Reflections on a faith journey
The first time I returned to faith was on a balcony in my medical school.
My mum had come to faith in my first year of life, while doing her Bachelor’s in Michigan State University. She had grown up in a religious home with her parents being regular church attenders, but it was then she took it on as a personal adult decision. She would go on to share her newfound faith with all her children. I took it all seriously, even making my own commitment to faith before age ten.
I also had lots of questions.
The sciences were my favourite subject, and a lot of the stuff I learned seemed dismissive of it, which I couldn’t quite reconcile. On the other hand, I also couldn’t simply dismiss how I saw faith repeatedly transform people. By secondary school though, I started to lose interest in it and by the time I got to uni, that passive drifting had become an active walking away.
I still remember the balcony. It was late and, as has become a pattern with these moments, I was alone. I can’t recall what I was thinking about, except that it had nothing to do with what followed. The thought occurred to me, quite strongly, that I should take very seriously the idea of being in relationship with the God I’d been taught about growing up. It was not a voice or anything, just me and my thoughts. Is this what people mean when they say they heard God?
In the preceding months, I’d been flirting with faith again, attending church and occasionally reading a Bible. I’d particularly found Ecclesiastes resonant, with its declarations of life as meaningless while hinting that it didn’t have to be. It described both how I’d long felt and what I’d long hoped for. That night I felt an urge to take things further. And I didn’t like it.
I don’t remember how long I stood there, but I remember how I left: with a sense of exasperation and the thought, Fine, I’m in, happy now?!
I went to my room, lay down and slept. And woke up the next day thinking, What in the world did I just do?
I had taken the plunge, despite being afraid. I would later read CS Lewis describe his own conversion experience in Surprised by Joy and found it deeply resonant:
That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
The second time I returned, I was almost two years into seriously practising faith. I had by then come out, as it were, to my friends, none of whom was particularly religious. The Bible also felt increasingly relevant in both its wisdom and how illuminating I found its lens on reality. My lifelong shyness began to fade as I became genuinely more interested in people.
But then I felt betrayed.
The Christian teaching about God depicts a being who cares deeply how you feel and what you’re going through. I’ve always understood that intellectually, but really feeling it is a different matter. I can’t recall exactly what it was that had me feeling betrayed, just that it was a small thing—but I remember very definitely that it was something important to me. How was I to trust this God with my life if I couldn’t with the little things?
I could buy the principles of the faith but the relationship aspect of it felt both too demanding and like a hotbed for heartbreak. This time, though, it was less that I walked away completely and more that I put some distance between us. The pain of feeling betrayed landed me in an emotional funk and I responded by comfort eating.
But I remember sitting down in the fast food place where I’d gone to eat alone and thinking, Do you really want to walk away from this just because it’s hard even though deep down it feels as true as anything you’ve ever known? Again it came with that sense that my thoughts in that moment were part of a spiritual conversation with divinity.
I decided to return, but conditionally, to start. God, I’m coming back but I’m not running, because I don’t trust you. I want to but you’ll have to win me back.
Faith appears comforting on the outside, I think. But like any commitment to anything, it’s scary on the inside. In fact I suspect people act more certain about faith than they really are precisely to avoid facing this fear. No plunging for me this time: I returned step by faltering step.
Yet here I am again, returning.
This time, it hasn’t been a walking away, but a drifting. Between COVID and work and relocating and going through a rough patch, I’ve found myself not really practising the disciplines of my faith. And the thing about faith
I once read an older, wiser Christian describe the faith as a life of “ongoing repentance” and it’s one of the most helpful descriptions I’ve ever heard. I know some take that view as unhelpful and I get it: on the surface it seems guilt-inducing, like you’re meant to be always feeling bad for something. That would be emotionally unhealthy but I don’t think it means that.
“Ongoing repentance” is really just the acknowledgement that living meaningfully is hard work and it’s often easier to back away, and that when we — as we tend to — take that easier choice, there’s grace available. If faith, to borrow from the delightful title of Eugene Peterson’s book, a long obedience in the same direction, then repentance is how we stay on track.
In the psychological model known as Stages of Change, a key step is the relapse stage which is important precisely because it serves to remind you that stumbling is not the end, it’s part of the change process.
You might say, then, that repentance in Christianity is really how you recover from the inevitable relapses: to live in ongoing repentance is to be always recovering. The relapses are part of the journey, and returning is part of your growth.
I need that now because I’ve been really struggling. My faith holds, but without my regularly practising its disciplines — prayer, Bible reading, church attendance—it feels thin. There’s a passage from St James that talks about faith being dead apart from works — it’s no simple matter of believing, it demands to be practised. But in my struggle with practices of my faith, it has come to feel like Bilbo’s description of himself to Gandalf (from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings):
I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.
My faith feels a bit like that, now. And so I must return, this time to doing the things that embody that faith.