Year A – Ascension of the Lord

Benefit of the Doubt

(Acts 1:1-11; Eph.1:17-23; Mt.28:16-20)

In today’s Gospel, just before Jesus returns home to heaven, he gives his disciples their Great Commission: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations,’ he says, ‘baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

This is Jesus’ last command before going home to his Father, and as we know, they do go on to baptise countless new disciples.

There are three words in this reading, however, that many people tend to miss. After reporting that the disciples worshipped Jesus, Matthew adds: ‘but some doubted.’

I love the honesty of the Scriptures: Matthew could so easily have ignored the disciples’ doubts. He could have stressed how ‘committed’ they were to Jesus; but instead, he tells the truth: the disciples didn’t always understand. They loved Jesus, but some still had doubts.

This isn’t surprising, because many biblical saints lived with doubt.

Moses, for example, had doubts when God called him to lead his people out of Egypt. ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ he asked. ‘What if they don’t believe me or listen to me?’ (Ex.3:11, 4:1). But God reassured him, and Moses went on to lead his people to the Promised Land.

The original doubting Thomas, too, couldn’t believe that Jesus was alive after his crucifixion (Jn.20:24-29). John the Baptist wondered if Jesus really was the Messiah (Mt.11:1-15). And Peter started sinking while walking on water . ‘Why did you doubt?’ Jesus asked (Mt.14:31).

Like so many of us, these saints tried to do their best, but they often struggled to understand. Jesus didn’t begrudge any of this, though. He was patient with them.

What all this tells us is that doubt is a natural part of life, especially when something extraordinary happens.

It also tells us that doubt is a natural part of faith. Indeed, it’s an essential part of faith, especially if we want to keep our faith honest and alive.

So, what is doubt? It’s a feeling of uncertainty, perhaps even confusion, that leads us to question things. But asking questions is no bad thing, because it invites us to discover what’s really happening.

It also helps clarify what we truly believe, and the answers we get then become the foundations of our faith. They help make that faith our own. 

But if we stop asking questions, if we no longer work through our doubts, then we stop learning and simply end up borrowing someone else’s beliefs. But that’s not faith; that’s just ideology. 

In a New York Times article, Julia Baird writes that if we don’t accept both the commonality and importance of doubt, then we won’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. And she quotes the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who said that the whole problem with the world is that ‘the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’ [i]

In other words, it’s only the foolish who refuse to doubt.

Some people’s spiritual doubts don’t last long. Thomas the Apostle only waited eight days to see for himself that Jesus really was alive (Jn.20:25).  

St Paul of the Cross

But for others, such doubts can be far more challenging. After many years of spiritual joy, St Paul of the Cross (1694-1775) found himself plunged into a deep sense of spiritual darkness that lasted for 45 years. It was so painful that he described it as sharing in the Passion of Christ, especially the feeling of being abandoned by God.

That long darkness, however, was followed by five years of sweet consolation, when he received visions of the Virgin Mary, St Michael and the Christ Child. He also often experienced spiritual ecstasies, finding himself entirely absorbed by God.

But through it all, it was his faith that kept him going. St Paul of the Cross never let his struggles discourage him. He knew that they wouldn’t last forever, and that they would win spiritual graces for others who needed help.

So, if you find yourself struggling spiritually, there are some things you can do.

Firstly, talk about it with someone, perhaps a suitable friend or spiritual director, or even a saint who appeals to you (Gal.6:2), and search for answers.

Secondly, if you can’t easily find the answers, then ask Jesus for help (Mk.9:23-25). Remember that in Matthew, Jesus says, ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you’ (Mt.7:7-8).

Thirdly, be patient, for it’s in the waiting that we learn (Jas.5:8).

And finally: don’t forget Jesus’ promise to us: ‘I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’

[i] Julia Baird, Doubt as a Sign of Faith, New York Times, Sept 25, 2014.