When Positive and Encouraging Leaves You Doubting and Discouraged
Jenn stared down at her cup of tea, knowing she’d never drink it but clinging to it because it somehow made her feel like she belonged in this room with these women.
The speaker was sharing a devotion about her “big” struggle, “My husband and I were so afraid that we weren’t going to be able to buy our new house. But we just knew we needed more room. With little Elijah and Sammy sharing a room and now baby number three on the way…” She patted her still flat stomach and beamed as she looked around the room.
The room erupted with applause and squeals of joy as they all shared in the speaker’s excitement about having another baby…
Jenn wished she could somehow drown in her tea cup. Their joy felt like too much. Did anyone care that she was dying on the inside? She slipped quietly, unnoticed out of the room.
The rest of the church was huge and empty. Jenn wandered the halls aimlessly, just wishing for a way to escape this awkward, lonely moment. Why did she let herself be convinced to come to this women’s tea? She never fit in with these women and their perfect stories.
Amy had been so convincing about how this women’s tea would be a huge encouragement to Jenn after her miscarriage.
Now Jenn wished she could find a way to never have to see any of these women again. Why did she ride with Amy? Why, had she left her purse at the table? She could have called someone to get her and made up an excuse to Amy about why she left early.
As Jenn walked aimlessly down the dark hallways, she passed the nursery. She looked in at the cribs and tears flooded her eyes. She went and sat in the corner and hugged a stuffed animal and let the tears flow.
God can handle your doubts
For the first time, she let go of the true feelings buried deep in her heart and she cried out to God, “Where are you? Why don’t you love me like you love those ladies? I’m trying. I really am. I read the Bible. I pray. I’m trying to follow you. I tell others about you. I give to church. I’m generous with other people. I still struggle with a whole lot of issues, but I’m growing. Why did you take my baby? I would have loved her. I can’t do this. Why? You are the Creator and Ruler of this whole world. Why is my life such a mess? It doesn’t look anything like these ladies’ lives. I can’t face them. If this is how it’s going to be, why don’t you just take me out of this world? I’m never going to live up to their standard. Are you punishing me for that? Do you love them more than me? You say you love me, but why are you blessing them and not me? I’m so hurt. I remember your love…but it seems far away right now…are you with me? Did you abandon me?
I’ve been in Jenn’s shoes and I’ve ministered to dozens of people who doubted God when life didn't seem to measure up to the Christian cultural ideal. “I’m following you God. Why is my life so messed up?”
Too often, we try to make the gospel appealing to people by presenting it as: “follow Jesus and your life will be really great”. We share success stories about people overcoming addictions, achieving success in sports, academics, marriage, and careers. And all those things are good things. But they are only part of the story. They are the exceptions and the victories, but life is also full of struggles, heartaches, and defeats.
John The Baptist Struggled with Doubting God
In Luke 7, John the Baptist had a struggle that, like Jenn, left him doubting God.
John the Baptist was born to parents who Luke describes as “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (Luke 1:6) but they spent most of their adult lives childless. They had John when they were very old.
This meant John probably lost his parents at a young age. Some believe that this is why John lived in the wilderness.
The romanticized religious version of Christianity says that John didn't really struggle. After all, in the wilderness, John grew close to God. He listened to him and understood God’s purpose for his life. He was the messenger that got to prepare people for the coming messiah. What a great honor!
It was going to be amazing. This is what all the Jewish teaching was pointing to for hundreds of years. The Messiah would come and usher in a New Era a new system where all of the law was fulfilled. And John was his forerunner. What an unbelievably exciting time to be alive!
John was filled with the Holy Spirit and he confronted religious hypocrisy everywhere. He boldly proclaimed God’s truths and how Israel had strayed from the heart of God. Tons of people repented and came back to God because of John’s bold preaching.
John had the unimaginably awesome experience of baptizing Jesus and hearing a voice from heaven proclaim that Jesus was indeed, God’s son with whom He was well pleased. Then he saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove.
John knew that this was the Messiah. He told his followers about Jesus. He said that Jesus was so far above him that he was not even worthy to untie his sandals. When he saw Jesus approaching, John boldly declared to the crowd, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn. 1:29)
The Bible Tells us that John questioned if Jesus was really the Messiah
Wait?! What?! You’re John the Baptist, you told us all to follow him. You were so bold and sure. How are you doubting Jesus and asking, “is there someone else”?
John the Baptist had right standing with God. He knew Jesus was the promised Messiah. He had boldly declared that to others. He recognized that Jewish teaching had devolved into a strict set of rules that were impossible for working people to follow. He understood that these rules led to arrogance and hypocrisy and were not what following God was all about. He knew that people’s hearts were far from God.
What John the Baptist, Jenn, the women at the ladies’ tea, and I have trouble understanding is: “If Jesus is who he says he is, why isn’t he fixing my problem?” This can't be GOD's plan!
Most of us, like John the Baptist, don’t expect Jesus to fix every problem. John the Baptist was fine with being homeless, eating bugs and honey, and never getting married. But when it came to being arrested, John the Baptist began to doubt.
I’ve heard a lot of preachers and Christians try to pretty up this story and romanticize it, because we don’t like where it leads. American church culture says that Jesus followers aren’t supposed to have doubts. And when we have problems, God is supposed to fix them or make us happy with them.
John the Baptist was supposed to be sitting in prison singing praise songs and encouraging everyone around him. But the reality is: he doubted God
We know he doubted because, he openly asked his disciples to go to Jesus and ask him in front of everyone if he was really who he said he was.
Luke reports that at the time John’s disciples asked if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus “cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind.” (Luke 7:21) Then:
Jesus replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
This is a really hard response to understand:
But it’s incredibly important when we are feeling like Jenn, crying in a corner wondering why God isn’t fixing our problem. (Also, when we are wrongly proclaiming that our easy life is proof that we are in God’s favor!!!!)
Jesus didn’t free John from prison that day. As a matter of fact, John never got out of prison. He was beheaded for boldly standing up to a Roman ruler for immoral behavior. (The kind of thing that the Jews were ready to rally behind and usher in the new Messiah to his earthly kingdom.)
But Jesus didn’t lead a rally against an oppressive government that day. Instead, he demonstrated his power and compassion for the suffering. He told John’s disciples to tell John about the miracles they had seen and that the “good news was being preached to the poor”.
And he ends his response with perhaps the strangest statement in the Bible, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble (commonly used to mean fall into sin) because of me.”
This teaching is so hard. It goes against everything that religion tells us.
Religion tells us that: Finding the right formula, morals, or rules is supposed to guarantee us a good life. We can accept the “good life” being hard if it’s generally more good than bad. We can live in the desert if it means being the best prophet ever, the one that prepares the way for the Messiah. We can struggle if it makes us look super holy. We can go through trials if they make us stronger.
But what about when things suck and they don’t get any better in this life? What about when you are in prison for standing up for what’s right? What about when you lost a baby? What about when you poured your heart into a kid you loved like your own son and he hated you for it? Why do you still battle addiction after all these years? What about when your husband abandoned you and you were trying so hard to be a good wife? What about your hurts that are too much for you to bear? Where are you Jesus? Why aren’t you fixing this?
In those times, remembering the miracles Jesus did and that the good news was preached to the poor doesn’t really feel like “good news”. It feels like: not only are you struggling, you have been abandoned by God. We doubt if God's care, provision, power and existence.
After all, it is hard to understand how God can be powerful and still allow us to suffer. He cared about John. He praised John. Why didn’t Jesus rescue him? It’s a truth that can easily cause us to stumble.
Luke's answer for when God isn't fixing our problem and we are doubting:
It is important to understand that Luke’s purpose wasn’t writing The Story of John the Baptist. Luke inserted a very small part of the story here to prove a point. We don’t know how John spent his days in prison. We don’t know if John wallowed in depression or if he just had one bad day. It wasn’t essential to the point Luke was making.
Luke was writing for his friend Theophilus, a Roman citizen who had apparently heard all of the stories about Jesus and wondered if they were true. Theophilus had likely heard about John the Baptist and his beheading.
Like all of us, Theophilus probably wondered, if this Jesus guy is really who he said, how come he didn’t save John?
So, Luke addresses this as he continues the story. Jesus told the crowd that John the Baptist was indeed the great prophet sent to proclaim the way of the Lord.
Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
What does that have to do with my doubt and struggles?
Back in the day, the ancient Jews sang deeply emotional songs at events like funerals and weddings. The songs united everyone in a very communal experience of joy or sorrow.
It would have been a dramatic image for ancient Jews to imagine children singing a dirge in the marketplace and expecting anyone to cry. Or playing joyful music and expecting people to dance.
It was an absurd image of taking profound emotions and truths and using them as a play thing.
This is how absurd it was that they criticized John for being too bold and separated from society. They criticized Jesus for embracing society.
But the results of their ministries proved their wisdom.
The religious people of ancient Israel wanted religion on their terms. They wanted a system of “ We are being rewarded for following God. You must be doing something wrong if your life doesn’t look like ours”.
They didn’t want a bold teacher telling them they were full of hypocrisy and pride. That their strict moral codes had actually made them blind to the loving God who wanted a relationship with the whole world not just their nation. (or denomination)
The definitely didn’t want a teacher who embraced all of the people who were awful at being religious. A teacher who boldly ate with the worst sinners in society and had fun with them.
But wisdom is proved right by all her children.
Are we going to wrestle with this tough reality that God doesn't put those he loves in a safe bubble of only positive and encouraging truths?
Are we looking for a religion we can manipulate so that we always feel safe and comfortable or are we going to follow Jesus who embraced all the struggling, hurting, broken people in the world? (Tweet This)
You might be able to make it out of this world, in a safe little bubble and believe that it is because you were so good at following the rule. The wisdom you chose will be proved by what you leave behind:
Did your faith change people’s lives or discourage those who were hurting? Did you send the Jenns in your life to hide in a corner and cry alone? Or did you help them find comfort and peace in the embrace of Jesus and a loving compassionate community?
Were you criticized for being too critical of religious hypocrisy and too quick to embrace “sinners”? Did you delight in the hope and potential for every human being you encountered? Or were you afraid they’d keep you from being religious enough?
Did your relationships free people to know a God who deeply, loves them and longs to help them through this messed up broken world? Or did you make people feel judged and burdened?
Were you real about your own struggles? Or did you deny that you too are a broken, messed up person who needs help from Jesus and his followers?
This is just one of many great lessons that the Bible teaches about pain, suffering, and doubting God. The Bible is full of stories of real people who had real problems. They had doubts, fears, and made huge mistakes. Yet God still loved them, worked through them and gave them joy, hope and purpose. Somehow, our struggles unite us with God's heart for humanity. They open our eyes to the human condition and shake us out of our religious bubble to embrace a hurting world that longs to know him.
My prayer for us all in our doubts and struggles:
God, I pray that you give us the courage to be vulnerable with others and admit that we struggle and doubt you. I pray that you strengthen us in those times and bind us together with real hope and purpose. Thank you for being with us in it all.