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When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He withdrew to Galilee. (Matt. 4:12)
This is a very disturbing statement when we really stop to think about it. Here John the Baptist has spent his life promoting Jesus and getting ridiculed by people for Jesus’ sake. John has shown great courage and devotion to God with his messages, not shying away from preaching unpopular truths. Herod is a moral zero. When God tells John to speak out against the evil tetrarch, Herod reacts by throwing John into prison. Here is a perfect opportunity for Jesus to show some support to His faithful servant. After all, if He is going to let Mary pressure Him into turning water into wine even though He says it isn’t time for Him to start doing miracles yet, surely He can do something for John. But instead, Jesus leaves town, fully aware of how abused and miserable His prophet will be in chains surrounded by a bunch of creeps. Nice.
Have you ever felt like God has given you a tough assignment only to then ditch you in your hour of need? Many serious Christians experience this, and it’s extremely upsetting. We get no help from church because everyone there tells us it’s blasphemous to accuse God of abandoning us. But the fact remains that God does abandon us in every way that matters down here. He never technically leaves us in the spiritual realm, and many will say this ought to give us all the comfort we need when we’re down. Horse feathers. When we’re depressed, exhausted, and physically hurting, technical facts about the spiritual realm can be impossible to connect with.
We know John had some friends who brought him updates about the outside world. Imagine how he felt when they said, “As soon as Jesus heard you were in here, He split. We don’t know where He went or if He’ll ever come back.” Terrific. Jesus was the only One who really understood John’s mission in life. Being human, of course John would have been hoping for some kind of miraculous help. But to hear that Jesus left so quickly without even so much as a “goodbye” or “thanks for teaching people about Me”? That had to be a tough blow.
Prison life is enough to drag even the strongest man down. Without God’s grace, we can’t keep our focus on the things above. Willpower only goes so far. Clearly God was cutting back on John’s resources to endure, for a while later in Matthew 11, we read that John has completely lost his grip on faith. He’s depressed, miserable and second guessing himself. Maybe he was wrong about Jesus after all. Maybe he’s done the cardinal prophet error and spoken the wrong message for God. He sends a couple of friends out to Jesus—Who still can’t be bothered to go see John for Himself—and has them ask:
“Are You the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matt. 11:3)
With Satan working on him 24/7 in his nasty jail cell, John’s defenses are all worn down. God isn’t raining down the special resources for this miserable prophet like He did for Paul, who sat around singing praises in a supernatural bubble of grace and joy. John doesn’t get such a privilege. He gets to sit there feeling abandoned by God.
Jesus’ response to John’s anxious friends is less than ideal. He could have answered their question directly and said, “Yes, I am the One. Tell John I haven’t forgotten about him and that his reward will be great in Heaven.” That certainly would have fit the picture of loving, gentle Jesus that we’re always promoting to the masses. But instead, Jesus doesn’t give one crumb of personal encouragement to John and does His usual indirect answer:
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of Me.” (Matt. 11:4-6)
In other words, “Go tell John I do miracles.” Well, what does that prove? As we will see later on in Acts, in that time there were plenty of demon worshiping sorcerers running around doing miracles as well. Miracles alone don’t prove anything. In fact nothing can “prove” to us that Jesus is God except faith. No matter what Jesus had said to John, it wouldn’t have given him more of an answer than he already knew in his own soul. But it sure would have been nice to hear a little encouragement.
In classic Jesus style, He waits until John’s friends are leaving before He finally starts praising John to the crowd. He even says:
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” (Matt 11:11).
Did John’s friends get to hear this wonderful compliment? Were they still within earshot when Jesus said it? Maddeningly, we aren’t given that information. God just makes sure we know that Jesus didn’t start saying everything John desperately needed to hear until his messengers were already leaving.
God hasn’t changed any in 2,000 years. He still puts us into spiritual valleys, withdraws His strength, and then refuses to give us one drop of encouragement when we hit our lowest point. He still brags about us in the spiritual realm while refusing to talk to us directly. If you’re there now, you’re in good company. Jesus said that John was the greatest man to have ever lived, yet look how indifferently He treated him on earth. Later on, John was beheaded and finally got to hear God tell him “well done,” but we mustn’t make light of the fact that God includes this detailed account of John’s low point. God understands how difficult He can be to relate to and how disappointing His reactions to us can be when we’re feeling down and desperate. He has preserved accounts like this as well as the suicidal rantings of Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah to let us know that we’re not spiritual failures just because our faith crumbles in front of us, nor will the dark night last forever. At some point, God will allow us to sense His Presence again. He will restore our strength and renew our hope. Most importantly, God never wastes our pain. When He leads us into deep valleys, it is always to make us stronger in ways that we can’t fathom before we experience them.
The laws of spiritual refinement are full of irony. Faith gets stronger by breaking. Exhaustion strengthens perseverance. Exasperation produces patience. From our perspective God’s methods often seem nonsensical, inefficient and excessively painful, yet we must remember that we know nothing about how the human soul works. We know that we have souls, just as we know we have bodies, but when it comes to making lasting changes deep within the core of our being, we don’t know the first place to start. God knows, for He made us. He understands how we function and He knows exactly how to mature us so that we will become more and more like Him. We must trust His methods. We must keep hanging on to the fact that He is for us no matter how hollow those words ring in our ears.
It’s important that we acknowledge the full spectrum of God’s behavior. To only talk about His grace, love and mercy while pretending He never hurts our feelings, never disappoints, and never emotionally abandons us is only going to hurt us in the end. Honesty is an essential element of maturing. We won’t receive God’s help until we’re honest about our struggles. We won’t develop better theology until we are honest about the aspects of Him that make us uncomfortable.
There is nothing we can’t say to God. He invites us to talk to Him about how frustrated He makes us—in fact, He provokes us into it by packing His Word with all kinds of zingers. We like to echo the psalmist and say the Bible is a lamp unto our feet—but it’s also a hard slap across the face. If we’re reading it with open hearts, we’re supposed to feel upset, confused and theologically threatened by much of what’s in it. Just as a mother bird will line her nest with sharp objects in order to motivate her grown chicks to want to leave, so also the Holy Spirit uses the Bible to provoke us out of our current state of comfort and motivate us to want to grow in our understanding of Him. Disturbing passages are our friends—we mustn’t avoid them. Every time you come across something that you don’t understand or that bothers you, ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and then be willing to wait for His answer. It is only when we are totally honest with God about our experience of Him, our questions, doubts and fears, that He will build us into towers of strength and confidence who have unending joy in our communion with Him.