The courage to doubt

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2012.  The lectionary readings are
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, and John 20:19-31.

So-called “Doubting Thomas” gets a lot of attention. Famous paintings by Caravaggio and others show Thomas placing his finger in the side of Jesus, or at least reaching toward Jesus, testing, challenging, asking for proof.  Even people who have never set foot in a church have sometimes heard of him.  Thomas is often portrayed as perhaps having less faith than some of the other apostles.  Or, it is suggested that Thomas is slower to come to faith than the others, or that he is the early Church equivalent of “being from Missouri” and he needs to be shown. 

On that first Easter morning, as Mary tells the disciples that the tomb is empty and Jesus has risen, it’s not just Thomas that disbelieves her.  The other disciples seem to doubt, as well. 

Thomas is not alone is his doubting immediately after the Resurrection, and he’s certainly not alone in scripture or in history, with his doubt. 

When Moses was called by God, Moses had his doubts.  Abraham and Sarah laugh when the angels tell them that they’re going to have a son in old age, and their doubts become a part of their son, Isaac’s very name, since the name Isaac means “laughter.”  Jonah doubts. Jeremiah doubts. 

Perhaps most surprising, if we look closely, it even seems as though Jesus sometimes doubts.  He doubts his mission:  as he first imagines he is sent only to save the Jews, it takes a Samaritan woman to widen his perspective.  Jesus doubts his disciples as he predicts that Peter will quickly lose heart will deny having anything to do with Jesus.  In the garden, Jesus wonders if God is there, and on the cross, Jesus again wonders if God has forgotten.

I mention all of these people of tremendous faith that we encounter in scripture, and (at the risk of heresy) I mention Jesus, as well, because I don’t think St. Thomas is alone in doubting.  And I think we miss a lot of what God would have us see, if we pretend that doubt is an abnormal or subnormal place to be.  Sometimes we are filled with faith.  Sometimes we doubt.  God is still God.

And so where does that leave us, when we doubt?  Well, I suppose we could ignore doubt.  We could focus only on faith, pretend doubt is an anomaly to be ignored or denied, but I don’t think that’s very helpful. 

When we’re in doubt, we can do a lot of things, but I can think of at least three that God might actually use doubt to provoke or call forth from us. 

First, we can “live the question.”  Research, read, study, question.  Paul Tillich argues that doubt is included in every act of faith. In fact, his book The Dynamics of Faith he writes

In those who rest on their unshakable faith, pharisaism, and fanaticism are the unmistakable symptoms of doubt which has been repressed. Doubt is overcome not by repression but by courage. Courage does not deny that there is doubt, but it takes the doubt into itself as an expression of its own finitude and affirms the content of an ultimate concern. Courage does not need the safety of an unquestionable conviction. … Even if the confession that Jesus is the Christ is expressed in a strong and positive way, the fact that it is a confession implies courage and risk.” (Chp. 6, Sect. 1)

“Love the questions themselves.  Live the questions now,” Rilke wrote the young poet.

Second, we can ask for help.  Share doubts with another, we’ll not only find that we’re not as isolated as we think, but chances are that the person has also had doubts and can understand our questions. 

And finally, we can do what saints and sinners of every age have done:  we can give the doubt to God.  Teresa of Avila, the famously prayed for some 18 years feeling as though her prayers were not really being heard, and were accomplishing very little.  But she persisted, and is one of those very few saints who is said to have found union with God in prayer. 

And so, when we’re doubting, we can learn something.  We can lean on someone.  We can love God.

We are given “doubting Thomas” as a brother in doubt and faith, a fellow disciple who paved a rough way for us to faith.  St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those whose faith does not come easily, with those whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, maybe even a little cynicism.

It’s ok to doubt. It’s ok to wonder. It’s ok even to be a little suspicious—especially since for one (if not more) suspicion eventually has led to sainthood.

Especially at this time of year, may we be honest with out doubts and honest with our belief, knowing that wherever we may be, God loves us and wants to come to us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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