On the Value of Doubt

Gospel Reading for this Sermon:

26 Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Sermon from April 15, 2018

This week, Thomas’s week, forces us to talk about doubt — not faithlessness, but doubt — and the fact that it may sometimes be useful. Faithlessness can never be useful, but doubt can stem from a good heart. Doubt may be justified and beneficial. For example, the Apostles doubted even themselves — they did not depend on themselves. Today, we frequently hear a certain modern creed: ‘believe in yourself! Believe in your strength! You will succeed! You are capable!’ These words often create a sense of discomfort in us, for we have a special appreciation for the limits of mankind. And so, the Apostles did not ‘believe in themselves’, but instead they understood that every person has a dark and traitorous potential, like the great depths of an ocean.

In an ocean, the top layers contain all the accepted, edible, and even pleasant-looking fish we all know. But the real depths, untouched by sunlight, are chock-full of unknown creatures. Fishermen occasionally pull something out of these depths — fish so monstrous that they scare the life out of the sailors. The human heart is the same way — at its surface there are some things that are discernible and easy to understand, but deeper down nothing is apparent. That is why, when Jesus was eating the Last Supper with the Apostles he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me’ and they began to ask, ‘Is it I, Lord?’ This shows us that they doubted even themselves. Only Peter makes the mistake of completely believing in himself and says, ‘ Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.’ This was just his surplus of emotion — just as a young man who is enamored by the young lady he is courting. He will promise her to bring a star down from the heavens, to drink a whole sea, to run across the whole globe, to do anything for her. But where do these promises end up? This hot-headed confidence and impatience is not left unpunished. This is why Christ says, ‘Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’

And so doubt. What can you doubt? You can doubt yourself. In fact, it is essential for every person to doubt himself — ‘Am I capable enough? Will God help me in my endeavor? Or will he leave me? Or maybe I will have a great deal of success, but God might nevertheless leave me and I will deflate like a balloon.’ We know many outstanding warriors and generals who experienced countless victories, but suddenly lost in a small battle to a minor opponent. Even the great Napoleon — few generals were as great as he — but even he lost once, lost twice, lost three times, was tied up and shipped off to a tiny island.

The same can happen with any person. Thomas doubts what he is told by the other Apostles, ‘I have not seen’. As the saying goes, ‘It is better to see once than to hear seven times.’ This is because no single event is ever describe identically by different people. For example, if we had all seen a car accident, God forbid, or a wedding procession, or, even simpler, a movie. When we begin to discuss what we saw, it turns out that you have noticed certain hidden details that I could not have. You might say, ‘Remember when he said this word — this word has a hidden meaning.’ But I had no idea that this was the case. And I might say, ‘Remember when he made this gesture with his hand — this gesture has a hidden meaning.’ But you had no idea about this gesture. If you have experienced this situation then you will remember that people, describing an event, will always remember different details. Certain details they are capable of discerning, others not so much.

Let’s take men and women as an example. A woman will notice what everyone is wearing, how everyone is feeling. A man will likely have no idea what anyone was wearing and that detail will not be a part of his narrative of the event. When the Apostles told Thomas what they had seen, he could not believe them — for he had seen the crucified Jesus. This had been such a horrific scene, that to imagine that tortured body filled with life once again would require a great deal of imagination and mental power for any human. This is why he says, ‘ Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

Let us not reproach him too much for his doubt, as this doubt is worthy of further investigation. Let’s take a few examples. Can we believe all modern advertising? Of course not. Can we believe every single preacher? Of course not. How many religions are there? And even within each religion, how many diverse opinions and interpretations are there? If we believe every single one of them, we’ll come up with a very dangerous and strange result. We do not take all claims provided to us by society seriously, and this is justified. Some doctors have their schedules filled to the brim with patients, while others are avoided. Some universities have 200 applicants for each seat, while others can barely fill their classes. Why is this case? Because there are matters of reputation, among other things, which factor into our decisions. We trust some, and we doubt others.

Doubt is an inescapable companion of ours in this life — and there is nothing wrong with this. A person has the right to doubt — and well-intentioned doubt will simply be removed. God will simply destroy it, wash it away, and replace it with faith. But there is a stubborn, vindictive doubt — when a man sees and understands, yet continues to doubt. This is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that Christ mentions in the gospel of Matthew: ‘ Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.’ A mulish resistance to truth — this is no longer healthy doubt.

But if a person has healthy skepticism, let us not accuse him. For example, you might say, ‘Christ is risen!’ and he might reply, ‘I do not believe you.’ ‘It’s not necessarily that I don’t believe Christ has risen. It’s that I don’t believe YOU that Christ has risen.’ As Gregory Palamas would say: you may be lustful and adulterous and tell someone that a Christian life requires us to know only one wife or be completely celibate, that this is our commandment because we know Christ was pure, that he was born from a Virgin, that Christians cherish a pure life. But if the person you are speaking to knows your lust and adultery, he will say, ‘I do not believe you. It may be that the Christian faith is beautiful, but from your lips, it does not sound plausible. I have no trust in your words.’ A person seriously suffering from the affliction of lust cannot effectively preach the purity of Christianity, the purity of Mary, and the purity of Christ himself. He cannot preach that the Church is pure as well, that it is built on a foundation of purity.

We might all be sinners, though we are Christians, but the Church is an unadulterated sanctuary. And in order for people to believe us when we profess this truth, we must ourselves be in communion with this purity. The same Palamas says: you might profess that Christ is risen, and there is no longer any reason to fear death, but I do not believe you. I saw how you were often very afraid of death and chose to avoid danger. So, in order to properly profess that Christ is risen, we must truly be unafraid of death. This is precisely how every Apostle proved their faith in Christ’s resurrection — not with miracles, but by fearlessly losing their lives. They evangelized, they showed signs to the masses, but the final sign was their own death. If you believe that your teacher is alive, and that you will be with him — for he said, ‘And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also’ — then the greatest demonstration of this faith is your own fearless death. The same goes for everything else. If you speak of charity, prove your own generosity, otherwise no one will believe you. Therefore, we have the right to distrust some of the words we hear, and have a degree of healthy doubt. Because if our doubt is indeed healthy, then God will softly push it aside and open up the road to healthy faith. As long as our doubt does not turn into a mulish resistance to truth.

Here is another important lesson. If a person discovers his faith slowly, not immediately, not in the snap of a finger, but by overcoming many obstacles — that faith will be more precious. There are many people who accept the faith very quickly. This is mentioned in the parable of the sower. It states that ‘seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away.’

These are the people who quickly accept the word of God, joyously praise it, and begin to believe, but as soon as there is a life difficulty, they let go of their faith. This is because they believed that having found faith, their lives would become unceasingly good and pleasant. But in fact, as we often see, it turns out to be the opposite. You find your faith, but you begin experiencing family problems. You begin to believe, but your business begins to fail. You begin to believe, but your good health leaves you. You begin to believe, but your children become unruly. You begin to believe, but your friends leave you. You begin to believe in God, then demonstrate to him that you love Him. In joy, success, good fortune, who wouldn’t believe? If God bought us so cheaply, with simple worldly success, the whole world would be singing Alleluia from dusk till dawn for an increase in their paycheck. But you must demonstrate that you love God in woe and in tragedy.

This is the problem with ‘lite’ faith. Having light faith is useless. He who doubts for a long time, wanders the world as though he is carefully choosing goods at a bazaar, thinks a great deal, reads a great deal, listens carefully, goes to one place and listens, goes to another and listens, speaks to a variety of people, meditates on his findings — when he comes to the Church, he stays. He who arrives one day and says, ‘I am with you’ out of the blue, he will be gone in a month. So don’t find your faith quickly — discover it slowly, but keep it forever. Measure, think, weigh, but when you finally make your decision, burn your bridges and do not turn back. ‘ No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

And so faith must contain in it some difficulties. Turgenev, in one of his works, wrote, ‘The longer a man wants a certain woman before marriage, the longer he will love her once they are together.’ If a man courts a woman for a day, and gets what he wants — the relationship won’t last more than a day. If he does it for a week, then they may last a few months. But if he waits months for her to return his love, and if he pays dearly for his love, and if his love runs so deeply that even a lack of immediate reward is not a problem, then that relationship will last for a long, long time. This an absolute truth.

Therefore, in many parts of the East, the period between engagement and marriage is often several years long. This is something I find fascinating. We often marry soon after a couple is engaged. But in parts of the East, a man may be engaged to a woman, but for two, three, or more years, he not having the right to sleep with her, she not having the right to enter his house. He works those years to save for the wedding and family home. Thus, he demonstrates his love for her. He achieves a laudable goal through his actions, and once he is crowned during the marriage ceremony, the crown symbolizes a holy victory. You have fallen in love, you have waited, and now may God help you; the Church blesses you with the Holy Spirit.

Here we do not have this level of commitment. We are too spiritually dim for such an impressive feat. This is a great feat — having fallen in love, to demonstrate to a woman your loyalty and commitment to her without even having the right to kiss her. If you love, then you must labor. The many obstacles that stand in the way of a person’s achievement give him the proper attitude toward that which he acquires. This applies to faith, it applies to education as well. There are some talented people who can read something once and quickly memorize it. But there are some, slow-thinkers, who read it once, twice, three times, and still do not understand anything. But if they persist, break their laziness, and grasp a certain beautiful truth, then these boys and girls deserve far greater rewards than their talented counterparts who exert far less effort. Labor must have its value. Labor must be rewarded.

For example, para-athletes. My heart melts when I see them compete. I can barely watch one-legged men and women jump or play hockey, but I understand that their labor is worthy of far greater rewards and recognition than that of athletes in perfect shape. This is no longer an athletic competition, but a victory over oneself. This is a demonstration of great courage, diligence, and endurance.

Therefore, Thomas is also very important to us. He does not believe right away, but when he does believe, it is forever. There are many doubters today, unbelievers too. We want to see the whole world turn to faith in the snap of a finger. This will never happen, although our desire for it persists. People have different temperaments, different spiritual makeups — let them observe, let them search, let them have healthy doubt. If you have friends or relatives who are in this searching period, you may worry for their souls, but you must leave them the freedom to choose. You must tell them that if they want to truly believe on their own, not just because someone dragged them out to church, they must learn, read, and discover a great deal on their own. There is no evil in healthy doubt. God will simply move this roadblock aside and your faith will be even more precious to you. So today we are not scorning Thomas. To a degree, we are even commending him. We ourselves must be careful, and must not be ashamed of our own healthy doubts.