Sunday, April 8, 2018
In the later years of his life, Robert Louis Stevenson, the novelist, was a person of radiant Christian faith. However, he didn’t start out that way. Raised in Scotland in a strict Calvinist family, he couldn’t wait to get away to college. Once he got away from home, he lived a flagrantly bohemian existence, calling the religion he was brought up in “the deadliest gag and wet blanket that can be laid on a man.” When he started writing, he called himself a “youthful atheist.” As he grew older, however, he came to have doubt about his doubts. “The church is not right,” he said, “but neither is anti-church.” Still later he came to say, “There is a God who is manifest for those who care to look for him.” In later years he began to talk about his own “cast-iron faith.” Here was a person who knew what it was to make the journey from doubt to faith. It brought fulfillment to his life.
Nineteen centuries before, another person had made a similar journey. His name was Thomas. He was a disciple of Jesus. Most of the references we have to Thomas in the Bible describe circumstances where he was sceptical or doubtful about the outcome of something. And yet the last words of Thomas recorded in the Bible are words of faith. He falls down before the risen Christ and says, “My Lord and my God.” I think that Thomas’s experiences are recorded for our comfort, for there is something of Thomas in every one of us. Being familiar with Thomas’s story can help each one of us as we seek to move along the road he traveled from doubt to dedication.
The first thing Thomas’s experience suggests is that it is normal to struggle with doubt. Thomas always had to do that. When Jesus indicated that he was going to go into the territory of his enemies to minister to the gravely ill Lazarus, his friend, Thomas doubted that any of them would get out alive. Later, in the upper room, when Jesus spoke of going to the Father’s house, Thomas doubted that he understood. Then, following the death of Jesus, Thomas doubted that there was anything left to believe in. In his disillusionment, he chose to go it alone, to cut himself off from the fellowship. When the disciples told him of their experience with the risen Lord, he doubted what they were saying.
The thing we need to be aware of is that people of faith have often had to struggle with doubt. This has been true of many of the Biblical heroes. Gideon, who eventually led his people to victory over foreign domination, started out on the path to victory with the question: “If the Lord is with us, why have these difficulties befallen us?” He doubted God’s presence. Jeremiah, who is looked upon as a great prophet, became so discouraged about God’s availability that he called God “a deceitful brook,” “waters that failed,” and then said, “cursed is the day that I was born.” And Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He, too, was struggling to make some sense out of suffering. Yet, all are remembered as heroes of faith. They discovered that strong faith is born through the agony of doubt.
We hear often about the faith of Christian heroes, but we do not hear about their struggles. We know Martin Luther’s confident words: “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”
But he also wrote: “For more than a week Christ was wholly lost to me; I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy against God.” In his book Confession, Leo Tolstoy wrote concerning the aloneness, emptiness, and hopelessness he felt before his conversion: “There was a period in my life when everything seemed to be crumbling, the very foundations of my convictions were beginning to give away, and I felt myself going to pieces. There was no sustaining influence in my life and there was no God there, and so every night before I went to sleep, I made sure that there was no rope in my room lest I be tempted during the night to hang myself from the rafters of my room.” Doubt about God left him in despair.
In the light of such experiences, Harold Bosley, a popular preacher of another generation, wrote: “When someone tells me that he has never had a moment of probing religious doubt, I find myself wondering whether he has ever known a moment of vital religious conviction. For if one fact stands out above all others in the history of religion, it is this: the price of a great faith is a great and continuous struggle to get it, to keep it, and to share it . . . . It is a serious mistake to think of faith as a placid lake under the full moon. It is much more like the ocean in storm, the swift current of the full river where one must stay alert if he would stay alive. Faith is a fight as well as peace.” It is normal to struggle with doubt.
The second thing I learn from Thomas’s experience is that if we are going to deal with doubt, it has to be brought out into the open. Thomas did that. In each of the events we mentioned earlier, he was not afraid to acknowledge that he was sceptical. He had an honest mind which said, “I can’t help it, I have doubts.” When the others told him that they had met the risen Lord, he no doubt attributed it to overactive imaginations, or to a hallucination. “I’ll believe it,” he said, “when I can touch the wounds on his body.”
Actually, it is far healthier for our religious life to admit our doubt than it is to deny it. If we can’t admit our doubts we become rigid and un-teachable. I know first-hand of some denominations who find security in knowing all the answers; my faith, as one born and raised within the United Church, is one where we find faith in the questions.
The third thing Thomas’s experience says to me is that, at its best, Christian fellowship helps us to deal with our doubts. Following the crucifixion of Jesus, Thomas disassociated himself from the rest of the disciples. The other disciples had managed to stay together, perhaps more out of fear than loyalty. Nevertheless, it was to them that Christ appeared, an appearance that Thomas missed because he was not present. Undoubtedly, he was disillusioned, and felt that there was no point to continuing the fellowship.
Others have made that mistake. When sorrow comes to us, when sadness envelops us, we often tend to shut ourselves away and refuse to meet people, and in so doing we deprive ourselves of one of the basic resources of the faith: friends in Christ. Dr. D. T. Niles, a significant Christian leader in the Church of South India, was for a number of years, a pastor in Sri Lanka. One day he met on the street a member of his parish whom he had not seen for some time. He asked her where she had been. She answered that she had been terribly discouraged of late and that God seemed far away, so she had just not come to worship. In reply he said to her, “You are going to have times of discouragement, everybody does. There are going to be times when God seems far away. The trouble is that you have been trying to hold on to God alone.” When it is difficult to hold on to God with our own strength, that is precisely the time when we need others to help us to hold on.
That is what Thomas discovered. He had lost hold of his faith when he became disillusioned. He found that when he was by himself, his faith only became weaker and he missed out on the experiences others were having. He may not have believed the experience they were telling him about, but out of loneliness if nothing else, he rejoined the tiny fellowship. Once he was back in their company, Christ became real to him again, and his faith took on new meaning. Some things can happen to us within the fellowship of the church that will not happen to us when we are alone.
I close with this: On a Saturday afternoon in August, 1944, Bishop Hans Lilje was in his study putting the finishing touches on the sermon he was to preach the following day in St. John’s Church, Berlin. The doorbell rang violently. He went to the door and there stood two men from the Gestapo. They arrested him, and a few hours later he found himself in a prison cell. He tells us that it took all the courage and resolution he had not to lose self-control when the steel doors clanged shut behind him. He felt utterly alone. Then he heard someone in a prison cell across the courtyard whistling the melody of an old hymn. He sprang to his window and whistled back, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing My Great Redeemer’s Praise.” So it went, back and forth, each answering the other with whistled hymns: a congregation of two, supporting each other’s faith. And in that mutual support they found, mysteriously, that their tiny congregation was multiplied by the presence of the One they could not see. Amen.