Is doubt good or bad?

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

John 20:19-29 – NRSV

I’ve decided that an article about ‘doubt’ and ‘certainty’ is a good place to start this blogsite, because so many other things flow from how we address this one issue. There are many churches that view doubt as being negative and who deliberately set out to teach certainty. But is this a sensible policy?

The term ‘Doubting Thomas’ is one of the very many biblical quotations that have passed into our day-to-day language and it must be said that it’s generally used in a derogatory way. I find myself wondering if history has actually been rather unkind to Thomas. It’s easy to miss, isn’t it, that before we get to the part of the story where Thomas refuses to believe unless he sees the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and puts his finger in Jesus’ side, we read that Jesus came and stood among the disciples, and showed them his hands and his side. And, it goes on ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’. We’re left with the distinct impression that the other disciples neither recognised Jesus, nor believed, until they’d been shown his wounds. And yet they’ve not been given the label ‘doubting’ to hang around their necks for eternity. Poor old Thomas!

In his famous painting from 1600 called ‘The incredulity of St Thomas’, Caravaggio shows Jesus bending forward with his chest bared. Jesus grips St Thomas’s hand and pushes his index finger deep into the wound in his side, with Thomas’s eyes bulging in wonder and astonishment. But in the background, there are two other, unnamed disciples leaning forwards to get as close a look as possible to what’s going on, and they share the same look of amazement in their eyes. Caravaggio clearly thought that Thomas wasn’t the only one with doubts. So, how do we view Thomas? Certainly in the commercial world, you’d have to be extremely brave to express doubt about something that every one of your other colleagues had seen for themselves, and insist on revisiting a decision on the basis that you’d missed the last meeting and hadn’t therefore seen it for yourself. In the parlance that could be described as a ‘career limiting’ move. Within the Church, I think we’re mostly taught that this story is a demonstration of Thomas’ lack of faith, an example of behaviour that we’re being taught to avoid. But is this true? What is St John’s real message from this gospel passage? Is there strength behind Thomas’s apparent weakness?

There are two similar stories covering disbelief at the end of the gospel stories – this one about Thomas but also, most importantly, the story of the women on Easter morning who, having discovered the empty tomb, rush to tell the other disciples, but are then not believed. The disciples don’t trust what they’ve been told by the women, in the same way that Thomas doesn’t believe what he’s told by his fellow disciples. Both have to see for themselves; both are not ready to take what they’re told for granted. It’s for these reasons that both stories would seem to be about trust, not doubt. One expert, in dealing with this passage, translates the word as ‘trust’ not ‘belief’ throughout the text. So in his translation, Jesus says to Thomas ‘Because you have seen me you have trusted? Blessed are those who have not seen and have trusted’. It’s a different way of looking at the same issue, but it’s one that focuses on our dependency on each other, rather than our reliance on ourselves.

It’s not hard to see how the leaders of major commercial enterprises would scoff at the idea of not relying on oneself. My own years of running organisations led me to the belief that true leadership was actually the opposite of what most of us believe: it’s only the weak leaders who aren’t sure of themselves who become uncompromising dictators, who don’t want to hear the views of others; it requires almost unlimited levels of self-confidence to open up your every decision to the views (and maybe criticisms) of others.

In the passage above, Jesus finds a way into the locked room in which the disciples are meeting, and he comes to them in their fear and their anxiety and their mistrust of one another, and removes their doubts and lack of trust by showing them his wounds, and bestowing on them the gift of the Holy Spirit. And he repeats this a week later when Thomas shows his lack of trust in his turn. And this indicates the moment when the disciples, stricken with fear at the events of the crucifixion, gradually start to change into the disciples we read about in the book of Acts: courageous and fearless; supremely confident and determined; brim-full of confidence and trust in each other and in God.

We’re taught to read the passage about ‘Doubting Thomas’ as demonstrating a lack of faith. But what if we see it as a tale of overcoming a lack of trust, leading to an unshakeable, rock-solid faith? When Thomas exclaims ‘My Lord and my God!’ he becomes the only character in John’s gospel to call Jesus ‘God’. Through his journey from weakness to overcoming his lack of trust, he becomes the character with the strongest faith in John’s gospel.

It would seem to me that such honesty and courage in our dealings with other people, and such an ability to learn from our mistakes, is critical not just to our faith, but more widely. What we need, both in the Church and also in the commercial world, is more people who can let go of their pride and their egos and learn to trust each other. It seems to me that during my lifetime, there’s been a shift towards seeing the world more and more as ‘black and white’. Don’t we all know instinctively that actually the world is far more complicated than that?

I’ve found, as I’ve tried my best to reflect on the Bible, that it’s only when we open ourselves up to the possibility of there being different interpretations that God speaks to us. If we persist in believing that a Bible passage can only be interpreted one way, we’re shutting ourselves off to so much! My experience has been that, in the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds’.

6 thoughts on “Is doubt good or bad?

  1. Strangely I’d only been looking at this painting of Caravaggio’s ‘Doubting Thomas’ this morning! Thank you for your reflections James, a blessing as always and very pertinent given our current political times.

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  2. It takes great courage to be as honest as Thomas was. He was the disciple that spoke up earlier asking the question the other disciples were probably thinking but not brave enough to voice:
    John 14 v5 “Lord we do not know where you are going? How can we know the way?”
    It was also Thomas who, knowing what the cost might be, led the other disciples to accompany Jesus to Jerusalem:
    John 11 v16 ‘Thomas…said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we might die with him.”
    Courageous, questioning and faithful Thomas. His honesty benefitted his fellow disciples then and goodness knows how many of us since…
    It is as we question and acknowledge our doubts that we learn and grow.

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  3. Thank you for your reflection James, excellent as always with lots to think about. The translation using ‘trust’ gives a different slant and will certainly make me think of Thomas in a different way. There is doubt in us all.

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  4. Brilliant James, when I read and see the desecration of this world that’s been plastered in the news lately I wonder how many doubt or trust in God to put things right. With all the wrongs in the world it is easy to see doubt, but trust in God’s Devine purpose we must. Blessings in Christ, Clive.

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