The twin Tho­mas can not beli­ve without see­ing the risen Jesus, as it is writ­ten in John chap­ter 20. Here is the devo­tio­nal based on this text.

Why doubt is no rea­son to des­pair!

John 20, 24–29

Notes:

  1. A matu­re faith – a faith that wants to matu­re – allows doubts.
  2. Jesus hims­elf reaches out to tho­se in doubt!
  3. From doubt to won­der and to tes­ti­mo­ny

Why doubt is no rea­son to des­pair!

Do you know the most famous or rather the most infa­mous doub­ter in the Bible? Most of think of Tho­mas, who is usual­ly refer­red to as »Tho­mas the Doub­ter« or even »Tho­mas the Unbe­lie­ver«. The apost­le Tho­mas: he has a bad repu­ta­ti­on in histo­ry, we all know the phra­se »you’re a doub­ting Tho­mas«.

The bibli­cal epi­thet is, howe­ver, a com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent one: Tho­mas, the twin. Tho­mas‹ bad repu­ta­ti­on: I find it rather unfair. I would like to invi­te you to look at the bibli­cal text of Tho­mas and Jesus, which you can read in the gos­pel of John chap­ter 20, ver­ses 24–29, from a dif­fe­rent per­spec­ti­ve, and high­light a few points that beca­me important to me when reflec­ting on this text as I pre­pa­red this devo­tio­nal:

First­ly:

  1. A matu­re faith – a faith that wants to matu­re – allows doubts.

Tho­mas admits his doubts, says open­ly what he needs. From a cha­rac­ter point of view, Tho­mas was some­bo­dy who ten­ded to ques­ti­on things, who wan­ted to under­stand what was expec­ted of him. He open­ly admits when he’s not sure about some­thing, is someo­ne who is not pre­pa­red to rely pure­ly on the tes­ti­mo­ny of the other disci­ples, but wants to expe­ri­ence the risen Jesus hims­elf. His doubts are honest doubts from someo­ne who has expe­ri­en­ced a lot with Jesus.

Per­so­nal­ly, I find the way that Tho­mas loo­ks for ans­wers sym­pa­the­tic, I find it sym­pa­the­tic that he doesn’t sup­press his ques­ti­ons or accept what he hears from his friends, what they have expe­ri­en­ced as truth, without reflec­ting it for hims­elf, without wan­ting to see Jesus hims­elf. When the apost­les tell him that Jesus, who had been cru­ci­fied the week befo­re, has appeared in their midst. Tho­mas expres­ses his needs with hard but honest words: I will never belie­ve that! I would first have to feel the traces of the nails on his hands and feel them with my fin­ger and put my hand in his side wound – other­wi­se not!«

Tho­mas says what he needs, he expres­ses his doubts – but he doesn’t run away. Tho­mas wants to belie­ve. And he remains – and this is ano­t­her thing that is important to me in reflec­ting this text – with the other disci­ples – des­pi­te his ques­ti­ons! He wants to belie­ve, to be con­vin­ced, he’ s a sin­ce­re scep­tic.

And the other disci­ples: they appar­ent­ly put up with Thomas’s ques­ti­ons, tell him what they have expe­ri­en­ced and lea­ve it at that. They accept that their expe­ri­ence and their truth is not – not yet – Tho­mas’ expe­ri­ence, not yet a truth he can con­fess for hims­elf. The other disci­ples neit­her con­demn Tho­mas – or at least I assu­me they don’t – nor mar­gi­na­li­ze him or make him feel uncom­for­ta­ble in their pre­sence. If they had, Tho­mas would pro­bab­ly not have been with them when Jesus reap­peared again. When Jesus does appe­ar in their midst again, pro­mi­se them His peace, they can rejoice along Tho­mas with him, all of them tog­e­ther.

What can hap­pen if doubts are sup­pres­sed or when church­es can­not cope with doubts and cri­ti­cal ques­ti­ons being open­ly expres­sed: that is a rea­son to des­pair, not the doubts them­sel­ves.

A few years ago, I read a book that real­ly made me think. It was enti­t­led: Why I no lon­ger belie­ve” and it was about so-cal­led deco­n­ver­si­on. About the rea­sons why young adults give up or lose their faith, inclu­ding many who as child­ren and teen­agers had been con­vin­ced and con­fes­sing Chris­ti­ans. One of the main rea­sons iden­ti­fied among peop­le who had once belie­ved and no lon­ger could was that had felt unab­le to talk about their ques­ti­ons or doubts. They had sup­pres­sed them, had the fee­ling that no one in their church­es or fami­lies wan­ted to hear them, that no-one unders­tood them. And some­whe­re along the line they lost their faith as they hadn’t found ans­wers to their ques­ti­ons. Added to that, many of the peop­le had suf­fe­red from the fact that they felt as though their church­es and other Chris­ti­ans hadn’t been the­re for them, hadn’t taken their ques­ti­ons serious­ly.

In many pain­tings, Tho­mas is often depic­ted as a young man. And the bibli­cal sto­ry of Jesus and Tho­mas is often read in ser­vices of con­fir­ma­ti­on or bles­sing in both Pro­tes­tant and Catho­lic church­es. Cer­tain­ly, it is not only young peop­le who often have many ques­ti­ons, but young peop­le, inclu­ding teen­agers, do often ques­ti­on many of the things they have been brought up with, want to make their decisi­ons, start to ask ques­ti­ons. And that’s good so. But regard­less of our age, whe­ther, young or old: the sto­ry of Tho­mas and Jesus encou­ra­ges us all to ask our ques­ti­ons, to express our doubts, and in so doing to stay clo­se to Jesus and clo­se to our bro­thers and sis­ters. And as Chris­ti­ans and con­gre­ga­ti­ons, the text chal­len­ges us to accept it when peop­le express doubts, not to con­demn or play down their ques­ti­ons and doubts, but to lis­ten and be the­re for them.

This is the first mes­sa­ge that is important to me in this text: A matu­re faith, a faith that will matu­re, allows doubt – and a loving, matu­re church also per­mits and accepts doubt.

The second mes­sa­ge which beca­me important to me when reflec­ting on this text:

  1. Jesus Hims­elf reaches out to tho­se in doubt!

Tho­mas remains open to others, is open to having his doubt refu­t­ed, he stays with the other disci­ples. In the end, howe­ver, it is the risen Lord hims­elf who in His grace reaches out to Tho­mas, who reaches out to indi­vi­du­als, with all Thomas’s, with all our doubts and ques­ti­ons. In the bibli­cal text Jesus appears a second time to the disci­ples after the cru­ci­fi­xi­on, this time Tho­mas is with them. Again, they are clo­se­ted up behind locked doors. And what does Jesus do: He reaches out to Tho­mas, tells him to put his fin­gers in His side – in words almost iden­ti­cal to the demand that Tho­mas had made.

I real­ly love the way Jesus reaches out to His friend! He knew him, took him serious­ly, addres­sed his needs. Jesus does­n’t real­ly con­demn Tho­mas: He just takes him in his arms, gives him what he needs to belie­ve. Grants him his own expe­ri­ence. Jesus can cope with Thomas’s ques­ti­ons, He reaches out to him in, des­pi­te and becau­se of his doubts.

For me, this is a deeply com­for­ting and encou­ra­ging pic­tu­re. Jesus does­n’t judge Tho­mas; He does­n’t judge anyo­ne for wan­ting to be sure. Jesus can cope with our ques­ti­ons and doubts. We don’t have to sup­press them, but can and should express them. Jesus Hims­elf reaches out to tho­se who honest­ly doubt, He gives us ever­ything we need to belie­ve.

My third and last point:

  1. From doubt to won­der and to tes­ti­mo­ny

Perhaps you can see in your mind the well-known pic­tures whe­re Tho­mas puts his fin­gers in the wound. That is, howe­ver, not said in the bibli­cal text, pro­bab­ly wasn’t the case. What has been han­ded down is rather a moving tes­ti­mo­ny. Tho­mas is the first per­son to for­mu­la­te a post-resur­rec­tion tes­ti­mo­ny, of such beau­ty as we rare­ly expe­ri­ence: Tho­mas says to Jesus: »My Lord and my God«. It is the first time in the Gos­pels that a per­son addres­ses Jesus as God. The gre­at »doub­ter«, the sup­po­sed­ly unbe­lie­ving Tho­mas, has beco­me someo­ne with gre­at faith, who has put his doubts behind him, who in wond­rous prai­se testi­fies the Lord.

Tho­mas had seen how Jesus had coped with his doubts, how Jesus had reached out to him. And so his faith can take on new dimen­si­ons: the doub­ting Tho­mas beco­mes a won­de­rous, a con­fes­sing Tho­mas who is said to have died for his faith in the risen Lord as a mar­tyr in India.

Perhaps you’ve been able to expe­ri­ence how your faith has grown when you have con­fron­ted your ques­ti­ons and your doubts. Some­ti­mes God has given us ans­wers, and the­se ans­wers have streng­t­he­ned our faith. Some­ti­mes, we haven’t, at least yet, had ans­wers to our ques­ti­ons, but still have been expe­ri­ence how our trust in the Lord can grow, des­pi­te ques­ti­ons, some­ti­mes dif­fi­cult times and dark moments, whe­re still we can expe­ri­ence the peace which trans­cends all rea­son and can con­fess in ama­ze­ment: »My Lord and my God.«

At the end of the encoun­ter bet­ween Jesus and Tho­mas, Jesus says to Tho­mas: »You belie­ve becau­se you see me. How hap­py are tho­se who belie­ve without see­ing me!« For me, this sen­tence is direc­ted less at Tho­mas than at us, at all tho­se who are not immedia­te wit­nes­ses of the risen Lord. It is not so much Jesus reproa­ching Tho­mas as Jesus reaching out to us with a won­der­ful pro­mi­se and bles­sing. Faith is pos­si­ble without see­ing, the risen Lord gives us His word that we may belie­ve.

Con­clu­si­on

To end with, you usual­ly sum the points that you’ve made. That’s exact­ly what I did to start with when I was wri­ting down my thoughts on this text. And then I thought: What a boring con­clu­si­on. So I deci­ded to finish on a dif­fe­rent note, with two fic­tio­n­al sce­nes which I hope might encou­ra­ge you to think anew about a text that most of us have heard many times.

A litt­le pro­vo­ca­tively, perhaps, but a chan­ce to reflect what might have hap­pen­ed if Tho­mas, whom we often call doub­ting, had not in his wis­dom and matu­ri­ty have allo­wed and faced up to his doubts. Of what might have hap­pen­ed had the disci­ples in their matu­ri­ty reac­ted less lovin­g­ly, less wise­ly.

The first fic­tio­n­al sce­n­a­rio:

Tho­mas meets Jesus after his own death. Our Lord is sad: »My child, I have been wai­t­ing so long to give you ans­wers to your ques­ti­ons. But you never bothe­red to ask me them, you ran away from me and from the other disci­ples. I wan­ted so much to ans­wer your ques­ti­ons, to let you expe­ri­ence and see me yourself. My child: you couldn’t have known, but so many other Chris­ti­ans who will come after you, who belie­ve but will not get the chan­ce to see would have been bles­sed by your sto­ry.«

The second fic­tio­n­al sce­n­a­rio:

Ano­t­her discip­le meets Jesus again after his own death. Our Lord is sad: »My child, do you know what you did when you told Tho­mas to stop ques­tio­ning ever­ything that you and the other disci­ples had expe­ri­en­ced? When you repri­man­ded and scold­ed him for his doubts, tel­ling him to stop ques­tio­ning ever­ything and just belie­ve what they were tel­ling him? With your help I wan­ted to reach out to Tho­mas and give a gift not just to Tho­mas but to all tho­se who will come after him, who will not see but will belie­ve.«

Bro­thers and sis­ters, let us be thank­ful that the sto­ry took a dif­fe­rent turn! Doubt is no rea­son to des­pair! Amen.