Thursday, August 12, 2010

On Faith (again)

Time for some reflection on summer project already. As I think I mentioned in my narrative of it, on the morning of the second-to-last day we had a time for reflecting on key points for us leading up to or during project. Some people picked turning points when obstacles to coming to Milwaukee were removed; others picked moments of inspiration and joy; still others picked times of difficulty that helped them grow as believers. I picked the point on project when my faith was brought up to a new level--Wednesday, July 7th. Since I think it was the key point on project where everything changed, let's reflect on it!

It was almost at the halfway point of project; our third of six weeks of full-time ministry. The staff were on their last few days; they were going to leave Thursday night and leave us to run the project ourselves. My crisis started on the evening of Monday the 5th, when we had our usual action group. We were going around saying cool stuff we'd seen God do in our lives the past week, as usual, and for some reason I couldn't think of anything; I couldn't see what He'd been doing. This was distressing to me. Even worse was that looking back on my life thus far, I couldn't seem to find anything that was unequivocally God's doing; other explanations seemed to get in the way to the point where I couldn't really say what He'd done for me. My being distracted during action groups was sadly a running theme this summer, and I was especially so this time. While my brothers in Christ were discussing Colossians, I was watching as the foundation of my faith seemed to crumble away.

I would say I wrestled with God that night and for the next few days. I overflowed with questions. Why does God not seem to be working in my life? Is it my fault? Are God's promises true? What is going on? After more thought, I realized the issue was that God wasn't giving me the kind of life I expected at all. I was expecting to see Him doing amazing things through me this summer (and He was!), but I couldn't see any of it. I wasn't looking at my life with faith, but with skepticism and doubt. Faced with the prospect of following a God who seemed to not make sense, promise nothing, and not do anything in my life, I think I briefly lost my faith.

The result was some of the worst depression I've had in a few years. I think it's an indication of how central faith is to my life that once it was removed, I pretty much had no hope or life in me. I managed to somehow set it aside for VBS at New Beginnings, but I may as well have not been at the teaching that night; I was off in my own little world of despair. Okay, I'll stop sounding emo now. What I'm trying to get across is that I had no hope without faith in God. This is where it gets awesome!

Of course, God wasn't just letting me sit there and doubt Him. Thankfully, Dave my discipler noticed something was wrong at action group and talked to me afterward. I was still pretty confused, but tried to explain what was going on to him. I remember he told me Hebrews 11:8: "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going." His point was that by faith we follow God even if we don't see what He's doing or know the way He wants us to go; He leads us, not the other way around. Having the faith that would follow God into the unknown seemed like an insurmountable challenge to be at that point.

The truth, I've later realized, is that I was still seeing God as my helper as I had been doing for years, not as my Lord. The difference was that instead of wanting help with living a comfortable life or being a better person, I wanted help with doing good works and advancing God's kingdom. It's an incredibly subtle distinction from trusting God and letting Him lead you in kingdom work, and all the harder to distinguish from the truth. I was putting God in a box, unconsciously expecting Him to help me do the good things I wanted to do because I love Him. When He didn't help me in the ways I expected, I thought He wasn't with me at all.

The next night Aaron Miatke, another of the staff, talked to me about being certain that I was saved. He gave me a Cru resource on it and a book on Spiritual discipline (or something), which I wish I'd had time to read through. I was still seeing faith as this painful thing, following God blindly and never seeing any reward for it this side of heaven. With this view, no wonder I was struggling to recommit my life to Him.

The next morning I took off from ministry, being in no condition to do draining work with kids when I felt so empty. It was a good thing I did, because that Wednesday morning was when it all got better. In the midst of all the darkness in my life, of everything seeming not to make sense and God seeming to hide His face from me, I made an intentional decision to put my faith in Him. The whole thing reminded me of Job, who similarly struggled with his faith when God seemed to turn on him and forsake him. Ultimately Job realized that God was too big, too awesome, too far above him to question and argue with. "You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know." (42:3) Part of one of Job's speeches became my statement of faith: "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him."

Looking back, that morning was the turning point in my summer, my faith, my entire life. No longer did I need to understand God to believe in Him; I was willing to simply go ahead where He sent me and left God be God. If I believed in God when His face was hidden and He seemed far from my life, how much more would I believe when I saw Him reveal Himself to me through prayer and worship, keep me joyfully sustained through three more weeks of service, lead a man to Christ through me, and bring me all kinds of amazing stories of His work in Milwaukee through my job writing the newsletter! Since then and even after project I've been able to trust God to be Himself and take care of me in absolutely any situation, and this new, powerful faith has given me unspeakable peace and joy in knowing Him. Trusting Him to work through me instead of trying to do things myself with God as a fall-back plan has helped me to abandon my preconceptions of what God wants to do in me. Quite simply, knowing God and having faith in Him is the best thing ever, hands-down.

A clarification: when I say I didn't need to understand God to believe in Him, don't think that Wednesday morning was when I traded reason for blind faith and turned into an airheaded "Jesus freak". I have always been, and will likely always be, a curious and intellectual person who loves studying and understanding things. God is no exception, hence my interest in theology and apologetics. What I mean is that my need to understand things is now secondary to my faith in God; if He gives me no answer to my questions, I trust Him to know what He's doing, where He's guiding me, and simply go along with Him. Maybe He'll make sense of things, maybe not. An example of this is in my previous note on prayer. I was directed to a sermon today on prayer and community in which Matthew 18:20 came up repeatedly: "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." So Jesus is present when people gather together for Him (i.e. praying together) in a way that He is not when we pray alone. Do I have any idea what this means or how it works? No! Will it stop me from faithfully praying with others? Of course not!!

Wow. I think I just wrote an alternate version of my testimony, all in one go. Having time to reflect is helpful for that. I hope you made it through all that, faithful reader, and I hope it has helped you understand what faith in God looks like and how life-changing it can be.

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