Belief, Spiritual Formation

Why I still believe

cross

Sick of endless choruses of ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ echoing through my Christian college chapel, I snuck away to a quiet corner of campus with a blanket and my tears. It was my sophomore year and not only had the exciting newness of college worn off, I wasn’t sure where I fit, and my lifelong faith was crumbling beneath me.

I don’t see you shine, God.  Heck, I don’t even know if you’re there at all.  This Bible business makes no freaking sense to me.

A thought bubbled up that I was terrified to admit, but I didn’t have the energy to suppress it any longer.

I don’t want to be a Christian anymore.  I’m tired of this.

I looked around, wondering if I might be instantly struck by lightning, but the only thing that happened was that I felt instant relief.  My sentiment had been a long time coming after years of fighting quiet disappointments, fears, questions, and doubts.  Residing in the midst of Christian college student singing praises to a far away God didn’t help either.  I couldn’t sing with them.  If I joined them at all, I stood silently, hands in my pockets, heart cold.  I’d resolved that I wouldn’t fake it any more, that words were too important to say if I didn’t really mean them.

My only prayer for nearly a year, the only words I could actually sing were these lines from an old hymn:

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;

I tried on atheism, but found it hollow and meaningless.  I looked into other religions, but found no satisfactory answers to the questions that were nagging at my soul: Where is God when the world hurts?  Why is life so disappointing sometimes?

Growing up in the church, I hadn’t noticed anyone ever highlighting these questions as a critical part of the spiritual journey.  Doubt meant weakness. Faith meant strength.  Left without faith, I curled up in my blanket and cried, feeling lost and alone.

swirl

A chat with a friend asking many of the same questions I asked all those years ago got me thinking.  She’d found a book on the stages of faith development and was intrigued by the premise that many churches only nurture the first three stages of faith which focus on belief, learning, and belonging.  After progressing through these stages, it is common to hit a wall of confusion and unanswered questions.  Many often walk away from faith completely because the church isn’t a welcoming environment to this stage of faith.  Together, my friend and I wondered why Christians are encouraged to live in the shallow stages of faith – ones without questions, doubts, grappling.

“You’ve asked these same questions, but you didn’t walk away,” she observed.  “Why?”

Tears sprung to my eyes as internally, the words from another part of that old hymn echoed quietly within,

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

To be honest, I told her, some of my questions and doubts haven’t ever gone away.  They linger quietly, jumping out suddenly at me from behind tragic situations, social injustices, philosophical dilemmas and unhealed wounds.   But as the years have passed, I’ve discovered ways of walking with God that offer more sustenance than my questions.  These paths are why I’ve stayed, and why I continue to seek life in Jesus even when I don’t fully know all the answers.

Embracing Mystery

“It is unfortunate that evangelicals have quit building sanctuaries and began building auditoriums,” writes Calvin Miller.  “It seems to make a statement about our trading mystery for lectureships.  We were never good at mystery, smoking incense, towering glass rituals, or veiled entreaties…  So we have become the plain, pragmatic people…  We must quit making God a practical deity who exists to help us succeed.

Or, as my brother wittily observes, we need to stop treating the Bible like a Harry Potter spell book.

As an intellectual type who has spent much of my life immersed in analytic and critical thought, one of the hardest truths for me to accept was that I was not God.  I realize this makes me sound a little dense, but it was a life-changing revelation to me.  While much of my previous understanding of faith was rooted in attempts to control outcomes by measuring up spiritually, accepting my powerlessness in a fallen world has humbled me like nothing else.

Acknowledging that God knows, sees, and understands more than I do allows the mystery to intrigue my mind.  It leaves me with curiosity, wondering how I can understand more about who this good and mysterious God is.  Instead of rejecting faith for the lack of answers I find, I am compelled to search more diligently, embracing new questions as opportunities to learn and grow.  The answers rarely come easily or quickly, but when they do, they are both rich and satisfying.

Being Quiet

Much of my previous faith experience was based on noise: prayers, songs, sermons.  While I don’t decry any of these things, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find deep peace through seeking out quiet places. Sometimes, I just need to sit with a scripture, walk out a question, or cry for an unmet longing.  Sitting in quietness allows my soul to settle and root itself in what is firm and unchanging.  I don’t empty my mind as some traditions promote; I just let it be. I don’t force it to think ‘right’ thoughts, push away ‘wrong’ thoughts or even focus on what its ‘supposed’ to. I simply listen for the direction that might come and let my spirit rest.

Walking Humbly

Intellectuals aren’t well known for our humility.  We know a lot, and even if we don’t say it directly, we take great pride in displaying that knowledge.  The danger in this, of course, is that all minds have their limits.

God’s questions to a suffering Job (chapter 39) spoke directly to my pride, for I knew I could not so much as begin to answer any questions like this:

  • Where were you when I created the earth?  
  • Who decided on its size? 
  • Do you know the first thing about death?  

But it was the tender display of love in God’s questions to Job that followed that broke me:

  • Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place?
  • Do you know where Light comes from and where Darkness lives so you can take them by the hand and lead them home when they get lost?
  • Do you know the month when mountain goats give birth?

Beginning to understand this kind of humility helped me see evidences of God in places I’d never seen before: the indescribable connection between lovers, the haunting beauty of classical music, the fascinating complexity of the created order, the fierce devotion of motherly love.  There are no scientific proofs for these sorts of things, but their power over us is undeniable.

Loving Mercy

Sadly, I have known many situations where judgment flowed much more freely than mercy.  These days, I try not to be too hard on such actions for I’ve since learned for myself that judgment is much easier to offer than mercy.  Just watch the news – criticism of others sells. The worse the twerk, the more attention it gets – of course it does, for it lets us feel like we’ve got it waaay more together than the next guy.

Judging others is human.  Mercy, however, is nothing of the sort.

Mercy – when we don’t get what we deserve. It’s not nearly as newsworthy as Jerry Falwell soundbites, but it’s much more deeply Christian.  Learning about unmerited acts of forgiveness within tragic moments of history like apartheid, the civil rights movement and the holocaust disrupted my anger with ‘hypocritical’ Christians. Tales of authentic faith chased me as I tried my best to walk away.  Observing quiet lives, healed and well lived, painted a very different picture of faith than the headlines and the church buildings.

After encountering these stories, I began to see the mark Jesus in every one of them, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he prayed as they crucified him. Mercy.

The soundbite faith was easier to find, but the merciful faith was far more convincing.  

Living Justly

Raw from both my first exposure to extreme global poverty and my mother surviving cancer, one of my primary intellectual and emotional struggles through my college years became “Where is God in the pain?”  While my faith development had focused rightly on the value of a personal relationship with God, it had not helped me understand a Christian’s role in the kingdom of God past evangelization.  I didn’t understand how someone could grasp a need to know Jesus when they didn’t even have food.  “Bread for myself is a material problem,” Norman Bowie’s observation voiced my internal conflict. “Bread for other people is a spiritual problem.”

The hyper-emphasis on an eternal future in heaven or hell overshadowed the need to live as God’s hands and feet in the story that God is telling here on earth.  In short, a gospel of ‘Jesus-for-sinners’ only didn’t tell the whole story.  It was also a message of ‘Jesus-for-the-hungry’, ‘Jesus-for-the-oppressed’, ‘Jesus-for-the-broken-systems’, and ‘Jesus-for-president‘ (thanks, Shane Claibourne 🙂 )  While my childhood tradition had emphasized that Jesus was for our hearts alone, I was captivated to learn that the Bible speaks to a much broader redemption of our bodies, systems and communities as well.  

As I encountered people living lives of Biblical justice by caring for the poor and the abandoned, advocating for just laws and business practices, and fighting to free the oppressed, their actions spoke loudly of another world, a higher ethic that I could not easily dismiss.  While I questioned the cultural imperialism of the historical missionary movement, I could not deny the goodness that these same Christians created worldwide through networks of hospitals, schools, and relief agencies.

One of our family goals is to live in light of global – not American – reality.  Living in suburban Los Angeles, it is a win-again-lose-again battle.  But the gospel calls us to pursue the path of justice for the least of these, and I’ve grown to understand this path as a vital component of a faith that sustains.

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So yes, I still believe in Jesus – a belief that stems in large part from a shift of an either-or to a both-and faith.

I believe both in spite of the questions that linger and because of the mystery that beckons, “Come and see.”

I believe both in spite of the painful silence that numbs and because of the silent goodness that heals.

I believe both in spite of the pride that lingers in my heart and because of the humility that breaks it.

I believe both in spite of the bleakness of the headlines and because of the mercy that reverberates in the moments that follow them.

I believe both in spite of the brokenness that so often overwhelms and because of the justice that always hopes.

Some may call me crazy, perhaps rightfully so, but the paradox within the Christian faith is no longer a show stopper for me.  It is, in fact, a deeply orthodox part of the Christian faith, one that G.K. Chesterton explains so well in the classic Orthodoxy, “Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal:  it breaks out.  For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature;  but it is fixed forever in size;  it can never be larger or smaller.  But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape.  Because it has a paradox in its center, it can grow without changing.  The circle returns upon itself and is bound.  The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

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