The Armor of Doubt
The Armor of Doubt
1 Samuel 17:38-40 ; John 20:19-29
David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them.
Armor and sword – you would think this preparation would make David feel more protected. But not if you are not used to them. Not if you had never worn them before. In that case, these would be just big pieces of metal weighing you down.
David has volunteered to go forth to confront Goliath. Goliath is said to be somewhere between 6 and 9 feet tall. Not a minor difference, so let’s agree that Goliath was big and David not so big. It makes for a better story. Goliath was big and would have been used to fighting in armor. He would have been used to fighting with his weapons: a javelin, a spear, and a sword.
David, again, not so big. He was a shepherd, responsible for taking care of the flocks of his family. Not a warrior, but also not entirely unprepared. David protected his flock from dangers, lions and bears to be precise.
Goliath had challenged the Israelites to send out a champion. No one was eager to meet that challenge. David went up to the front lines to bring food to his brothers and ended up responding to the challenge. David had been asking why no one would step forward to face this giant. So David was brought before King Saul, who had heard of the boy’s questions and his questioning of the bravery of Saul’s men. David does not give the king a chance to ask his own questions – David volunteers right away to go out into battle. Saul is skeptical.
David said, ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’ So Saul said to David, ‘Go, and may the Lord be with you!’
Saul agrees to let David fight. David obviously had confidence in his ability to win, which confidence arose from his faith in God. Saul was no longer on good terms with God, but Saul understood that the power of God could deliver him from adversities. Saul did not realize that this was not his deliverance but the deliverance of David, who had secretly been anointed by the prophet Samuel. David was anointed, and therefore chosen, to become the new king.
Saul tries to get things ready. He put his armor on David. This does not work. David decides to go into battle with his shepherd’s staff, a sling, and five smooth stones. David went out to meet Goliath, exchanged a few unpleasantries, and pulled out a stone. With one shot, he hits Goliath in the forehead. The giant fell down dead.
The Philistines saw this and thought better of their champion’s wager. They ran away. It does not seem terribly sporting, but I cannot blame them. Their faith had been shaken. Goliath had been a great warrior, one they never thought could lose. And then he did. He died at the hands of a boy with a rock. Certainty had served them poorly that day, but who could blame them for their confidence.
Our second reading is some ways the reverse. Jesus visits the disciples who are hiding away from the authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
They are of course overjoyed at this event. But Thomas was not there. The others tried to explain what was going on, but Thomas was skeptical. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Jesus comes back a week later. Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Jesus knew what had transpired, the doubts that Thomas harbored. This is similar to the women who visited the empty tomb. No one believed their story. Yet Peter was somewhat persuaded. He went to the tomb – he may not have believed the women on their own, but he was sufficiently curious to go out to see for himself.
Thomas had not gone to the tomb. He was not there when Jesus arrived. Thomas was odd man out on both occasions of unexpected news. And so he was skeptical. He did not believe what he had not seen with his own eyes or felt with his own two hands.
Doubting Thomas. The man who would not believe the amazing tale of what had happened to Jesus, how he had come back from the dead. The story of Thomas is necessary for that reason. Not everyone got to see the empty tomb. Not everyone was, or is, visited personally by Jesus. So belief in that central story of Christianity requires someone to believe without seeing, without knowing firsthand what had happened.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
The word “blessed” here comes from the Greek term “makarios.” The word can mean “blessed,” but it can also be translated as “happy.” In many ways, the idea of being blessed and being happy are synonymous for Biblical purposes. Blessings come from God. Happiness comes from God. But the modern connotations for these two words are not the same. A blessing is a sign of divine favor, or at least good luck. But happiness is a feeling as much as it is a circumstance. Are we still blessed if we are happy or happy if we are blessed?
Think about Thomas. His reaction was natural. In fact, his reaction was the same reaction the other disciples had had when the women came running back from the tomb. The men did not believe the women, not until they saw and spoke with Jesus. Not until they looked upon his wounds. Thomas was not there and so did not believe. Was his doubt unfounded?
Now think about David and Saul. David has every confidence in the world, but he was a young man. Saul had his doubts, but had seen enough unusual things in his own life. We do not know much about the encounter between David and Saul, but I can imagine Saul saying, “Why not? I have seen crazier things happen.” I am not sure that is the sort of considered deliberation I am looking for in a king, but that’s me.
This all got me wondering; wondering about doubt. Doubt is a frequent feature in my life, sadly enough. There are my own doubts about any number of things. And then there are the doubts of others, not an inconsiderable matter with which to contend as a member of the clergy. Only this past weekend we navigated through the most preposterous of these challenges, the mystery of the resurrection. Is it any wonder we are hearing about Doubting Thomas this Sunday? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Or as it might also be translated, happy are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
When I struggle with some aspect of doctrine or belief, I often turned to other sources, writers of some importance, philosophers of great renown. Would it be Socrates or Plato, Kant or Hegel, Nietzsche or Schleiermacher? Technically speaking, Schleiermacher is a theologian and not a philosopher, but I enjoy saying “Schleiermacher” so I added him to the list.
This weekend, I turned to another thinker of deep thoughts. An English philosopher. One by the name of Eeyore. Please bear with me.
Eeyore, as you may know, is a character from the works of A.A. Milne. Milne wrote stories about various characters of some prominence. Owl, Rabbit, Piglet, and of course Winnie-the-Pooh.
Yes, this is ridiculous. The fundamental question of the resurrection thrown at the feet of a sawdust stuffed donkey in the habit of losing his tail. Absurd. But on the bright side, I get to use Eeyore and Schleiermacher in the same sermon, so I am having a pretty good morning.
The characters in Milne’s fiction have been examined for their philosophical import. Winnie-the-Pooh, for example, has been understood as representing the Chinese notion of the Tao (or Dao), particularly the concept of effortless doing. Life is not work because you do what is natural, flowing carefree through existence. This is the highest form of adherence to the Tao, ascribed to a stuffed animal.
Then there is Piglet. Piglet represents the Chinese term Te (or De). The word can mean virtue or power. It can mean kindness or, wait for it, blessings. It may not be effortless, but kindness as an expression of life can bring about a sense of blessedness and happiness. One flows from the nature of the person, the other is cultivated by the person. Goodness as a state of being versus goodness as a discipline.
Eeyore, on the other hand, is the pessimist. There is a story in which he has lost his tail:
The old grey donkey, Eeyore, stood by himself in a thistly corner of the forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore,” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” – and sometimes he did not know what he was thinking.
Ever had one of those Eeyore days? A day of whys and wherefores, a day in which you had no idea what to think? Eeyore the pessimist, the doubter, the cynic.
So one morning, Eeyore is greeted by Winnie-the-Pooh, who notices that Eeyore’s tail is missing. The bear suggests to the donkey that the latter must have lost it somewhere. Eeyore takes a darker view.
“That accounts for a Good Deal,” said Eeyore gloomily. “It Explains Everything. No Wonder.” “Somebody must have taken it.” “How like them.”
There is no way of knowing at this moment in the story what happened. The fundamental nature of the characters leads them to different opinions. You lost it. Someone took it. An unfortunate circumstance. An insidious plot of tail theft. In case you were concerned, Owl, another character, found the tail and was using it as a cord for ringing his doorbell. It all turns out well in the end, pun entirely intended.
Doubt is not an unusual response to unexplained circumstances. Someone comes forth with a farfetched explanation and we might step back from it with skepticism. A proposal for resolving a problem may be less than ironclad on the face of it and we might express uncertainty if not full on disbelief.
Doubt and skepticism, uncertainty and disbelief are not the same as pessimism. Doubt makes you, at best, intellectually agnostic, not knowing what is true but not having any confidence that the offered explanation fits the bill. In the scriptures, however, belief is compared with disbelief. Blessed are those who believe. Happy are those who believe. Does that make those who do not believe not blessed, not happy?
Think of David. He had faith that God would protect him. So he believed in God. Did he also believe in himself? On the face of the story, it was absurd of David to go into battle against a much larger man, a seasoned warrior. He could not possibly win.
Or could he? Compare their weapons. Goliath had a javelin, spear, and a sword. The javelin is a thrown weapon, but what kind of warrior would he have been to throw his javelin at a boy? The same with the spear, which could be used for hand-to-hand fighting to keep an opponent at a distance. No, Goliath needed to go in there with his sword.
David had his staff and sling. We think, oh poor David, but in fact both weapons placed David at an advantage. A sling is as deadly as a bow in the hands of an expert. And a staff gives you a far longer range than a sword. Goliath was in armor, so he also would have been slower than David. David and his five smooth stones were not at as much of a disadvantage as the story implies.
David had faith in God, obviously, but he was no fool. David knew what he was doing and Saul was only slightly hesitant. There are no guarantees in battle, but there was more supporting David’s belief than we are led to believe.
A pessimist would look at that encounter and think, he’s doomed. Most of the warriors did not imagine they had a chance against Goliath because they expected to go sword-to-sword, hand-to-hand. Something else was about to occur, something unexpected.
The same is true of the resurrection. The story of the empty tomb begins as a mystery. In the Gospel of Mark, the women find the tomb empty and leave in amazement – the explanation stops there. In the other Gospels there is more to the story, encounters with Jesus, like with Thomas this morning. The understanding of the story grows in an effort to grapple with the unexplained.
Did Mark the Evangelist forget that Jesus rose from the dead? Did he fail to mention that Jesus met with the disciples and Thomas in particular? I do not have an answer for you. I have no explanation.
But how should someone react to a mystery?
Think of those ridiculous characters in the Hundred Acre Woods. Eeyore, the pessimist, assumed that his missing tail was stolen. They were out to get him, whoever “they” might be. Pessimism casts doubts over everything because the pessimist wants to be insulated from losing, of getting his or her hopes up. It is like heavy armor placed all around someone to protect against disappointment.
Of course I knew it was all going to fall apart. Of course David was going to die. Of course Jesus and his band of do-gooder misfits were going to amount to nothing. Doubt shields us from being wrong, of seeming foolish. Pessimism solidifies doubt into a negative world view – if I keep my expectations low, I will never be disappointed. And I will probably never be happy.
There is another story about Eeyore. It was his birthday. And no one has taken notice. Winnie-the-Pooh asks Eeyore why he seems sad. Eeyore responds, how could he be sad on the happiest day of the year, his birthday. Don’t you see all the presents, the cake and candles? There are none, of course, which greatly confuses Winnie-the-Pooh. But he gets over his confusion and sets about having a birthday for Eeyore.
He decides to give Eeyore a pot of honey as a present, but along the way gets hungry and eats the honey. His fallback position is to give the honeypot, an eminently useful present now that it is unburdened with honey. It is something in which to put things. Piglet also decides to bring a present, a balloon. As he is running along, however, the balloon pops, as is ultimately the sad fate of all balloons. He nonetheless brings the popped balloon to Eeyore to at least express a sincere effort at present-giving.
The explanation of the popped balloon is met with some initial indifference. But just then Winnie-the-Pooh brings along his useful pot in which things may be put. At this moment, Eeyore does something unusual. He becomes excited. He has the useful pot and the popped balloon to put in the pot. The honey gone, the balloon broken and yet out of that pair of disappointing circumstances arises an understanding of completion. This works for Eeyore, as he repeatedly places the balloon in the pot and takes it out again, happy as could be. Happy as could be.
I realize that it is beyond absurd to be making a connection between a children’s story and belief in the resurrection. But the resurrection is preposterous, it makes no sense, it flies in the face of reason and common sense on every level. And yet we are asked to bridge the gap between sense and reason to arrive at faith. Faith in new life, faith in rebirth, faith in God.
We always stand in the face of mystery. We have no choice but to stand there, looking onward past the horizon of certainty. In this way, every day is a test of faith.
I use those silly characters because underneath the surface of those stories are important ideas about how we might respond to those nagging questions. You can busy yourself with anxiety like worried little Rabbit. You can shroud the questions with intellectualizations like blustering Owl. You can sink lower and lower under the weight of pessimism like Eeyore. Or you can face the day with a kind heart like Piglet and a joyful spirit like Winnie-the-Pooh.
Happy are those who believe without seeing. Happy are those who embrace the mystery with hope, who step forward day after day with faith that there is something more, something just beyond the horizon of our sense and reason. That is faith, it is not certainty.
The empty tomb can be taken as an answer, but it can also remain as a question. An open question like Mark puts forth rather than an answer as provided by John. We have a choice. Do we armor ourselves with doubt, seeing life as no more than the tiny window of our direct experiences? Or do we open up a bit more, to the possibilities as well as the certainties, to unresolved mystery?
A heart opened to hope understands the meaning of faith. A mind open to faith has known the comfort of love and kindness in this world. So love leads to faith and faith leads to hope. At no point along those holy stepping stones is there a guaranty. No guaranty of love, no certainty of faith, no inevitability of hope. But a life lived open to the possibilities arising out of uncertainty is far different than one closed to them.