In praise of doubt.

Several years ago, I was helping one of my daughters sound out her letter combinations.  “What do these letters say together?”  “Chuh.  Chuh.”  “Good.  And what sound do S and H make?”  “I don’t know.”  “Shhhh,” I offered helpfully.  “I don’t know!” she whispered.

As a parent, it’s one of my favorite stories.  As a seeker of truth, it terrifies me.  How often do we “hush” those who in one way or another find the courage to express their own “I don’t know”?   How often are they driven to a timid whisper, or worse, to complete silence?  How often do we ourselves hide our sincere questions and doubts away?

In religious circles, we haven’t done too well with doubt.  In scientific circles, about the same.  We like certainty.  Clear-cut conclusions.  Agreement.  In Christian discussion, we refer condescendingly to “doubting Thomas.”  We’ll come back to him in a minute.  First, let’s consider someone else:

Nearly 2,000 years ago, an unnamed blind man in a tiny fishing village on the Sea of Galilee had an experience unlike anything we read about in all of recorded history (Mark 8:22-25).  He was brought to Jesus to be healed.  Jesus, the Son of God, took him by the hand and led him outside of the village and away from the crowd.  The most powerful being in the universe touched the eyes of an unknown blind man… and he was healed.  Just like that.  Sort of.  Partly.  Jesus asked him if he could see, and the fact was, he could.  Again, sort of.  He saw people, but it was all still blurry.  Either innocently or courageously, this nobody told God that the people looked like trees walking around.  Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes again, and blurred vision turned to complete, perfect clarity.  A miracle by the creator of the universe that took two tries.  Why?  We never read of anything like this happening to anyone else.  Whatever else we are to take from this, one thought stands out.  What if this nameless man from an obscure village had been content with seeing a little?  What if he’d been afraid to say things weren’t exactly clear yet?  After all, who was he to tell Jesus it wasn’t good enough?  That he couldn’t see as well as he knew must be possible?  That he wanted to see more?  Maybe his willingness to express the fullness of what he was seeking, and his unwillingness to settle for less, was the point of this miracle in two acts.

Not much later a father was also brought into contact with Jesus (Mark 9:14-29).  His son was possessed by a spirit that took his speech from him and threw him into convulsions on the ground, into the water, and even into the fire.  Can you imagine the fear of a father watching his child be thrown into fire?  “If you can do anything,” the father pleaded with Jesus, “take pity on us and help us.”  “If you can?” Jesus challenged.  “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  If we stopped right there, we’d see a sharp (and even seemingly uncaring) rebuke, silence our doubts, and conclude never to speak of them again – not even in a whisper.  But the man had the courage to cry out his confession.  “I do believe; help me in my unbelief.”  What?  Which is it?  Belief or unbelief?  Can you find a degree of belief and still struggle with doubt?  Yes!  Jesus’ response?  He healed the child.  Victory from the jaws of defeat.  Doubt confessed.  Faith requested.  Courageous confession and bold request both accepted by God without so much as a word.

So we return to Thomas and to the profound point of our little journey (John 20:24-29).  After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus appeared to his followers… except for Thomas.  He wasn’t there.  So the others came to Thomas with excitement.  “We saw him.  He’s alive!”  And here’s where Thomas got his nickname.  He wouldn’t believe.  Not without seeing the holes that had been driven through Jesus hands.  Not without touching the chasm driven into his side by the head of a Roman spear.  Yes, we read Jesus’ words of how blessed those are who haven’t seen and still believe.  But before we get there, we shouldn’t miss the hope Jesus gave to the rest of us.  Thomas needed to see, to touch… to know.  So Jesus showed him.  Thomas was not rejected for his doubt.  He was allowed to see Jesus hands.  To touch his side.  And to turn his doubt to belief.

A blind man received sight (and then better sight).  A father’s child received his life back.  Thomas received the confirmation he needed for his belief to be restored.  I know questions don’t always lead to immediate answers.  But I also know answers seldom come without the questions.

Do not be afraid to express your doubts.  Doubt courageously.  But do not just take up residence with your doubts either.  Doubts exist so we will pursue certainty.  Questions are for answering.  Do not be afraid of what you will find.  It matters that what we build our lives on is true.  It’s worth questioning to make sure.  And if our faith is true, that is where our genuine pursuit will lead us.  If it isn’t, no matter how painful, we should discard it and move on in pursuit of what is true.

Just as importantly, we should be careful that our responses, whether intentionally or unintentionally, do not “hush” others who have doubts.  Our own discomfort with doubt can speak volumes.  But there must be an openness, a space for doubt before the pursuit of answers, and of faith, can really begin.  We must commit ourselves to allowing that space for ourselves and for others.