“What is faith?”
Hearing a friend recently ask this was shocking and it pierced my heart. If I’m being honest, it pierced for a few reasons:
- I have no good answer to provide; no tangible comfort to give, only an ear to listen.
- I’ve come to realize that concepts of faith are hyper-personal and often hard to translate into meaningful words in times of counsel.
- In the world we live in I find it difficult to know how my faith experiences can soothe the fears so prevalent in our world.
- My approach to faith is hard to translate because I live in a space where my doubt lives equally alongside and is as prevalent as my faith.
My Faith Story
I’ve experienced incredible moments of what I would call ‘high faith’. I’ve lived in moments where I put everything on the line for the hope something others may have seen as small.
One of those moments in having the opportunity to live where I do, in New York City, where I’ve seen more than I thought I ever would. I’ve experienced far beyond what my imagination thought was capable eleven years ago.
I’ve taken great leaps of faith in moments where I chose to remove safety nets placed there by either myself, others, circumstance or mere privilege. Moments where those I trust told me I was foolish or taking bigger risks/steps than the ‘smart’ person.
Sometimes the path leads where I think it will and other times I’ve been shocked by what I find. But I know what it means to have faith in a bigger purpose/need.
Our world and Judeo-Christian teachings have left us to believe that faith is equal to success, wealth and comfort and that doubt and questioning is bad and unhealthy. Yet, I think it’s important to note in any conversation about faith that our valleys of doubt and challenge are still real and are an intrinsic partner in our faith journeys (whether we talk about it the concept of having faith in a higher power or having daily faith in ourselves/humanity).
I’ve experienced this in a unique way:
For the last few years I’ve been walking through a season, though different from others, of coming out as a gay (and Christian) man in my thirties well after many of my social peers have found their footing and are well into trusting their identity. This process has resulted in the clash of new and old viewpoints of faith and doubt resulting in life’s ever present waves of challenge, discovery, and insight. It seems these waves always create moments of faith and doubt in all people with each wave containing the opportunity to precipitate surges of growth in our lives. To step into these waves takes faith but, yes, they come with doubt.
Letting ourselves hold light and truth to the doubt and challenge that comes with faith may be one of the cornerstones that truly give us the strength to stretch and change our world views that are meant to be shared with each other.
With all of the intricacies of faith, I know four things to be true:
- Faith is unique to each person.
- Faith is complex.
- What faith is, is not what we think faith is.
- Faith exists on the same plane as doubt – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as one might think.
Faith In Doubt
I know faith and I’ve seen what it brings but, as much as I’ve experienced the contentment that faith can bring, I’ve known the doubt that is close by.
While many of my early years were filled with pure faith (perhaps on the verge of naive fortitude) I’ve come to realize this pure, high sense of faith is not real because it erased the notion that doubt can exist on the same plane.
Imagine for a second that life is a two lane interstate highway with two separate sections of life, going the same direction, separated by this dashed, white line. On one side is faith and on the other is doubt with each being as accessible and passable as each other. One plane but two unique spaces.
Our society tends to look at faith and doubt as separate roads leading to different destinations but in my experience this is not the case.
Faith and doubt are simply different ways to experience life’s journey — different filters that allow different colors to shine through.
In the highest seasons of faith, doubt or questioning is possible and it can be a healthy equalizer. One the flip side, even in the deepest seasons of doubt where conversations with God are most likely to be one-sided yelling matches it’s a sliver of faith that pulls me out.
In these moments when I’ve laid my despair out on the table, taken God to task for the challenges and turmoil and I’ve lashed out with threats to give up and move on without Him there have been few times where I’ve lacked a moment…
…Where I don’t cry out his name.
…Where I don’t long for renewal.
…Where I don’t just want the comfort of past seasons.
Is that not faith shrouded in doubt? When we question and don’t believe but part of us keeps coming back is this not faith?
Back to Reality
As my friend finishes his question and story, I struggle as I process my thoughts. I sense in my friend what I’ve felt in my own life – a tension between two equal forces and the desire to describe one as fully positive/healthy and the other as negative/unhealthy.
It’s tempting to want one over another but in the high seasons of faith it’s irresponsible if we don’t recognize that doubt and questioning can have a healthy place in our worldview. And it’s reckless in our periods of doubt to not recognize that faith can still be alive and practical.
This struggle is not unique to me by no stretch of the imagination and I’m by no means settled in this respect.
From my vantage point, there aren’t many polar opposites in our lives – there’s a lot of fading from one emotional need/feeling to the other and back again.
I see it so many times where doubt and faith are viewed as two separate places of being and I truly believe that this practice is detrimental to one’s spiritual growth. It’s an endless journey sometimes with no destination.
I’ve seen doubt and question pushed aside as if it’s the plague because anything less than perfect and sure is looked at as heresy.
I’ve also seen faith (or a different interpretation of the word, ‘goodness’) pushed aside in the face of our world’s 24/7 focus on murders, hate, and joblessness among others.
We need to be encouraged now more than ever that it’s OK to let the tension between faith and doubt be real. Let it be real and tangible. Let it be something that doesn’t live in the space of ‘black and white’.
If you find yourself in this space, where the tension is more than real, just tell yourself that it’s OK. I’m big supporter that the most growth occurs in the middle of the tension even though I need to be reminded of this on an almost daily basis.
We’re in this together.