THE POWER OF DOUBTING DOUBTS
John 20: 19-31
This month I have shared with my Bible Study groups why the old adage “seeing is believing” is not necessarily true. Last summer Mary Ann and I went to an illusionist show on a cruise ship. We were quite close to the stage and I was sure that, if I watched a trick closely that I might see how it was done. Like people from Missouri, “The Show Me State,” say “I’m from Missouri, so you’ll have to show me,” I tend to want to believe my eyes. Well the illusionist indicated he was about to saw a woman in two! My eyes were pealed! He had her climb into a long box. I saw her face and her feet the whole time: her face smiled and her feet wiggled-even as he cut the big long box in half! Her face still smiled and winked; her feet still moved and toes still wiggled. He spun the boxes around, hooked them back together, opened the box, and brought out a full woman without a drop of blood on her! So did he cut her in half? If not, how did he do it? My eyes couldn’t tell me.
In New Testament times, many things were taken on sight and, as today, on the word of the best scholars that could be found. When Jesus gave the great commission found in Matthew 28, most who heard “go into all the world” had no idea how big the world was. There were Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks in basically what we now call the Middle East. Even wise men who came from the East to see the Christ Child came from Persia, not from China. When Paul went to Rome, and Corinth, Thessalonica, and Ephesus among other places, Paul believed he was fulfilling that Great Commission. But the world they knew was flat; no one yet believed the world was round. There were sea monsters at the edge of the world and in the depth of the ocean. People believed their eyes and often the stories that others told. The end of the earth was believed to be the sightline horizon beyond which a person could not see. People believed in what they could see, touch, hear, smell, and taste.
In many ways, we are like those New Testament people. We may not call ourselves doubting, but we can be suspicious. I have noticed that some in our congregation answer the phone more harshly than before, perhaps because each phone call raises the suspicion that a telemarketer is on the other end of the phone. I suspect that, out of loneliness or the hunger for a relationship, they have gotten talked into revealing credit information or into paying for a product they didn’t need. Let’s not let ourselves off of the hook either: we have also been duped now and then by someone. Every time I’m approached by a person with a sad story about loss, my doubt rises. I’ve heard so many of the stories before. And there are plenty of con artists amidst the homeless population of genuine need. So I try to tamp down my doubts. In the days of Jesus, Thomas might have been fooled before by a huckster trying to take his land, a woman selling him the wrong herbs as medicine, or a man selling him sick animals for full price. Who knows? We can look in the mirror and see the reflections of a person who also doubts there. Then we strengthen our resolve and risk being rude to our friends and we declare that “we won’t get fooled again!”
Look at the traps we can fall into if we trust our senses rather than our faith: a person driving down I-95 along the east coast of Florida, one who never had a day in a geography class, might declare that the earth is flat. I-95 is one of the flattest spans of land this side of West Texas, another flat land! Long after Jesus walked the earth—almost 1500 years in fact—Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal, after studying astronomy and navigation, proposed that he could sail west to get to the Spice Islands near the Philippines in a shorter time than sailing east around the tip of Africa. His own king refused to fund such an experiment. He later when to Spain and convince Charles I to fund it. In 1419 he set out, but Magellan never completed his voyage. Before completing his voyage, he died in a conflict in the Philippines in 1521. But remnants of his crew did finish the trip, proving a person could get to land east by sailing west. The earth was indeed round! But it is almost imperceptible to the naked eye, which fooled the brain into thinking there was a drop-off at the end of our sight line.
We needn’t click our tongues or wag our heads at Thomas’s reaction to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. Thomas could be any one of us. We all need reassurances that what we believe are not lies and what we see are not tricks. And some have been so hurt by pranks at school, on teams, in fraternities, or in groups that their trust is very low. So many people, in a casual reading, cast dispersions on the one who doubts. But doubts are natural aren’t they? Who before Jesus arose from the dead? Even Lazarus was still in the tomb. Plenty of people in our own day need to see the body of a deceased loved one to accept that she or he is dead. In our day there are fake Ids, fake Facebook posts, and fake claims online that a bank needs your information or they will close your account. Yet people still want to see amazing sights with their own eyes. Why have people over the years poured into arenas to see Cirque du Solei shows, or gathered to watch Evel Knievel fly through the air over cars on a motorcycle, watch the Great Wallendas walk on a tight rope without a net? It’s because we have to see it for ourselves. Doubt Thomas is alive and well today. He lives in me; doesn’t he live in you too, or in people you know? But the beauty of doubt is that it leads to questions and searching. If doubt is not left to fester, it will produce a fire-tested faith instead of a fragile faith. How many of us join the man who one approached Jesus and declared: “I believe! Help me with the things I have trouble believing!”
Harry Emerson Fosdick was the Pastor of the prominent Riverside Church in New York City. His most famous sermon on this subject was “The Importance of Doubting your Doubts” where he suggests if we are going to doubt most everything unbelievable that comes our way, then we should give the same scrutiny to our doubts. Always remember to doubt your doubts as well! In other words, what man could jump through the air on a motorcycle over dozens of cars? Who would believe that seven family members could walk across a tight rope together and make it safely to the other side? At some point, people doubted that the sound barrier could be broken. At some point, people doubted that a plane could fly across the Atlantic Ocean. And Thomas doubted that Jesus was alive again. But he was; and he is! God always tries to give us enough information and evidence to produce faith, without requiring proof. The principle I have followed for years is a restatement of Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The restatement is: Too much proof can make faith dissipate. It’s one thing to have faith that Jesus arose from the dead; it’s another to require evidence. There were plenty of people 1400 years after Jesus walked the earth that were taught that the earth was flat. Some might have believed that the earth was round, but not one had proved it. Today, God tries to give our faith enough undergirding to help us believe that, long ago, Jesus did what he needed to do to help Thomas believe: “Put your finger here” he said, “and see my hands. Reach out and put your hand in my side. Do not doubt, but believe!” I believe that today God is still giving us clues to reassure us. I also believe God is with us, though I can’t prove it. And I believe Jesus loves me, though I can prove it. I believe the sun will set tonight, though I can’t prove it. Much of my life is based on faith, and when new seemingly impossible news comes my way like “Jesus is back, just as he promised,” I would need to go and check it out!
Still I leave room for wonder, and for possibility. Time and time again, our loving God doesn’t want to leave us faithless nor cynical. For eyes that are open, God gives enough evidence to promote faith, but not turn it into proof. That message is from God, who is immortal and invisible and yet present. Jesus longs to dispel doubts, and but also open shut doors. In the midst of doubting many things that cross your path, be sure to also doubt your doubts.
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 24, 2017