John 20:24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Thomas’ story has gotten me thinking about some common misconceptions about doubt and faith that I regularly encounter:
I. You are not the only Christian who has ever had doubts about your faith. So I don’t want anyone to come from this sermon wondering, “How does he know about me?” or “Was he getting down on my case?” Actually, I’m preaching to myself this morning, and I thank you for listening in. Again.
II. Christians are not the only people to have doubts about what they hold most sacred. C.S. Lewis said that, “As a Christian I have occasional doubts about my faith, and they bother me. But when I was an atheist, I had doubts about my atheism, and they bothered me even more.” Which goes to show that when we believe pretty much anything, there’s always a part of us asking, “Is that true?” or “Just how true is that?” Because we think in question marks. That’s why there should be a monument somewhere to whoever it was who invented the question mark. Put it in Spain, because Spanish uses two question marks for every question, with an upside-down one at the beginning of the question, so that you don’t come to the end of the question and say, “Oh! Was that a question?” So whatever it is we hold sacred, we always do so in the face of doubts and questions.
III. Doubt and Faith are not polar opposites. There is some doubt in every faith, just as there is faith in every doubt. We never say, “This I believe,” but that we know, in the backs of our minds, that somewhere, someone is asking, “Oh, really?” including ourselves. In the same way we can’t ever say, “I doubt that” without implying that somewhere, sometimes, someone says, “This I believe.”
The real question then is not “Do you believe?” but “How much do you believe?” or “How much of you believes?” How much do you believe that this bungee cord will not snap when you jump off this bridge over the Royal Gorge? Do you believe it enough to jump, or not? Or, How much do you believe that this parachute will open up after you jump out of this airplane at 18,000 feet? Enough to jump, or will you stay inside the plane and enjoy the landing instead? Obviously people trust the bungee cord or the parachute enough to jump, but they don’t trust it so totally that there is no thrill, no tingle in the tummy, no big whoop-de-do when they jump. Trust is pointless and unnecessary whenever there’s no element of wonder and doubt.
In Thomas’ case, there was some doubt mixed in with his faith. But he had faith. There’s nothing in this story to indicate that, after Jesus died, he had stopped believing in God and being an observant Jew. The question was over the resurrection of Jesus, and the reliability of the first eye witnesses. He had every right and reason to ask, “Are all these reports coming to me of a resurrected Jesus a scam, or a mass hallucination?” Good question.
But while Thomas had some doubt in his faith, he did not have too much faith in his doubt. He did not say, “I will never, ever, ever believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” He said, “Unless I see and can touch the nail prints in his hands and feet, and the scar in his side, I will not believe.” He set some conditions for his belief. Once they were met, he believed. So, he may have been skeptical, but he was not a scoffer who was bound and determined never to believe. That is to have too much faith in our doubts. So faith and doubt are not polar opposites; they mix and mingle in various combinations.
IV. Just as faith and doubt are not polar opposites, so is it that reason and faith are not polar opposites. All reasoning requires some faith, just as all faith requires some reasoning. Or else we have sermons that no one can follow.
Reasoning requires some faith, at least the faith that we can even reason at all, and faith that our reasoning bears some resemblance to reality. And then, faith that when we communicate our reasoning to someone else, it will make sense to them.
That sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? But in this postmodern age, even that is under attack. I once sat in on an educational psychology class, in which the lecturer said that no one can really understand what someone else is saying because the speaker comes from one world view, with one big personal body of experience and meaning, while the listener comes from another world view, with a great big different world of experience and meaning, and therefore, never the two shall meet.
Later, it occurred to me that I should have raised my hand and say, “So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that I can never understand you correctly.” Then I should have asked, “Is this going to be on the test?” As G.K. Chesterton put it, “There are thoughts that kill thinking.” Now, we do miscommunicate and get confused just enough to make all reasoning and communication acts of faith. But we do understand well enough to be able to act on what we see and hear, so our faith in reason is not without reason.
Likewise, there’s always some reasoning mixed into our faith. We call such reasoning, theology. For example, my faith in the Bible and the basic creeds rests on the foundation of Jesus’ resurrection. I don’t have a 100% certainty that Jesus walked out of the tomb alive. I’m not 100% sure that anyone can be 100% sure about anything. But there is enough probability in life to act upon. To me, the resurrection is more probable than not; it best explains all that appears to have happened after it. Any other explanation actually requires more faith.
If we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then certain other things stand to reason. One is that there’s life after death. Another thing is that he is quite authoritative. We should trust what he says, like what he says about the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. And that has implications for the New Testament. I could go on, but that’s just a start on how there is always reasoning involved in faith, just as there is always faith involved in all reasoning.
V. Another misconception is that Faith is the safe, comforting, weakling’s way of group-think, while doubt and skepticism are the hard and courageous way of the strong, self-sufficient individual. By contrast, I would say that in both faith and doubt there are courage and comfort, safety and difficulty, community and individuality. Consider Karl Barth’s definition of Christian faith, as “the courage to accept that we are accepted.” Such faith requires of us great courage, because a lot of people and things in life appear to say, “No, we are not accepted, nor are we acceptable.”
To say that Jesus rose from the dead does take some of the bitter sting out of death. That’s comforting. But it also implies that I have some responsibility and will have to give account for this life in the next, that there are timeless consequences to things we do with time. Now tell me that faith is just the most safe and comfortable way. Or consider the case of Dr. Francis Collins, the geneticist who cataloged the entire genetic code of the human DNA. Unlike most of the people in his particular domain of science, he is a believer. So, when President Clinton chose him to receive a government grant and lead that particular task, and again, when President Obama appointed him head of the National Institute of Health, there was a lot of angry, hostile resistance from many in the scientific, academic community, precisely because Collins is known for having an orthodox Christian faith. Yet, as time passes, in neither endeavor has anyone been able to accuse him of sloppy science. Nor has he used either position to advance a religious or political agenda. Now tell me who is engaged in group-think.
VI. A Sixth misconception about belief and unbelief is that faith and mystery are polar opposites. As though believing in Christ and studying the Bible means we get all the answers. But I find faith to be like science, in the sense that we never run out of questions and mysteries. Every answer just opens up new questions. Scientists are this close to answering a very basic question, namely, how does energy become matter, in the form of rocks or puppies or people? People who play with atom smashers are this close to documenting the existence of the Higgs Boson, or “The God Particle,” a sub-atomic thingamajig that turns energy into substance. So the answer to the question, how does energy become matter? is the Higgs Boson whatchamacallit. But once that is proven and documented, we’ll naturally want to know, So, where does the Higgs boson come from? How many are there? Why are they there? Every answer in life leads to more questions. Isn’t that wonderful?
In the same way, every answer that faith gives to life’s deepest questions only leads to more questions. As with science, so with faith: answers don’t take away mystery, awe and wonder; they only deepen them.
A pastor friend of mine once preaced at a Christian college. In her sermon she said that, although she has studied at seminary and knows and loves the Bible, she still has many unanswered questions about life and the Christian faith. After her talk, a student came up to her with his Bible open and asked her, “Just what questions do you have?” like he was sure he could answer them all, then and there, with just the right Bible verse. Whenever I encounter such people, I want to run the other way. They scare me as much as do people who are just as cock sure about their doubts and skepticism.
Because if our faith can’t stand an element of mystery, then we’re also lacking in awe, wonder and beauty. Does anyone know exactly why Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, or the Grand Canyon, or the love between a husband and wife, or a child and parent are so soul-stirringly beautiful? Do we have that down to a mathematical formula and an evolutionary mechanism that totally explains their haunting effect on us? I hope not. Because if we think we do, then we will have also killed those very things we find most beautiful and stirring, by committing the mental equivalent of vivisection—live dissection– upon them. It is the mystery and majesty of what is bigger than ourselves, and un-knowable, that adds the elements of joy and beauty to our lives. So don’t confuse mystery and unanswered questions with doubt and skepticism. To believe with Jesus is to enter a realm of mystery and unanswered, unanswerable questions, just as with science or reason. But the mysteries of biblical faith lead not to fear and despair but to wonder, beauty and joy.
VII. All of which leads to this: that we understand and marvel at just how precious faith in the Risen Jesus is. Such faith is precious to God, and I hope it is to ourselves. For it costs many believers dearly, even their lives. As I get to know people’s life stories, and learn about the kind of pain and loss and struggle most people have come through, their faith strikes me as all the more precious for being hard-earned. And there will come a day, a moment, when faith is all we have left, that moment when, in death and dying, we will be letting go of everyone and everything we have in this life, and when we will not yet have seen the fulfillment of our faith in the face of God.
Faith is at least as precious to God. It is how we put ourselves voluntarily in reach of his love. In Hebrews 11: 2 we read that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” In the end there is no conflict between works and faith, because trusting God is the first work of the Law. In the Bible, such trust is compared to gold refined by fire.
Understanding and appreciating how precious our faith is to God and ourselves, then I encourage us to do whatever we can to nurture and grow this most precious, enduring part of ourselves. All we need to start with is faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus said. But don’t stop there. Like any living organism, faith grows by feeding it, with worship, prayer and the Word of God, and by exercising it in service, love and witness.
Yet our faith will never grow big enough to become sight or certainty. That’s for the next life. Still, there are people who have no doubts whatsoever. They are 110 % certain of what they believe. And its a medical condition. Before anyone learned how to treat it, there was no way to convince such absolutely doubt-free people that they were not Napoleon Bonaparte or Jesus Christ. For the rest of us, there are many things on which we rely, for which we don’t have 100% certainty. And so we move ahead on desire, probability and experience. Which brings me to a treasured quote by Thomas Merton: “We believe, not in order to understand, but in order to become.” Trust in God through Jesus, if you want to become like Jesus.