As someone who has included the word “pessimist” in the title of his blog, you have probably figured out by now I struggle mightily with doubt. As a result, I have a great amount of fascination with other people who are plagued by the same thing. In fact, even within the biographies of the most steadfast and resolute, I have always been particularly intrigued by passages where the knees begin to buckle a bit. And, of course, when it comes to doubt, no one has become more synonymous with the word than a follower of Jesus Christ named Thomas.
I think many people forget Thomas was one of the original twelve apostles of Jesus. Wikipedia states Thomas “was perhaps the only Apostle who went outside the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel,” although I haven’t studied him enough to know the validity of that statement. My knowledge of Thomas is pretty much the same as everyone else’s: He was the apostle who wouldn’t believe in the resurrection unless Jesus, literally, showed up in the room and let him feel the nail piercings in his hand and the hole in his side.
I’ve lost track over the years of how many sermons and songs I’ve heard pointing out the lack of faith Thomas showed. “Thomas,” everyone says, “just didn’t have enough faith to believe. You don’t want to be like ol’ ‘Doubting Thomas.’ When Jesus moves, you’ve got to be ready to believe!” In almost every instance I’ve ever heard, Thomas’s doubt has been described as a bad thing, something to be avoided if you truly want to follow Christ.
I don’t know that I could ever honestly describe the doubt Thomas showed as “good.” I mean, Jesus had told his apostles that he would be raised from the dead. It would stand to reason that if someone came and told Thomas Jesus was indeed alive he would immediately rejoice in the fact that what Jesus had promised did actually come to pass. The fact that he wasn’t able to do that indicated two things: 1) He clearly didn’t understand what Jesus was saying about the resurrection to come, and 2) he did not have faith enough in the statement that Jesus was now indeed alive to believe it was true.
The more I think about Thomas, though, the more I sympathize with what I believe is truly going on with him in those passages contained in the book of John. As I’ve already mentioned, he was one of the original twelve apostles, meaning he had followed Jesus for the entirety of his adult ministry. He was also bold enough in the 11th chapter of John to state he was willing to follow Jesus back into Judea (where Jesus’ fellow Jews had just tried to stone him to death), even if it meant dying with him. And, for a “doubter,” he was still hanging out an awful lot with all the other disciples by the 20th chapter of John, where he has his fateful encounter with the risen Christ.
I can think of so many things I’ve invested wholeheartedly in during the course of my life – relationships, jobs, athletics, family – only to see them ultimately end up in failure. If something fails enough times, there is a very real tendency to just give up hoping in it; the risk of having that hope dashed seems to outweigh the possibility of seeing realized. And here’s Thomas – the apostle, the follower, the friend of Jesus – in the book of John absolutely lost, trying to figure out what the next step is now that the Messiah he had spent the last three years of his life following had been crucified on a cross.
Those who informed Thomas of the resurrection must have been surprised by his reaction, but all these years later I’m beginning to understand it. “What if,” he must have though to himself, “it wasn’t really him? What if they’re wrong?” Unlike the other disciples who had already seen Jesus, Thomas had only their accounts to go by. He did not want to get his hopes up, in fear they might be crushed again, so he requested the one thing that would undeniably lay every one of his doubts to rest: “Unless I see in his hands the marks of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25, English Standard Version)
And, eight days later, Jesus answered his request.
I have asked God for several things over the course of these last few years that I have not yet received, and every day that passes where I do not have my prayers answered I fight with the urge to give up on them altogether. For the longest time, I believed that my struggle lied in not receiving the thing I wanted. What I am (finally) beginning to see now is that whatever it has been I thought I needed to receive has not been the true desire of my heart at all.
What I have longed for, like Thomas, was to see Jesus.
Prayer is a funny thing. It becomes so easy to make our prayers into grocery lists for God to fill. We become so focused on the object of our prayers we often forget who it is that answers them. When I offer up a prayer and sign off with “In Jesus name…”, I am stating that I am placing a faith in Jesus that he will make that prayer come to pass. And while I may initially feel that my disappointment in not seeing my prayer answered lies with what I did not receive, it actually stems from my having put my faith in Jesus and feeling that he has let me down.
As it is plain to see with Thomas, though, Jesus does answer our prayers. While what Thomas spoke may not have seemed like a prayer, there is no denying that to see the resurrected savior was the desire of his heart, and Jesus answered that desire. So while I may be praying for any number of things, I am actually crying out with the same voice Thomas was using: “I need to see you, Jesus. I need to believe again, and I can’t do that unless I have a real, personal experience with you.”
An old hymn contains the line “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim…” I’ve noticed when I begin to take the focus off of the objects I am desiring and concentrate on pursuing an encounter with Jesus, my disappointments and hurts don’t sting nearly as much. Once I begin to concentrate on him as my true desire, I begin to reflect more of his character, understand more of his words, and want more of the things he wants instead of the things I want. And while I may continue to wrestle with understanding why certain things don’t happen the way I think they should, I can lean on one man’s doubtful experience as proof Jesus will eventually make my half-cup full.