What Thomas teaches us about the tension between doubt and faith
How do we deal with doubt in our life story? Is it okay to have doubts when it comes to our relationship with God? Is it okay to ask questions?
Or, do we simply have to accept everything on faith?
Doubt is a part of my journey of faith. Seeking the answers to the places were I have questions has helped me to grow in my faith. And even when I can’t find the “answers” I know that God is in that tension between doubt and faith.
That’s why I wrote this. I share this for all who have doubts and questions.
I am Thomas.
Which person in the Bible do you feel best represents you and your journey? At times, I’ve gone with Peter (misguided, betrays Jesus and is restored to something bigger) or even Saul/Paul (Life changed by an experience with Jesus and then goes from trying to destroy the Church to trying to expand it).
I recently heard a sermon that made me think about this. I now know who represents me in some of the seasons of my life.
I am Thomas.
If you have been around church in your life or just know the story, you might attach a description in front of the name of Thomas. We call him “Doubting Thomas” because of what happens in his encounter with Jesus. Maybe it’s an accurate description. Maybe we mislabel him. For some reason, I have started to connect with Thomas.
It’s strange because Thomas is not one of the major players of Jesus’ group of closest followers and disciples.
So, let me sum up Thomas, based on the Gospel accounts:
- His invitation to follow Jesus is largely unknown. His name appears in a list of Jesus’ disciples in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts. There are no other mentions of Thomas in those books. There’s no explanation of how Thomas ended up on Jesus’ select team of disciples.
- He receives the most coverage in the Gospel of John. In John 14, Jesus is explaining the path he is on to his disciples and Thomas says to Jesus that they don’t know the place that he is going. Jesus’ response is to say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, CEB)
And that’s it. We really don’t know very much about Thomas, his ministry, his experiences or even his relationship with Jesus. Thomas is largely in the background, watching and learning from Jesus.
What most people know about Thomas comes from his encounter with Jesus after the resurrection.
So, to help understand why I would say, “I am Thomas,” I’m going to tell you the account that appears in John 20.
It begins with “Absent Thomas.” On the first day of the week (Sunday), the remaining disciples of Jesus are locked in a room. They are afraid they will also be arrested and possibly crucified. It’s probably a meeting where they are venting their frustrations. They thought Jesus was different. They gave up everything to follow and now this.
Two people are absent from the group: Judas, who took his own life after betraying Jesus, and Thomas, who, for some reason, is not with the other disciples.
While Thomas is absent, Jesus appears in the locked room. Jesus speaks to those disciples, gives them a mission and blesses them. When we see something unbelievable, we share it with others and Thomas hears about it from the disciples who experienced it. But, Thomas knows what he knows — Jesus was beaten and crucified, there was a body. He tells the other disciples he simply can’t believe it until he sees it for himself.
The next week, all of the disciples, including Thomas, are back together in the locked room. And, Jesus makes another appearance and this time it seems to be for Thomas.
Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds and he challenges Thomas to put his disbelief aside and to believe and to know that he (Jesus) is risen. Scripture does not record Thomas actually touching the wounds of Jesus. However, it does say that Thomas declared Jesus to be “his Lord and his God.”(John 20:28)
Then Jesus ends the conversation with a statement that I think is intended for all of us who read this passage later. He says blessed are those who believe without seeing.
So how do we reconcile Thomas’ journey and encounter with Jesus and our own faith journeys? Here are some things we might draw on from this encounter:
- “Absent” Thomas leads to “Doubting” Thomas. Thomas missed the church service and had a hard time believing what the others experienced there. That still holds true today. It’s hard to really experience the power of God when you aren’t doing anything to arrange the meeting. You show up once a month for worship and you don’t understand why you aren’t experiencing it the same way as people who are there every week. Absence leads to doubt.
- Thomas wanted the same experience as the other disciples. Maybe, you’ve been there too. You listen to someone give their testimony and you listen to their amazing encounter with Jesus and, maybe, you get a little jealous because you want the same thing too. Honestly, don’t we like, at least on some level, to compare ourselves to others in this area? Not every life journey heads to Damascus and meets Jesus in a blinding light on the way there. Yet, every faith journey will encounter Jesus in its own way.
- Jesus meets Thomas where he is. Jesus’ next appearance is about Thomas — not the other disciples. Jesus meets Thomas in the place Thomas finds himself. Thomas needs the facts, he needs the proof and the experience. Jesus meets him with those things. Maybe that really says something about how Jesus meets us. We expect the mountaintop and Jesus is willing to come down to us in the valley. Jesus loves you as you are, where you are.
- Jesus speaks to Thomas. Jesus says this, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” I’m thinking that is more of a statement for us. The other disciples saw Jesus too. So, it’s not like they were believing without seeing. I’m trying to read that as a statement for all who have believed in Christ since that moment without actually seeing Jesus standing in front of them. Jesus still speaks to us.
You may have some other thoughts on this and there are many. In fact, there are countless sermons and commentaries on this passage. But, I want to move out from that to really make this statement: I am Thomas.
Doubt is standing with one foot in two directions and having great anxiety, fear or even questions about moving one foot to the other side and fully committing.
The reason I say that revolves around the issue of doubt. Doubt is a word that we use without really defining it, especially in terms of being a disciple of Christ. So, let’s work to define “doubt.”
- A typical dictionary definition of doubt is to be uncertain, to have questions, to consider something unlikely.
- In a larger sense, that definition points to the thought of having apprehension, fear, questions, or anxiety about something or someone.
- For a more theological definition, I turned to Vine’s Expository Dictionary. Doubt is described as “standing in two ways” and having uncertainty about which way to go.
Take those images of doubt and combine them and, maybe, it sounds something along these lines: Doubt is straddling the fence. It is standing with one foot in two directions and having great anxiety, fear or even questions about moving one foot to the other side and fully committing. Doubt leads us to second-guessing decisions, to anxiety about the future and to worrying about whether or not we made the right choice. One of the questions attached to doubt is, “Is this worth it?” Is it worth giving up what I have known to experience something I do not understand.
Doubt is a part of every disciple’s story. For some, the doubts are small enough to simply step over and move on. From time to time, I’m sure those doubts become the little questions at the back of the mind but, in some ways, they are able to move past them.
For others, the doubts can be tougher to climb, tougher to jump other, tougher to navigate through.
In this case, I am Thomas.
For most of my adult life, I have lived with active depression and anxiety (Click here to read more about my journey). It has impacted every area of my life. It has affected relationships and friendships. It has affected my ability to relate to others and to be a part of what is happening around. In my depression and anxiety, I perpetually find myself in the place where one foot in the past, one foot is in the future and I’m straddling the fence. In my doubt, I often ask the question, “Is this worth it?” Sometimes, the doubt is a result of attempting to pull a burden from the past into the future. My doubt has, at times, maybe many times, led me to be indecisive and it has led me to great worries. And, my doubt has magnified my depression and my depression has magnified my doubt.
That doubt has even led me to have questions, so many questions, about God and for God.
So, I am Thomas.
And that’s exactly why I find myself drawn to his story. Sometimes, it’s hard to ‘un-see” the ugliness that you have experienced. It’s hard to “un-see” the pain and the hurt. It’s difficult to “un-see” the harm that you have done, experienced and received in the face of depression, anxiety and doubt. Sometimes, it seems nearly impossible to see God in light of the darkness you have experienced.
Yet, here comes Thomas. He has seen the ugly of the world (the torture and crucifixion of Christ), he is struggling with his own questions of “Was it worth it to give up everything to follow Christ?” He’s experienced the shock, the loss, the grief and the mourning for Jesus — his teacher and his friend. Thomas is sitting on the fence between the past of what he has known and the future rooted in the reality of resurrection.
And, I am Thomas.
And that’s why I find hope, light and love in the way that Jesus responds. He does not chastise Thomas or chew him out over his “doubt.” Jesus, lovingly, extends to Thomas what he needs to make a decision, to get off the fence and to commit. That’s the way, Jesus continues to respond to me (and to you).
The other name of Thomas in scripture is “Didymus” and that means “twin.” If I am completely honest, maybe Thomas is my “twin” when it comes to his doubts, his questions and his fears.
I am Thomas. And, maybe, to some degree, all of us are Thomas.
Scripture doesn’t record this, but Church history says that the encounter Thomas has with Jesus helps him to get off the fence. According to history, Thomas goes on to help to establish the Christian church in India and other locations. Ultimately, Thomas died in service to Christ.
Sometimes, it seems, that in church life, we downplay, even place a stigma, upon those who express doubts. Yet, I would guess that on many Sundays, in many church worship services, there are people there who are absolutely struggling with doubt (including the pastors). There are doubts over what is happening in life, to others, in the world, even in the church. There are doubts over God, Jesus. There are doubts that led us to ask, “Is this really worth it?”
Jesus’ goal for Thomas — and for us — is to help us move from doubt to belief. When we acknowledge them and bring them to light, our doubts can actually become the fuel to help us grow in faith. When we step over our questions, fears, apprehension and anxiety, we have a chance to grow to love Christ even more.
I am Thomas. I still have moments of doubt and anxiety. I still want to experience what others have experienced. I still want to be a part of the Kingdom and the mission. I still want to love and to be loved by Christ. But in all cases, I’m battling doubts.
So, in Thomas, I find hope.
One of my favorite verses in Scripture comes in Matthew 28. I think it is a message to all of those in the world who find themselves feeling like Thomas. This verse comes just before Jesus gives his disciples the “Great Commission,” their mission for the Kingdom of God.
Matthew 28:17 reads, “When they saw him (Jesus), they worshiped him, but some doubted.” “They” refers to the eleven disciples (the original twelve minus Judas). Those eleven worshiped Jesus and, yet, some of those who saw Jesus still doubted. Some were still sitting on the fence with one foot in the past and one foot in the Kingdom.
Despite those doubts, Jesus gave them all a mission to go into the world and to make the world look more like the Kingdom of God.
I am Thomas. Maybe, you are Thomas.
So on this day, all of us who see ourselves as Thomas can know that we are loved, that Jesus meets us where we are and that Jesus still invites us to be a part of a mission to transform this world.
Maybe that is just what I needed.
I am Thomas.
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