Sermon 43





Don’t Doubt

John 20:27

March 30, 2008


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

These are great days – the seven weeks of Easter. They’re even better than Christmas – and longer too. That’s because it takes seven full weeks to sing all our Easter Alleluias. And that’s because we’re celebrating the victory over sin and death – which is great indeed. So don’t start planning for Mother’s Day and Memorial Day just yet. We still have lots of Alleluias to sing!


Learning from Doubt

Why then do we take today to remember the doubting Thomas? Every year we do this on the second Sunday of Easter. Why is that? Doesn’t dwelling on doubt dampen our celebration – and rain on our parade? Why then do we give him so much attention? Shouldn’t we be devoting today to singing more Easter Alleluias instead? Well, not really. And the reason for this is that there’s so much to learn from the doubting Thomas and his skeptical ways. And so we give him more time than one would expect.


Controlling Doubt

Now the first thing we learn from him is the very anatomy of doubt. This is important because by understanding its structure, we can better avoid the pitfalls of doubt. And that’s a good thing, because Jesus said – “Don’t doubt, but believe” (John 20:27). Don’t doubt like Thomas did. How much clearer could this be? So those who would celebrate doubt, as what makes us religiously mature (see Val Webb, In Defense of Doubt – An Invitation to Adventure, 1995), or who imagine that faith and doubt actually go together – saying that “serious doubt is confirmation of faith” [Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (1957) p. 22] – well, they have it all wrong. We shouldn’t be open “to new ideas – to truth wherever it is,” and trust in that process of discovery [contra John B. Cobb, Jr., Doubting Thomas (1990) pp. 83, 33]. That’s because our Lord Jesus said – “Don’t doubt, but believe.” He wouldn’t have said that if doubt was truly grand and glorious. He wouldn’t have said that if what he really wanted for the church was the “tentative” attitude of the scientist [Bertrand Russell, The Will to Doubt (1958) p. 22].

No, Jesus wasn’t some sort of skeptic, who along with the father of modern philosophy, René Descartes (1596-1650), peddled doubt to make us mature and secure. Unlike Jesus, Descartes’ philosophy was founded on the dictum – dubito ergo sum, “I doubt therefore I am” [The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Haldane & Ross (1931) 1:219, 324]. Jesus rather said, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am,” or tunc... ego sum, in the old Latin Bible (John 8:28). So a life of doubt and hesitation, would be a disaster for Christianity. It would send us on a wild goose chase – for as the philosopher Peter Strawson puts it, in the swimming pool of philosophy “there’s no shallow end” [Analysis and Metaphysics (1992) p. vii]! For once doubt sets in, we are forever paddling just to keep our heads above water. That’s because doubt cuts our legs out from under us – gleefully throwing our daily lives into question [Robert Fogelin, Walking the Tightrope of Reason (2003) p. 67]. No wonder, then, that “plain showing off is... a feature of the philosophical life” [Colin McGinn, The Making of a Philosopher (2002) p. 63].

But in our life with God, there’s no place for all this caution. Before him we are instead to trust, obey and follow – not hesitate, look back (Luke 9:62) or doubt! If we were to do that, we would look like crazy beggars – as Martin Luther put it long ago [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 2:423]. And that’s worth pondering since he’s our “most eminent teacher” [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 507]. His words then are:


Our Lord God can give a wavering heart nothing, even though he would dearly love to do so.... We stand there like crazy beggars. We hold out our hat, hoping God will put something into it, but we keep moving it around, refusing to hold it still.


That’s what doubt does to us – it keeps us from holding our hats still. And as long as we keep pushing them out and pulling them back, moving them from side to side, over and over again, we’ll fumble all the blessings God sends our way! And this is the height of recklessness. No wonder Luther went on to say that doubt is a horrifying and “dangerous plague” (Luther’s Works 26:377).

But even so, doubt has a place when it comes to building good bridges and performing life-saving surgeries. Then we want our engineers and physicians to test materials and plans with a careful and critical eye in order to make sure no mistakes are being made. But when it comes to God, we have to shift gears and simply “hear the word and keep it” (Luke 11:28, 8:21)! To allow doubt to spill over into our religious lives, only destroys faith. For “doubt.... is by far the gravest of all the sins which condemn the world and the unbelievers” (LW 4:147). So the “effrontery to teach... that one should doubt,” is nothing more than the devil’s work (LW 8:312).


The Show Me State

Now why was Thomas so skeptical? And why do any of us doubt, for that matter (Matthew 14:31)? Well, it’s because we’re from Missouri – the “Show Me State” (John W. Brown, Missouri Legends, 2008)! For Missourians are no fools. They’re hard-headed skeptics who have to be shown what is true before they’ll believe it. So Thomas, true to form, wouldn’t believe what he couldn’t confirm with his own eyes. He was obsessed, if you will, with empirical evidence. This accounts for his bravado after Easter when he says of Jesus, that “unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas wasn’t going to be taken in. And he believed that the way to steer clear of being snookered, was to test everything physically. The old adage that “a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush” (John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678) is founded on such a hope.

            Now Jesus surprisingly goes along with Thomas on this matter. He shows up again and invites him to take a look and to take a touch – or two. But in the process this turns out to actually be a test for him and for all of us, instead of a verification of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For no sooner than Thomas comes to faith at the wonder of seeing the risen Christ before him, Jesus nails him by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). Note that it doesn’t say that they are “more blessed” than those who do see. That would imply that those who see in order to believe, would also be blessed – just not as much as those who don’t see and yet believe. But that isn’t it at all.

No, what we have instead is a blessing reserved just for those who don’t see. And that’s radical, for it demeans eye witnesses from then on. So what begins with eye witnesses and empirical evidence, ends differently (1 John 1:1-5). That’s because there is a little noticed weakness in empirical evidence. Luther elaborates this point [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. Lenker (1988) 2:373]:


[Jesus] offers us peace.... in the Gospel as certainly and clearly as it was... shown to the disciples bodily.... And it is much better that it is done through the Gospel than if he now entered here by the door; for you would not know him, even if you saw him standing before you, even much less than the Jews recognized him.


Here Luther builds on the fact – which is quite contrary to popular opinion – that not everyone who witnessed the miracles of Jesus believed in him because they saw them (John 12:37). This shows that empirical evidence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. So in our life with God, being from Missouri is actually of little help – and even a disadvantage! Luther elaborates this point by saying:


Reason and human nature... never go beyond what they perceive, and where there is no perception, they immediately deny God.... The natural light of man and the light of grace cannot be friends. Human nature wants perception and certitude as a condition for faith. Grace wants faith prior to perception.... Grace happily steps out into the darkness and follows nothing but the word and the Scriptures (LW 52:196).

So believing is seeing – and not the reverse, as Thomas, the philosophers and those from Missouri would have us think. For only “the deaf and ignorant... will hear” (LW 16:248; John 9:39).


Fighting Doubt

So doubt is neither to be celebrated nor endured. This is because a “Christian should... not doubt,” or “be content with anything” other than a firm faith, which is the confidence by which we “gain the victory” (SML 6:229, 247, 260). When doubt creeps in, as it did with Thomas, we shouldn’t settle for that thinning out of our faith. We shouldn’t “float and bob in uncertainty” (SML 2:401). No, we should instead “engage in a continual struggle against doubt” (LW 6:10). We have to fight against that “devil’s yeast,” as Luther called it (LW 7:233), which persistently clings to our hearts – perniciously holding us back from a rich and robust faith in our Savior, Christ Jesus. Our goal should be to “strive for certainty,” and “believe with complete certainty” (LW 26:379). So just because we doubt, doesn’t mean we should continue to (Mark 9:24).

            How then should we go about fighting against doubt? Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1546), that great admirer of Martin Luther, warned against the wrong way to wage this war against doubt:


Some... sought to refute doubt with reasons..... [So they] first of all... tried to demonstrate the truth of Christianity with reasons.... And these reasons fostered doubt.... [For] these reasons... are already a kind of doubt – and thus doubt arose and lived on reasons.... [For] offering doubt reasons in order to kill it is just like offering the tasty food it likes best of all to a hungry monster one wishes to eliminate. No, one must not offer reasons to doubt – at least not if one’s intention is to kill it – but one must do as Luther did, order it to shut its mouth, and to that end keep quiet and offer no reasons (Kierkegaard’s Writings 21:68).


The point is that if reasons are given not to doubt, those reasons will be twisted to defend doubt all the more. Why is this? Why don’t reasons against doubt, put an end to doubt?

            It’s because these reasons keep the matter on an intellectual plain where doubting can go on forever. This plain leaves “everything in abeyance” – it “cannot fasten down anything” or “tie the knot at the end” (KW 21:196). The immensely popular American horror story writer, Stephen King, has written that writing is a strange “act of telepathy” [On Writing (2000) p. 106] – whereby the writer tries for a meeting of the minds across time and space. Many think conversations try to do the same. So if just the right words are said, we think a breakthrough will come and end doubt.

But that’s too intellectual of a solution. No, the only way to stop doubt is by suffering for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:10; 1 Peter 3:14). Kierkegaard explains this tough idea this way:


So it always is with need in a human being; out of the eater comes something to eat [Judges 14:14]; where there is need, it itself produces, as it were, that which it needs.... But someone who sits in idleness and ease through good days or is busily astir in busyness from morning to night but has never suffered anything for the sake of truth actually has no need.... [So if] you doubt,.... say to yourself: No sense making a fuss over that kind of doubt; I know very well its source and nature – namely, that I have... too easy a life, spare myself the dangers bound up with witnessing for truth against untruth. Just do that! But above all do not become self-important by doubting (KW 21:69).


Doubt therefore comes to an end through self-denial. Anything else only furthers doubt. So in combating doubt, it’s easy to go down the wrong road. Kierkegaard explains this further:


When one, entirely innocent, suffers, then it... seems as if the struggle were about justifying God, something only the conceit of fools and conceited wisdom can regard as the easiest – because for a human being that is really presumptuousness.... It wants to reverse the relation, wants to sit quiet and safe,... it wants to make God the defendant, to make him the one from whom something is required.... Right here is faith’s struggle: to believe without being able to understand. And when this struggle of faith begins,... then the consciousness of guilt comes to the rescue.... One would suppose it to be a hostile power, but no, it specifically wants to help... the believer by teaching him not to doubt God but himself. Instead of the mendacity about thinking through the doubt, which is patently doubt’s most dangerous invention, the consciousness of guilt thunders it’s “Halt” (KW 15:273).


So we are to fight against ourselves and not against God. Our best attack on doubt comes from attacking “our own feeling,... purpose, and will [which] we love... more passionately than [anything else, and which] hinders faith in Christ, [so that] unbelief follows” (LW 29:154, 44:376, 7:104-106; SML 7:229). “For our own will is the... most deep-rooted evil in us” (LW 42:48). So a Christian “is a man of will who no longer wills his own will but with the passion of his crushed will,... wills” what God wants [Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, ed. Howard & Edna Hong, §6966]. By crushing our sure will, we keep it from being “pernicious” (KW 17:211).


A Divinely Planned Sacrifice

So hold onto the word of God which tells of his “definite plan” to send his son to die for us (Acts 2:23; 1 John 4:10). Do not long for some cosmic Christic principle that floats free of the written word – following the peculiar contours of our private experiences (Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, 1988). Do not long for an experience of the risen Christ, appearing in your bedroom to confirm what the word already tells you (Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life, 1982). No sooner than these exotic moments come and go, you’re hungering for more and are never satisfied.

No, instead know this – that Christ is all tied up with the words of the Bible itself. Know that you’ll find him no other way (Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, 1974; Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, 1985). Know that all other ways lead to doubt and error (Acts 4:12, 14:15). Know that “God.... has circumscribed Himself with a certain... Word” (LW 12:352). So dwell on that word, that it may “dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). In this way you can put your faith above your feelings (SML 7:244). For it is “the glory of faith” to take “everything captive – perception and understanding, strength and will” and to follow “the bare voice of God and to be led and driven rather than to drive” (LW 29:238). In this way you become “a knight and a hero who... vanquishes all,” disdaining all that “the world possesses, both its good and its evil,... everything with which the devil can lure and entice or intimidate and threaten” (LW 24:21, 44:77). So, for instance, we should neither be amazed at nor upset with, the word “God” showing up on an alligator’s side in Wisconsin (“G-O-D Appears on Gator,” The Seattle Times, July 24, 2006).

This will put an end to us cursing God in heaven for every little “pain in the leg” we feel (LW 14:49)! And this is because Christ is our “Priest over against God,.... who sacrificed Himself on the cross,” that we might “find mercy before God” (LW 23:195). Without that sacrifice of Christ, we are lost (LW 23:55). Without faith in Christ, God’s wrath rests upon us (John 3:36; Romans 2:5, 5:9). But when we believe in Christ, our burdens are lifted (Matthew 11:30) and we have hope – both for the life to come in heaven, and in this life now (Luke 18:30; 1 Timothy 4:8).


Pray Rightly

And we who bask in this victory of Easter are also expected “to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4; 1 Peter 2:24). So we are to obey God to conquer the world (1 John 5:3-4). Therefore we must


follow neither the customs of the world nor our own reason or plausible theories. We must constantly... control our wills... Always we are to conduct ourselves in a manner unlike the way of the world (SML 7:16).


There’s no better way to do that than to pray in the name of Jesus and according to his will (John 15:16; 1 John 5:14). This means our prayers won’t be bundles of grab-bag requests nor dashes off to bargain sales – elbowing our way in. No, instead we’ll pray with confidence, “which is the soul of prayer,” asking for what is “expedient according to the will of God,” without fixing “the manner and the time” of the answer, and waiting “patiently and diligently.” For as St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) put it:


Do not despise... prayer.... Be sure either that what you have asked for will be granted... or that what has been asked for has not been beneficial (LW 30:322-323).


This is hard to stomach – especially when we pray for the sick. But it is God’s good will. For he knows that being sick can often be better for us, than being well and forgetting him (Hosea 13:6). So pray knowing that having our names “written in heaven” (Luke 10:20), matters more than succeeding in this life. That’ll take some of the pressure off us, so we can pray as we should – having rejoiced in the salvation Good Friday and Easter bring, and having taken up the good of faith (1 Timothy 6:12) against doubt. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)