I read a wonderful story about C.S. Lewis in a recent devotional that reminded me how Christianity is a religion with both room and reason, for laughter as well as life. On the Monday following Easter Sunday, the Orthodox Church gathers in their sanctuaries for one purpose. To tell jokes. They do this because they wish to keep the joy of Easter going. They believe God gave us the gift of laugher and so it must be celebrated. And so I ask you this:
Did I ever tell you the one about the man who takes his dog into a bar? They both climb up on a stool and order two beers.
The bartender says to them, “Sorry buddy, no dogs allowed.” And the man says to the bartender, “But sir, this is no ordinary dog. This is a talking dog.”
The bartender asks the man to prove it. So the guy turns to the dog and says, “Hey Sparky, what’s that thing called on top of a house?” And the dog replies, “Roof.”
The bartender is not impressed. “Come on,” he says, Ask him something more specific.” So the man looks at the dog and says, “Hey Sparky, what is the texture of sandpaper?” And the dog replies, “Ruff.”
Again, the bartender is not impressed. The man says to him, “Why don’t you ask him a question.” The bartender asks the dog, “who’s the greatest baseball player of all time?” The dog says, “Ruth.” The bartender rolls his eyes and points to the door.
As the pair begins to leave, the dog turns to his owner and says, “I guess I should have said DiMagio.” Doubt has always been a funny thing for us faithful.
Like laughter, it is a part of our life. In John’s gospel Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet still believe.”
Discoveries in science and a growing skepticism that has invaded our world have made it more difficult for Christians to faithfully believe at least without some kind of doubt surfacing around us. We Christian are forced to live between a constant state of belief and disbelief. And I wonder if this is what God intended?
And so this mornings question is this: Is Doubt a Virtue or a Vice? Is it good for our faith, or does it cause us to stumble?
Like I said, we live in a society that has come to expect something is either full-proof or a gimmick. By our very inquisitive nature, we've elevated doubt so high that it seems to have become an unquestioned virtue.
On the other hand, the church has placed so much value on blind faith that any form of doubt is nothing more than a vice. Some have gone so far as to teach that doubt is equivalent to questioning one’s faith. There is a lot of bad stuff happening in the world today because people are afraid to question their religious leaders. Yet there is something to be said about living by faith, where the only tangible proof you have is the feeling that exists in your heart.
Because I was taught to feel guilty about having moments of doubt, I walked away from the church. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30’s, that I began to understand how doubt and uncertainty are natural affects of a healthy life; including a healthy spiritual life. Most people would agree that every new phase of life brings a moment of doubt. As we move from puberty to young adult, or maturity to end of life, doubt is sure to find a way in. When we lose a job or retire from one, we might wonder if God really does have a plan for us.
When we experience the death of a spouse or child, when we suffer the loss of a great friend we question why God would allow such a thing to happen. When we struggle with abuse at home or a failed marriage; when we witness violent tragedies around the world; when earthquakes and typhoons hit poor countries, killing hundreds and leaving millions homeless we find it easier to blame God then to live with the mystery. Yet it is in these tough and challenging moments that we can become closer to God, even if our faith has been pushed to the outer darkness.
When I was wrestling with my doubt in relationship to God, a wonderful minister, Fr. Carol Barber, taught me to see that our doubts are the only way we can be sure God exists. In essence he said, because we have doubts, we have questions. He instructed me to question everything. Question my faith. Question religion. Question my morals and my belief system. Question every word of the Bible. And even the very existence of God.
While this might sound questionable it is in our questions that God gives us answers. Fr. Barber showed me how in the journey of life, doubt will always follow faith’s lead. Its sole purpose is to poke at our beliefs and stir up those still waters we are always seeking. Because of our faith, doubt might come to us. But because of our faith...God is with us to help us make sense of it all.
Jesus understands our humanity, and sympathizes with our inquisitive nature. Perhaps this is why he taught in parables instead of just giving us commandments. Jesus wants us to think about what he is saying. He wants us to contemplate and pray so we can understand how it relates to every season of life. Jesus wants us to internalize his words so we can see and touch and feel the truth ourselves. Doubting is good because it turns our focus inward where God dwells. It is in our questioning and contemplating that our faith finds its strength.
This is why I believe poor Thomas has gotten a bad rap throughout church history. If you ask me, he is completely misunderstood. He hears a story of Jesus blessing the other disciples and declares, “Unless I see the nail holes and touch him myself, I will not believe.” Is this doubting? Or does he just want the same blessings the others received?
Let's take at look at the painting called “Doubting Thomas” by Caravagio. Notice the way the artist portrays Thomas. He is more inquisitive than doubtful. He is probing and inspecting Jesus’ wounds because he wants to be sure that what he is seeing is real. John's gospel doesn't tell us if he really did touch the hole. But that's not really the point.
Notice also the other two Apostles. They too are looking with curiosity and amazement. Why is that? Haven't they already seen Jesus after the Easter resurrection? Didn't they already received the gift of the Holy Spirit? And Jesus’ blessing of peace? Yet John makes it very clear to us that they remained hidden behind a lock door. They receive God's grace and peace, yet still live in fear. This tells me it is not Thomas, but the other Apostles who are filled with doubt. Yet, when we focus only on their doubt, we miss the most important part of this story. That is, the other person in this painting.
The Good News of the Easter Resurrection is that Jesus is not dead. Nor is Jesus locked away in some heavenly kingdom. Jesus is alive. And comes to us, offering himself again and again to meet us where we are especially in our moments of doubt or when we are questioning our faith.
Thomas isn’t asking for proof as much as he is desiring a chance to see his beloved friend again and receive his blessing. Jesus hears his plea and comes to Thomas. Likewise Jesus hears our cries, and come to us. The peace that Jesus offers Thomas...is the same peace given to us. By the peace of Jesus Christ our faith is strengthened. It overwhelms our senses, and takes over our being removing fears and doubts. It is through this divine gift that we recognize and touch and feel Jesus in our lives.
Doubt might seem like a vice, because it causes us to question our faith. But I see it more as a virtue because it is in our questioning that Christ comes to us and gives us this wonderful gift. And so, the blessing of peace that Jesus offers is...THE VERY PROOF upon which all doubt is pacified.
Therefore Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are we who have not seen and yet believe.” For we are the ones who contemplate Jesus internally. We are the ones who take the peace that dwells within us and proclaim it to the world. It is through our peace giving that the world’s doubters begin to recognize and understand their own faith. But don’t take my word for it. Dare to be one of God’s peacemakers and see for yourself. Amen.