The God who doesn’t shame us for having questions

Some friends and I were sitting around the dinner table, talking about Thomas. The Bible calls him The Twin, but we’ve settled on calling him The Doubter. Poor guy.

Thomas has a bad rep. Partly, it’s his fault. Partly, it’s our fault.

It’s his fault not because he didn’t trust Jesus, but because he didn’t trust his friends.

Thomas had spent several years with Jesus as a disciple. But those years weren’t just with Jesus. Thomas was a part of The Twelve. Jesus chose twelve for biblical and theological reasons, but it also works out to be a pretty good number for forming a tight group of guys. There should have been a high level of trust among them.

Well, let me back up a bit on the trust part, because I guess one of them had betrayed Jesus for money and then killed himself. And the rest, except for John, had scattered, abandoning Jesus to the cruelty of the Romans. And Peter had denied Jesus — not once or twice, but three times. So, maybe they were a fickle bunch. But they still stuck together. The fact that they kept rallying together after Good Friday shows that their bond hadn’t busted when Jesus died.

But here’s the thing: All ten of the rest of the Twelve told Thomas the same story: Jesus was alive. There was no exception to their story. They even said Jesus had visited them the night of his resurrection. But Thomas wasn’t there and so he’d said he would never believe them unless he put his fingers in the nail holes and his hand in the spear hole in Jesus’ body. The testimony of ten wasn’t enough for him, even if those were his ten best friends. And it wasn’t like they were running around telling everyone about this. They were huddled and hiding. They were mystified and stunned. There was no boasting or practical joking to their assertion. They were united and in earnest, and yet Thomas wouldn’t believe them. So, bad on him as a friend.

But calling him Doubting Thomas, as if he were a man of lesser faith because of his doubt, is our fault. We do that because we dislike our own doubts, faulting him for the very thing that disturbs us about ourselves.

But what’s so cool about the story is that Jesus never faults Thomas for his doubt, for his questioning. If anything, Jesus honors Thomas for it.

When Jesus appears to the remaining eleven of The Twelve, he starts with a brief greeting — “Peace be with you” — and then immediately addresses Thomas. I love that.

You get the sense that Jesus had heard Thomas when he’d been talking with the other ten, because Jesus addresses the exact wording of what Thomas had said to them. And you realize what that means, don’t you?

Jesus took Thomas’ words to other humans, even words expressing doubt about Jesus, as prayer.

Yep. That’s exactly what took place. Thomas was speaking to someone else, but Jesus heard and answered. That’s called answering Thomas’ prayer.

Even when we don’t speak our doubts directly to God in what we generally think of as prayer, he still hears, he still takes it as prayer, and he still answers. That is amazingly comforting.

This is a truth about God that we see in this John 20 story and all the way through the Bible: He knows our questions and he answers them.

But here’s a truth about me and about you: We rarely know what our questions are.

In the very quirky and earthy movie I Heart Huckabees, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play one of the oddest duos. They are existential detectives. What they do is help people discover what their question is. Because we don’t know ourselves very well, we need the services of existential detectives to discover our life’s burning question.

When I first saw the movie as a young pastor, I thought, “Ah ha! That’s what I am. I’m an existential detective. My job is to help people discover what their question is and that their question has to do with God somehow.”

And what this Thomas story shows is that Jesus both knows what Thomas’ question is and wants to answer it. And that answer comes in the form of an encounter.

Now, unlike Thomas, my encounter may not be physical or even audible. But it is deeply and personally real. We each know this, because when it happens we find that our question isn’t dodged, it’s fully engaged.

But here’s the thing I’ve discovered about myself: I’m more afraid of my question than Jesus is. Jesus stands ready to engage. But I often evade.

Why do we evade our questions? Because they almost always arise from pain.

Thomas’ question almost certainly did. The death of Jesus must have hurt him deeply. All of the hope and love and trust that he’d invested in Jesus had bled out of Thomas as Jesus hung on the cross. And I’d guess that his real, deep, existential question was something on the order of: How could you abandon us like that, Jesus? How could God forsake us by forsaking you? Who am I now that you’re gone?

I know that I’ve got some questions hanging on to me from significant pain — pain from when my Mom had a massive stroke 26 years ago that left her badly handicapped, even though I prayed like anything for her healing — pain from my sister Joy’s death after a head-on collision with a kid who’d been out drinking with his buddies the day after he got his license. There are other pains, too, but those were pretty good ones for raising questions. And both have had their answers — at least, as far as I’ve been willing to ask my questions.

Jesus doesn’t avoid the hard stuff. I do. We do.

Jesus is brave enough to stand in front of us and face our questions, never shaming us for having them. And standing there, he asks the first question: “Will you be brave enough to face your own question and ask it to me?”

[Image credit: Milos Milosevic | Flickr]