Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord” . . . (John 20:25).
You may have some doubts of your own these days. If not doubts, at least questions.
In the pages of scripture, exile was a place and experience that gave rise to plenty of questions from God’s people. Why has this happened? How long will it last? In our Covid-19 exile we’re inclined to ask the same questions.
Some people talk of God in this exile and seek to discern his purposes, trace his steps and spy out evidences of his work in our affliction. Others are convinced that God has had nothing to do with this. If they believe in God at all, they don’t look for his fingerprints in a biological anomaly at work in a fallen world. And others – well, they just don’t know.
Mark Buchanan’s excellent book, The Holy Wild, says that his central concern in writing the book is to ask the question, “is God good?” I think plenty of folks are wondering that these days. Maybe your questions have morphed into genuine doubts. Or maybe not. Maybe your greatest concern these days is a concern you’ve had for a long time, long before Covid-19. And it has little to do with your own doubts.
Perhaps your greatest concern is for the doubter in your life.
Someone you know, maybe even love, who simply will not or cannot believe. The evidence they demand is not something you can provide. The evidence that surrounds them is not something they can see.
The story of Thomas is helpful – not just for the doubts we might carry, but for the doubters we know and care about.
Patience, not Rebuke
Thomas had missed a really important meeting. We have no idea why.
Jesus had already made an appearance to his followers. He found them behind a locked door, cowering, laying low. Jesus stood among them and spoke peace into their anxious gathering. We know it was Sunday – the first day of the week, the evening of the day of resurrection. Were they gathered for prayer and worship? That’s not clear. What we see is that they were all together. All except Thomas.
In his excellent commentary on this text, Professor Dale Bruner calls Thomas’ absence here “lamentable.” He says it was “the single most inopportunely or perhaps even irresponsibly missed meeting in church history.” So where was Thomas? No clue. We’re never told.
What we do know is this: Jesus showed up again. Interestingly this next appearance is also on Sunday to the gathered community. Don’t miss that little detail. It’s a good thing when the doubter in your life can speak their doubts out loud to someone else – preferably a community of believers. While Thomas certainly wrestled alone with doubts, they were not resolved in private. Some friends were around.
And notice the generosity of Jesus. He does not rebuke Thomas for his doubts. He does not lecture him or shame him in any way. He doesn’t call him out on that missed meeting the previous Sunday. He had come to the others in their fear and spoken peace. He now comes to Thomas in his doubt and gives him assurance.
Simple Witness, not Argument
Along with the absence of rebuke from Jesus, we need to note the absence of argument from the others gathered there.
What we hear from these disciples is a simple word of witness. They give a straightforward report of their experience. They tell what happened. They tell what they saw. “We have seen the Lord.” It is this word of witness that elicits the somewhat demanding expression of doubt from Thomas.
But this doesn’t become a debate. There’s no effort to persuade or convince the doubter that they are right, and he is wrong. Maybe there wasn’t time. Jesus showed up and preempted the brou-hah. Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the truth that an encounter with Jesus will always do more than a debate when it comes to addressing doubts.
In this exile I’ve been reading Grant Wacker’s biography of Billy Graham, One Soul at a Time. Wacker points out that in Graham’s long career he never engaged in a theological debate. He was surely invited, perhaps provoked and prodded. But that wasn’t what he was called to do. He proclaimed. He didn’t argue.
Got a doubter in your life? Give your word of witness, your experience. Do so clearly and boldly. But don’t argue. Debates aren’t the best answer to doubts.
Maybe you have some doubts of your own. But if your deepest concerns are for a doubter you know, you can do no better than the example of Jesus and those friends of Thomas.
Be generous. Skip the lecture. Skip the rebuke. Take their doubts seriously.
And speak a simple witness above an argument. A fight will not be fruitful.
And consider: Who have you found most helpful with your doubts?
Gracious God, we bring our own doubts before you today. And we also bring to you the doubters we love. Give us the grace we need to be patient and generous, to be bold in our own witness. And to trust that you love the doubter even more than we do. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.