The Transforming Power of Doubt

John 20:24-31

I recently read Amy and Jonathan Hollingsworth’s Runaway Radical. It was a highly disturbing book that recounts what happens when an idealistic, socially concerned, and compassionate young man – just a college sophomore – goes to Africa on a mission and falls under the control of an authoritarian religious group. Soon after his arrival, Jonathan discovered that the group was not what it claimed to be: they controlled his time, who he could contact, what he could say publically, and saw any questions on his part as evidence of his lack of faith.

After less than a year, Jonathan was able to return to America, broken, uncertain of his faith, and traumatized by spiritual abuse. Although he was welcomed back by his loving family, the religious leaders of his church turned their backs on him, insisted that he remain silent about his experiences, and questioned his faith.

Jesus once said, “Woe unto those who harm my little ones.” And, Jonathan was harmed by those who claimed to follow Jesus.

Thomas gets a terrible rap among preachers and even a bit of a dig in today’s scripture. He is accused of being a doubter, of being half-hearted in his faith, and compared unfavorably to those who believe without evidence of the risen Jesus.

I believe Thomas is a hero of faith, and that his approach to the resurrection is a model for healthy religion. First of all, Thomas is missing when Jesus appears to his disciples. When he returns, he discovers that they are spirit-filled and elated. He no doubt wonders what happened here – are they unhinged because of the stresses of the past week? Did they have a group hallucination? Or did they truly encounter the risen Jesus?

Thomas states his position clearly and honestly, “I won’t believe unless I see Jesus and touch his wounds to verify that it is him.” Is this an act of doubt and skepticism or does it represent a living, breathing, dedicated faith?

What happens next is amazing in many ways. Thomas sticks around. He doesn’t abandon his fellow disciples, even though he’s the only one left out. You can imagine how painful it is – to be among true believers, indeed people you trust, and be unable to accept their faith wholeheartedly. But, Thomas stays, and he waits. He needs more than their word to trust that Christ is alive. He needs to see Jesus. And, when Jesus returns, Thomas’ life is transformed.

The theologian Paul Tillich asserts that doubt is an essential aspect of faith. We can be certain that we experienced something; but we can also question if our experience reflects the nature of God or reality. Doubt reminds us that we and those we trust – even our faith tradition – are fallible, finite, mortal, and capable of making mistakes. As the apostle Paul was to say in 2 Corinthians, we have this faith, our rituals, practices, beliefs, but they are in clay jars. To claim to have all the truth or to claim absolute authority is to create idols of our institutions, holy books, and beliefs.

Over the years, especially when I was a university chaplain at Georgetown, I studied the behaviors of cults or high-pressure religious groups. All of them, regardless of belief, have common elements – they demand total obedience, they see questioning as a sign of spiritual infidelity, and withhold their love whenever a member steps out of line.

One has to wonder how certain events would have occurred differently: at Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, the Manson clan, or even at the Boston Marathon, or in today’s ISIS, if questioning were encouraged and not punished. Questions allow us to discern whether our beliefs or behaviors and those of our institutions truly reflect healthy and life-affirming values.

The church should be a place of questions. Not questions to debunk people’s spiritual values, but questions to affirm and support our spiritual maturity and integrity. All of us have questions – over the past several months, I have heard questions such as:

  • Are non-Christians saved or destined to hell?
  • What happens if I can’t believe in Jesus?
  • Did God invent religion or did we invent God?
  • Is the Bible true?
  • Do I have to go to church to be faithful to God?
  • What’s right – science or the Bible?
  • Do people who commit suicide go to hell?

These are just the tip of the iceberg. If your faith is important to you, then you will ask questions from time to time, not out of unbelief but to believe more fully.

Once author Madeleine L’Engle was asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” She responded, “I believe in God with all my doubts?” And, that’s healthy faith. Living and loving the questions, yet seeking God’s light every step of the way.

A number of years ago, I met a woman from India, whose last name was “Samuel.” That seemed to me an odd name for an Indian, until she explained that she came from a Christian group, known as the “Thomas Christians.” This group dates its beginnings to Thomas’ mission to India not long after Thomas encountered the risen Jesus.

It is only fitting that Thomas among the disciples went to India. Only a person, willing to question and allow his faith to be stretched, could dialogue with the complex and multi-dimensional faiths of Hindus and Buddhists. Only someone who opened her or his mind to alternative possibilities could find common ground with persons of other faiths as a basis for sharing the gospel.

So today, we celebrate the transforming power of doubt. We come here because Christ is alive, and we recognize that we want to know more; we want him to touch us and to touch him in life-changing ways. We have questions, and God blesses them, because every faithful quest – even those shaped by doubt – is a pathway to God.