Category Archives: Faith
Just so you know, this is going to be a rambling, unfocused blog post because that’s how my relationship with God is right now.
The way I approach my faith and my theology has undergone so many shifts in the past few years, and I’ve realized that some of these shifts are unhealthy. I’ve written about the negative effects of having shed the little box of conservatism that I grew up in (see this post, and this one). But recently I’ve been mulling over how my attitude about Christianity has become largely reactive.
Christian people say things, or write things, or share them on Facebook, and I so often impulsively push back against what they say. You’re trying to tell me that the Bible is “clear” about this issue or that issue? Let me show you how incredibly ambiguous it is. You think that this is the way Christians should respond to such-and-such an issue? Let me show you how that person responded, and how I think it is a very Christian-like response despite looking nothing like what you’d think.
The list goes on. I resist the attempts of those around me to guide me to a place of agreement and mutual understanding, and instead dig for the flaws in their ways of thinking.
I think it’s because I’ve gotten used to being disappointed whenever I bring up my struggles with my faith to another Christian. Much more often than not, when I talk about my shifting ideas and my new ways of seeing God and believing in the Bible and interacting with other people as a follower of Christ, I am met with firm advice to remember that God is God, and I shouldn’t be reinventing His character to suit my conscience, or twisting his Word to make it believe what I want to believe.
So the conversation turns reactive. I push back against their ideas, trying to make them understand in my own naturally antagonistic, argumentative tone that there is more to experience in Jesus than the same old tropes we hear about time and again.
But then I feel like a hypocrite, because even as I try to convince the Christians around me that I have discovered something stronger, deeper, more lovely than what I was taught to believe growing up, I remember that I’ve lost that feeling and I’m in a spiritual dry spell right now. And if that is how I feel, who’s to say I am right about any of it?
But you know what?
It’s a good thing faith doesn’t depend on how I feel. Or on how distant God feels. Or on how much I am struggling with these strange new theologies I’m exploring, even as I see a ring of truth in them. Faith is more than that. It’s realizing that God is working in my life even when it doesn’t feel that way. It’s realizing he loves me deeply even though I alienate those around me with my rash opinions and my reactionary attitude.
I know that is all basic stuff; the kind of stuff people like me who have been a part of the Christian religion their whole lives should have nailed down and secure by now. Be kind and gentle, not argumentative. Know you are beloved anyway, don’t doubt it.
It is easier said than done, easier said than believed. But it’s true.
Over the last few days, I’ve been mulling further over everything I was taught at the retreat last weekend. One of the recurring themes seemed to be standing up for our beliefs, and being vocal about defending the truth in the Bible. We talked about our roots as a Christian nation, and how much more moral our society was fifty years ago, and how we must hearken back to those days to recapture the values that the Bible champions.
Of course I have my own misgivings about that language, but what I want to write about today is the tendency we as Christians have to take matters into our own hands. We fret and worry about how degenerate our nation has become, and how we must rally to restore values that have changed in our culture. And we guilt-trip each other with the responsibility of witnessing: “What if this person dies in a car crash on their way home from work today, and you missed the only opportunity you’ll ever have to show them Jesus and save them from eternal damnation?”
I’ve been thinking about this tendency, and of all things, relating it to Peter’s actions in the Garden of Gethsemane right before Jesus was arrested. In Matthew 26:51-54, we read:
“And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. Forall who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
Now, this could quite possibly be an interpretive stretch, but I think you and I have a lot to learn from Peter here (we know this is Peter because of a similar passage in John). I don’t think Jesus is just chastising Peter for resorting to violence when his beloved Messiah is threatened. Jesus is reminding Peter that He is God, that he is capable of constructing events in the garden however he wishes, and that if Jesus is arrested it doesn’t have anything to do with God’s failure to protect him—or Peter’s failure to protect him—and everything to do with a larger plan, a larger story playing out that Peter can’t see in the moment.
I think that when many Christians talk about how we are responsible for telling as many people as we can about Jesus, when we talk about how we are responsible for imposing “biblical” (read: conservative) values on our culture, we are guilty of doing what Peter did in the Garden of Gethsemane. We are relying on our own strength, and our own supposed knowledge of what God’s will is, to bring about change and usher in what we think God desires of our lives and our nation.
But just think about it: Peter thought he was doing what was best. He was defending Jesus. He was standing up boldly and making a statement of devotion by cutting off that soldier’s ear; it was undoubtedly a very brave thing to do.
But that wasn’t the plan God had in store. God had a larger, more beautiful, more liberating plan for Jesus in that moment. He wasn’t supposed to be just another revolutionary, inspiring people to take up arms and fight for his defense. It was never God’s intention to call down angels to the rescue of his Son. Instead Jesus went away calmly with his captors and subjected himself to humiliation and torture and death.
He lived and trusted in God’s plan for his life, instead of walking through life as if everything depended on his own actions and words to usher in the Kingdom. So perhaps we ought to live like Jesus, and a little less like Peter. Perhaps we ought to remember that we are not responsible for how God works in the hearts of people to draw them to himself. That his plan so far beyond our own limited vision, just as it was in that garden.
God’s kingdom will come, and we must have faith in that. God’s plans are so much bigger than inspiring us to cut off the ears of soldiers in our defense of him. Maybe the best way forward is to obey Jesus’ words to Peter, put away our swords, and trust in God’s future as we grow and walk with Him.
Before I delve into the wonderful gem of a film that is Philomena, let me offer a quick apology for the lengthy hiatus. Work and life have been keeping me very occupied these last few weeks, and I just haven’t had the time to write as much as I would like. Now that I’m falling back into a routine, hopefully I’ll be able to write much more regularly.
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Let me be blunt, right from the start: Philomena is one of the most captivating films I’ve seen in a very long time. The film touched my heart and left me in awe of the power of storytelling to leave such a profound impact. The acting is fantasic, the storyline is well-paced and the plot is irresistibly alluring. I found myself watching this film, and hoping desperately for a happy ending even as the tone of the film revealed itself for the bittersweet, realistic portrayal of heartbreak and healing.
Philomena centers around two characters: Philomena Lee, an elderly woman with a gentle yet spirited character; and Martin Sixsmith, a cynical, witty journalist whose career has taken a turn for the worse. Together, Philomena and Martin embark on a quest to locate Philomena’s long-lost son, a boy she gave birth to in a convent as a teenager, who was later given up for adoption against her will. Through flashbacks, we learn of Philomena’s traumatic experiences at the convent and the injustices she endured as a young woman desperate to be with her son, yet parted from him unexpectedly. Martin, upon hearing what happened to her, agrees to accompany her on her search and write a human interest story about their journey.
One of the best qualities of this film is the masterful way it balances light, witty humor with heavy, serious content. The weight of the film lies almost exclusively on the relationship between Philomena and Martin, who form an unlikely friendship despite having personalities that couldn’t possibly be more different. There are moments of dialogue that left me breathless with laughter, followed by seamless shifts in tone when the film turns to its more sobering content.
Both Philomena and Martin process what she went through in different ways: Martin expresses his frustration and distaste for organized religion and the way the convent nuns mistreated Philomena. He defends Philomena in a way she refuses to do for herself, and angrily confronts the nuns responsible for giving her son away. He is blunt in his disapproval of Christianity, yet he never disrespects Philomena for her faith.
Philomena herself reacts very differently to everything that happened to her. She bears no ill will for the convent sisters, and even defends them in some cases. Yet her sorrow at a lifetime of not knowing the whereabouts of her son is also evident, so the terrible actions of the nuns are never presented as anything less than atrocious, despite Philomena’s forgiving spirit.
Sometimes, the best faith films are the ones that are subtle, as Philomena is. It is clear that Philomena is a woman of faith, and the audience sees the fruit of her faith in her ability to forgive and her simple, confident responses to Martin’s tirades about God. Conversely, Martin is a deeply conflicted character filled with angst and cynicism, yet as his character is fleshed out we come to see the goodness of his heart, expressed by his desire to achieve justice for Philomena.
From faith to doubt, hard revelations and redemptive forgiveness, this film is relatable on so many levels, and presents a perspective on the Christian faith that is both critical and positive at the same time. So if you’re the sort of person who appreciates incredible character development, a gripping storyline, and a realistic portrayal of the consequences of abusing religion while remaining true to its ability to bring peace in a troubled life, I highly recommend Philomena.
This Christian life is such a freaking roller coaster ride. Sometimes, it’s downright exhausting.
Until a few weeks ago, I was sailing along pretty easily. I was thinking gracious thoughts towards those around me, and meditating on what God wants of me. I was reading my Bible hungrily and with a submissive spirit that feels pretty rare these days. Basically, things were going pretty well for me, spiritually speaking. I was at the top of a hill, convinced that the valleys were far behind me.
Then, in the space of a week, my circumstances took a huge turn for the worse. My roommate moved out unexpectedly, leaving me having to suddenly pay extra on rent and depleting my savings account, which is always something that stresses me out tremendously. Then just two days later, I got bad news about my family. I’ll spare you the details of it, but basically my dad has bi-polar disorder and had to be hospitalized. I know this doesn’t sound like too much of a crisis, but trust me, it was.
So in the space of those few days, I went from feeling positive and optimistic and loving towards my heavenly Father…to not caring a bit about anything related to God, and just wanting to be home with my family. So I made the drive, and spent a weekend with them. I visited my dad twice, which was extremely difficult for me emotionally. And then I drove back to an ordinary week at work, when inside I was falling apart at the seams.
Right now, my heart is still heavy, but I am on the mend and am able to process everything I’m going through. I still haven’t found a roommate, so I’m still feeling incredibly anxious. But my dad’s situation is improving a lot, and he may be released from the hospital early next week. So all in all, things are looking up for me. But during that week while I was still an emotional wreck about everything that was going on, I just didn’t give a fig for God. He wasn’t the one I turned to for comfort; it was to friends and family. I regarded my Bible with bitterness and angst, instead of drawing comfort from its holy words, as many of my friends tried to help me to do.
And now, as I process all of this, there is one thought that recurrently runs through my head: Geez. Faith is so fickle.
All it took was my circumstances being derailed out of my control for any sense of security I felt in Jesus to evaporate into thin air. All it took was a combination of these two crises—mostly what happened with my dad, but the roommate situation really wasn’t helping matters—for every faithful, positive thought I had about God to just drain completely out of me. I think the reasons for this are complicated, because I really believe it has a lot to do with the specifics circumstances of my dad’s story, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
Because seriously. What does that say about me? What does that say about the true strength of my walk with God? I get dealt a bad blow in life, and suddenly a faith that felt alive and vibrant and pushing forward suddenly felt dead and useless? In the space of a week I went from feeling secure to feeling hopeless, feeling optimistic to feeling apathetic, feeling joy to feeling downright miserable pain and abandonment.
How does that happen?
It’s so discouraging. And yet, if nothing else, what I’ve gone through over the last few weeks have taught me this: God’s grace, God’s love, are not dependent on my feelings. Whether I am soaring to the peak of a hill, or trapped in a valley so low I don’t even care if God exists at all, He is there, loving me still. That will never change, no matter how difficult and emotionally taxing my circumstances are.
Faith has never been about my emotions.
It’s just so hard to remind myself of that when the emotions are all negative ones.
I ask myself that question sometimes. Why me? Why did God choose that I be born into the family that I was born into? Why did he afford me place of such extreme privilege? I hear about the stories…the things that are happening in the other parts of the world and even in my own country, and it makes me realize how incredibly, unfairly blessed I am. I take these things for granted every day: running water, heat, an apartment of my own, a car, a stable job that I enjoy. Siblings with whom I have a strong bond, parents who have showered love on me from the moment I was born, the opportunity to attend a fantastic college. No one has ever persecuted me because of my religious beliefs, no one has ever threatened my safety in any way, and no one has ever bullied me.
The list is nearly infinite. And I think…why? Why have I been given so very much in this life? It is so very easy to take it all for granted and not connect with the reality that my life is abundantly privileged in every way.
Sometimes I feel this deeply abiding sense of guilt for the wonderful life I have led. I think about inspirational stories of people who have pulled themselves up from the ashes, who have been born into the most destitute of circumstances, found God, and went on achieve so much in the name of the Savior.
And I wonder: why don’t I feel as though I am on the path to achieve these things? I, who have had all the support in the world?
The more I reflect on this, the more I wonder…maybe I have it all backwards. After all, many of the men and women of God throughout the Bible who began their lives from a place of privilege were the worst examples of what it means to live a life bent to the will of the Father. Saul, Solomon, pretty much all the OT Israelite kings, the Pharisees—these people were all blessed with abundance and stature, and they were completely corrupted. And of course there are exceptions, such as David and Josiah in the OT, and Matthew the tax collector in the NT.
But most of the people Jesus chose as disciples were the ones who were barely scraping by, who knew little of what it means to live in comfort. And I have to wonder if this is because they were more malleable. They knew what it meant to be compelled to rely on another for their daily bread, and so perhaps their hearts were more teachable (though I can’t be certain—after all, Peter strikes me as pretty obstinate fellow!).
So I think there is room to feel grateful for my privilege, but also to realize that sometimes privilege can lead you to believe your life is a blessing from God instead of a hurdle that prevents you from learning utter dependence on Jesus. God gave me the life that he did for a reason, but I need to be aware of what this comfortable life that I have means in light of my relationship with the Lord.
Thank you for showing me what it means to have a heart of compassion and to give sacrificially to others, even when they don’t deserve kindness. Thank you for modeling what it means to pursue a relationship with God that is wholly authentic and never fake. Thank you for being real about the shortcomings of the Church, and not ever letting your children blindly think it’s all okay. You listen so well, and you hear with an ear that seeks empathy before judgment, understanding before condemnation. You have a beautiful way of smoothing rough edges when feelings are hurt, and pointing me back to what it really means to be a follower of Christ.
You don’t tell me what I want to hear, but rather exactly what I need to hear. Sometimes I’m pretty annoyed at you for doing that, but I almost always learn and grow because of what you say. You know exactly how to calm me when I’m feeling flustered and agitated and even angry, and that’s a such a marvelous blessing.
And you taught me to wrestle with my faith and be honest about the condition of my heart. You’re real about your feelings of distance from God, and if frustration is what you feel, it’s also what you express. But you’re equally real about the fact that you have, beyond a shadow of doubt, known His presence. And that gives me hope, if for no other reason than because I can live vicariously through you and know that God is here and real and walking in the midst of our daily lives, even when He feels a thousand miles away. Your testimony gives me courage.
So, for all of it, thank you. I love you.
Thank you standing firmly by your convictions. Even though it has led to heartache and misunderstandings, I know that I can always depend on you to be faithful to your belief in Jesus and the infallibility of the Bible. You are like a rock in the stream of life, and often I feel like a fish, floundering in the current and desperate to find my way. You taught me what it looks like to have a high esteem for Scripture, and treat it with the reverence it deserves. Your devotion to Scripture has a large role to play in the reasons why I always “return to the fold”, so to speak, every time I doubt God’s Word and wonder if it’s just a collection of fairy tales.
And the way you live your life and show love to others has kept me in check, and reminded me that even though we rarely see eye-to-eye theologically anymore, our theological beliefs should never get in the way of our ability to love. Yours never have, not once—at least not around me. Even when I’ve felt hurt by the times we talk about God, you always remind me at the end of our discussions that you love me. So thank you, for never letting your theology get in the way of demonstrating love for the people around you.
Thank you, too, for your wisdom and your courage. You never settle for the easy way out, but live out your life with a heart that is in pursuit of truth. You inspire me to search it out too, and not settle with doctrines just because they are held by church leaders. My path has been turning out to be different from yours, but I think it is the same truth-hungering spirit that guides us.
And more than anyone else I know, it is from you that I have learned that God is to be revered. That’s a pretty important lesson to learn, I’d say.
I love you, Dad.
I’m ready to hope again. I’m ready to cast off the cynicism and the bitterness and the frustration with the institution of Church and give it another go. I’m ready to listen and learn, ready to forgive faults and see human beings in earnest search of God before I see broken theologies and lives lived within the cage of religious fear.
I’m ready to share my new thoughts and ideas unashamedly, and I’m ready to be held accountable for them. I’m ready to take constructive criticism, and learn from those who are old and wiser than me, instead of rejecting what they have to say because it doesn’t fit right in this new season of Christian faith I’ve stumbled my way into.
I’m ready to extend grace, ready to receive it. Ready to remember that ultimately, my faith isn’t about me. My faith is about God, and my faith is about how well I serve and love Him. And serving and loving Him well is darn near to impossible without a faith community to remind me what selfless love looks like.
More than anything, I think I’m ready to transform my life, one mundane day at a time, into a life of servitude. Into a life that remembers that we are all a piece of the image of God, and that even the least of these has the power to point me heavenward, because God’s love for the least of these is no less whole than God’s love for me.
I’m ready. Take my heart, God.
This afternoon as I introspectively considered my experiences at church this morning, I realized something terrible. I’ve been going to church on Sunday mornings every single week since my work schedule changed back in February. I’ve been doing Bible studies once or twice a week as well, and showing up at *my* church’s extracurricular stuff, like dinners and Saturday night church services and women’s conferences. Seriously. I’ve probably been putting in like six to seven hours a week at church consistently since February.
And my terrible realization is this. I haven’t had a positive thought—a genuine, glad thought about being at these various church activities—hardly at all since I’ve been going. I won’t make an absolute statement here, because that wouldn’t be true (I have learned some really meaningful things here and there), but overwhelmingly I’ve just felt critical, or bitter, or disappointed about the things I’ve learned in church over the past nine months.
How did I get here? How did I get to this place where church is no longer my sanctuary, my safe place where everyone thinks and acts the same way I do? With all the soul-searching I’ve done over the last year, all the transformations I’ve gone through in what I believe about Christian doctrine, about God, about who I am as a believer in Christ, you’d think I’d be more tolerant of the people at my church who still think the way I used to. But I’m not. I’m angry at them. I’m angry that belief is so easy for them, that answers come without a second thought and without wondering if they could be wrong. I’m angry that everything makes sense and that they can water down the Christian faith into an easily navigable system of theology.
I can’t do that anymore, and I refuse to try. And my refusal to put Christianity, the Bible, God himself into a box makes me feel like an outsider in the one place I’ve always felt I belonged.
Church never taught me what to do when I feel as though I have more in common with the liberals of this world than the conservatives. It never taught me what to do when I can’t see past all the things that it has screwed up in me. Things like teaching me homophobia, like skewing the way I regard scripture, and like teaching me how to live rightly, but not necessarily how to love rightly.
I’m so very tempted to give up on church, to just leave it altogether for awhile. It’s become so very hard for me to see God there, and I can’t figure out if that’s because of me and my bitter heart, or if it’s because church is doing a lot of things so wrongly that the institution can’t be fixed. Even this vein of thought that I’m entertaining—this idea that the church exists to feed me, to bolster me, to conform to my idea of what it means to be a body of Christ—feels like a product of the individualized spin the church has always given on the Christian faith. The church is failing me when it doesn’t meet my expectations. Not the other way around.
And now I feel like screaming because I’m back to the self-blame. At the end of the day, I guess all I know is that I don’t feel at peace there in that place that is meant to be the sanctuary of God. Truth is, I haven’t for a long time.
God, I’m tired of looking for you in all the wrong places. I used to wrap you up in doctrine, but now I’m wrapping you up in doubt about doctrine. I’m wrapping you up in this impossible quest to know what is true about you and what isn’t. I’m tired of expending so much energy into trying to figure out what I’m supposed to believe, how those beliefs are supposed to saturate the way I live my life for you.
I’m tired of questions, tired of fear, tired of pressing down a rag to muffle that voice deep in my heart that whispers so many doubts and fears and desperation into my soul. And I’m tired of the fact that no matter how much I try to silence it, that voice doesn’t ever really go away.
I’m tired of my church telling me what my beliefs ought to be. I’m tired, so very tired, of pushing back. I’m tired of resisting everyone’s attempts to explain things to me, to make sense of things for me and tell me how things are supposed to be. Because the thing is, no one can explain the world to me, but they can support me as I wander through this giant mess of a religion that has unraveled around me.
Because that’s the thing. I don’t need answers—from others or from myself—even though answers are what I desperately want and what I am desperately searching for. Answers will just lead me back into that box I used to live in, that box with four walls and a roof and a floor that tells me, “God’s not outside of this. God can’t exist if these walls break apart”. I’ve got to stop trying to reconstruct a new box out of the ashes of the old one, I really do.
Instead, what I’ve got to do is let go. It’s so hard, because I’ve been searching so hard for so long and with so much desperation. I’ve been so sure that in my rejection of fundamentalism I would finally be able to find God, and he would finally begin his work in me. I’ve been reading lots of books and lots of blogs and listening to lots of sermon podcasts that have really challenged the doctrines I grew up with and have expanded the way I view God drastically, and that has been a very good thing (have a look here for some examples). I have found that what I’m doing is looking at the world in a new way, and perhaps even God in a new way. But I’m still depending on my own searching instead of letting God lead me. And that is probably why I’m so tired: because I’m still going at this Christianity thing on my own strength, listening to my own half-formed ideas about the voices of men, instead of listening for God’s voice.
So I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not sure if this means I need to put away the books, remove all the blogs and podcasts from my favorites, and get down on my knees and pray. Maybe it does. But even that still feels like going at my relationship with God on my own. God never feels very near when I try to pray, and more often than not I end up letting my mind wander instead, and prayer time turns into “Tiff thinking about her life” time. Or “Tiff thinking about her beliefs” time. But maybe, as a dear friend of mine reminded me, true prayer time takes practice. Maybe the less I focus on me and the more I keep my focus on God when I pray, the easier it will be to cast my cares upon him, and let him wash away my tiredness.
I’ve been told I’m depraved. Broken. Less than whole. Filled with a sinful nature. I’ve been told I’ll never be good enough, my good acts will never wash away the stain of sin that separated me from God. On my own, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at attaining holiness. I’ve got original sin seeping through every pore of my spirituality, and I’m never going to be cured of it.
That is all true.
That’s not who I am, that’s not the identity that I claim, and it’s not the identity that is true of me. My identity is a beloved child of God. My identity is someone who has worth and value in the eyes of the Lord, and my identity is someone who is accepted, already accepted, for exactly who I am.
These two ideas describe a strange and confusing paradox to live out. On the one hand, I must remind myself that as a human being, I’m very much so predisposed to sin. Even as a believer in Christ, righteousness done on my own strength is still “filthy rags”. That truth is still the reality.
But it is also true that God sanctifies me. The Holy Spirit has a place in me, and righteous acts done in obedience to God are good, no matter how small or large they are or how deeply they impact the world around me. And these acts are a result of surrender. And I think, more deeply than that, they are a result of me claiming my identity as God’s child.
So I don’t think either view of myself ought to be discarded. I must remember that my nature is broken and predisposed to sinfulness, because that keeps me humble, keeps me from trying to live right on my own. And remembering my identity is not brokenness—my identity is wrapped up in God’s love for me—gives me the will to surrender to him, and be his vessel, and let him work through me to accomplish his will.
So I’m going to live in the tension of these two opposite extremes, and embrace them both, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. Because both are true, and I think both are necessary to growth in Christ.