Lets be like Thomas; doubt and certainty in one

I wasn’t always a Christian. I first came to know Christ at age 14 and was heavily involved in the church, eventually assisting the vicar with the services and I also did a lot of Bible readings for the services. But something happened when I was about 18 that led to a lot of questions but very few answers, and I was in quite major financial trouble. By 22 I made a decision to sort out the problems and eventually walked away from the Christian faith. But I never stopped questioning and challenging and after moving to Oxford in 2008, I got to know a Christian couple who went on to become very good friends of mine and came back to Christ in their front room. My whole faith journey has been built on asking questions, expressing doubts, challenging views, getting answers then repeat. So it will come as no surprise that my favourite character in the Bible is Thomas.

I like Thomas but I was being taught that we don’t want to be like Thomas, because Thomas doubted Jesus and that doubt is the enemy of faith. How much of that is actually true though? Did Thomas really doubt Jesus and are we really expected to have no doubts at all in order to have faith?

The main story that seems to have earned Thomas his reputation is in Johns gospel, specifically chapter 20 verses 19-31, but this isn’t the only passage where Thomas is asking questions. In John 14, when Jesus is telling the disciples he’s off to prepare a place for them, Thomas pipes up “Uh, Lord? We don’t know where you’re going so how can we know which way?” Jesus gave him an answer,

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him

Now, when Phillip, one of the other disciples chimes in with “Show us the Father that will be enough for us” Jesus reacts very differently; Phillip is given a serious rebuke, “How can you ask such a question? Don’t you know me? Believe me when I say I am with the Father, or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves” Keep that last bit in mind “believe on the evidence of the works themselves” because we’re going to come back to it.

Thomas also makes an appearance in John 11 which covers the death of Lazarus; Jesus is telling the disciples that he needs to go back to Judea. The disciples are like “You’re joking right? They tried to kill you last time and now you want to go back?” This is a justified reaction to be fair but Thomas, the doubter, the one we’re not supposed to be like, steps up and says “Come on guys, let’s go with him so that if he dies, we’ll all die with him”. It seems that Thomas was going to make sure that Jesus didn’t die alone. These 2 events capture Thomas perfectly; expressing doubts and asking questions but also showing complete faith by being willing to stand with Jesus no matter what.

So lets bring all this together as we look at John chapter 20. Verses 19-20 says;

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord

So Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side and then they believed. Now, we know from verse 24 that Thomas was not with the other disciples so he’s not seen Jesus since he died on the cross. We pick the story up at verse 25:

The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!

But he said to them, “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.

Who is Thomas doubting at this point? He’s doubting what he’s being told by the other disciples and again, you can’t really blame him. Living in the first century under the rule of the Roman Empire, he’s know enough about crucifixion to know that unless they get a pardon, whoever goes up on that cross isn’t coming down alive. He has enough knowledge of biology and experience of life to know that dead people stay dead. So what has he asked for? Nothing more than the other disciples got; to see Jesus, to see the marks in his side and his hands.

So verses 26-28:

A week later, Jesus’ disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

What an affirmation from Thomas; my Lord, my God!. Thomas didn’t come to that place despite his doubts, he got there because of them. He was honest about his doubts and Jesus let him face them, allowing him to believe on the evidence of the works themselves as Jesus said back in John 14. The evidence that Christ had risen was him standing in front of them. Now, we don’t have that, we don’t have Christ physically standing before us which brings me onto verse 29:

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”

We haven’t seen Jesus physically risen as I said, but what do we have? The Gospels. John tells us in verses 30 and 31:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Luke says something very similar in the opening of his account. Now this can lead to the question “how do we know the Gospels are reliable”, and my response is “Yes, great question. Let’s look at that and have a discussion”. This leads onto other questions about the Bible because there are so many translations and interpretations, and we need to check what we are being told. This brings us onto the last passage I want to look at briefly which is Mark 16 verse 14:

Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

Now, this passage is slightly contentious because it is part of verses 9-20 which don’t appear in early manuscripts and pretty much all Bibles have a footnote or some disclaimer saying as such, so that raises a set of its own questions. But who is Jesus referring to specifically when he said ‘those who had seen him’? The other disciples? The women at the tomb? All of the above? Does this mean we should automatically accept what we’re told regardless? This seems very dangerous as one US pastor found out when he took verse 18 and went with it without question;

they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

The pastor was ultimately bitten by the snake and died from the poison. We humans are flawed, our understanding is never 100% correct 100% of the time. We have to question things, otherwise we can end up doing things that are incredibly harmful to ourselves and others. It can also lead to great social changes. It was doubting the then current understanding of scripture that led William Wilberforce to lead cry’s for the slavery laws to be abolished. It was his expression of those doubts that caused others to take another look at scripture and then join the cause.

So what is Jesus talking about in that passage in Mark? I don’t know, it’s one of those things I wrestle with and what is our journey with God if not a wrestling match? Plus, it’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘I don’t know’ because faith is not an expression of certainty, it’s an expression of vulnerability. It says ‘I don’t know if I can do this, but I know you’re with me Lord.’ It says ‘I can see all the pain, all the injustice, but I’m holding on.’ Too often we’re told questions and doubts are signs of spiritual weakness. They really aren’t, they lead to a richer spiritual experience and understanding as we explore and walk closer with God. Certainty is no guarantee that you’re with Jesus. Peter was certain in John 13:37; he said “I’ll lay down my life for you” and Jesus said “Really? When it’s all said and done you’re going to deny me 3 times.”

I found a quote from Archibald Macleish, who was an American poet and Librarian of Congress which says, “Religion is at it’s best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at it’s worst when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answers for everybody else.” When Jesus said, “how can you take the speck out of someone’s eye when you have a plank in yours”, he was about asking us to take a long hard look at ourselves and our faults. How can we start doing something as huge as looking at our faults if we’re not even willing to start the process of doubting what we currently believe about certain things? Doubt is an inevitable part of that process. To quote Claus Westermann;

Where God’s words penetrate a man’s life and are taken seriously there are certain to be struggles and remonstrations and defeat; doubt and temptation also inevitably occur.

There are always things we are going to be certain of though. I’m certain in what I’ve said to you today and that doubting is not wrong and that nothing is beyond reproach. But doubt is not the same as unbelief, it’s a state between beliefs; so if you find yourself doubting, know that you are in good company and that it’s perfectly fine to be there. Jesus will be in there too, as he was with Thomas and as you walk with him with your doubts; and God is not going to be angry with you. Be ready to go places you were never expecting to go and be prepared for some conflict as you end up somewhere different to someone else. Doubts are only dangerous if we make them something to be ashamed of and we insist upon remaining distant from those who doubt and hold different beliefs. Like a splinter, pretending it doesn’t exist or thinking you are wrong for having one isn’t going to solve the problem and it can become infected if not treated.  Making people ashamed is the easiest way to get them to leave their doubts unchecked.

One final thing before I wrap this up; Jesus left us with the Holy Spirit before ascending. How can it be allowed to move, work, guide, show us something new, if we cling so tightly so our certainties and reject anything that contradicts them? It is through doubting that we grow, that we can walk closer with Jesus. Doubts are what make our faith our own, are what lead us closer to truth. It is impossible to be concerned with truth unless you’re genuinely open to the possibility that what you currently believe is wrong. There’s no 2 ways about it.

There’s so much more I want to say but I will end with this. I had my doubts, I still do and if I hadn’t explored them and wrestled with them, and still do so, I wouldn’t be a Christian now. We saw with Thomas that yes, he had his doubts but he was still willing to die with Jesus and that’s what ultimately happened to him when he was killed in India spreading the gospel. This is what we are supposed to be willing to do. I think we could do a lot worse than to be like Thomas. His doubts didn’t get in the way of following Jesus, and neither did they go away afterwards, indeed they were part of what allowed him to make such sacrifices because he explored, he doubted, he learned, he grew through those doubts and ultimately came closer to Jesus as a result.

 

One small step for me, one giant leap for the church (or vice versa)

I actually made it to church yesterday, and one where I wasn’t reading at or visiting Sarah’s mum; first time I’ve done so in nearly 18 months. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gone had Sarah not been with me to encourage me to go (or book the taxi and made sure I was in it with her). I chose this church because it looked like it had a similar style (relaxed, informal modern/contemporary music) to my previous church which I prefer. It was always going to be the theology that was going to be the sticking point. Not in terms of whether we agree but how they treat differences and those they disagree with.

It became quickly evident that we’re not seeing eye to eye on certain things (at one point Sarah had to pretty much hold me down when I heard “we called to love the sinner and hate the sin” and “truly forgiving involves forgetting”) and me being me, was just honest about how i felt about those things. The question I was asking God towards the end was “if I’m supposed to be here, am I here to learn or teach?” I think the answer to that is both, it’s just a matter and what, when and how. I got discussing penal substitution theory with the pastor, but very deliberately steered clear of other subjects like inerrancy and same-sex marriage. They will come, and we will have to see what happens when they do.

They’ve already made it clear that they are particular about what is taught from the front, and that they have house groups for essentially extended teaching. How open they are going to be only time will tell, how I open I will be is another matter. I’m not totally settled on what the Bible is or what I’m to do with it, or really sure what the point of church actually is, all I know is that I feel I need to be in a community of other Christians where I can share fellowship; but still be myself and challenge and be challenged and explore these doubts. The pastor has offered to meet me one to one to discuss various aspects, not sure if its to understand me more, to have the discussion or try to change my mind on things but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

I’ve had Christians tell me that we have gifts we can offer the church which is part of going. Well I’ve taken the small step of going, need to take some more and keep going. We’ll just have to see whether the gifts I offer are accepted.

Internet; the game changer

The internet is still extremely young. It was first developed in the 1960’s and 70’s as a method of computers passing information to each other. But before then, information was passed from person to person by writing letters, or by going to a library and reading a book (ah the good old days). Most of the books written about religion were done so by scholars, as they were usually the only ones who could get published on the subject. These scholars usually studied at such a high level that many could not grasp the concept of their practices. Many people got their questions answered by their local vicar; they’d turn up, sit in a pew and accept what they were being told. The sermons they heard were just be focused on what can be taken from scripture and how they should apply such lessons to their lives. Each church and denomination could control what their congregation was exposed to, not always deliberately, but I’ll come back to that. It was much harder to hear (and express) different views in those days.

The internet changed everything. Information was suddenly freely available and freely exchanged; it connected the world in a way that had never been seen before. Suddenly, people were faced with a multitude of views that not only differed from their own, but they were hearing opinions that they never knew existed. Information that was reserved for scholars flooded in at an approachable level and really changed the entire landscape of theological discussion; and many were not prepared for it. It got people thinking and threw up questions of what were their churches not telling them. It has caused people to turn away from the Christian faith, it has caused others to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about the Bible. Questions of history, inerrancy, what it means to have faith, even what it means to be part of a church, all came under scrutiny. This is before we even get into the unleashing of atheistic views, which brings about its own set of challenges.

Like many things, the internet has its good and bad points. It really has opened up the discussion of religion, and allowed people to engage with other viewpoints to help understanding. It’s also helped people to understand where their faith lies and indeed strengthened it. However, there is a lot of misinformation on the internet regarding many things; the internet is largely unregulated and the only knowledge you need to publish something is to know how to turn on your computer. It is very difficult pulling out the correct information – due to the anonymity that the internet provides, people can write/promote what they want without worrying about the consequences and are not slow to do so (especially if they think you’re wrong) Sadly, many Christians think this gives them a free pass to say what they want as well; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been branded a heretic or not a true Christian for speaking my mind, and more than once I’ve been told I’m going to burn in hell for my theological views; and this is nothing compared to what some are subjected to. It’s a very challenging place to be.

Beyond just allowing information, the internet has questioned and changed what it means to be a community. People are spending more time online than ever before and it’s changing how we interact with each other. Many Christians are now members of online churches rather than walking into a church building. The internet is also a bit of a paradox; whilst it promotes itself as a place of free speech, it doesn’t always allow the space and time needed for people to wrestle freely with their issues. People have taken the “circle the wagons” mentality, where only their viewpoint is valid and should not be questioned by others on the internet. This is not restricted to Christian sites either. It puts the focus on where we differ as people rather than sharing what we have in common; this is something that’s probably permeating my blogs a bit of late.

You can’t escape the information and critiques now and churches need to do more to interact with what people are asking, if they don’t, someone else will. There is now an atheist hotline, and it’s things like this that Christians now have no choice but to acknowledge that we must truly engage with the questions and not just trot about our doctrinal mantra. We also need to be encouraged to ask questions – we can’t answer a question before we’ve asked it ourselves.

The internet has changed the world, it’s here to stay and yes, it is rather apt to use a website to comment on the internet, this has not escaped me.

 

siwoti-cat

Me, myself and theology

7968948b321f6e7e8f4ef2e69fc7c34b_six_column

I am not a Theologian or a Scholar. I do not have qualifications or training in Theology or Biblical Scholarship. My qualification, aside from the GCSE’s and A-Levels I left school with at 18, is in Digital Forensics, and I have  just over 10 years experience of working in various fields of the IT industry. I mention this because despite no formal training , I have to have an understanding of Theology and Biblical Scholarship to even begin discussions about Christianity and the Bible, and to even be a Christian. Subjects like atonement, justification and the Trinity are incredibly complex, yet seem to form a core basis for the Christian faith (aside from the resurrection, obviously). This is why organizations like RZIM and Premier Christian Radio  host training days to help people to understand these subjects. But even for organisations such as this, communicating these topics are no easy feat. A cursory glance through different books and articles quickly shows the breadth of opinions on any given subject, so how do we decide who to listen to? If the experts are divided, what chance has the layman got?

Often on social media sites, there will be a post from someone asking about peoples top 3 books/authors they’d recommend. The logic seems to be that if the recommendation comes from someone they trust, they’d be more willing to read it. Plus, time constraints means that they can’t read absolutely everything. Makes sense. Depending on the subject that they’re interested in, my response would vary, but most of the time, my recommendations are as below:

  • Healing the Gospel by Derek Flood
  • Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton
  • Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I refer to Derek Flood a lot.  I can say that his book helped to save my faith. In the early days of my faith, I was influenced by people like Ravi Zacharias and Michael Ramsden, but their interpretation of the cross, (that it was about the pouring out of Gods wrath onto Jesus) really didn’t seem to settle with me; it didn’t sound like the God I knew. I was wrestling with it a lot as well as issues regarding Genesis (Lost World of Genesis One helped me with this), and the whole inerrancy issue (which Inspiration and Incarnation helped me with). But it wasn’t until I read Flood’s book that I began to understand that the cross was about restoration, not wrath. Until that point, what I was coming to understand about heaven (courtesy of NT Wright’s work), were just words that sounded great, but I had no idea what they meant or how to apply them. Flood’s book acted like a pen joining up the dots, not just about the cross, but about virtually everything that I couldn’t reconcile. It blew away my fears, and I felt a freedom and a peace that I hadn’t had since that night at my friends house. Now, any time that Flood posts anything on his website or anything about the organizations that he writes for, I’m there reading and sharing it. I have on one occasion sent him an article just so I could get his views on it…and he has very graciously responded.

When you’re in the middle of working through something, and you have all these voices telling you conflicting things, having people you trust who you can go to can really help you to find a path, but in the end, you have to work it out for yourself. When relying solely on other peoples opinions, you run the risk of simply being blown about in the direction of whatever author you happen to be listening to at the time. Also, your understanding isn’t really your own – it’s your understanding of somebody else’s understanding. Your faith is effectively somebody else’s. It is a fine line, but there is a difference between being influenced by someone and saying “this is true because they say so”. It isn’t wrong to listen to others, it’s how we learn, and it certainly gives you a great starting point. It may even result in a massive breakthrough like Flood’s book did for me.

I don’t have it all worked out, but that’s OK. We’re not all fortunate enough to be able to go to university or seminary to study theology full time, and even a qualification doesn’t guarantee that it will all make sense to you. But in turn, that doesn’t mean that you can’t help others by sharing what you know and who’s influencing you.

Morgan-Freeman-has-cotton-candy-your-argument-is-invalid

If you, like me, are interested in exploring theology but aren’t sure where to start, my advice would be to read a wide range of authors, not just from this century, but previous too. Some of the greatest theological writers were born years before social media, and still managed to get their voices heard. Do your research; look up current theologians on the net, go google crazy! Read blog posts for and against the subjects you’re interested in, because the more rounded your research is, the better your understanding will become. And if you’re feeling particularly geeky (no offence meant, I am a budding geek myself, just ask my fiancée), go further and see which sources and people your favourite theologians favour, and research them. The more you discover, with each piece of information you gather, your foundation for decision making will become firmer and firmer. And don’t put pressure on yourself or compare yourself to others who are passionate about the same field – go at your pace! Like Sarah is often telling me, slow down to enjoy the journey, you’ll reach your destination whether you walk at 10 or 100 miles an hour. But if you rush, you may miss important things that could trip you up later down the line. But with all of this knowledge should also come open-mindedness; I have come across too many Christians who refuse to have their minds changed, and that creates an instant wall. How are you supposed to grow in your faith if you can’t ask questions and see things from other people’s point of view? If you’re prepared to be challenged and to accept new points of view, the world is your theological oyster.

Finding the release valve

Since moving to Slough back in March of this year, I’ve been trying to get back into doing the things that I really enjoyed but had to give up when I was living in Abingdon. I’ve found a darts team and a martial arts class, and I’m just waiting to hear back  about a tap dancing class; but it’s all been a bit stop-start, and it’s pretty much been all my own doing. Injuries, other commitments and being too tired from playing the XBox until stupid o’clock has meant that I’ve not been doing these things as regularly as I would like, and this frustrates me. These activities are not bad in themselves though. One of my other commitments has been training with the Great Men Value Women project, learning about gender equality and how to lead workshops in schools. Unfortunately, some of these discussions triggered some past memories and emotions and I’m now faced with the question of how to handle them. My fiancé has suggested that I see a counsellor, but I have no confidence that it will work; I’m not even sure what ‘working’ actually looks like. My default action is to retreat into myself, to hide, which is where the XBox has been both a good and a bad thing. It really helps with unwinding and de-stressing and chatting to new people (plus the games are a lot of fun), but it can also be too much as I get obsessed with gaining achievements and scheduling time online over doing other things like housework. This is before we add my fears about finding a church here in Slough; not just one I attend occasionally, but one that I can go to every week and settle and feel part of the community there.

My prayer life is not exactly good at the moment. I chat to God occasionally but I’m not exactly running to Him for help. I suffer problems like anyone, and I kick myself for giving into temptation instead of going to Him for help; whether that’s prayer or just picking up the Bible and reading it (something else I don’t do enough of). Then I hate myself for having given in, and question whether I really know Christ and/or whether I’m “saved” (hint: Romans 8:1). This is just an addition to my normal questioning about theological subjects, virtually all impacting how I look at life and the decisions I make. This inevitably affects relationships and being engaged to my wonderful fiancé Sarah, the situation is compounded. Wrestling over sex before marriage and having been together for 3 years, engaged for 2 and another 15 months before we get married, it’s easy for things to get to breaking point. She’s studying for a degree which brings its own set of pressures, and we’re both mindful of adding to those of the other. Yet we still want to be open with each other and support each other through difficulties, whilst at the same time learn about each other. Trying to find that balance can also be quite stressful. Within all of it though, I’m still able to answer an atheists question of why I’m a Christian with confidence, and spend 5 hours on the phone, listening to a friend cry their heart out due to the levels of pressure they are under.

I do need to get into a routine where I can go to martial arts, darts and dancing during the week, along with any workshops I’m scheduled to run. At the same time pick up the Bible more, even if its just for 5-10 minutes a day. Weekends can be for whatever I choose them to be, they’re certainly ideal for change and mixing it up. Sometimes it’ll be an XBox day, or a visiting friends day, or catching up on my Bible reading, or planning the previously mentioned workshops, or doing something very random. Sunday mornings are my chance to hang out with other Christians whilst just being me and letting someone else speak. Some people will say this is me scheduling God, to which I say possibly, but God is everywhere, so whatever I do, He’s already part of it. Others will say that I’m very busy and there’s no time to rest. We all rest differently, and sometimes my idea of resting is doing something. Sarah likes walks in the park; I will happily go with her but they’re not really my thing. She knows this, but it’s not about the walk, its about being with her. She’s getting into playing the Xbox and learning the ways of the action movie with me. In a way, being busy is my release valve. I do need to stop feeling so guilty if things get dropped. Sometimes I feel I have to learn that by having established a base. I do get committed though, I don’t take anything on unless I can give 100% to it. This all or nothing approach does add to the pressure I already feel and does take a little while  for me to wind down from. Going full throttle helps me to escape everything else, and though being busy doesn’t get these thoughts out of my head, writing this certainly has.

I know I’m going to need to escape more than ever as I do more research into other views about gender equality. I’m going to read things I disagree with and is going to upset me. It may also put me in another firing line in a similar way that LGBT rights has done. I know that friends will let me vent, I know Sarah will too, even if it upsets her seeing me struggle with things. I may even go and see that counsellor one day. I’m still going to need to find that release valve every now and again though, I think we all do.

Not in a church? You’re of no use then apparently

This is pretty much  what was said on Twitter last night, and it felt like I was punched in the stomach. For someone who is struggling with church and trying to repair his relationship with Christ, to be told I’m effectively of no more use to God until I do find a church is almost crippling. The tweet in full was:

Christians detached from a local church, no matter how spiritual or mighty, play no part in broadcasting God’s wisdom to the world -Eph 3.10

This just made me want to get even further away from the church, and add it to the list of things I’ve been labeled. After some pleading with God for reassurance that I was in fact still of use and had a part to play, a soothing phone call with Sarah (and some sleep) I looked up Ephesians 3:10:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,

Context though is vital so if we back up a few verses in chapter 3:

Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly.  I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power (Ephesians 3:2-3,7)

No mention that if you are not a member of a church, you play no part in broadcasting Gods wisdom. Revelation it seems is not limited to churches and Paul is proof of this, he wasn’t even a member of a church when he wrote to the various churches that he had visited. There’s no evidence Paul was a member of any church during his ministry, or any of the disciples. So what does Paul mean by it’s Gods intention to use the church to make known his wisdom? Well, Jesus once said:

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them (Matthew 18:20)

This does not have to be in a church or even as a church, this can simply be 2 or 3 (or more) Christians gathering around someones house, or in barn, or a beach or; you get the idea. It’s not about membership, church isn’t a golf club, it’s about being together as followers of Christ. The context of the above verse is dealing with sin, but do you really think Jesus won’t be there because we talking about something else? People often say that church is about community. I absolutely agree, but you don’t have to go to a church to find community a Christians. The person who posted the original tweet went on to say “People get saved into community“. The perception of what church is between then and now is radically different in some ways, but the concept of it being a community is still there.

Coming back to Ephesians 3:10, who are these “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” Paul speaks of? He didn’t seem confused between heaven and earth as his letters showed. One commentator views it as follows:

This was one things, among others, which God had in his eye in revealing this mystery, that the good angels, who have a pre-eminence in governing the kingdoms and principalities of the world, and who are endued with great power to execute the will of God on this earth (though their ordinary residence is in heaven) may be informed, from what passes in the church and is done in and by it, of the manifold wisdom of God; that is, of the great variety with which God wisely dispenses things, or of his wisdom manifested in the many ways and methods he takes in ordering his church in the several ages of it, and especially in receiving the Gentiles into it. The holy angels, who look into the mystery of our redemption by Christ, could not but take notice of this branch of that mystery, that among the Gentiles is preached the unsearchable riches of Christ. And this is according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord,

I’m not going to pretend I fully understand all of that, but it sounds very grand and very powerful; far more than merely needing be connected to a church to play a part. It does seem God is being put into a box where he can only use the church, and completely disregards anyone who is currently having problems with church. Many of these issues are very legitimate. and many have walked away so that the true message of Jesus can be found and preached. Statements like the one made at the outset of this simply give the impression that God has abandoned them, or comes across as power plays and control; not to mention just beating on people already struggling.

If you’re not currently attending a church, God hasn’t abandoned you, neither are you of no use to him. I have found the stories of people in a similar position to me very helpful during this time of searching. The tweet did help me with one thing though, it helped me rediscover what “I follow Christ, not Christians” really means.

Why I love Thomas

Thomas is my favourite character in the Bible and I think he has a very unfair reputation. Given the nickname “doubting Thomas”, he is held as an example of someone who lacked faith and that we shouldn’t be like him in needing evidence to have faith. I think Thomas is precisely who we need to be like.

The main story that got Thomas his reputation is documented in Johns gospel (John 20:19-31) but I don’t see why Thomas is singled out or showed a lack of faith:

– All the disciples needed to see Jesus and his wounds before believing he had been raised from the dead (John 20:19-20)
– Thomas only doubted what the other disciples told him (John 2o:24-25)
– Jesus allowed Thomas to face his doubts and gave him the evidence he needed (John 20:26-27)
– Thomas was able to come to a place where he could make a declaration of faith because of what Jesus did (John 20:28)

There is a reference in Mark that Jesus chided them for their lack of faith (Mark 16:14) but this passage does not appear in earlier manuscripts or earlier witnesses. So what did Jesus mean by “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”? It’s often taken to mean that we are to just believe by faith alone with no evidence. No one believed Jesus had raised from the dead until they saw him, which seems a very obvious and natural statement to make but seems to get overlooked. The disciples and Thomas saw Jesus after he was raised and did believe. Not every Christian has actually met Jesus yet we believe. Yes, Thomas doubted the other disciples but when he got the evidence he acknowledged who Christ was. On the flip side though, in John 14:8, Philip asked for more evidence about who Jesus was.  Jesus answered that he should have had enough evidence since he saw him (John 14:9). Jesus also made comments about the miracles he’d done but people still did not believe. He gave them the evidence, they saw what he did and still did not believe.

Jesus responding to 2 apparently identical statements very differently is not unique to this story. In John 13:37, Peter says he will lay down his life for Jesus yet is rebuked for it with Jesus saying Peter will disown him before the rooster crows 3 times. When Thomas states that the disciples should go with Jesus so they may die with him (John 11:16), Jesus doesn’t rebuke him. Admittedly it’s not documented in the account what Jesus’ response was, the account picks up with them on their way to Lazarus’s tomb but it shows Thomas has no doubts regarding Jesus, he was willing die with him. I’m sure this is a trait of Thomas we should be looking to be like, but what Thomas does here often gets overlooked. He is doing exactly what we all should be. Either side of the incident with Peter, were 2 further questions from the disciples to Jesus; 1 from Simon Peter and the other from Thomas again. Neither were met with the admonishment that was dished out to Peter (John 13:36 and John 14:5-6) Jesus answered their questions in his usual way; not a straight answer and one that seemed to go over the disciples heads.

A clue as to why Jesus treated these very differently may lie in 2 stories in Luke;  The priest Zechariah (some translations have Zacharias) and Mary. Both are visited by Gabriel, both are told they will have a son and both ask how it is possible. The responses they get are very different. Zechariah/Zacharias is struck dumb by Gabriel (Luke 1:5-25), Mary gets an answer from Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38). Zechariah/Zacharias was a priest, he believed in God and Luke says he was righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. Yet he still didn’t believe when he was told he would have a son. He wanted more evidence like Philip did. Mary wasn’t any of that and she started with no evidence so Gabriel laid it out for her. How the questions were dealt with depended on our starting point. It does seem that at some point, God goes “you’ve had enough evidence” and no evidence will ever be enough for some people.

None of this equates to Jesus wanting us to believe without evidence. John 20:30-31 essentially tells us that he wrote his gospel so that we have evidence so that we can believe. Luke opens his gospel with a similar thing. We all need something; some just need the Bible, others need more but we all need something. Without evidence, you cannot say that the Koran is wrong or that atheism is wrong. Without evidence, you can’t even determine that anything is wrong. We don’t need to go to the opposite extreme of needing absolute certainty for everything.  As for Thomas himself, was killed in India whilst spreading the gospel, but little else is known about him. Apart from the list of disciples he is only mentioned in Johns gospel. He asked for clarification when unsure, evidence when confronted with an extraordinary claim, but had no problems with being willing to die with and for Jesus as and when it became necessary. He balanced his doubts with his commitment to follow Christ, which is something many Christians struggle with, but the Thomas story shows that Jesus will allow us to confront and overcome those doubts with evidence and our faith can be stronger for it.

Lets all be a bit like Thomas.