Holy Doubting and Lived Experience

A Bible verse on a background of a crown of thorns. "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." Luke 24:39.

A lived encounter with Jesus

On Easter Sunday, Jesus appears to his friends. In fear, they’ve hidden themselves away in a locked room. In fear, they’ve ignored the women who told them to believe. And now here’s Jesus, in the flesh. And what’s the first thing he does?

He shows them his marked, impaired hands and side. The body that was wounded and died, broken by injustice and sin, transformed in resurrection. This is my body.

The disciples don’t just hear about his resurrection. They live it. In their physical encounter with Jesus’ body, his friends recognise him – as the God who is with them. The God who is like them. It’s hard to doubt an experience like that.

I sometimes have trouble with Easter. A triumphant resurrection can leave me waiting awkwardly outside the church gates, wondering if I fit. But this Easter Sunday, I was once again captivated by Nancy Eiesland’s idea of the disabled Christ, showing himself to his disciples, generously, vulnerably.

“Here is the resurrected Christ making good on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are… In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected Saviour, calls for his frightened companions to recognise in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their own salvation.”

Nancy Eiesland, disabled theologian1

As a disabled person who was never shown a God who is like me, this is a powerful picture of an experience with Christ’s impaired-and-perfected body. Society tells so many of us to be ashamed of our bodies, our different ways of being human. Jesus doesn’t. He shows us a body like ours. He takes it to heaven. And everything changes.

Thomas, who believed differently

It was a different story last Sunday. In Anglican churches, we read about Thomas – remembered as the disciple who doubted the resurrection. At first, his story left me cold and condemned. It feels so far from that moment a week before, when Jesus gave the disciples that generous gift of experience.

And then it hit me. Thomas wasn’t there, when Jesus showed his body to his friends. Unless I experience, I will not believe, Thomas says. And Jesus says…

“Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

John 20:27-28 (NRSV)

What if Thomas boldly asked for an embodied experience of the risen Lord, so he could believe? Holy doubting. Show me.

Some people need the direct experience, not the abstract concept. (As an autistic person, I can relate.) Maybe Thomas didn’t doubt. Maybe he believed differently.

And what if that was okay with Jesus? What if he looked at Thomas with grace and compassion, and understood his human need to experience God in the flesh? I’m here. You can believe.

I wonder if Thomas longed to experience a God with a body like his.

I know the feeling.

It takes courage to be a (disabled) Holy Doubter

Nancy Eiesland’s encounter with a disabled God changes how I feel about myself, and it changes how I feel about God. This disabled writer gives me permission to be Thomas, boldly asking Jesus to show me his body. I’m here. You can believe.

But it takes courage to say, Show me. For two reasons. First, God might take you seriously. And second, you might meet with a lot of criticism for your Holy Doubting. (Nancy Eiesland did.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m very careful how much of myself I share in Bible studies. I’m used to feeling silenced, if I speak from lived experience.

If my responses have anything to do with my personal experience of being disabled, neurodivergent or queer, I get the awkward page-shuffle of discomfort. Why do you always have to make the Bible about you? (A better question: Why is it never about me?)

I broke my rule of silence recently, while reading a psalm of lament in a group. I was captivated by the experience of a psalmist who felt like they were broken pottery after injustice and pain. In the silence of meditation, I could ‘read between the lines’2 as a disabled person. The psalmist’s experience sang in tune with mine. It gave me permission to pray the un-prayable prayer: Sometimes I feel like a broken pot too. Made by the Potter. Broken by the world.

I couldn’t not speak about this homecoming. I wanted to know if anyone else felt this way, so we could share experiences together. And I don’t blame the group for not understanding, when I spoke. My spoken words can be rambling and inaccurate, and my experience would have seemed strange to them. But I did my best to tell the others how the psalms of lament open up a space for Holy Doubt, where I can be real with God about injustice and pain.

Awkward page-shuffle of discomfort. Confusion. Why would anyone enjoy a psalm like this? Should the psalmist even be saying this? Should they not just know that God loved them?

I didn’t speak again.

Marginalised people speaking about lived experience

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

Psalm 32:3 (NIV)

Disabled and neurodivergent people often struggle to tell our own stories about God, faith, church. We carry our knowledge of God in our bodies, and in our experience of difference and diversity and injustice. That can be hard to claim as a source of authority to speak. Other voices drown ours out. Why can’t we just listen to the experts, they ask, and accept a God who is like them? Why do we need a God who is like us? Why do you doubt, Thomas?

Nothing about us, without us.

Slogan used by disabled people’s campaigns since the 1980s (beginning with South African activists)

But when it comes to thinking about God, we all start where we are. All theology is contextual. And it is only disability theology when disabled people’s voices are heard.

When the church doors are closed to you, sometimes you start to think outside the gates.3

A place to think outside the gates together

On the margins of the church, I meet other disabled Christians who help me to see the power of lived experience. They give me permission to think about life, faith and God from my perspective as a disabled person.

I’m part of a disabled-led Christian group that meets on Zoom. We ‘come as we are’ (to borrow Fiona MacMillan‘s phrase). Some of us come from bed. Others come in pyjamas. Some knit or crochet or make art while we talk; I scribble in a colouring book when it’s hard to make eye contact. We make no apologies for our diverse ways of being. We tic, we stim, we rock gently in our chairs, we choose to participate in social rituals or not to, we use different ways of communicating, we forget words and remember love, we are gloriously awkward and divergently articulate. We bring our stories, our diversity, our marginalisation, our joys, our pain, our art, our whole selves. We are church together, on the edge.

As we come as we are, we recognise each other and God. When I talked about my experience of reading the lament psalm, a friend recognised it, and shared her experience of repeating the same psalm when she was enduring bodily spasms. Another friend talked about chanting psalms of lament when she was in pain and despair. For a moment, I was among my people. Like the psalmist, they opened up space for Holy Doubt. A space in community, where I could feel like a broken pot, rejected and scorned and forgotten – and still the work of the Potter, fearfully and wonderfully made. Come and have your own encounter, Thomas.

This is a community shaping an understanding of God together. Starting with what we experience.

Lived experience matters. Scars and all.

I wonder if God minds if I doubt
until I experience.

(I’m here. You can believe.)

So, for the past two Sundays, when I’ve read the stories of the disciples encountering Jesus, I’ve read them as a disabled person. Together with my disabled community, who help me experience a God whose body sings in tune with ours.

I’m with Believing-Differently Thomas. Show me the marks in your hands and side. Show me how Christ took the whole of our human experience into heaven – injustice, oppression, pain, bodily difference, diverse ways of being. Show me how my disability cannot be abhorrent. Not when a Disabled God meets us where we are, shows us his scars, and says, “Don’t you recognise me?”

I’m starting to.


One more thing…

I’ve been thinking about how we could work towards a Disabled People’s Lived Theology Project, to share our stories of faith and disability. Go here for more on this.

Writers referenced in this post

  1. Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), p.99-100.
  2. For feminist theologian Marjorie Procter-Smith, “praying between the lines” is a way of “reading ourselves into the text from which we have been excised, by reading behind the texts, reading the silences and the spaces, the absences and omissions,” and hearing unspoken things there. She is mainly talking about liturgy, but it’s an interesting way of thinking about marginalised readings of the Bible too. Marjorie Procter-Smith, Praying With Our Eyes Open: Engendering Feminist LIturgical Prayer (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995). I first discovered the concept of ‘praying between the lines’ in: Al Barrett and Ruth Harley, Being Interrupted (London: SCM Press, 2020).
  3. Deborah Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). I use Creamer’s idea of disabled people ‘waiting outside the church gates’ for the title of this blog.

    Also influenced by: Diana Butler-Bass on Thomas as a story of gratitude.

    And here’s the psalm I was talking about:

I am the utter contempt of my neighbours
and an object of dread to my closest friends –
those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.

Psalm 31:11-12 (NIV)

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