The Cost of Doubt
1 John 1
John 20: 19-31
Today we hear the very familiar story of doubting Thomas. He has heard the news that Jesus appeared among the disciples and yet he does not believe it - or rather he is unsure, for as he describes it, he is not against believing, he just wants proof. And after Jesus gives him that proof Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
This reminds me of the story of a little boy, the son of a pastor whose parent told him to go wash his hands after playing in the dirt because of all the germs. The child refused saying “Germs and Jesus! Germs and Jesus! That’s all I ever hear around this house and I’ve never seen either one!”
At least most of us here have probably never seen the risen Christ and so we are part of that group of Christians who, by our very presence in this room, are proclaiming that we believe in some way in a resurrected Christ. Whether you believe that to be literal or a story does not matter. Your presence here declares that the story has meaning for you, that resurrection and the new life that it proclaims are realities for you. We are, therefore, part of that group of blessed people who have believed in some way without seeing. But we live in a time when Christianity has been around for awhile. I think back to the time of Jesus and find myself wondering how easy it would have been to believe around the time of Jesus’ death? If we were living at that time, I think it might have been much harder for us to accept that a person we had actually seen and heard about, maybe even someone who grew up in our home town, maybe someone we went to school with, had arisen in any way from the dead. The farther back in time an event occurred, I think the easier it probably is to believe in it: the more distance we have from knowing the person personally, the less their story has to compete with an image of who we thought they were. I imagine that knowing Jesus and seeing him as a person might have made it very difficult for some, like Thomas, to believe without some kind of proof.
The gospel writer John is very clear about his reason for writing his gospel stories. He says, “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Many scholars believe that the gospel of John was written around 125 AD, so few, if any, of the people who met Jesus were still alive. Still, it was a time close enough to Jesus’ life that it was still probably difficult for many to believe a resurrection story about someone they may have connections with, either through friends or relatives. “Aaron’s cousin, Jesus, was said to have risen from the dead. What do you think of that?” It is in this context - of not knowing Jesus, but probably knowing people who did know or were somehow related to Jesus, that John is writing his gospel. And he is encouraging them to believe without sight, saying this is a blessed thing; to believe even when their senses have not been given the same proof the disciples were given. Hard for many people today. No doubt even harder for the people of Jesus’ time.
But whatever you believe the resurrection to mean or be about, my question for you today is what does this story tell us about doubt, about our own doubts, about our times of faith struggle, and about where God is in those times and experiences?
With Jasmyn’s permission, I want to share with you some of the faith story of my eldest daughter. Jasmyn is now 15, but, perhaps especially when she was little, she had a very special relationship with God. She talked to God starting at a very young age, and she would often tell us about things that God had said to her. I believe in those conversations. I think children are in a unique place, before the cynicism of age has crept in, before the “realism” of life raises doubts in them, to really hear God’s voice in ways that most adults can no longer do. Someday I will share with you some of the things Jasmyn has shared with me about her conversations about God. But today I want to share something different. When Jasmyn was about 7 years old at dinner one night (where all my deep theological conversations with my daughter seem to take place), Jasmyn popped up with “Mama, I’ve been thinking and I’ve been realizing that believing in something doesn’t make it real. I mean, we can believe things that aren’t real, that aren’t true.”
“Yes, that’s true!” I agreed, thinking of the many times Jasmyn had said things to me such as, “I know you don’t think fairies are real, but they are. I know you don’t think Pegasus’ are real, but they are.”
But Jasmyn continued, “So it is possible that we believe in God, but God might not be real. Our believing in God could just be a belief that doesn’t make God real.”
So I answered, “Yes, you are right, Jasmyn. Believing does not make something real. That is why our belief is called ‘faith’. It isn’t something you can prove or disprove. It is something you believe without that.”
This answer made Jasmyn very uncomfortable. She thought about it and began to cry, “Well, then how do we know God is real?”
“Well the simple answer is that we don’t know if by knowing you mean having hard, scientific evidence. We believe it. We trust it. But many people, at least, would say that we don’t know in the sense of having irrefutable proof.” After a pause I added, “Jasmyn you yourself have told me on many occasions that God has spoken to you. You have told me of things that God has said to you. So you have heard God. Don’t those conversations act as a proof for you that God is real?”
“Well, it’s occurred to me that those things I thought God told me just might be my own voice inside my head.” She was clearly very distressed by this. And I found myself both a little sad and a little proud. The sad part was that she had finally grown beyond the innocent blind acceptance of her faith. That magical childhood time of unwavering and unquestioning faith she had begun to leave behind. When Jesus said, “you must come to me as a little child”, I believe he meant we must come knowing that there is more to learn, that God is not done with us, that we don’t have all the answers. I believe Jesus meant we must come searching for answers and wanting to know more. I don’t think he meant we need to come without questions or doubts. But still, as with any parent, there are some moments of grief as our children leave aspects of their childhood behind. I had enjoyed hearing about Jasmyn’s conversations with God and it occurred to me that they were now changing, or her absolute faith in them was now changing.
The pride part for me held a recognition that she was also beginning to engage her faith with her mind, something God also calls us to do. Yes, those who can believe without proof may be, as Jesus said, “happy.” I mean face it, it is easier to have all the answers. It is easier to have an unwavering faith. It is easier, and I would say happier even, to believe 100 % without doubts or reservations in a God who is with us, who loves us, who has been resurrected and calls us into new life with God.
But God calls us to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and Jesus added MIND to the list - and that mind engagement is going to cause moments of doubt, moments of crisis, moments of questioning and exploration. As we’ve discussed before, it is, according to the spiritual development experts, those very periods of crisis, including periods of doubt, that cause our faith to grow, to develop, to become deeper and more real. Real faith is a living, breathing thing. It must be allowed to be explored and searched. If we keep it boxed into a rigid tight doctrine, it is not real, it cannot spread roots, it cannot grow up to the heavens, it cannot be firmly rooted in the creation God has made.
In other words, doubt is a gift. Frederick Buechner describes doubt this way. “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
None the less doubt is uncomfortable. It isn’t comfortable to be unsure, to be in crisis, to be in a time of spiritual turmoil. This is not comfortable at all. And it has the possibility of leading into cynicism which is unhealthy and causes unhappiness. But for those willing to truly engage it, look at it, explore it, doubt is a gift. For it calls us to take our faith seriously, to explore with God what it means to be a person of faith, to continue to grow in our relationship to God and in our understanding.
It does even more than that. In today’s scripture when Thomas doubted, how did Jesus respond? Did he say “well, forget you, Thomas. You needed proof, so I no longer accept you as one of my own!” Did he say, “Happy are those who believe without proof and cursed are those who need it?” No. Instead, what did he do? He came to Thomas. He came to Thomas and invited Thomas into a much closer relationship with him: he invited Thomas to touch him, to experience him with his eyes, his ears and even his sense of touch. Jesus was their teacher, the “Rabbi” as they described him, and for him to allow himself to be touched would have been breaking, once again, some of the most important Jewish rules of the time: to be touched in this way at this time would have made Jesus “unclean” by the laws of the day. But Jesus crossed this line: he chose intimacy with Thomas, he chose relationship. Helping Thomas believe was much more important than anything else and Jesus was willing to do whatever was needed to meet Thomas and offer this gift of faith to him. For Thomas, his doubt brought him this deep gift. Doubt brought his faith to a deeper and more intimate level.
For those of you who are curious, my answer to Jasmyn, as it would be to any of you in the middle of a faith crisis was simply this, “I believe in those conversations (or experiences) you had with God. The God I know and love does say or communicate the things you have told me about; things like ‘This is my world’ and ‘I am always with you.’ But if my belief in your conversations with God, if my belief in God is not enough for you right now, that is okay too. Because my God is okay with your doubt as well as your faith. My God loves all of who you are, with your struggles, with your questions, with your confusion, with your doubts. And God’s love for you and God’s faith in you, even if you do not have faith in God, is enough to save the whole world.”
But the story didn’t end there. Just like Thomas, Jasmyn was not content to just stay in the doubt. For months after her first expression of this doubt she continued to do what felt like “badgering” to me. Every day or so she would pop up with things like “Well, except we don’t really know if God is real or not,” and she sounded defiant or angry every time she said it, like she was testing me, I thought. But finally, I heard it a little differently and I said to her, “Jasmyn, it sounds like your doubt is really upsetting you.” She acknowledged that it was. So I said to her, “Jasmyn, as I’ve told you before, God can handle your doubt. So take it to God. Ask God what to do with or about it. Ask God how you can feel sure that God is real.”
A few days later as we were driving home from school, Jasmyn said to me, “You know, God loves this earth and really wants us to take care of it.”
Her tone was so different from the last few months’ conversations about God that I had to ask, “Jasmyn, you really sound sure about that. Did you talk to God like I suggested before?”
“Yes,” she told me, and she continued, “I talked to God about whether or not God was real and God said to me, ‘Jasmyn, I am more real than any of you. I’m more real than your friends, I’m more real than your mama, I’m more real than your sister and brother, and I’m even more real than you.’ So I don’t doubt anymore. God is more real than any of us.” Out of the mouths of babes.