Doubting John: Lessons in Trust
by Aneel Aranha
Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
[Matthew 11:1-6 NRSV]
(Also read Matthew 3:1-17, Luke 7:11-28, John 1:19-35)
Jail is not a nice place to be in. I should know; I was in one. John the Baptist was in one too, and he definitely would have hated being there. Used to wide open spaces, the prophet would have felt extremely claustrophobic behind bars and the confinement undoubtedly addled his mind. In his confusion, he began to ask a lot of questions. For John, they were extremely disturbing ones.
John was an amazing man. Isaiah had prophesied about him, saying that he would be the one who prepared the way for the Lord (Isaiah 55:8). Jesus, himself, said that there was no greater prophet who ever lived (Matthew 11:11). John had a relatively brief ministry, but one that was extremely powerful, and people came from Jerusalem and Judea to hear him preach. Even the Sadducees and the Pharisees wound their way towards him, though they probably wished they hadn't because the prophet never missed the chance to hurl invective at them.
On one occasion, with typical outspokenness, he castigated a man for sleeping with his brother's wife. The man was Herod, ruler of Galilee and Perea, and, allergic to being corrected, he promptly tossed John into prison. While in prison, news about Jesus began filtering down to him. John heard that Jesus was healing the sick, cleansing those who had leprosy, and even driving out demons. Then news came to him of an extraordinary miracle in a town called Nain.
Jesus had entered Nain with his disciples in tow, and as he approached the town gate, he saw a funeral procession. A dead person—the only son of a widow—was being carried out to the burial grounds. When Jesus saw the grieving woman, he was moved with compassion. He stopped the procession and told the dead man to get up, who, obediently, sat up and began to talk!
Even as people gaped in awe at this amazing miracle, John's disciples immediately went to their master to tell him about what had happened. Instead of being delighted as might have been expected, however, John called two of them aside and sent them to Jesus with a startling question: "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
It was a shocking display of doubt, especially for someone like John who had been the first to proclaim Jesus for who he was. "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world," he had exclaimed when he saw Jesus approaching him at the river Jordan. He later testified that he had seen the Spirit coming down from heaven as a dove and resting on Jesus. "I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God," he said. This very man was now doubting his own testimony! What happened?
The same thing that happens to all of us when God doesn't behave in the manner we expect him to. We begin to question his motives, if not his very existence. John, like the rest of the Jews, had been expecting a savior who would deliver them from the yoke of Roman oppression and set up a socio-politico-religious system where all the sinners would be toasted and the righteous would be rewarded. John, himself, had said this of the coming Christ: "His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
But Jesus was doing none of what John had expected. On the contrary he was consorting with sinners, sharing meals with them and visiting their homes. He was even making disciples of them! And if that weren't bad enough, John the Baptist, who by all rights should have been free, was locked up in jail! If he was truly the Messiah, why wasn't Jesus getting him out? John didn't get it.
Very often we don't get it either. Though not behind bars, we too are prisoners—to our troubles, our anxieties, our fears, our weaknesses, our sins, and a hundred other things than chain us. When Jesus doesn't deliver us, we also raise questions similar to that of the Baptist: "I have been praying for years, Lord, yet my husband remains an abusive philanderer. Why aren't you changing him?" or "My son is a drug addict and he steals money from the house to pay for his habit. Why aren't you setting him free?" or "I am struggling to live a holy life but I keep committing the same sins over and over again. Why aren't you delivering me?" The real question, even if unspoken, is always this: "Are you really there, God? And if you are, why aren't you answering my prayers?"
Jesus was speaking to hundreds of people when a similar question was put to him. It was a provocative and challenging question, more so because it was asked by John's disciples, but it didn't seem to perturb Jesus. His reply was rather strange, however. He didn't reassure the men that he was, indeed, the Messiah. Instead, he told them to go tell John what they saw and heard. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them," he said. And then he slipped in the kicker. "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." Another version puts it in simpler language: "Blessed are those who do not give up their faith because of me." (NIRV)
Jesus was aware that John knew about all the miracles he was performing. It wasn't his purpose to inform him of them, or to remind him of them either. "I have the power to save you, John," Jesus seems to be saying. "However, there are reasons why I won't. But because I do not fulfill your expectations, do not believe the devil's lie that I am misguided or powerless or not what I seem to be. Do not fall away on account of that."
I imagine Jesus's words would have been like a bucket of cold water thrown into John's face. I imagine him thinking, as he came to his senses: "I will not pretend I understand what you are about, Jesus. I will not pretend I understand your method or your message either. But I do believe that you are the Messiah and I believe you know what you are doing." And when he bared his neck for Herod's blade, I imagine there was no fear or anxiety in him because he had understood the truth, and the truth had set him free.
We need the truth to set us free. And the truth is this: God's thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). When we struggle with life's burdens and cry out to God to grant us relief, very often He does. But there are times when He doesn't. It isn't because he doesn't care, or because he doesn't want to. It is because he has his reasons, and they are good ones, even if we don't realize that.
I was not always the man I am today. I was a rather bad person. Even as a youth I led a depraved life much to the dismay of my parents. They were a God fearing couple and I am sure that in bleaker moments they must have wondered what they did to deserve a child like me. I am sure my wife too, also extremely faithfull to God, in her darker moments, wondered what sin she had committed to get an unfaithful, tyrannical, and abusive husband like me. Their faith never shattered, though, and when they look at me today, they know that God had his reasons -- and they were good ones.
Paul told the Romans "that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28). God does work for the good of all who love him. Blessed are those who believe it.
May the Spirit be with you.
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