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The Rev. Dr. William L. Self The Rev. Dr. William L. Self

The Rev. Dr. Bill Self is pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, GA, a member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

Johns Creek Baptist Church, Alpharetta, GA


Doubt--The Prelude to Faith

John 20:24-29

2nd Sunday of Easter

April 15, 2007

We live between two worlds; one is dying and the other is struggling to be born. To live this way is as dangerous as eating wormy figs with the lights out. I want us to take a look at doubting Thomas, the "twin." There is little mention of him in the synoptic gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - but there are three references to him in the Gospel of John. Perhaps this was included in John's gospel to make sure the people understood that Jesus actually died and to refute Docetism, which said that Jesus did not die but was resuscitated.

The three mentions of Thomas in John's gospel were in John 11:16, when he said at Lazarus' death boldly, "Let us go and die with him." At the Last Supper we see doubt beginning to creep in when he says, "How can we know the way?" (John 14:5). And, of course, at the resurrection he said, "Except I see the nail prints I'll not believe." Then it went to "My God! My Lord and my God." He was slow to believe. He was subject to moods and despondency, and that is not unlike most of us.

Half of us are like Thomas; we are afraid to believe. Half of every heart is a Thomas. Doubt does not overtake us in the night but, rather, it creeps up on us slowly, one step at a time. We notice, first of all, that Thomas was absent from the disciple group. Who knows why he was not there? But I think we will all agree that he is the ancestor of the absentee. The writer of the Book of Hebrews makes it clear that we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. The first step toward doubt is to absent yourself from the people of God -- in brief, to skip church.

Recently, our family enjoyed a cookout in our backyard, and I was the designated cooker. I went out early to man the grill and to get the fire started so that when the grandchildren arrived there would be little delay in eating. I put all the coals together, lit them and was having reasonable success when I noticed that there were a couple of coals that never did retain their glow. Inadvertently, they had been separated from the pile of charcoal in the middle of the grill. Because they could not receive the heat from the main fire, their glow began to leave. They were useless. Do I need to push that very far? We cannot be as close to God being away as we can being near to his people. It is not by accident that we are connected to the family of faith at church.

The next step away is that there is some indication that Thomas was moody. Our beliefs are more attached to our moods than we wish to admit. Doubt is more emotion than it is intellectual exercise. Doubt is influenced by the way we feel about life. Frankly, some people go to doubt because it is a place to hide. So long as we can live in the house of doubt, we feel as though we do not have to make any positive contribution to the world.

Several years ago I spoke on a university campus, and when I finished speaking, a young man accosted me in the hall. He said, "I don't like what you had to say in there." I asked him to tell me which part he didn't like.

"He replied, "Actually, I didn't hear you. I just don't like preachers." I agreed that I have some trouble with preachers too.

I said, "Well, what are you?"

And he said, "I'm a seeker."

I said, "That's interesting. Where do you meet?"

He said, "We don't meet."

I said, "What are you seeking?"

He said, "We're seeking truth."

I said, "Well, what have you read?"

He said, "I haven't read anything in particular."

We went on with the conversation for a short while. Finally, I looked at him and said, "I don't think you are a seeker. I think you are a runner. I think you are hiding. For you see, not to decide is to decide. You have decided that you want to hide in unbelief."

The disbelief and the doubting for Thomas was not something that was rooted in fact. It was something that was inside of Thomas.

But I must admit that there is a place in the Christian life for honest doubt, for doubt is always the prelude to faith. Before Gideon was able to be used by God, he cried out, "If the Lord is with us, why has this befallen us?" Or Job, who in his struggle cried out, "I cried unto You and You do not answer." Jeremiah, of course, cursed the day that he was born. Never let us forget that Jesus on the cross cried out, "My God, My God, why?" No one really possesses his faith until he has fought for it.

Doubt is like a front porch. All of us go through it before we get into the house of faith.

All of us in our hearts can cry out, "Lord, I believe. Help thou that unbelief." For the capacity to doubt is one of man's greatest powers. Look around you and see the beliefs and practices that ought to be doubted. The great servants have been distinguished by the fact that in the face of universally accepted falsehood they dare to stand up and cry, "I doubt that!" Without the capacity to doubt there could be no progress, only the unquestioning acceptance of the status quo and its established dogmatisms.

There was a time when, in the scientific realm, the earth was considered flat and that the sun circled around it. The idea was accepted, but a few brave souls bravely dared to doubt that theory. We talk about the strong faith and affirmative belief of scientific pioneers, but deeper examination shows that every scientific advance started with doubt.

Galileo was right when he called doubt the father of discovery. Jesus himself was a doubter. He doubted that violence was the way, so he said, "Forgive one another." He doubted that the long prayers and rigid dietary laws were essential to faith. So he talked about the simple faith. He doubted that Samaritans were an inferior race. He told the parable about the Good Samaritan and the bad priest. The capacity to doubt is the prelude to faith. Strong faith always has to be fought for.

Let's not forget that the Scottish reformer John Knox was a man of great conviction. But there was a time when his soul knew anger, wrath and indignation. Let us not be surprised as we sing Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." He also wrote, "Christ was wholly lost from me for a week. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy against God." No one really has faith until he has fought for it.

There is a way back from the brush with doubt. First of all, take the advice of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, "to doubt your doubts." It takes some courage to do this. We need to look at our doubts straight in the eye and doubt them, not let them control our minds.

The second thing we need to do is to surround ourselves with the people of faith. Flawed and imperfect as they may be, we will be like that piece of charcoal rejoining the group - we will catch the faith again.

The third thing I would suggest is to act as if…. Don't act as if not, but act as if you believe because you can act your way into a new way of feeling easier than you can feel your way into a new way of acting.

I have been a pastor for a long time and have observed some people are growing in their faith and others are retreating. One day a man came into my office and asked if I could spend some time with him. Of course, I was glad to do it. He said he was losing his faith and wanted to leave the church because he was racked with doubts. I told him that I had to go to the hospital to make a visit and asked him to ride with me so that we could talk about his issue in the car. He consented to do it.

We drove across town to a large hospital. We walked through the corridors and found the room of the patient whom I was sent to visit. The patient was a young doctor in his late 30s who was dying of an inoperable cancer. As we entered the room, we noticed all the medical equipment hooked up to his body, but he was very conscious of our presence and wanted to talk. We talked for a moment about life and death. I read Scripture, and we prayed together. My doubting friend was there with me and stood at the foot of the bed as I stood at the patient's side. The entire process in the room took about 15-20 minutes. There were tears in the eyes of the patient in the bed as we turned to leave. We went down the hall to the elevator and then out to the parking deck before either one of us said another word. Finally, on the way back to the church my doubting Thomas turned and said, "I see things entirely differently now. Eternity has broken into my life, and I want to start all over with Christ."

This is the eighth day after the resurrection. It's a good day to move from skepticism to faith. Celebrate your doubt, and see it as a prelude to a deep, abiding and mature faith.

Let us pray.

Eternal God, we ask that you would let us realize again that we come into the faith heart first, not head first, and let this be the day when we turn and move to you with new assurance, for we pray in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.


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