April 3, 2016, The Faith of Doubting Thomas – guest speaker Carroll Boswell
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John 20:24-29 says, “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’ Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’
Before we go into thinking about this passage, we need to understand that the Greeks used only one word where we use three. The word πιστευω means “have faith” or “believe” or “trust”. To us, these are somewhat different ideas, but in the New Testament they are all represented by a single word. That is why translating is such a tricky thing and also why there are so many translations that are a little different from each other. But how we translate something can make a big difference in how we think. This particular word, πιστευω, occurs frequently in the New Testament as you might expect. Most translations render it as either “have faith” or else as “believe”. In the story of Thomas the word is used five times and every time it is translated as “believe”.
Because we read it as “believe” so often, we have naturally been inclined to think that Christian faith in mainly a matter of belief. If you ask someone, “Are you a Christian?” they would think we are asking if they believe Christian things. We mainly use the word “believe” to refer to ideas or doctrines or verses in the Bible. We believe Jesus was God who came in the flesh. We believe we should try to be good people. We believe John 3:16, that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. But we mainly use “trust” about people or about God. Our beliefs happen in our minds, they are what we think; but our trust happens in the way we respond to people. It seems to me that Christian faith is more about Who we trust than it is about what we believe and we have gotten a bit off track.
In this passage, what was Thomas’ problem? Well, he certainly did not believe what the other apostles told him, but more fundamentally he did not trust the reliability of their witness. The others had had the same problem until Jesus appeared to them eight days before. Thomas wanted proof and that is what they had wanted as well, but Thomas was the one who said it out loud. He wanted to see Jesus for himself like they had. Why should he believe their account when they hadn’t believed the women’s account. No one trusted anyone else’s report; they all had to see it for themselves; they were all doubters, but Thomas gets the title because he had so many people he didn’t trust.
And he was right to not trust them. People are not trustworthy. That is why Jesus kept showing Himself repeatedly to so many people for so long after the Resurrection. It was important that they all believe He had been raised from the dead, but even more importantly it was important that they trust Him and you can’t trust someone who is dead. They all wanted proof. They all – not just Thomas – wanted to be certain. It was too important, and too hard to swallow, to proceed otherwise, and so He gave it to them.
They had all needed to see Him, but He cautioned them that in the future He would not make it so easy. Soon He would ascend and they would see Him no more. They believed because they had seen Him, but “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” To put it in different words, “Blessed are those who trust Him even without proof.” As Paul would put it later on, “We live by faith and not by sight.”
And if you don’t have proof, if you don’t have certainty, then you have doubt. When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”, He was telling us that doubt was going to be a part of our faith from now on. Christian faith is trusting God even though you have no proof of His trustworthiness. Christian faith is trusting God even though you find yourself doubting. There are none of us anymore who do not experience doubt at some point. Christian faith is choosing to trust God even though we always have little nagging doubts trying to get in, and even when we may be filled with doubt. Christian faith is refusing to allow our doubts to dominate us, but giving Jesus the benefit of that doubt.
It is not God’s will for the Christian’s life to be based on proof, as much as we might wish it were. Proof, certainty, would make it much easier. There would be no risk, but there would also be no real trust. Certainties don’t require trust. There is no risk if you trust that 2 plus 2 will come out to 4. Certainty is just another name for what goes into a box. Certainty is just another name for what doesn’t talk back or challenge us. Certainty is just another name for something we do not need not think about it. But God won’t fit in our boxes, He always talks back, and He loves it when we think about Him. So no certainty in the Christian life. He wants us to have doubts so we can choose to trust Him in the middle of doubts. And when He shows us over and over again that He is trustworthy, that He didn’t fail us like we were afraid He would, that our doubts were unfounded, then we gradually learn to love Him. And that is the ultimate goal.
How we understand faith determines how we understand doubt. If faith is about what we believe – and I don’t think it is – then doubt is about questioning our beliefs, questioning the Bible or questioning the doctrines we are taught. But if faith is about Who we trust, then doubt is about how we respond to God. Doubt is all about whether we will choose to trust God when the darkness surrounds us. The whole point of Christian faith is trusting Jesus; that is what He calls us to, and that is the only thing He calls us to.
Now let’s be clear what He has not called us to. He calls us to trust Him, but He does not call us to trust anyone or anything else. People will inevitably fail you; you are right not to trust them. If you trust your brother or sister, sooner or later you will be betrayed, you will be hurt. But He has called us to do something far more risky. He has called us to love each other just as He loved us. And how did He love us? By choosing to be exposed to us, to let us betray Him, and then forgiving it all. He calls us to do the same thing, to make ourselves vulnerable, to risk being betrayed and hurt, and then to forgive it all. And the only reason to risk such pain is that we trust Him to raise us up from it.
I may get in trouble for this, but it is important that you know it: He has not called us to trust the Bible either. Just as people are unreliable, the Bible is unsettling, mysterious, a little scary; and sometimes boring. However hard you study, there will always be passages that disturb you, things you do not understand, things you do not like. You will always be in doubt or confusion about some passage or another. Christian faith does not mean just doggedly trying to accept what you do not understand. Christian faith does not mean pretending to believe what you don’t honestly believe. Christian faith does not mean generating fake certainty to look more spiritual. Christian faith means trusting Jesus even in spite of the Bible if it comes to that.
The danger of doubt is this: it tempts us to run away from risk rather than trust God to get us through. It is all too tempting to give up on the Church and hide out somewhere. It is all too tempting to give up on the Bible and put it away on the shelf. Either way, you will be the loser, you will be the poorer for it. It is risk – the danger of being hurt by people or offended and confused by the Bible – that is the X that marks the spot, that shows where the truest riches of the Spirit are hidden. I have been studying the Bible for 45 years now, and reading it, and then reading what other people wrote about it, and memorizing it, and puzzling over it, and I want you to know it is worth all the effort you put into it. And I have been in a lot of churches over the last 45 years and some of them were dangerous neighborhoods. I have been betrayed by friends and assaulted by enemies, and I want you to know it was all worthwhile. Take the risk. Choose to trust God. Let yourself be vulnerable and even hurt and see what power there is in being raised up again. Read the Bible and see how it becomes real food to you, even if it does sometimes taste like that vegetable you hated as a child.
Doubt is not a sin. Doubt is a tool that invites you to know and trust God more deeply than you have before. Doubt is that creepy looking door that, if you open it, will lead to blessings you barely imagine now. It is a promise you can rely on: Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.