From 15th to 19th May I am speaking at Lee Abbey in Devon on ‘Resilient Faith: coping with doubts, difficulties and disappointments’. You can find full details and book here.
We are sometimes given the impression that a Christian faith will protect us from all the doubts and difficulties in the world. So when challenges come, they can often take us off guard. But when we read scripture carefully, we find that doubts, difficulties and disappointments are recurrent themes for both individuals and the whole people of God! What insights does scripture offer us in recording these experiences, and what can we learn from them? And what habits of life will help us grow faith that endures through all these challenges? Join us this week and we’ll face the challenges together.
In anticipation, I wrote this for Lee Abbey’s ‘Rapport’ magazine to give a taster.
Although it was nearly 25 years ago, I remember that day like it was yesterday.
I had left my high-flying job in business. I had studied theology, and been ordained. I had continued study and completed a PhD in New Testament. I had finished my curacy. What was God calling me to next? The obvious answer was a post teaching in a theological college—and just the job I was looking for came up, and we had a strong sense that this is what God was calling me to. Even better—I was the only applicant! I thought that the interview had gone well, but after an agonising two hour wait outside the interview room, I was given the devastating news—they were not going to appoint me.
It is hard to describe what moments of bitter disappointment like this feel like—but there is an almost tangible physical sensation. I now faced a miserable two hour drive home, through the dark and rain. The weather reflected my mood, and though I am not much given to tears, I think I cried all the way home.
But perhaps the most challenging part of this whole experience was that my ministry, including my preaching, changed dramatically from then on. People commented immediately—‘there’s something different in you’—and they meant it as a compliment. There was a depth, a credibility, an authenticity in my preaching that I had not known before.
How do we handle the disappointments of life? What do we do when God appears to lead us in one direction—yet we then suddenly find the apparently open door slammed shut in our face? How should we cope with the challenges of illness and incapacity? And what do we do when the challenges to our faith come from the very people we hoped would encourage us and build us up?
The one thing we can be sure of is that challenges will come. On his final night with his disciples, Jesus was very clear: ‘In this world you will have trouble’ (John 16.33)—and the word Jesus uses here is translated in the AV as ‘tribulation’, meaning serious testing and suffering. When Luke summarised Paul’s evangelistic message on his ‘first missionary journey’, he quotes Paul thus: ‘Through many tribulations must we enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14.22). And John, writing to the Christians in the Roman province of Asia, the Western end of what we now know as Turkey, was clear: ‘I, John, am your brother and companion in tribulation, kingdom, and patience endurance’ (Rev 1.9).
But Jesus was also confident: ‘Take heart! Be courageous! For I have overcome the world!’ As we follow Jesus as disciples in the world, we will face challenges, we will face suffering and disappointment—but these will not have the last word! It is possible to live with patient endurance, our eyes set on the hope that we have in Jesus—which in the end will not disappoint us (Romans 5.5).
Safety cells and crumple zones
So how, in practice, can we grow in confident faith whilst facing these challenges?
Strangely enough, we are given a clue by modern car design. When cars were first built, they were structured around a rigid steel chassis. It is easy to understand why: if you want to protect passengers from the shock of a collision, surely you want to build the structure of the car as strong as possible? But in fact it turned out that a strong, rigid chassis simply passed the shock of the collision on to the passengers, resulting in terrible injuries and death.
Instead, modern cars are built with two kinds of structure. The centre of the car is built as a strong ‘safety cage’ which protects all those inside. But at either end there is what is known as a ‘crumple zone’, which collapse by design on impact, and in doing so absorb the shock of the impact, so that the energy is not passed on to the passengers. I think this kind of model gives us important insights into developing resilient faith, and I have found five things helpful in doing so.
1. Be real
There is a great temptation, especially when faith is new, to see the truths about God and his love for us in Jesus as an escape from the realities of everyday life. That can be true and helpful in different ways and for lots of people; when life is hard, coming away from it with fellow pilgrims and basking in the reality of God can be an important relief.
But this is not the way that mature faith grows. Jesus encourages us to learn lessons from the natural world, especially from the garden and field. When you sow seeds and grow young plants, you cannot hide them away from natural light and temperature changes—if you do, they grow quickly but spindly, pale and weak. But if you plant them out too soon, they are not ready for the shocks of everyday weather. Plants need to be ‘hardened off’ by exposure to real life as they grow stronger, and the same is true for us.
2. Seek understanding
When Jesus saw the crowds coming to him after he had been away on a short ‘sabbatical’ with the Twelve, he sees them as ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, needing help, hope and healing. So what is his response to this need? ‘He began to teach them many things’. All through the gospels, and in the letters of the New Testament, there is a consistent emphasis on ‘understanding’. So Paul, whilst rejecting the ‘wisdom’ of Greek philosophy, nevertheless tells the Christians in Corinth that they need to be ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ in their understanding (1 Cor 14.20). This is clearly not about an intellectual exercise—since Paul is clear that his readers are not ‘wise’ or learned!
Tempting as it is to simply be told what to do or what to believe, God wants us to understand the ‘why’ of faith, and not just the ‘what’. This leads to my third observation.
3. Ask questions, don’t just accept formulas
Formulas can be very helpful. I still remember helpful guidance given to me when I was a young Christian—such as the pattern of ACTS for my personal prayer (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). But though formulas and summaries can be helpful, they are no substitute for mature and enquiring faith.
When I travel and speak in different churches, as often as I can I try to make space for people to ask questions—and there is never any shortage! We are not very good at creating space for allowing the asking of questions, since we are all afraid of looking foolish or exposing our lack of understanding. But when we do, we usually find there are others who are asking just the same question!
4. Create a secure cell of belief
Like cars with crumple zones, there are going to be things that we need to let go of and rethink when hard questions are asked, and that can be painful. But there are also things that we can be confident of, and hold on to, and these are just as important. I find it curious when people characterise ‘asking questions’ as the only sign of mature faith, as if we can never be sure of anything! Yet Jesus, our example of ultimate maturity and our model of faith (Eph 4.15) was asked the hardest question—yet continued to trust his heavenly Father to the bitter end.
Sharing in a statement of what we believe can be an important habit in this—yet many of our churches don’t do this. Perhaps it is a healthy habit we need to recover! And that connects with my final observation.
5. Grow in endurance in community
It is very striking that John says to his readers in Asia ‘I am your brother who shares with you in tribulation…’ The verb ‘share’ is related to the noun koinonia, ‘fellowship’. Even though he was at a physical distance from them, John needed to emphasise that they were a community on a journey together, and needed one another to stay strong in the trials and tribulations of the faithful life.
We, too, need one another. When I have faced disappointments, it is the prayer, support, and encouragement of those around who have sustained me and enabled my faith to grow, rather than crumple, in the face of challenges.
Come and join us in May, when we will be exploring all these themes in more depth—and discovering once again that ‘hope does not disappoint us’ (Rom 5.5).