This Sunday’s Gospel was about the apostle Thomas when he said (after the other apostles told him Jesus had been raised from the dead) “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas wants proof. A week later, Jesus gives Thomas exactly the proof that Thomas requires, plus a very gentle chide to him for his doubt of his fellow apostles. Jesus doesn’t seem to think that Thomas’s doubt is grounds for a penalty.
But there’s another Bible passage about doubt that is quite different to how Jesus treated Thomas. Decades later, James encourages Christians who are in need of wisdom (which would be all of us!) to ask for wisdom from God and he will give it to them unless they doubt. This is what James says about the one who doubts: “For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.”
So Thomas doubts, but he still gets what he asks for. Then James tells me that if I doubt, I will get nothing. What’s going on here?? What is the difference in the two passages?
There are two kinds of doubt
One kind of doubt is when I don’t know the outcome of some process or don’t know whether some event will happen or not. For instance, I may doubt the outcome of an election. Or maybe I work for a company introducing a new product – no matter how good the product is, I still have at least some uncertainty, some doubt, as to whether it will be a success. In a similar way, I can pray to God for an event (birth of a child, healing an illness, some project at church), but I cannot know for sure how he will react to that prayer for an event. There is doubt.
The other kind of doubt is not in the realm of events. It is in the realm of persons and thus is a more fundamental doubt. For instance, if I know you well enough, I may become quite certain you are honest. I obtain this degree of certainty not merely because of what you do, but much more because I know you, because I know the person that is you. This does not mean I can predict your specific behavior in every circumstance that requires honesty. After all, there may be different ways of being honest in a given situation and sometimes one must choose. But I am nevertheless certain that whatever actions you choose, those actions will fit in with the conduct of an honest person. I know you and your character, even if I don’t know what you will do.
To repeat, the key thing is that I know you. I do not know specifically what you will do. So I will always have doubts about events connected to you. But it is possible for me to know the sort of person you are and to know this deeply and without doubt.
What Thomas doubted (and what the other ten apostles doubted, for that matter)
Thomas doubted an event. Admittedly, it was a big event, one that none of the apostles saw coming despite the fact Jesus told them it would happen. Thomas doubted the event of Jesus’ resurrection. But so did all the others. Not one of them declared to the others after Jesus was executed “we must wait and see if he rises like he said he would”. No one said anything like that. They hid.
Then after the resurrection, Thomas even went so far as to doubt the other apostles’ testimony about that event, apparently because it just seemed too fantastic. But the other ten apostles had been exactly like Thomas. Remember how the women told the apostles that Jesus had risen? And Luke says “their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them”. The other apostles are no different from Thomas. They didn’t believe the resurrection event before it happened, nor did they believe what they heard second-hand from the women.
But Jesus is not bent out of shape with them. They have not so much doubted him as they have doubted an event.
So what is the doubt that James say offends God so much he won’t even respond to me?
Here is the whole passage from James.
But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. But he should ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways. James 1:5-7
James says the doubt that offends God is the doubt that is not “in faith”. It is a doubt that questions God himself. There’s nothing new about this proposition. Hebrews 11 says that without faith it is impossible to please God and goes on to say that part of this faith is belief that God rewards his children. You can read the whole passage here, especially verse 6. The passage says I must, absolutely must, understand that God rewards his children. So the doubt that is not “in faith” as James puts it, the doubt that offends God, is the doubt that violates faith, the doubt that wonders whether or not God gives gifts generously. A doubt that questions God’s most basic character.
This doubt has the result that I will receive nothing from God – I have doubted God himself, not simply doubted some event. And when you get right down to it, this makes good sense, doesn’t it? After all, God can be mighty surprising sometimes in the events he either allows to happen or perhaps even causes to happen. I’m not able to predict what he will do – but as a function of God’s character and his love, he has promised me wisdom and love and support in times of trouble and protection from overwhelming temptation and many other blessings. I trust him 100% in faith, I trust him with absolutely no doubt as to his character and motive.
An example from today’s news
Here is an example of what I’m trying to get at. It comes from the Pope. This week is the birthday of Pope Benedict XVI. Here is part of what he said in his homily on his birthday. The quote is from USA Today, but the emphasis is mine. “I am facing the final leg of the path of my life and I don’t know what’s ahead,” Benedict said in his homily. “I know though that God’s light is there … and that his light is stronger than every darkness.”
The Holy Father says he does not know the events. He says he knows the Lord. He sets a good example for us all.
It’s usually OK to have doubts about events.
It is not OK to have doubts about God himself.
With real faith in God, I may trust that he will bless me according to his will. And when I pray according to his will, I am assured he will answer Yes.