There is a story I came across written by a man named Ed Friedman. Ed was a huge proponent of a theory of thought called Bowen Family Systems theory. The theory has many components, and rather than bore you with all the technical terms, I thought I’d just share with you a story about one of those components. It’s entitled "The Power of Belief," and for honesty’s sake, please know I am abbreviating it and telling a bit of it in my own words.
One evening, a man came home and announced he was dead.
Immediately some of his neighbors tried to show him how foolish this notion was. He walked, and dead men cannot move themselves. He was thinking, his brain was functioning, and he was breathing; and that, after all, is the quintessence of living. But none of these arguments had any effect.
No matter what reason was brought to bear against his position, no matter how sensible the argument, the man maintained that he was dead. He parried their thrusts with ingenious skill.
He seemed to have a way of constantly putting the burden of proof upon the other. He never quite came right out and said, "Prove it." But that was the message implied, not so much by how he answered as by how he avoided giving any answer at all.
Every now and then someone thought, "Now, I’ve pinned him down," having brought evidence so obvious no one could deny it. But then he would use his trump: "If I am dead, you do not exist either, since surely the living do not traffic with the dead."
His family became more and more frustrated and a bit fearful of this man’s condition, so they invited a psychiatrist to interview him. After some preliminary greetings, the two of them went off into a room alone. Now and then an elevated voice broadcast itself over the transom, although nothing could be understood. It was clear, however that the voice they heard getting louder belonged to the clinician.
Some time later, both men emerged. The doctor had his jacket over his arm, his necktie had been loosened and his collar opened (in fact, the button was no longer there). As for the man, he seemed totally unchanged. "Hopelessly psychotic," muttered the psychiatrist. "You will have to have him committed. He has lost all awareness of reality. If you want, I’ll call the hospital and see if they have room."
"Now really," said the man calmly, "what kind of therapy would you prescribe for a dead man? Surely, sir, if it were known that you had tried to cure a man who was not even alive...talk about losing one’s grip on reality."
The doctor started to answer, caught himself, and then with measured calm, said to the others, "I haven’t finished dinner yet. If you want me to call the hospital, give me a ring."
The family then sought out a clergyman. They thought about what kind of minister they should get. Should it be a more modern clergy who had some knowledge of psychiatry, or should they get an old-fashioned fundamentalist? The family decided to fight fire with fire.
As it happened, that evening a well known evangelist was in town speaking. When he heard about the man’s issue, he believed it would give him an opportunity to bolster his own success. The clergy and the man once again headed behind closed doors. Once again a voice was raised–the voice of the clergy. And once again, the professional exited the room with a nervous look on his face. The clergy kissed his black book, and exited the house without a glance back. The family members looked in the room, and the man was fast asleep.
Finally, the family sent for the family doctor. The doc had known the man since infancy, and he was known for not only his medical skill but some homey wisdom. The doctor entered the house and after a few introductory questions asked, "Tell me, do dead men bleed?"
The man replied, "Of course not."
"Then," said the doctor, "would you allow me to make a small cut in your arm, say above the elbow? I will treat it; there’s no reason to worry about infection. I’ll stop the flow immediately, and we can see, once and for all, whether you are dead."
"Dead men do not get infections, nor do they bleed, doctor," said the man, as he proceeded to roll up his sleeve.
With everyone watching anxiously, the doctor deftly slit the flesh, and blood came spurting out. There was a gasp of joy throughout the group. Some laughed, others even applauded, though a few seemed rather to be relieved.
The doctor quickly dressed the wound and turn to everyone saying, "Well, I hope that puts an end to this foolishness." Everyone was congratulating the physician when they suddenly realized the man was headed for the door. As he opened it, he turned to the group and said, "I see that I was wrong." Then as he turned to leave, he added, "Dead men, in fact, do bleed." (Friedman's Fables pp. 55-60 c. 1990)
I like this story because it shows indeed the power of belief that people have. We have a tendency to construct a way of looking at the world, and if something falls outside of that view, either we have a very hard time incorporating it or we reject it outright. I’m pretty sure you have witnessed this in your own life at some time or another. For instance, have you ever gotten into a political debate with someone and argued over a particular issue, and you produced piece after piece after piece of evidence to prove your point only to find you’ve made no headway at all? I see more than a few heads nodding.
If you’ve experienced this, you know the frustration the disciples felt when they tried to convince Thomas that Jesus had risen from the dead. They had witnessed the living Jesus with their own eyes. They had talked with Him, and they wanted Thomas to believe as well. They wanted Him to share their joy. But no matter how much they argued with Thomas; no matter how many proofs they shared; no matter how much they cajoled him, he wouldn’t believe. There was only one who could break through the power of Thomas’ belief–Jesus Himself. The good news of this story from the 21st Chapter of John is that Jesus actually came to Thomas to inspire belief, and when Thomas encountered Jesus, he fell to his knees and uttered, "My Lord, and my God."
There is an important piece of information for you and I to take from this lesson today–it is a lesson that links the story I told about the guy who thought he was dead and from our Gospel text. The lesson is, you will never argue someone into belief. You will never be able to convince someone that Jesus is risen from the dead by cajoling, threat, persuasion, rational argument, or otherwise. It just won’t happen.
The only one who can bring that person to belief is Jesus Himself. So what does that mean for us as we live as Christians? If we can’t argue people to belief, what can we do? Well, plain and simple, we can witness to Jesus; we can show others where He is working; we can ask people to come and see where He is active; we can lead them to the place where Jesus is so that they may have their own encounter with the risen Lord. And when they encounter Jesus, they will come to believe. Amen.