One of my favorite hymns is “He Will Hold Me Fast.” The first line states, “When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast.” These are very comforting words. And yet, when we really fear that our faith will fail, we might lose sight of this assurance. We might start doubting the Christ who will hold us fast.
Doubt is a struggle for many Christians—even some well-known Christian leaders have been plagued by times of doubting. One of the first who believed in Jesus as the Christ was John the Baptist. He announced, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), and he testified, “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (v. 34). His call, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (v. 36) caused the first disciples to follow Jesus.
Sometime later, John corrected his own disciples when he explained his role in regard to Jesus:
A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.” The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease. (3:27–30).
Undoubtedly, John the Baptist was a man of faith. And yet, there was a time when doubt crept in. Life wasn’t what he had hoped for. At one point, while preaching in Nazareth, Jesus applied the words of Isaiah 61:1–2 to Himself, saying, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’. . . Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18–21). But at least part of the prophecy did not seem to be fulfilled in John’s own experience as he sat in a prison cell in Herod’s palace wondering when the “liberty to the captives” and “set at liberty those who are oppressed” would apply to him.
I trust that many of us can relate to this painful gap between what we hope for and what we experience. Many have turned to Christ filled with joy and excitement, with great hopes for a new and better life as a disciple of Jesus. But things changed over time. The Lord who once seemed so close and with whom you were so deeply in love felt distant. You experienced hardships and cried out to Him, but nothing seemed to change.
Possibly you followed Jesus’ command to be sexually pure outside of marriage and were determined to wait until the Lord gave you the right spouse. But nothing happened. While your friends got married and had children, you remained alone, longing for marriage and family. It seemed like the Lord was not rewarding your patient obedience.
Or, you are someone who serves the Lord by serving others. You are diligent at work, faithfully performing the tasks entrusted to you. You serve your family and your church and you realize that you are getting tired. You pray that the Lord might grant you extra strength and might allow things to ease off. But the opposite is happening. Things are getting more difficult and challenging, and you are growing more exhausted.
These are times when many Christians start wondering: Where is God? Does He hear my prayers? Is He really the heavenly Father who loves and cares for His children? And am I really His child when He seems not to care about me? In times like this, doubt can creep in. And this is what happened to John the Baptist as he sat in his prison cell.
It seems that it is currently culturally cool to have doubt. Many revel in it. It seems so authentic and mature to have doubts, and no effort is made to overcome this trendy sense of uncertainty. But this is not what John the Baptist did. And we would do well to learn from him.
While in prison, John heard about all that Jesus said and did. He was determined to move on from the place of doubt. So he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to investigate if He really was the Messiah as John had at one time preached. His disciples said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Luke 7:20).
Initially it seems that Jesus ignored them. “In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight” (v. 21). But this was part of His answer, which He then expressed directly to John’s disciples when He said to them: “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” (v. 22).