It took me some time, but Doubt has become a really good friend. I’d like to introduce her to you. Thomas introduced me to Doubt many years ago, back when we good church people looked down on Thomas. We were the ones Jesus blessed for believing without seeing. Not Thomas who had to see Jesus to believe.
But over the years, I began to realize that Thomas gets a bad rap for doubting. Its not really fair to single him out that way. He was only asking for what the other disciples had already seen. Was he doubting God? Was he doubting Jesus? No, he was doubting the word of John, James, Peter. And we know from the New Testament stories that they were not always reliable interpreters of the truth. The wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans, they wanted positions of authority, they didn’t believe the women who came as the first witnesses to the resurrection. Now they had changed their story and said Jesus was alive. Was Thomas supposed to just believe them? No, he wanted to discover the truth for himself, an honorable task born of Doubt.
The great Pentecostal preacher David Du Plessis said: “God has no grandchildren.” Each of us needs our own experience of God; we can’t inherit that experience from anyone, not from the Bible, our church, our family, our friends, our pastor, or teachers. These are all potentially good and can shape our experience but they are not our experience.
Frankly I don’t want to know more about God or about Jesus. Like Thomas, I want to know God and know Jesus. We teach wonderful information about God and Jesus to people and wonder why they are not interested. In these times, if we want information about God, we can just “google it.” I read about a Sunday School program director who shifted the focus. She created a mission statement for her classes: “We open doors for children to fall in love with Jesus.” I think she gets it about right. This was what Thomas wanted. To be back in touch with Jesus, personally.
We have come to think of doubt as a negative trait, but it is found throughout the lives of people of faith. Like Abraham and Sarah. When God appeared to them, with promises of a child, what did they do? They laughed! Frederick Buechner describes their doubtful faith so well: Why did the two old crocks laugh? They laughed because they knew only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward. They laughed because God expected them to believe it anyway. They laughed because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because they half believed it themselves. They laughed because laughing felt better than crying. They laughed because if by some crazy chance it just happened to come true, they would really have something to laugh about, and in the meanwhile it helped keep them going…. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps. [Buechner, Frederick. Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith (Buechner, Frederick) (p. 109). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]
When the disciples saw Jesus for the last time before he was taken up into heaven, Matthew tells us that they worshiped him, but some doubted. Doubt accompanied them there, too. Even Jesus on the cross cried out to God: “Why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34). My favorite story about doubt is from the father who so desperately wanted his son to be free of an illness which the disciples had not been able to heal: “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), he begged Jesus. This father is just so honest! And that honesty was enough for Jesus to recognize faith.
This is one of the things Doubt does. It makes us honest enough to ask for what we need.
This week I was listening to Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. I was struck with how doubt is similarly misunderstood. Like vulnerability, Doubt looks like weakness. But only when we come to relationship with our open, honest, vulnerable selves, will we build connection. She says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” [Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.] Doubt is not weakness, but the courage to ask, to wonder.
People saw Jesus as weak. He did not come in as the mighty warrior, but as the one who washed feet. We have despised Thomas because he seemed weak. But he was vulnerable – honest about his doubt. He did not hide his companion, Doubt. And because of that, he made a powerful connection with Jesus. He was left only with awe – “My Lord, and my God!” And that was enough.
In order to understand Doubt, we might do well to understand her cousin, Belief. The Greek word for belief, is pisteuo. This was the New Testament translation for the Hebrew root, emunah (faith). The prayer response used in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, “Amen,” is a form of this word, emunah. Amen says I support what has just been said. I am invested in it. It is a commitment word, a relational word.
If you commit yourself to someone, then you are entrusting yourself to them, putting yourself in their care. At the same time you are supporting them. It is a mutual relationship. If I believe in Jesus, I am putting myself in a relationship of mutual support. I am entrusting myself to Jesus and Jesus is entrusting himself to me. Belief is not about intellectual assent, but about personal investment and commitment.
Doubt took Thomas to a place where he could reconnect with Jesus and commit himself to Jesus all over again. Doubt is so often a healthy thing. Doubt is what keeps me humble, it keeps me open to the possibility that I may have it all wrong. It helps me remain a student rather than a know-it-all. It allows me to be curious rather than arrogant around people with whom I don’t agree. I particularly need Doubt as my companion when I am talking about my own opinions.
At The Shepherd and the Knucklehead, we are reminded to leave our opinions at the door. When someone says something with which we disagree, respond with wonder instead of judgment. We learn to respond with openness: “I wonder about that.” I was talking with Parker about doubt this week. He finally came to the point of saying, “The more I think about it, wondering and doubting might be the same thing. ‘Cept wondering feels more open and invitational.”
Jesus never berates Thomas for his desire to experience the risen Lord. In fact Jesus meets him at his place of doubt and leads him to a place of believing. He understands that Doubt has brought him to this place. And now, Jesus offers his hand to accompany Thomas on the rest of the journey. Doubt ushers Thomas to Jesus. Not the Jesus of Peter or Andrew or John. Not the Jesus they met, but the Jesus Thomas met. Doubt ushered Thomas to encounter the living Lord.
Today, Doubt is our friend who challenges the purely rational faith. We need it desperately! Jesus didn’t come to change our minds. Jesus came to change the world, and to do it by turning the hearts of human beings toward love. Doubt gets us out of our certainty into the questions of everyday life. Will I choose the way of Jesus in the space with no answers? Will I allow Doubt to lead me back to the well of Scripture and prayer again? Back to Jesus?
“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.” [Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values] Doubt leads us to belief, not intellectual assent, but passionate commitment.
Listen to Frederick Buechner again: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” [Buechner, Wishful Thinking: a theological ABC (New York, Harper & Row), p. 20.]
The longer I live I find myself growing less interested in the facts of faith. Instead, I find myself drawn to the simple experience of the presence of God, of love, and of peace. And so I have turned more to the ancient traditions, like Night Prayer – singing the Psalms and our prayers at the end of day – lighting candles in the sanctuary, reminding me of the constant presence of God in how we live and move through this sacred space. I invite God to touch and shape what it is I do, not knowing, but trusting the love of God to hold all the desires of my heart. And sometimes, in the quiet of the moment, Jesus comes, shows me his hands and side, calls me to join his journey through pain to life.
Doubt elbows me into asking for God to be present. And that is enough.