I’m just going to put it on the table: Thomas has been given a bad rap.
Who is Thomas, you ask?
Perhaps this will help: Doubting Thomas. You know who I am talking about now, don’t you?
We all are familiar with the reason why Thomas is known as the Doubter found in John 20:24-29 which is also one of the study passages in the upcoming session, “Jesus Appeared to the Disciples.” But how many of us recall that it was Thomas who, when Jesus shared that He wanted to go to Bethany after Lazarus had died, boldly called on his fellow disciples to go so that they could die with Jesus (John 11:16)? How many of us know that reliable tradition records that Thomas later went to India to spread the gospel and was martyred there?
When we think of Thomas, most of us immediately remember the John 20 account without knowing hardly anything else about the man. Because of this, many of us have formed an opinion of Thomas based on just that one account. That hardly seems fair. Furthermore, a case can be made that Thomas shouldn’t be singled out for being the doubtful one based on John 20 because all of the disciples were slow to believe the Resurrection. It is unfair to say that Thomas doubted any more, or any less, than the other disciples. Disbelieving the Resurrection was a common response for most, if not all, of the disciples.
Mark records the disciples’ doubt twice within three verses:
Yet, when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe it. Then after this, He appeared in a different form to two of them walking on their way into the country. And they went and reported it to the rest, who did not believe them either. Mark 16:11-13
And then in the very next verse, Mark records that Jesus rebuked the disciples for their unbelief:
Later, He appeared to the Eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table. He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who saw Him after He had been resurrected. Mark 16:14
Luke also records how the disciples thought the women’s report of the empty tomb was “nonsense”:
But these words seemed like nonsense to them, and they did not believe the women. Luke 24:11
And Matthew shares that even at the ascension, some were still doubting Jesus:
When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. Matthew 28:17
Whatever struggle Thomas had in believing that Jesus was raised from the dead was certainly not held in isolation. And here is where we add our names to the mix. Can any of us say that we have never struggled in our faith?
With God’s promises. God’s power. God’s ways. God’s goodness. God’s will. Or even God’s existence.
With our role in Christ’s kingdom. Our worship. Our love for God and others. Or even our salvation.
Maybe our struggles have come in the form of doubt. Maybe they have come as questions. Or confusion. Or maybe they have come in the form of deep sorrow and pain. While we may struggle in different ways, one thing we all have in common is that we each struggle indeed.
So here are two key questions to ask ourselves in light of our struggles:
- Are we wrong to struggle?
- How do we handle our struggles?
We can begin to formulate answers to these important questions by looking toward Thomas in John 20.
Are we wrong to struggle?
When Jesus first appeared to the disciples in the upper room, (John 20:19-23), Thomas was not with them. It is interesting to note that Jesus showed His hands and side to those gathered that evening. So Thomas only wanted to take that up one notch when he declared that he would not believe without touching His hands and side (John 20:25). It is also interesting to note that the Bible never records that Thomas actually touched Jesus’ wounds.
But here is where we need to pause and consider why Thomas was reluctant to believe the report of the other disciples. And this is where I am going to afford Thomas some grace. Was it that he didn’t want to believe, or could it have been that he wanted to be as sure as possible about something so important? I lean toward the latter.
Notice Thomas’ wonderful confession in John 20:28. “My Lord and my God!” Once Thomas saw Jesus, he quickly believed. To me it seems that Thomas wanted to believe, but he needed help to get him there. Also notice that Jesus didn’t rebuke Thomas sharply for his unbelief. Sure Jesus instructed Thomas to turn from disbelief to belief (v. 27), but then He praised those who would believe without seeing (v. 29). It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Thomas, it is good that you were able to see Me now, but think about all of those who will come to faith without seeing Me after I depart.”
Putting all of this together leads me to believe that it is ok when we struggle in our faith.
When the father of a demon possessed boy came to Jesus seeking help, Jesus told him that anything is possible for the one who believes. The man responded that he believed, but then immediately asked Jesus to help his unbelief (Mark 9:24).
And then Jesus lectured the man for not having complete faith.
No He didn’t! Jesus cast the demon out of the boy. He accepted the man’s raw faith that wasn’t quite all the way there. This is a great example of how God understands our weaknesses and knows that we will struggle with our faith. This was a man who really wanted to believe fully, but he was struggling to get there. He wanted his faith to be strong, but needed help to get there. Kind of like Thomas. Their limited faith gave Jesus enough to work with.
Here’s what we need to understand though: there is a fine line between questioning God and questioning God. Or put another way, we can always take sincere questions to God as His child, but we should never question God as His judge. The first is done to understand. The second is done to convict.
We can ask God why our loved one is dying of cancer as we try to understand God’s ways and find comfort for our pain. There is nothing wrong with that.
Or we can question God’s wisdom and goodness in our loved one having cancer. This is where we have crossed the line. Our attitude behind the question is what really matters. Do we question God to understand Him or do we question God to condemn Him?
How do we handle our struggles?
We have three basic choices when it comes to handling our struggles.
First, we can deny and hide our struggles. From ourselves. From others. Even from God. Sometimes we are tempted to do this because struggling with our faith makes us feel ashamed or unspiritual. Or at other times we might simply not want to admit that we don’t have our arms around our faith as much as we might want. Sometimes it is hard to come face to face with the truth that we aren’t as “far along” as we would like to think we are. This isn’t the way we should handle our struggles, of course. God has given us the gospel community – the local church – for times like this. We need to fight to be genuine and transparent with others so that we can be encouraged and supported and so that we too can do the same for others. Denying and hiding our struggles results in a plastic church body. We look great on the outside, but inside we are a wreck. Jesus had something to say to the religious leaders along these lines, didn’t He?
Second, we can move to the other end of the spectrum and get so bogged down by our questions and struggles that we allow our faith to be stymied or derailed. Our struggles become barriers and they prevent us from growing. Focusing on our struggles and forgetting grace and God’s work in us denies the power and beauty of the gospel. The gospel doesn’t ignore our weaknesses and struggles. Quite the opposite: the gospel showers glory onto God by showing how He loves us and uses us in light of those weaknesses and struggles. This is what Paul meant when he said that when he is weak, he is strong in 2 Corinthians 12:10. Our weaknesses amplify God’s strength in us. When we allow our struggles to stop our growth, we essentially tell God that He is not great enough – not powerful enough – not loving enough – to break through them. Our struggles become omnipotent and God becomes impotent.
Third, we can work through our struggles. We can face them and allow God to work in us. This is part of what it means when we are told to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:13). Work is hard. It takes effort and there is usually resistance. Our faith is not easy. God knows this. And He is not threatened by our questions, concerns, and even our doubts.
Encourage your kids that it is ok for them to have questions, struggles, and doubts. Help them understand the right way to question God and the wrong way. Pray for them that they wrestle with their faith and avoid either extreme of having blind faith or having a dead faith because of their questions.
Here is more help for leaders preparing for the May 3, 2015 session (Unit 33, Session 2) of The Gospel Project for Kids.
Brian Dembowczyk is the team leader for The Gospel Project for Kids. He served in local church ministry for over 16 years before coming to LifeWay in 2014. Brian earned an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Brian and his wife, Tara, and their three children – Joshua, Hannah, and Caleb – live in Murfreesboro, TN, where Brian enjoys drinking coffee and teaching 1-3 graders at City Church.