No More Disbelief
The John 20 reading this week is probably familiar to most people. It’s the passage that made “Doubting Thomas” a household term. It’s evening on the first Easter Sunday and Jesus appears to the disciples-- except for Thomas, who wasn’t there at the time (and likely kicked himself over the course of the next week for missing the appearance.) When the others tell Thomas they’ve seen Jesus, he says, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” The next week, Jesus shows up again, and accommodates Thomas, although Scripture doesn’t mention Thomas actually touching the wounds as he had said.
While doing some research at Ministry Matters and elsewhere, I found some interesting spin on this passage. Some praise Thomas for his doubt, and one even writes, “Doubt is like wind in the sails of faith. It pushes us forward.”
I don't see it exactly like that.
Doubt and faith are opposites. Jesus tells Thomas in John 20:27, “No more disbelief. Believe! (CEB)” The NRSV translates it, “Do not doubt but believe” The NIV goes with, “Stop doubting and believe,” and the ESV with, “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” The original language seems to bear this out. The Greek word translated believe is an adjective, pistos (πιστος). The word translated disbelief is also an adjective, apistos (απιστος). (Retaining adjectives in the translation would result in less natural English: “Don’t be disbelieving, be believing.”) The prefix α- in Greek, like a- in English, usually expresses negation or absence.
So how is it that Jesus tells Thomas to stop doing something, yet some modern commentators cheer Thomas on when he does it? It’s probably because we see ourselves in Thomas. Doubting is human nature-- it’s normal. And we want some kind of assurance that we’re normal. Nevertheless, normal isn’t always a good thing. The American Heritage Dictionary defines normal as, “Conforming with, adhering to, or constituting a norm, standard, pattern, level, or type; typical.” But when it comes to matters of faith, I don’t want to be normal or typical. I want to be extraordinary-- unconventional even. In the Bible, when Jesus commended people for having great faith, it wasn’t because they achieved the norm-- it’s because they far exceeded it!
I don't want to be too hard on Thomas, but believing something only when you see it isn’t a very high level of faith. In fact, when considered in light of 2 Corinthians 5:7, (“We live by faith and not by sight”), it could be argued that it’s not really faith at all. Think about it. It’s easy to believe something once you’ve seen it, just like it’s easy to love people who love you.
But no one should feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for having doubts. Doubt can be a useful thing. And what’s nice about faith is that we can get more of it. So rather than looking at doubt as “wind in the sails of faith,” perhaps we should look at it as a kind of spiritual resistance training. That means pastors, small group leaders, Bible teachers, and mentors are essentially spiritual trainers. Leaders should be honest about their doubts, but they shouldn’t be content to hang on to those doubts and never move beyond them. Ask yourself this. How long would you listen to a personal physical fitness trainer who didn’t show progress themselves and didn’t expect you to show any either?