For nearly two decades I’ve served as a pastor to both local and online faith communities, unpacking lots and lots of God stuff with folks from all over the world.
Each day I spend time talking with people about what they believe about life, the Afterlife, about whether a Creator exists, and if so what that Creator’s character is —the things that we all wrestle with at some level in the quiet and solitary places.
I get the privilege of listening to people. I get the blessing of hearing their unique stories and discovering the ways those stories have shaped their story about God.
Their childhood, their parents, the place and time they grew-up in, the education they’ve received, their church history, the experiences they’ve accumulated, the victories they’ve won, the suffering they’ve endured. It all has led them to the specific ground on which they stand; that ever-shifting spot called Belief.
None of us develops our faith in a vacuum and very few of us finds it in an instant. It’s a slow, constant process of learning and unlearning, of picking up and putting down, of accepting and rejecting. We assemble our complex belief system in fits and starts over time and distance, and it’s rare that we simply wake up one day and choose faith or choose to abandon it (even though it may feel like that sometimes). Through the nearly infinite twists and turns of the meandering path we’ve been on since we were born, our theology has evolved—and rarely does it sit still.
My faith is in flux as I write these words, yours is as you read them.
And as each of us interacts with the world, as we begin to share with others the story we’ve come to believe about God, most of us run into something incredibly sinister and terribly destructive: guilt. It’s an unwanted gift we receive the moment we express some aspect of our understanding of spiritual things. Invariably our personal convictions are met by a brutal wave of instant, violent disagreement from an opposing side, one that seeks not only to invalidate those convictions but to shame us for ever having them at all:
If we are historically religious and our views in some way begin to drift from orthodoxy, those fully ensconced within that tradition come with shouts of “Heretic!”, and vile threats of impending damnation.
If we express a deep and well-defined faith, those rejecting religion often respond with ridicule and sarcasm, painting us as simple-minded sheep incapable of fully facing the difficult realities of the world.
If we find ourselves somewhere in the in-between, unable to respond definitively in one regard or another, we receive vicious rebuke from either side, as if we are simply tentative supernatural gamblers hedging our bets.
And regardless of where it comes from, this shame-throwing and condemnation is all downright poisonous.
None of the guilt-peddling does anything but damage people and fracture our relationships with them. Badgering another person for what they believe or don’t believe about God, is about as helpful as criticizing someone for their height or the sound of their laugh or the shape of their eyes. Our faith is as much a bi-product of our road as it is a move of our own volition.
One of the signs of true maturity (spiritual or otherwise), is being able to believe something without needing someone else to share that belief; to respect that another’s conclusions have been reached in as careful and thoughtful and thorough and valid a manner as one’s own.
A person doesn’t necessarily need more prayer or more examination of Science or more fervent study of Scripture or greater devotion to Jesus or less dependence on religion to be moved from their current religious position to one that aligns more closely with our own. They may have taken those very roads to arrive exactly where they are right now.
I am always mildly amused when someone critiques my faith convictions by suggesting that I pray or study the Bible or engage in some other spiritual discipline, as if these are somehow novel, untried approaches designed to alter my stance. It is the daily, diligent, faithful exercise of these things that has led me to where I am and to the beliefs that I find myself with. In truth, these folks are not really as interested in me consulting God, as they are in me coming up with the exact same version of God that they have. They are not asking me questions to learn the contents of my heart or hear what I’ve witnessed, but to interrogate and bully me into changing my testimony.
Your testimony is not up for debate. It is yours alone.
Whenever I counsel people (regardless of their theological views) I encourage them to resist feeling guilty for those views; to allow no outside criticism to stick to them, because they are responding honestly and in real-time to the path that they have been on and to the faith that path has yielded.
None of us needs to apologize for our road or to justify to anyone else why we believe in or don’t believe in God, or to what degree or in what fashion we do either of those. You and I are only responsible for authenticity, wherever we are at a given moment on the spiritual journey.
Because regardless of what we think, when we engage in discussions of matters of faith with another person, we are not pitting our Right against their Wrong; we are simply sharing our best, most earnest, most educated guess on what is likely true about life beyond this life, none of us having certainty and none of us having cornered the market on Truth.
Friend, as much as you feel led to pursue answers to the deepest questions of life—do so, but show equal reverence for the conclusions of those who cross your path, trusting that they too have not come by those things haphazardly or easily.
And as you come to believe or not believe things about God or the ways of God, share those discoveries as openly as you choose, but resist the temptation to ever be sorry for them.
Never apologize for the faith you have or for the road you’ve traveled to find it.