Too good to be true?

audio for “Too good to be true?” by Martin Malina
Martin Malina April 2022

Thomas will not believe, cannot believe, even the words of his friends. Thomas will not believe, cannot believe, even with Jesus standing right in front of him. Not until conditions he has laid down are met.

I suspect we like Thomas. He’s becoming a favourite biblical character. I think we can relate, especially these days, to Thomas’ state of mind. From a place of profound grief at his loss he becomes skeptical, and not sure to trust everything that he is told especially if it sounds ‘too good to be true’.

How are we, like Thomas, strengthened in our faith, especially in difficult times, to trust and believe in the presence of the living Jesus with us? 

It’s as if Jesus is saying that “Even when you can’t see me, I am with you always. Even if you are not certain in any given moment, doesn’t mean I am not there. You don’t need to clearly see me in order to have faith.” Because, as he tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen me, and yet have come to believe.”[1]

So, the problem is our perception. Jesus is hidden from us only by our perception.

For example: When was the last time you looked at or considered the eyes of a bird? Did you know that the colour of the eyes of the cormorant bird is emerald? And the eye of the eagle is amber. The eye of the grebe is ruby. The eye of the ibis is saphire. Four gemstones mirror the minds of birds, birds who mediate between heaven and earth. In these beautiful birds, have you ever even thought about looking at their eyes?

We miss the eyes of the birds, focusing only on the feathers, their eye-catching plumage. What are we looking for? And where have we failed to look?[2]

Well, for one thing, we look for facts. The Easter celebration often gets clouded by debates about about the facts: Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? Was it factually a bodily resurrection? Beyond the shadow of any doubt? Underlying this line of questioning is a strong desire for certainty. Many Christians will demand certainty in declaring positive and unequivical answers to questions about facts, in order to validate any kind of faith in the resurrection of Jesus.

What this line of thinking fails to see is that it’s not only about what we see. More importantly, it is how we see it. Where we look.

The way our brain processes what and how we see leads medical scientists today to conclude that certainty is related to narrowness of vision; that is, the more certain we become of something, the less we see. What we clearly see, where the narrow focused beam of our attention is concentrated, also means in that moment of clarity and concentration, our vision is narrowed.[3]

If we want to see more—the broad perspective, to scan the horizon for example—and hold everything in our line of sight, we need to use our brain differently. We use our brain not just for what we focus on. But also in order to hold-it-all-together, which means accepting the mystery, accepting our complicated lives that in truth are filled with contradiction, inconsistency and uncertainty. Life 101. This is a gift and a function we need more of in this ambiguous, post pandemic time.

The debate really should be between Certainty versus Compassion. Because in any given moment in time, we cannot do both, fully.[4] We cannot be at the same time absolutely certain, and fully compassionate. We are not wired in our bodies to do both at the same time.

Because our striving for certainty is often driven by fear, fear of the unknown. This function comes from our survival instinct—either flight, fight or freeze. So, we either demand certainty born out of our fear response to life. Or, we can function out of a calm, compassionate, trusting and loving center within ourselves. 

Saint Paul writes in that famous text from his letter to the Corinthians that if we fail in love, we fail in all other things.[5] In this Easter season, we celebrate God’s triumph over death. We affirm that death has not the final word on our lives. And in that famous book of the bible about love—the Song of Songs—we read that “Love is stronger than death”.[6]

The fear function of our brains will lead to death if not tempered by the love function of our brains, which leads to life.

We are like Thomas in so many ways. Thomas needed to be certain. He was afraid of being wrong. And in response to that natural, human tendency, Jesus chooses compassion.  When Jesus meets Thomas, in person, in the flesh, Thomas doesn’t need to actually touch Jesus wounded hands and side, now. He doesn’t need to. Paradoxically, Thomas so confidently then expresses his faith in that felt sense of Jesus’ love in his presence. Because Jesus starts with compassion. 

God does not hold back and wait until we get things right. Until we are certain before doing anything. Jesus did not first demand Thomas to improve his frame of mind before coming to him, in love and acceptance. 

Rather, God loves us where we are and as we are. Divine love finds us. Divine love has handed itself over to us to do what we please.

The scripture doesn’t say too much if anything at all about what happened to Thomas after this encounter. We know more about Thomas’ mission and death from other historical sources and tradition. But the Gospel itself is quiet in the mention of Thomas after this encounter with Jesus, I believe for a purpose.

We are left to finish this story, in our own lives, in our own ‘seeing’, in what and how we see Jesus in the world today, and in the faithful confession of what it is we seek. May God’s love inspire us to join the ongoing conversation with the living Lord in our midst today.

Choose to start with compassion. This is good. Very good. And true.

[1] John 20:29

[2] Terry Tempest Williams, cited in Daily Prayer for All Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, 2014), p.44

[3] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (London: Yale University Press, 2019), p.83

[4] “Physiologically it is impossible to be rooted in both drives at once.” Alane Daugherty, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: A Journey of Transformation Through the Science of Embodiment (Illinois: Balboa Press, 2014), p.13.

[5] 1 Corinthians 13

[6] Song of Songs 8:6

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