Let’s Hear it for Doubt
John 20: 19-31
I worry at Easter that some folks – whether they come willingly, out of duty, or dragged by someone else – will feel out of sorts with the day, like they don’t “match” the celebration and jubilance of the occasion.
The beauty of the liturgical seasons is that we are pulled along with them, to experience a full range of emotions, moods, and spiritual states whether they are our particular states at the moment or not. Going through the liturgical seasons gives us practice in handling the various states in which we find ourselves. It helps underscore that even when we don’t feel like praying, we are upheld by the prayers of others. We’re all in this together, so it’s not up to me or you or you to match the season or the mood or even to be fully present on a given day.
So I shouldn’t worry about folks at Easter but I do. On a regular Sunday there are plenty of people who feel that if they aren’t happy or put-together or confident or headed in the right direction, then church is not the place for them. As if Jesus said, Come to me all you who are peppy and who don’t need me instead of “Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11: 28). Easter can make it worse. People are so exuberant and many worship services are so packed-full of activity (without even a moment of silence to absorb it all) that it can feel alienating to those who may not be sure yet if they have left their own tombs.
But this is just the kind of thing I worry about. Because I worry about students, too. I worry that some students eye the amphitheatre guy or very enthusiastic, chirpy Christians and think that those people are “getting it.” Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn’t mean that’s the only way or the right way to get it. I worry that these same students might think that coming to Wesley means you have it all together, have answered all your questions, and feel good and joyful at every turn. I hope, if you are here tonight, this isn’t what you think. I hope that, no matter how you came in tonight – mad, sad, glad, confused, dog-tired, deeply in love, fed up with love, about-to-change-your-major, not sure where you saw God last, not sure what you believe about God, or ready to give your personal testimony – I hope that, no matter what, you know that there is room for you, for all of these states of being and more.
People have strange notions about faith and doubt. First of all, we talk about it like that: faith and doubt. As if they are two completely separate or opposite things. We talk as if faith means: no questions, no thought, blind assent, no struggle, like it’s a personal achievement, all answers are given, everything is settled, and everything that is wrong has been fixed. We talk as if doubt is a personal failure or character deficit, as if it is the same as faithlessness, lack of belief, sin, straying. We even refer to the story from John as “Doubting Thomas,” which seems to miss the point almost entirely.
When Jesus comes back to the house a week after Easter, a week after appearing to the other disciples gathered there on Easter night, he comes right in, stands in their midst, and says, “Peace be with you.” And even though he wasn’t there when Thomas was talking with the others that week…even though Jesus wasn’t there when Thomas laid out his demands for belief in the risen Christ…Jesus turns immediately to Thomas and says Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. And, just like Mary Magdalene at the tomb last week when someone she thought was the gardener suddenly speaks her name, Thomas hears Jesus’ invitation and – without touching him – Thomas knows and believes who Jesus is. He proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus is not a begrudging participant in his interactions with Thomas. There is no exasperated sighing or rolling of the eyes. Jesus never calls him a Doubting Thomas. Jesus doesn’t come back a week after Easter, offering greetings of peace to everyone except Thomas. And he doesn’t put any conditions on what Thomas has said he needs in order to believe. Jesus does not even wait for Thomas to ask. Jesus simply offers Thomas what he is looking for, what he needs. We worship a God who doesn’t just stand in our midst while we struggle, but who takes our hands and guides us.
When I hear that someone has doubt(s), I think “How interesting!” I think, “Cool. God is working on something with him.” I don’t worry about the doubt itself, but I do worry when the person thinks she is confessing something horrible by telling this to me. Look at the story again: Thomas says he needs to see and figure this out for himself. Jesus walks in and offers him exactly what he said he needed. In love and with grace.
I wonder why we call him “Doubting Thomas.” Why don’t we call Peter “Denying Peter”? We have plenty of examples of disciples taking their own sweet time to get on board. We have nothing but “imperfect” disciples trying their best to follow Jesus, carrying along their own confusion and passion and belief and doubt, all the way to Golgotha and the Garden and that locked room a week after Easter and beyond.
The disciples offer us the grace of their humanity, their imperfect faith and their imperfect doubt – each riddled with the other (Lauren Winner, Still). They offer us a glimpse of how to follow, whether we feel like it or not, whether we know how to or not, whether we have seen and touched Jesus or not.
So I want to suggest some alternate definitions of faith and doubt.
Doubt is the wrestling that is integral to faith, as with Jacob and the angel. Sometimes it lasts all night, sometimes for an instant, sometimes a season, or years. It’s the way to go deeper and keep engaged. It is unafraid to ask hard questions and to let them hang there and resonate. Doubt is utterly acceptable to God and, as with Thomas, God responds to this graciously, willingly, and without our having to plead.
Faith is a story that tells us who we are and how we fit in. It’s a gift from God in which we participate. It’s not a state to achieve but a path and a practice in which to be absorbed for life. We live our way into the long arc of this story, not always knowing where we are on the arc or where we are going next but knowing that “God’s got it.” Maybe that is all we ever believe or try to believe, and that is OK.
I don’t know what we would call this story if we had a better name…Look-at-his-faith-and-doubt-Thomas? Jesus Loves a Doubter? Faith and Doubt, the Double-Sided Coin? I just know we are missing the point when we spurn him and “put him in his place” with the name Doubting Thomas. And we thwart ourselves. Read on, read to the end. Listen to the actual story. Doubt doesn’t have the last word – and it’s not a word or a state of being that frightens Jesus. He welcomes it and Thomas. Jesus calls him over and offers his wounds, offers for Thomas to stick his hand inside his body. Without price and with great love, Jesus offers the intimate and strangely beautiful: for Thomas to put himself into Christ’s wound, to be, literally, in Christ. I doubt there is anything more terrifying or beautiful than that.
Thanks be to God!
© 2007, 2012 Deborah E. Lewis