The role of doubt in our journey...
Today, in Catholic tradition, the church celebrates Thomas – the disciple who gained the moniker “doubting” because of his honest expression of his need/desire to see the scars of his crucified and risen Rabbi first hand. Perhaps Thomas is in the bargaining stage of grieving – afterall he just watched the one he had hoped was the Messiah be betrayed, surrender himself to arrest, unjustly tried, beaten, mocked, tortured and hung on a cross to die and laid in a tomb. Not that he was there to see all that, because he, along with all but John, deserted Jesus and fled the night of Jesus' arrest. No doubt he had doubts about himself as well...perhaps doubts about his own life choices...the scars of his own heart... the piercing of his soul that he deserted his friend.
While some of his companions may have been in the sad, or mad or denial stage of grief – it seems Thomas is in the bargaining stage- “unless I see X, I won't Y.” Somehow in this expression, he is self-contained and honest with his desire/need for a different outcome. He doesn't let it leak out into a impugning blame or a demand on others (e.g. “unless YOU do X, I won't Y” or “unless God does X, I won't Y.”) He states what he needs for himself. He states what He desires. He states clearly what wishes would happen or would be different – what he can and cannot do at this time. I cannot believe without seeing his scars.
I like how Thomas had the freedom of expressing this need. He knew Mary's story – how she encountered a “gardener” who spoke her name and in an instant she knew it was her Lord. He's heard the story of Peter and John running to the tomb, the appearance of angels declaring, “He is not here, He is risen!” He heard Cleopas and his pal from Emmaus talk about Jesus unpacking the Scriptures to them. He's heard everyone around him keep saying, “We saw the Lord!” But he didn't. He wanted to...needed to...and boldly expressed his desire.
The text doesn't tell us what happened after his declaration – did Philip roll his eyes? Did Peter sympathize with his doubt and sense of betrayal? Did Andrew come over to give him a pep talk? Or did Nathaniel try to reason with him based upon what he had seen? Did Bartholomew offer to pray for him so that he wouldn't stray from the faith? Or perhaps John came up and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Did Mary want to hand him a tissue? We don't really know and this is all speculation. But that he states his reality and skepticism and needs in the midst of a group where everyone seems to be in the happy “we've seen the Lord!” club is bold vulnerability. Perhaps he could do this because he sensed this was a safe place where they were all grieving, all struggling, all hoping, all waiting, all patient with one another's journey.
Thomas could've stayed quiet. He could have let his internal shame critics wreak havoc: “Why can't you just believe? Why do you always have to question everything? How much proof is enough – it's never enough for you! Why do you have to be so difficult when everyone around you says differently? You are stubborn and a trouble maker. Why can't you just believe? Snap out of it!”
We don't know if he did or didn't. I suspect, because he was formed from the same fragile dust and flesh as me, that he probably had some internal banter. We are only given, however, his declaration of doubt.
Eight days later, Jesus appears in the locked room where the disciples are gathered. He speaks an oft-spoken post resurrection phrase: “Peace be with you.” Did the disciples remember Jesus saying during the last supper “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (Jn 14:27)”?
John 14 starts with Jesus saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, still, and trust in me...I am going now to prepare a place for you...I shall return to take you to myself...you know the way.” And then Thomas, this one to whom we ascribe doubt, questions Jesus' statement: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (14:5) Even here (just a few weeks prior), Thomas could have stayed quiet... Peter has already asked, “Where are you going?” (13:36) and Jesus has answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow now...” Thomas could have leaned over to whisper in John's ear, “What does he mean?” Thomas could've thought to himself, “Well if Peter asked and didn't get an answer, why should I bother?” Yet Thomas asks aloud.
During this passover meal, in the midst of all the disciples' questions and ponderments, the Lord speaks of peace and not letting your heart be troubled. In other words, “It's going to get crazy – difficult to believe – I don't give as the world gives...I am giving you peace, trust in God and me, do not be afraid.” Jesus knew his disciples would need to hear these words during his resurrection.
Fast forward to this upper room. Locked doors and Jesus appears, turning his attention to Thomas. Without Thomas asking and without the disciples intervening on Thomas' behalf, explaining to Jesus what they think Thomas needs and petitioning Jesus to give it to him, Jesus speaks. Jesus doesn't say, “Thomas, why didn't you believe your friends? You should have trusted them and remembered my words from our last supper. I told you so.”
He merely walks up to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands; put your hand and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” And upon this encounter with God's scars, Thomas responds: “My Master and my God!”
I don't think this response was just a rote declaration – perhaps how we in the United States might mindlessly recite the pledge of allegiance or how some in liturgical churches might parrot the Lord's prayer, or how Jews might fastidiously recite the Shema. This declaration revealed who Thomas experienced God to be. A God with scars I can declare as my master and my God!
Unlike Mary, he doesn't respond, “Teacher.” Or like the two on the road to Emmaus who recognized Jesus, after many miles of walking, conversing and sharing bread - we don't hear Thomas talk about his burning heart in an aha moment of 20/20 hindsight. He needed to see and touch scars in order to make this faith his own. And Jesus, who could've appeared instantly when Thomas originally expressed his need, waits eight days. He reveals Himself exactly in a time and manner in which Thomas' heart can be unlocked ... same way He does to those of us today who are not in the presence of the physical, resurrected Jesus walking around with his scars.
Truth is, all the original eyewitness and followers of Jesus could be called “doubting.” Until He revealed Himself in the way they would recognize Him they were all doubters. It is not fair to give Thomas the moniker of “doubting.”
Let's call him courageous Thomas – the one who was willing to express his doubts openly, honestly without impugning others or making demands. Let's hope that more of us could participate in communities where there is space and freedom given to express doubt – to neither be talked out of our disbelief and questions nor patronized with pious cliches: “Just believe Thomas! You remember what He says and what the scriptures declare...” Thomas is not disavowed (literally or in pretense) from his community for voicing his doubt.
This encounter invites me to ask and live into my questions and doubts. This invites me to not just blindly take everyone else's word for it. Thomas invites me to be audacious enough (and hopefully in the presence of a safe community that honors without judgment every question and need) to express my longings of how I long to experience the resurrected Christ.
Thomas needed to touch Jesus' scars.
It wasn't enough for him to see Jesus at a distance, to encounter him in a garden and hear him calling his name; he wasn't the kind of guy who needed to bolt out the door to confirm someone's story or see linens lying in an empty tomb. He didn't need God or any of the others to unpack the apologetics of the Scriptures and show how from Moses through the prophets, God's word was pointing to Jesus; He didn't need to encounter Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on him, or to see a boatload full of fish and eat breakfast on the beach. Thomas needed to know that the resurrected Christ had been pierced and scarred.
Tradition says that Thomas is the one who took the gospel to India. On a trip to India in 2007, I got to visit St. Thomas' mount. It is a small hill in Chennai, where it is said that Thomas was martyred. Thomas arrived in southern India in A.D. 52 and, while in prayer, was slayed with a lance through his back, (in A.D. 72). The striking image is in the entrance to the small church on the top of the hill. On the left side is a caricature of Thomas reaching up his hands toward the scars in Jesus' hands and sides. On the right, Thomas is kneeling in prayer with a lance about to be speared through his back.
What makes a doubter become a martyr? What takes a man from a chosen disciple, to a skeptic, to a missionary/evangelist/church planter, to a martyr 3000 miles away on another continent? The “skeptic” who needed to put his hand in Jesus' pierced side would die by being pierced during prayer on a hill in India. Coincidence?
“Doubts” were integral to Thomas' faith journey. Doubts that could be expressed without everyone thinking he was off his rocker or backsliding into sin or heresy. Jesus knew how to meet his doubt. As a Spiritual Director, I need to trust that Jesus knows how to meet the doubts of those with whom I journey. I need to companion them as they consider, “What the heck is happening?” I need to create space where perhaps doubt can be given room to be lived into, or to reveal what I am really long for. I sometimes struggle to trust that Jesus can reveal himself in ways that will unlock a person's heart, including my own. It's easier to give advice, or a scripture, or my fine theories.
Doubt empowers faith and mission only through an encounter with the One who knows how to be with me in my every thought, fear, hope, question.
Things to ponder:
What doubts do I have?
What doubts do my friends have?
Do I have a place where I feel freedom to express my doubts – why or why not?
Am I able to create a space where others have freedom to express doubt? What is my first response to those who question? (Tell me more... or admonition to believe? Or?)
Join me in asking for the grace and courage to be able to entrust your heart to the One who knows exactly what you need to experience and when you need to experience it. He knows how to reveal Himself to all who are seeking.
And...if you're willing, express your doubt anonymously here in the comment section – I bet you are not alone.