It was rather an ironic purchase from the book table of a Christian retreat: an Emmaus walk. It was ironic because this was a Men’s Walk (the men and women do separate walks). Many of the leaders and participants had been involved in Angus Buchan’s Mighty Man conference, so there were numerous books on being a “Mighty Man”: head-of-the-house stuff.
I have a little bit of a problem, not with the work being done, but with some of the understanding that sometimes comes out of it. I think that we men spend too much time worrying about our manhood, and about what to do in order to be head of the house, and too little time focused on how to love our wives, whereas love, for God, friends, enemies, and our wives, is the key demand of scripture.
Well, amongst these Mighty Men books, which challenge us mighty men to confident faith, was this little gem called Messy Faith. And, even more scandalous, it’s written by … a woman!
In Messy Faith, AJ Gregory paints an extremely messy picture of her own very real faith struggle. But this isn’t her story; it’s about all of us. She writes in her introduction, “It’s about your journey with God. It’s about trying to reconcile your pains, your doubts, your questions, your imperfections, your vices, and your lapses with faith in an invisible God.”
“Messy Faith,” she says, “addresses the muddled adventure that working out our faith in God can sometimes look like. It is being sure and unsure, whole and broken, warring, losing and winning. It is being right and being wrong and having no clue, but believing anyway. And it is trusting in God for perfecting the final product—our flawed, human selves.”
It is an important subject. In the church, and especially from the pulpit, what we say and how we say it often suggests that being a Christian means being sure of everything all the time; it’s as if becoming a Christian involves being bad one day and perfectly good the next, with no flaws. We often give the impression (not intentionally) that we never have doubts. I think part of the problem is that we don’t know how to speak of doubts and failures. We are, after all, speaking about God, and about the hope in which we live. We don’t want to sound as if Christianity itself is in doubt, as if we don’t know what we believe or why.
And the doubts we have are not the only reality of our lives; there are often times when we are absolutely sure in whom we believe and we know, without any doubt, that God loves us and he loves the world he has made. We want to proclaim that too.
Proclaiming Good News
But we need to remember that we are called to proclaim the Gospel. And the Gospel, the good news, is that God meets us right in the middle of the mess that is our lives. He doesn’t wait for us to sort out the mess, he meets us right there. And when he meets us, and this is a scandalous thing to say and to believe, when he meets us he has no expectations of us, except that we should receive his deep love for us and learn to love him in return.
We struggle with this, especially in our preaching. We worry that if we don’t use the pulpit to teach people how Christians ought to live they won’t know. But our preaching then becomes law (full of ought’s) instead of grace, and we tend to come across as doubt-free, failure-proof, unwavering servants of God. And people outside of and ordinary Christians inside the church fear they will never be acceptable to God, never meet his high standards, and they drift further away from God and from God’s family.
Messy Faith reminds us that our daily struggle with authentic faith is real. Subjects include imperfection, judging others, brokenness, addiction, Is God enough? and Is God going to take care of me?
Gregory begins each chapter by looking at the reality of her own brokenness and messy life, or that of someone close to her. She challenges our trite responses and judgemental attitudes by taking us to scripture and revealing more and more of God’s love for us: for us, not as we might become, but as we are.
Faith and Doubt
She doesn’t bring us answers. She brings us face to face with the reality of our questions and the uncertainty of our doubts. But she does more. She helps us understand that it’s OK to ask the questions; God wants us to wrestle with them, not to ignore them or imagine that God hates our asking them. In the chapter, “Is God going to take care of me?” Gregory writes, “I wanted to believe that God would take care of me. For me, what this meant was that I would one day be free from a painful addiction and the thick residue of its emotional, mental and physical side effects…. In essence, my theme prayer was, ‘I believe, Lord. I believe sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I know you’re going to take care of me. Or at least I believe more than I don’t believe. At least for today.’ My faith wasn’t absolute by any stretch.” She goes on to say:
“I came to the point where I had to stop relying on stuff, on people, on religion, and on cute inspirational phrases to provide me with interim comfort…. I had to believe in God, in his goodness, in his power, and in his love. I had to trust and hope, even and especially in the presence of my mess, acknowledging the not-so-perfect in my life but believing anyway that he would somehow make things beautiful.”
And then: “I don’t know the formula for believing in times of doubt except to do it and pray that God, through his Spirit, will give us the faith to keep believing however much we can at that moment, because the Bible teaches us that even faith is a gift from him.”
And some words that should be part of the reality that informs our preaching:
“Is God going to take care of me…? If you can’t reply with a resounding yes just yet, you can simply allow the faith and doubt that’s clamouring for your attention to clasp hands and walk down the path together. Answer the question honestly: ‘My God, my God, I honestly don’t know if you’ll take care of me. I think you will. No, I hope you will. I’m going to believe you will. Somehow. Lord, I do believe. But help me overcome my unbelief.’ ”
The Pools of Tears
Gregory brings us face to face with the messiness of our faith. She challenges us to be honest with ourselves and with God (if no one else) about our own struggles and doubts and to recognise the real struggles and needs of people around us. In his book, Signposts to Spirituality, Trevor Hudson quotes Gordon Cosby who said, “Never forget, each time you stand up to preach each person in your congregation is sitting next to a pool of tears.” Gregory shows us those tears and helps us take seriously the questions people are asking deep in their souls: Will God take care of me? Is God enough?
It’s good to remember that we don’t, in fact, have the answers to those questions. And that trying to answer them (which we simply can’t do for someone else) is not our job. Proclaiming the Gospel means taking those (and other) questions seriously, encouraging people to ask them, and walking with them as they struggle to find the answers and struggle with their messy faith.