“Faith is so complicated.”
I nodded in response to the student’s statement, but wondered deep in my heart; “Is it? Is faith really that complicated?”
I have had conversations and interactions centered around this same topic several times throughout my years serving and leading youth groups. As well, I have asked these questions myself. Me and my friends would sit in coffee shops, reading books by very smart and very dead people, using words we didn’t even fully understand. And I would find myself wondering the same thought;
“Faith is so complicated.”
But I always had a nagging in my brain suggesting that it may be much more simple than we’ve always thought.
8 years ago, I went to Christ in Youth MOVE, also known as CIY. I attended this conference with my youth group two summers in row, my last two summers as a high school student. This is a Christian youth retreat, which is held all over the country at different churches, college campuses, and in towns and cities alike.
That was the week I would feel a prompting/guiding towards ministry. That was the week I would solidify my friendship with one of my best friends. That was the week I would start to truly embrace my faith on a more personal level. But it was also a week of great discovery.
I would learn a lot about myself that week, and it would set me on the right trajectory to go into college. I was introduced to ideas, questions, and people who would help me begin to give language to the journey I had been on up to this point. I walked away from that conference different. It was a pivotal time in my life. It was a milestone in my faith. It felt like an aha moment, where the lightbulb turns on and I could finally see.
At the end of the trip, we were asked to write ourselves a letter. They told us to hold off reading it until we were ready, which was ambiguous to say the least.
Most of us forgot about our letters. We would graduate and move on. And those letters, like a time capsule to our faith origins, would be lost, forgotten, and thrown away.
Since writing that letter, I would graduate high school.
I would make friendships that were life-giving. I would change my major in college seven times, doubting myself, my future, and my ability.
I would graduate college. I would get my first job, teaching middle schoolers the same faith I had accepted earlier in my life.
I would move out of my parents house. I would get promoted to oversee the religious development of both middle and high school students, while having my hand in several other ministry settings at the same church.
I would burnout. And I would grow weary of the church, the faith, and the savior I had fallen in love with eight years earlier. I would find myself at the edge.
A lot of life happened in those eight years.
Recently, as I cleaned out a box of memories. I stumbled upon my brief letter. And I found a simple and yet profound message within. Here’s what it said:
This week was great! I’ll do it again next year. I want to follow through on my kingdom worker card. * I also want to be better about Bible memorization. But in short, I want you to remember. Have no regrets. Live life like you could die at any time. Love everyone, no matter how hard it is. Always know that God loves you and never leaves you. Take your faith everywhere. Go be Jesus.
I sat down on my bed and I felt a warmth wash over me as I got lost in my own mind. I remembered things I thought were lost to time. I remembered myself. And more than that, I remembered what it was like to believe and have faith.
Back when it wasn’t so complicated.
All those years ago, my faith was decidedly different than it is now. Not because God became any more real to me. God is not distant or detached, I understand that. God is not something we solely theologize, nor is God a deity that we can only know through ephemeral and ethereal musings.
But somewhere along the way, I got lost in all of things there are to know about God, that I gave up trying to be with God.
Pastor AJ Sherril notes in his brief book, Quiet: Hearing God Amidst The Noise, “Theology helps us form categories for the relationship, but theology is not the relationship.” *
What an interesting, seemingly obvious, and yet often missed point. Theology helps us to know more about God, but it is not a substitute for God himself.
For so long, I had missed that glaringly obvious truth. I thought that the more information I collected, the more theological concepts and doctrines I could grasp and understand, the more fully entrenched in faith I was. And yet, theology had become a replacement for me being with God.
Rob Bell gives an interesting image in his book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. He describes the role of doctrine and theology as more of trampoline, rather than a brick wall. He notes, that when theology and doctrine become a brick wall in faith, you have very little room for a dynamic faith that changes and grows. If you find that your views on certain topics change, such as the creation narrative, you weaken the wall your faith is built on. Instead, Bell offers up a different approach. He says that faith should resemble a trampoline. A trampoline is a frame with springs, but it gives flexibility to the mat that you’re jumping on. He argues that we can picture the springs of the trampoline as being the doctrine and theology of faith. They are massively important, but they are flexible and dynamic, and they’re ultimately not the point.
Bell says this about why the trampoline view is more dynamic and solid in the long run; “This truth about God is why study and discussion and doctrine are so necessary. They help us put words to realities beyond words. They give insight and understanding into the experience of God we’re having. Which is why the springs only work when they serve the greater cause: us finding our lives in God. If they ever become the point, something has gone seriously wrong. Doctrine is a wonderful servant and a horrible master. The springs are huge – they hold up the mat – but they aren’t God. They aren’t Jesus.” *
This is brings us to a similar conclusion as Pastor AJ Sherrill is saying as well, theology is important, but “theology is not the relationship.” These things help us to know more about God. They help give us language to express what we believe about God, and a litany of other things. But make no mistake, theology is not God.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he is going to prepare a place for the disciples, and he says that the disciples know where this place is, meaning it is the Kingdom of Heaven. Thomas pipes up and says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” and Jesus answers back this highly important thought; “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” *
Jesus is the way.
While the disciples are wondering about all of the specifics, all of the details, Jesus reminds them that he is the point. It’s not that the details don’t matter, it’s just that they’re not the focus.
Pastor and writer, Frederick Buechner put it like this, “‘I am the way, and the truth, and the Life,’ is how he [Jesus] answers. He does not say the church is the way. He does not say his teachings are the way, or what people for centuries have taught about him. He does not say religion is the way, not even the religion that bears his name. He says he himself is the way.” *
Maybe, faith isn’t complicated at all. Maybe faith is just trust that Jesus was who he said he was, and the rest is just icing. All of the doctrine, theology, and church history is there to help guide us, not to be better Christians, but it is there to guide us closer to Christ.
The more I look back, the more I realize that we can over complicate things a bit. It’s interesting to me that Jesus, no matter what you think and believe about him, suggests that maybe the best approach to faith is that of a child. I don’t think that’s a call to be immature, but I believe it is a call to wonderment. I think it is a call to live unencumbered by all of our unnecessary stipulations. I think it is a call to a faith that is far more simple than we often give it credit.
It’s a faith that revolves around an Emmanuel and resurrected God who is asking us to join him on the journey towards restoration.
And that’s a faith that I can get behind.
- Kingdom Worker cards were little challenges given to every student. It was something to help them in their discipleship process.
- Sherrill, AJ. Quiet: Hearing God Amidst the Noise. 2014, p. 60.
- Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2012. p. 10.
- John 14:5-7 NIV
- Buechner, 270. Buechner, Frederick. Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. New York: HarperOne, 2006. p. 270.