Jen Pollock Michel
Like a lot of writers, I read about the writing life. (A little bit of company is welcome in the solitary stretches of time.) In her book on writing, Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood suggests, "Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it." Atwood confirms that writers write less of what they know—and more of what they don't.
At a panel discussion at the Festival of Faith and Writing this past spring, Dave Harrity, author of Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand, suggested that nearly every writer of faith is a doubting Thomas. It's as if we must thrust our hands (our pens) into the mysteries—if ever we are to believe.
But maybe believing doesn't ever come easy to any of us. Maybe faith is always difficult terrain to travel, no matter how many easy-believisms we're handed for stability. One such maxim, like a crutch for a limp, was frequently proposed for support by the pastors of a church my husband and I used to attend: God's Word says it. I believe it. That settles it.
I've grown to hate this phrase. I don't hate it so much for what it says—because it's true that our lives must conform to God's standards for obedience. But I guess I hate it for what it leaves out: the struggle between the periods. A phrase like that makes me feel as if I'm doing something wrong when God speaks and I'm reluctant and fearful, when I believe and it settles very little. Faith, at least as I live it (and as I see it lived in Scripture), feels a little more like a vigorously shaken pop can than a placid countryside pond.
And maybe that's why you read here at Her.meneutics. You're hungry for something more than platitudes and empty pieties. You want the Bible—and culture—rigorously examined. And maybe you read because you're a doubter, and sometimes it's nice to keep company.
Three writers here at Her.meneutics have recently published books that, as we see them, linger in the troubled space between the periods—between God's Word says it and I believe it and that settles it. I've written a book on desire called Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (IVP). (You may have already read my essay published earlier this month about the central thesis of my book: "Jesus Never Said, 'Be True to Yourself'"). Michelle Van Loon has written a book about regret called If Only: Letting Go of Regret (Beacon Hill Press), and Marlena Graves has written a book about wilderness experiences called A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Brazos Press). We hope these books serve the readers of Her.meneutics, the broader church—and even the doubters among us.
Michelle Van Loon
In the 1970s, that relentlessly cheerful paean to certainty, God Said It. I Believe It. That Settles It For Me. was the way we faithful evangelicals were taught to approach our faith. While Scripture commends an undivided heart and a mustard seed-sized faith, we created an environment that diminished the weight of Thomas's doubts, Peter's mercurial emotions or the intramural battles of various New Testament congregations.
We evangelicals cherish the Bible, yet our "settled" expressions of belief a generation ago often elevated simplistic faith over simple faith. A generation ago, belief was equated to a talisman of bulletproof certainty. Apologetics that demanded a verdict became the SWAT team defending that brand of faith. Doubt, struggle, and regret were the enemy. The unintended consequence of all this certainty was the fact that many still carry a two-dimensional image of the Christian life long on answers and not all that hospitable to questions.
Much damage has been done in the name of overselling that image to ourselves and to the world around us. Learning how to excel at Christian performance, that ersatz version of true discipleship, disconnects us from our own humanity as well as our need for our Savior. Performance-based versions of Christianity tell us the lie that our disordered desires and spiritual struggles are equivalent to sin. It closes off all possibility of naming and processing any regrets we may accumulate after we've come to faith in Jesus. There's no space in that fantasy version of certainty for anything less than blessed success. When real life shatters that fantasy, regret in the form of disappointment with God, ourselves, other Christians often follows. Those regrets carry the potential for maturity if only we'll learn how to make space for them.
By elevating dramatic salvation narratives and tales of triumphant overcomers, we haven't always left much space for the rest of the story of a life spent following Jesus. We've been a little clumsy sometimes about how we talk about the slow and unpredictable process of spiritual growth. Let's face it: that slow and unpredictable stuff is not the subject of any catchy campfire songs.
Jesus uses language that speaks of process as a mark of his kingdom when he invites us to look with fresh eyes and open hearts at a seed dead and buried in the earth coming to life again, agricultural rhythms as familiar as this season's crop, of pruning and bearing fruit, and the final curtain of the growing season, the harvest. James encourages us to pray with snapped-shut settled belief in order to anchor us in relationship with Christ. Yet the kind of certainty to which James refers is linked to perseverance, a word all about process if ever there was one, rather than the smug certainty of simplistic faith.
It's long past time to tear that page containing "God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It For Me" out of our hymnals. The sound of eternity can be found in the lyrics of praise – as well as in the discordant music of our doubts, struggles and regrets.
So what do we do, or more importantly, who are we to be, amid the longing, waiting, doubt, rejection, the death of a dream, or regret? These are often lonely, painful, and protracted wilderness experiences where the last thing we need is a "God's Word says it. I believe it. That settles it." answer. Instead, at bottom what we desire, what we are all searching for, is shalom. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff explains, "But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one's relationships."
And so, if I could offer one suggestion in our search for shalom, especially in the wilderness, it is this: that we be faithful—that we remain in or find, a trustworthy community of believers. Maybe in our state we can do very little right now. But in these places we can be in whatever condition we find ourselves. It is in our rootedness in such places that we learn to receive 1 Corinthians 13-type of love and also offer it. Bernard of Clairvaux tells us "The more surely you know yourself loved, the easier you will find it to love in return." It is in the midst of such loving communal spaces that we drink of the deep and vast love of God. We cannot survive the wilderness alone; these relationships are oases and essential to our flourishing. They are essential for wholeness. Indeed I owe much of the goodness in me to God's messengers of grace and salvation who've loved me into resurrection. The Holy Spirit has used them to show me the face of God.
Yet, here's an important caveat: Run away from some Christians and resolvedly run towards others. Let me explain. Just because a person is a Christian and deftly quotes the Bible doesn't mean he or she is emotionally mature or has the gift of wisdom. Not all Christians (including Christian leaders) and Christian communities are equally healthy. One of the most painful realities is that some are toxic and downright abusive. Well-intentioned or not, some believers and whole communities are adept at adding insult to injury. They can act the part of Job's friends, throwing gasoline on the fire of our disorientation and misery. Stay away from them. We have to be careful with whom we entrust ourselves.
But run (or limp headlong) into the arms of those who like Jesus don't kick you when you are down. These people do exist, and it is important that we too become such people. After all, the kingdom of God is not full of "platitudes and empty pieties." Jesus was neither glib in his responses nor dismissive of those who were disoriented. He didn't peddle "smug certainty or simplistic faith." And neither should we.