Lectionary texts for April 12. Acts 4:32, Ps 133, 1 John 1:2, John 20:19-31
"Doubts are like the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." Fredrick Buechner
I resonate with doubting Thomas when he says: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
Belief in God, in the whole Christian story, is not something that comes easily to many people. It is also something that, once gained, may not stay. True belief, I think, is more often wavering than unwavering. It just doesn't neatly fit the rational, provable scheme of things as we understand the world.
Thomas had walked beside Jesus throughout his ministry. He knew the teachings, believed in God, and worked at being a disciple. But he couldn't believe that Jesus had actually risen from the dead until he saw and touched him. He needed the same combination of anecdotal and empirical evidence the others had received. (Funny how we think of ourselves as scientific and fact based while considering the ancient world as "not" what we are. Yet here is a clear example of personal experience, reported facts, and a need for a replication of the results. Sounds like scientific verification to me!)
I read a posting by a D. Mark Davis who did some good work on translating this passage from the original Greek. He really doesn't like the NIV translation of verse 27 which reads; "...stop doubting and believe." I tend to agree with him. Telling someone to simply stop doubting and believe is a bit like ordering someone to "be happy" or "stop worrying." While we may aspire to those states of mind, there is no way to command this in anyone. We can't even stop ourselves from worrying at night, so how can we simply and suddenly believe? The disciples and Thomas spent years with Jesus, saw his work, heard his teaching, and still needed to see and touch the risen Christ. It was hard for them to believe. No wonder Jesus says: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
I am a pastor, and I deal with doubts, my own and those of others. When I hear horrible news of famines, abuse, war, and corruption, I wonder where God is. When I experience personal tragedy or failing, those can be times of wavering or of renewed faith. Recently I listened to someone question their faith. Years of struggle and prayer and belief and yet more struggle and no end to struggle very understandably leads a person to question the existence or caring nature of God. Not to have doubts, I think, would be delusional. I appreciated this person's honesty and marvel at the strength they are still able to draw from their belief in a God who can give hope in place of despair.
So far, I've always found my doubts to be useful tools, and I've learned to embrace my times of wavering belief. My doubts unsettle me and push me into opening mind and heart to new ideas. They push me to strive to understand, to study, to pray, to question. They cause the rejection of cliched responses to the faith questions of others. They help me to listen more carefully in a quest for understanding. They help me respond to other "Thomas" types.
D. Mark Davis suggests that a better translation of some of the verbs in the John story would be more indicative of a gradual coming to belief instead of an order to instantly believe. I like that, especially for those of us today (in possession of science biased brains) who "have not yet seen and are coming to believe."
I doubt that I will ever stop doubting, and ironically, that encourages me. So far, doubts have served me well (in spite of their their discomfort) because they have always pushed me to grow.
"Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith." Paul Tillich