Benefit of the doubt

No one in the church wants to be a doubting Thomas. The perception of Thomas from the Bible is that of a man with trust issues. He wouldn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus until he saw him and touched him. Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. They, of course, told him all about it, “But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.” John 20:25.

by Caravaggio

When Jesus, at last, met with Thomas, he told him to “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” If that’s not an endorsement of faith over skepticism, then, I don’t know what is. Faith is preferred, but doubt has its place in more practical and relational matters.

For instance, there’s a certain friend that will complain about the political party in power and the President, and as soon as the statement is over, will say “oh right, we shouldn’t talk about politics.” Part of me would say that he wanted to get in political digs without the possibility of being challenged, in order to put down his conversational partners. But, if I were to give him the benefit of the doubt, I would think that he said something that he thought, only to catch himself and realize the company in which he found himself might not all agree with him.

This week, I’ve discussed Expectancy Violation Theory with my class. You don’t have to pay $52/credit hour to learn this, I’ll give it to you for free, because that’s how I roll. When someone violates our expectations or social norms, there are two factors that determine our response: How far outside the norm the violation is, and how well we know/like the person who violates our expectations. We do a little internal calculation to find the “reward valence” for that particular violation. So, if I were to kneel through worship tomorrow, people would probably think I was weird. We don’t do a lot of kneeling at Messiah. That would fall well outside the norm for our church. Those who know me well might suppose that I am trying to pray without ceasing. Those who like me could admire my effort to connect with God. Those who don’t know or don’t like me might think I’m pulling a holier-than-thou or showing off. The more we know and like another person, the more we are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for their actions.

Doubt preserves us from jumping to conclusions too quickly. A couple years ago, I saw the movie Doubt and was struck by the layers of doubt present in the story, doubts about whether the priest was molesting children, doubts about the Mother Superior’s judgement, doubts about personal observations, doubts about perception. In the end, the audience doubts the message of the movie: is it to show that doubt is a helpful or hurtful quality? The story of Thomas would seem to suggest that doubt is harmful. Maybe we need to doubt more the negatives about others and trust the positives. Trusting and believing in Christ without having seen him is a blessing. Doubting and expressing skepticism of the faults of others, even after physical proof is produced is a virtue. Extend the benefit of the doubt — it would positively violate an expectation (that we think the worst first). Show charity. Show grace. Without doubt, give the benefit of doubt.

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4 responses to “Benefit of the doubt

  1. Interesting take on Thomas’ story. I always felt like he got a bad rep for this, not to mention I feel like I could relate because I tend to lean on the overly-skeptical side and would probably have done the same as Thomas.

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Honestly, before reading this I had no idea why they called him Thomas the Doubter. or Doubting Thomas.
    I knew the story about someone wanting to stick his fingers in the nail wounds but just never put it all together I guess.

  3. My favorite lesson from the story of Thomas is that Christ allowed him to come and have his doubts and questions answered. So many times I have asked God questions, and although He doesn’t owe me any answers, He always answers them anyway. My belief is always strengthened. I should JUST believe. But another question always pops up. And it’s a testimony to the fact that God loves me so deeply, that he makes allowance for my weakness and always answers the questions.

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