Faith and Doubt
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
The Christian faith is, from the perspective of the world, an unbelievable tale. Think about it. We believe that a book which contains talking donkeys and sticks that turn into snakes is absolutely true in all that it affirms. We believe in a God who is both one and three, somehow. We believe that every human being, even the cutest, cuddliest newborn baby, is born totally depraved and bent on resisting God. We believe that God is in complete and total control of even the smallest subatomic particle, and yet the world is full of sin and evil. And in a world filled with “do-it-yourself” religions, laying out the way to the higher or the next life in straightforward, measurable steps, we believe that the only way to be saved is to abandon all hope in our own performance and utterly trust the work of another.
And when you’re immersed in a culture that simply, desperately, does not want to believe, you’re not a Christian for long before you start taking fire. Maybe it’s the predictably annual “Easter specials” on network television that trot out the latest and greatest of skeptics and liberal theologians to “re-think” who Jesus actually was. Maybe it’s the billboards that try to reassure you that “there’s no God, so just enjoy your life,” paid for by atheists so sure and secure in the irrefutable and self-evident truth of their convictions that the strange fact that other people don’t agree doesn’t bother them even just a little bit, oh no. Perhaps it’s the guy at work who’s been so burnt by the church that he looks for any reason to undermine what you believe.
Faithfulness to Christ requires being prepared for war—and not just any kind of warfare, but siege warfare. We are beset on all sides. After all, we are hopelessly outnumbered. The “doctrine of the remnant” reminds us that God’s people have always been a minority in a fallen world. Jesus warned us that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14). Paul reinforced this ominous theme when he reminds his readers of Isaiah’s teaching that “[t]hough the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved” (Rom. 9:27). It has ever been so; Jesus, in declaring that he would be rejected by his generation, had to point out that “[j]ust as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man” (Luke 17:16)—that only a remnant would be saved.
It’s no wonder, then, that we can identify with poor “doubting Thomas.” We’re under constant, sustained, unrelenting pressure to doubt, to concede, to give in. The world is pushing on us from the outside, watching for cracks. Our own broken but stubborn sinful natures press from within, tempting to sin and despair, seeking out weaknesses and holes. We look at Thomas, knowing as we read the story that he is wrong, but we can relate to him. I know I can. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your role is in the kingdom; we’re all prone to doubts and misgivings at times. Believe me, a seminary education doesn’t inoculate you against that. In some ways, examining all the interpretational and textual and historical challenges involved in understanding the Scriptures gives my wayward heart even more angles and excuses and raw material for doubt than I had before I stepped into my first Bible classes. Pastors are not immune.
Many of you may struggle with doubt from time to time. I’ve done it. And one of the more recent, and insidious, attacks on the Christian faith that has become more fashionable recently is to encourage doubt, by painting the idea of doubt in positive terms. To celebrate doubt as being somehow more “honest.” To have doubts, in the eyes of many, is to be more “authentic,” and to admit doubt is to show “integrity.”
The problem is that doubt is, really, unbelief. And unbelief is sin, no matter what form it may take. Remember that God isn’t on trial. A sinful and fallen world that’s chosen to try to make its way without him is on trial. And so no human being has any standing to doubt or question God or his ways. It’s sin. It’s unbelief and it’s rebellion. Yet, we doubt. Catastrophe happens and we doubt God’s goodness. Scientists come up with yet another paradigm for human origins and we doubt God’s truthfulness.
Just because Christians are prone to doubt does not make doubt a good or praiseworthy thing, however, any more than the fact that Christians are prone to sinful anger or feelings of self-entitlement makes these things any less sinful.
We, who live in a creation that testifies to the power of the Almighty, have no excuse when we doubt. Thomas didn’t. If you look at the context, Thomas is being embarrassed by an overwhelming display of God’s power. Here is his resurrected Lord standing before him. How did he get there? The door was locked, yet Jesus was there anyway (how, the text does not say). And Jesus, who was not physically present when Thomas gave his skeptical answer about putting his hand in Jesus’ side, quotes Thomas’ faithless words back to him and tells him to do exactly that. The sheer power and might of God on display in this text—the power of resurrected life, the power of omniscience, the power to bypass human defences—underlines the fact that Jesus is condescending to Thomas here. The God who raises dead people and hears words spoken from afar doesn’t need to give an answer to anyone! And yet, here he is answering Thomas’ (probably) bitter request to the letter.
Jesus then chides him. The rhetorical question is cutting: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” One who sat under Jesus’ teaching for three years and witnessed its effects, and one who watched thousands fed miraculously only to turn away, should know better than to value miracle and spectacle over testimony. Thomas should have known better.
Jesus goes on: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In the context, Jesus is contrasting Thomas’ worldly response with that of those who trusted teaching and testimony. It’s another rebuke, in a way. But it’s also an encouragement to the others. And that applies to us today, as well. We haven’t seen the Risen Lord in the flesh. We haven’t put our hands in his side. Yet, by a miracle of God’s grace, we believe. We are truly blessed.
It doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. Jesus, by underlining the blessedness of belief without sight, connects such believers with other groups blessed despite trials. Like those described as “blessed” on the Sermon on the Mount, we are being blessed in the midst of deprivation, supernaturally enabled to persevere despite trials.
There is, indeed, a grain of truth in the belief that doubt is “authentic.” That is, doubt is natural to fallen man. Doubt is natural to that part of us which continues to fight against the light. In a worldly, sinful sense, doubt is “normal” and to be expected. But the proper way to deal with doubt is not to pretend that it isn’t there. We don’t fight sin by hiding it in a closet and saying it doesn’t exist. We fight doubt, and sin, by crying out to God. By confessing the sin, bringing it into the light, and pleading for more grace to continue the fight. We fight doubt the way that the father of a boy with an unclean spirit fought his own doubt: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Even Thomas was helped in this way. Confronted with the truth, he exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” Just as with Peter’s confession, this cry, like the confession of faith of every genuine believer, is a work of God overcoming unbelief—what we Calvinists call “irresistible grace.”
Do you struggle with doubt, like Thomas did? I understand, believe me. If that’s you, confess, repent, and look to Christ. Recognize your doubt for the unbelief that it is, and turn from it. Ask God’s help. Remember that it’s the object of faith, not the faith itself, that saves, so don’t despair when that faith is weak. And lean into Jesus Christ, who unlike our feeble and imperfect faith, will never be moved or shaken.
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