I have always been a skeptical person. Doubt, in any arena, is not foreign to me. I was that kid—the one always asking “why?” As a fellow youth worker, I’m sure you’re able to conjure up the image of that one student who is constantly asking skeptical questions. We all have that student who can quickly turn the poetic beauty of Genesis 1 into an old earth/young earth debate!
As a fellow doubter, let me share some good news. The gospel shows us that even in the midst of their worst doubt, Jesus is able to draw closer to our students than we could possibly imagine. Jesus does this very thing with his doubting disciple Thomas in John 20.
Entering the story, we find that Jesus had risen from the dead. He had vacated his tomb and appeared first to Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John, then to the other disciples, and finally to Thomas. While I’m sure everyone had their questions (it’s not everyday that someone rises from the dead), Thomas had more than questions. He just flat out didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him they’d seen the Lord. The only way Thomas would be convinced is if he saw the nail marks in Jesus’s hands and could put his finger where the nails were, and put his hand into his side (John 20:25). Thomas had to see to believe.
The first encouragement we can offer our doubting students is this: Thomas was personally taught by Jesus for several years, and even he struggled with doubt. We are not alone when we long for evidence for our faith. Still, the words Jesus spoke to Thomas can cause us and our students to experience some anxiety: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). As a natural-born doubter myself, it’s that ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ part that always made me feel like I was missing something ‘good Christians’ possessed. I would ask myself (and still do to this day in my worst moments) ‘does God love me or bless me less because I’m so skeptical?’
Thankfully, this story offers us a second encouragement. God graciously showed me this truth several years ago when I committed to regularly give my doubt over to Him. There was one day in particular when I was deeply struggling. In that moment I returned to this familiar story of Jesus and Thomas. I expected the story to help me reject Thomas’ doubt and be encouraged by Jesus’ words. Instead, I was stunned by Jesus’ first interaction with Thomas, which I had never before noticed.
When Thomas presented his doubt to Jesus in the presence of the other disciples, the first thing Jesus did was come closer to Thomas. He didn’t rebuke, shun, or shame him. He actually gave Thomas exactly what he asked for! “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27).
Prior to internalizing this truth from God’s Word, I had convinced myself that if I worked hard enough, I could rid myself of doubt and earn God’s blessing. In reality, Jesus shows us that even in our moments of doubt, he draws near to us in a way that we don’t deserve. Jesus didn’t push Thomas’ doubt away. In fact, one could argue that Thomas’ doubt afforded him the opportunity to get closer to Jesus than any other human in history (he put his fingers in his side!).
Jesus responded to Thomas’ doubt in such a way that his faith and trust grew. Jesus’ gracious response to Thomas compelled him to proclaim “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Doubt can actually lead us to greater trust, not because of anything we could offer, but only because of how Jesus graciously meets us even in our moments of doubt.
When we see Jesus’ grace in his interaction with Thomas, his command to “stop doubting and believe” (v. 27) sounds a lot less like a rebuke and instead becomes a gracious invitation to come closer to Jesus. It is reminiscent of a father who assures his fearful child that she can jump into his arms. That child might doubt her dad’s strength or ability to catch her, but the father knows what he’s capable of. He graciously invites the child to put her whole trust in him, knowing all along that the jump will increase the child’s faith in her father once she is embraced and safe.
We’re dealing with unprecedented times as youth workers during our current global health crisis. Now more than ever, doubt might be a primary mood your students are experiencing on a daily basis. Students may be asking, with skeptical hearts, “Why would a good and powerful God allow the world to descend into such chaos?” Please don’t feel the need to absolve them from their doubt or provide them with answers that only Jesus can offer.
Instead, invite your students to lean into their doubt, directing it purposefully toward Jesus. Our God who has defeated death can surely handle our inability to see him clearly in moments of struggle. Acknowledge to doubting students that doubt can be tiring and wearisome. And perhaps with a small grin on your face, equally assure them that Jesus’ invitation is not to come to him with answers, but to come while we are tired and weary so that we might learn from him.
We pray that like Thomas, their doubt will lead them closer to Jesus than ever before.