This sermon was preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond, KY on April 15th, 2012. Audio of the sermon can be found here.
Our scripture story this morning details the account of a famous follower of Jesus. We know him well as “doubting Thomas.” Thomas was the disciple who disbelieved the others when they claimed to have “seen the Lord” (v. 25). Thomas was the disciple who demanded to see and touch the scarred, crucified flesh of Jesus himself. He needed something more than human testimony. And Jesus sternly instructed him to quit doubting and believe (NRSV translation).
If you are anything like me, you know what it’s like to doubt. Maybe you don’t doubt certain vaulted Christian beliefs, like the resurrection. Or maybe you do. I suspect in some way you’ve doubted a time or two.
A pastor friend of mine tells the story of his first month as a freshly minted minister from seminary. A woman called to discuss the difficulties she was having with a loved one. Feeling confident that his pastoral care studies had taught him just the right thing to say, he gave his best consolation and his most sensitive affirmation. After some time, the woman asked him point blank, “so, what do you think I should do.” He hemmed and hawed a bit before making the textbook move of turning the question back to her: “I don’t know, Jamie, what do you think you should do?” She grew silent. “Really? Is that all you got. You’ve got to do better than that.” She hung up.
My friend shared with me that his confidence dropped. He deeply doubted whether he was truly called to be a minister. He lived, for a time, in that uncomfortable, unsettling space of self-doubt. Maybe you’ve been there.
Maybe you’ve doubted a decision, your self-worth, or your very identity. Maybe you’ve doubted the strength of a relationship. Maybe you’ve doubted a core belief or worldview. Maybe you’ve doubted God’s existence or that life has any meaning at all.
The story of Thomas and the risen Christ brings up, for me, the issue of doubt. And this morning I invite us to explore the role of doubt in Christian life.
I grew up in a religious culture that read the story of Thomas and the risen Christ as a prime example of how NOT to be a Christian. Don’t be like doubting Thomas. Doubt is the opposite of belief. We need to have the courage to believe, especially since we don’t have physical evidence before us. In the absence of evidence, we have faith.
On this account, discipleship, the life of faith, is about avoiding the temptations of doubt, purging ourselves of questions based on those doubts, and learning to cling more vigorously to the certainty of our beliefs. We need to follow Jesus’ instruction to Thomas: Don’t doubt, believe.
I read recently that one of the reasons young people leave church is because there is no room for doubt in church. Questions that challenge or explore settled doctrine are considered blasphemous. Don’t question the resurrection, or the virgin birth, or the authorship of scripture. Don’t doubt that salvation is by grace through faith. Don’t wonder whether the book of revelation shows us the future of the world in all its doom and demise.
How stifling and confining it must feel to be expected to have certainty on all matters of belief, all the time. It’s not surprising that young people, not interested in having other people tell them what to think, would rather spend their time elsewhere than church.
But must this be so? Is doubt really the opposite of belief? Is doubt really so bad, something to be avoided, purged, and opposed? Is there no place for doubt in Christian life?
For a long time I thought so. In college, I began to question some of my inherited Christian beliefs. Because of my understanding of doubt from stories like doubting Thomas, I became stricken with anxiety and fear. I felt inadequate, guilty, unfit to be a Christian. I felt condemned. Questioning implies doubt, and doubt is bad. Doubt is what the unfaithful do. Doubt is of the devil. Doubting is what the deficient disciple does. Doubting is for Thomas.
But what if doubt is not, in reality, opposed to belief? And what if doubt is not really what the story of Thomas is all about?
Our scripture passage describes Jesus commanding Thomas “do not doubt, but believe.” This seems pretty straightforward, making doubt and belief opposites. But the sentence, in Greek, reads literally: “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” And the word for belief is actually the same word for faith: pistos. In other words, “doubt” is not really a part of the gospel narrative at all, unless, of course, we assume that doubt is the state of unbelieving, the state of being without faith.
But I no longer assume that. Doubt shares a common root with the word “double.” On a cognitive level, doubt is simply being of two minds. It is a kind of uncertainty between beliefs, not necessarily a rejection of belief. We might even say that doubt is having more than one belief, rather than none.
And I’m convinced that doubting takes great faith. Paul Tillich writes that “doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is one element of it.” He goes on to say that doubt is a necessary part of faith. Vital, vibrant faith is animated by a doubt that shakes us loose from our settled sense of God, Christ, and the meaning of Christian life. Doubt drives good questions about how best to be faithful. Good questions are the engine of true holiness.
Doubt reminds us that we are finite and that God is infinite.
Doubt keeps us open, receptive, ready for surprise. Maybe doubt makes belief in the resurrection possible.
Maybe Thomas didn’t doubt enough.
As a junior in college, I traveled with the Centre football team to London, England. We were scheduled to play an international exhibition game against an English All-Star football team. We couldn’t wait to show these soccer-loving Brits how to play real football. Imagine our surprise as a stream of NFL-sized behemoths streamed into the Locker room. These guys weren’t fish-and-chips blokes; they probably devoured beef cows in a single bite.
I’m happy to report we stopped gawking and squeaked out a victory.
I’m also happy that our time in England was more than football. After the game, we spent several days traveling and touring. I thoroughly enjoyed riding the London Underground, the subway that transported us to palaces, cathedrals, towers, and bridges. And at each stop on our subway travels, a woman’s voice would fall from the loudspeaker, instructing us to “Mind the gap.”
If you’ve never traveled by subway, you may not know that there can be a small but significant gap separating the platform from the open door of the waiting train. Failing to “mind the gap” could result in a stumble, or worse, an injury.
I believe that the life of faith calls us to “mind the gap.” All of us, no matter how much or how little we currently doubt certain beliefs, no matter how much or how little we currently doubt ourselves or the world around us; all of us have gaps in our lives. Gaps of all kinds surround us. We’re just not always very aware of them.
Whether we are aware of the gaps or not, we all share gaps in our understanding that require what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “anticipatory confidence”; we share gaps in our sense of self because we don’t really know ourselves as well as we’d like to think—we’re surprised by what we manage to say or do; we also share gaps in our sense of how the world works; and we share gaps in our relationships with others—gaps of distrust, dissatisfaction, or distance. I suspect you’ve felt those gaps. I suspect that doubt is like dwelling in those gaps for a time.
But if we fail to admit that gaps accompany life, if we fail to admit we have doubts at times, if we fail to explore our questions, then we also fail to remain open, receptive, ready for surprise and transformation. If we fail to mind the gaps we can stumble or fall by closing ourselves off. We can injure ourselves by falsely filling in the gaps with silly beliefs, heaps of anxiety, or unhealthy relationships.
If we fail to “mind the gap,” we might find that there is no room for resurrection.
I am not convinced that Thomas was a damnable, deficient “doubter.” And I am even less convinced that this story is about doubt. I am convinced that Thomas did, in his own way, mind the gap he experienced. And he did not rush to fill it. And I’m even more convinced that this story is about transformation—the transformation of a disciple by an encounter with Jesus. Only Jesus’ own flesh, only the very scars of the risen Christ could give him his belief, a belief too heavy and new for him to carry on his own. What Thomas did do was demand an encounter with Jesus—and that takes great faith. In the gap, Thomas remained open to a crucified God; he remained open to resurrection.