Remembering Thomas

Doubt is not the enemy of faith, and it’s not the opposite of faith; doubt can be the dark, rich ground where true faith is born.

The story of Thomas and the other disciples on those first two Sundays after the resurrection is more than a story about a group of disciples huddled in fear behind locked doors. It’s a story about you and me. It’s about anyone who’s ever experienced significant disappointment or loss in life – anyone who has watched hope evaporate, anyone who has felt life collapse around them, anyone who has lost a dearly held dream. So this might be a story about you and me.

Have you have ever been fearful about life or so depressed you wanted to run away or hide in your bedroom and lock the door? When you heard someone describe a transforming experience of faith, did you doubt the story or wonder if such an experience could ever be yours? This could be your story, and it could also be a story about the blessing that may be yours even if your doubt is deep.

It’s interesting that the disciple Thomas has become known for his doubt. “Doubting Thomas” we call him. We don’t call him “Courageous Thomas,” even though when Jesus decided to go to Judea and the other disciples feared it would mean his death and theirs, too, Thomas was the one who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:7-16). We don’t call him “Honest Thomas,” even though he was the only one honest enough to express his cluelessness; “Lord, we don’t know where you are going,” he said during his last supper with Jesus. “How can we know the way” (John 14:5-6)?

And we don’t call him “Faithful Thomas,” even though his confession of faith, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), is the highlight of John’s gospel and the one place in all the gospels where the divinity of Jesus is forthrightly and unequivocally stated. We call him instead, “Doubting Thomas.”

We do that, perhaps, because in Thomas’s doubting is an example of faith and discipleship we can hold on to. I don’t feel Thomas’s courage and don’t know that I would be so willing and ready to die for my faith. I’m seldom as open and honest as he was in expressing my fears and doubts, perhaps because I believe if I don’t speak about them they’ll go away. And I don’t often feel the clear, unambiguous, rock-solid faith he finally professed. But I’ve known doubt like he did. I’ve struggled with doubt, and I do even today, and that makes me feel closer to Thomas.

A long time ago I learned a hymn that keeps praying itself in my heart. “O, for a faith that will not shrink, / Though pressed by every foe, / That will not tremble on the brink / Of any earthly woe! / A faith that shines more bright and clear / When tempests rage without; / That when in danger knows no fear, / In darkness feels no doubt” (William H. Bathurst, “O, for a Faith That Will Not Shrink,” 1831).

I keep praying that hymn because I want that kind of faith, and so often the faith I have feels weak and uncertain, fearful, ready to compromise, ready to run away or hide behind locked doors when tempests rage around me, ready to lock the door and draw the drapes, ready to escape to another world or another life. So I’m drawn to Thomas, the doubter, and to what his witness in the gospel says to me.

From the experience of the first disciples, and especially from Thomas, I’ve learned that faith neither isolates nor insulates me from the assaults and intrusions of the world, and it certainly does not dispel all doubt. I was baptized as an infant on Easter Day and have spent more than half my life in parish ministry, and still I wrestle in the dark, like Jacob at the Jabbok, with some unknown assailant (Gen. 32:22-32), and I wonder, is it Love divine I wrestle with, Love that may leave me limping for the rest of my life but blessed and with a new name?

Where was Thomas that first Easter evening? Was he out buying provisions? Had he gone fishing? Was he so disillusioned and angry that he had to walk away even from his friends? Was he so crushed by what life had dealt him that he had to get away from all of it? Wherever he was that first Easter, a week later he was with his companions again, and the one who is portrayed as doubting most deeply is the one who was invited into the most intimate contact with the risen Christ: “Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (v. 27). Only Thomas was invited so close, and out of the greatest doubt arose the greatest expression of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke may have had something like the doubts of Thomas in mind when he wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer” (from Letters to a Young Poet).

There’s a special place in my heart for Thomas, who tells me that my doubt may be the seedbed of new and richer faith. It may be precisely what leads me to my own experience of the risen Christ and to my own original, authentic statement of faith. So for now I’ll hold on and keep wrestling with what life hands me, and I’ll keep wrestling with my doubts. And I’ll remember Thomas.

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