Today, I want to reflect on the importance of doubt in the life of faith. Nearly everyday I see at least fifty false statements – mostly memes or short comments – posted on Facebook. They are patently false and I do my best to resist correcting my friends for their violations of the commandment “not to bear false witness.” Dishonesty and intentional disinformation calls into question our integrity and the faith we affirm. In contrast, the quest for truth, often seasoned with healthy skepticism and doubt, is essential to the life of faith. While faith involves the unseen, it must be grounded in a commitment to truth, to facts, and to honest questioning.
The story is told of a man who sought guidance from the Bible. He believed that if he prayed long enough and then picked two scriptures, he would know God’s plan for his life. So, one day he asked God, “Tell me what I should do next. Show me the way.” He closed his eyes, opened the Bible and the first scripture he touched was Matthew 27:5, “Judas went away and hung himself.” A bit puzzled, he closed his eyes again, opened the Bible, and the next scripture he touched was Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise.”
Sometimes we want an easy answer. We want a political leader, pastor, or scripture to tell us exactly what to do. We don’t want to struggle with uncertainty. We want clear instructions, the type of instruction affirmed by a bumper sticker that reads, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” whether we’re talking about the creation of the universe, the age of the earth, homosexuality, and the cause and cure of the Coronavirus. Of course, such a bumper sticker begs the question, “What part of the Bible says it? Does the Bible say it say it definitively? And, does every part of scripture agree with this passage?”
Several years ago, I came upon a book entitled, “Instant Answers for the King’s Kids.” Emblazoned on the cover was a jar of instant coffee. I don’t know about you, but when I drink coffee, I want it strong and well-brewed, robust enough to heal the sick and raise the dead, and then walk down the street thereafter. I don’t want instant coffee. I want the real thing!
Deep faith mirrors author Madeleine L’Engle’s response to the question, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” to which she replied, “I believe in God with all my doubts!”
Well, that’s how Thomas felt. Poor Thomas has often been criticized for his lack of faith. Yet, I believe that Thomas was among the most faithful of Jesus’ followers. He wasn’t around on Easter; maybe he went home or fled to the hills. But, when he returned, he heard the amazing story of Jesus’ resurrection. He couldn’t believe it. It was too good to be true. He wanted proof about the most important fact in the universe – the Risen Jesus.
Do you blame him for wanting to be sure? Wouldn’t you want to be sure about a diagnosis or the safety of a friend or family member in a nursing home? Or, if your beloved really loves you?
What is amazing is that Thomas stays with the disciples. He doesn’t get it, but he hopes against hope that the resurrection message is true. His doubt is not about willfulness or skepticism. His doubt is motivated by the quest for truth, for something to believe in, in a world where a godly man can be arrested, beaten, and killed, for no reason.
When Thomas finally encounters Jesus, he is transformed. Doubt gives way to confidence and fear to hope.
I know how Thomas felt. I grew up in a conservative church, where you either took everything on faith or were considered an unbeliever, likely destined for hell. By the time I was a teenager, I no longer believed the faith of my childhood. But I had a deep spiritual yearning that took me through the magical mystery tour of the late sixties, Transcendental Meditation, Buddhism, and various Hindu philosophies. This quest for truth shaped my world, and I am grateful for the journey to the East.
But, in college, I read Paul Tillich’s “Dynamics of Faith,” perhaps the most important book in shaping my life as a pastor and theologian. Tillich affirmed that doubt is an essential part of faith. Doubt is a sign of how important an issue is to you, especially issues related to God and human destiny. Tillich enabled me to reclaim the Christian faith, not as a closed-system, literalist faith, but as faith constantly open to new understandings and strong enough to confess with the apostle Paul that “we see in a mirror dimly and one day we will see face to face.”
You see, doubt can be a positive force, almost as powerful as faith. Doubt is the Lysol that cleanses the germs of unquestioning certainty. Doubt challenges us to ask questions, raise contradictions, and see if the emperor really has clothes. Without healthy doubt, a college student joins a cult, travels to Guyana and drinks the Kool Aid. Without honest doubt, a person stays in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship believing there are no other options. Without the quest for truth – and a commitment to facts – we believe that cell towers and gays and lesbians are responsible for the Coronavirus, that being a Christian means you don’t have to practice physical distancing, and that wishful thinking trumps good science in terms of when the nation can reopen again.
Doubt casts light on life’s pretenders – it doesn’t always show the way forward but it clears the underbrush, reveals the half-truths and falsehoods, and enables us to find the path God intends for us.
Thomas’ doubt was a quest for truth, a quest to truly know the Risen Jesus, and when he saw Jesus, he believed. Years after encountering the Risen Jesus, Thomas traveled to India to preach the Gospel. There, he left a legacy, the Thomas Christians, the oldest Christian community in India. Perhaps, only Thomas among the disciples had the intellectual depth to dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists, sharing the good news of Jesus and making connections with the indigenous people. The hidden wisdom of doubt transformed Thomas – he became a teacher and proclaimer, able to address the doubts of others with the message of Jesus.
Let us not be afraid of the questions. Indeed, let’s ask lots of questions of our faith, our religious leaders, our politicians. Trusting the grace of God, our questions will open the door to new possibilities and show us the true way forward with Thomas and Jesus as our companions.