They tell Thomas but Thomas refuses to believe…. Not until he is able to place his fingers into the wounds of Christ.
In our passage today from John 20, a week later Thomas encounters the Risen Christ, who tells him: “Put your finger here; look here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer, but believe”.
In preparing for today I thought that I might explore briefly the theme of doubt, and so I looked up some quotes on doubt. It was really interesting to see the diversity of opinions on the theme of doubt.
Some quotes spoke of doubt in a negative way:
Brian Tracy writes that “Fear and self-doubt have always been the greatest enemies of human potential.”
There is a lot of truth in this quote. I see it being played out in my own life. If I am honest, I have grown up often with a chronic sense of self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence. It can be a very disabling feeling. Having an idea to do something, but not having the confidence to go ahead and do it. Backing out before one had even embarked on the first step.
One of my life challenges has been and continues to be wrestling with a sense of self doubt.
Another quote on doubt seems to support the view of Brian Tracy. Honore De Balzac states the following “When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.”
Or how about this anonymous quotation: “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will”
And this one by Bill Plotkin “Remember that self-doubt is as self-centred as self-inflation. Your obligation is to reach as deeply as you can and offer your unique and authentic gifts as bravely and beautifully as you can.”
I will read it again…
That’s quite an insight. Is it possible that self-doubt is another form of self-centredness? I had never thought about it from that perspective before?
And so from one perspective, doubts are something which need to be conquered and overcome. Helen Keller wrote “Doubts and mistrust are the mere panic of a timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.”
From a religious perspective, doubt has most often been frowned upon and even used as a stick to keep church members in line. If you doubt certain aspects of the faith, then you are no longer a true believer. And for many Christian religious traditions, this means that your salvation is at stake.
But scrolling through all the internet quotes online, there were surprisingly many quotes that also spoke of doubt in a positive light.
According to Voltaire, the 18th Century French philosopher, Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is ridiculous.
I have often admired people who seem to live with a confidence and certainty that makes them look like they cannot be swayed from their goals in life. I would call them the Buzz Lightyears of this world. I have admired them because I know the discomfort that comes from doubt. And yet, even while admiring people who have a seemingly unshakable self-confidence, there is also often a question within me wondering how solid the foundation of their confidence really is. Sometimes, as much as I think I would love to live in a world where issues are more clearly black and white, thus giving ground for greater confidence, I am reminded from my own experience that life is in fact far more nuanced. Is it possible that certainty, as Voltaire suggests is actually ridiculous?
Is it also possible that on some occasions too much certainty might actually be dangerous?
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was predicated on an unshakable sense of being right. That this was the right thing to do. Is it possible that if Putin had exercised a healthy sense of self-doubt, the invasion of Ukraine would never have happened? Is self-doubt possibly sometimes a good thing?
And so there are a number of people who suggest that doubt is not always a bad thing. Under some circumstances doubt can clearly be a positive thing.
Rene Descarte is quoted as saying that “Doubt is the origin of Wisdom”. There is a real truth in this statement for as Richard Feynman says: “There is no learning without have to pose a question. And a question requires doubt.” Doubt is therefore essential to learning and growing. If the Reformer Martin Luther had never doubted some of the teachings he had received from the Roman Catholic Church, there would never have been a Reformation.
Doubt is also an essential element in all scientific enquiry. No progress would ever have been made in any scientific field without doubt raising questions that then required investigation. And so without a certain amount of healthy doubt the world would be living under the shadow of a lot more superstition than it currently does.
Perhaps doubt can sometimes be beneficial?
Which brings us to religious doubt. Most religious organisations actively discourage doubt. Doubt is seen as the enemy of faith. I have heard many stories over the years of adults who have given up on religious faith because as children they were frowned upon for raising sincere questions and doubts in sunday school or their confirmation classes (or even sitting in the pews).
The problem is that when religious doubts are not given space to be expressed then people end up being encouraged (or forced) to adopt a blind faith. Bind unquestioning faith however will never lead to a mature and personal first hand faith. At most it will be a second hand faith that is held onto either out of obligation and often out of fear.
Any organisation that has to keep people faithful by discouraging doubt and discouraging sincere questions is behaving very much as a cult would do. And the truth is that there are very many large and well-respected denominations who operate on this basis.
For me, this is one of the gifts of the NSPCI. The Non-subscribing Presbyterians of Ireland, have for around 300 years given space for their members and ministers to have doubts without excluding them from the family of Christ. If the NSPCI had patron saints, I think Thomas might have made a very good patron saint for the NSPCI. The character of Thomas in the gospel story today represents the doubters in all of us. He represents us. He represents our desire to have a faith that is meaningful, a faith that we hold not because we have been told to do so blindly, but rather a faith that allows us to question and come to our own conclusions. And thereby, to have a faith that is not just a second hand hand-me-down, but a faith that each of us can own for ourselves and that makes sense according to our own understandings.
There can indeed be downsides to doubting everything all the time. But doubt is not always a bad thing. Sometimes our doubts can even be a gift.
I would like to end with two quotes from Peter Enns , a Biblical scholar, from his book entitled: The Sin of Certainty. Firstly Peter Enns believes that Doubt needs to be embraced.
“Doubt is God’s instrument, will arrive in God’s time, and will come from unexpected places—places out of your control. And when it does, resist the fight-or-flight impulse. Pass through it—patiently, honestly, and courageously for however long it takes. True transformation takes time.”
― Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty:
Secondly he writes…
“The life of Christian faith is more than agreeing with a set of beliefs about Christ, morality, or how to read the Bible. It means being so intimately connected to Christ that his crucifixion is ours, his death is our death, and his life is our life—which is hardly something we can grasp with our minds. It has to be experienced. It is an experience.” Peter Enns And I would add… this is ultimately to experience Christ’s love, which is stronger than death, living in us and flowing through us.
I wonder if that is what it might really mean to put one’s fingers in the wounds of Christ’s hands and to put our hand in his side?