The Faithful Way of Doubt

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasA sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019.  The scripture readings are Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29, Revelation 1:4-8, and John 20:19-31

Listen to the sermon HERE

Sometimes I hear people—both religious and non-religious—who will explain something they’ve done or left undone and end it by saying, “after all, I’m no Mother Teresa.” Of course, I know what they mean—they mean they’re not perfect, they’re no saint, or perhaps they are referring to Mother Teresa’s way of serving the poorest of the poor and that sort of service seems very far from this person’s life…

But if we were to look at the life of Mother Teresa, especially at some of her letters and journals that were published a few years ago, we might come away feeling like we’re more like Mother Teresa than we thought.

Though St. Thomas, appearing in today’s Gospel, is often thought of as the “Patron Saint for Doubters,” Mother Teresa might be elbowing him out of that position.

In 1979, just a few weeks before she would receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa wrote a spiritual companion,

Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. The tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.

At another time, she wrote,

Lord, my God, you have thrown [me] away as unwanted – unloved,” she wrote in one missive. “I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? even deep down right in there is nothing. I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart. (Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta)

Whether we sometimes doubt or know and love people who do, we can learn from those who have gone before us and have been honest about their doubts.

On that first Easter morning, as Mary Magdalene tells the disciples that the tomb is empty and Jesus has risen, it’s not just Thomas that disbelieves her. But 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 ways in which God might actually use doubt to bring us closer to himself.

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)

Tillich uses the wonderful word, “courage,” which includes in it the French word for heart, “Coeur.” To have courage is to allow the heart to lead us—through doubt, through fear, and eventually, through faith.

It was Rainer Maria Rilke who advised the young poet, “Love the questions themselves. Live the questions now.” But that’s advice we all would do well to remember.

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 Spirit. 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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