Is SEEING believing… as the old adage goes? And, if physical, tangible, experience like seeing defines what is possible to believe… what is faith? How about this… does BELIEVING change the way we see?
Tough philosophical questions this week that, when probed, can really mess with our common understanding of what faith is, what believing means, and what role ‘seeing’ (aka physical, tangible, experience) plays in it all.
Because it’s such a well-known story in the Bible… and features such a well-known disciple (doubting Thomas). Let’s look at the Scripture first:
Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:24-29)
Jesus had appeared in resurrected form to the disciples but Thomas wasn’t there. When they told him about it, he says, “unless I see and touch… I will not believe”. On the surface this looks like a classic case. Thomas is in a condition of doubting… and he claims that only a physical, tangible, experience can clear up his doubt and verify the truth.
Jesus, seemingly directly addressing Thomas, appears again and provides this physical, tangible, proof while repeating the very words Thomas used, “put your finger here and see my hands, reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”. Is this the climax of the story? Is this the most important point: Jesus appeared miraculously to a doubting Thomas and convinced Thomas with physical, tangible experience that indeed Jesus had been raised? I don’t think so.
First, those words “Do not doubt but believe”, in the Greek, actually mean “do not be faithless but believe”. That may not seem like a big difference, but it does have an impact on the way we should understand what is really going on in these passages.
Being faithless and being doubtful (or doubt-filled) are different. Doubt acknowledges that we are not the first or final authority, we are not the first and final control. Doubt means that we are leaving space for what is not understood, not comprehended, not comfortably accepted. When I say “I doubt”, I am saying I’m pretty sure I know, but I’m leaving the possibility open that some further experience might change my mind. I’m leaving the possibility I might not have it all figured out. When I say “I do not believe” (i.e. I am faithless or have no faith in the matter), that is much stronger. When I am faithless, it is a kind of arrogance. I am convinced that my knowledge and my authority on the matter is settled. I am convinced that I can control how and when and what I will believe and what I will not believe. I’m not leaving the possibility open to have my mind changed by some further experience.
Jesus does make an appearance, specifically to confront Thomas in exactly the way Thomas arrogantly and faithlessly challenged, but this is not the teaching point. If it were, we would expect Jesus to do the same for all of us whom, deep down inside, arrogantly require the same satisfaction and proof. But no, his appearance here is in service to a more foundational teaching point. Jesus goes on to say, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In other words… seeing may be believing but that’s not going to be enough… it is more important to let your believing… your faith… lead the way.
In its fullness… faith does not grow out of our own arrogant, scientific, facts-oriented deduction of our physical, tangible, experience that eliminates ‘doubt’. Instead, faith grows out of engaging the mysteries of life, holding out the possibility that the ultimate truths are so much bigger than we can fully grasp and analyze. It embraces doubt… but is not controlled by it!
This is good news because we all regularly experience doubt in relation to our lives of faith. It’s necessary because God’s full reality: love, grace, plan, purpose, presence cannot ever be confined and defined by our limited capacity for understanding. The kind of ‘seeing’ that Jesus encourages is the kind that sees and embraces the outworking of God’s presence and promise in all things even while in the midst of doubt.