Text: John 20:19-31
While little is recorded of Thomas the Apostle, he may actually be one of the better-known disciples. Here is what we know of him from the biblical text. His name occurs in all the gospels as one of the twelve disciples; but in the gospel of John he plays a distinctive role as a loyal and committed, yet questioning disciple of Jesus. First, in the eleventh chapter of John, when Jesus announced his intention to return to Judea to visit Lazarus and none of the other disciples wanted to go with him because they feared for their lives, it was Thomas who said to his fellow disciples: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Again, in chapter 14 of the gospel of John, it was Thomas who, during the discourse before the Last Supper, expressed his deep longing and desire to continue with Jesus on the journey: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” But in the end, as the story would be told and taught in all of Christendom, Thomas is remembered for his doubting when the other disciples announced Christ’s Resurrection to him: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
It seems that when it comes to the role of doubt in life, especially in the life of faith, philosophers and theologians are split on whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. The Buddha says, “There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.” But Henry David Thoreau says, “If I could not doubt, I should not believe.” Shakespeare was a bit confused on how he felt about doubt. He is quoted as saying, “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” Yet later he adds, “Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.”
I get the ambivalence of doubt—not knowing if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. There is a dark kind of doubt, an exaggerated and self-destructive doubt that leads to despair, depression, and spiritual self-sabotage. Brian McLaren, pastor and theologian, describes this dark doubt this way. He writes, “I think of it like this: an imagination is good, but imagination out of control is called psychosis. Fear is healthy, but fear out of control is called paranoia. Sensitivity is a wonderful gift, and anger is a necessary emotion, but sensitivity or anger out of control can lead to depression. Doubt is the same way. Out of control, it becomes unbelief, a hard heart, an arrogant or defeatist cynicism.”
I shared with the lectionary group this week that there are times when this kind of dark doubt resides within me. I see all the pain and suffering in the world and I begin to question our existence. When I see the faces of starving children and scared adults in war-torn countries and hear the stories of those whose lives have been shattered by tornados and earthquakes and floods, I begin to doubt whether there is a God who cares for creation and humanity and who is involved with us in this world. I doubt whether or not love really does win out over evil. I wonder if there is a purpose to this life. If any of the good we do really makes a difference. Sometimes, these doubts last for a day. Sometimes, they last longer. Some days they overwhelm me. Other days they simply wash over me and fade away into my unconsciousness.
But there is another side of doubt that I have experienced throughout my life. It is the kind of doubt that C. S. Lewis speaks of when he writes, “If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger. It knows God more certainly and it can enjoy God more deeply.” There are those times when it has been my doubt—my uncertainty about my faith—that has set me on new paths toward wholeness and truth and a deeper faith.
There is a temptation to see doubt as the opposite of faith. Years ago, I had a seminary friend say to me, “If I can’t believe in the bodily resurrection then how much faith do I really have?” I wondered then, as I do now, why doubting or being uncertain about something as confusing as the bodily resurrection had to diminish one’s faith. Is doubt really the opposite of faith? If I have doubt do I not have faith? I don’t think so. Rather, as Paul Tillich states, I believe that “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”
There was a time when I thought of doubt as being the opposite side of faith—a two-sided coin, if you will. One side was doubt and the other side was faith. Yes, the same coin but opposite sides. If you were looking at the faith side you couldn’t see doubt. And if you were looking at the doubt side of the coin, you couldn’t see faith. But as I was thinking about how I understand doubt and faith now, the image that came to me was that of a crystal or a prism. I think about all the dimensions there are in a crystal or a prism and, depending on how you hold it to the light, you see different angles of light. But you can always see more than one angle at a time. Or more than one color of light coming through at a time. Faith and doubt reflect each other. They exist side by side—in relationship to and with one another. They are not opposites. One does not cancel out the other. Rather, they work together to reveal to us the fullness of truth and reality and the mystery of God’s presence and love.
In my early years, I had faith in a God and in a church that excluded parts of who I am. For years, decades really, I struggled through doubt – doubting that I was acceptable to God “just as I was,” doubting that I was acceptable to my church, doubting God’s love for me, and even doubting myself – how could what I knew so deeply to be true about myself and about God exist side-by-side, given the teachings of my faith? But exactly because of this tension, this pairing of my faith and my doubt, I eventually broke through that stuck place in my journey to know God, and to help others know God. I allowed the doubt, as so many of you have; and I held to the parts of my faith that I could. And when the prism became clear, I saw a truer picture of God’s unconditional love and embrace than I ever could have reached without that doubt.
Thomas reminds us that doubt can be a doorway to faith. Our doubt, our uncertainty, our questions can lead us to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” Instead of teaching “don’t be like doubting Thomas,” one of the lessons that the church would do well to teach from this story is the truth that Jesus never rebuked Thomas for his uncertainty or his doubt. No, Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” In our uncertainty, in our doubts, in our unbelief, Jesus reaches out to us. Sometimes we are able to take hold of his hand and go deeper in our faith. Other times we simply have more questions, more doubts, more uncertainty. I don’t have a neat, all wrapped-up ending to this sermon. All I can say to you is that doubt and faith are not opposites. One is not to be valued over the other. Together, they reveal to us the fullness of God’s love and truth.
As you continue into this Easter season, I invite you to be gentle with your doubts. Try to hold them, and honor them, even if only out of the corner of your eye. If you can begin to allow your doubt to sit alongside your faith, you might find yourself able to ask of it, “What do you have to teach me about my faith, about myself, and about God?” And in reaching out to your own doubt, the hand of Jesus surely will reach in and honor your faithful doubts.