"Do I really believe this stuff?" When I read the Bible, such thoughts often distract me. How do I fight off doubt? How do I make these terrible thoughts go away?
You’re not the first to struggle with doubt. Most followers of Jesus, even John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah, have dealt with doubt from time to time. Matthew’s record of John’s doubt (Matt. 11:2–19) gives helpful advice on how to deal with this issue.
To begin, we may experience doubt during difficult and discouraging circumstances. In this Scripture, John was in prison for having challenged the inappropriate marriage of Herod Antipas. This caused him to wonder if he had correctly identified Jesus as the promised Messiah. So, John sent his disciples to inquire of Jesus, “Are You the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else” (vv. 2–3)?
The Lord’s response to John includes four ways we can deal with doubt. The first is to remember the evidence. Jesus reminds John that “the blind see, the lame walk . . . the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news” (vv. 4–5). Together, these events fulfilled the predictions found in Isaiah 35:1–10 and 61:1–3 and were evidence that Jesus was the true Messiah. When we face doubt, it is good to review the evidence that convinced us to believe in the first place.
Second, to deal with doubt, we need to accept the Lord’s approval. Too often, when we doubt, we beat ourselves up and think God is fed up with us. Instead, the Lord Jesus affirms John as the greatest prophet up to that point (Matt. 11:7–11), Remarkably, the Lord says the same of us: “Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (v. 11). The Lord knows our weakness and that we are but dust. He affirms even our smallest efforts to deal with our doubts.
Third, to overcome doubt, we need to manage our expectations. Too often, we expect life to be perfect once we trust in Jesus; we imagine that we will no longer face any struggles. Matthew 11:12, a verse that is notoriously difficult to translate, teaches just the opposite. Here’s my personal translation: “From the days of John the Baptist, the kingdom of heaven is forcefully advancing and violent men are opposing it.” The point is that both we and John need to correct our false expectations. The kingdom of God is progressing even when we are facing difficult circumstances. We should not be surprised when life isn’t perfect now.
Finally, we need to guard against dissatisfaction. In verses 16–19, Jesus reminds the crowd that some were dissatisfied with John’s ministry while at the same time they were disgruntled
with Jesus. It is dangerous when we’re never satisfied with answers to our doubts because that can transform doubt into disbelief. Wisdom learns to accept what can be understood and what cannot. When you feel discouraged, remember that doubt is common to all of us, but the words of Jesus teach us to overcome it.