we of little faith

Image: BBC Cross, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ihar's photostream

This week, my latest issue of Relevant Magazine came in the mail.  I took it out to the beach on Saturday, and when I turned to the Deeper Walk column written by Jason Boyett, I felt I could have written his piece word for word.  It was called “O Me of Little Faith” (that’s a link to the piece in the digital edition of the magazine, just zoom in and read!), and in the very first line, Boyett confesses:

I am a Christian. I have been a Christian for most of my life. But there are times when I’m not sure I believe in God.

Me too.

In many ways, the same things that drive me toward a life of faith often also pull me in the opposite direction, particularly my curiosity and my questioning nature. I’ve been known to practically give myself panic attacks thinking too hard about whether or not what I say I believe is really true.  I’m prone to many dark nights of the soul.  I’m prone to praying, “Lord, I believe, please help my unbelief.” And yet, something always pulls me back to God. You could probably say God always pulls me back to God. No matter how deep my doubts, it’s always to God that I pray, begging God to please just give me my faith back.

And yet, I’m often jealous of those for whom faith seems to come easily, even as I’m frustrated that what so often seems obvious and unshakable to them comes so hard to me. Boyett expresses this too, writing about people who:

the way they tell it, …get frequent, distinct impressions from the Holy Spirit…personal promptings from Jesus…specific answers to prayer and detailed directions about even the most trivial aspects of their lives.

This is not my experience of the life of faith. While there have been times I know others have spoken words to me that were straight from God’s lips to my ears, I’ve never experienced this with such certainty that I’d be comfortable uttering the phrase “God told me…” without fear of a lightning strike.  Boyett writes:

Maybe I’m just a cynical grump. Maybe these Christians are truly hearing God. Maybe that’s the experience of most Christians today, and I’m missing out. But the God-whispering-in-my-ear thing doesn’t seem to happen for me. If I hear my conscience, I’m pretty sure that’s because I’m familiar enough with the teachings of Christ that I feel guilty when I’ve failed in some way. If I wake up in the night, I’m more likely to believe it’s because my dog made a noise than assume God wants me to pray for someone. (And why does God need me to pray for something so badly that He has to wake me up, anyway? Can’t he just answer the prayer without me? Am I a soulless twit to even ask?)

I’m so with him on those statements.  When someone tells me “God told me,” I immediately get skeptical. When someone says that they just know that God wants them to have something they really want because they’ve cherry-picked a verse out of the Psalms about God giving us the desire of our hearts, I squirm.  I’m just not sure my life/faith is supposed to work like that.  After detailing his skepticism, Boyett writes:

Am I too skeptical? Too worldly? Not spiritual enough? Yes. Probably. I’m full of uncertainty, but I know this for sure: these doubts aren’t fun. It’s a drag to feel spiritually weak when everyone else seems strong, to feel so full of doubt when everyone else oozes faith.

But I love the Bible. I love the Jesus revealed in the Bible. Most days, I’m convinced He rose from the dead and He is who He claimed to be. I try to follow Him. I think the life He models is the best way to live. I think the Kingdom He invites me into is as revolutionary as they come. But I’d be lying if I said Jesus talked to me all the time, or that He always felt as real to me as my wife and kids. Because He doesn’t.

This is so me, again. I love Jesus. I think following in His footsteps, so closely I get covered with the dust of His sandals, is the best way to live. I get excited just thinking about the Kingdom of God becoming a reality on a renewed and restored planet earth. And most days, that is enough for me. Even though when I pray, I usually feel like I’m talking to the ceiling (I remedy this by writing letters to God). Even though I’ve never had a burning bush, a prophetic dream, or any certainty that “God told me” something. Even though I usually feel nothing much special while everyone else is raising their hands and getting all emotional during a worship song. Even though I’m afraid if many of my Christian friends knew what I really believe, they’d call me a heretic and think I’m bound for a hell I’m not even sure exists.

Thank God there’s a growing movement of people who agree that salvation is more than intellectual assent to a checklist of theology. Because most of the time, I fail at the mental checklist. I fail to be sure of all the right things. But I love Jesus, and I think following Him is the best way to live. So, with God’s help, I try to do that every day.

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15 thoughts on “we of little faith

  1. Great piece! You really hit on the nail on head. It’s nice to read that there’s someone else who has the same questions and struggles I do as a Christian. I also admire your courage to put it in writing for others to read. — Elizabeth (@eifortune)

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    • Ooh, thanks for linking me to that interview. I’m gonna have to get his book. To the rest of you readers: go read that interview if you like this post.

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  2. One is NOT a souless twit for raising these questions! Dark night of the soul is always a part of faith’s journey in life. Just ask Fletcher Christian from Pilgrims Progress. I think that the element missing in our indvidualist society is being part of a Christian community that embraces the Holy Spirit. As a confessing charismaniac ;) I can’t get enough of the God stories happening in our church community. But also as a confessing evangelical I am aware that many evangelicals lack a faith community that celebrates Holy Spirit and a lot hold charismatic christians in contempt for their excesses and overall wierdness. However, God is present in our faith community in ways He is not permitted to be present in other faith communities. Holy Spirit is a perfect gentleman. He never imposes himself upon us. He only comes when we offer him a sincere invitation. Why not offer Him that invite and see what happens? You could even blog about it! And whatever you do, don’t let the fear of man control your response to him. That is why us charismatics get such a bad rap! We just don’t care a heck of a lot what others think! We just do it and God shows up in a powerful way. Let me know how it goes! :)

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    • Mike, I appreciate that your comment is phrased so gently and kindly. I’m also thankful that you affirm that one can be a believer and still doubt. As someone who grew up Presbyterian and still leans in the liturgical, mainstream protestant direction, I promise, the Holy Spirit is present and active in my live, and I believe dwells within me as a confessing Christian. I just don’t believe that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit favored by more evangelical/charismatic groups are meant for each and every one of us, or even for those of us who do experience them to experience them all the time. I’ve had emotional experiences, particularly in the wake of my grandfather’s death, that I’m sure charismatics would tell me were the Holy Spirit, like the fact that for a while I could only uncontrollably sob when I attempted to pray, or sing a hymn, or talk about God. To me, that was an experience of an outpouring of my grief to God. There are many gifts, but only one giver. I’ll probably never speak in tongues, and that’s fine by me. I don’t doubt because I haven’t had enough physical proof in the form of tongue speaking and whatnot. I doubt because doubting is a part of who I am.

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  3. Frankly, I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t question their faith and religious dogma from time to time. It’s only through questioning and exploring our beliefs that we become more secure in them, and better able to share them with others.

    Give me a Christian who lives a Christ-like life but has temporary doubts over an obnoxious holy-roller who drags a large cross through crowds any day.

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  4. I think it’s being able to see God in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day things that eases my doubts, not the emotional experiences. The emotional experiences play a role, too, but they can so easily be explained or doubted away. As someone who grew up in a charasmatic church but never received the gift of tongues, I know PERSONALLY that it’s easy to fake it and even convince yourself that it’s really happening.

    I believe the Holy Spirit indwells all believers and shows himself in different ways, but the most practical ways are the ones that help me believe. When I do something that I feel is good and beneficial to other people, I feel God. When I get a phone call from a Christian friend on a day when I’m feeling down, I feel God. Those experiences can’t be washed away by the thought that I simply got caught up in the moment or pressure from other people to perform in some way.

    It’s also to important to remember a few things about faith. Faith without doubts isn’t faith … it’s either knowledge or stupidity. And faith without works … well, you are probably familiar with that one.

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  5. glad you liked the interview.

    i’m happy to say that i do believe i have support from those who recognize that questioning / doubting / seeking answers is not an indicator of a failure of faith. i have a husband, friends, & family who love & support me even when i doubt or question. it means so much to me to know that others will go to God in prayer on my behalf. many times over the last year the only prayer i could muster was “God have mercy on me”. He hears me & meets me even when i doubt. clearly he does that for you, too.

    thanks for sharing that experience to reinforce that others are in that place.

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  6. First of all, I’m so glad people are starting to feel more comfortable talking about their doubts. I hope it doesn’t turn into the sort of thing where it’s so commonplace and normal that it’s not a big deal any more, and people just accept their doubts without adding the important second step of working out their faith in the midst of doubt. But for now, I’m glad it’s a topic we can talk about without fear.

    (And now for a few links for further reading.)

    In case you haven’t stumbled upon it yet, I also did a review of the book here: http://www.onwardhoe.com/2010/04/23/doubt-just-a-dirty-word-for-honesty/

    And it’s out now and available cheap at amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0310289491?ie=UTF8&tag=jasoboye-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0310289491

    AND if you want to read more about faith and doubt, Rachel Held Evans has written a book about her struggles with doubt. You can read about it and/or pre-order it here: http://rachelheldevans.com/book

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    • I guess I’m not sure what you mean by hoping people don’t “just accept their doubts.” I wouldn’t have any faith at all if I didn’t accept that doubt is always going to be with me. My husband and I had a conversation about the above commenter who thought I needed more Holy Spirit in my life. The thing is, even if I were in a worship service and suddenly started speaking in tongues, I’d STILL doubt that. I’d still wonder if it were coming from me or if it were really coming from God, I’d wonder about the way we use worship services to psychologically manipulate reactions, like the way they use certain chords at certain times to get everyone to put their hands up in the air at the same time during a song. I am just a person with doubts, but it doesn’t change my love for Jesus. In some ways, it helps me to understand and be all the more amazed by Jesus’ love, since Jesus accepts me as I am, often a bumbling idiot like Peter, often a doubter like Thomas. As far as I’m concerned, loving and seeking to follow the ways of Jesus are the only thing that matters. The rest is all mystery.

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  7. I feel like I should have weighed in over here earlier, but short of writing a full-length essay I have little to add. I will point out, though, that we’re only reviving an older way of discussing salvation.

    Compare, for instance, France in 1200 with France in 1700. In 1200 the question wasn’t about doctrine – you were Catholic. The question was whether you lived a lifestyle in accordance with that. In 1700 the question now might legitimately be whether one believed in God, and if so how (Catholic, Protestant, Deist?). I think these later differences tend to swamp out the fact that a Catholic mugger stabs you just as hard as an atheist mugger, and that doctrine simply isn’t important unless it is also lived out.

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  8. By “just accept their doubts,” I mean accept their doubts and do nothing more. Here’s what happens (and I’m not saying that doubt = sin, but it happens a lot with sin, so I’m using it as an example):

    Jesus says that lust is a sin, but our culture tells us that lust is a natural part of human sexuality. Everyone lusts. We just can’t help it. It’s just who we are. And we hear this so much that we begin to think, “Hey, yeah, I’m just normal.” So we accept lust as a part of who we are, and we don’t try to do anything about it.

    The more we talk openly about doubt, the more common we realize it is. Everybody doubts to some degree. I just don’t want us to accept it as the norm and leave it at that, not seeking God, following Jesus, and actively working out our faith. Doubting is fine and normal as long as we’re doing those other things in the midst of our doubts.

    There’s actually a chapter in “O Me of Little Faith” that talks about how we can become paralyzed by doubt, but that doubt is a terrible excuse for inaction. That’s all I’m saying.

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    • Hm. I think I’d side with “culture” on the lust issue, because I think many in the church have made lust out to equal “any sexual thought and/or arousal, even without conscious intent” such that we have guys flipping out if a Victoria’s Secret ad comes on tv because any slight arousal, they believe, is sinful lust. The common Christian definition of what lust and sexual sin is, is, in my opinion, harmful to healthy sexuality for humans as biological organisms who often experience arousal and sexual thoughts for no reason at all.

      As far as doubt, I think for people who tend toward the intellectual, who are fairly cerebral, it IS the norm. It IS going to always be with me. Yeah, I still love Jesus and try to live that out, but at least once a month, I get this heart-freezing feeling of panic that none of it is true and there is no God. Usually, I can just let that feeling pass, but it will ALWAYS come up for me.

      I guess it bothers me that those who do not experience doubt seem to think that it means we who do are like, running from the faith. Or aren’t living it out. Or are doing “inaction.” And at least in my case, that’s just not true. And it’s not true of many doubters I know. At least to me, even if there turns out to be no such person as Jesus, I think the way following Jesus causes me to live, with humility, with concern for others and the planet, with love, are worthwhile things, and so I keep following, even when I don’t feel it.

      I guess it just bothers me when people who are non-doubters tell us doubters, oh, work past it. The people who speak to me are fellow doubters, like Flannery O’Connor, whose letters collected in Of Mystery and Manners seriously changed my faith.

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  9. I guess “doubter” would be a more concise term for “born Southern Baptist, raised strictly conservative, in high school realized she was bisexual pro-choice and pro-equality of all kinds, loves the concept of saints, thinks Jesus was a cool dude but no inherently cooler than other very nice kindhearted passionate people she’s met in her life and in books, is married to a fairly liberal Baptist, doesn’t attend church at all, misses singing hymns but not the rest of it.” I’ve been considering the Unitarian Universalists, because they seem very into the concepts of spirituality and unity and love and joy and very not into all the stuff I hate about the Church (whatever kind you want). “Doubter,” though, would be an easier way to say that.

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