She asked, "How is your faith?"
|Graduation Day w/ Amanda (right) and my Mom|
Being asked to simply evaluate my faith was profound. You see, seminary is packed with lots of stuff that can impact faith. It was a pressure-packed three years of working and going to school through which God moved profoundly yet could also induce deep struggle.
Some days, learning certain aspects of church history, systematic theology, ethics, or even Biblical Greek could inform and challenge what you felt you knew about Christianity in a way that brought history, your experience, tradition, reason, spirituality, and yes, faith, to a place where you had to wrestle with questions.
Here's the thing. That was all amazing and good. Do we not know we need to pursue God, participate with God, and that this will always, yes ALWAYS, lead us to a crisis of faith? (As in the good words of Henry Blackaby outlines in the bible study Experiencing God, which is a game-changer if you've never done that intensive study before and it isn't even a seminary class!)
Just as Jacob gained the name Israel for being stubborn and wrestling with God all night long, so too do we find ourselves brought to points where we question, we wonder, we doubt, or we are brought to our knees in surrender. We might lose someone close to us in a battle with cancer, be confronted with a difficult text of Scripture or two passages seemingly at odds, not understand why our very being might seem drawn to the very actions which we do not want to do or think, been burned by friends or church-going people in the past, or feel like we never catch a break to get out of the financial or vocational hole we feel trapped in, but there are those things when we are honest with ourselves and with God we know we question. We have certain traits or beliefs to which we cling stubbornly or perhaps are simply naive enough to recognize we do not know it all and so as all the complex matters of spirituality and theology (and trust me, we all have one even if it isn't well thought out) run their course in our lives, our minds, and our hearts. It might work its way out in our lives with a question like, "Why do good things happen to bad people?" or vice versa, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"
Questions abound when we live before God and others authentically and humbly. No systematic theology is a bullet-proof exposition of our reality. God is not bound by our boxes.
No two of us are the same, and no two of us can have the same answer to the question Amanda asked me: "How is your faith?"
My response then was that it was stronger than ever...in Jesus Christ, in God, in the Spirit.
You see, what seminary showed me was how much larger, deeper, wider, and nuanced the love and way of God is than the rigid dogmas many groups hold to. Seminary was a necessary part of my journey (but it might not be for you). Necessary because in it I was faithfully pursuing God and His call on my life, summed up nicely by what Jesus sums the law up in as the greatest commandment. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength. As Tom Parker, the director of Fuller Seminary Southwest, loves to point out...this love is not multiple choice! I cannot choose simply to love with my heart without loving with my mind.
Throughout seminary, I faced many days where I wrestled with ideas, concepts, verses, the call of God, you name it. Learning about textual criticism, the possible and likely dating and sourcing of books of the Bible, the context and genres surrounding a particular text, could have caused me to give up or to try to revert to an "ignorance is bliss" type of attitude. Yet, that would not have been faithful to God. That would not have been loving God with all my mind. What was the faithful, loving response was to remain fixed upon God while letting go of the other aspects of my Christianity that we not God.
My faith in God and in Jesus Christ grew stronger.
But my faith in man-made ideas or even theories about the Bible decreased. I had to die to self and take up my cross daily. I had to let God by God of my life.
For me, this meant that I had to let the Bible be what it lets itself be, filled with letters, poetry, ancient narrative, gospels, apocalyptic works, proverbs, and filled with amazing and disturbing material.
My faith grew in God, and removed from the idol of the Bible as "God's rule-book for life." (yes, there are command in here, but that isn't the point of a vast majority of the Bible!)
My faith grew in God, and removed from trying to think of the Bible as a science textbook, another idol. It is not a faith that has to deny science or reason, but understands their integration as a part of His reality. Science is simply another way God reveals Himself to us. I don't get to pick and choose some studies and reject others anymore than I get to proof text some passages of Scripture and ignore others.
My faith grew in God, the law-giver, grew and removed from idolizing the very law given. (while still be applicable in our lives! Not abolished, but fulfilled!)
My faith grew in Jesus Christ, and removed from the pride of leaning on my own understanding, which was a particular statement of faith, church tradition, and so-called systematic theology. I still have them today, but my hold on them is different. With humility my question changed from "Am I right about this?" to "Could I be wrong about this?" and what was amazing is that my faith was strengthen in the lack of certainty!
Yes, my faith grew in God, and I let go of the idol of certainty. In fact, certainty is more the enemy of faith than doubt! Faith is rooted not in what I can prove, but for what I hope...and that hope resides in God being "I am."
Reading the Psalms in Hebrew, after learning about David's complex life in Old Testament classes, was a point where the simply honesty and authenticity of their lives, their thanksgivings, praises, laments, and supplications shone forth with a new and revealing light. God wants us simply to come as we are before Him! We might be angry, and ask for God to vindicate us. We might be disparaging and just want God to show up in our lives. We may be grateful and simply heap blessings upon Him.
The act of simply, honestly coming before God, without walls put up in our souls, without wearing masks that everything is going 'just fine,' is what brings Him Glory. We acknowledge God as our God, Jesus as our Lord.
My faith in God, in Jesus, grew stronger through seminary.
No longer do I have to create complicated rejections of knowledge, reading, or alternate opinions because I know that God is at work in the world.
The question is not "Am I right about this?" but "Am I being faithful and loving?"
The shift in this question lets me discuss theology with someone who is strongly deterministic in their understanding of God's sovereignty, disagree with them, and yet recognize that to the best of my knowledge we are both being faithful to God. We're just both still on the journey.
I can embrace religion, spirituality, civil rights, and people with much different beliefs and life experiences with me with a measure of humility, not having to convince them they are wrong, but hopefully letting God work in their lives and simply be a reflection of His light shining through love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control in which I hope to allow to shine through me.
I can know someone struggling with grief, and hope to just be there faithfully with them, not having to provide an answer which I am sure would seem trite or anecdotal rather than authentic.
I can laugh at myself, knowing that I can still slip into the tendency to want to prove my understanding and start to lose patience as others don't understand things the way I do. (Laughing at myself is simply the first step here in my realizing my need for grace, and to repent of doing this!)
My faith in God grew, consequently meaning my faith in other people grew too.
I have faith that the intentions of those who state that they are seeking God are true, and so encourage and exhort rather than condemn or judge.
I have faith, knowing that I wrestle with God, to ask the questions that let others wrestle with God as well. Such wrestling often means not that I give them the answers, but to try to show how their thoughts might work throughout their life and let God work in them.
I have faith that people can be transformed and can change as they encounter God where they are.
I have faith that God knows what He intends for each of us, if we will let Him work in our lives, and that He actually listens to our prayers.
I have faith that when Jesus says we are to Love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, that this is the ultimate and primary concern we are to occupy ourselves with...and that other people hopefully are growing in this realization just like I am (because truth be told I am nowhere near perfect on this account).
My faith in God grew stronger.
But that strength was in the persons of God, of Jesus Christ, and of the Spirit.
In doing so my faith in idols had to dwindle and die.
My response: to rejoice.
I rejoice in the complexity and uncertainty of life.
I rejoice in a loving, sovereign God who is patient with us as we journey together with Him and others.
I rejoice in the grace which was brought to us all in Jesus Christ.
I rejoice because faith, hope, and love remain. (Paul definitely understood even if we don't always understand Paul!)
I rejoice in troubles, doubts, or struggles because I know that God somehow will bring me through it, growing my faith.
I rejoice in learning, because in learning I let God be God, and me humbly be His servant.
I rejoice in loving others, even though I know that can be difficult for me to do sometimes.
I rejoice in letting others be themselves, again learning the humility and patience in this life extended us by God and participated in by those who are being made in Jesus' image (both female and male!).
I rejoice, because I have faith.
One thing I learned was that even if I didn't want to believe, I couldn't stop having faith. God doesn't give up on us, and there is that grip deep down inside of me that cannot let go of God.
Instead, that deep down part of me grows stronger, knowing that I am not God, but that God is.
This is how my faith grows stronger in God each and every day while at the same time destroying the idols in my life.
Such is my answer to the question Amanda asked me.
Now I ask you: How is your faith?