April 23, 2006
It might seem kind of strange, dealing with the subject of doubt, right on the heels of Easter. After all, Easter is a time of wonder and joy and victory. But doubt, and unbelief were also a big part of that first Easter. This story was so unbelievable, and so amazing that it took a while for the disciples to “take it all in.” And some of their doubting experience helps us in our own times of doubt.
“Everybody has doubts.” Do you think that’s true? (Let’s see the hands of everyone who never had a doubt about their faith.) We all have doubts from time to time. We have doubts about God, doubts about Jesus, doubts about our salvation. Sometimes it’s as though we have no problem believing that God could do the great miracles in the Bible, but we doubt he has the power to deal with our problems, to heal our hurts, to lift us out of our despair.
By the way, let me say this right up front. I am no different. I have doubts, too. I deal with many of the same doubts you have. A seminary degree or an “REV” at the beginning of one’s name does not cure the “doubting bug.” Call it temptation, call it weakness, call it human-ness, call it skepticism, we all have it. I’d like to start by offering a couple of observations.
First, doubts are like emotions. The emotional part of us has been likened to being on a roller coaster. Do you like roller coasters? I love roller coasters! (Especially the hanging underneath kind!!) Our emotions are like that. They go up, they go down, and sometimes the best we can do is to hang on! (And maybe scream!) Emotions are often (but not always) tied to our circumstances of our lives, which are sometimes beyond our control. In our Purpose Driven Life study, Rick Warren said, we cannot always control our circumstances, however we can choose to control our response to those circumstances. That’s a great way of thinking!
Our emotions are often tied to those circumstances. So they’re up and down, and they are unreliable for the basis of our daily living. Yet too many people in our world base their lives on them! And sometimes – perhaps too often – people tie their faith to their emotions and their circumstances. This is where doubts come in. When they “feel” bad, they “feel” like they aren’t very spiritual or faithful, and that’s when they doubt God’s love and acceptance for them. When life’s circumstances are bad, and we’ve reacted poorly to them, we feel bad about ourselves, and we feel like God doesn’t love us, either.
That’s why the Bible talks so much about the “Steadfast love” of God. In the Hebrew, that was the word “Hesed.” That was a very important term to those people. And it should be to us, too. When we are “feeling down” we need to be looking, not at our emotional state, but to the steadfast love of God, which is reliable and not “roller coaster-like.” When we are not sure of ourselves, or we feel bad about our faith, we get through that by looking to the concrete and always reliable promises of God to us. And the promises of God are not subject to our feelings at any given time.
So, doubts are like emotions. And as I said, sometimes they follow them. Sometimes we are very sure of our faith, and sometimes we doubt. And once again, praise God that our acceptance by him and his love for us is steadfast, and is not tied to our particular level of belief or doubt! I know we feel like it is sometimes. But we know by what his promises that God is sure and steadfast and reliable – like a rock. And God is often described as our “rock” in the Bible. And according to Jesus, a rock is a good place to build a house when the storms of life roll in.
So, when we doubt, just as when our emotions are at a low ebb, we need to look to that which is reliable. In both cases, if we focus on the doubt, if we focus on the low emotional state, we will get stuck there, won’t we? When Peter was out walking on the water, he was ok as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. When he turned and looked at the waves and the storm, he started to sink!
This is pretty basic stuff, I know. But sometimes the basic is exactly what we need when we are facing doubt. Until we heal emotionally or spiritually, we sometimes need to go to some basic stuff so we have something to “hang on to.” (And maybe scream a little!)
Here’s another observation. Sometimes our doubts come from our intellectual process. We think of the infinite nature of God and how we cannot comprehend him, and we can start to think to ourselves “if we cannot comprehend it, it may not be true.” If it doesn’t make sense to our reason, then it must not be. That’s what goes on in us. And the solution to that is often the same. Go to that which is reliable. Also, keep the thought process going. Because doubts tend to make us stop in our tracks, don’t they? They make us turn and “focus on the waves.” Harry Emerson Fosdick once preached a famous sermon called “Doubting our Doubts.” In it he said that for intellectual kinds of doubt it was important to keep thinking it through – with prayer and scripture, and perhaps with a friend. He said we should keep the searching process going until we begin to “doubt our doubts” and thereby return to faith. Try that sometime and see if it isn’t true!
In this famous story for today, Thomas doubted. When we think about his story, let me ask you this. Which kind of doubt do you think he had? Was his doubt emotional or intellectual? Actually, I think it was both! Certainly he doubted intellectually that Jesus was alive again. That defies any kind of logic we can think of. But I think he had the “double whammy” of the emotional doubt as well. Like the others, his life was devastated. So much promise, so much hope, so much excited anticipation that they all shared had been crushed by the crucifixion of their leader. Add to that the fear they all had that they might be the next victims in the campaign to snuff out the life and teachings of this upstart rabbi, Jesus.
If we put ourselves in that place, maybe we can understand these words of Thomas that seem to be loaded with cynicism and even anger. “I won’t believe it until I put my finger in the holes in his hands and side. There was a lot of disbelief on Easter morning. There was doubt and fear. And Thomas’ anger is understandable. “How dare you dishonor the memory of our Lord after all that’s happened by saying such nonsense!” That’s all in there. Unfortunately, we often read these stories in our “Bible voice.” And we fail to put in there the emotions that are sometimes so obviously present.
Let me tell you something else about Thomas. I think he’s been misrepresented over the years. I think Thomas has gotten a “bum rap.” I don’t think he deserved the epithet “Doubting Thomas.” I don’t think he’s deserved having his name associated with doubters down through the ages. You see, I don’t think Thomas was any more a doubter than any of the others. The only difference here was that he was not there when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. His problem was not intellectual or emotional so much as it was “locational.” If it had been one of the others who was not there that first time, we would have been calling people “doubting Matthews” or “doubting Andrews” for the last two thousand years!
Think about it! I believe that was the very thing John was pointing out in this story. Look how he ends this. He concludes with Jesus saying these words to his disciples and to us the readers, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” The more I think about it, the more I think that is the focus of this story. And since belief is a huge word in John’s gospel, that fits. This is then a story that is not so much about a particular man’s personality as it is about the lessons of seeing and believing without seeing.
Sorry if I just blew two thousand years of teaching on this passage. Actually that kind of gives me a feeling of power! Seriously, though, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people build “personality profiles” on Thomas based on this passage, saying “he was the skeptic of the group.” “He was the one who had a healthy need for empirical evidence.” “Therefore those who have those tendencies have a kindred spirit in Thomas.” Nonsense! Thomas was simply the one who was not there the first time.
I think that makes this story more powerful to us. Because that puts all of us in Thomas’s shoes – or sandals! This now becomes not a story just for the benefit of the skeptics in among us. It is a story for all of us! Because we have these doubts. And the writer wants us all to believe! We all have these kinds of troubles fitting this supernatural wonder into our brains. And yes, we who have “not seen and yet believe” are blessed. But we can also have the benefit of this story when we’re not sure about our faith. The story of Thomas can help us get our eyes back on Jesus and not on the waves. It can help us to rely less on our emotions when we are experiencing those times of doubt, and to rely more on that which is constant and reliable, the steadfast love of God.
When you doubt. Think of that term “The steadfast love of God.” The Hebrew “Hesed.” It is not reliant on our trustworthiness, but God’s. And to God be all glory, honor, and praise, now and forever!
Eternal God, you are faithful, and your steadfast love endures forever. We rejoice in that, and we rely on you when our faith is weak, and when we doubt, and when we feel like we’ve failed you and when we’re looking only at the storm. Lift us up, Lord. Set our feet upon the rock. Strengthen us with your promises and your grace, to live this life in your glory. For this we pray in your name, Amen