Doubting Thomas. We don’t talk very much about him in church, do we? There’s no church named after him - no Doubting Thomas congregation. It would be a weird name, wouldn’t it? Lutheran Church of the Doubters? Poor Thomas the Twin doesn’t get another mention in the Bible after this one story about him, and we only hear about him every three years, since the Gospel of John is the only one that has this particular story. So we don’t get to talk about Thomas and his doubt - or his very weak faith - very often.
Which is probably fine with us. We don’t like to talk much in church about when our faith isn’t as strong as we think it should be. We don’t bring up Thomas very often as a role model for Christians, and very few people would call him their favourite disciple. We don’t like to talk about when our faith is dying - or even dead. We don’t like to talk about our doubts, we don’t like to admit that sometimes, we’re just going through the motions and deep down, we’re not sure what - if anything - we believe. Talking about a weak faith seems to be the last taboo in the church.
And yet, listen to this quote, written by a Christian to her priest, a Christian known around the world for her acts of charity: “Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul ... How painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, ... What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”
These are the words of Mother Teresa. Everybody knows about her self-sacrifice in the slums of Calcutta, and her years of caring for all those abandoned by the world, in the name of Christ. But what is less well-known is that Mother Teresa spent decades - somewhere in the range of fifty years - struggling with her faith. No matter how much she prayed, no matter how many good deeds she did, she did not feel the presence of God in her life. Isn’t that astounding? This woman, whom we might call the greatest Christian of the twentieth century, felt “emptiness and darkness” when she turned her thoughts towards God. When she thought of heaven, and tried to believe, she felt so dead inside that the emptiness stabbed at her. “No faith, no love, no zeal.”
For those who have never felt like Mother Teresa, or for those who have felt like her but are afraid of what it might mean, her words can be deeply upsetting. In fact, the Catholic church was reluctant to allow her letters to be published, because they were afraid of what this would do to Christians.
But for Christians who have struggled with a lack of faith, for Christians who find themselves drawn to Doubting Thomas, for Christians who have also felt days, if not years or even decades, of mind-numbing doubt, her words come as a relief. The reality is that not all Christians are burning with faith, not even those Christians who have dedicated their entire lives to Christ, who go to church every Sunday, who were baptized, confirmed, married, and will be buried in the church. Some Christians go to church and still feel empty, even though they sing the hymns, say the prayers, go up to Communion, and even serve the sick and volunteer for everything. They don’t feel that spark of faith, and they go to church hiding that. If you asked them if they believed, they would probably say yes, and would mean it, in a way, but still not feel it deep inside the way they’ve heard other Christians do. They don’t have the strength of Thomas to admit, “Until I see, I will not believe.” They just sit in their pews, feeling alone and hypocritical, hard on themselves, frustrated, depressed, and ashamed.
So to hear that even Mother Teresa felt like this for years and years is something of a relief. And it should be. You see, somewhere along the way we all fall into the trap of thinking that our faith is something that we are in charge of. That a strong or a weak faith is something that we can do something about. We all fall into the trap of thinking that if our faith is weak, we should be able to do something to strengthen it - pray more, read the Bible more, go to church more, help others more. We think that if we only try harder, we would get there. We would be like Peter, who walked on water to get to Jesus, instead of poor, doubting Thomas.
But do not think this way. Do not fall into this trap of guilt and shame. This is not how faith works. For those of us who feel this way, and I suspect many of us have at one point in our life or another, if we aren’t feeling bad about our faith at this very moment, and for all Christians, really, there is one absolutely critical sentence in our Scriptures that we need to write out and tape to our fridge. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – and not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” [Ephesians 2:8-9] It’s so important I’m going to say it again: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – and not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” By the grace of God - because of God’s own mercy and lovingkindness towards you - you have been saved. You are already saved. Not you “will” be saved, or you “are being” saved, but you “have” been saved. Past tense. You have been saved through faith, which comes as a a gift from God. Your faith comes from God - it is not your own doing, it is not your own work, it is not something that you can work at to make stronger, or neglect to make weaker.
Your faith comes from God.
If it is a strong faith, thank God for blessing you with that. If it is a weak faith, trust that God has good reasons for not giving you a stronger faith. But always remember that your faith - weak or strong - comes from God. It is not your doing.
This understanding that faith is a gift of God was central for Martin Luther. He had his own struggles with faith and doubt, and in the Small Catechism, his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” he wrote: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him --
by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him
-- but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.” Our faith in Christ does not come through our own doing, but through the Holy Spirit. If our faith is weak, it’s not because we aren’t doing enough. It’s because the Holy Spirit is up to something. Luther was so adamant about this that he repeats it in the Large Catechism: “Neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe in him and take him as our Lord, unless these were first offered to us and bestowed on our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel by the Holy Spirit.” Faith comes from God.
This is so important! I wish that we said this more often in the liturgy. I wish that we made confirmands memorize this as their confirmation verse. Our faith does not come from us. It is a gift from God. A strong faith is a gift from God. A weak faith is a gift from God! This is what we never talk about! That a weak faith is as equally a gift from God as a strong faith!
So what does that mean for us? It means, in a weird, paradoxical kind of way, that when we are having doubts about our faith, we should stop having doubts about our faith. It means that when we are struggling to believe, we should just ... let those struggles happen. Don’t judge yourself, don’t get down on yourself, don’t think of yourself as a bad Christian. It is not your doing. Your faith comes from God.
Don’t stop going to church. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop coming to Communion. Don’t give up acting like a Christian even if you don’t feel like a Christian. Doubting Thomas didn’t stay away from the disciples just because he didn’t believe that Jesus had actually risen. Mother Teresa didn’t stop serving the poor just because she no longer felt the presence of God. Come to church, even if you feel you don’t belong anymore. Say the words, even if you don’t mean them right now. The fact that you are sitting here right now is a sign that God is working in you. God has, after all, brought you here, strong faith or weak faith.
There are many more Christians, whom we lift up as saints and models of godly living, who struggled with their faith, and secretly questioned and doubted whether God was really there. Yet God worked through them. There are so many more doubting Thomases in the church than we tend to admit. But God has given to each of us the faith that we have, “so that no one may boast,” and so that, in all things, we rely on the grace of God and not on our own doing. Thanks be to God. Amen.