A particularly ardent–and strident–soul once questioned my faithfulness because I had shared about getting angry at God after our son died. With one of those questions that isn’t a question the person asked, “But wouldn’t it have been better to just trust God.” Period question mark.?
Well, I believe in grace; one piece of evidence I can produce is that I responded kindly. I tried to discuss the difference between teaching people what our ideal response is and being honest about our real response. Another answer I could have given: “You should probably put those shoes on and walk a ways before you tell me that.” This isn’t one of those “I wish I’d said–” for me at all. I’m glad I was kind. I think perhaps now, this many years later, I could give the latter answer and speak it kindly, but certainly not back then.
I spent my early twenties believing that I could respond faithfully to every situation and judging those who couldn’t. I spent my late twenties driving myself insane by trying and failing and judging myself. Then my father and our son died, three weeks apart, and my life became a train wreck for about three years or so.* When I could finally return to something resembling a relationship with God, everything looked different. Everything was different. I had to relearn everything about my faith, because at it’s core I had misunderstood how it “worked.” Maybe phrasing it that way best reveals my mistake: I thought it “worked” a certain way, when in truth faith is being, not doing.
In this post, I’m considering how our lives of faith tend to swing back and forth like a pendulum. One of my young adult Bible studies came up with the description “undulation happens.” When I’m considering how to grow in areas that we find challenging or overwhelming–from living justly in a viciously unjust world to acquiring the Spanish language–I’ve learned to take small steps in the right direction. That’s faithfulness: small steps in the right direction.
Speaking truthfully, if we can keep taking those steps and not go backwards, we are exceptionally faithful. The more common pattern, for all of us, is the pendulum arm. We realize we’re not praying much, or at all, for weeks, or years, and we recommit to prayer. We spend time with God and feel alive again. The proverbial scales fall from our eyes and we see through the lies we’ve been buying into about ourselves and others. We laugh at Satan and ourselves that we could ever have been fooled that way and resolve that we will never miss our prayer time for a single day, ever again.
It lasts. For a while, while the memory of being off-track and deceived is fresh, it lasts. But things happen. Life happens. Maybe, if you’re one of our more disciplined types, the practice continues a good long time. But even then, the eagerness for God, the hunger for truth and change, those fade. Other things get louder and demand more attention. “Okay, I only have 15 minutes to pray today, but still…”
Sometimes we get bumped off track all at once, other times we slowly, almost imperceptibly, drift away. We might still spend the exact same number of minutes, but we aren’t there. Those sins we had identified and eradicated from our lives get downgraded to “bad habits” and hey, everybody falls into a bad habit once in a while. Or semi-regularly. Or every day.
In my experience, almost all areas of my spiritual life work according to these patterns. I try to take small steps in the right direction. I can’t stay focused and passionate about everything at once. I drift. Sometimes my disciplines lapse, other times my heart strays.
Now the person I mentioned at the beginning would say, “Don’t teach them that this is okay!”
This is okay.
By “okay,” I mean God has us. I mean we all pendulate this way at times and God has grace for our inconsistency. I mean that’s life.
I don’t mean that the pendulum is the ideal. I do mean that living by “the ideal” is a bit like living by the law: it leads to depending too much on ourselves and not enough on God. It gives us the illusion that we make ourselves holy. We don’t.
Someone may feel inclined to use the word “compromise” here, as in, “You’re settling for a compromise instead of…” I’m pretty sure Mike in his twenties would have.
I’m not saying we aren’t trying. I’m saying this–the pendulum–will be the result of really trying hard, and God knows this. He knows us. We’re not sitting back and waiting for all this God stuff to happen to us. Our lives simply move through cycles.
I’m also saying that trying “our hardest” sometimes pulls us off the target. If life is a journey to know God more deeply and learn to live by grace, trying our hardest may move us toward trying to impress God or, more dangerously, trying to live up to our own (arbitrary) standards, our own self-designed requirements for holiness. Both lead us either to pride or self-condemnation. We do not find God in those places, except when he rescues us out of them.
Why do we know God more deeply through our failures than our successes? Why do we have forty days every year during which we focus on letting God show us our sins so we can turn from them again? And what is the difference between “doing” and “being” in our relationship with God?
I’ll leave those questions for you to ponder. But I’ll end with this: having tried both doing and being, I am now learning to be a child of God. I would never have found my way back from the train wreck if I had clung to doing.
*Give or take a year. My wife taught me a lot about grace during that period.