Everyone struggles. No exceptions. Don't be fooled. No matter how "put together" someone looks, everyone has a story with it's share of pain and broken dreams. Failure, disappointment, rejection, worry and loneliness weave their way through the fabric of our lives. And what's more, those struggles can tempt us to doubt that God is good. If we're honest, we've all questioned God’s love, his power, or both when he doesn’t protect us from suffering, from the pain of wounding words, a broken body, a failed marriage, the loss of a job, a wayward child or the stinging betrayal of a trusted friend. I've been there. When I’m tempted to lose heart, John gives me hope.
John the Baptist was a great prophet in the Bible. He announced the coming of the Messiah: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Like all God-fearing Jews of John’s day, he fully expected the Messiah would overthrow the kingdom of Rome and establish the kingdom of God on earth. But John was sitting in a dank, stinking, Roman prison. And those prison doors would never open for him. In fact, the day was soon coming when King Herod’s wife, Herodias, would have John’s head chopped off and served to her on a silver platter at a dinner party (Matt.14:1–12).
While in prison, John sends his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matt. 11:3 nlt). Was John disillusioned by Jesus? Had he expected Jesus to break him out of jail, overthrow Rome, and establish God's kingdom? Rome was still in power. Jesus was loving his enemies instead of destroying them. Did Jesus disappoint John’s expectations, causing him to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah? I think so.
Like John, we’ve all had our expectations of what Jesus will do for us. We’ve had our cherished dreams of what life will be like when we follow him. You never expected he would allow your marriage to end in divorce, that you’d be fired from your job after thirty years of faithful service, or that your three-year-old would die of brain cancer. We never believed God would allow the things we’ve suffered to happen. As one of my seminary professors once said, when we signed up to follow Jesus, we thought we were getting on an airplane that would take us to a bright, sunny vacation place like Florida. But when we got off the plane, we found ourselves in the bitter, winter snows of Alaska.
How has Jesus disappointed your expectations of how life would go if you followed him?
Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back to him and tell him about all the things they’ve seen Jesus do: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor (Matt. 11:5). As John’s disciples begin to leave, Jesus speaks to the people standing nearby. “I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11 nlt).
I thank God for John. The greatest man who ever lived struggled with doubt and discouragement. God doesn't condemn us for our struggles. In fact, John had the courage to trust Jesus enough to come to him (through his disciples) and ask the hard questions. And John gives us permission to come humbly and honestly to God when we’re struggling with doubts and confusion too. Jesus revealed his power to John’s disciples so they could reassure John that he was the Messiah. He was worthy of John’s trust even though John was sitting in a stinking prison.
God will open his heart to us in his time and in his way if we’ll come humbly and honestly to him and pray, “God, I’m so afraid. I’m so discouraged. I feel so alone. Would you talk to me? Help me hear your voice.” Spend time in his Word and don't stop asking, seeking and knocking. This is a promise: God will speak, in his time and way, so you too can have hope through a renewed vision of who Jesus is. And this too is a promise: When you hear his voice you will be encouraged. When Jesus speaks—through Scripture, a godly friend, a devotional book, a sermon—we’ll find that we don’t need him to give us what we thought we needed. We just need him.
Jesus sends another message to John through his disciples, “Tell him, ‘God blesses those who do not turn away because of me’” (Matt. 11:6 nlt). I find that to be an amazing statement. We can fall away from God because of Jesus. When Jesus doesn’t meet our expectations, we may be tempted to doubt he is good and turn from him. What can give us hope so we can stay faithful to God when we struggle in life?
In his powerful and ruthlessly honest book, Lament for a Son, Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff chronicles his journey through grief. His son Eric was twenty-three years old when he was killed in a mountain climbing accident in Austria. Wolterstorff asks the deep questions we’re all asking but too afraid to say out loud:
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song—all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself!
We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
Jesus disappointed people’s expectations. Rather than overthrowing Rome, Jesus was crucified in weakness and surrender. Could anything have been more hopeless and discouraging to his followers than to see their Messiah die naked and bloodied beyond recognition on a criminal’s cross? Yet Jesus’ death was the very means through which God was rescuing the world.
When we doubt God cares or that he’s in control, we must remember that we do not see as God sees. We must wait for the day of a new heavens and earth when we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). Till then, we can find hope by coming to the communion table. Through the torn body and shed blood of Jesus Christ, we remember how God suffered too. He is in it with us. We catch sight of God scraped and torn. Through our tears of suffering we see the tears of God for us. And we are reminded of how Jesus modeled total surrender to his Father no matter how much he endured on the cross--"Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!" (Lk. 23:46). He humbled himself to the point of death so we could live. “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). God is good. He is great. He is turning everything for our good. We must not forget. He can be trusted no matter what we suffer now.