Doubt vs Unbelief


Lessons – Acts 3:12-26; Psalm 118:19-24; 1 John 5:1-6; St. John 20:19-31

In the Anglican world this Sunday has two names. The first is “Low Sunday” because there is inevitably a marked difference between the size of the congregation on Easter and the size of the congregation on the Second Sunday of Easter. The second name is “Thomas Sunday” because all around the world Anglicans will be considering this text that gave Thomas his famous name, “Doubting Thomas”. A skeptical interpretation of this passage would be that it is given to us kind of like a buggy man story to warn us not to go down the same road that Thomas did, but that is both a simplistic reading of this passage and a failure to understand the role of doubt in the Christian life. If you look more closely at the passage you will realize that Jesus did not one time rebuke or correct Thomas for his doubts and so this story is hardly a warning to us. Jesus met Thomas where he was and took him to the next level, ridding him of his doubts. This is in stark contrast to the rebukes that Jesus gave the Pharisees when they expressed their unbelief and He called them white washed tombs filled with dead men’s bones. So there must be a difference to the Lord between doubt like Thomas expressed and unbelief like the Pharisees expressed. A 19th century Scottish scholar captured the difference in this quote. “Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness’”

This is a distinction that is important to comprehend. The Scottish scholar was not just playing with words when he made a distinction between doubt and unbelief and it is critical to our understanding of this passage. You may recall a couple of years ago when the story broke about Mother Theresa expressing doubt in her letters. The media jumped on this like it was a gotcha story; here we have this woman that is on the fast track to being declared a saint in the Roman Church and yet she has doubts. But when I saw the story, rather than lessening Mother Theresa’s image, it was an encouragement to me. I have times of discouragement and doubt and frankly there are days when I wished that I had chosen any other profession than the priesthood but those times pass, just as they did for Thomas. And inspired by the witness of the saints, I get on with my work, just as Mother Theresa and Thomas got on with theirs.

The quote from the Scottish scholar said that doubt is looking for the light while unbelief is content with darkness. I think that captures Thomas well. If he had unbelief and was content with the darkness, he would have told the disciples they were crazy and then he would have left the room. He even could have thrown his lot in with the unbelievers who were busy bribing the guards and coming up with excuses why the tomb was found empty. But look what he did. After expressing his doubt, he stayed with the fledgling church and was with the brethren when Jesus appeared and gave him what he needed to dispel his doubts.

I can easily believe that most of you have wrestled with doubt at one time or another and perhaps some of you are right in the middle of it now. I hope that what I have said to this point will remove any false guilt about it but then the next question occurs and that is what to do about our doubts. Here we can take more lessons from Thomas.

First, is to simply admit it. Dr. Phil always says that you can’t fix what you don’t own and Thomas is a great example of that. He was not being antagonistic, or trying to destroy their faith, he was just being honest with the brethren where he was in his journey. If he had kept his mouth shut about his doubts and hypocritically went along with the crowd, look at what he would have missed. He would have missed this entire interaction with Jesus that moved him beyond his doubts. Look what we would have missed. We would not have this great story showing Jesus’ love and compassion in ministering to Thomas’ needs and giving us hope that He will do the same for us.

Let me clarify a point however. There is a vast difference between expressing doubt and trumpeting unbelief that is masquerading as doubt. When I was attending seminary at Sewanee one of the professors was being vague about the physical resurrection of Jesus and one of the students called him on it. So the professor said, “Let me be more clear; Jesus is a bag of bones lying in the ground somewhere outside the walls of Jerusalem.” With that kind of unbelief, if he had an ounce of integrity, he would have resigned from a Christian institution but he also embodied the pride that nearly always accompanies unbelief. He looked at people like you and me, who believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, as simpletons who have accepted a Sunday school story. He gloried in his darkness and that is vastly difference from expressing doubt so that you can move further into the light. So come to your priest, or to your small group or tell Jesus directly but admit it.

The next step is to be open to the answer when it comes. I’m sure that by now most if not all of you have seen the story of the Scottish woman who sang for Britain Has Talent. The video of it on You Tube has had over 20 million hits. For those of you who haven’t seen it, this is the story of a 47-year-old Scottish woman who as one writer said has the eyebrows of a Caesar, the shoulders of a body guard and walks like a line backer. When she walked on the stage some in the audience started booing and when Simon asked her age he rolled his eyes. Then she opened her mouth to sing and out came the sound of an angel. Mouths dropped open and applause started to build and by the time she finished the song everyone was on their feet. She faced an entire room of doubters, she gave them an “aha” moment and they all became instant converts.

Jesus gave Thomas an “aha” moment in letting him touch His hands and His side. Thomas became and instant convert and responded, “My Lord and my God.” But Thomas’ heart had to be open to Jesus’ proof because it is possible to have the proof and still not believe. You will recall how God showed His hand time and time again to Pharaoh but Pharaoh, because he had hardened his heart, would not believe and accept the authority of YHWH. And I think that is often the true reason why some, even when given proof, refuse to believe. Because if they do then it means that they must accept Jesus’ authority, as Thomas did when he said, “My Lord and My God” and as a consequence are no longer be in charge of their own lives. For some it is easier to deny the proof than it is to bend the knee. So you have to keep your heart open to God after you admit to Him your doubts.

A third thing that we see in Thomas and even in the others is that their doubts did not paralyze them rather they kept moving. Frederick Beuchner says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. It keeps faith awake and moving.” Why does faith need to be kept awake and moving? Because faith that is not awake and moving is asleep or maybe even dead.

Before coming to Smyrna, I interviewed in a little church at the foot of Monteagle. After we went through all of the typical interview questions, including where I see myself in 5 years, they asked if I had any questions of them. I said that I did and I asked them where they saw themselves as a parish in 5 years. The Senior Warden said that if they had grew too much over the next 5 years that he would be gone because he preferred a small intimate church. That of course was my red flag not to accept the call because I would be fighting the Senior Warden to do what I was called to do and that would be suicide, so I declined their call. Would it surprise you at all to learn that they are even smaller now than they were when I interviewed with them? Of course not, because they stopped moving.

There was a silly song we sang in my high school in Scotland. “Oh McTavish is dead and his brother don’t know I, his brother is dead and McTavish don’t know it and both of them dead and in the same bed and neither one knows that the other is dead.” Well I have known churches, like the one I just described, that died a long time ago, but like with McTavish, there is no one alive enough to know that they are dead. That is why we need to keep our faith moving.

The answer is to keep moving in spite of the doubts. That is what Mother Theresa did. That is what the Apostles did. Listen to this line from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19  Go therefore and  make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So they are seeing a resurrected Jesus, they are worshipping Him and still some doubted. Even knowing that, Jesus goes on to give them the Great Commission and they keep moving and go on to obey that Commission. Thomas goes all the way to India where he was martyred in Madras.

I have seen a number of people lose their faith over the years. Many times this happened because when they started to have doubts they came to a full stop. Often they were waiting for a feeling to return which is always a risky endeavor because feelings come and go on a whim. They stopped attending Church, they stopped reading their Bibles, they stopped saying their prayers and they ended up cutting themselves off from the Body and they died spiritually as surely as a hand would die that was cut off from its body. They should have kept moving rather than being controlled by their doubts and feelings. I read once of a young preacher that came to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and the young preacher was in a spiritual crises because he felt that he had lost his faith. Wesley told him to keep preaching faith until it came back. He did and it did. So when you have doubts, keep moving.

I truly believe that a proper reading of this Gospel will show us that Thomas is not the Church’s version of Benedict Arnold. In fact just the opposite, Thomas is a real hero. But what makes him so appealing is that Thomas is everyman. Thomas is you and Thomas is me. Through his story God encourages us to let our doubts be the ants in the pants of our faith and like Thomas we are to move to the place where we confess Jesus as our Lord and our God and then follow Him no matter where it takes us and whatever the cost. Amen.




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