Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Dealing with others’ doubt

THE NEW TESTAMENT has a pretty unyielding posture toward doubt—it’s not good—but it’s not an uncaring one. There’s some helpful pastoral advice for how we might best respond to those who are struggling to believe in ways that keep them from experiencing the more God has for them.

First, there’s the apostle Jude’s counsel. Having warned of the dangers for those who wander from the truth faith, he urges, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (v. 22). It’s perhaps not surprising he should be tender towards those who are struggling to believe, because he had once been one of them. In John 7:5 we read that not even his [Jesus’] brothers [who included Jude] believed in him.”

And so, what does it look like to be merciful? Well, first it isn’t judgmental. It recognizes I could be there one day; or maybe I have been there in the past. It shows compassion. It creates space to accept people as they are—just as the other 10 disciples let Thomas continue to hang out with them after he had said he would not believe Jesus had risen from the dead until he put his hands in His wounds.

And then, it doesn’t lecture—a point echoed by another famous story of doubt. I’m referring to John the Baptist, the fiery trailblazer for the kingdom of God who recognized his Messiah when he was still in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41). Later he would identify Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) and encourage his own disciples to follow Jesus instead (John 3:30).

But as Jesus’ ministry expanded and John found himself in prison for questioning governor Herod Antipas’s marriage—a stand that would lead to his execution—we read in Luke 7:9 that “calling two of his disciples to him, [he] sent them to the Lord, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” Faced with great personal difficulty, he was second-guessing himself.

What was Jesus’ answer? He didn’t send them back with a 16-week course on the major and minor prophets for John, telling him to memorize such-and-such verses. He didn’t scold John for forgetting his own words.

Rather, He instructed: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.”

He didn’t tell them to try to argue John back into belief. The answer was not in what they knew in terms of head knowledge but what they knew in terms of experience—what they saw and heard.

I suspect it was the same with Thomas during those days of waiting with the other disciples, before Jesus responded to his cry for proof of the resurrection. I speculate that they didn’t quote Old Testament prophecies at Thomas, but rather simply retold their experience of encountering the living, risen Christ.

Now, of course there is a time for engaging in challenging debate. 1 Peter 3: 15 advises “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” But this is a response to someone’s request, not an uninvited lecture.

There’s power in our simply telling what we have experienced of God. Remember the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well. She was drawing water alone at midday, the hottest time, because she was shunned and shamed by her community. But when she encountered the Messiah, she ran to tell others what she had experienced.

It must have made an impact, because they came back with her to hear more from this Jesus. And “many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did’” (John 4:39).

The best way to respond to someone else’s doubts may be just to share your own experience.

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