Before I started seminary, I was warned, by good-intentioned people, that I would probably question my faith. I was told this was okay, because it happened to almost everyone, and I would more than likely find God again, even if it wasn’t until after graduation. Losing my faith in God was made to sound like a rite of passage for every seminarian. Advice was given for what to do when this happened, personal experiences were shared, and encouragement was bestowed upon me. I was prepared, no, I was expecting, to question my faith in God. I have been on the edge of my seat waiting for some faith-shattering moment. That will probably never come.
What I wasn’t warned about was that I might lose faith in myself. I was not told what to do or how to handle everything when I no longer had faith in myself and when I began to question my own passions, callings, and abilities. My faith in God has not shattered, but my faith in myself is getting harder and harder to put back together.
When I went to college, I was told my faith would probably shake. Even though I went to a Christian liberal arts college and still attended the same church while I was there that I had growing up, I was told my classes and being in the “real world” would shake my faith and cause me to question everything I had been told. But they only made my faith stronger.
Growing up, I questioned a lot. Not necessarily my faith specifically, but just everything. I looked at the sky and questioned why it was blue. I played on the swings and questioned why I could never swing high enough to go in a complete circle around the beam. I questioned how planes flew, birds sang, and water boiled. I talked to people and I questioned. I watched movies and I questioned. I read Scripture and I questioned. It was this question asking that, eventually, made me feel (whether perceived or true) systematically silenced by my church peers and leaders. I read Scripture and refused to take it at face value, out of context. I refused to believe it always meant what I was told it meant. I refused to believe it was as clear about tattoos, or alcohol, or evolution vs. creation, or dating, or swearing, or anything, as I was told. The only thing I was sure it was clear about was God– and even then I was not always sure God was who I was told God was. The God I read in Scripture was not always the same God I was taught in church. But, the more I questioned and challenged, the more alone and invisible I felt. The more stupid and judged and wrong I felt. So, I eventually stopped asking questions and stopped answering them. I stayed quiet. I answered the easy questions using non-controversial answers. The tough questions I wrestled with internally– just me and God thinking it out. I never lost faith in God. I may have, for a time, lost faith in my church or my leaders, or my friends, or the world, but never in God. Because the God I read in Scripture, the God who sat with me in my questions, is faithful. That God encourages my questions and sits with me while I seek answers. That God does not leave questions just to force us to have faith or to tease and taunt us. If that God left questions, that God must be okay with seeking answers. That God never left Israel, despite all the reasons they deserved to be abandoned. So how could that God ever leave me? I felt the Spirit of Israel’s God so prominently, and saw her influence on the world and in my own life, that I could not lose faith in God.
Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I love to think and question. My brain never stops thinking, and it is always craving new information about anything and everything. If I could think all day and never actually do anything, I would probably be okay with that. Emotions are only helpful to me for as much as they can help me explain, question, or provoke thought. I began studying science because science encourages questions– it relies on questions. Faith, however, I thought, has no room for questions. It wouldn’t be faith if we could explain everything. But then, I got to college, and I was told I would probably question my faith. I wondered, though, how I could question a faith that I didn’t think had room for questions?
I had to take two Scripture classes my freshman year– one Old Testament and one New Testament class. I assumed, with my church and Bible Quizzing background, they would be easy A’s. And, they were. But, they also weren’t. From day one, I was challenged in my thinking. I was presented new ways of reading Scripture, viewing the world, and thinking about God. Suddenly, my questions were encouraged– and not just encouraged– they became necessary to understanding. My faith relied on them. I thought about God and learned about God and studied Scripture and many of my previously silenced thoughts were affirmed, or at least discussed as if my ideas and questions mattered. Yeah, I wrestled with some hard things, and answering questions only brings more questions. But I discovered that I feel closest to God when I am using my brain and thinking about God. If I was given a brain that likes to think, I should use it to think, right? I was expecting to eventually overthink God. To be presented with so many new, challenging, and Earth shattering ideas that I would begin to question my faith in God. But, the harder my brain was working, the more questions I had, the less sense God made, and the stronger my faith became. Because if God doesn’t exist, then eventually my questions would run out. Eventually God could be understood and put in a box and explained. But God can’t, so God can’t be a concept made up by humanity, and, therefore, must exist. I reasoned with the questions and hypothesized through my doubts and concluded that God exists because we can’t make sense of God. So, whenever I learn something difficult or challenging, my world does not shatter. It grows and expands as it embraces these new ideas and tries to fit the pieces back together into a puzzle that makes sense. And the pieces that don’t seem to fit just add to the mystery, so I expand my puzzle and stretch my mind.
That has continued into seminary. I’ve been through the “faith-shaking” process that never really shook my faith. It resulted in even stronger faith, because I have realized that God welcomes my questions. God can never be fully understood by our finite minds, but an infinite God who welcomes my questions and allows me to think is a God I can have faith in. Even when I can’t feel God, I can have faith because I know God is always there. I’m not saying I will never question my faith, because I have and I probably will again. But, I have yet to have my faith shattered and doubted as I was so warned it would.
I have, however, lost faith in myself. I finally had come to, mostly, accept the things my friends were saying about me to be true. I read Scripture and know what God says about me. And yet, because I so often live in my head, I can’t connect to these words with my emotions. I can’t seem to convince myself there is any reason to have faith in myself. On paper, I should, and (I hope) people do. But in practice, I can’t. I can’t believe I can do this. I can’t believe I’m smart enough, or capable enough, or prepared enough to be in seminary. And I can’t imagine I will ever be prepared enough or good enough or wanted enough to get a doctorate and teach, or trusted and faithful enough to pastor a church. I have grown and learned and matured a lot since starting, but I can’t believe I’ll ever be ready. (And maybe the trick is that we are never truly ready, but we do it anyway.)
My faith in myself, for some yet to be totally discovered reasons, has shattered. And so now I am at a loss. Because I know intellectually that God requires our co-operation as image-bearers. But I have no faith in the image-bearer of God within me. I know, too, that it is often the least-expected ones through whom God does great things. And I can look toward my future with excitement because I think God has great things in store for me. But I have no faith in my ability to help God accomplish these things. And I have no desire to do anything about it. Because if I can’t do it, then what is the point in trying? What do you do when the God in whom you have faith is calling out the image of Godself within you but you have no faith in the humanity within you?
I don’t have answers to these questions, yet. I will always be thinking about them. And rediscovering God in ways that make God’s Spirit come alive to me. So hopefully one day soon I can have faith in myself again. But for now, I am resting in the truth that I have faith in God. And God has faith in me because God’s Spirit and God’s image is within me. Someday, I will have faith in myself again, and when that day comes, God and I can co-operate to accomplish unimaginable things. But until then, I will continue to co-operate with God because I have faith that, through Christ and the Spirit, the world is working toward restoration. And I am a part of that, even if I can’t believe it in this moment.