Every thinking person has struggled with the problem of doubt. C. S. Lewis, who was an atheist before he was converted to Christianity, acknowledged that just as the Christian has his moments of doubt, so does the atheist. He wrote, “Believe in God, and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality; disbelieve in Him, and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all. No conviction religious or irreligious will, of itself, end once and for all this fifth-columnist in the soul. Only the practice of faith resulting in the habit of faith will gradually do that.” (Cited in “Focal Point,” July-September, 1989.)
Doubt comes in varying degrees. There is the doubt of the proud skeptic, who delights in his own intellect. He pits himself against God as if he is a match for the Almighty. He delights in upsetting the faith of weak believers. He sets forth his arguments against God’s existence or the Christian faith as if he is the first brilliant thinker in history to come up with such insights. Such doubters often find jobs teaching at American universities! The Bible dismisses such scoffers with the word, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1).
Another level of doubt is that of the person who wants to believe, but he’s struggling with difficult questions and he has not yet come to see the glory and excellency of the Lord Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient Savior of sinners. While this person’s questions are often sincere, invariably they are mixed up with sin, especially the sin of wanting to run his own life apart from the lordship of Christ.
In dealing with this type of person, I often use John 7:17, where Jesus said, “If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself.” I’ll point out that while there are some tough questions, the core issue is one of the heart, of being willing to obey God. I encourage such people to read the gospel accounts with an open heart and ask the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” If He is God in human flesh, who offered Himself as the sacrifice for sinners, then we must trust Him and submit ourselves to Him. Once our hearts are subject to Him, He will give us satisfactory answers to most of the tough questions.
Another type of doubt is that of the believer who has gotten his eyes off the Lord in the midst of a difficult situation. The disciples were there when they were being swamped by the storm at sea and they shouted, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” He first rebuked the disciples, “Why are you timid, you men of little faith?” Then He rebuked the wind and the sea (Matt. 8:25-26). The distraught father was there when the disciples could not cast the demon out of his son. He entreated Jesus, “But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Jesus responded, “If You can! All things are possible to him who believes.” The father cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:22-24).
All of us who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior have been there, too. We believe, but we get our eyes off the Lord and onto the trial that looms before us. If you put a penny close to your eye, it will block out the brilliance of the sun. If you let a trial consume your vision, it will block the glorious power of the Almighty God.
Zacharias was there that day in the temple when Gabriel, the angel who stands in God’s very presence, appeared to him and promised to give Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth, a son. He should have been ecstatic with joy. Every day for years this devout couple had prayed, “Lord, if it would be Your will, give us a son.” But that had been years ago. Now it was too late. They were both long past the time when even couples who had children were able to conceive. Zacharias had reconciled himself to reality—they were not going to have a son. He had come to terms with God over the matter: “God is sovereign. He is free to bestow His blessings on whom He wishes. For some inscrutable reason, He has withheld that blessing from us.” And now, Zacharias was not willing to open himself to the roller coaster of hopes and fears that he had long left behind. And so he doubted the word of the angel.
What can Zacharias teach us about the problem of doubt?
Zacharias was “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (1:6). Being righteous in the sight of the Lord means that his godliness was not an outward show, like the “righteousness” of the Pharisees, but a matter of the heart. The man walked with God and he had done so for many years. The fact that such a godly man doubted shows us that none are exempt from the problem.
Other great men and women of faith in the Bible also had their moments of doubt. Sarah stumbled over a similar situation. When the Lord announced to Abraham that his wife would give birth to a son, Sarah, listening on the other side of the tent wall, laughed in doubt (Gen. 18:10-15).
The son of Zacharias, John the Baptist, had a time of doubt. He was languishing in prison and he began to wonder, “If Jesus is truly the Messiah, why am I, His messenger, here in prison?” So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them.” Then He gently rebuked John’s doubt by adding, “And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me” (Luke 7:22, 23). Jesus went on to tell the crowd that among those born of women, there is no one greater than John. He was a godly man, but he had his time of doubt.
So doubt is a problem, even for those who are righteous in God’s sight. If godly men like Zacharias and John fell into doubt, we should be on guard, so that we do not fall. Since even the godly have fallen, we may wonder, “What is the source of doubt?”
Have you ever talked to someone who said, “If I just saw a miracle or had a direct word from God, I would believe”? It doesn’t work that way. Here, Zacharias had an angel suddenly appear and speak a direct revelation from God, but he did not believe. Later in Luke, the rich man in Hades pleaded with Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers, so that they would not also come to that awful place of torment. Abraham replied that his brothers had Moses and the prophets. But the rich man said, “No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” But Abraham replied, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:27-31). Doubt is not a problem of evidence, but of the sinfulness of the human heart. Even those who are righteous struggle with the sinful nature.
You may wonder, “How does Zacharias’ question differ from Mary’s question (1:34)?” When the angel told her that she would become pregnant with Jesus, she asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel did not confront her for doubting. Abraham laughed and brought up the matter of his and Sarah’s old age when he was promised a son, but he was not corrected for doubting, while Sarah was (Gen. 17:17). Gideon twice asked God for a sign, and he was not rebuked. But Zacharias asked the angel for a sign, and was rebuked for his doubting. Why these differences?
I think John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 1:23) is correct when he brings up these varying cases and points out that the difference was not in the words spoken, but in the hearts of each person. He acknowledges that while God is free to punish one person and pardon another, as He sees fit, that is not the explanation here. Rather, God, who sees the hidden secrets of each person’s heart, knew that Zacharias was different than Abraham, Gideon, or Mary. Zacharias was limiting God by the normal course of human nature. He and Elizabeth were too old to have children. Case closed! But he should have acknowledged, as Gabriel says to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37).
Our sinful hearts make us all prone to limit God by human potential. The disciples fell into this error when they were faced with the crowd of 5,000 hungry men, plus women and children. Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” John explains that Jesus asked this to test Philip, since He knew what He was about to do. Philip did a quick calculation and concluded, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little” (John 6:5-7). Philip may have thought that he was giving a faith-stretching answer, because the disciples clearly did not have 200 denarii to buy bread. But he was limiting God to work through normal human means. But God had a completely different solution, namely, miraculously multiplying the few loaves and fishes they had on hand.
So even if we’ve walked with God for years, when we are faced with a seemingly impossible situation, we need to look to our hearts, which are prone to limit the Almighty by human possibilities. God has given us abundant evidence in Scripture that He is the God of the impossible. Nothing is too difficult for Him. The source of our doubts is not a lack of evidence. It is rather our, sinful hearts.
We don’t know how long Zacharias and Elizabeth had been married, but it easily could have been 30 or 40 years. In that society, being childless was a matter of reproach (1:25). For many of those years, they had entreated God to give them a child and take away their reproach, but God did not answer. Now that they were physically too old to have children, they had come to terms with their disappointment. They had concluded that it must not be God’s will. So when the angel suddenly announced that they would have a child, Zacharias doubted.
You’ve been there, haven’t you? You prayed for something so long and your request was denied for so long that you concluded, “It isn’t going to happen.” Then, maybe even after you stopped praying, suddenly there was a glimmer of hope that your prayers were about to be answered. But you didn’t want to get your hopes up, only to have them dashed again. So you protected yourself by saying, “Let’s wait and see.” But in your heart, you were doubting God.
A humorous story in the Book of Acts shows the early Christians falling into this same error. Herod Agrippa had executed the apostle James and then had arrested Peter, planning to put him to death just after the Passover. No doubt the church had prayed for James to be delivered, but their prayers had not been answered. They were disappointed, but when Peter was imprisoned, they called another prayer meeting. While they were praying, an angel miraculously delivered Peter from his prison cell. He went to where he surmised the church would be gathered, and stood outside knocking on the door. The servant girl recognized Peter’s voice and got so excited that she forgot to let Peter in. She ran in and announced that Peter was at the door. But everyone in the prayer meeting said, “You’re crazy! It must be Peter’s angel.” But Peter continued knocking. When they opened the door, they were amazed (Acts 12:1-17).
Thankfully, God in His grace often pours out His blessings in spite of our doubts! That was the case with Zacharias. God lovingly disciplined His servant, but Zacharias’ doubts could not thwart the sovereign plan of God. Part of the solution to our doubts is to understand the source of them, as I have been explaining. We’re all prone to doubts because of our sinful hearts, often coupled with disappointments and trials. But Luke also wants us to see that …
Darrell Bock comments, “Zechariah, righteous as he is, needs to learn that God will fulfill his promises when he sovereignly chooses to act…. The major lesson … is that God will do what he promises in his own way” (Luke [IVP], p. 37). This is a tricky matter where it’s easy to fall off the horse both ways. On the one hand, some Christians deny God’s sovereignty by making their supposed faith sovereign. They command God around by faith, as if God is under obligation to obey because they barked the orders. Not so! God is sovereign, not the prayers of puny man.
On the other hand, it’s easy to yield to disappointment if God has not answered as we thought He should have, and our disappointment quickly leads us into doubt. The biblical balance is not to waver in unbelief if God doesn’t do something the way we thought He should have. We allow God to be sovereign, but we believe that if He said He would do something, He will do it, even if it takes a different form than we had expected.
Remember, Luke addressed his gospel to a man who was probably a young believer who needed assurance in his faith. The opposite of doubt is not a leap in the dark. The Christian faith is founded on solid historical evidence. Luke wrote to convince Theophilus and his other readers that God was in fact at work in this amazing history of Jesus’ birth and life. He structured these early narratives with this purpose in mind. There are two strands that come together to dispel our doubts by showing that God does what He says He will do.
Luke underscores this point in several ways. First, there is the structure of the first two chapters of his gospel. There is a parallel pattern here of two birth announcements (John the Baptist, 1:5-25; Jesus the Messiah, 1:26-38); a meeting between the two mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, which serves as the link (1:39-56); and, two birth stories (John, 1:57-80; Jesus, 2:1-40). Through this structure, Luke wants us to see that God is clearly at work in the births of these two men. He sovereignly broke into history and announced what He was about to do. Then He proceeded to do it.
This theme is further underscored in the angel’s announcement to Zacharias, where he cites the prophet Malachi’s prediction of the return of Elijah the prophet and says that John will fulfill that prediction. He also predicts a number of other features of John’s life and ministry which did, in fact, later happen. Luke is driving home the point that what God says He will do, He will do.
This is emphasized in one other way that is a bit more obvious in the Greek text than in the English. In verse 18, Zacharias expresses the reason for his doubt by saying, “I am an old man.” It is an emphatic expression, ego eimi in Greek. In verse 19, the angel responds by using the same emphatic expression, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to you ...” It’s a deliberate contrast between the feebleness of man’s word and the power of God’s Word. It’s as if Gabriel said, “You may be an old man, unable to father a child, but I am no less than the angel who stands in God’s very presence and comes to speak His word at His command.” Thus, clearly, the word of God overcomes the word of man.
Thus one way we can know that God will do what He says He will do is by observing His prophetic word. There are many prophecies in Scripture that were fulfilled later in Scripture. God spoke, and later God did what He said He would do. That should strengthen our faith. Scripture also contains many prophecies yet to be fulfilled. While some of the details may be fuzzy, the overall scheme is pretty clear, and it’s also clear that in our day it is all lining up just as God has said. The world is set up for a powerful leader to bring the nations together under a one-world government, as Revelation predicts. Through the computer revolution, the mechanism is in place to control all buying and selling by giving each person a mark, as the Bible also predicts. The move toward religious unity and tolerance will culminate in the one-world religion, the whore of Revelation 17. So as we see God’s “prophetic word made more sure” (2 Pet. 1:19), we should put our doubts to rest and trust in the Word of God.
Although our doubts do not keep God from graciously blessing us according to His promise, He does lovingly discipline us in our doubts, that we may share His holiness. So the angel struck Zacharias dumb and, apparently, deaf (see 1:62). By doubting God’s ambassador, he was doubting God Himself. God took that seriously. As a loving Father, He taught His erring child a lesson he would never forget. The angel specifically states Zacharias’ sin: “because you did not believe my words” (1:20). This is further underscored later in the narrative, when Elizabeth exclaims of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord” (1:45). That’s Luke’s point: Since God will fulfill His word, we should be believing, like Mary, not unbelieving, like Zacharias.
Zacharias’ chastisement was appropriate for his sin. He shut his mouth in silence when he should have praised God, so he would be silent until the day when his lips were loosed to praise God in front of others (1:67). Doubt has nothing to say; faith opens the heart and lips in praise to God.
Thankfully, doubt need never be fatal. We can recover if we will submit to God’s gracious discipline. During his months of silence, Zacharias submitted to God by meditating on His Word and being thankful for His faithfulness in fulfilling His gracious promises. This is evident from the stream of praise that gushes forth when he finally has his speech restored (1:68-79). It is loaded with references to Scripture and how God has fulfilled His promises. If Zacharias had spent those silent months grumbling about how unfair God was to strike him deaf and dumb, he wouldn’t have erupted in praise as he did.
We should learn from this godly man. When God graciously disciplines us for our doubting hearts, we can either grumble and chafe under it, or we can thankfully submit to His chastening. If, like Zacharias, we submit, we will grow stronger in faith and be filled with joyful, thankful hearts. Thus,
We can overcome the problem of doubt if we will see that God does what He says He will do.
In the matter of faith and doubt, the crucial thing is not our feelings and not even our faith. The crucial thing is the object of our faith. You can have great faith in a faulty airplane, but it will crash in spite of your great faith because it’s not a trustworthy plane. You can have little faith in a sound airplane, just enough to get you on board, and that’s all it takes to get you where you’re going. It’s not your faith, but the object of it, that matters most.
Luke wants us to see that God is faithful to His promises, especially in the matter of sending the Lord Jesus Christ to be the promised Savior. We can trust such a God and such a Savior. He has a proven track record of keeping His word.
The doubts that we all have show us that we need a Savior because we are sinners. Only sinners would doubt the all-powerful, faithful, gracious, sovereign God who has given so many evidences of His trustworthy nature. And the good news of Luke is that it is precisely for sinners that Jesus came to this earth: “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). In your confusion and doubt, call out to Him to save you from your sin. He is mighty to save all who cry out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13).
Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation