Doubt Gets A Bad Name

2nd Sunday of Easter-April 15, 2012-John 20: 19-31

Doubt gets a bad name on the path to faith. It is typically seen as something that erodes our faith in the gospel, that moves us farther away from God. A posture that weakens belief and makes skeptics and cynics. How many times have we heard people measure their faith as it compares to others by their willingness to believe without question, by their lack of doubt.

And yet, history has shown us only too clearly what happens to faith without doubt. Belief without questions leads to tyranny and slavery, to the worst choices of humanity. To greed and intolerance, racism and discrimination – all those evils  The very things that move us away from the gospel are the result of a failure to question, a failure to doubt, a failure to consider other possibilities.

And so we have poor Thomas, maligned and misunderstood throughout Christian history, so much so that he has become a secular colloquialism: don’t be a doubting Thomas, we say. And we don’t use this term to refer to doubt that is healthy, but to doubt that is corrosive. It describes a foolish lack of belief in the face of facts. And the last person it truly describes is the disciple Thomas.

Who was Thomas anyway? If we review the gospel, Thomas appears in two significant roles. In the first, when the other disciples try to prevent Jesus from travelling to Bethany because of the danger of being stoned that he might face, it is Thomas who steps up bravely: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” Is this a person who lacks faith? Is this a person who might be considered a corrosive presence among the disciples? Surely, we might call him Thomas the Courageous.

In the book of John, Thomas also has one the most famous exchanges with Jesus. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” he asks. And Jesus, we are told, replies: “I am the way and the truth and life.” In this instance, Thomas might be called the Illuminator of Truth.

But let’s acknowledge that, yes, upon meeting this person claiming to be Jesus, Thomas desired a few more facts, a clarification that this was not an imposter. Was he the only doubter in the room? Hardly. Even after Mary passed on her message from Jesus, a group of the disciples raced back to the tomb to check it out. They had to see for themselves. And Thomas was not with them. And with Jesus, did Thomas take off, did he abandon the cause? No, he stayed, despite the danger, for a week, no doubt trying to figure out what to do.

And finally, when he finds himself in the same room with Jesus, he is invited to touch him and see for himself. And he accepts that it is Jesus, strange as it may be. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” I caution you against literalism nearly every Sunday, and this is again one of those times. Are we to understand that Jesus was saying that the disciples and Thomas were therefore not blessed because they had been fortunate enough to have their doubts put to rest? No – in fact, Thomas was blessed enough, important enough to Jesus, that his doubts were laid to rest.

If we are thoughtful in our faith, we are all, at one time or another, and perhaps even most of the time, doubting Thomases. Doubt is necessary for faith, because it is our questioning about our role as Christians and the place of the gospel in society that keeps it alive, that keeps it moving. What is God’s message? Who does the gospel serve? Where does the gospel fit? Everyone who has thought they had that answer locked up has faltered miserably, if they did not cause endless human suffering. We need to be like Thomas, and we need the Thomases in our midst. Otherwise faith becomes as stale as week-old bread, unable to respond to need. That is what is most troubling about the people who say they have faith and God all sewn up, who speak without reservation and without much contemplation. Those people decide who is in and who is out, and what is so-called sin and what is not. They make themselves like God. And their words end up betraying the gospel. The most faithful people I have met in my life have always been the ones who asked the most questions.

Of course, always asking questions is not a true measure of faith either. We must also follow the other qualities of Thomas. That is the Thomas who posed his queries and then heard the answers. His questions changed and grew as his faith developed; he applied reason and intellect to his belief. Certainly that gave him the courage to stand with Jesus, knowing he had thought through what was right. That made him stronger because he had shored up his belief with thoughtfulness, not blindness. He saw clearly what was required of him.

And he did not get caught on the question, though he asked many. Having heard the answer – having been shown the answer in that room – he went forward and spread the word of Jesus – until it cost him his life.

If we run from our doubt, then we are saying that faith is not strong enough to stand up to a challenge. Does God exist? How much of the scripture is true? These are complicated questions – but not ones we need to run from. These days especially, Christians are faced with these questions in a secular world: is our belief so weak that we cannot pose them ourselves?

In fact, history teaches another lesson. The good path, the honourable path, is the one that can most easily stand up to questions. Am I right to judge this person? Is my reaction fair? Should grace prevail? Asking questions reveals the gospel to us – it shows us the right thing to do. And the funny thing is asking questions often changes the question itself. Many of the people who ask me, “Does God exist?” ultimately discover they are really asking: “How does God exist in my life?” And those people who wonder, “How much of scripture is true?” often find out that what they really want to know is, “How is the scripture true to me?” Those are important and essential questions. And we are free to ask them. After all, Jesus did not send Thomas to the corner for doubting. He beckoned him forward, he answered his questions.

Let us do the same.  Let us be courageous enough to believe that faith cannot falter with doubt.  Let us be bold enough to know that not only will our questions be answered, but our faith stronger. Amen