Doubt That Grows Our Faith - John 20:19-31
In his book Faith and Doubt Pastor John Ortberg tells the story of a girl named Agnes. He writes: “From the time she was a young girl, Agnes believed. Not just believed—she was on fire. She wanted to do great things for God. She said she wanted to ‘love Jesus as he has never been loved before.’ She knew Jesus was with her and had an undeniable sense of him calling her. She wrote in her journal, ‘My soul at present is in perfect peace and joy.’ She experienced a union with God that was so deep and so continual that it was rapture to her. She left her home, became a missionary, gave him everything. And then God left her.
At least, that is how it felt to her. Where is my faith? She wondered. Even deep down there is nothing but emptiness and darkness…My God, how painful is this unknown pain…I have no faith. She tried to pray [writing in her journal]: ‘I utter words of community prayers—and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give. But my prayer of union is not there any longer. I no longer pray.’
On the outside she worked, she served, she smiled. But she spoke of her smile as her ‘mask, a cloak that covers everything.’
The inner darkness and dryness and pain over the absence of God continued on, year after year, with one brief respite, for nearly fifty years. Such was the secret pain of Agnes, who is better known as Mother Teresa.
The letters that expressed her inner torment were a secret during her life, and she asked that they be destroyed. But a strange thing has happened. Her willingness to persist in the face of such agonizing doubts brings comfort and strength to people that an inner life of ease and certainty never could. As in her life she was a servant of the poor, so in her anguish she has become a missionary for those who doubt.” (Ortberg, pg. 106-107).
Pastor Ortberg’s story of Mother Teresa shows that doubt confronts even the most faithful people. Her story shows us that you don’t need certainty to serve God, and that God works through us even when we don’t feel God’s presence. It’s not feeling the presence of God that changes the world as much as our desire to serve God and God’s people.
The feeling of doubt was obviously very present in Thomas in the Gospel lesson this morning. The other disciples also had trouble believing in the Resurrection when the women told them Easter morning, but they were lucky enough to see Jesus on the evening of that first day. Thomas wasn’t around, and probably has the same reaction any of the disciples would’ve had: one of disbelief.
A week later, Jesus returns. Simply seeing Jesus probably would’ve been enough for Thomas to believe, but Jesus invites Thomas to do everything he said he needed. All his ridiculous demands for proof. “Put your finger in my hands. Put your hand on my side.” Jesus gives Thomas exactly what he needs to believe.
And Thomas is amazed and utters “My Lord and my God!” The first time a follower of Jesus calls him God. In a strange way, it seems Thomas’ experience of wrestling with doubt led him to greater insights about who Jesus is. Feeling the depths of despair and doubt for a week longer than the others catapulted Thomas to a higher level of wisdom and understanding when his doubt finally left him.
According to Thomas Keating, the Catholic monk and famous teacher of Centering Prayer, doubt is actually an important part of the spiritual journey that pushes us to grow. We might think doubt is the opposite of faith. But in fact, periods of doubt often purify faith and bring us to deeper levels of trust and love. In his book Crisis of Faith, Crisis of Love Thomas Keating talks about the spiritual journey coming in phases. And says that as we grow spiritually we may lose the gift of feeling faith so that we can grow in pure faith. We should actually expect times when we lose the feeling of God’s presence—the emotional sense we most associate with faith. He writes, “The absence of the felt presence of the Lord is his normal means of increasing our faith and of getting us to the point of believing…without ‘signs and wonders,’ that is, without the feeling of [God’s] presence or external props” (Keating, 15-16).
So by withholding the feeling of God’s presence—God is challenging us to trust on an even deeper level. A level beyond needing signs and wonders. A level beyond needing the good feeling of faith. A level beyond needing positive emotions to motivate us. Feelings of certainty, peace, and joy are good; they’re what mystics call “spiritual consolation.” But what they call “pure faith” doesn’t have anything to do with a nice emotion. Pure faith is not something we feel—like confidence or certainty—but is something that grows in us as we experience doubt, forsakenness, and the absence of God.
Faith isn’t something we can will ourselves to have. It’s a gift from God when we feel that peaceful certainty. But that feeling is a gift that we apparently have to do without sometimes. Because God is pushing us to grow beyond the need for spiritual consolation. Beyond the need to feel good in order to trust. Keating says, “In our own spiritual growing up process we cannot escape the crisis of faith…it is a call to new growth, to transformation of our weakness” (pg. 23).
So Thomas Keating might say that it wasn’t faith that Mother Teresa was lacking, but spiritual consolation—that nice feeling people often mistake for faith. Mother Teresa’s pure faith was apparent in the fact that she kept moving forward, that she kept continuing to follow her calling despite not feeling God in her life. And the same can be said for Thomas. In that extra week he had to mull over everything that had happened, the soil of his soul was tilled for even further growth and wisdom that those who saw Jesus on Easter Sunday wouldn’t have understood without Thomas’ testimony.
So next time you feel a lack of faith remember these words. It might be that God is challenging you to deeper trust in spite of the fact that you don’t feel any emotional faith, peace, or joy. Keep going anyway. Keep trusting anyway. That’s pure faith. The mark of a mature Christian isn’t someone who’s certain all the time. It’s someone who wrestles with doubt and is willing to question the foundation of everything you’ve laid your life on, and still continue to seek God even in the darkness. Doubt isn’t a sign you’re a bad Christian. Doubt is a challenge to trust on a deeper level than ever before.
Because in some amazing paradox, doubt actually strengths our faith. So when doubt comes, invite it. Invite it to purify your faith. Invite it to teach you to trust God beyond feelings and experiences, beyond signs and wonders, beyond spiritual consolation. Invite God to use doubt to transform you. And remember, as much as we feel like God isn’t there sometimes, God is always with us. God is with us in times of uncertainty and in times of great confidence. God is with us in our darkest nights, and in our brightest mornings. God is with us when we’re on top of the world, and God is with us when we have no reason to believe.
Thanks be to God for being with us in our faith and in our doubt. And thanks be to God for the unbelievably Good News that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and gives us new life!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian 4/24/22