The Secret Lives of Saints

I am a (fairly late) convert to the Christian faith. Not raised in the church, my conversion the day after my 18th birthday was a rather “Pauline” experience of a Damascus Road turnaround. As such, my faith has always seemed crystal clear, yea, certain.

Folks like me find it hard to understand those who wrestle with doubts and questions. It becomes easy to demonize someone like “doubting Thomas,” to vilify him as a kind of minor Judas. We stand in confident certainty and pronounce, “That’ll never be me!”

But my confidence and certainty have been rattled by a couple of things: first, growing in faith and going through dark valleys of doubt; and second, hearing my children raise questions and doubts I never felt permission to voice.

So I have come to a new appreciation of Jesus’ disciple Thomas—this doubter who achieved sainthood. Scripture includes his story (John 20:24-31), I think, to give us an encouraging glimpse into the secret lives of saints. It’s encouraging, too, to see Jesus’ response. Let’s reflect on three themes, or movements, in the text.

Dark Saturdays

In John 20:24, we note that Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus first appeared after his resurrection—why might that be?

Recall that the disciples have just seen Jesus die on the cross, his body taken down and buried. The three hours of darkness on crucifixion Friday must have paled in comparison to the dark hopelessness of that Saturday. And it seems that for Thomas—like so many of us—the darkness drove him into hiding and loneliness, away from the friendships he’d forged over the past several years. While the other disciples huddle together, afraid, commiserating (v. 19), Thomas is elsewhere—no less afraid and miserable, but alone, and thus easily sucked into the vortex of despair.

Imagine Thomas’s state of mind when the other disciples come bounding up to him and loudly proclaim, “We’ve seen him!” While resurrection dawn has broken the darkness of their Saturday, Thomas hasn’t experienced that yet. And would they really be such joyous believers if they hadn’t seen Jesus firsthand? The mere announcement that Jesus has risen isn’t enough to conquer Thomas’s despair.

So I think it’s completely fair—and I think every other disciple would have had the same response—for Thomas to say, “I won’t believe it until I put my fingers in the wounds.” Notice, it won’t be enough for Thomas just to see Jesus. What he struggles with is not just absence, but the tragedy of that absence. Jesus didn’t die in his sleep—his life was violently taken. This one who talked to Thomas about the love of the Father was abused, tortured, and made to suffer a most horrible death. Who could believe in God after that?

So Thomas announces, “You’d better not be telling me that Jesus is showing up, perfect and pristine, as if nothing ever happened. I won’t believe the resurrection unless it’s going to be honest about the tragedy I’ve just witnessed.”

I’ve come to learn that the life of a saint is riddled with dark Saturdays during which our consciousness of the tragic overwhelms our sense of the grace and goodness of God.

But this isn’t a matter of not believing the evidence. This isn’t the “I won’t believe it” of defiance but, rather, the “I can’t believe it” of despair and hopelessness.

So what happens?

Jesus Meets Us

Notice carefully how the narrative moves forward in verse 26: “A week later. . . . ” A week later! Kierkegaard says that when we read the story of Abraham taking Isaac up Mount Moriah, we fast forward across the little remark that it took three days. Having been shaped by ESPN highlights, we sometimes underestimate the slow-motion nature of real life.

So we need to slow down and note that a whole week passes in which Thomas is left in this state. What must he have experienced during that time? Some of you know.

But what does Jesus do with Thomas’s doubt?

Jesus shows up; Jesus meets Thomas where he is. Jesus comes to Thomas, speaks peace into his life, then invites him to wrestle with his doubts—in a way, to wrestle with God the way Jacob did. So Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, to put his hand into Jesus’ broken side and so enter into the grosteque. I think there are a couple of important lessons embedded here:

First, I would suggest that Thomas’s so-called doubt is a kind of brutally honest faith. Unlike those versions of faith that confuse themselves with certainty, Thomas is up-front about the tragic nature of a broken world—the sort of world that would crucify its Creator.

Thomas doesn’t want an easy faith that ignores the tragic. The only faith he’s interested in is one that touches the tragic, the grotesque, the wounds of the world. This, I’m convinced, is a central feature of the secret lives of saints.

Saints experience the depth and richness of God’s grace precisely because their faith hangs precariously at that point where the tragic is always present. Our broken world is poised on a precarious fulcrum and wobbles between glory and the grotesque, beauty and brokenness, grace and tragedy. Saints are those who live their faith close to this tottering hinge—because it’s only by being close enough to see the world’s pain that we can ever hope to see God’s face in the same world. Those who confuse faith with certainty stay as far away from the fulcrum as they can.

Second, notice God’s response: God absorbs such doubts and questions. God meets us where we are, with all of our doubts. And he doesn’t paper over the tragedies of our Fridays and Saturdays. The tragic and broken is taken up in the in-breaking of resurrection Sunday—and the in-breaking of resurrection faith. It isn’t ignored; it’s not “as if it never happened.”

Rather, the risen Jesus meets Thomas where he is and invites him to touch the tragic. Jesus doesn’t pretend it was otherwise. God is not afraid of our doubts, and he isn’t interested in giving us a faith that acts as if there’s no tragedy.

Blessed Is Belief, Not Certainty

Jesus exhorts Thomas to no longer be unbelieving, but to be believing (the tense is of interest here). Then he remarks: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). This is not intended to scold Thomas but to encourage all of us. Jesus encourages us by suggesting that believing is blessed; but it’s important for us to keep in mind that belief is not certainty.

Kierkegaard, perhaps the patron saint of doubting believers, once said that “doubt comes into the world through faith.” Doubt is not the antithesis to faith, it is its companion in a way. We might simply put it this way: Only believers can doubt. In some cases, doubt is faithful precisely where certainty is unfaithful.

Some of our doubts—like Thomas’s—grow out of our believing the promises of a good and loving God. The lament psalms (for example, Ps. 77) articulate just this kind of strange paradox: that it’s sometimes more faithful to doubt precisely when it seems like God’s goodness has been eclipsed by the tragic. It’s not that we won’t believe, but we can’t believe.

At those moments, I think, God shows up, like Jesus appears to the disciples, and in a quiet way says “yes!” to our doubts and questions and cognitive dissonance. God meets us where we are and in doing so affirms that sometimes even doubt is faithful. That’s one of the secrets in the lives of saints like Thomas.


for discussion
  1. Are you a “certain” Christian or one who experiences doubt? How do you feel about your faith when you’re certain, when you experience doubt?
  2. Describe a time when “your consciousness of the tragic overwhelmed your sense of the grace and goodness of God.” What helped you to work through that?
  3. Do you agree with the author’s claim that “God is not afraid of our doubts, and he isn’t interested in giving us a faith that acts as if there’s no tragedy”? Why or why not?
  4. What thought in this article was most meaningful to you? Why?
  5. What additional questions do you have that were not addressed in the article?

About the Author

James K.A. Smith holds the Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview at Calvin College and is editor of Comment magazine. His new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos) will be published in April. He attends Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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i just want to know from which book of Kierkegaard isand its page number “doubt comes into the world through faith.

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