Faith in hospital

black and white skeleton wall art
Photo:Mick Haupt Street art on the streets of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Apparently curiosity killed the cat.  It nearly killed my faith. ·From 2009 to 2014 my faith was in a challenged place. I had questions I could neither answer not ignore. It was neither easy or fun. Two things kept me alive.  I was convinced 2,000 years ago there was an empty tomb outside of Jerusalem. The second fact was the existence of Israel .

 These two facts were my faith safety net when so called friends encouraged me to walk away from faith and (more importantly to them) leave the community. It took me time and a lot of reading & thinking & debating to resolve some of my questions & get comfortable again.  I’m a slow learner….

Today some of my opinions are probably wrong.  Some of my views are very uncomfortable for many people in my current congregation.  But as a congregation we value truth, faith and growth towards Jesus.  Fellowship is about sharing Jesus’ table not protecting it, growing it not guarding it. Growing means accepting difference and accepting those in crisis, in a different point of faith than us.

From time to time many people will experience a crisis of faith, exhaustion or are challenged by ideas which we cannot reconcile to their existing faith construct. This challenge can lead to growth or disaster and we all have a part to play in recognising and loving our siblings at each step.

A simple model

There are a number of models of faith which often talk about deconstructing and different stages. James Hayward is one well known proponent of such things. In the interests of simplicity let’s just look at a simple 4 stage model. Like all models it is not a proscription but an approximation for thought rather than precision.

  1. Settled

A settled faith is comfortable, emotionally stable.  Life is good.  If we stay here for ever it could well be fantastic.

However often in life a crisis occurs.  Faith is challenged.  We can feel confused & bereaved (our faith has failed).  Emotionally we can be shocked, fearful.  The beliefs that worked for us (and appear to still work for our friends!!!) don’t work.  Are we crazy?  How can God allow this?  Or exist?

We can either slip back to our settled position (the challenge moves away, or we bury the doubts or cope somehow) or move to the uncertain/deconstructing phase.

2. Deconstruction

Faced with crisis that doesn’t reconcile to our settled views we can dig in and ask why?  This usually means breaking the old faith model which doesn’t appear to work.  This phase is often associated with feelings of anger, depression and isolation – as no one else is having the problem.  ‘Everyone else is faithful…what’s wrong with me’ is not a healthy place to be but not unusual.

3. Rebuilt/Reconstructing

In this stage we are building a new model of faith.  It can be deeply satisfying, it might be accompanied by a flurry of spiritual learning and immersion.  Possibly it might result in a more personal & deeper belief (less like to be “inherited”/Sunday School belief and one built and owned by the individual).  Often rebuilding is associated with a greater acceptance of complexity, things are less black and white.  The phase can be accompanied by a new found wholeness and satisfaction as we return to a settled – though different – faith.

4. Dead End

It is possible that rather than return to a settled state we can get stuck in deconstruction. This can manifest itself in overly cynical approach and a loss of faith.  Anger and cynicism are an unhappy place to live but this is where people can be caught.

A settled faith is a faith at peace

We should be careful not to think a settled faith is inferior in any way.  It is the starting point and hopefully the concluding point for all of us.

Sometimes we can have potential conflict when someone’s settled faith position conflicts ours.  Eg:

I was once young, now I am old. I have never seen a godly man abandoned, or his children forced to search for food

Psa 37:25 NET

Does anyone think this is true?  That the godly is never abandoned?  That the children of the faithful are never reduced to begging?  Now we COULD be delighted that someone’s life has been so sweet, so #blessed that they genuinely hold this rosy view.  Or we could be a little dismissive!  “I’ve been around the block a few times and let me tell you about reality!”

Paul issues a stern warning to the Gentiles who were tempted to exalt in their superior understanding of grace, their breadth of philosophical knowledge, their worldly realism.  They were mightily tempted to wave their better informed more nuanced faith positions around to dangerous effect, so Paul tells them sternly:

  Now receive the one who is weak in the faith, and do not have disputes over differing opinions

Romans 14:1 NET

And will go on to say:

  The faith you have, keep to yourself before God

Rom 14:22 NET

The writer of Psalm 37 (David) might condemn my attitude as cynical or faithless.  How dare I doubt God’s love the inspired David perceived?  He could see my refusal to simply accept God’s goodness as denying the love of our Father.  For my part I might be a little tempted to dismiss David as dewy-eyed and think his simplistic declarations are stumbling blocks in the path of others who will find life is far more difficult than his rosy declarations portray (as other psalms like Psalm 44 grimly portray).

We can learn from each other yes but there is a warning from Paul about how we interact with each other.  We need to avoid judging others because their faith informed views appear too simple or too cynical to us based on where we are in our faithlife.

When challenges come

We know Jesus will help us when we are weak in faith.  “Help my unbelief” in Mark 9:24 is one of my favourite passages and in that instance Jesus did help and heal the sick child of the desperate father. 

But prayer is not always answered in such a simple way!  What if our prayers result in nothing? Sometimes we might take it to the Lord in prayer and the situation gets worse. Jarius took an appeal to Jesus for his child in Luke 8 and not only Jesus did nothing but actually the situation got worse. Jarius’ daughter died. Worse again Jarius say Jesus working in someone else’s life, someone who was unclean and troublesome. Jesus was too busy to help him even though as an upstanding member of the religious community Jarius may have thought he was deserving of Jesus’ aid. You might face a problem and Jesus is too busy helping others…

Now ultimately there WAS an solution for Jarius, but sometimes there is no answer.  Psalm 44 describes a faithful community who got no answer but were just getting slaughtered like sheep. There was no answer, just silence.

Our faith can take a hammering from real life.  We might feel like a lamb on Australia Day.

Deconstructing Job

Job faced an awful situation having lost everything. His wealth, his family and his health were stripped away in circumstances that made the involvement of God obvious.

Everyone (including it would seem Job) held a prosperity gospel view.  Be good and God will bless you, be bad and well you will suffer much like Job. Suddenly Job was faced with tremendous suffering and a faith model which was woefully incorrect. Sadly his friends were too wedded to their theology to consider that maybe something was wrong with their previously shared view that good people got good things and bad people bad things.

This shocking discovery was tough on Job. In his suffering he expressed a desire to die Job 3:11, 20-22. He felt God was unfair Job 7:20 and God’s justice was flawed Job 9:22. His friends he quickly realised were worse than useless with no answers Job 13:3-4 He retained confidence that he was actually a good man and should be vindicated Job 31:35-37.

This was a serious deconstruction!  Job once thought he knew the answers and was a respected part of society and enjoying the good life. But suddenly nothing made sense.  There is no reason for his suffering, God is unfair and Job wants to argue it out with God.  Job’s friends just proved how wrong Job’s own understanding of God was before. 

Frustrated, Job knows he is alone.  Job thought he was alone waiting for his friends to arrive.  Sadly he discovers he is even more alone when they speak – not only are they clueless, they are not willing to really explore what Job’s experience means for faith & God.  They want to defend their existing view and are happy to ignore Job’s character and cast him aside to protect their opinions. 

And the rebuild?

At the end of Job we have a seemingly unsatisfactory answer. There is no simple reason given to Job for his experience. His children remain dead. Where is the resolution for Job??  What is God’s answer? 

You have heard of Job’s endurance and you have seen the Lord’s purpose, that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy

James 5:11

Job teaches us there is a bigger perspective and sometimes there are no answers. Rather we are required to faithful endure. How long was Job suffering? Weeks at least! During this time James says Job showed patience or endurance.

What did this look like? He sat with the big questions, he teased them out, he did not ignore the questions nor did he demand an answer in 5 minutes. He endured. Sure he wanted answers and argues passionately, but he endures.

Enduring doesn’t mean we don’t tell God what we think. Job told God frankly that in Job’s view God was unjust. But he didn’t give up on God despite his wife encouraging Job to toss in his integrity and faith. The clueless aggression of his friends didn’t cause Job to walk away. He forgave his friends (he performed a sacrifice for them later).

We want fast answers.  Job teaches us to be patient.  Wait.  Sit with the big questions.  The Seleah approach. And be patient with each other (kind of like Paul said in Rom 14) in a way Job’s friends were unable to do.

Habakkuk – another de and re constructor

Habakkuk was probably a temple prophet/musician judging by the musical notations to his psalm in Hab 3:19. He first worked in the reign of Josiah. This was an amazing time of revival. There was great religious fervour and change.  The Davidic king was once again walking in the way of Israel’s God!  Only good things could happen.  Habakkuk as a temple prophet/musician is right there in the moment. 

Then in 609 BC – Josiah the great reformer marched north to block off the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho in the narrow pass underneath Megiddo where the Way of the Sea turns into the Jezreel Valley and onwards north towards Assyria.  Rather than a glorious victory the great reformer died at just 39 years old.  At his peak you might say.

King Jehoiakim, the son of Josiah, was installed by Necho as king.  He was a massive disappointment. The prophets condemned him for failing to provide any justice Jer 22:1-5. He implemented a heavy tax regime to pay tribute 2 Kings 23:33-36. 2 Chron 36:5 just says he was evil. Jer 26:20-23 records him sending commandos to kidnap a prophet who had fled to Egypt,  bringing the prophet back to Jerusalem to be killed. While taxing the poor, the king was building luxury dwellings, defrauding the people and oppressing them Jer 22:13-17. This was such a change from Josiah.

Habakkuk describes a dialogue between the prophet and God. Habakkuk is not happy. He protests the violence and injustice in Hab 1:2-4.

God responds by promising to judge the people and make things worse.

Habakkuk is befuddled. This response makes no sense and is inconsistent with how you – God – should work. Habakkuk insists God can’t work this way – God can’t work with evil!  Your answer God makes it worse (side note – Habakkuk says ‘You are too just to tolerate evil; you are unable to condone wrongdoing” Hab 1:13 which we often quote approving BUT it reflects the prophet’s OBJECTION to God’s plan.  So it’s kind of wrong and the Bible is full of flawed people God worked with thankfully). The prophet’s understanding of God doesn’t match his reality OR God’s answers.  His faith model doesn’t work any more. Deconstruction underway.

Habakkuk was settled.  Life was good under Josiah for a faithful prophet.  A settled and appropriate faith was waiting for THE son of David who would be the ideal king and set up the Abrahamic boundaries and rule the nations.  With Josiah on the throne everything seemed on the right path! But this then was challenged by the violence, corruption and oppression under Jehoiakim a puppet king under the Egyptians then the Babylonians. Suddenly there was definitely NOT a Davidic king in place. When he asked for help God promised to make things worse. Habakkuk’s faith model was broken.

Habakkuk get’s an answer from God in chapter 2. The answer is essentially ‘trust me and wait, things will get worse but eventually the plan will come together’. Habakkuk had to retool his timing expectations .

His reconstruction is found in the three part psalm of chapter 3 (each starts with with a title, then seleah followed by the relevant material – a structure which seems little odd to our western expectations).

Essentially Habakkuk finds a basis for his faith in remembering what God did – his past power in Exodus and leading Israel into the promised land.  He imagines the warrior God marching for his people in the past. This grounds his faith and leads into the final section from Hab 3:16

I listened and my stomach churned;  the sound made my lips quiver.  My frame went limp, as if my bones were decaying,  and I shook as I tried to walk. I long for the day of distress  to come upon the people who attack us. 17 When the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines; when the olive trees do not produce, and the fields yield no crops; when the sheep disappear from the pen, and there are no cattle in the stalls, 18  I will rejoice because of the Lord; I will be happy because of the God who delivers me! 19  The sovereign Lord is my source of strength. He gives me the agility of a deer;  he enables me to negotiate the rugged terrain

In summary he says, I’m weak waiting for deliverance but I can’t see it. There will be days of serious want and privation but I will keep on believing. V19 is a tad difficult to translate. I believe it is best understood as saying ‘God helps me walk through the difficult patches’.

Habakkuk believes God acted in the past and trusts God will act again, even though he wishes it was now.  He finds an anchor, a foundation he can build on. For him that was the Exodus.  For me it is the resurrection.  His reconstructed faith perspective is therefore

God doesn’t make the path easy but helps me navigate this hard life.

Habakkuk will rejoice despite the trouble now, things he once saw as intolerable, as failures of God’s judgement, he now sees as temporal bumps while God’s plan will slowly unfold.

Uncertainty is the new certainty/uncertainty is the softer strength

Was Job’s theology as simple after his experience?  No

Was Habakkuk’s request neatly answered?  No

In each case there was a paradigm shifting response. “God moves in mysterious ways” or “God’s method & timeline is different to your expectation”.

Each individual had less certainty about how or when God worked BUT a more resilient model of understanding God.

Their new faith model contained more grey, more nuance, and definitely more patience.

Don’t let go

Sometimes our faith will be in hospital. If yours is then don’t let go. If we are sitting in the deconstruct phase there is  a danger in deconstructing of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  I don’t understand God becomes I don’t believe in God. How do we cope with the intolerable pain or questions?

We can try the patience of Job – we don’t need to be able to answer every question immediately.  We can be kind to ourselves and take it slow. Sitting with the big questions is a good thing. We don’t need to make snap conclusions ‘to believe or bail’.

We can find strength and grounding in the past. Habakkuk looked backwards. He couldn’t rationalize the current experience and God’s response. He could concur with God’s past activity – the Exodus. He could therefore wait however uncomfortable. A friend of one once said (often said actually)

If you accept the resurrection the rest is just detail

Of course at times the detail might be outrageously painful and this comment might feel cold if the detail is a matter of pain. However the intent of the statement is that if the resurrection is true other theological questions can be sat on and patiently teased out as matters of less importance.

Another possible tool to help settle the disquiet of sitting with big questions might be to reframe what faith is. 

Someone gave me the idea a while ago (which I thought was scandalous at the time but you know, patience and sitting with the questions).  The idea was High and low bars.  It was based on Mike McHargue’s Axioms of Faith apparently. Probably a book I should read. The point I took from the conversation though was that we define acceptable faith as some shiny perfection, and this definition can be dangerous.

What if we be kind to ourselves (and maybe our friend who was struggling faithwise) and think of faith as a destination.  Or a continuum….eg we might be in a deconstruction phase but can we find some foundation on which to agree:

  • Maybe I can’t say Jesus is the son of God. But I can agree Jesus is an amazing moral teacher
  • I might be unsure about waiting for the kingdom. But I’m dissatisfied with how the world is now
  • If I can’t believe in God can I at least believe in good?
  • I’m not sure I can come to worship God, but can I come wondering if I can find God?
  • I might not be able to say I love being here with Jesus, but could I say instead I love being here with Jesus followers
  • I’m unsure of the power of the spirit but I believe in the power of love

Rather than taking a view that ‘we can’t stay here because we don’t believe’, maybe we could think about an alternative world than “I have to be faith perfect”

Dealing with others in a faith crisis

James 5:16 says we should confess our faults to each other.  I suspect we do a terrible job of this.

How should we respond when someone does confess their faith is challenged or falling apart?  Not like Job’s friends who stuck to their incorrect theology regardless of the facts or the need for love.  And not with easy answers – God’s example in Habakkuk was more hard truths not easy platitudes.  But we have to respond in love.

Take a practical example. Imagine if someone publicly rejected the resurrection of Jesus.  I mean this has happened in the past (1 Cor 15 people doubted it).  Not private questions – publicly just said ‘nah not buying it’. It’s easy to imagine a response – cut off the unbeliever!

Yet Thomas rejected Jesus resurrection.  He held out for 20% of Jesus post resurrection ministry (8 days). The women couldn’t convince him, nor the other disciples.   He only accepted the resurrection when personal evidence was given to him – when Jesus worked in his life. It didn’t happen straight away.

However no-one banished him for not accepting clause one of the Jerusalem Amended Statement of Faith. Do we trust Jesus will provide evidence for our deconstructing friend in his good time?

Also consider how do we talk about Thomas.  The expression “Doubting Thomas” is proverbial.

Thomas is mentioned three times in the gospels:

  • John 11:16 – let’s go with Jesus to Lazarus so we can at least die with him
  • John 14: – asks a question of Jesus we don’t know where you’re going so how can we follow?
  • John 20 the doubting Thomas incident

So on the basis of the mentions we could equally call him ‘Tommo the Brave’. It’s not hard to think about the application in our circles. What would the impact on others be if we thought of our mate as ‘Sound Shiela’ versus ‘Shakey Shiela’? Should we see our erstwhile companion as on a permanent downward trend or do we trust a bounceback is coming? Do we avoid them because they have the leprosy of doubt (easy to do!) or show them what love is?

If only Job’s friends had the patience of Job and the love of Jesus!  Maybe we can do better!

I’m sure you know stories of late bloomers, of lost causes that came back. We have them Biblically:

  • Jesus’ family rejected him.  Only after the resurrection did James & Jude come to faith.   Because Jesus personally worked with James – ie it took a miracle
  • Paul was born “out of time” 1 Cor 15:8

We also here amazing stories in our time of people who perhaps walked away from God but years later come back to him. We shouldn’t give up on our faith when it’s challenged NOR on our friends whose faith is being challenged.  Rather we have to recognise many will experience various phases in faith.  We need to be compassionate to each other whatever that looks like. 

Conclusion

James 5:16 says more than confess your faults – it also says:

So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness

James 5:16 NET

Job prayed for his children.  I like to think God gave him a hot tip that the prayers were answered.

Can we pray for our challenged loved ones?  Absolutely.  Does God hear and respond?  Yes.  How that works out, when that works out I don’t know.  But I know however challenged my faith, your faith their faith – God is good.  And the power of faithful prayer will surprise us.  Shock us.  Because God is love.

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