Let's celebrate! We've made it through 10 episodes, and have FINISHED OUR FIRST BOOK TOGETHER. Great! Today we are reading Genesis 12, Nehemiah 1, Matthew 11, and Acts 11 together. We will start with Matthew 11, because something very significant and almost unsettling happens in that passage. The focus is on John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus who has risen to incredible prominence in Israel as a preacher of revival. God had given John a tremendous ministry and a huge impact on his country, preparing for the public ministry of Jesus. John was a man of uncompromising righteousness and passionate pursuit of God. Whether he was asked about it, or not - we don't know - but at some point, John proclaimed his view - solidly grounded in Scripture - that Herod the Tetrarch (essentially the president/political figurehead in Israel) was sinning by having intimate relations with his brother Phillip's wife. This infuriated Herod, and he wanted to kill John, but he didn't have the courage to do that, so he simply had John arrested and jailed instead. And that is where we pick up our reading today.
Before we get back to John the Baptist and doubts, one thing that I think will be helpful for us is to do a very brief summary of every book that we finish. So here is a brief summary: Ezra was a scribe, priest, and zealous expert in the law. The time period covered by the book is right around 450 B.C. and records the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem after a 70 year exile in the Babylonian area. Chapters 1-6 of Ezra are about the return of a small advance group of Jewish people that are sent to secure Jerusalem and prepare for the building of the temple. Unfortunately, the enemies of Jerusalem mount a campaign to prevent the rebirth of that city, and there is quite a bit of back and forth between them, the advanced Jewish preparation team, and the government of King Darius and King Artaxerxes. Ultimately, the Persian government sides with the Jewish people and orders the work on the temple and the walls to continue.
Interestingly, Ezra is not actually one of the advance scouts, and does not appear in his own book until chapter 7, when he is introduced to us by way of a brief genealogy. Ezra leads a team returning to Jerusalem with literally thousands and thousands of pounds of treasure (and no military guard!) and praises God upon his safe arrival. Later, Ezra discovers that many of the people of God have disobeyed His commands and married foreign wives; a situation that Ezra resolves by calling for the sending away of all of those foreign wives. And that is Ezra - an interesting guy with a passion for God and great faith who solves a thorny problem in quite a controversial way.
Back to Matthew 11 and John the Baptist. John is in jail, and apparently feels like he has misunderstood God's plan, or that something has gone wrong. So he sends his followers to go ask Jesus what's up. John is going through what appears to be a significant crisis of doubt - and who can blame him? He is in a dank and dark dungeon and basically just awaiting his execution, which will come fairly soon. It is worth remember here that Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest human being ever born in history (or, at least, in a tie for first place with that title according to Luke 7:28, "I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John. " And here we see the GREATEST ever struck by a massive wave of doubt. Which brings us to a question that lots of Christians have, but rarely voice. And that question is this: Am I the only Christian that wrestles with doubt? And the answer is - OF COURSE YOU AREN'T! Here is John the Baptist, conceived in a miraculous way, the one who heard God's voice and saw the heavenly dove descend on Jesus at His baptism - the greatest human ever....and he is struggling with doubt. And sometimes I do too. And if you are being honest - I'll bet you get hit by waves of doubt too! How do we handle them?
I love this letter from one of my writing heroes C.S. Lewis, because it is so honest and transparent:
Dear Sister Madeleva
Thank you for your most kind letter. I will direct Fabers to send you a copy of the little book, but it may shock your pupils. It is ‘A Grief Observed’ from day to day in all its rawness and sinful reactions and follies. It ends with faith but raises all the blackest doubts en route.
Since my wife’s death I have been very ill myself and last July I was, while unconscious given extreme unction. It would. have been such an easy death that one almost regrets having had the door shut in one’s face—but nella sua voluntade è nostra pace (In His will is our peace)
I am now retired from my work and live as an invalid, but am quite contented and cheerful. I am afraid laziness has more to do with this than sanctity! All blessings.
Yours most sincerely
C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, vol. 3 (New York: HarperCollins e-books; HarperSanFrancisco, 2004–2007), 1460–1461.
In this letter, written about a month before Lewis was to die, he mentions his book "A Grief Observed." Which is about his battle with doubt and faith that came when he watched his beloved wife H. Joy Gresham die of cancer. C.S. Lewis, as I mentioned, is one of my heroes, and probably the biggest reason for that is because he was not a hollow Christian brimming with empty positivisms, fake smiles and repacked religion, but he was a man of full and deep thought about the things of God and Jesus. This book is a stunning display of that reality, and it deals with grief and doubt on a level that is so real and visceral that one can't read it and think that the author was anything less than a genuine person. In his introduction to the book, Lewis' stepson (and the son of Lewis' wife who had died, the object of his grief) writes this:
"C. S. Lewis, the writer of so much that is so clear and so right, the thinker whose acuity of mind and clarity of expression enabled us to understand so much, this strong and determined Christian, he too fell headlong into the vortex of whirling thoughts and feelings and dizzily groped for support and guidance deep in the dark chasm of grief. How I wish that he had been blessed with just such a book as this. If we find no comfort in the world around us, and no solace when we cry to God, if it does nothing else for us, at least this book will help us to face our grief, and to “misunderstand a little less completely.”
Douglas H. Gresham, “Introduction,” in A Grief Observed (HarperOne, 1996), xxx–xxxi.
So - if doubt can grip Lewis and doubt can grip John the Baptist, then you can be sure that it can grip normal folk like you and me. John the Baptist, in his great moment of despair, looked to Jesus for answers, and you and I can do no better. We have no records of his longings, griefs and lamentations as he awaited death, but we do have the words of Lewis as he went through the valley of the shadow of death, and I'll read them here so that they may comfort and encourage you who are dealing with grief and doubt at the moment:
"Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead. From the rational point of view, what new factor has H.’s death introduced into the problem of the universe? What grounds has it given me for doubting all that I believe? I knew already that these things, and worse, happened daily. I would have said that I had taken them into account. I had been warned—I had warned myself—not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination. Yes; but should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. And it wouldn’t for a man whose faith had been real faith and whose concern for other people’s sorrows had been real concern. The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith but imagination. The taking them into account was not real sympathy. If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled ‘Illness,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Death,’ and ‘Loneliness.’ I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t....(DOUBT!)
Bridge-players tell me that there must be some money on the game ‘or else people won’t take it seriously.’ Apparently it’s like that. Your bid—for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity—will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high, until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man—or at any rate a man like me—out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself. And I must surely admit—H. would have forced me to admit in a few passes—that, if my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better. And only suffering could do it....The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed—might grow tired of his vile sport—might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t."
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (HarperOne, 1996), 36–38.
Sometimes when tragedy strikes, all we can do is respond like Job:
20 Then Job stood up, tore his robe, and shaved his head. He fell to the ground and worshiped, 21 saying: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life.
The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.22 Throughout all this Job did not sin or blame God for anything.
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