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Into a spiritual wilderness

Ever had a faith crisis? You’re in good company. Working through the fog of doubt can take your faith to new horizons.

By Trisha Elliott

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” These words have been cried from many crosses since Jesus first cried them from his. Life crises — physical, emotional, spiritual — can leave our faith hanging from dead wood, our belief in God sinking with every bite of the nail. We become like the disciples who walked down the road from the cross on a trail of broken faith.

Nearly 20 years ago, Tom Harpur’s thin book For Christ’s Sake plunged me into crisis. The book questions the historical accuracy of the Bible and the literal truth of seminal biblical events like the virgin birth, the crucifixion and the resurrection. Inching along, paragraph by disturbing paragraph, I took a solid year to make my way through, occasionally getting so angry I slammed the book shut.

By the time I finished that book and a few more, the ideas had hollowed out my faith to such an extent that it had become little more than a shell, like something you put on for the sake of appearances or protection. Church was the last place I wanted to be. I felt like a fraud. I didn’t trust the Bible, and if I didn’t trust the Bible, how could I trust any of the theology constructed on it? How could I, among all these good Christians, admit that deep down I didn’t think I was one?

That was my first major faith crisis, but it wouldn’t be the last. Over the past two decades, there have been a handful of other moments when I wallowed in the absence of faith. Presiding at the funeral of a 12-year-old girl who died of cancer, consoling a woman whose husband drowned while ice fishing and witnessing first-hand the devastation of HIV-AIDS have caused me to wrestle with my faith, to wonder where God is in the midst of suffering.

It’s reassuring to know that I’m not alone. The Bible — the very book that I thought demanded my unwavering belief — dispenses a shocking amount of ink describing disbelief. In fact, the most hailed of biblical heroes like Moses, Abraham and Job wrestle with their faith. They question and demand. They rail and worry. They fear the absence of faith. The crisis happens so routinely with so many characters that it’s hard not to read between the scriptural lines: Faith crisis is not new. It’s not even unique. It’s normal, the soul’s equivalent of growing pains.

But when its crushing, embarrassing weight is upon us, faith crisis seems the farthest thing from normal. It feels sinful, like a betrayal of God and maybe even of our faith community. However, what feels bad isn’t necessarily bad. Growth demands energy. It requires tending. Sometimes it requires death, the weeding of some beliefs to make space for others.

I’ve come to believe that the best way to have a faith crisis is to commit to it. There is no shame in questioning faith. What matters is what one does with the questions. Often, we huddle up in the cave of the questions like Elijah did on Mount Horeb and feel sorry for ourselves, as though we’re the only ones in the world who have experienced such a crisis. Instead of seeing it as part of a natural faith progression or the turning point at which our faith can become even more deep and sustaining, we play the passive victim and do nothing. We pose our questions but fail to take up the quest for answers.

Thomas has a better approach, I think. His crisis-management style is practical, hands-on. He lays it on the line: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails and place my finger in the mark of the nails and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.” And then when Jesus gives him the go-ahead, he actually does it. He gets about the business of resolving his faith questions. He reaches out. As his grimy fingers touch Jesus’ wounds, he has his epiphany: “My Lord and my God!” It’s unfortunate that Christians have allowed Thomas’s doubt to define him. It seems to me that Thomas sought to restore his faith — and Jesus was willing to engage his struggle.

If you had asked me 20 years ago if I was a Christian, I would have honestly answered no. In retrospect, I think that asking good questions and resolving to search for answers is completely biblical, utterly Christian and truly faithful. In the end, what saved my faith nearly 20 years ago was my willingness to accept my misgivings and commit to the questions. Like Thomas, I reached out.

Fortunately, the first church leader to whom I confessed my spiritual doubts didn’t judge me. He wisely asked, “Okay, so what are you doing about it?” I had no idea. I thought of faith crisis more as something that happened to me rather than something I could do anything about. My mentor prodded me into developing something akin to a crisis-management plan; he helped me name the crisis, develop a strategy and monitor the progress I was making. The plan entailed identifying people I thought might be able to shed light on my questions, reading book critiques and praying. True to the definition of crisis, my faith went through a process of transformation in which some of my previous ways of thinking and feeling couldn’t be maintained. Letting go hurt.

Yet, as I went through the painful process of losing a literal understanding of the Scriptures, I gained a more full understanding of faith. As a result, the Bible lives for me in a whole new way. The mythology has taken on deeper truth. While I no longer rely on the literal facts of the biblical narrative, I know that the Spirit moves through many of them. The stories rarely fail to move my heart. They change my life.

I’ve taken the same approach to my other faith crises. And now, as I sit with people who receive devastating diagnoses or go through painful life events that challenge their faith, I encourage them to focus on navigating the crisis, to try taking hold of the wheel before jumping ship.

Last week, a parishioner confessed, “Trish, I’m having a ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ moment.” She has every reason to feel forsaken. She is suffering from a host of illnesses in her twilight years and feels alone, abandoned by God. We spent the visit acknowledging how the pain she experienced was whittling away at her faith.

The next time we meet, I’ll rip a page from my mentor’s playbook and gently ask the question, “Okay, so what are you doing about it?” Maybe we’ll look at the crucifixion story together. We won’t stop at the “Why hast thou forsaken me” part, though. We’ll keep reading. We’ll turn the page to the commitment passage. “Into thy hands, I commit my Spirit,” we’ll hear Jesus resolve. As we read on, we’ll witness shackles being unlocked and a heavy stone being rolled away. We’ll catch a glimpse of light. We’ll see holiness — and maybe even our faith — resurrected.

 Rev. Trisha Elliott lives in Orleans, Ont.

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