A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.
My wife and I were at the cinema – not unusual in itself. If we only had to think about ourselves, we’d be seeing a movie at least once a week. We were seeing a comedy – a very successful one, in a packed cinema. I was hopeful – there’s something very therapeutic about being in a roomful of people all laughing at the same thing. One problem: everyone was laughing, apart from me. At least that’s how it felt. Bev was laughing. The people on the other side of me, behind me, in front of me were laughing. I wasn’t. I think I laughed once in the whole film. Everyone else, it seemed to me, was laughing all the way through. I didn’t leave the cinema with aching sides and a perma-grin. I left disappointed, mildly depressed and doubting my sanity.
There’s something of that about Thomas, one of Jesus’ closest followers, in John chapter 20. Jesus, precious Jesus, who everyone thought had died, was alive. He’d appeared in the middle of a locked room speaking of peace and breathing the Holy Spirit on people. The disciples were overjoyed, awestruck, dumbfounded – apart from Thomas. He wasn’t there. We don’t know what he was doing. Maybe something normal like shopping; maybe he was so overcome by recent events that he needed space to himself. Whatever it was, when he returned to find his friends in wide-eyed wonder, he wasn’t in the same place – metaphorically as well as literally. So he wants some proof.
Poor Thomas. He’s often known as Doubting Thomas. But hold on. Who gave him that title? Christians. Not Christ. Christians. Thomas is a saint! He died 2,000 years ago and there are still churches named after him (including the one I grew up in).
Doubt. A sin, a sickness. Right? Well …
Take James 1:6.
But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
Seems pretty unequivocal, doesn’t it? Except when you stop to consider that the word translated ‘doubt’ here isn’t about being unsure of a doctrine but about being indecisive, having a foot in two camps, being of two minds, being lukewarm. Not so unequivocal. Maybe doubt isn’t the sin or sickness it’s sometimes cracked up to be.
What does Jesus do with Thomas who doubted?
He seeks him out. He goes looking for him. He comes back, especially for Thomas. He doesn’t rebuke him, doesn’t tell him his doubt means he can’t be a leader or disciple or friend. He just comes looking for him, and invites him to do what Thomas said he wanted and needed to do – touch the wounds, go skin to skin with the resurrected one.
Which he doesn’t do. It’s one of the details the writer would have left in. It’s important. Instead there’s 5 simple, awestruck words:
“My Lord and my God!”
Thomas thinks his doubts need proof to assuage them. What he actually needs is something rather different. It’s not that proof is bad. Jesus offers him proof, invites him to it. But what Jesus gives him is something deeper – relationship.
Proof is OK. It matters. Proof can encourage and build up faith. But let’s face it; it’s rarely definitive. There are brilliant people who are atheists and equally brilliant people who are faithful Jesus-followers – and of many other religions too. No, proof may be helpful but it’s now what Thomas needs or with which Jesus is most concerned. We’re tempted to think that if only God would do this we’d believe. Well, Jesus had already addressed that in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; not even a messenger from beyond the grave will make the difference.
God is relationship, Trinity, perfect self-giving love. We’re made in that image. We’re made for relationship. So what’s most likely to convince us that this faith thing is real? Relationship with God and God’s people. Frustrating as the latter can be and mysterious as the former is, we need both. We’re made for it, and we’re restless until we find it. Doubt hits Thomas when he’s away from the group; staying in the group doesn’t make him immune to doubt but it does give him a context for it and allow him to be held – until Jesus seeks him out and draws close to him.
So let’s be kind, to ourselves and to all who doubt. Let’s not push them away, push God away because we finite beings are struggling to believe in a supernatural God. That’s to be expected. Let’s seek those who doubt out; let’s love them, not argue with them. Let’s listen to our own doubts and those of others; maybe we’ll learn something. And maybe, just maybe, in 2,000 years’ time we’ll find that there are churches named after us. Thomas was a saint, called and precious and sought out by God. We’ve reduced him to one who doubts.
God evidently has no problem with our doubts. We’re made in His image. So let’s commit to not letting doubt drive us or others away.
Also in this series:
These posts are based on a series of sermons