Friday, March 29, 2013

Doubting Thomas

Among all the disciples, I identify most closely with Thomas.

Poor Thomas. His reputation was sealed the moment that Jesus appeared to the other disciples, and he wasn't there to see it. Tradition holds that Thomas later traveled as far as India in order to share his faith with people, but we will always know him as "Doubting Thomas", a byword to urge evangelicals reach higher levels of trust. Yet despite this rather selective use of Thomas's history, I do not find his story to be one of condemnation for those who doubt. I find his story to be one of grace and encouragement, a reminder that Jesus Christ Incarnate is always with us and is always compassionate.

When we read the story of Doubting Thomas, we tend to start with what is (to us) the subject: Thomas's doubt. Thomas's doubt, however, is not as extraordinary as we sometimes believe. Yes, Thomas had traveled with Jesus for three years and had seen men raised from the dead before. Yet in this case, the person who was doing the raising from the dead was Himself dead. Who was there now to raise Jesus from the dead? Is it any surprise that Thomas doubted? Even the words with which Thomas voices his objection suggest how understandable his doubts were:
Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.
That Thomas asks to "place my finger into the mark of the nails" and "place my hand into his side" recalls the extensive physical torments of the crucifixion. When Jesus raised people from the dead, they were usually physically intact. Jairus's daughter daughter died from an illness. The widow's dead son was being carried out of the city in one piece by a crowd. Yet crucifixion did not leave the body intact. To ask after the wounds of Christ as Thomas does is to remind the reader that there is no coming back from this death. We are told that Jairus's daughter looked like she had fallen asleep. Jesus looked like nothing human after the crucifixion. Much as we like to read Thomas's story as if we could somehow have expressed a stronger faith than he, the story does not allow such self-congratulation. Indeed, the horrors of crucifixion render Thomas's doubts relatively reasonable. 

Yet, as with most biblical stories, the real subject of the story is not Thomas but Jesus. It is his words, not Thomas's, that are most important. Importantly, the words of Christ are words of encouragement and grace. The narrator John, having told us of Thomas's doubt, then tells us this:
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Incidentally, even the greeting that Jesus uses signals that this encounter is one of blessing. Peace be with you was of course a traditional greeting in Roman Israel, but its frequent use makes it all the more remarkable here. John could have left these words out. He could have glossed over them like this, "Jesus greeted the disciples". Thus, that John, writing in the Spirit, includes the full greeting reinforces to the reader what Jesus's purpose is here: His purpose is not to vent frustration with Thomas's doubt but to bring peace and rest to His disciple's troubled soul.

Perhaps what is most striking in this passage is how accommodating Jesus is. Thomas has asked to touch the nail marks on Jesus's hands and to put his hand in Jesus's side, and Jesus tells Thomas to "put your finger here" in the nail marks and to "put out your hand and place it in My side." The parallelism speaks to Jesus's great patience. There is nothing that He withholds from his disciple Thomas. Sometimes, we expect Thomas to reach heights of faith for which the disciple was not ready. We believe in Jesus without touching Him, and we expect Thomas to do the same. Yet Jesus had no such expectation. He allowed Thomas to touch the wounds of the crucifixion. In doing so, he shows us what grace is: The whole point of grace is that Jesus helps us when we are most helpless. We who live two thousand years after the time of Christ do not receive the exact help that Thomas does, but make no mistake: We will receive help. Jesus is glad to give whatever help we need.

Even Jesus's words speak to his grace for us. I think we read His command, "Do not disbelieve" as condemnation of Thomas's doubt, as if Jesus gets up in Thomas's face a bit. Certainly Jesus could get in people's faces; think of the money-changes in the temple or the Pharisees. Yet I don't think that's what Jesus is doing here. Only the NIV translation, which renders this line "Stop doubting!", sounds harsh. All the other versions render Jesus's words more gently, in some variant of the ESV translation above: "Do not disbelieve". What Jesus is doing is not so much criticizing Thomas but inviting him out of his own self-imposed darkness into the light of grace and faith. To get the idea, imagine advice about more ordinary matters, perhaps from a parent to a child: "Do not worry about the bully. Mom and Dad love you." I am not saying that our sins are never condemned. They are, of course; Jesus is just as well as merciful. Yet we must not imagine that Jesus is impatient with our faults and go to him out of fear or, worse still, try to make ourselves into an independently virtuous person. This will not work. Jesus is saddened by our sins but is infinitely patient with us. His words to Thomas remind us of His mercy: The invitation is not to come and be judged but to come and rest our troubled soul in Him.

Thus, Thomas's story is not really about condemning unbelief or doubt. It is not an encouragement to work really hard at becoming more faithful (as if we could do that without grace!) It is a beautiful reminder that Christ invites us to rest our troubled soul in Him, that He heals all wounds and darkness.

Such an invitation, of course, does not mean the wounds and darkness will not come. Eight whole days elapsed between when Thomas first expressed his doubt and when Jesus appeared to him. To someone who is troubled or worried, eight days can feel like a very long time. Job suffered for weeks before God eased his pains, and even Jesus was forty days and forty nights in the desert before the angels came and ministered to him.

Yet the invitation remains: Jesus Christ Incarnate waits to ease all our burdens and anxieties and to bless us with His presence. Ultimately, this is what Easter is about. People sometimes point out that Easter is only a Christian variation on a pagan celebration of spring. So what? What the pagans celebrated when Spring returned was a forerunner, a preparation, for the reality that we celebrate on Easter weekend: the Incarnate Christ, who calls us out of Winter and reminds us that Spring is coming.

For what it's worth, I do not find this story compelling because I have managed to lay my burdens down but precisely because I haven't. I am better than Thomas at looking at what I consider realities, at harping on all the problems, at fretting over my worries for a long period of time. Yet we believers, as much as unbelievers, need the reminder that Jesus gives us rest. Thomas had walked with Christ for three years. He was there when Peter proclaimed Jesus the Son of God. He was there when Jesus predicted His own death. He was there for the Triumphal Entry. He knew who Jesus was. Yet he, one of the Twelve, is nevertheless again welcomed to rest in Christ. We too, even though we are believers, even though we are champs at worrying, are also welcomed to rest in Christ.

Easter is an opportunity for that reminder.

2 comments:

  1. How good to know that the grace of God is always ready to meet us right where we are! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on these truths.
    Christ is Risen! :)

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  2. Hmm. I like your closing statements-- "champs at worrying"-- what an unfortunate gold medal to carry with us! Yet, you're right, friend. I've been amazed by how many scripture verses there are about human worrying in contrast with Christ's peace. (I say, "Christ's" because I don't think human "peace" is the same thing at all. It's something separate-- something pitiful and weak.)

    . . . I guess i'm not as unusual, as a fretful soul, as I like to pretend. I think i'm simply one of many who finds myself stuck in a cycle of anxiety. And part of that worry-- in fact, most of that worry-- comes when I begin to doubt the Bigness of my God.

    I want to believe the words-- but sometimes it seems so outrageous in comparison to the tangible realities around me . . . and I slowly slip from the one foundation that I can trust in. It's an invisible foundation, unlike most anything else which makes it easy to doubt.

    Your thoughts remind me of Nickel Creek's song, "Doubting Thomas"-- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3c_8hYK0eo

    I hope you are well, friend.

    Blessings from Prague!

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