It is easy to have faith when everything is going well - when life is working out as planned. But, as we all know, life is full of surprises - surprises that upset our plans and frustrate our expectations, leaving us disappointed. Our disappointment with life quickly turns into disappointment with God, which leads us to doubt God's goodness. It is during times of disappointment that we are most vulnerable to doubt.
How does God respond to our doubts, disappointments, and misgivings? The Gospel of Matthew points us toward an answer. In Matthew 11:3, the great prophet, John the Baptist, experiences disappointment, frustration, and disillusionment when his life takes an unexpected twist. His doubtts are voiced in the question he addresses to Jesus, "Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus' response to John sheds light on God's response to our own doubts and misunderstandings.
After eighteen months of faithful ministry, John the Baptist - the forerunner of Messiah - found himself in a Roman dungeon, imprisoned for rebuking Herod's sexual misconduct (see Matthew 14:3-4).
How could John be so bold and courageous? The answer is simple: John believed what he preached. From his perspective, God's judgment stood right around the corner. He had preached that the Messiah was coming with fiery judgment for the wicked. Herod was wicked. Therefore, the Messiah's judgment could not be far behind. John expected Jesus to bring judgment down upon Herod's head. But things weren't turning out as he expected.
From prison, John heard of Jesus' works, and they were a far cry from fiery judgment. Instead, Jesus' ministry consisted largely of acts of mercy, compassion, and healing. From John's vantage point, Jesus was not doing what was expected of Messiah. He was not acting like the Messiah John had announced. Where was the baptism of fire? the judgment of the wicked? the ax at the root of the trees? the winnowing fork separating the wheat from the chaff? John had preached wrath, destruction, fire, and judgment. Why wasn't Jesus acting as John had prophesied? How could Jesus be the fulfillment of John's preaching?
John was not only confused by what Jesus was failing to accomplish, but also by what Jesus was actually doing. Judgment was lacking while works of mercy and compassion took center stage. It looked like Jesus was going soft on sin, and on sinners! Jesus' associations with lawbreakers, outcasts, tax-collectors, and prostitutes were not helping his public image. So far, Jesus had brought mercy and healing to many people (many of whom were outside the comfortable boundaries of religious people), but judgment to none.
All this leads John to exclaim, "What is going on?" Confused by Jesus' actions, John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him, "Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Confused by the actions of a Messiah that failed to meet his expectations, John wonders: "Do I have this right?" "Is this really the fulfillment of what I have preached?"
Jesus' Response to John's Disciples
Jesus' reply to John's concerns is not straightforward. He does not offer a simple, "Yes, I am the one," or "No, I am certainly not. You have me confused for someone else." He indirectly answers John's question by drawing attention to his actions and inviting John to consider them in view of Old Testament prophecy concerning the work of the Messiah (see Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:1; 29:17-19; 42:6-7). Jesus hopes that John will realize he is doing the work of God's kingdom - that he is God's prophesied Messiah.
Having established that his works correspond to prophetic expectations, Jesus encourages John not to stumble because of his own limited set of expectations. He calls John to reevaluate his expectations and adjust them to align with God's actual fulfillment. "Indeed, if John is to avoid being "put off" [scandalized] by the character of Jesus' messiahship, he must move beyond his own narrow expectations to the realization that in Jesus God is [at work]." Obviously, for John, this is no easy task:
When one is looking for and proclaiming the coming of a representative of God to judge the world, accompanied by all the accoutrements of theophany (the Spirit's power, the flame of fire, convulsions of heaven and earth, and the destruction of the wicked), to be directed to Jesus in his ministry as the manifestation of God in his kingdom is shattering. To recognize in such a man and such deeds as he was doing the eschatological kingdom of promise demanded an enormous adjustment of thought and a fresh assessment of the Scriptures.
Jesus' blessing communicates that there is a scandalous element to Jesus' life and ministry. There is something about Jesus' ministry "that will always jolt preconceived notions of what a messiah should be and do."
Jesus effectively says, "Trust me, John." Then he offers the blessing, "Don't doubt if you want to have the blessing of my joy and peace." Garland notes that "unlike other beatitudes in the Gospel, this one issues a challenge and underlines the alternatives of faith or offense." A new day is dawning, bringing renewal and hope for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Jesus invites John to put his doubts behind him and hear and see with faithful ears and eyes.
Jesus Addresses the Crowd
As always, Jesus takes advantage of "teachable moments." He moves from answering John's disciples to addressing the crowd. The crowd can learn from John's example, both from his doubt and from Jesus' call to faith.
It is interesting to note that though John doubts (and may continue to doubt), he is still considered "great" in Jesus' eyes. Instead of condemnation, Jesus understands John's misgivings. He proceeds to praise John, who, like himself, also failed to live up to the expectations of the crowds.
John did not conform to the people's expectations of regal luxury. He was not dressed in soft robes like their contemporary leaders. John is a prophet, indeed "more than a prophet" (Matthew 11:9). John is the greatest prophet because he himself is the object of prophecy. He is the messenger foretold in sacred scripture. He is the last great prophet commissioned by God to point to the Messiah. As the forerunner to Messiah, he holds a special place in God's redemptive work. He is a transitional figure - a bridge between the Old and New Covenant - signaling a major turning point in redemptive history. By teaching this, Jesus indirectly points to himself as the Messiah, for he is the one to whom John pointed.
In spite of his doubts and misunderstandings, Jesus declares John's greatness. He then teaches that "the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11). A new day is dawning. John is the last and greatest representative of an old era. In him "the law and prophets" find their climactic and definitive expression. But God in Christ is doing something bigger than anyone can imagine in Christ - something so great that even the old era's greatest prophet fails to fully see God's plan. Jesus then calls on his hearers to open their hearts to this truth.
But Jesus knows that John's work was not received without opposition from the state and from the Jewish people (Matthew 11:12). Put simply, neither John nor Jesus fulfilled public expectations.
It is the public's fickleness that Jesus rebukes in the final paragraph (Matthew 11:16-19). Jesus laments that the crowd doesn't "get" either John or Jesus. Neither one fulfills their expectations. Both ministries are misunderstood. But rather than adjust their expectations, "this generation" - the crowd that Jesus addresses - chooses to behave like bratty children who refuse to cooperate with one another. Some want to play wedding, accompanied by flutes, while others want to play funeral procession, accompanied by mourners. Refusing to respond positively to any suggestion they end up playing nothing. They are dissatisfied, no matter what. They remain in limbo rather than responding in faith.
The crowds rejected John because of his ascetic lifestyle and they rejected Jesus because of his liberal lifestyle. The words of accusation used against Jesus have an even more ominous overtone when heard in light of the law of Deuteromony 21:18-21:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.
For many, Jesus is "the one your mother warned you about." "Although both Jesus and John, in their respective ministries, made their appeal to Israel, they are both rejected because neither squared with conventional expectations or preconceived notions of acceptable behavior."
But when expectations are not met, the proof is in the pudding ("Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds") - if we know what to look for. The expectations of the crowds must be corrected in light of the reality of God's redemptive plan revealed in John and Jesus.
Having studied Matthew 11:2-19, we come back to our initial question: How does God respond to our doubts? My answer takes the form of three statements: (1) Doubt is understandable because there is an inherent "scandal" in God's ways; (2) Doubt is not condemned because it is faith taking itself seriously; and (3) Though doubt is not condemned, neither is it applauded. God calls us to walk by faith, not by doubt.
First, doubt is understandable because there is an inherent "scandal" in God's ways. Jesus offers the conditional blessing: "Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me." That is, "Blessed is anyone who does not stumble over Jesus and is not scandalized by Jesus' behavior." Clearly, God does not always act in accordance with our expectations. Furthermore, there is an inherent stumbling block built into the message and ministry of Christ.
Many will ultimately stumble over the message. Will you?
In the past I have written at length about "the tyranny of expectations." Our expectations about an experience determine our amount of enjoyment or sense of frustration concerning it. Oftentimes we fail to appreciate a person or an experience because our expectations are unrealistic. The problem is not with the person or event, but with our expectations. Jesus did not conform to the general expectations concerning Messiah, and yet he was, in fact, the promised Messiah.
The "scandal" of Jesus' ministry remains ever present in our day. It forces us to ask ourselves the questions: How will we respond when Jesus doesn't fit our preconceived notions? Will we only serve a God that remains within our preconceptions? Or will we remain open to a God that often upsets our expectations - failing to meet them or going far beyond them?
Our challenge is to embrace God even when things turn out in unexpected ways. What expectations do you have that must be challenged and corrected to keep from stumbling over Jesus? In our relationship with God, our expectations must continually be adjusted. God does not conform to our expectations. We must learn to conform to God's surprises. In fact, we should learn to expect the unexpected! We must remain open to mystery, in an attitude of listening, in a stance of humble receptivity. God will not be limited to our preconceptions. God always blows open the boxes we build to reduce God to our level.
Doubt is not condemned because it is faith taking itself seriously. As we learn to navigate the unexpected twists and turns in life, it is important to note that Jesus does not condemn our doubt, disappointment, and misunderstandings. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Fear is. Doubt is not the same thing as disbelief. Disbelief is a deliberate rejection of Jesus Christ. Doubt, on the other hand, is the longing to be sure of things in which we trust. Doubt is faith taking itself seriously - faith willing to wrestle with God through all life's surprises.
Even more, we must realize that God is big enough to handle our doubt. God offers indirect answers, but not certainty. As Pascal taught, there is enough evidence for those who want to believe. There is never enough evidence for those who do not. We must learn to wrestle with God's answers in order to know God's blessing.
Though doubt is not condemned, neither is it applauded. God calls us to walk by faith, not by doubt. Jesus does not condemn doubt, but neither does he applaud it. Doubt is useful at times, but it should not be the general pattern of our lives. Trust should define our general stance toward God for trust is essential to a thriving relationship. If we constantly doubt God, we short-circuit the possibility for intimacy. We cannot love a God we constantly doubt - a God we refuse to trust - anymore than we can love a person we constantly doubt and refuse to trust. There will certainly be times and occasions when we have to wrestle with God, but the desired goal of our wrestlings should be greater faith, hope, and love.
Doubt is a means to this end, but it is not the end itself. Faith, not doubt, is what God calls us to.
Doubt is not condemned, but it must be transcended. It should not be our perpetual stance toward God. "Doubt is useful for a while. ... But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation." It is like trying to drive while pressing down on the brake.
 "Early interpreters suggested that John asked the question only for the sake of his disciples, since he himself knew the answer." Whether this is the case or not, "In this question John speaks not in his prophetic mode (presumably it is as a prophet that he recognizes Jesus in 3:14) but as a representative member of his people (note the "we" of the second clause)." Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Series (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1993), 120.
 Larry Chouinard, Matthew: The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 1997), 202.
 I don't recall the source of this quote. The only clue I have in my notes is BM, 83.
 David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995), 126.
 Garland, Reading Matthew, 126.
 Chouinard, Matthew, 206.
 Antony F. Campbell, The Whisper of Spirit: A Believable God Today (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008), 23.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2009