Before I begin, I need to say that this message may not be for everyone at this moment. Some people have never experienced deep personal disappointment in prayer and have, therefore, never faced a crisis of faith. They may, in the future, but at this time, it seems inconceivable to them and they cannot relate to what I say. I feel moved to write this message for those who have hurt or are hurting profoundly. I write for those who wonder whether they have or will provoke God's wrath with their questions or whether they will lose their salvation when pain causes them to fall into doubt.
Talking about our doubts or moments of weakened faith is a taboo among many Christians. Instead, those who are grieving, or hurting, are often urged to "be strong and not question God's will" forcing many to grieve in silence for fear of shame or condemnation. These statements can deeply sear the heart of one who is grieving. When a person does not feel strong and does not understand why they are experiencing profound loss, hearing these comments causes them to think that there must be something wrong with them, or their faith. They cannot help their grief and doubt, and, often, those who have not experienced that level of loss cannot understand it.
Now, I must say that in almost all cases, these comments are very well-intentioned. Those who make these statements do not intend to cause hurt; to the contrary, they desire to bring comfort in the only way they know how. Watching loved ones suffer is difficult, and those watching feel desperate to say something helpful. Thus, when a person is transparent about their pain, doubts and questions, those who love them can feel very uncomfortable with these expressions of grief. They can also feel afraid that the one they love will renounce God and lose their salvation. Out of fear, discomfort, and the desire to fix the situation come the words "please, just be strong and do not question God's will", words that sear the tender grieving heart.
When we experience profound disappointment and grief, and we find ourselves doubting God's love, kindness, and goodness, does God get angry with us? Will we lose our salvation when we question what God has done or is doing in our lives or feel betrayed when He says "NO" after we have prayed earnestly and exercised faith? I believe that the foundation of these fears is a misunderstanding of the sure foundation upon which our faith and salvation rests. None of us is saved by our own might or strength of conviction but by the blood of the Lamb shed on Calvary. He is the originator and perfecter of our faith. We weaken the power of the cross when we believe that our faith or salvation is in our own hands. If the power of the cross reaches to those living in darkness and sin and brings them into His marvellous light, how much more those who are already His sheep but are assailed by sorrow, fear, and doubt? Jesus promises us this: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
Jesus is the fullest revelation of the character and nature of God, and He reveals that God’s heart is so very tender. He fully understands that we do not see the future as clearly as He does and that our hearts and bodies were never created to carry the sorrow and grief that sin brought into this world. When Jesus visited Mary and Martha after Lazarus died, Mary fell at His feet in pain and cried out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. We, too, in our grief, ask God, "where were you when my son died?"; "where were you when my marriage fell apart after so many prayers?"; "where were you when my loved one died in a tragic accident?" We too say, "if you were there, Lord, this would not have happened."
When Mary asked this question, Jesus did not chastise her. The bible tells us that He understood her pain and looked upon her with tender compassion; that He was deeply moved and troubled by her grief. When we hurt so much that we bring our pain-laden questions to the Master, His heart is deeply moved, not angered. John tells us that Jesus response to such pain is to weep with those He loves. We have a Saviour who is not indifferent to our pain and suffering. He understands the source of our grief, fear, doubts, and questions. He knows that we are questioning because we are looking for reassurance from Him. He knows that we need a sign because we do not understand. He knows that we believe, but we are asking Him, like the Centurion, to help us overcome our unbelief.
After Jonathan was stillborn, I felt that God went silent; I could not see Him or hear Him. I felt like He had turned His back to me, and I could not see His face. During the months that we prayed for Jonathan's healing, I felt God so near; His Holy Spirit was ever-present. But after the stillbirth…nothing. Just silence. So, when Pastor, his wife and Elder Nigel came to visit us, I was longing for specific answers to the big questions I had. I remember crying out loud, in profound pain, throwing question after question, challenge after challenge. Praise God for faithful men and women of God who are wise enough to know where the answers would come from. They did not quickly rush to placate me with exhortations to be strong and simply accept what had happened without question. Instead, they pointed me to the One who laid the foundations of the earth and assured me that they had no answers but He would speak to me in time.
Indeed, I have heard God speak, a little each day. I have been studying Abraham, one whom we view as a hero of faith, and who suffered through infertility. Those who have desired children yet faced the excruciating and isolating reality of infertility will tell you that it is a grief like no other; not grief over something had and lost, but grief over something longed for but never had. The pain of infertility is so deep that Hannah's tears over her childlessness caused her to appear drunk and disorderly in the eyes of Eli, the High Priest. She was tormented to the point of despair.
Abraham and Sarah had contended with the pain of infertility into their old age when God called them out of Haran and promised to make Abraham a great nation and bless all people on earth through Him. God told Abraham explicitly to leave his people and his father's household. However, Abraham did not follow the specific instruction to leave his people. Probably doubting that God would give him an heir, he carried his nephew Lot along with him perhaps thinking that Lot would inherit whatever blessing God gave him.
Later, in Genesis 12, we see Abraham again doubting God's incredible promise to make him into a great nation and make his name great. He panics and convinces Sarah to pose as his sister so that Pharaoh would not kill him. God rescues Abraham from this folly. In Genesis 13, after Abraham and Lot separate, God again promises to give Abraham and his offspring all the land he could see, forever. God promises that Abraham's descendants would be as numerous as the dust of the earth. God even tells him to walk the length and breadth of the earth to physically experience what God promised him.
In Genesis 14, we read the remarkable story of Abraham, a mere civilian with 318 men, defeating the armies of four nations; a small number of soldiers defeated thousands of armed forces! Yet, in Genesis 15:1, God tells Abraham, "do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward." What a strange appeal to give to a man who had just experienced such a remarkable victory. Yet God said this because He knew Abraham's thoughts, doubts, and fears. We serve a God who knows us better than we know ourselves. Even if we do not express our doubts, even if we hide them in silent shame or fear of condemnation, our God KNOWS. Before we speak, He answers. He comes down to meet us in our place of brokenness. Praise God.
God knew Abraham’s real fear, doubt and pain caused by their childlessness. Yes, despite God’s promises to him, repeated over and over, from the time Abraham answered the call in Haran, “he was worried about his legacy. Although God promised Abram that his offspring would be as numerous as the dust, the aging man was still without an heir. Now, having just endured a life-and-death struggle, the fact of his childlessness weighed more heavily than ever on his mind.”
And God knew this. Instead of chastising Abraham for his fear and doubt, God tenderly, like only a loving father can, speaks directly to Abraham’s fears. He patiently reiterated to Abraham that he ought not to be afraid for God would be his shield and very great reward. Even after that significant promise, Abraham still struggled with fear and doubt. The pain of their infertility was real and caused real sorrow that he could not deny. He asked God, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?...you have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” Here is Abraham, our hero of faith, questioning God. Here he is, after God's numerous promises of an heir, doubting that promise and fearful that, after all, his servant would be his heir and there was no purpose in God blessing him as God had not given him a son to inherit the blessing.
God again, patiently and lovingly, reiterates His promise of a son and descendants as numerous as the stars; stars that He created through the power of His word. Genesis 15:6 tells us that "Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” But notice what happens just two verses down, in verse 8. Abraham, who had just believed and been declared righteous by God, asks, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it (referring to the promised land)?” If you were a parent in God’s shoes, dealing with a child with repeated doubts and questions like Abraham, perhaps you would feel very frustrated and irritated at this point! BUT PRAISE GOD, our heavenly Father is slow to anger and abounding in love. He does not tire of showing us His love and mercy.
God did not throw up His hands in frustration, chastise Abraham, look on him with anger and disappointment or decide to withdraw the precious promises He had made. Abraham did not lose his promised inheritance because of his doubts, fears and questions. Quite the opposite. Between Genesis 15:9 to 17, the Bible paints a poignant picture of the meaningful covenant ceremony that God performs as a sign of His promise to Abraham. Abraham asked, and God answered. God met him in his place of hurt, fear and doubt and restored his faith. Not only did God make a covenant with Abraham, but He also made an unconditional covenant that was not dependant on Abraham’s contribution or strength of his faith. God would keep His promise for the honour of His name.
Some may think that these moments of doubt or crisis of faith only come to those whose faith has not yet matured. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider John the Baptist. Mary visited John's mother, Elizabeth, when they were both pregnant; the Bible tells us that when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leapt inside Elizabeth’s womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist recognised Christ the Messiah while they were both still in their mothers' wombs! John spent his life fulfilling his mission; preparing the way for Jesus. He went around the country preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He baptised crowds of people; but, most significantly, he baptised He who was without sin, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. At that moment, John was favoured to experience the full manifestation of the Godhead: The Holy Spirit descended on the Son in the form of a dove, and the Father's voice was heard affirming the Son. Indeed, no one experienced Jesus in the way John did, and John faithfully and courageously served God; as a result, he was imprisoned by Herod.
In John’s moment of crisis in prison, despite the strength of his spiritual experience, he doubted. Could he have been wrong? He had served God faithfully and prepared the way for Christ. He had believed that Jesus was the Messiah who had come to save His own and establish a new kingdom. So why was he, John, still suffering in prison? In his moment of pain and doubt, John the Baptist sent his messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Did Jesus, in anger, disown John? Did He ask how John could doubt who He was after everything that had been revealed to him since before his birth? No, that would be unlike our loving Saviour. His heart is tender, and He empathises with our weaknesses. Luke tells us that Jesus went ahead to perform spectacular miracles and sent John's messengers to say to him what they had witnessed Jesus do. He also quoted from the book of Isaiah 61:1-2, that John would no doubt be familiar with, to assure John that his faith had not been in vain. Not only this, but Jesus declared that the questioning John was more than a prophet; among those born of women, there was none greater than John.
How can we be sure that Jesus understands our weaknesses? The Bible assures us that we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way. Our Saviour, through the beautiful mystery of the incarnation, became fully man while fully retaining his divinity, and understands the limitations and weaknesses of the bodies we inhabit. He too, in the Garden of Gethsemane, faced the biggest crisis of His life and imminent separation from His Father. Despite fully knowing His Father's will and that He would conquer death, in His anguish, He asked the Father to take the cup away from Him. What a powerful example Jesus gives us; a glimpse into the heart of a Father whose ear is always ready to receive our desperate utterances in our darkest hour of grief.
God knows the beginning from the end, but we don't. He knows that many times our deepest desires will not align with His will for us, and our understanding of His timing and Grand Plan is minimal. He knows and understands that doubts arise when His children are walking in the dark valleys of life. Let us not hide from or deny our doubts, fears and questions. We have a God who understands. After their episodes of doubt, Abraham, Mary and John the Baptist witnessed the most miraculous manifestations of the Creator's power. It is in our place of doubt, when our faith is challenged, that we come to a clearer understanding of our very awesome God. He comes down and reveals Himself to us and comforts us. He assures us that He is our shield and very great reward.
One day, He will return to deliver us from the dark valleys of grief, fear and doubt, and take us to our forever heavenly home. In the words of that old sweet hymn, “There’ll be no dark valley when Jesus comes…to gather His loved ones home.” Until then, we say… Oh for grace, to trust Him more. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWCWYPVwDNs
Dr Daisy Adongo