I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure!
I’m sure you’ve heard that one. Doubt seems to be part and parcel of the human condition. And that’s why we need to talk about Thomas. He was one of Jesus’ closest friends, and yet, fairly or not, we know him best as Doubting Thomas. Capital D for Doubting. A bit harsh?
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THOMAS
Sometimes doubts arise from our temperament; we’re more Eeyore than Tigger. Each time Thomas appears in John’s story, he sounds like an Eeyore. First, there’s this verse. Let us also go, that we may die with him. It’s from John 11.16. Not the kind of comment to boost team morale! Then there’s this one from John 14.5. Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way? Hardly an expression of confidence. But we plumb the depth of Thomas’ doubt in John 20, post-Resurrection.
If temperament contributes to Thomas’ doubt, so does a heart-breaking sense of disappointment. He really did think Jesus was the Messiah. He’d spent the best three years of his life with him. He’d seen it all. Heard it all. Believed it all. Or, at least, he thought he had. But that’s his problem. In Thomas’ mind, Messiahs win, they don’t get nailed to a cross.
Thomas’ doubts are almost certainly intensified by loneliness. When Jesus shows up on Easter Sunday evening, Thomas isn’t there. How often doubts drive us into the wilderness of isolation. And now his friends are trying to persuade him that Jesus is alive. Really? Thomas just doesn’t have a category to deal with this. In his day, he probably scoffed at people who thought the prophet Elijah was walking around town. He was far too down-to-earth to fall for anything like that.
I don’t know about you, but my sympathies are firmly with Thomas. I struggle with doubts too. And one of the hardest things is facing up to them. There are times when I doubt pretty much everything—my marriage . . . my friends . . . my sanity . . . and definitely my cooking! Is it so very strange that I sometimes doubt my God? The Psalmists certainly do. Listen to this tirade from Asaph in Psalm 77.
Will the Lord cast off forever?
And will He be favorable no more?
Has His mercy ceased forever?
Has His promise failed forevermore?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies?
And there’s plenty more where that came from.
How do we feel about questions like these? Aren’t they treacherous expressions of unbelief? Not at all. They’re the anguished cries of a man who’s taking God seriously. Seriously enough to ask some tough questions when the gap between his expectations and his experience becomes unbearably wide.
There’s a world of difference between doubt and unbelief.
Doubt is questioning what you already believe. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe what’s staring you in the face. Doubt is the unsettling struggle faced by the believer. Unbelief is the settled condition of the sceptic. Thomas is suffering from doubt, not unbelief. It’s not that he couldn’t care less. Far from it. He loves the Lord Jesus and longs to believe that his Lord has risen. We know this because the next time Jesus shows up, Thomas is there.
So, how does Jesus handle Thomas’ doubts? Notice his first words. Peace be with you! Don’t you just love that?! Don’t run away, Tom! I haven’t come to condemn you. I’ve come to lead you out of the dark into the light. I want you to be at peace in your heart. This is what Jesus is saying.
I’m pretty sure Thomas never gets around to touching Jesus’ wounds, but he does stop believing his doubts and he does start believing what’s in front of him. This is what he truly believes and he embraces it. And just as Mary threw her arms around Jesus in the garden, so Thomas falls at Jesus’ feet in that upper room. My Lord and my God! One of the greatest lines in the Bible, this is a light-bulb moment in every way. Now, in view of the resurrection, everything Jesus has said and claimed about himself starts to make sense.
My Lord and my God!
John starts his Gospel by affirming that Jesus is Lord and now he ends it with Thomas’ confession that Jesus is Lord. But there’s a subtle difference. At the start, Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth in a cosmic kind of way. Now, at the end, in the experience of this doubting man, we see something personal and transformative. He’s become the Lord of Thomas’ heart. And what is it that changes his mind? A personal encounter with Jesus, risen from the dead.
And so it is, or can be, for each of us.
But what about John 20.29? Thomas, you’ve believed because you’ve seen the evidence; there is a deeper better kind of faith . . . a faith that doesn’t require evidence. Is that what the verse states? No, not at all, though it has been read that way. Let’s look at the actual words.
Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
There is no comparison here between those who have seen and those who haven’t. There is no “better” here. But second, Jesus doesn’t downplay evidence at all. Quite the contrary. Why ask Thomas to place his hand in his side if he thinks that faith without evidence is “better?”
Faith isn’t leaping into the dark, it’s weighing the evidence and stepping into the light. John makes this clear in the way he completes the chapter.
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
None of us will have the privilege of seeing what Thomas saw. But don’t worry, says John, I’ve given you all the evidence you need to reach the same conclusion—including Thomas’ confession. Read it . . . weigh it . . . respond to it. We believe in Jesus because we’ve been persuaded.
Stop and reflect on this whole episode with me. Jesus knows everything about Thomas. He knows where Thomas has been and what Thomas has said. He knows all about Thomas’ doubts and fears. And yet, he still wants him to be his disciple. He’s not ashamed to call Thomas his brother. And, I’m thrilled to say, he’s not ashamed of Doubting Me.
In times of doubt, it’s not more faith I need. It’s more of Jesus. And as he reveals more of himself to me, as he did to Thomas—maybe through my listening to his word or through prayer or through words of life from a friend—then, maybe even in spite of myself, my faith will be revived. Maybe, as I focus on him, my doubts will be relieved . . . reframed . . . even redeemed. And it may just be that the path of doubt turns out to be the Lord Jesus’ way of bringing me—like Thomas—to a deeper, richer experience of himself.