Making Doubt Work for You

Psalm 150    John 20:19-31

April 11, 2010   Second Sunday of Easter

Years ago, back in college, I read a quote that was instrumental in changing my understanding of faith and its relationship with doubt.  It was Paul Tillich, a well-known theologian, who said “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”  Tillich went on to talk about the benefit of digging deeper into our doubts so that our faith could thrive.  He spoke of how vital it was that we went far into the matter, rather than skimming over the surface.  If we dug deep, then there was more room for faith when we were done digging into our doubts.  The image stuck with me, and would show up in my imagination sometimes when I felt that I was going deeper into the unknown with nothing to show for it but a big deep hole.  More space for faith! Tillich would whisper in my ear, and even though it was pretty terrifying to walk into that uncertainty, somehow that made it a little more manageable.

This morning’s reading from John focuses on Thomas, the one many folks call “doubting Thomas” because he had the audacity to question if Jesus had really appeared to the other disciples when he wasn’t with them.  The extent of his doubt becomes obvious as he boasts about not being willing to believe unless he put his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands and side.  If he was just a little uncertain, he probably would have said something more along the lines of “unless I see him myself, I won’t believe.”  His language and implied tone of voice that would accompany those words make it clear that Thomas was pretty certain Jesus did not appear to his colleagues.  And yet, despite his certainty that Jesus was still dead, as soon as Jesus actually did  show up, Thomas did not want to follow through on his earlier insistence that he touch the wounds.  He didn’t need to because the reality of Jesus’ presence was so obvious to him, there was no more room for doubt in his mind or heart or anywhere else for that matter.  Thomas responds to Jesus’ presence with what some have called one of the first statements of faith, “My Lord and my God!” 

What is interesting here, is Jesus’ response to Thomas.  He basically tells Thomas that believing in him after seeing him is not a big deal; what is a big deal is the people who would believe even though they did not see him.  Jesus is, of course, talking about you and me.  He is talking about the people who would build their faith on stories they heard, and later read, about Jesus.  They would believe because something in those stories touched their hearts, opened their minds or sparked their imagination. They would believe because someone they trusted believed and spoke of faith in a genuine and approachable way.  Essentially, they would believe because something or someone ignited their faith.

Faith, as Tillich said, is not really the opposite of doubt.  Faith comes into play in our lives when we do not have any evidence; when we cannot figure things out in a way that makes total sense to us, and yet we trust in the truth of it anyway.  Faith comes in when we give up on the need to prove something to ourselves or to anyone else.  Faith is best when it is deeply thoughtful, though.  I have seen bumper stickers that say “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Not exactly an opening to a good conversation, is it?  Faith, if it is nothing else, is a good conversation between us and God.  It is a conversation that is not afraid to ask hard questions.  Faith is good company when we plunge down into the depths of the darkest and emptiest emotions, because faith has been there before.  Faith is comfortable dealing with shadows, and is ironically good at taking doubt seriously.  I do not believe that we are asked to check our minds at the door, when we come to church or when we enter into a relationship with God.  All of us is welcome, even those parts of ourselves that don’t seem to know how to dress for the occasion, don’t know how to behave.  I remember going to church when I was quite young.  A friend and I had discussed the whole notion of praying with our heads bent down and we had decided that it didn’t make any sense.  If you are with a friend or someone you love, you look at them, you smile at them; and so this is what we did with God.  When the minister asked the congregation to bow our heads in prayer, Susie and I would steal a quick glance at each other, smile, and defiantly turn our heads up to where we imagined God to be.  Then we joined in prayer, feeling that we had figured things out pretty well regarding our relationship with God.

I think that if I had grown up in a church whose pastor read us the riot act for doing what looked like rebellion, then my whole faith journey might have taken a different turn; but I was encouraged to keep thinking and talking about God in whatever ways made sense to me.  The first, most basic thing in the life of faith is to actually have a relationship with the holy.  It doesn’t matter if the relationship fits into anyone else’s idea of what it should look like.  For children and young people, this is especially critical.  Kids get turned off of religion, chased away from a spiritual life every day by older folks who think they ought to give the kids the so-called “right” answers and point them down the path of faith in “appropriate” directions.  And sadly, what happens is that, instead of influencing the young people in positive ways, they turn them off of any kind of organized religious activity and sometimes even scare them away from having anything to do with God as well.  It is a little tougher to turn someone off of God, though, because God is persistent.  God is known in some circles as “the hound of heaven,” meaning God will pursue you for as long as it takes to catch up with you.  God doesn’t give up on people - even disrespectful-seeming young people and kids with impertinent questions and older folks who have seen too much pain and brokenness to believe easily.  In fact, I think God enjoys the freshness of someone who is willing to ask the hard questions, someone who is not afraid to let doubt creep into their mind once in awhile, someone who is honest about what they do and do not understand, someone who might even get angry at God at times, trusting in the relationship to be strong enough to hold the anger.

God is not afraid of us nor is God afraid of our strongest emotions.  God does not have to be protected from our deepest doubts.  None of this shakes God half as much as it might shake us to go through it.  God will not get mad at us and disown us for the very things that are shaking our foundations.  If anything, this is a time when compassion surrounds us, nurtures us and helps us get through the difficulties.  A lot of people spend a good bit of their lives worried that God might not be able to handle the fact that they have really powerful doubts.  But this just isn’t true.  We are welcomed and held in love - doubts and all.

Knowing that my doubts don’t scare God, gives me a bit more courage to face them myself.  And if I face them, then I can usually ferret out some good in the middle of the havoc they wreak in my life.  I can usually see a glimmer of light shining out of one of the dark corners somewhere, and discover something new about my faith that might have gone unnoticed and unappreciated for a long time had it not been for doubt bringing me down to the depths to begin with.  It is not easy, to go down into these dark places, places that seem so antithetical to faith, but the trip is definitely rich and fulfilling and very, very worthwhile.  So, the next time you feel doubts coming into your faith, don’t shut them out, but listen to them, see what they are trying to teach you, watch where they are drawing your attention.  You may find that your faith will actually grow not in spite of your doubt, but because of it. 

God, you are with us always, even in the midst of the deepest dark days of our lives.  You watch over us as we wander aimlessly through the corridors of our confusion.  You protect us from harm when we stumble and trip over our own fears.  Help our faith to grow and become stronger because of this faith journey we are on with you.  Bless us with your love.  Bring us safely home again to your heart.  In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.