There are two types of doubts. First, you can doubt an idea or concept. You can also doubt a person. Sometimes it can seem like you’re doing both, but if you think about it, it’s one or the other or most of one than the other. This is story is more the latter.
You know the drill. Every year after Easter, we preach about doubting Thomas, or so he has been labeled. We pick up later on Easter day, and Jesus appears to the 10. Thomas is out. For whatever reason, he’s not there. I’ll suggest a few in a moment but hold that thought. When Thomas returns, the 10 tell him the good news, Jesus appeared to them. Thomas doesn’t believe them. He’s grieving; he’s hurt; he’s angry he missed Jesus. You can imagine his emotions. He wants to see Jesus for himself. He says he won’t believe Jesus is alive until he touches his wounds personally. The next day, Thomas is in the house; Jesus drops in, Thomas feels the hands, and Jesus asks the famous question, “Why did you doubt?” Next thing you know, this guy who’s been by Jesus’ side busting his butt for three years as a disciple is labeled with the handle “Doubting Thomas.” I don’t like it. It stinks to high heaven. You ask one question, and you’re marked for all human history. Really, what gives?
I’m tired of people picking on Thomas. I don’t like bullies and think most churches have bullied Thomas throughout time. It’s easy for all of us to gather here once a year, all high and mighty, and call a man we’ve never met, who died two thousand years ago, a doubter based on one sentence in the Bible. How would you like it if someone was calling you by an adjective you didn’t earn or deserve two thousand years from now, and you weren’t here to defend yourself? It wouldn’t be fair, now would it? What kind of courage or theology does it take to attack a man we’ve never met who’s been dead two thousand years and can’t defend himself? I’ll answer that: hollow courage and bad theology.
Let’s get this straight. Thomas is not a doubter. He is a person who shares his expectations. Earlier in John’s gospel, we’re told he was the first to volunteer to go to Jerusalem after the resurrection with Lazarus, even if that meant certain death. That means he was courageous. He was a guy you wanted on your team. He was the first guy to respond to the active shooter situation. That’s the kind of guy Thomas was. If you needed backup, he had Jesus’ back. Does that sound like a doubter? Maybe, just maybe, we’re confusing grief with doubt. God help us if we’re doing that.
Thomas is a person who asks good, hard questions. Unfortunately, we forget it’s okay for religious people to ask good, hard questions about themselves and their faith. You’re not going to hell for asking questions. On the contrary, you’ll become better able to defend your faith; the more questions you ask, the better informed and knowledgeable you become. In fact, why aren’t we more like Thomas? Why don’t we ask more questions instead of accepting everything a Sunday School teacher or preacher tells us at face value? Let’s dialogue!
We’ve created a stigma around asking questions in church. If you ask a religious question, you must be weak in your faith, have moral problems, or are uncertain about God, Jesus, the Bible, or basic religious concepts. Something must be wrong with you. Nothing could be farther from the truth! So why don’t we ask more questions? I can think of three primary reasons.
First, we need to remember to. We forget that we can ask questions or neglect to ask outright. As I said earlier, we’re conditioned by the church not to ask questions. Asking questions is seen as a sign of weakness. Sure, we’ll ask what time a service starts or if we can volunteer for a clean-up day, but when it comes to, “Will you explain the Trinity to me?” We get too busy. We become distracted. Or we’ll forget and go on to planning our grocery list while we’re reciting the Apostles’ Creed.
There’s also another huge reason we don’t ask questions in church. We don’t want to look weird or awkward. We think our questions will make us look stupid at worst or heretical at best. Face it; we know that church people can occasionally come off as judgmental and gossipy. If someone were to hear you ask me, “How is that it if it was in the plan all along that Jesus die for our sins? How can we be mad at Judas for doing what God intended done all along? Do I sound crazy for even asking that question, preacher?” Some people would flip out if they heard anyone ask that question. I know because I asked it to my pastor when I was in the eighth grade after a Maundy Thursday service. Just because you ask a hard question doesn’t mean you doubt that Jesus Christ is your savior. It simply means you want to know if the church has sincerely considered an answer to your question. I promise you, if you’ve asked the question, others have done the same thing. They might not have spoken up because they felt awkward or were browbeaten into silence. No more. We shouldn’t be discouraged by questions. We shouldn’t be making people feel awkward or weird in any way. If you’ve got questions, fire away. Nothing is too strange to be taken off the table. If you’ve thought of a question, I guarantee someone else has also thought of it.
Here’s another critical point, if we can’t answer our tough questions, how will we answer the world’s hard questions? If we shut down dialogue and debate within the church, we sure aren’t going to convert anyone to our cause because we won’t know how to talk to the people beyond our walls like regular people. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we use a lot of inside baseball language in the church, terms, and phrases that only make sense because we go here and have been going here for a long time. How might we talk to questioners with dignity, grace, and class in ways that assume no background in faith and still make Jesus Christ understandable to all?
A third reason we don’t ask questions is that we don’t know how to ask or frame our questions. We don’t know quite what to say or put our thoughts into words. They’re up there in our heads. It’s just putting them in a coherent framework. But, again, it’s helpful to remember that other people have the same questions. Good questions lead to thoughtful answers that aren’t smarmy or snarky. We must ask good questions so our answers aren’t pat, cliché, and “that’s just the way it is” answers. The world deserves our best.
The church has a history of beating up on doubters, but we live in a world that grows ambiguity and uncertainty like tomatoes in a summer garden. We demand certainty, but in the face of such violence (particularly of the kind we’ve witnessed in Nashville and Louisville), how can we not doubt that something has gone a little wrong in our quest for security, safety, mental health, and peace in early 21st century America. If there’s ever been a time to create a safe space for asking questions, it is now before any more lives are lost.
Asking questions (what some call inaccurately refer to as doubt) is ultimately about extending a measure of grace to the person posing the question. Do we have it within us to extend a portion of God’s grace (grace we’ve already received) so we can listen to someone else’s heartfelt query about scripture, faith, grief, and prayer and walk with them on their journey, wherever that may be? I hope so. If not, we’re the one who needs to ask some long, hard questions of ourselves.
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