Faith Out of the Box

wooden cartons of books stacked haphazardly
Image by Ulrike Leone on Pixabay

Is your faith boxed up so tight that Life is going to smash it to smithereens? Or maybe it has already.

[A note to my atheist, agnostic, and non-Christian readers: We all believe in something, whether it is science, nature, humanity, Rah, Allah, Krishna or something else. When was the last time you thought about what/who you believe in? Really thought about it? I encourage you to read this post and think of how your own beliefs are strengthened or challenged by the questions raised.]

In my post Living With The Hard Questions I touch a moment on Faith. I’d like to delve deeper on this here.

There are many ways to define Faith, as shown by

  1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.
  2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
  3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.
  4. belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty.
  5. a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.

I like best the The Cambridge Dictionary summation: “great trust or confidence in something or someone”.

closeup of squirrel nose-to-nose with woman
Great trust indeed! Photo by Myriam Zilles on Pixabay

I was set back a bit the other day, when my good friend stated that she knew she wouldn’t get the COVID-19 virus. “I’ve prayed about it, and I know God is protecting me from getting it. I have too much to do here yet.”

Now there is a statement of faith! She still wears a mask when going to the grocery store and practices social distancing (as much out of respect for others as for herself), but in general doesn’t worry or stress about getting the virus.

My initial reaction was a combination of You have got to be kidding me!-type surprise, and I remember when I had that kind of child-like faith-type sadness. I didn’t say anything, but my reaction must have shown on my face, because she reiterated, “I asked God, and I have faith that He’s keeping me safe.”

So, does she have more faith than I do? Or is my faith more sophisticated than hers?

Neither. We’re both imperfect humans. We simply walk our faith in different ways, according to who we are, and where we are in our relationships with God. In her case, she won’t get it. In my case, if I get it (using the same precautions), then there is a reason for it, and I trust God will use the experience, whether I see the results or not.

Let me try to explain, using my own life, as I have neither the knowledge nor wisdom to discern anyone else’s path.

My faith journey (abbreviated)

Many lit candles in a tray of sand
Photo by annca on Pixabay

I was baptized as an infant into the Lutheran Church, but my faith walk, you might call it, started in my teens. I wanted to know more about God, and the Lutheran Church I was attending not only had a confirmation class but a very active youth group that welcomed kids from many churches, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Seventh-Day Adventist and Catholic. It was also heavily influenced by the Charismatic movement and other trends of the 60s and 70s. There were Bible studies, healing services, and in small group worship on retreats there might be a prophecy or speaking in tongues. Even during Sunday morning Worship people would raise their hands during hymns and prayers.

Mine wasn’t an overnight conversion or altar call affair. (We had those, too, but not on Sunday morning!) It was a gradual awakening. I soaked up all the learning I could, from the Catechism to the Bible to the great hymns to the old gospel songs sung in Sunday School. Somewhere along the line I realized that I believed.

When I went to Bible School after graduation, I fully expected my beliefs to be challenged and changed. Surprisingly, they were mostly reinforced. But I also got burned out.

And it was burned-out me that went to Europe to work with a mission to Churches behind the Iron Curtain for the summer, taking restricted or banned study materials to churches in East Germany and Poland, and even Bibles into Bulgaria. My language skills weren’t as good as I’d thought, and I often felt like a fifth wheel on the team with nothing to contribute. Was I really supposed to be here? I was supposed to be encouraging these people, but I felt empty myself.

On our way back from a Bible study in Dresden, (then East Germany/DDR), the study leader we were taking home turned in his seat and looked at me. “Don’t let the Enemy fool you,” he said as one of my companions translated. “Your very presence here has consequences in the fight against evil.”

I’d had no personal interaction with the man other than an initial exchange of first names 3 hours prior. Yet inside, I knew the words he spoke were True, even if I didn’t really understand them. It was faith and a touch of the Holy Spirit.

Black and white photo of a person standing in foggy woods
I often don’t see what’s around me. Photo by Xin on Unsplash

After that summer, I worked at a Christian Youth Hostel in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Through ups and downs, my faith was challenged in unexpected ways. (see Alone And Strong) During a down time, one of the managers came up to me and told me to smile. “Who is going to want to be a Christian if we aren’t smiling and happy?” I was floored, and decided to leave at the end of September instead of waiting until Christmas. Instinctively I knew that was wrong; that wasn’t what faith was about.

I couldn’t handle that sort of dichotomy: smiling outside when I was hurting inside. I have since learned that is one of the most dangerous hypocrisies for a Christian or any type of believer: If you can’t be your genuine self amongst those who are supposed to support you, get out and get out fast.

In the years since, I’ve been through loss, through major depression where I curled up on the couch and cried for days, but also through successes, caring friends, challenges met, and great joys.

I’ve learned that there’s a lot going on in the world that I have no idea of.

I’ve learned that Faith isn’t asking God what I want and demanding he fulfill it “or else”. Nor is it something I’m lacking if I don’t get the answer I want. It’s not even a muscle to be exercised to bring the Universe into alignment with my own desires and plans.

Success Gospel preachers love to use Jesus’ parable of the tiny mustard seed. “Even a little faith will move the mountains in your life,” they love to say, putting the onus on the believer and setting most everyone up for failure. I don’t think Jesus was trying to emphasize the amount in that way; rather, I believe he was trying to emphasize Who/What the faith was grounded in.

It doesn’t matter how small your faith is, if your God is big enough.

If I believe I can turn tin into gold with just the right amount of copper and some secret ingredient, it doesn’t matter how hard I believe, how many different catalysts I try or how hot I get it; I won’t get gold. Misplaced faith helps no one.

I can believe in the Theory of Relativity or I can believe in String Theory. Both have evidence pointing to them, but they seemingly contradict one another. Many scientists have chosen a side and essentially vowed to fight to the death for their faith in their favorite theory. But why not continue to ask questions, to seek for a Unified theory? There is so much we still don’t know.

Biologists, epidemiologists and others are diligently working to find a vaccine (if not a cure) for the COVID-19 virus. Yet even as some possibilities are going to trial, we are learning how little we know about the virus and how our bodies react to it. Do the scientists give up? No. (At least I hope not!) They keep learning, adapting and modifying processes as they go along.

Spiritual faith is similar. If your belief is in a system of credits and debits, it’s bound to fail. We aren’t perfect, and I don’t believe we can be of ourselves. If your God is in a box, hemmed in by certain expectations and conditions, you’re in trouble when life crashes in and splinters the box.

I had to let God out of the box. Sure, I look to the Bible as the best authority on who God is and how God works, but those portrayals are through the boxes of the cultures and writers of their times. Even Jesus’ words, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” come to us through the box of the apostles and the early church leaders who determined that this writing was valid and others weren’t. It’s the closest thing we have to a biography of God, but that isn’t really what it is. Rather it’s a history of God’s working with and through people in particular times and places. So naturally it is colored by the perceptions of those same people, for good or ill. That is why, the theologian will tell you, there is the Holy Spirit to help figure out this stuff.

And that gives me comfort. If God can use some pretty crazy – even bloodthirsty – people to get the point across, then he can even use me. Doubting, questioning, self-centered me.

baby's hand resting in an adult's palm
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

So when it comes to spiritual faith, I put my “great confidence and trust” in a God who defies the boxes I try to put him in, yet still holds me in the palm of his hand, and by grace says, “You are precious in my eyes and honored, and I love you.”

Grace, Peace and Hugs to you.

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