One of Aesop’s fables is The Oak and the Reed. It tells the story of a great storm which causes a large, old, proud oak tree to break and fall whilst the small reed bends in the winds and rain and comes out of the storm unscathed.
There are some people who seem to have the most wonderful and unshakeable faith. It seems that no matter what happens they are confident in what and who they believe. Others of us have far more questions and doubts, we believe, well we want to, but the evidence has so many cracks that it just doesn’t add up. Over the past few weeks, I have become aware of people who have desperately clung on to some kind of version of ‘normal’ for them because to do otherwise would shatter their faith and start to poke holes in fabric of their faith. The apparently strong exterior of faith has been exposed as brittle and surprisingly fragile. Still others, who appear weak in faith have been bent and blown around, like long grass on a blustery day, and their faith remains, even grows.
I love the story that is told of Didymus (also known as Thomas) in the gospel of John (John 20:24-29). After all the other disciples have seen Jesus after the resurrection, for whatever reason he still hasn’t. He has gained the reputation for being called ‘doubting Thomas’. I’m not sure that really represents this faithful disciple. Just a short time earlier (John 11) Jesus had received a message that a friend of his (Lazarus) was sick, however to visit would have meant returning to a place where Jesus’ life was previously endangered as people attempted to kill him by stoning. The other disciples are hesitant about visiting, fearing for their lives and that of Jesus. Thomas speaks up and says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
You see this was a man with an unshakeable commitment and willingness to follow Jesus to death. Of course, we know this didn’t happen. They did go to visit Lazarus, which resulted in resurrection, but subsequently Jesus died. Thomas was so committed to Jesus, he had given (and remained willing to give) everything, that the idea Jesus had actually been crucified was unimaginable to him. His faith was shaken to the core and he could not just take the word of his friends he needed the evidence for himself. He doesn’t get the evidence immediately. He is left to wait, to ponder and to stew in his thoughts whilst the other disciples are no doubt giddy with excitement. After a week Jesus appears to him saying “Peace to you”.
I suggest that true faith requires doubt. Blind faith means we run headlong without thinking or considering what we are doing. Doubt causes us to call out, to step out in faith, doubting the way forward but demonstrating our trust in that which we believe in.
The Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 14:22-33) also tells the story of Peter, a fisherman. One night the disciples are out on the boat whilst Jesus remains on land to find a quiet place to pray. According to the story, in the early morning Jesus walks across the water to meet his friends in the boat. Peter, asks Jesus to prove himself by calling him out onto the water. Jesus invites Peter to join him and for a while Peter walks on the water, but then doubt creeps in and he begins to sink. He cries out and Jesus catches him.
It takes faith to believe in God the Father. It takes faith to believe in a world and universe created by God. It takes faith to believe the words of scripture. It takes faith to believe in the miracles of Jesus. It takes faith to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. It takes faith to trust the promises of Jesus. It takes faith to accept the gift of the Holy Spirit. Doubt is not the enemy of faith, doubt is the honest, vulnerable and fragile place in which our faith is most real. When our world is shaken, when home, work, social and church life is turned upon its head and nothing is as it has been, that is when the cracks appear and show our true faith. The Bible doesn’t hide these away, we are given examples of doubt to encourage and support us. We don’t need to hide our doubts, to try to fill the cracks with quick fix answers. In the words of Leonard Cohen,
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Doubt can be embarrassing, especially if we have been strong or loud advocates for something. Doubt can be painful; it can cause us to look honestly within ourselves and make us realise we may have been wrong about something. Doubt can be awkward; we might feel no one else will understand, we might feel lonely or isolated within our peer group. Doubt might mean we feel forsaken; King David felt this,
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.’ (Psalm 22:1-2)
Jesus felt this too,
‘About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).’ (Matthew 27:24)
Doubt can be liberating; when we admit our doubts, when we are honest about how strong our faith is, then we are free from any pretence. When it comes to Christianity, doubt can free us from a faith that seeks answers from the Church and causes us to look within and beyond the Church to find the true face of Jesus.
If you have doubts, though it may be uncomfortable for you, I am celebrating, it means you might be about to grow.
If you have certainty, do not try to force your assurance onto others (you will push them away), allow them to experience their doubt and the firmness of your faith, take the time to do as Jesus did and “be with” (in friendship). There is no race to defeat doubt, we can hold the doubts in prayer, in listening, and not trying to provide answers but allowing a safe place for the journey of doubt to be warmed by the glow of the light that breaks through the cracks. Those of is with certainty can offer the words of Jesus, “Peace to you”.
Doubt is a place for allowing the questions to come, to process our thoughts, and to grow in a faith that is as fragile yet flexible as the reed in the storm.