Belief in a time of uncertainty

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find it hard to know who and what to believe in the news today. There are so many different opinions and viewpoints and just when you think you know the truth about something, another news item comes along and completely goes against what you thought was the truth. On Sunday, the Times ran an article on the apparent failings of the Prime Minister (not attending Cobra Meetings, PPE equipment being sent to China in February etc) and his cabinet in dealing with the early warning signs of the Covid-19 virus. Today, I read that the government has written an unprecedented report that challenges each of the accusations in the news article. Alongside this, President Trump has now immortalised the phrase “Fake News”. Go on Twitter or Facebook and you will see more opinions for and against a current issue in the news. Who is right? Who is wrong? As someone once said: “There are three sides to every story and the third side is the truth!” So who to believe??

And that is it, isn’t it? It often comes down to belief. Who do I trust? Who do I believe? Whose side am I going to take, despite the opinions and insults that will fly at the position I take? And believing does not always mean that we have proof of what we believe. In fact, it can feel like the exact opposite.

That is why I love yesterday’s Gospel reading. It features Thomas, one of the disciples, refusing to believe the other disciples telling him that Jesus has risen from the dead. Why? They couldn’t prove it. All they could do was tell him that they had seen Jesus. But Thomas wants more. He tells them that unless he can see where the nails made their marks, unless he can put his hand into Jesus’ side where the solider’s spear went into his body (I always get queasy at this bit!), he will not believe.

Now let’s stop a moment. This is real doubt – even hard-hearted doubt. He has been friends with these people for years as they followed Jesus all over the countryside but he thinks they are lying to him! And there are more than just the 10 disciples in the room – there are other followers present, more than likely including Jesus’ mother. And still Thomas thinks they could possibly be hallucinating or making it up! Of course, they want Jesus to be alive again he is probably thinking. Now this is real stubborn doubt.

But maybe it is not just doubt. A lot of emotions and experiences often lie behind doubt. There is no doubt that Thomas must have been disappointed, maybe even bitter, possibly even angry, that the man for whom he had left his home and family, to whom he had committed himself for years, whose actions all pointed towards him being the Messiah, the one who would liberate them from the oppression of the Romans; this man had not been what he said he was. The proof? Thomas had his proof – Jesus’ embarrassing death on a Roman cross. A complete failure. It must have been gut-wrenching, an embarrassment and bitterly disapointing.

And as you may know, when we are bitterly disappointed and all our hope is hanging by a thread, what can really grate on us is when people give us pious and rose-smelling platitudes. So the others tell him the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. He must have risen from the dead!! I can just imagine the sarcastic responses of Thomas: “Yeah, yeah. He has risen alright” or “Someone must have stolen the body.” Then others tell them that Jesus walked with them on the road to Emmaus and ate bread with them; “Yeah, yeah…it probably looked like him and lots of people break bread before they eat!”

What possibly happened for Thomas was that his bitterness, disappointment and anger clouded everything for him. He could not have hope. He couldn’t believe any more. No, not “could not” – he would not believe. There was simply no proof.

But then Jesus came and stood among them in the room. He spoke to Thomas and the Twelve, not with words like “I told you so!” or “How could you not believe in me?” but with the words “Peace be with you”. Then he gave Thomas the proof he needed, which brought Thomas to his knees saying “My Lord and my God”. Then Jesus says something that has given the rest of us hope long after these events: “You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Let me be completely honest with you. There is no proof of God’s existence. Yes, as believers we can point to so many things – the order of the cosmos; the intricate nature of DNA that points to a creator; answered prayers; incredible healings at Lourdes – that in themselves point towards God’s existence. But these are not, per se, proofs. The only thing we have is faith.

And you know what? When I discovered that I could never prove God’s existence to others, it was the biggest weight of my shoulders!! It had felt like a burden; I had been seeing myself as God’s PR man! No longer did I need to take responsibility for making people believe – even that sentence doesn’t make sense; we can’t make people believe.

Maybe you, reading this blog, are someone who struggles with doubt. Like Thomas, there may be experiences from your past that might impact on your faith in God today. Perhaps, like Thomas, you too feel disappointment, anger, bitterness towards God for something that has happened. You may have prayed earnestly for something so close to your heart but it didn’t happen. Your head may also be dizzy from the array of opinions and “proofs” of others that make you doubt whether God exists. Even now, there is no doubt that this pandemic we are experiencing may cause you to ask questions of God – Why? Why are you allowing this happen? Why is my loved one so sick? Why create a world in which such things can happen?

I have no answer for you – any answer would be trite and contrived. And if anyone tells you they do, don’t listen to them. But all I can say is that what we are left with is faith – believing and trusting in God despite and in spite of our experiences and emotions telling us the contrary. It is believing that despite great suffering, there is a loving God who deeply cares for us. It is trusting that God is greater than I am and will ever be, that my knowledge and intelligence are simply minuscule compared to God’s and that God is more qualified than I could ever be to deal with this world. And it is holding onto those amazing moments in which I have experienced something of God in my life and allowing them to give me life when I need it most. It will seem like foolishness to some and unreasonable to many – but this is often the nature of faith. And many people, in the face of unimaginable suffering, have chosen to still believe.

On a practical level, whenever a student or another person tells me about their doubts and lack of faith, I often ask them a simple question: “Have you told God?” Nine times out of ten, the response is in the negative. I then tell them to make some quiet time, sit down in comfortable place and let God have it. Be honest. Say the words that you think you are not supposed to say, express every emotion that you have falsely believed that you shouldn’t express and just say what you mean. Even if you can only say again and again “I can’t believe in you.” It is enough. God is big enough for this. And I will pray that you will get the response that Thomas got – a response that will not condemn you or make you feel guilty. If you feel that, then it is not from God. God, despite popular opinion and certain poor religious interpretations, is not in the business of guilt.

Instead, I will pray that you too will hear or experience the sentiment expressed in these words to his friends: “Peace be with you” – peace in your tired mind, peace in the turmoil of your questions, peace in storm of your life, peace in the core of your being.

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