“I feel like I’ve failed as a parent.”
Those words were spoken to me by a good friend. This man had raised his children going to church and given them a foundation in their faith. In particular, this man’s son loved church. During his high school years, he was active in the youth group and even spoke in front of the congregation about his faith. My friend’s son was now in college, living away from home. He was meeting friends with beliefs different than his own, and getting exposed to new ideas in his classes. When he returned home from school for Christmas break, his father expected him to go to back to the family’s church for the holiday. But the son was indifferent about going.
“I’m so sure I believe all that stuff anymore, Dad,” he told him. “Some of the things I learned in church don’t make a whole lot of sense anymore. How do I know that the reason I’m a Christian isn’t just because you are. If I was born in India, I’d probably be a HIndu. I have a lot of questions and doubts.”
His father was crushed. Where had he gone wrong? Had he not raised his son correctly? Was it a mistake to send him to non-Christian college? How did his son’s faith get ruined? That’s when he told me he had failed as a parent.
I asked if his son had rejected God entirely. He said, “No, but it’s just as bad. He has all these doubts and questions.”
“That’s good,” I said. “It shows he’s thinking about it and taking it seriously.”
“How can you say that?“ he yelled. “What do you want him to be, some sort of Doubting Thomas?”
“Well, actually, yes.” I said.
My friend was horrified by that answer and I can’t blame him entirely. After all, the phrase “Doubting Thomas” is often used pejoratively. Yet, in the Bible, not only is Thomas never referred to as “Doubting Thomas”, his story is actually celebrated. Not only that, the story implies that you and I, as people living after the time of Jesus, have the much in common with him.
Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” Unfortunately for Thomas, he didn’t show up at the right time. After Jesus has died, the rest of the disciples were in a locked room, hiding in fear of the religious authorities. Suddenly, Jesus appeared in their midst, breathes the Spirit on them and commissions them for service in the world.
Later on, Thomas hears about Jesus’ appearance to everyone else and he’s skeptical. He has some serious questions about what happened and understandably so. He says unless he can put his finger in Jesus’ wounds, he just can’t believe in a Risen Jesus. Thomas needs a first hand experience of faith. Just hearing about it from other people who say “trust us, it happened” isn’t good enough for him.
The next time the disciples are together, Thomas is in the right place. Jesus appears again. He doesn’t say, “Hey Thomas, I heard you had questions and doubts about my resurrection. How dare you question your friends! No faith for you!”
Instead Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds. He guides him into belief. Thomas even responds by declaring, “My Lord and my God.” He’s actually the only person in John’s Gospel who calls Jesus God. He ends up being the one who gets it.
Jesus never condemns Thomas. He says “Thomas you believe because you’ve seen this. Blessed are those who believe who haven’t seen this.” In other words, us. We are those who have not seen and yet are invited to believed.
As my friend, Makeesha Hall Fisher once said, “We are more often than not people of doubt who have beliefs, than people of faith who have moments of doubt” Our doubts range from the intellectual and scientific, to doubting that we can even trust God or religious leaders. Nevertheless, we are called blessed by Jesus. We aren’t condemned by him, for having doubts, but invited to experience belief first hand.
Now that may be contrary to what some religious authority told you at some point in your life. Thomas is often demeaned as Doubting Thomas, the poster boy for bad religious behavior. Many of us have been told, not only to keep quiet about our doubts, but even to repress them within us. It has become almost cliched for me to hear stories about being ostracized in a church for having doubts and questions, or being exhorted to “just have more faith”, or told one’s sufferings were directly caused by their doubts. Fear of doubt has been the source of much spiritual abuse in our churches.
On the other hand there are theologians like St. Augustine who said that doubt was faith seeking understanding. Or in the 21st century, Peter Rollins who said, “To believe is human, to doubt divine.” Or their secular counterpart, the bumper sticker that says, “Question Authority.”
When I was studying to become a pastor, I used to meet with a mentor who was a Methodist minister. I would often share with him my questions about theology, God and the Bible. For most of my life, I hadn’t had any safe place in which I could talk about those things. To a certain extent, I still don’t. One day, I shared with my mentor that perhaps all of my unresolved questions made me unqualified to be a pastor. I suggested that maybe it would be better for people to have a pastor who gave them simple, easy and certain answers. My mentor explained how wrong that would be. He said, the fact that I was struggling with these things, that I was unwilling to just say “whatever” and leave my calling behind, was a sign of God’s grace working in my life.
It was a life-changing statement for me. It’s true for each and everyone of us. Our doubts and questions, the simple fact that we care enough to doubt, is evidence that God is working in all our lives. They don’t separate you from God but may just lead you to God.
On the other hand, if you just want to doubt everything, believe nothing, and think none of it matters, well we probably don’t have much to talk about. My church would be of little use to you. But if you have doubts and they matter to you, my church welcomes you. You will not be cast out.
I heard it put best by Seth Donovan, a young woman who struggles with Christianity and her sexual identity, “The relationship of the church to me, because of the relationship of God to me is non-negotiable. That relationship doesn’t get to be taken away because I don’t have something that’s figured out.”
To authentically be the church, we need to welcome the doubter and their doubts and invite everyone to have a first-hand experience of the Risen Christ. We may be afraid of our doubts, but Jesus tells us not to be. Thomas was afraid of his doubts, but he had the courage to reach out touch Jesus for himself. He was taking the risk that the wounds might not be there, that it wasn’t really Jesus. Yet Thomas came to belief by touching the very wounds of Jesus, wounds that were inflicted at a time when Jesus himself had doubts and asked where God was in his life. Thomas believed in God through touching for himself the wounds that killed God.
20th century theologian Paul Tillich said, “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt” and "The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born."
I think we use the expression “dead certain” for a reason. Sure we need certainty about our values, but when we become “dead certain” a little part of us dies and stops living and growing. Jesus invites doubters to touch his wounds. He can handle the poking. The question is, can we?