and works of God, presenting divine love as envy, service as servility, and a suicidal plunge as a leap into life” (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary).

But the downward spiral of doubt did not stop there for Eve began to look at the fruit; I mean, really look. She saw that the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eye (v 6), which is not a problem at all, because when the Lord created the trees, that is how they were described – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (2:9). But that word ‘saw’ was not just a cursory look. She was distracted as she stared at that fruit. As Lysa Turkeurst states, “you steer where you stare” (It’s Not Supposed to be This Way, p. 14). The pleasing and good qualities in that fruit gave birth to something else ugly and hooded, which stirred within her. Something we would call desire. She wanted that fruit because it looked good, but she wanted more. That clutching type of desire that was born in her created a space for discontentment. She was not happy being innocent Eve; she wanted to be more like God, who was all-wise.

After she saw the goodness of the fruit for food and how pleasing it was to the eye, she also began to be distracted by another possible aspect of that fruit. It was desirable for gaining wisdom (v 6b). Again, to quote Lysa Turkeurst, “She was looking at the tree hoping to gain something (wisdom) that she was never supposed to gain from a tree. We often look at created things to look for things only the Creator can give” (Lysa Terkeurst, The Birthplace of Disappointment, Session 1 of It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way). Like Job, Eve should have made a covenant with her eyes not to look lustfully at anything in this created world (Job 31:1). James sums up the tragedy of the garden in this way, “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (Jms. 1:14-15).

All of these negative emotions flooded her mind because she began to steer where she was staring. At that moment, she took some of the fruit and ate. Likewise, when proffered, her husband ate it too (v 6). Both of them took the plunge into disobedience, which led to the division of perfect harmony and intimacy. It led to the despair of nakedness and shame. And it led to dissension between the perfectly united couple and God. In short, it led to spiritual death

Let’s follow that downward spiral once again:

This downward spiral had pretty humble beginnings. Eve had no idea that entertaining a serpent’s question would ever hold such dire and far-reaching consequences. She never thought that her significance, service and security were in jeopardy depending on which decision she would make. 

But we know the ramifications of her choice because we are paying the debt of that awful downward spiral. And to think it all began with just one little niggling doubt. One question, one innocent-sounding question, and Eden was shattered.

The Birthplace of Doubt

All the edenic perfection of Genesis 1 and 2 was compromised – thankfully, not forever – by Satan’s simple question, “Did God really say” (3:1)? You see, Satan doesn’t have to be too overt. All he has to do is introduce some dubiousness into our faith-recipe: a teaspoon of indecision, a pinch of suspicion, a tablespoon of confusion – all thrown into a pan greased with some lack of conviction. When the seeds of uncertainty are sown, they begin to grow like weeds among the much-healthier stalks of belief in our spiritual walk. Satan doesn’t even really try to get us to sin; he just needs to get us to begin questioning the God we say we serve.

I find it so interesting how the serpent couched his doubt-inducement. He started with a question, which is something God often does as well. Questions are good in that they percolate thinking. They initiate the plumbing of motives and attitudes. And they engender a response of some kind. Questions are a positive way of teaching and learning in the hands of a holy God.

But Satan did not just pitch out any old question. No, he asked Eve to think about what God had already said (3:1 and 2:17). His approach begged Eve to cross-examine the authenticity of God’s words and try to align those words with what she did or did not know about God’s character. Oh folks, this tactic of Satan is used far and wide in our lives today. Satan does not have to malign God at all. He just has to get you to doubt whether what God says really lines up with who God appears to be in your situation.

How does Satan do that? There are a number of ways, but the three top ways Satan instigates that niggling doubt in our minds is through personal failures, hurtful words and actions taken against us, and negative circumstances. If Satan can tempt you to fall into sin, he will use that moment of shame and covering to remind you ever after that God’s power could not keep you from falling. God’s Word says that His incomparably great power for us who believe is the same power that raised Christ from the dead. That power is alive in you and me (Eph. 1:19-20), but if Satan can keep you focused on your failure, you will doubt what God really said.

Many of you have been wounded by people’s words or actions. Despite what the nursery rhyme says, sticks and stones do break bones and names will always hurt. If you have been abused verbally, physically or sexually, Satan will continue to use those horrible, nightmarish incidents to cause you to doubt what God says about you. Scripture says that God is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one (2 Thess. 3:3). What if that evil one was your father or your teacher or your pastor? In the aftermath of woundings perpetuated against you, doubt rears its ugly head in regard to God’s faithfulness and protection.

Then there are the traumas of this life. Some are brought on by Satan; some are brought on by the evil tendencies of this fallen world; some are consequences of our own actions.  But all are allowed by our sovereign God. All have passed through His inspection line and have been deemed suitable for our growth and maturation. We know the verse that says “God is good and all His ways are good” (Ps. 119:68a). We know the song, “He’s a good, good Father” (Chris Tomlin). We have memorized that God knows the plans He has for us are to prosper and not harm us, to give us a hope and a future (Jer. 29:11). But in light of the circumstances, God does not seem good. Cancer is not good. Bankruptcy is not prosperous. Divorce is harmful. A wayward child does not engender hope. And job insecurity certainly makes for a very insecure future.

When a sinful past rises up to smother your present, when the wounds of an enemy are once again ripped open, and when everything good in your life ruptures from horrific traumas, God’s Word seems to mock us. God’s character appears at odds with His Word and we begin to make assumptions like Eve did. How can a good God allow this? How does a loving God ordain this for me? Why would a just God allow sinners full reign? and the questions go on and on in the mind. Satan insidiously whispers in our ears in those key moments when we feel like we are drowning, “Did God really say He was loving? Did God really say He was good? Did God really say His plans give hope and a future? Look around. Look at what was said or done. Look at the mountains that are impassable. God’s not helping you, loving you, or caring about you. How can you believe in what God says?”

And you know what? We buy it hook, line and sinker. We forget our significance in Christ, our service for Christ, and our security in Christ.

And the reason we are so easily led down the spiral to disobedience is for lack of one good action. Knowing. What. God. Really. Did. Say.

Dear one, there are five key things you must know in this world and I do not mean by pure cognizance alone. I mean you must KNOW each of these truths with an experiential intimacy in your walk with your heavenly Father:

  1. You had better know who God is: His names, His character and His ways. 
  2. You must know who you are in Christ and the incredible inheritance He has given you. 
  3. You must know your opponent. Study his methods and his tactics so that you can… 
  4. know how to engage him in spiritual warfare. 
  5. And you must know what is waiting for you in eternity. 

In case you have not read through the entire Bible yet, you are already a winner. Eternity is already waiting for you and there are rewards with your name on them. In heaven. At Jesus’ side. Where you will dwell forever in glory.

These five truths must be burned into your brain so that if you fall into temptation, you will know that you can confess your sins and be totally cleansed from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9). You must write these truths on the doorposts of your thought life when evil prevails against you and you are attacked by an enemy or a lover. Then you can stand firm knowing that God will avenge your hurt. He will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten and He will judge on your behalf (Heb. 10:30, Joel 2:25). When the waves of negative circumstances and unanswered questions begin to beat upon the storm doors of your heart, you must know these five truths. You must remember that the rivers will not sweep over you, the fire will not burn you, that God thinks you are precious and honored in his sight and that He loves you (Isa. 43:2, 4).

Live and breathe the words of God. Do not receive them second-hand like Eve did. Do not deviate from them one iota. Do not add to them or make assumptions about God in lieu of really knowing them by heart. And for goodness’ sake, do not be deceived because you do not really know God’s character or ways. Take all of God’s words to heart. Obey them carefully. “They are not just idle words for you – they are your life. By them you will live long in the land…” (Deut. 32:46-47).

Lack of conviction is not conceived in the soil of your past failures. Uncertainty does not first grow in the womb of others’ abuse toward you. Dubiousness does not originate in the garden of your circumstances, bad though they may seem. No, precious friend, the birthplace of doubt is in the mind of a believer who feels unloved, thinks she is unloved and wills herself to say the words, “Did God really say that He loved me?” Doubt formulates the question that opposes what the believer should already know experientially. When that question is entertained, a downward spiral has already begun.

At one time, Paul found himself in some terrible circumstances, suffering in a prison cell (2 Tim. 1:8). Satan could have easily used that traumatic experience to introduce that debilitating question, “Did God really say?” but Paul was wise to that tactic. He emphatically announced that he was not ashamed of his place in God’s plan and then he gave the reason why, “because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (v 12).

In this statement, we can find three of our five truth principles that we must know inside and out. He knew God (whom I have believed) and His ways (that he could guard him). He knew what he could do through Christ (believe and entrust) and he knew his future in heaven (for that day). Paul did not entertain a question about what God said; he just believed it was true and bypassed the birthplace of doubt altogether.

This is our goal as well, but it is easier said than done. Many believers struggle to move from the birthplace of doubt to full-out faith; they are always flopping around in their emotional upheaval like a fish out of water. This is not your heritage, my friend. There is a way to peaceful faith. There is a way to endure struggles and pain well. The key to understanding the ‘how’ of dealing with unanswered questions and dungeon mentalities is found in the story of John the Baptist. Let’s head back to this beloved relative of the Messiah, struggling in his prison with the disparity between what he knows about God and what he is presently seeing.

John’s Crisis of Faith

Before I took the Garden of Eden detour to show you the journey from faith to doubt, I had enumerated John’s incredible resume of significance, service and security. I gave you a lot of Scripture supporting this resume for an important reason. I wanted you to see that this man of God based his platform of faith on God’s Word, on the truths of what God really said. Let’s briefly recap some of that faith-platform in order to move on to our next point.

In terms of significance, John was Jesus’ relative, he began his ministry first, and he baptized the Messiah. According to Scripture, he was a prophet of the Most High (Lk. 1:76) and he fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that he would prepare the way for the Lord (Lk. 3:4). Luke tells us that he was the forerunner of Christ and he was the spokesman of God (Lk. 3:2), preaching a baptism of repentance (Lk. 3:3).

John’s service was sacrificial, special, single-minded, substantial, successful, selfless, skilled, and submissive. He was a great orator who taught great sermons and roved around the Jordan river, preaching and baptizing (Lk. 3:3). We mentioned already that he was the spokesman of God, where he preached about wrath, repentance, hypocrisy, the power of God, impending judgment, generosity, worker integrity and financial commitment (Lk. 3:7-17). His main theme, however, was the coming wrath and judgment of the Messiah (Lk. 3:16-17). John’s message was pure and simple: sin is sin and repentance is a must to avoid God’s wrath. But when he preached this message to Herod, he was slapped into jail for his efforts (Lk. 3:19).

With all of these great resume-headings, John was secure in the Source of his calling, his skills, the subject matter of his sermons, and the Scriptures.  He began his ministry preaching that the kingdom of heaven is near (Mt. 3:2) and believed that completely, prioritizing the judgment of God over His mercy. He was secure in his God, that He was sovereign (Lk. 3:8, 16), that God was the Savior (Lk. 3:6) and that the Messiah was the solution for Israel’s captivity (Lk. 1:69 etc). He also was secure in the timing of the kingdom, that it was near (Mt. 3:2).

John’s faith was a very complete package based on these three aspects. He had the faith to believe in his significance before God. His service was rendered to God on the basis of faith. And his security rested on the faith he exhibited in God and what he believed about the Scriptures. And it was these three very important foundations that literally became the prickly burrs in John’s faith-saddle.

What he thought he knew about his significance, service and security bumped up against his expectations in his negative circumstances. Languishing in prison, his mind already exasperated by his dungeon mentality, he heard all the things that Jesus was doing for others. Consequently, these same three foundations of his faith began to chafe and rub at his confidence, causing doubts to arise. When rubbed completely raw, his faith finally cried out, “Are you the one?” His circumstances divided his mind on these three foundations of his faith leading to doubts, which soon gave way to an agonized, verbalized faith crisis.

Now I want to be clear that what I am about to say next is a bit speculative. Scripture only lists John’s final doubting question to Jesus, but I submit to you that John probably could not have gotten to that place in his mind without the sequence already outlined in the downward spiral of Eden. In order to broach that question of doubt to the Lord, he had to have entertained some “Did God really say?” kinds of questions. That is the pattern clearly outlined in Genesis 3. So with that caveat, let me try to show how I think this crisis of faith may have come about.

John was fairly certain on quite a few points:

  1. As a person, he was important to Jesus.
  2. His ministry was integral to the effectivity of Jesus’ ministry.
  3. He was faithful to his calling and to matters of integrity.
  4. His preaching topics consisted of judgment and a needed repentance.
  5. He knew God: that He was sovereign and powerful, that He would produce a Savior, and that the Messiah’s coming was near. When He came, He would free His people from captivity.

These five truths – and other smaller side-line issues – were central to John’s faith and ministry. However, something had gone very wrong in his life. He had been faithful to his calling and preached a gospel of judgment and Herod had retaliated by throwing him in prison. What on earth?

This dungeon was costing him precious hours of ministry, ministry that he thought was important to Jesus. Yet no one – including Jesus – seemed to appreciate him, let alone even come to visit him. God was sovereign and powerful, yet He chose to do nothing for John. Jesus was obviously powerful, but He chose to do nothing for John either. Jesus was supposed to be the Savior. Why wasn’t he saving John? Jesus was the Messiah, the One who was to free the Israelites from their captivity? John was a captive, yet Jesus was letting him waste away in a prison. There was nothing John could do. He was stuck and though he knew his value to Jesus, his own relative was doing nothing to rescue him. Instead, he was working all kinds of miracles for everyone else.

Additionally, John had preached a gospel of judgment and wrath needing humble repentance, yet Jesus was preaching a gospel of mercy and goodness. He was going around healing people, casting out demons, forgiving sins, and teaching the good news of the kingdom. Where was the judgment, the kingdom, the saving, the glory, and the overthrow of the Roman empire?

So here’s how the dungeon mentality might have begun to work its way into John’s mind:

  • Did God really say that I am important to Him? He has a funny way of showing honor and love. 
  • Did God really say I was to prepare the way for the Messiah, that I am the prophet of the Most High? If I am so important, why am I sitting here doing nothing? Why is Jesus, who is supposed to be the Messiah, doing nothing for His own prophet? 
  • Did God really say I was to preach words of judgment? I must have heard completely wrong. My gospel of judgment is the opposite of what Jesus is preaching? Already people have forgotten my message. What was the point of all that listening to God and speaking for Him?
  • Did God really say that the kingdom of God is near? Is Jesus really the One to set captives free, the One who would usher in a new kingdom? This Jesus is all about mercy, not judgment. There is no way that He could be the One. His power is too veiled and He is working healings instead of battles, exorcisms instead of war, teaching instead of brimstone.
  • Did God really say Jesus was the Messiah?

Do you see how Satan could have used the negative circumstance of John’s prison to unsettle his mind? Can you envision this once-fiery preacher slumped against the walls of his impregnable cell, whispering prayers to the ceiling that were ignored by the very God he had given his life to serve? Can you imagine the emotions that began to push upward on his thinking, threatening to burst out in primal cries? And can you understand why this great man of God began to ask himself, “Did God really say?” I believe that you, like me, can understand because we have walked the very same road as poor John, a road through a deep and sorrowful faith crisis, a journey fraught with potholes of fear and roadblocks of doubt.

Doubt Versus Unbelief

I tremble as I begin to type this section. Honestly, I am nervous I will get this all wrong, so before I dive into talking about something that even theologians cannot explain, let me say very succinctly, “I am struggling through this material in a mighty way.” I do not profess to have the answers here. I do not state that I am adamantly correct. Instead, I humbly submit to you my meditations on this extremely hot topic of doubt and unbelief.

Unbelief: Unbelief is a bad thing; I would even call it a sin. Paul denounces unbelief in Romans 11:20 and 23. The Gentiles were broken off from the spiritual grafting-in that God desired and the reason Paul gives is unbelief (v 20). But “if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (v 23).

Again in 1 Timothy 1:13, Paul describes himself to Timothy. He acclaims God’s mercy but shows that ignorance and unbelief actually led to him being a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. According to this passage, unbelief was the bedrock motivation for his life of sin.

The author of Hebrews has an entire chapter – chapter 3 – devoted to this topic of unbelief. A clear linear pattern jumps out at me from this passage, showing the way from hearing God’s voice to God barring them from the Promised Land:

The Israelites heard God’s voice at Sinai, which was to endear them to their loving and caring Jehovah. But they were scared, if you recall. Instead of coming close to God in that moment, they trembled with fear and remained at a distance. They told Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). Moses tried to encourage them that they did not need to fear. God had come to test them so that the fear of God would keep them from sinning (v 20). Instead of leaning into the presence of the Almighty with fearful love, they remained at a distance while Moses went into the thick darkness where God was (v 21).

Because the Israelites refused to draw near to God out of an irreducible fear, Moses went up the mountain alone. Forty days was all it took for the Israelities to sin horribly, making a golden calf to bow down to. (Ex. 32). God forgave them because of Moses’ intercession then proceeded to give them rules that revealed who He was: His holiness, His care, His provision, His purposes (see Exodus, Leviticus, and early Numbers). However, it was not long before the people began to complain about their hardships. They craved food. They opposed Moses. They cried in fear about the report from Canaan and they rebelled. All of these examples, and more, define what the “time of testing” was talking about in Hebrews 3:8.

All of those times of testing were to increase the Israelites’ faith, but all it did was harden their hearts (v 8). Why? I believe it is because of doubt, which is not even mentioned in this passage, but is described quite clearly nevertheless. Listen to these verses, “where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways…encourage one another daily…so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (vv 8-9, 13).

Doubt is not named here, but three descriptions are given that help define doubt. First, notice that last line of verse 13: they were hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. They were deceived by sin. That is why they could not really “see” God. Notice in verse 8 that the Israelites tested and tried God while they saw what He did. All along He was revealing Himself to them. They saw with their own eyes His miraculous wonders. They watched the pillar of cloud and fire lead them every day. Manna and quail just dropped from the sky. They saw what He did for them, but because of sin’s deceit, they did not really SEE Him. Also, verse 9 tells us that they did not really know His ways. Again, deceit robbed them of really knowing God.

This sounds an awful lot like the Garden, doesn’t it? Life was going along fine, then all of a sudden, the question, “Did God really say?” entered the picture. Eve saw God every day and thought she really knew God, but was deceived by sin’s deceitfulness. As she entertained the deception, her heart began to harden against the God she professed to know (v 13). That hardening led her to a sinful, unbelieving heart (v 12) that eventually went astray (v 10). She turned from the living God (v 12) and rebelled (v 8). (Other descriptors are given in Hebrews: tested and tried – v9, disobeyed – v 18), and sinned – v 17.) At that point, God moved kicked them out of the Garden and they no longer had the privilege of entering His rest (v 11, 19).

From this passage we can see that unbelief is the choice to harden one’s heart. This is the moment when the heart goes astray from God’s truths. The author of Hebrews described a person in this state as having a sinful, hard, and unbelieving heart (vv 8, 12). “Unbelief is the matter of the will: we refuse to believe God’s Word and obey what He tells us to do” (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, p. 196-7).

Doubt: Now, this is the harder word to define and categorize; it is also the word that causes consternation in the soul and on which no one can fully agree. Before I start into this, remember that these are my interpretations of Scripture. I am trying to be very biblical about this, but even commentators disagree. I know this is a tender topic with a lot of people and I do not want to hurt any feelings. Please try to keep an open mind as I traverse these deep waters.

It is not unusual for great spiritual leaders to have times in their lives where they experience doubt and uncertainty. Moses struggled with doubts (Num. 11:11-15) as did Elijah (1 Kings 19), Jeremiah (Jer. 20:1-9, 14-18), Paul (2 Cor. 1:8-9), the disciples (Mark 4:35-41) and even Jesus Himself (Mt. 26:36-46).  We will look at some of these examples later, but for now, know that if you are doubting God about anything, you are actually in pretty good company.

Contrary to what some people might think, I do not believe that doubts equal unbelief, nor do I  believe that doubting God is sin. I know that Romans 14:23 seems to state differently, “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” But I want to remind you of the context of this verse. This whole chapter deals with ways that stronger believers can cause weaker believers to sin. Those young believers were struggling with their conscience over food being offered to idols. Their level of faith could not handle this dichotomy. Paul indicated here that the more mature believer needed to live within the weaker believer’s parameters. That was the loving thing to do. Verse 23 is written in this context of conscience: if the weaker believer’s faith leads his conscience to believe that food is sinful, then to him, it is sinful. His faith has dictated his eating. Overriding the doubts arising from his own conscience would be sin.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe this passage is at all speaking to the doubts that arise from crisis situations; situations like traumas or unanswered questions. Paul only deals with the doubts that arise from the conscience about grey areas of Christianity.

The other passage that comes to mind in trying to wade through this murky area of doubts is James 1:2-8. This section of James seeks to deal with trials and struggles, just like the situation of John in prison or our entire devotional series of unanswered prayers. James, then, seems to have something to say about our context of trials and tribulations and prayer.

After describing what trials are good for, James encourages his readers to ask for wisdom in their trial. But then he gives a caveat, “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (vv 6-7).

Why should we ask for wisdom in our trials and not grace or strength or even for it all to end? Wiersbe answers this question so beautifully, “We need wisdom so we will not waste the opportunities God is giving us to mature. Wisdom helps us understand how to use these circumstances for our good and God’s glory” (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, New Testament, Volume 2, p. 340). If we do not understand what is happening in our trial, wisdom will help us manage that trial better. Unbelief is the greatest enemy to answered prayer (Wiersbe, p. 340), so we do want to understand as much as we can so we can choose belief over unbelief.

But then there’s that caveat. We are to ask for wisdom, but we are to believe and not doubt because if we doubt, we may not receive an answer from the Lord. Doubting people, James says, are like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind (1:6). They are also double-minded and unstable in all their ways (1:8). Wiersbe says that this kind of up-and-down faith is evidence of immaturity. He goes further to say that “instability and immaturity go together” (p. 340-341).

There are two takeaways from this passage and Wiersbe’s commentary that speak to me. First, I believe that asking God questions in the midst of our trials is not ungodly. James says that we “should” ask God, because He is a giving God, a generous God, and a God who does not find fault (v 5). Only God has the answers we need so asking Him for wisdom to truly understand is something we “should” do.

Secondly, doubting in prayer is not a sin, although it may be a hindrance to an answer from God. Instead of sin, it indicates spiritual immaturity. Of course, we want to go on from our trials more mature than when we started. That is the end goal, but in all of the questions I have about my trials, I am assured that doubting is not a sin. Instead, “doubt is a matter of the mind: we cannot understand what God is doing or why He is doing it” (Wiersbe, p. 196). Oswald Chambers confirms this further for me, “Doubt is not always a sign that a man is wrong; it may be a sign that he is thinking.”

To cap all of this off, I would say that unbelief is a choice of the will not to believe in God’s character or ways. Unbelief is the choice to turn away from God and disobey. Doubt, on the other hand, is a sign of a spiritually immature faith. It is the struggle of the mind to try and understand what God is really doing. It is a sign that a person is processing the negative circumstance and is wrestling to see God and know His ways. It is also a fight against sin’s deceitfulness that could harden the heart, if that person is not careful.

Degrees of Faith

I want to struggle through one more aspect of our Christian walk that affects how we handle our prison sentences. Again, this is a very delicate topic and is not meant to pigeon-hole anyone into feeling condemned or on the other end of the spectrum, to feel a sense of pride. This difficult discussion is merely the result of my questions of God and resultant study on this topic. I pray some of this will be useful to you in your own spiritual war against hopelessness and deceit and doubt.

A number of weeks ago I sat before the Lord trying to get His perspective on my situation. I spent days in my devotions attempting to find some answers that would soothe my struggling heart. On one day, the Lord led me into a pretty intense study on faith. Since faith is the basis of our salvation, sanctification, glorification and all matters in between, it remains one of the most important factors of our walk here on earth. It stands to reason, then, that we must know what constitutes a solidly, mature faith.

I was intrigued by the degrees of faith mentioned in the New Testament. On some occasions, Jesus told his listeners that they had little faith. On one occasion, He described the disciples’ reaction as “no faith,” and two people were commended for their great faith. Somewhere on that continuum falls our previously-discussed words: both doubt and unbelief. Let me start first with “great faith.

Great Faith

It is interesting to me that both occasions where great faith were displayed, the people were Gentiles. One was a centurion and one was a Canaanite woman.

The Centurion (Mt. 8:5-13): The centurion asked Jesus for help. He told Him about his servant’s terrible suffering. Jesus offered to go and heal the servant. The centurion’s answer even surprised Jesus, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Mt. 8:8-9). Jesus’ reply was that he had not found anyone in all of Israel with such great faith (v 10).

Why was his faith considered to be so astonishing? I think there are three reasons. 1) He was humble. He recognized Jesus’ authority as far greater than his own and felt personally unworthy to even have Jesus come under his roof. 2) He believed in the power of Jesus’ spoken word. Because he had power over men and could speak activities into being, he understand Jesus’ powerful word. 3) He believed Jesus could heal from afar. He had an absolute practical reliance on Jesus’ power.

The centurion was lauded for his great faith because when he had a traumatic situation, he never allowed himself to say, “Did God really say?” He did not allow doubt to rule his mind. Instead, by way of Hebrews 3 language, he saw what Jesus did, He knew His ways, and he did not allow himself to be deceived by sin’s deceitfulness. No doubts were even entertained. He believed implicitly in the power and authority of Jesus to heal his servant with only a spoken word.

The Canaanite Woman (Mt. 15:21-28): One time when Jesus was around Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite woman came crying, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering from demon-possession” (Mt. 15:22). Jesus ignored her pleas and His disciples urged Him to send her away because she was bugging them (15:23). Not only did Jesus ignore her, but it seems that He began to insult her. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” and “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (15:24, 26).

The woman came and knelt before Jesus after His first statement and asked again for help (15:25). She did not give up. And when the sentence about dogs was pitched out, she said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (15:27). Jesus’ reply: “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that hour (15:28).

Again, why was her faith considered so great? There is actually a tongue-in-cheek conversation at play here. Jesus is role-playing a Jew’s typical reaction to a Gentile receiving equal favor. She responded to that first statement with humility and great persistence. Jesus went on to talk about dogs and crumbs that fall from the table, and this woman had the insight to realize that Jesus was speaking of His first mission, which was to Israel. Somehow in that whole encounter, she understood Jesus’ immediate mission, but also that Israel was not Jesus’ whole scope of ministry. The Gentiles would one day be grafted in to eat the scraps that fall from the table. Her interaction with Jesus actually foreshadowed a time when the gospel would spread far beyond Israel.

Never in that whole conversation did this Gentile woman question, “Did God really say?” She did not entertain such doubts. Instead, she proved that she really saw what Jesus did, that she knew His ways and that she was completely free of sin’s deceitfulness. Doubt took no root because she took these three actions.

Great faith, it seems, is humble. It does not assume God’s work to be done on its behalf, but it does assume God can. Great faith looks to what God is doing, sees it, and adds fuel to the repertoire of what it already knows are God’s ways. Great faith also rises above deceit and speaks unseen truths from the spiritual realm. Faith that is great is astonishing to Jesus; I hope you took note of that. It is possible, but not ordinarily found.

Little Faith

There are actually five examples of little faith that I want to quickly work through. There is a common thread between these examples linking them as times of “little faith.” See if you can figure it out as we go.

Do Not Worry (Mt. 6:25-34): Jesus speaks these words, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes…will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith” (vv 25-30)?

This passage uses the word ‘worry’ six times. Obviously, worry is a big issue for people and especially, those with little faith. Worry is defined as “anxious care” by my CWSB dictionary, “to care, be anxious, troubled, to take thought.” There is so much I could say here that has to do with unanswered prayers, but I will curb my thoughts except for this one: this passage links little faith with worry. 

The Storm (Mt. 8:23-27): One time when Jesus and his disciples were in a boat, a furious storm came up. Jesus was sleeping in the boat even while the waves began to swamp the boat. The disciples woke him and said, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown” (v 25). He replied to them, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid” (v 26)? Then he rebuked the waves and the seas became completely calm.

In Matthew’s rendition of this story, the disciples looked around at the waves and assumed that they were going to drown. This led to fear, as Jesus discerned as soon as he awoke. Jesus then named their faith “little” in connection with their emotions. This passage links little faith with fear.

Water-Walking (Mt. 14:22-32): This is the famous story when Jesus walked on the water in the fourth watch of the night. The disciples were scared and said, “It’s a ghost,” while they cried out in fear (v 26). Jesus immediately gave them courage and Peter got the brilliant idea to go out on the waves himself. Jesus told him to “come,” and so he began walking on the water. But then he saw the wind and was afraid. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me” (v 30). Jesus immediately reached out His hand and saved him, but he chided him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt” (v 31)?

There is a lot of fear mentioned in this passage, both by the disciples corporately and by Peter himself. The negative circumstances (the storm) ignited a bunch of fear in his heart. That fear led to doubt, as Jesus quickly pointed out, and that doubt caused him to sink. The main emotion that led to doubt was fear and this passage links little faith to the doubt that was vocalized.

Yeast (Mt. 16:5-12): Jesus and His disciples crossed the lake and one point. Matthew takes note that the disciples forgot to take any bread with them. On the heels of that observation, Jesus said, “Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v 6). The disciples began to discuss what Jesus meant and I like the way the Message translates their response, “Thinking he was scolding them for forgetting bread, they discussed in whispers what to do” (v 7). Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves…or the seven loaves…” How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (vv 8-11). They finally realized He was warning them against the legalistic teachings of their religious leaders.

Before Jesus said anything to them, they were already aware that they had screwed up; they had forgotten food to eat. When Jesus brought up yeast, they automatically assumed that He was rebuking them for forgetting. Jesus spoke of their little faith for two reasons: they made assumptions about His words and they did not remember His great miracle-working power. In this passage, little faith is linked to erroneous assumptions made about God and forgetting His power in previous miracles.

Boy with a Demon (Mt. 17:14-20). A man came to Jesus after he had tried to have the disciples cast demons out of his son. They were unable to do so and the man pled with Jesus to help him. Jesus rebuked the disciples and crowd for their unbelieving and perverse attitudes (v 17). The Message reads like this, “What a generation! No sense of God! No focus to your lives! How many times do I have to go over these things?” In the Passion, Jesus says, “How much longer do I stay with you and put up with your doubts?”

After bringing attention to their inability, Jesus healed the boy. The disciples were nonplussed. Why couldn’t they drive out the demon? Jesus told them that it was “because they had so little faith” (v 20). Here, little faith was linked to an inability to cast out the demon, but in the Message it is linked with having no sense of God and no focus. In the Passion, it is linked with doubts. They could not do something because they doubted their ability to do it in the first place.

These five vignettes show examples where little faith is named. Not only is this truth called out, it is linked with emotions or actions: worry, fear, fear leading to doubt, making assumptions about God and forgetting God’s past acts, and having no sense of God or God-like focus coupled with doubts.  For many of these there is an emotion named: worry or fear. In others the emotion can be deduced: shame or pride. What we can come to understand in all of this is that speaking or acting out of negative emotions and wrong assumptions about God are all acts of little faith in God’s eyes.

No Faith

There is one example in Scripture where the words “no faith” label the disciples’ actions. That story is found in Mark 4:35-41. Interestingly enough, this is the same story where Matthew labels the disciples’ faith as “little.”

The disciples get into their boat and begin to cross the lake. A storm comes up so that the boat is nearly swamped. Jesus was sleeping in the boat on a cushion (I love that picture of complete peace in the midst of negative circumstances.) The disciples woke him and said, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown” (v 38)? Jesus rebuked the waves and they died down. Then He turned to his disciples and said, Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith” (v 40).

Why would Matthew describe their reaction as “little faith” and Mark as “no faith”? I think it has to do with what thoughts are entertained and what words are spoken. If you will recall in Matthew’s account, the disciples woke Jesus and said, “Lord, save us. We’re going to drown.” They looked at the circumstances and drew a conclusion, then asked for help. In Mark’s rendition, they asked a very different question, “Don’t you care if we drown?” This procured a “no faith” diagnosis from Jesus. 

Obviously, looking at the circumstances and calling them what they are is not a problem. Facing the facts is important to verbalizing our concerns to Jesus. Thinking negatively is not the worst thing that could happen either. Nor is asking for help. But questioning God’s care is a big problem to God. It sounds a lot like a “Did God really say?” question to me. Of course, God cares. It seems to me that questioning God’s care is a lot like questioning God’s love. That question was settled on the cross for us. Of course He cares for us and loves us. That is the basis of our relationship with God, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only son” (Jn. 3:16). Is Jesus saying here that when we question God’s care, we have no faith at all? 

Tying The Bow

I know it must seem like I have chased quite a number of butterflies over these last pages, but the subject of faith, doubt and unbelief are very closely tied to John’s prison dilemma – and ours too. If I could diagram what has been said thus far, I would do so in this way:

Unbelief is the choice to turn away from God, to harden your heart, and to allow your heart to go astray. It is a matter of the will. When you choose not to believe in God, when you refuse to obey what He tells you to do, you have fallen into unbelief. 

I would categorize unbelief differently than a person having no faith. Even the disciples, whom Jesus rebuked for their no-faith “Don’t you care? question, approached Jesus with their doubts. Instead of choosing to harden their hearts and walk away, they made the decision to seek God, to ask for His help, and to express their runaway emotions to Him. They engaged their wills to address their fears with the only One who could care for them completely and holistically. They opted to appear faithless rather than drown in their unbelief. Folks, I think this takes an inordinate amount of faith. Jesus’ gentle rebuke was a spotlight shining on their immaturity; not a glaring and  condemnatory public ridicule. 

The people with little faith expressed their doubts also. These doubts, as Jesus pointed out, stemmed from overwhelming emotions like worry, fear, assumptions, shame, and the pressure to perform. As Hebrews 3 entitled doubt, they saw what God did but did not really understand. They did not really know His ways. And they were influenced by sin’s deceitfulness. But again, I want to point out that in most of the examples, they came to Jesus with their emotions and questions, with their doubts and inconsistencies. This took faith, my friends. I hope you saw that God patiently took the time to answer them, to point out where they were still immature, and to show them the standard to which they could attain in order to have great faith.

The centurion and the Canaanite woman were applauded for their great faith. In these two examples given in Matthew, no doubts were expressed and no questions were asked besides the ones for help. But the same pattern of approaching and seeking God are woven throughout great faith as well as little and no faith. This is a very important principle to remember. It is also a key that will help John unlock God’s perspectives on his doubts, and it will help us also.

Before I head out of this topic about faith, I want to bring out just a few truths I gleaned while meditating on this vexingly difficult subject. I pray these thoughts will encourage your heart if you are struggling with doubts, with a lack of trust, or with a teetering faith crisis.

  • Unbelieving people can be restored. Peter, when sideswiped by a horrible trial, made the choice to deny Jesus. He chose unbelief rather than a tiny bit of faith, and in the process of turning away from God, he denied his Lord. But after he sinned, after he worked through his shattered faith, and after he was broken by his failure, he was restored to intimacy with God. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus told him (Jn. 21:17), giving him back godly authority and ministry once again. In that moment, Jesus took him from shamed failure to forgiven freedom. He had prophesied that Peter was a rock (Mt. 16:18) and that he would strengthen his brothers into a church body. This restoration did occur and Peter, along with the other unbelieving disciples who were equally restored, ended up changing the world as they knew it.
  • People with little faith are still used mightily by God. Over and over, the disciples were chided for their lack of faith, but these are the same men that had authority to drive out demons and cure diseases. They preached the kingdom of God in a mighty way and healed the sick (Lk. 9:1-2). They stood side-by-side with Jesus as he broke bread and then picked up the baskets full of leftovers; they were literally participants in many of Jesus’ miracles and most of His ministry. They may have had weak-faith moments, but God has a habit of using the weak things of this world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). 
  • Belief and unbelief can co-exist in the same heart. I know it may be hard to understand and I will not even try to explain it, but the man who had a demon-possessed child struggled with belief. “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us,” he begged Jesus. “If you can?” Jesus said. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” The boy’s father immediately cried out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mk. 9:21-24). Even if there are pockets of unbelief tucked away in hidden areas of your spiritual walk, full-on faith in other areas can rise to the top anyway. You can believe in God for one area and not believe Him at the same time for another area. God knows your frame, how you are dust. The important thing to remember is to take those dusty weak areas to the Lord. Allow Him to grow immature faith to the tree-sized one you desire. 
  • No-faith people still see miracles. Even before Jesus rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith, he spoke the word to calm their sea and still their winds. In the midst of their fear and faithlessness, God was still faithful and they watched a miracle go down right before their terrified-then-awestruck eyes (see Mk. 4:39-40). He didn’t have to reveal Himself yet again to them, but He did!
  • God is still close to those with little faith. Every time the disciples were rebuked for their little faith, Truth was present with them in the Person of Jesus Christ. The disciples fought the waves with Truth in their boat (Mt. 8:26). Peter walked toward Truth on the water and then grabbed onto Truth to walk the impossible waves back to where the disciples waited (Mt. 14:31). Though they forgot the bread, the disciples with little faith walked with Truth on the roadside, listened to the only Bread of Life teach them how to grow and mature (Mt. 16:5-12). What their little faith could not accomplish in terms of a miracle, Jesus fully compensated for them by teaching them truth (Mt. 17:14-20). He was always present with them, ministering to them, revealing Himself to them, little faith or not.
  • People who take their runaway emotions and doubts to God demonstrate faith. I will spend much of the remainder of this devotional fleshing out this fact, but for now, I just wanted you to see it in writing. Every person that sought God out, whether they were rebuked or praised for no faith, little faith or great faith, received some type of interaction with Jesus. He did not ignore their soul-needs; instead, He ministered to their deepest fears and concerns.  Every interaction, every reaching-out touch, every cry of desperation, every face-turned-toward-the-Son action indicated some measure of faith. I don’t know about you, but this truth really blesses me. And with this thought as a new focus, let’s flesh it out a bit more.

(Though this will be rather abrupt, I am breaking up this devotional due to its length. I have decided once again to split this up in not two, but three parts. This week’s thoughts will constitute Part A. Come back next week for Part B of Suffocating Doubts.)