The Other Side of the Coin: Sincere Doubt

Translation is the bane of communication. 

Linguist often find that since language is a cultural phenomenon, it is bound to the needs of the culture it comes from. This lesson was learned by anthropologist Franz Boas as he traveled the icy wastes of Baffin Bay in the 1880s.[1] Boas was there to study the Inuit people of the region, living among them and seeing their lives firsthand. As with any good anthropologist, Boas went so far as to completely immerse himself in the culture. At one point he writes, “I am now truly like an Eskimo…I scarcely eat any European foodstuffs any longer but am living entirely on seal meat.”[2] This immersion included the language as well and Boas learned an interesting lesson about the Inuit people and the close nature of observation. He noted that there were different words for different kinds of snow. There was a word for softly falling snow and another for snow that was good to drive a sled on and on and on. And with further study in these areas, we have found that there are dozens more words for specific qualities and types of snow and ice. In fact, the Sami people of Scandinavia and Russia have over 180 words that relate to snow and ice. “This kind of linguistic exuberance should come as no surprise, experts say, since languages evolve to suit the ideas and needs that are most crucial to the lives of their speakers.”[3]

I think this has happened with a certain word in the English language. The word in question is doubt. The difference is, I think this word doubt has developed a meaning it was never intended to have and now we are having to contend with the loss of meaning for a healthy part of our Christian lives. The word in Greek is pistis, a word that translates as to trust or to rely on. The word doesn’t indicate denial of something so much as choosing to trust or struggling to trust. In the New Testament, this word pistisis used 168 times, usually translated as believe or faith. I think the better translation to use is the word trust. I think using trust gives life to the relational nature of the word. And trust is a relational thing. It cannot be gained, had, or lost outside of a relationship.

In the passage we read today, Thomas is told by Jesus, “No more disbelief. Believe!” Other translations of the bible, particularly the NIV and the King James Version, give us different wording, saying “be not faithless, but believing” or “Stop doubting and believe.” Those translation choices create theological ideas that I don’t believe are a part of the original text. The issue here isn’t doubt versus faith but trust versus mistrust. And I don’t think this mistrust isn’t about Jesus. I think it’s about the disciples. Thomas didn’t mistrust/not believe Jesus; Thomas mistrusted/didn’t believe the other disciples. When Thomas says, “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,” he isn’t saying he doesn’t believe in the resurrection or in God’s ability to do the miraculous. He is saying he doesn’t trust the words of the disciples. He isn’t questioning God; he is questioning man. And notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas for this. He simply tells Thomas to see for himself. “You want to see it’s really me? Put your fingers in holes of my hands. Put your hand in my side. I know you want to see the truth for yourself so see it. It’s right here. Question asked, question answered.”

Yet some people see this doubting as an attempt to avoid belief rather than questioning or trying to establish trust. Doubt is not the equivalent of disbelief or not trusting. Doubt is the mechanism we use to lead us to trust or believe. Doubt is asking an honest question of something seeking an honest answer. It is not the intent to abandon faith. Abandoning faith is choosing not to trust. Doubt is wanting to believe; it is seeking to believe. Doubt is wanting to trust but wanting to understand more about the what, the why and the how of it. Offered from a place of sincerity, doubt has the capacity to lead to greater trust, particularly when that trust is seen in action. 

Doubt is not a bad thing; it is a step in the process of establishing trust. To ask serious questions of serious matters isn’t a lack of trust but a desire to build up trust by experience, knowledge, and understanding. This isn’t unheard of in the bible and Thomas stands on the shoulders of giants when he questions the disciples. Abram and Sarah didn’t believe they could have a child in old age, as did Zacharias the father of John the Baptist. Moses didn’t trust he was good enough to lead the Israelites out of bondage. Gideon didn’t trust he was capable as a leader. In poetic introduction to Habakkuk, the prophet questions God, saying, “Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us. Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me?”[4]

But we have developed a bad connotation with the word doubt because of translation choices made by scholars for various theological reasons. I believe that doubt, or developing trust, is something necessary in relationship whether with God or man. Some might hear this last statement and think, “Of course we can trust God! If we can’t trust God, who can we trust?” But as my father and many other fathers in history said, “Trust is given, where trust is earned.” It is an elemental part of healthy relationships. We trust because we know we can trust. Each of you came in and sat down in the pew or chair you’re sitting in without giving it much thought. Why? Because you have already established the idea that the pew or chair will hold your weight from experience. It held up last week and the week before and every other time you’ve tried to sit in a pew, so you trust the pew.

Trusting God or having faith or having belief is no different. We trust God because we have relationship with God. This is the reason the Hebrew people refer to what God has done for them. They recite the epic stories from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to David and so on. It is a reminder of what God has done, a sampling of the relationship the people have with God and the trust they will have in the future. And every one of the people I just mentioned, and many more, questioned that relationship in one way or another. They questioned and through that questioning they found a stronger relationship with God because the questions led to searching and answers. This process of question-searching-answer deepens and builds up relationships. And if we read Job carefully, we see God not only can handle the questions but will answer.

What are your questions? What is it that you are searching for and want to believe, want to trust in? Do not be afraid to stretch the relationship you have with God. Do not be afraid to wrestle with the questions, the really hard questions or life and existence. I believe God welcomes the conversation as Jesus welcomed it with Thomas. Ask and you will receive.


[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Habakkuk 1:2-3