Easter is the preeminent miracle of the Christian faith. But how do you feel now that it’s over? Lent and holy week are a tremendous build-up, and it can be easy for our spirits to slumber afterwards. It is as if all the energy of the church liturgical cycle results in emotional and spiritual exhaustion. You can hear virtual echoes from some folks who drift away, saying to themselves that “I’ve done my duty, gone to church on Easter, and now leave me alone.” This stinging reality emphasizes the statistical pattern of many American’s church attendance.
To counter any creeping cynicism, we might challenge ourselves and ensure that we don’t succumb to spiritual lethargy. If we can hold the line, then our task turns to helping folks who are plagued with a more tenuous faith. We must work tirelessly to assist those on the margins. And we must do so without stimulating peoples’ defensiveness or anger. Just a week ago our Lord magnificently triumphed over death. Now, the question remains about helping people embrace their ongoing spiritual liberation. Do we sense God with us? Are we willing to allow God to transform us? One aspect of our mission as individual Christians involves overcoming anything that could lessen our spirituality.
A declining spirituality has many potential sources. Today’s reading from John 20:19-31 focuses on one: doubt. What of that cancerous doubt, a feeling that God isn’t real to us, that it doesn’t matter who we are or what we do? Scripture illustrates how we can resist doubt’s negative effects and partner with God to nurture our spirits. It’s worth admitting that our faith can wax and wane along with the seasons. Trying to maintain a spiritual high indefinitely is not a sustainable solution. We must avoid setting-up ourselves for failure. Perhaps a more effective goal involves using doubt as a springboard toward something greater.
The Christian life is not without questions, including those energized at first by doubts. Enter doubting Thomas, that apostle of Jesus who didn’t believe that his Lord had arisen and returned. Jesus had been resurrected but Thomas wasn’t convinced because he hadn’t yet seen Jesus. Aside from giving Thomas a title such as “Doubter-in-Chief,” Thomas might also be labeled an empiricist, which refers to those seeking verifiable evidence through observation. Was Thomas completely wrong in this thinking? Perhaps, and yet observation and even some skepticism can play a positive role in our spiritual lives. As for Thomas’ situation, Jesus came and presented evidence—himself no less—and Thomas became fulfilled. Thomas had experienced Jesus directly rather than simply inherit others’ perceptions. This isn’t necessarily a catastrophe. Faith itself has a foundation in facts, and faith without [legitimate] facts encourages folly.
We, like Thomas, can express doubts. Doubting isn’t universally bad, such as when we pose questions leading to more understanding. In this way, doubt is productive and can motivate us to filter error and misperception. Doubt can function as a stimulus to inquiry, and it can help us grow. Doubt turns sour when it leads us away from God. Doubting can be an excuse by hardened skeptics to reject God. People who seek justifications for not nourishing their spirit will emphasize adversarial arguments and dangerous diversions.
Thomas and his modern counterparts could remain at a stand-off and reject any possibility of cultivating a more spirit-filled, joyful life. Thankfully, Thomas responded positively to the evidence he sought and allowed himself to be transformed. Jesus reminded him that those most blessed keep the faith without an absolute need for direct observation. We have sympathy for those who seek Jesus, and we must guard against allowing doubts to obstruct peoples’ relationship with God. The Jesus we embrace is felt more than seen.
Jesus did not condemn Thomas’ doubting, yet Jesus commended those who were willing to believe without seeing. This is a tricky balance, and Thomas cannot be faulted for using his mind to sort fact from fiction. We are asked to believe many things, and within the marketplace of religious ideas someone is always peddling a fad or fashion. We are constantly assailed by competing beliefs and conflicting evidence. Reason is not the enemy of faith, but it can help us avoid fiction.
Did Thomas have it easy compared to us? Perhaps. Jesus literally stood in front of Thomas as the doubting apostle gazed in wonder. It’s hard to consider that Thomas’ doubts could withstand Jesus’ physical presence. Yet, we don’t have Jesus making a command performance, swooping literally into our church sanctuaries so that we can observe his wounds. We possess something more permanent and pervasive than a body: we have the Holy Spirit. Yes, perhaps the most compelling evidence of Jesus is the spirit of love rather than an ever-changing body.
Many of God’s people have doubts generated by rampant myths and fantasies. It is good to consider how we can pose questions and yet remain open about God’s underlying, eternal power. Evidence may come and go along with the ebb and flow of history. So also do our doubts fluctuate. Through it all, we embrace something more than just what we see. We are faithful as we believe in something greater than ourselves, greater even than the shifting veneer of the physical universe. Got love and truth? If you can embrace these twin pillars of the spiritual universe then you’ll have all the evidence you need for a wonderful spiritual life.
—Reverend Larry Hoxey