faith, grief, love in loss

Faith Without Faith

It’s been nearly fifteen months since my little boy died. It’s surreal to me how present-tense Elliot is in my life, when it feels like, for the world around me, his life is a past-tense event. For me, he’s just as real and present in my life as my other children. God continues to use him to draw me deeper, into a journey I wouldn’t have chosen, but one I will walk for Elliot. I will always look for ways I can learn and grow because of my time with him.

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Prior to that June day when my boy died, I would’ve characterized myself as a person of faith. While I was pregnant with Elliot, I even had a friend tell me that I had the “gift” of faith. I guess I don’t really know what either my friend or I would’ve meant by that, but it seemed natural to say and hear, since I was a person who loved and followed Jesus.

 

I still love Jesus. I still want to follow Him. But…faith. What on earth is it? Did I really have it? What does it mean to have it now?

 

The thing I am wondering is if what I had before for Elliot died was really “faith” at all. I’m sure to an extent it was. I think I did the best I could with what I knew and believed and had experienced.

 

I can look back now, though, with a somewhat different view. I had supported my faith with things I could count on, certainties such as: the fact that I could hear from God, that I could trust feelings and words from other people as guided by the Holy Spirit, that God could “give me a verse” from the Bible to apply to specific situations in my life. Phrases like “God is in control” and “He has a plan” and “I just have peace about it” weaved the fibers of a box that cradled my faith. What I suspect now is that my faith really did not require much faith, because all those fibers cushioned it. God was in that box, along with my faith. Though I never would’ve claimed to fully understand Him, I would’ve said that I understood a lot about Him.

 

Since Elliot died, I’ve come across writers and thinkers to have challenged me to redefine faith not as something I can understand, but as something I can’t. One author calls this “radical unknowing.” And this, actually, makes a lot of sense. I almost laugh at how much our human nature tends to want to figure out God and the Bible and Creation, and how many books have been written and sermons have been preached which imply that these mysteries can somehow be fully understood. Of course there’s nothing wrong with learning what we can, and drawing reasonable conclusions. I love theology and apologetics and historical data. But even the dictionary defines faith as “certitude when there is NO evidence or proof.” And the Bible itself says faith is being “certain of what we do NOT see.”

 

Knowing what you can NOT know. Believing in what you can NOT see. It’s actually kind of wonky and paradoxical. Not easy to fit into a box at all.

 

Now that I look back and think about it, a great portion of my faith was grounded in exactly what I could see, what other people said, and in the comforts of religion.

 

I said my faith was in God. But was it?

 

My “faith journey” started like a lot of Christians’: by going to church! I was raised in a particularly conservative denomination, and had no reason to doubt what I learned in Sunday School. Just as my little girls accept whatever my husband or I tell them about God, I also accepted and believed things particular to that church group. I don’t judge the church I grew up in; the people there are just doing their best to understand God and the Bible like we all are.

 

When I emerged from college, I steered away from my childhood denomination, and I felt a new freedom. I flew immediately to a church that was as opposite as could be, and there I fully gave myself to believing whatever that church taught and said. When the people there clapped, I clapped. When they raised their hands, so did I. When a lady spoke in tongues over me, I… did not respond. It wasn’t me. Maybe that was a first step in realizing I didn’t have to agree with everything a church did or taught; I could still be a part and enjoy relationships with people there. I had Christ in common with other believers, and that is all that really mattered.

 

Eventually, I equalized and, as an adult, have landed in churches that don’t fit neatly into any denomination or category. I began to enjoy the freedom of knowing that we don’t have to agree on every theological point. We’re different people and we will come to different interpretations on things like how often to take communion, when and if the rapture will occur, or if the Genesis account of creation is to be taken literally or figuratively.

 

I felt pretty sure that I knew the right answers to the foundational questions about my faith, and I was content to let the answers to secondary questions remain fluid throughout my life.

 

But there were bedrock truths I never thought to question, because I never had need to question them. These are the absolutes that seem to transcend denominational lines or theological interpretations. A few examples are:

 

  1. God is in control.
  2. God answers prayer.
  3. God uses the Bible to guide Christians in their daily lives.
  4. God has a plan for my life. (aka–whatever happens in my life is God’s will)

 

These are some non-negotiables in the Christian faith, or so I once thought. When things in the Bible didn’t always make sense to me, like where Cain’s wife came from, or what was up with drunk and naked Noah, or pretty much all of Revelation…pillars like those four “truths” would keep me afloat in the sea of other confusion or doubts.

 

So what happens when those sorts of truths BECOME the sources of confusion and doubt?

 

Umm, dunno. Still there. I’ll get back to you.

 

All I know is that those are four commonly used phrases that I now think, for me, were almost barriers to faith. If those things above are true, always true, then I didn’t need to live in much unknowing. Those are four corners of the box I wove to keep God contained and predictable. My box made me feel safe. I was able to put my faith in statements about God, possibly to the exclusion of putting faith in God himself. I never ever realized that I could have faith that didn’t require much faith.

 

But now, I’m wondering if that’s just what it was.

 

It doesn’t mean the things above are not true. I also don’t think they are necessarily or always true, depending on what you mean when you say them. It just means I won’t stake my faith on them anymore. I’m reexamining them, but I don’t think I will trust them again like I did.

 

When my precious little boy died in my arms, I’ve said it was like a hammer was shattered my faith, which I pictured like a perfect, flawless mirror. I realize that, over the past fifteen months, I’ve been picking up the shards of what my faith once was, and tossing a lot of it out. A lot of it was religion, which I never would’ve thought or admitted. And by religion, I don’t mean Sunday-morning church, though that’s part of it. When I say religion I’m referring to the formulas I used that helped me make sense of God. Formulas like: Read my Bible + Pray= Receive God’s Guidance. Or, Feel Reluctant to Do Something Good + Do It Anyway = Make God Happy! Or, Pray Really Hard About a Specific Desire + Wait and Be Patient = God Will Answer That Prayer Somehow Some Way Someday. Or, the one that sucked all religious formulas down the tubes when it turned out to be untrue: A Dream + Unexplainable Medical Miracles + Words of Prophecy From Others + Bible Passages + A Sense of Peace = God Has Assured Me My Son Will Live.

 

Smash.

Occasionally, when I’m digging through the ruins of my shattered mirror, I’ll find a shard that actually is faith. I’ve found a few of these. A shape my faith takes these days is simply, “I don’t know.” God doesn’t inhabit my boundary lines and religious formulas. I believe He’s there, I believe He loves, but other than that…I just don’t know. Living in UN-knowing is a lot less comfortable, but it actually feels more like faith. Belief without understanding. Trust without proof. Hope without sight.

 

Whatever is left over when I’ve sifted through the rubble, when God has helped me pick up the pieces and fit them together, I am hopeful will be a beautiful mosaic. I hope it will be a faith which, with all its cracks and imperfections, will sift out the weeds of religion and leave only Jesus.

 

But it is lonely because I don’t feel like I can speak the lingo with other Christians. It is scary because I felt safe with my faith and God contained in that pretty, predictable box. It is sorrowful because this change began with the loss of my beautiful Elliot.

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I don’t know if this rambling will make much sense. I think it may only make sense to others who walk or have walked through this valley of faith redefined.

 

Yesterday we finished our last training and signed our final paperwork to become foster parents. Within days we could have a child in our home. Pursuing this path now has been a healing step in our life without Elliot. His brave life inspires us to put ourselves aside and think long and hard about the pain in the world around us. There are children suffering. They need safe and loving homes. We must act.

 

But getting here with my faith in pieces has been a lot different than had we pursued this path prior to losing Elliot. I didn’t hear the Holy Spirit tell me to pursue foster care. I didn’t read a Bible passage the put a new passion in my heart about it. I didn’t really pray about if we should do it.

 

I’m a mama with a broken heart, and there are children with broken hearts. Of course we should do it. I know God wants children in homes where they’ll be loved.

 

And of course I want God’s guidance and strength and peace and presence and ALL that good stuff. And I ask Him for it. It’s going to be a messy, difficult journey, so I will definitely need God’s help. But I don’t really have any box to put Him into that I can predict or expect how He will help me, guide me, strengthen me. I simply don’t know.

 

But I think not knowing any of those things, jumping off this cliff without my pretty box to cushion my fall, is what it looks like to follow Jesus right now.

 

I think, for now, this is faith.

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