The Heart of the Matter
Post resurrection encounters with Christ
Week 3: Unbelieving Hearts.
Read: John 20:24-end
Most of us, if we’re honest, would admit to struggling with doubt and unbelief. It’s sometimes difficult to admit to because it is one of the great Christian taboos along with sex and money. But we’ve all been there, and frankly if we say we haven’t we’re probably not engaging honestly or very deeply with ourselves and our inner life.
Spend some time talking a little about doubt as a group. People may want to share something about a particular season of doubt, either current or historical, short lived or ongoing.
The reality is that doubt will always be part of the Christian life. It’s natural. We long for certainty about things. We long to know that everything we believe is really and absolutely true. In an ideal world we’d see Jesus in the same way as his early disciples did in the locked room, or have the chance to touch his wounds as Thomas does in our reading this week. We reason, if we could see him, touch him, then all doubt would be driven away and we’d be free to believe without a shadow of doubt.
Sheldon Vanauken is an American writer. He studied in Oxford under C.S Lewis and it was through Lewis’ witness that Vanauken came to faith. Writing about doubt he says:
“There is a gap between the probable and the proved. How could I cross it? If I were to stake my whole life on the risen Christ, I wanted proof. I wanted certainty. I wanted to see him eat a bit of fish. I wanted letters of fire across the sky. I got none of these. And I continued to hang about on the edge of the gap…it was a question of whether to accept or reject. My God! There was a gap behind me as well! Perhaps the leap to acceptance and faith was a horrifying gamble – but what of the leap of rejection? There might be no certainty that Christ was God – but, by God, there was no certainty he was not!...I had seen the gap behind me. I turned away from it, and flung myself over the gap towards Jesus.”
This is the doubt of someone standing on the edge of committing to Christ, but it’s a doubt that often reappears in the Christian life and seldom goes away entirely.
Q: How do you feel about your own doubt? What do you think about doubt and the inevitability of it? How do you deal with doubt in your Christian life? Do you ignore it or embrace it? Is it a destructive or constructive part of your life of faith?
Doubt of course is nothing new. Sometimes in rose-tinted and profoundly unrealistic portrayals of the early church we’re asked to believe that the earliest Christians knew nothing of doubt and were untroubled by it, but as we read our passage from John we quickly see that this was not the case.
Read John 20:24-31
Q: What is your initial response to this passage? How do you see Thomas? Who do you identify with in the passage and why?
In this passage Thomas hears about the encounters with the risen Christ that the other disciples have experienced. He’s unsure, skeptical even, but he doesn’t rule them out or condemn them for making up ridiculous fantasy. He just needs to be persuaded, to have some proof.
Q: It is at this point perhaps that we first identify with Thomas? How many of us have sometimes or often thought ‘I just need some proof’?
So what else do we see happening in this passage?
Firstly we note that Jesus knows Thomas’ dilemma and graciously resolves it for him. It’s a mistake to read Jesus as being frustrated or irritated at this point, and more sensible to read him as lovingly and generously helping Thomas to believe- a pattern that continues today as Christ meet us where we are. As we read Jesus response to Thomas we see that he knew there would be many more who would like him doubt, but who would also proclaim ‘My Lord and my God’.
Through Christ’s intervention Thomas was able to move from doubt to faith, from anxiety to security.
Doubt is normal. Doubt is natural. Doubt is inevitable.
Doubt not because Christ is unable to carry the weight of trust placed on him but doubt because we are human.
The good news is that Christ is able to meet us in the midst of doubt as he did Thomas, and that our doubt is no obstacle to the ongoing work of God.
So why do we doubt? Or to make the question more personal: ‘why do I doubt’?
John Calvin has something interesting to say when it comes to faith…
“When we stress that faith ought to be certain and secure we do not have in mind a certainty without doubt, or a security without anxiety. Rather we affirm that believers have a perpetual struggle with their own lack of faith…”
Sometimes we doubt because insecurity, anxiety, and unbelief are regular components of the human condition – it’s just a fact of life.
Sometimes we doubt because rely far too much on our feelings. Within modern Christianity (of almost all traditions) there is a strong anti-intellectual movement that says that what we know and believe in our minds is less important than how we feel. As though somehow what we feel is more authentic and important than what we think. If we feel the presence of God we’re re-assured and all is well. If we do not feel the presence of God we worry, assume he is not present, and doubt rears its head.
Without minimizing the importance of the attitude of the heart in the life of faith it is important to reflect on the fundamental truth that faith does not stand or fall on how we feel at any given moment.
The Psalmist in Psalm 42 speaks about struggling to ‘feel’ the presence of God and yet he continues to cry out to God because he ‘knows’ that he is present.
The antidote to doubt is not found solely in changing how one feels, but rather in holding fast to what one knows of God, his trustworthiness, and his reliability. It is a great mistake to think that faith is rooted in our ability to believe when infact faith is rooted in Gods trustworthiness and consistency.
You might like to end this session by reading some passages of scripture that remind us of Gods faithfulness and consistency. You might also like to spend some time praying for anyone who finds that they are currently struggling to hold on to faith or experiencing a time of doubt.
Simon Butler, 18/04/2013