Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Guiding Light of Spiritual Doubt

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Doubting Thomas.” The phrase’s origins hearken back to John’s Gospel, where, after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus’s disciples say to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” to which Thomas responds, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

It should be noted that when this scene occurs in Scripture, Thomas was in the middle of the grief process. Days before he had witnessed the horrific crucifixion of one of his best friends. Now he was most likely on the run or in hiding, perhaps wondering if the Romans would come after Jesus’s followers next. His life was in turmoil. He was probably trying to make sense of it all. Had he been duped by a guru? Were his buddies, the apostles (who had their fair share of flaws and blindspots, by the way) in silly denial of reality when they said they had seen the risen Lord?

We are then told in John’s gospel that a subsequent scene unfolds: the Christ appears to the apostles (over a week later!) and says to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe…Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Whenever I’ve heard this passage preached upon, it has mostly been used to discourage doubt and to throw shade on skeptics or cynics or anyone who is questioning their Christian tradition. But let’s look at this a different way. Have you ever wondered: What if Thomas had lied?

Seriously, what if Thomas had been too afraid to confront his doubt? What if Thomas had suppressed his doubt in an attempt to appear holy, out of fear of what others might think?

Would we perhaps have a much different exchange between Jesus and Thomas in the Scriptures? Would the risen Lord have called Thomas out on his inability to trust God with his doubt? Maybe the Christ instead would have said to him, “Thomas, I know you better than you know yourself; I understand the intricacies of your heart and mind, the beautiful complexity of your thoughts and the wonderful messiness of your emotions; did you really think that I was too small to handle your doubt?” Would we now call one another Lying Thomases?

I would argue that this passage in Scripture is showing us something else far beyond a dualistic approach to doubt and belief, where doubt is bad and belief is good. Along with showing us the value of belief, I believe this passage is simultaneously showing us the value of spiritual doubt.

It was Thomas’s doubt, after all, that led to an intimate moment with the risen Christ, as he touched the holes in his hands and the wounds on his side. Thomas’s doubt led to a divine invitation. The sensuality of this moment screams at us from the page and let’s us know that no doubt is too big for God to handle, that no darkness is too thick for love to permeate, and that no despair needs to be carried alone. We’ll keep being invited back to the wounds of the Christ, the one who suffers with us, time and time again. We’ll keep being invited back to the table of our inherent belonging. We’ll keep finding ourselves on Mystery’s doorstep, welcomed in to experience the divine through our senses—through the many moments of our daily lives. Thomas’s doubt, in a profound way, was the gateway to divine intimacy. As Ann Lamott writes, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

All of that being said, I’m not a “doubt evangelist.” I’m not interested in throwing “doubt grenades” into people’s spiritualities. I know plenty of people whose Christian spiritual paradigms have served them well throughout their lives and do not need to be deconstructed—both Catholic and Protestant, both progressive and conservative—inspiring them to love God and others as themselves. But if doubt finds you, as it did with Thomas, I believe it can be a guiding light in the darkness of unknowing, helping you to reconstruct a spiritual paradigm that is psychologically healthy on both a personal and relational level, ultimately ushering a divine invitation to intimacy, introspection, and awareness.

That has certainly been the case in my own life.

Minute Meditations

Several years ago, I knew deep down that something was not right in my own faith practice. On a personal level, the shame, misery, and lack of self-worth I experienced in Christianity fostered a contempt for myself that I knew, deep down, was not healthy. I had my doubts but did not want to confront them. Unlike Thomas, I was deeply afraid of my doubt. Unlike Thomas, I suppressed my unknowing.

Ironically, I hunkered down all the more, absorbing myself in apologetics and other literature that cemented the theology and doctrine that I was so afraid to deconstruct. The saddest thing of all is that my harsh judgment for myself was only projected outward during this time. On a relational level, I struggled to listen and learn from others who did not believe what I believed, fueling an intellectual arrogance, which I knew, deep down, was not healthy. Still, it’s fun (and addicting) to feel like you’re right, as Twitter has proved. The ego boosts I received from feeling as if I had everything figured out distracted me from the shame I felt and the reality that Christianity was not working for me.

Years later, once the ego boosts had proved futile and my spiritual exhaustion had reached its peak, I realized that many around me had doubts too. Feeling far less alone, I began to engage those doubts. Doubt opened me up. Doubt became my partner, friend, and guiding light in the darkness and confusion. As scary as it was venturing deeper into the cave of unknowing—where it felt like my previous spiritual paradigm was rapidly falling apart—I no longer feared that I was becoming a heretic; contrarily, it felt as if I was going deeper into the tradition. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him.” And therefore, so many of our ideas about the divine need to be deconstructed so that we can get back to mystery and wonder. Or, as Meister Eckhart once famously prayed, “God, rid me of God,” acknowledging that whenever he said the word “God,” it was ultimately a conceptual idol, falling far short of who God really is.

I began reading authors who I had never read before, authors who helped me to awaken to my core identity as the Beloved who was united with the divine at the core of my being—not a fallen, broken sinner whom God was constantly disappointed with. Doubt led me to perennial wisdom, which opened me up to the underlying interconnectedness between me and the person who was most different than me. Thanks to doubt, I journeyed inward. Thanks to doubt, judging was replaced with listening and learning. Thanks to doubt, introspection and contemplation became a part of my spiritual journey for the first time. Thanks to doubt, a spiritual paradigm that was more healthy, holistic, and inclusive began to form. Thanks to doubt, I found myself at the doorway of Franciscan mysticism. Thanks to doubt, like Thomas, I encountered divine intimacy.

Could it be possible that spiritual doubt is simply your body or soul shouting out to you letting you know what is unhealthy in your thinking or feeling, making you aware of something that needs to change? Could it be possible that spiritual doubt is the Holy Spirit, animating you, propelling you forward, taking you deeper into the very Truth of reality? Could it be possible that doubt is the water you must pour onto the seeds of your faith so that it will grow?

I still do not know the answers. I have more doubts than ever before. I do not claim to be whole and complete. As I continue the journey inward, I keep encountering gaps—rooms and hallways within the interior castle of my soul where I have yet to believe that I am Beloved…attachments that I am still clinging to as if to convince myself of my own worth and importance. Sometimes abiding in Christ feels a lot like resting; other times it is excruciating, for letting go requires all of me. My spirituality unfolds, not in the certainty, but in the tension.

So, if you find yourself wrestling, questioning, or doubting today, consider praying this prayer: God, I believe that you are big enough to handle the beautiful complexity of my doubts, emotions, and thoughts, for that was how you made me. Amen.

Stephen Copeland


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