Doubting John: Can We Believe Without Proof?
Read: Mt 11: 2-11
Imagine sitting with John in his prison cell; dark, dank, anxious, and uncertain. Very uncertain. Of his future. Perhaps of his ministry. And even of Jesus. Where was the Light in this darkness? Maybe John began to doubt his own experiences of Jesus whom he had confidently proclaimed the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29). Was Jesus really the long awaited Messiah?
Even in the womb, John recognized His cousin as the One (Lk1:41). So what happened? Did John see Jesus much as they were growing up? Did they play together? Study Torah together? Go up to Jerusalem feasts in a family clan? Could this familiarity have added to John’s uncertainty as it did for Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth? After all, Jesus was just a carpenter’s son. (Mt 13:55) Put yourself in John’s place, and reflect a moment on how you would deal with a relative who appears to be the Son of God. How would you reconcile the reality of his normal birth and life with your idea of whom the Messiah would (should) be? Being fully human, Jesus understands this confusion all too well. So, he tells John’s disciples “Go and tell John what you see and hear.” (Mt 11:4) If my humanness is a stumbling block, focus on the miracles, the signs of who I AM, of who blesses My work. Jesus wants John to let go of any pre-conceived notions of whom the Messiah should be; for Jesus, the Anointed One, is both human and divine. Can we suspend our notion of who we think (or want) Jesus to be and let Him be Himself?
As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing tells us, we cannot know God, but we can love our Lord, especially in the incarnational Person of Jesus. Love is built on relationship and deep trust. Hanging out with Him on Sundays is not enough. He wants all of you, all of your heart. Spend time with Jesus in the Scriptures and Lectio Divina; visit Him in Adoration and receive Him in the Eucharist. Most of all, do what St. Benedict tells us, LISTEN to Him. Start your morning or end your evening in silence, open to God’s grace and Jesus’ love. Give Jesus 15 minutes each day, and He will change your life forever. There’s still time this Advent. As we wait for Him, He waits for us to move closer, to enjoy His company, to love Him.
John surely remembers seeing the Spirit of the Lord rest upon Jesus and hearing the Voice say, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:16-17) And yet after all this evidence and his relational experience with Jesus, in this prison, John doubts. Still Jesus says, “Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.” (Mt 11:11) Even when we doubt along with the saints, Jesus doesn’t lose faith in us, and He never stops calling us. He knows we are human.
Perhaps, you have had an intimate experience of Jesus, one that erased all doubts and fears. For a time, loving God might have been effortless, even mystical. Then, one day, all that intimacy and good feeling disappeared. Jesus wants to be sure you love Him and not the good feelings. But without all that certainty, you struggle. Your mind becomes a dark prison convincing you that all those lovely experiences of God never happened. There you are, just like John, battling the dark night, wanting proof again, feeling vulnerable and anxious, asking Jesus if He really is the One.
I’ve always felt consoled that if John the Baptist and Jesus’ closest apostles and disciples struggled with their doubts with Jesus right there among them, then I am in good company. We cannot do it perfectly this side of heaven, but let us prepare for Christ’s coming by striving to unlock our skeptical hearts. If “perfect love drives out all fear” (1 Jn 4:18), then let it be our mission this Advent and always to try to love as Jesus loves, and when we fail, to calmly cast our anxieties against our Rock.
Mary Clark, OSB
St. Benedict Monastery