Let’s just be honest for a minute. The Christian story is sometimes hard to believe. At the heart of the story is a guy named Jesus who was killed, buried, and then three days later was seen walking around town. If someone told a story like that about someone today, we’d think they’d lost their mind!
Many people struggle with believing this story today. Some people say outright that they don’t believe in God. Other people say they want to believe in God, but they’re not sure they can. What should you do if you find that you don’t believe in God or are struggling to believe in God?
In addition, Christians often don’t know how to respond when someone says they don’t believe. What do you when someone says they don’t believe in God? How should you respond to that?
There’s a story in John 20 that helps answer both of these questions. It goes something like this. Jesus has died and has been buried in a tomb, with a large stone rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb. Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ good friends, has gone to the tomb and sees that the stone has been rolled away. She goes in and sees that Jesus’ body isn’t in the tomb. She goes and tells two of Jesus’ disciples, Peter and probably John, who run to the tomb and confirm her story. Then, Mary actually sees Jesus and has a conversation with him. As if that isn’t crazy enough by itself, Jesus suddenly appears to the disciples (who are hiding out in a locked room because they’re afraid of the people responsible for Jesus’ death). He talks to them and shows them the wounds in his hands and his side from where he was crucified.
Okay, time out. Let’s shoot straight for a minute. If you weren’t in that room with them at that time, wouldn’t you have a hard time believing them? Okay, let ME shoot straight for a minute: I wish I would’ve been there because it would make believing this story a whole lot easier. I guess that’s why I’m able to relate so well to Thomas, one of the disciples, who wasn’t actually there. Because he wasn’t there, he doesn’t buy the story. When the other disciples tell him what had happened, he thinks they must be crazy. His actual response is, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” (John 20:25)
I think there are many people who hear this story and relate with Thomas because, like him, they have trouble believing this story without actually experiencing it.
Now back to the story. Eight days later, the disciples (including Thomas) are together again in a locked house, probably still hiding out. Jesus appears to them again and this time goes directly to Thomas and lets him touch his hands and his side. After this encounter with Jesus, Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!” His doubt fades and he’s more able to believe the incredible story the disciples told him a week earlier.
There are two incredibly important things that happen in this story, one for people who don’t believe or are struggling to believe and one for people who have someone admit to them that they don’t believe.
For people who don’t believe or are struggling to believe:
Usually, when we find ourselves in a place where we don’t believe or we are struggling to believe, we keep it to ourselves or we begin to distance ourselves from people who do believe because we feel guilty or frustrated or embarrassed at our lack of belief. Thomas does the opposite of that. When Thomas finds that he doesn’t believe what the other disciples are saying, he admits it immediately. He says it openly. He doesn’t hold it in. He’s not ashamed about his disbelief, he says it out loud to his closest friends, even his friends who are closest to Jesus.
If you’re a person who keeps yourself away from a community of faith like a church or small group because you don’t think you have enough faith to be there you are making a big mistake. Thomas missed seeing Jesus the first time because he wasn’t there, it would’ve been awful if he’d missed him again because he thought he wasn’t good enough to be there. If you want to believe in God but you don’t, the last thing you want to do is to stay away from a faith community because you never know what you might miss. Be honest about where you are. Talk out loud about your doubts. Ask somebody your questions. Don’t keep your thoughts to yourself and don’t try to handle it by yourself. You never know when something unexpected might happen, and you don’t want to miss it if it does.
2) For people who have someone admit to you that they don’t believe:
When Thomas admits to the rest of the disciples that he doesn’t believe what they’re saying, notice what they don’t do: they don’t freak out, they don’t argue with him, they don’t quote scripture at him, they don’t yell at him, they don’t tell him he’ll probably go to hell, they don’t kick him out of their group, they don’t do any of the things most of us think we’re supposed to do when somebody tells us they don’t believe in God. Instead, they remain confident in what they believe and what they’ve experienced, and they let Thomas keep his doubts. Even with his doubts and questions, Thomas is still a disciple.
If the disciples had freaked out or kicked him out, then he wouldn’t have been there eight days later when Jesus suddenly showed up again. We never know and have no control over when Jesus is going to show up. If we freak out and scare away people who don’t believe in God, where will they be if and when Jesus shows up in our midst? If we don’t invite and make room for people who have doubts and questions to be part of our churches and our communities of faith, then we may keep them from experiencing a close encounter with God. If somebody tells you they don’t believe, don’t freak out. Encourage them and thank them for expressing their doubts and their questions. Make space for them to do that in your community, because you never know who’s going to show up in your midst.
God, sometimes I’m like Thomas and sometimes I’m like the disciples in this story. When I’m like Thomas, give me the courage to be open and honest and to show up even when I have doubts and questions. When I’m like the disciples, give me the confidence to not freak out but instead to welcome the questions and doubts and disbelief of other people. Thank you, God, that you show up and meet us no matter where we are.