There are situations that come in chaplaincy that have no answers. They just. Don’t. In my readings in theodicy (the study of evil and suffering) there are complicated schemas, but no answers. Not really.
In fact, the more I read about someone who has “all the answers,” the more I wonder. I wonder if they have struggled or wrestled in a life-defining, painful way with the issues they explain in so many easy steps. Or perhaps their strategy is an attempt to deal with a personal anxiety; they create a structure of “becauses” to answer their personal “whys.” There is no way of knowing, of course. But I have my suspicions.
Leibniz first coined the word “theodicy” in an attempt to explain why God could exist in the midst of pain, suffering and seeming imperfections in the world. Or, more accurately, in his book Théodicée, he explored the questions of “the goodness of God, the freedom of man and the origin of evil.” He created a word that is a mash of the Greek words for “God” and “justice.”
I try to read the various books on theodicy. Including Leibniz. The mind boggles. And my brain hurts. A lot. So let me take this into my real, imperfect life as a chaplain…
As I talk with patients and families, as I listen to staff members, I hear doubts and disbelief. I note the consistent questions that stem from a lack of confidence that God even hears our prayers, let alone if God even exists. And I try to affirm that it is OK to be confused, to NOT have answers, to struggle with doubts.
Sometimes this feels duplicitous. For in my own heart of hearts, I hate it when that happens. I rail against being left in the dark. And I beseech heaven for answers.
It is in this place of uncertainty and insecurity that we find our friend Thomas, the disciple of Jesus. His story is part of the lectionary this week.
John 20: 19-31 (Common English Bible)
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
You know, I can relate to Thomas. After the arrest, betrayal and burial of Jesus, he and the others were left to wonder. In paranoia and distress, they went into hiding because of fears for their own lives. His rabbi, his leader, his teacher… killed. The teachings he had been absorbing seemed twisted. Though he had gone out in the name of Jesus and participated in healings, and seen Lazarus raised from the dead, he just didn’t know what to think. He heard Jesus preach first-hand. And yet, when the other disciples told him – “We have seen the Lord! He is alive!” Our friend Thomas needed more than the word of others.
In a way, this comforts me.
When I have been let down, disappointed, discouraged and confused by my life’s events, it’s pretty hard to be believe that God will do what God promises. It seems too fantastical, too impossible. It’s kind of like everyone else in the universe won free tickets to Disney World, and I won tickets to South of the Border. During a hurricane. With a flea infestation.
So I really get Thomas. Afraid. Anxious. Confused and let down. Everything he understood, or thought he understood, was apparently wrong. And the words of Christ he did remember seemed too fantastical. “In three days I will rise again…”
Maybe you have been in this place of doubt as well. It doesn’t feel safe. It feels vulnerable and scary and out of your control. And people tell you to “just have faith and hang on…” and you’re wondering why you have to hang on for so long! You don’t want to be told how to feel or believe… You just want answers! You want it to be over.
I think it is human nature at work… when we have faith, we believe God will come through for us… We want to be proved right in our trust in God.
It does not feel safe. At all! It is life, completely taken out of our hands.
Or as the group Nickle Creek sings:
What will be left when I’ve drawn my last breath
Besides the folks I’ve met and the folks who’ve known me
Will I discover a soul-saving love
Or just the dirt above and below me
I’m a doubting Thomas
I took a promise
But I do not feel safe
Oh me of little faith
Sometimes I pray for a slap in the face
Then I beg to be spared cause I’m a coward
If there’s a master of death
I bet he’s holding his breath
As I show the blind and tell the deaf about his power
I’m a doubting Thomas
I can’t keep my promises
Cause I don’t know what’s safe
Oh me of little faith
Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I’m not ready to die
Please give me time to decipher the signs
Please forgive me for time that I’ve wasted
I’m a doubting Thomas
I’ll take your promise
Though I know nothin’s safe
Oh me of little faith.
“Doubting Thomas” by Nickle Creek
If you read these words and you are in that unsafe place, there’s two things I want you to know. Not two dogmatic “here’s your answer” things. But two very tenuous, honest things from the places of love and life that I have learned in my stumbling-along walk with God.
First – and this is important – you are created and loved by God exactly as you are. We really don’t need to qualify that. It is the basis of life, the universe and everything. Whether you believe you are part of a 6 day creation story or a cosmic Ka-POW that resulted in the development of the human race, you can not be any more loved by God than you are. Right now.
Second – every person that I have learned from, loved, respected and studied has had struggles with doubts. About God. About life. About whether 2+2 must always equal 4. (They tell me it doesn’t have to equal 4. And again, my brain hurts.) So as we wonder, worry and doubt, recognize that you are in a huge company of humanity that has been asking questions and looking to God for answers. And that sometimes, the answers we discern from the perspective of our finite minds and hearts are simply… inadequate. So we doubt.
Living in the love of God, struggling in the honest, real way that life comes at us is OK. It’s not the not knowing that is so hard, really. It’s the waiting around time!
Doubts keep us honest as well. We can’t be complacent and at ease in our faith if we don’t occasionally entertain a few sincere questions and doubts. Or as Frederick Buechner wrote:
“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Here’s to a growing faith, one that entertains many “ants” in your life’s picnic. 🙂