I grew up thinking that the disciple Thomas’ first name was “Doubting”. No other disciple suffered the fate of being remembered for their one moment of struggle (ok, except Judas I guess). And yet in an earlier story in the Gospels Thomas had declared himself willing to follow Jesus even unto death. I find myself feeling endless sympathy for him.
In this story (John 20), the disciples begin the day scared and confused and directionless. They have seen the Rabbi they’ve followed for the last three years, the man they left everything for, saw do miraculous signs, this man they loved so dearly, the man they hoped would be the promised Messiah, has been arrested and killed by the Romans as a common criminal. All the dreams of a new Kingdom have been smashed to pieces. And now the tomb is empty and the women are telling them amazing stories of a resurrected Jesus, and what to believe? What to hope?
And then one day Thomas returns to the disciples – maybe he’s been out collecting supplies or gathering news – and the disciples are in an excited frenzy, all talking at once: WE’VE SEEN HIM! SEEN JESUS! In this very space, and they tell how he appeared all of a sudden in a locked room and talked with them.
I can imagine it was hard to be Thomas in that moment. I think I too would have struggled to bridge the gap between the reality I was living in, the things I had seen, and the stories my friends were telling me. I’d have felt so left out. I might really and truly WANT to believe, but how to believe something so unheard of?
This time, reading the familiar story, I noticed something I had missed before: When Jesus appears for a second time, Thomas is there with the other disciples. He hasn’t left; he hasn’t stormed out in anger and disbelief. While the other disciples are celebrating in joy, he’s still there, with the disciples, in his doubt and confusion. There must have been a shred of belief there, an obstinate hope that the crazy story of his friends might actually be true.
Because doubt and faith are never mutually exclusive. Hebrews says that “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” He might not have felt very certain at that moment, but I’d guess that Thomas was pretty sure what he hoped for – he hoped his friends were right, he hoped Jesus truly was resurrected from the dead, he hoped he would see his Rabbi and Friend face to face again.
Doubt can be an overwhelming experience to walk through, and some end up walking away because of it. But not Thomas.
Jesus’ response to Thomas is gentle and full of grace. He doesn’t slam him for his unbelief. There isn’t anger; Thomas isn’t thrown out in disgust. Instead Jesus offers Thomas the proof he needed, the experience he wanted, the chance to be with Jesus once more and touch him, see the wounds and marks – to understand what happened.
I see God dealing with me in the same way, allowing me the space, the time, and sometimes the evidence to keep believing. He reveals himself to me in my questioning and he invites me deeper in to the mystery.
But I have to stay engaged. I have to be willing to keep my eyes and ears open to God. I have to embrace the idea that faith is a journey. It’s not a static thing. It’s not a simple acceptance of a list of beliefs or doctrines that I can tick off. Faith is an active walk forward towards God.
And so it may be that I do not always see the step ahead, and maybe God himself sees distant and blurry and I’m not sure I’m even heading in the right direction. But I step out. Thomas stepped out by staying there in that room, staying with the rejoicing disciples, even in his confusion. His faith was there, even in the presence of his doubt.
bless your people, who believe greater than we doubt;
who are afraid until we remember,
who long to behold you.
give us the strength of Thomas,
the resolve to wait with hope.
grant us the faith to see.
– Kelly Ann Hall (see her full poem as a beautiful video here)
This is a slightly-adapted extract from the sermon I preached yesterday at our church. I am indebted to many great writers and theologians in helping me pull my sermon together. These are some of the resources I can recommend:
O Me of Little Faith, by Jason Boyett.
A Sermon on Faith, Doubt, and Mustard Seed Necklaces, by Nadia Bolz Weber.
Greg Boyd on doubt and the Christian life – it’s unavoidable, biblical, and healthy.
Losing my Faith, a video with Dwight Peterson, from Work of the People.