There’s a song that I used to sing at church when I was in college that gets stuck in my head often. And this past week it’s been living there rent-free, on loop.
The lyric starts, “To come into the presence of the Lord is to be changed. You cannot come into His presence and remain the same. So change me, Lord, remake me, Lord, reshape me in the image of your Son…”
It had a simple melody with a simple message: being in God’s presence leaves an indelible mark on our hearts and lives. It’s something we see time and time again in the Bible. When a person spends time with Jesus, there is a startling transformation in them that can only be attributed to the Lord.
One striking example (and one of my favorites) is in the story of Mary Magdalene. The first time she meets Jesus, He heals her from being possessed by seven demons. She joins Him in ministry from that point on, as a believer, supporter, and friend.
In John 20, after Jesus is crucified and buried, Mary returns to the tomb with a few others, only to find it empty and Jesus’ body gone. Not knowing yet that Jesus had risen from the dead, she was in deep grief and despair. It is then that the resurrected Jesus meets here there, calls her by name and she recognizes Him, and runs to Him. Jesus commissions her to go and tell the disciples that He has risen and she doesn’t waste a second. She goes straight there and exclaims, “I have seen the Lord!”
In the presence of Jesus, her despair was transformed to joy, her sorrow to elation, and any doubts she had were transformed to confident faith.
Later that evening, Jesus appears again, this time to the disciples that are gathered. He shows them His hands and feet where the nails had held Him to the cross and his side that had been pierced during His crucifixion. They are in awe and overjoyed at the sight of the Risen Lord standing before them.
And in the presence of Jesus, their confusion is transformed to clarity, their despair is transformed to hope, and any lingering questions are transformed to a joyful proclamation, “We have seen the Lord!”
But not everyone was there. Thomas was not at the empty tomb. He was not with the disciples that evening. We aren’t really sure where he was. It was Jewish custom for friends, family, and loved ones to remain in town throughout the week during this most intense part of the mourning period. So it’s likely that Thomas was around, but he still had not seen Jesus.
Everyone grieves differently, and it’s possible that Thomas was so overcome by grief, so lost in confusion and sorrow, that he simply could not bear to be with the very people that reminded him of all he thought he’d lost. Maybe it just made the loss and pain all too real.
I can imagine the pull to isolate himself would have been powerful. But in being away from the very people that could surround and support him, he had missed seeing Jesus face to face not once, but twice.
When the disciples told Thomas that they had seen the Lord, he struggled hard to wrap his head around it. Maybe it seemed too good to be true, or maybe his grief was clouding his faith that Jesus had already done the impossible and still could. You can almost hear the pain in his voice when he responds, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas gets a bad rap for doubting what the other disciples had experienced, but it wasn’t necessarily Thomas resisting faith. He was someone who was inquisitive by nature, often asking for specifics and logistics as he earnestly strove to understand Jesus and follow Him well. Thomas was struggling to reconcile what he thought he knew about Jesus and the crucifixion his own eyes had witnessed, as well as process this new news of his resurrection. It not only defied reason, it seemed too good to be true. But Thomas doesn’t walk away. He continued to wrestle and wonder and question. And that is so incredibly important.
Suzie Eller shared something that she heard recently from a friend: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s indifference. If you are doubting, you’re still in the game.”
Suzie went on to say, “How do you come to an understanding unless you wrestle, unless you ask the hard questions and you’re honest with how you are feeling? God is the safest place to go with that. It’s essential.”
Thomas was not indifferent, he was wrestling. He was hurting but he was still in the game.
A week later, at just the right time, Jesus appears again to the disciples. And this time, Thomas was there.
Almost as if to finally break Thomas’ dependence on his own faculties and reason, Jesus suddenly shows up inside a room with a securely locked door. I can’t explain the physics of it except that Jesus can do whatever He wants. He is God. And maybe it’s a hint that our resurrected bodies in the next life are going to be way cooler than the ones we have now.
The point is, Jesus’ entrance defies logic once more, reinforcing His power and sovereignty in every circumstance. Jesus knows Thomas’ doubts, and He lovingly meets Thomas at the exact point of his need. He shows Thomas His hands and his side. Finally face to face with the resurrected Jesus, Thomas can’t help but exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”
In the presence of Jesus, Thomas’ doubts are transformed to confident faith, his reluctance to believe is transformed to stalwart conviction, and his hesitance is transformed to bold proclamation.
But the scene doesn’t end there. Jesus addresses Thomas again, but He also has a message for us: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Friend, that’s us! Jesus didn’t say “blessed are those who never have questions or doubts”. He says blessed are those who believe even though they haven’t seen him in the flesh.
Jesus wasn’t asking Thomas to check his brains at the door, and he doesn’t require that of us either. He created us to reason, think and question. But Jesus is calling us to something deeper: to fully trust Him and have faith, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense, to depend on God more than our own understanding and experiences, and to believe that God has the bigger picture in view, even before we see it unfold.
There are no questions that are off-limits or too big for God. Being a Christian doesn’t mean we never have doubts and always understand how God is working or where. But at the end of the day, we have a choice to believe that God is still God and that His ways are the best ways.
As Easter approaches, maybe you find yourself longing to see Jesus at work in your life. Maybe you are struggling to see where God is in the middle of a difficult circumstance and how you’ll ever get through. Maybe your heart is hurting for someone close to you, and you want to help them “stay in the game” as they wrestle with their faith. Or maybe you just are aching to feel God’s presence in your life once more.
Please don’t wrestle with this stuff alone. We are not meant to work these things out as a solo mission. Thomas may have missed out on experiencing the presence of Jesus sooner because he was off on his own. It was when he was surrounded and supported by the faith of others who had been with Jesus, that Thomas’ own faith was strengthened.
We experience the love and presence of the Lord when we are together. He works in us and through us to build one another up and to support one another. Jesus knew it would be hard to believe when we haven’t had a chance to see His hands and touch His side. That’s why He gave us church families and community. It’s why we have His Word to guide us and comfort us. It is time spent in God’s Word and with His people that transforms us and our faith.
He is also a God who knows us well, just like He knew Thomas. He knows how we are made, what we need, and what will strengthen us and build up our faith at just the right time and in just the right ways. We can bring our doubts, worries, and questions to Him and He will meet us there with grace and an invitation to deeper faith. As we lean on Jesus, He gives us an eternal perspective, and our fears are transformed to faith, our doubts transformed to testimony and our hearts are transformed to look more like His. He is loving and patient with us and He won’t ever give up on us. He will show up for us over and over so that we too can victoriously proclaim, “I have seen the Lord.”