in the face of doubt, tireless faith

Wednesday, November 6, 2019


"I've never seen, exactly,
who it is that you paperclip your knees,
meld your hands together and pray to.
But I think I know what he looks like."

–Your God, by Rudy Francisco

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I write this under the risk of not sounding like myself. Of forwarding honest thoughts that may seem controversial to some of my readers. I don't write about my personal faith. If at all. I try not to, anyway.

It's like having a private, sacred corner that you want to keep guarded from public commentary. However, there hasn't actually been much need to defend it. At least not in the social circles I grew up in.

I was born into a Christian family, and I went to a Christian school. My faith was a personal decision, but also a constant shared experience. I've spent a large portion of my life attending churches and remaining in clusters of "fellow believers". Warm. Uplifting. Familiar. It was everything I knew.

Like many people, my faith is heavily intertwined with my upbringing. You say grace before a meal. You give thanks before bedtime. You read the Bible, you go to church, and soon enough, it all becomes clockwork.

When I say "my faith is intertwined with my upbringing" what I mean to say is my whole belief system was carved into me by teachers and parents I grew up listening to. This is what happens when you are born into a spiritual family – you grow up believing things, living a certain way, and find no reason to question them.

Not until you move 2,000 miles away from home. You place yourself in a new country, suddenly finding a chance to start afresh. You forge new friendships, new habits, but you also, in a way, learn to define things for yourself. It's a reshaping of everything you stand for and believe in, as a person.

This was when I realised I had more beliefs and values that were taught to me – therefore I was expected to have – than values I adopted on my own. I'm not saying they're wrong, but for the first time I began confronting them.

For example, sitting in a seventh grade classroom, a cross hanging on the back wall, I remember how my teacher stated abortion was a sin. Unthinkable. Murderous. Wrong. I didn't question this. As with many of these doctrines, I nodded, and understood.

I wore a silver cross around my neck. I had a Bible on my bedside (I still do.) So as an obedient Christian girl, I didn't find reason to question my teacher's material.

I also didn't know anyone who had actually gone through or been affected by abortion.

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Between progressive ideas and religious beliefs, lie endless amounts of heated debates. I was never caught in one, nor would I call myself a full-blown libertarian. Still, these were things I couldn't ignore. Things I couldn't just hear, then dismiss, as I go back into my safe Christian bubble.

Being born into this bubble makes it much easier to stay inside. This bubble is not a bad place. In fact, this bubble is comfortable.

It's where you share smiles, testimonies, and encouragement. Your world is worship songs and prayer circles and day-to-day activities and chapel walls. Your faith and values are never confronted. They get "tested" from time to time, like when facing hardships. But the bubble gives you strong support, guidance, and life-changing Sunday sermons (so life-changing, in fact, that we receive one every seven days.)

There's also a reason, though, why I call it a "bubble". Because something happens when you decide to step out of it.

I don't mean leaving the church or disowning the Bible. I don't mean throwing a fit of rage and committing blasphemy. But sometimes, stepping out just means observing in a different light. Asking yourself difficult questions. Drawing a parallel between your own values, and the values you grew up believing.

I began drawing this parallel when I started talking to strangers. (And yes, there I was, already breaking my mother's rule.) I did this for journalism class. I've always felt journalism was slightly out of my league. But this year, I decided to attend classes anyway – over several months, I learned to write articles and scout for stories and people to talk to.

"When you're trying to find a story," my tutor said, "look for somebody who is very different from you." He smiled my way. He'd noticed the silver cross on my neck. He knew I could find plenty.

My love for journalism grows out of a need to advocate for people. That was how I began approaching strangers I'd never otherwise talk to. "Try to go out and find people no one pays attention to," my tutor said. So I chatted with everyone, from a genderqueer classmate, to foreign street musicians, to missionaries from the Mormon church.

I loved it. I heard their stories, and learned about their lives – their fears, their hopes, the way society has treated them. Other than dismantling my shyness, this experience knocked down all my personal biases, brick by brick.

About seven years after hearing my teacher's statement on abortion, I learn about feminism, and grow up as a woman myself. I learn of the lawmakers that dictate what is done to my body. My stance therefore shifted, my view suddenly broadened. I was shaken. This happened to my view on other topics too, like same-sex marriages and equal rights. I won't go too deep into these, but I'm trying to paint a picture.

Between left and right, I started leaning towards what I felt was true and in alignment with my values. Those values, I soon realised, were tolerance. Empathy. Inclusivity. Equality, and justice for all.

But then, during that decision, I find out many "fellow believers" stand on the opposite side of the line. This left me feeling unsettled, and alien. For the first time in my life, we believed in different things.

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In the environments I grew up in, there was never room for doubt. There wasn't much room for questions. Faith was about being sure, 100%.

A common understanding is that this doubt is what then grows into unbelief. But can I just say? Unbelief isn't a snap decision young people make when we get bored. Unbelief comes from many little moments of dilemma, accumulated over time, left untended and unanswered.

Another idea is that doubt means you question the greatness of God. I've never seen God, but I can definitely say He's not as shaken by questions as many religious leaders are.

If worldwide churches and leaders swerve away from difficult questions, we shouldn't be surprised when people stop asking. When we don't create space for dialogue, we can't act surprised when people stop trying. 

This space for dialogue, in fact, has become narrower and narrower, devoured by a flame. A united anger, launched to fight back. Over the past few years, my faith became viewed in unimaginable ways. Mostly thanks to middle-aged white men wearing red baseball caps. They hold signs using Bible verses to cast out, to terrorise.

God hates gays. God is angry with the wicked. Repent your sin, Jesus is coming.

Symbols of fire and wrath cover these signs, accompanied with Bible verses and Scriptures they've turned into weaponry. These were Bible verses I grew up reading in Sunday school. The same verses I put in frames, decorated, wrote notes on between the margins. The words I grew up believing, now became accessories to things I strongly stood against. It worsened my doubts, and tore me apart. Seeing violent radicals champion my God's name.

Suddenly, my life-long faith was an entity I couldn't recognise. One second, it was loving and nurturing. The next second, I look back and see nothing but bigotry and prejudice.

I shouldn't stereotype my own religion. Bad seeds are everywhere, I know, I know. I don't want to make this about radicalism or white supremacy. This isn't about winning a debate. It's not about proving right from wrong, disarming opinions held against my faith.

But it troubles me, in the deepest sense of the word. Not only was I grappling with doubts on what was "Biblically correct", but I was also increasingly confused about what my faith actually stood for.

If there was a hotline to Heaven, this would be a lot easier. We can all agree this is where it would come in handy. If I could just pick up a phone and ask God himself.

"God, that pastor today who spoke badly about people with depression, what's that all about?"

"God, my friends still squirm at the sight of gay couples – can you maybe just tell them to chill out?"

I would come across these little moments among believers many times in my faith journey. Different from the red, fiery signs, this type of intolerance isn't as large-scale. It doesn't make headline news. It is subtle. It surfaces in light, friendly banter.

This might be the part where you expect me to say I was so disappointed that I gave up. That I left the church, turned into a social justice warrior, and now slay dragons one protest at a time.

But I didn't. This story could've had a liberated, glorious ending – to be free from the shackles of religion – but I couldn't do it. Instead, earlier this year, I only decided to take my cross necklace off. This wasn't because of the things it symbolised, but because of the things it didn't.

The necklace was a symbol of a faith I'd carried from my past – a faith I spent a long time supporting, but also a faith I never questioned. I took it off because if I do take on that same faith this year, let it be for the things I know to be true, not for the knowledge and the silver chain I'd been given.

---

It felt like trying again. Making amends with my set of beliefs. I still had questions. Many of them. So I turned to someone to trust.

I sat with two of my church leaders one day, not to challenge them to a brain duel, but to open up some difficult dialogue. You might roll your eyes and think, She wants objective truth but goes to a church leader? It was important to me that I heard from them, to know where to place my faith. It was me deciding not to let go. Deciding that my need to understand God shouldn't be overtaken by my pride.

One of the things I do know about God, and I may not know exceedingly many, is I think he'd much rather have us as his children, who yearningly approach him with questions every night, rather than have us act as adults, avoiding confrontation because we've "got it all figured out". This became one of the points our conversation reached that afternoon. That God isn't threatened by questions. He's not shocked by sin.

He doesn't need to be defended. On the contrary, he defends you. Jesus didn't live a very long life, but during his time, he sided with the sick, the outcasts, and the poor. He was Middle Eastern. He called out hypocrisy. He says, "When you welcome the stranger, you welcome me." So when they stand on street corners preaching about the coming of God's wrath, I don't know much, to be honest, but I know my God doesn't need a prosecutor.

"Everything that is an extreme," my church leader said, "I believe, is not God.

"So whether it's extremely radical, or extremely lenient, I don't think that's who God is."

The way she smiled after saying it, the level of assurance in that one sentence, gave me enough ground. Over the next few hours we spoke, my faith, once parched, disappointed, and hopeless, slowly finding new reason to bloom. Because I needed that assurance. I needed that new understanding. Needless to say, I wanted to take my faith seriously. And that sometimes includes cross-examining it.

"Even Thomas," she continued, "he was also in doubt." Thomas was one of the apostles – the men who stood by Jesus, and actually spent time with him in person. "But when Jesus knew this, he didn't hold back. In fact, he said, look here, see my hands, see for yourself."

That's who he was. Who he is, we believe, to this day. He has no reason to be offended by skepticism. God is not insecure.

Jesus reaches out, shows us his wounds, and says, "Come here. See for yourself." That's what he does. And what a God that is.

What a God that must be.

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Thank you for reading through. 

I tried my best to keep this succinct (in which I probably failed), but my inbox and comments section are always open for dialogue.


This is shared because I felt it was important to speak on this experience. This is for anyone who feels they're in the same boat – in the process of finding yourself, reshaping your values, faith, and identity, apart from what you've been taught your whole life. I hope somehow, in some ways, you are enlightened. And I hope you find enough courage to define that for yourself.

Today, I still hold on to my ethics and will continue to advocate for what I believe is true. I also still believe in God. Personally, I believe there's no reason I must lose one to retain the other.


In the face of doubt, tireless faith. But in that tireless faith, sustaining grace.


That grace is sufficient, and always has been.


And I believe, always, always will be.


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"If your Christianity makes emperors feel comfortable and oppressed people feel unsafe, it's time for a grand reversal." -Jonathan Martin

The excerpt at the start of this entry is from a poem by Rudy Francisco, titled "Your God". You can watch his amazing spoken word performance of the poem here: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hKiOF7JM9A
It encapsulates perfectly and vividly the emotions I felt while writing this piece.

---

Until next time.


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6 comments

  1. The picture is wonderful!
    xx from Bavaria/Germany, Rena
    www.dressedwithsoul.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear Joanne,
    I must say, what a brave and insanely awesome piece you wrote here. I think I can understand and relate to what you feel. We all live in a society that is very judgmental to (literally) everything. As someone who also grow up in a Christian family, I know exactly how it feels to step out of the door and finally embrace other values rather than just sticking to 'the rules' we cling into since we were kids. We finally have enough courage to question a lot of things and confront the doubt we have. I don't consider myself religious, but I do still go to church every Sunday because it comforts my soul (though sometimes the pastors say something that is contrary to my conscience; and yes I have heard pastors who judge people with depression as well). Despite all of that, I still go to church anyway. So I agree with you, I think we still can be believers with more added values that we know to be true.

    Thank you for this inspiring post! Oh, and I hope you don't get tired with me visiting and commenting on your blog so often :P Hope everything goes well with you in Australia xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ruth, you are a gem! I always love seeing your comments and I’m so honoured that you take the time to read the stuff I put out.
      These are lovely words, thank you for sharing a piece of your story too. Let’s just bob along on this sail together and seek to practice grace and truth, at the same time. 💛
      Have a good week, dove

      Delete
  3. hello, risa. it was nice reading this. such an eyeopener. i personally believe that we are born equal and god doesn't hate anyone just because of their gender or personal beliefs. i strongly believe he accepted everyone wholeheartedly. i know we all have our own beliefs and i just hope everyone would be open-minded about it. anyway, i hope whatever is bothering you goes away. x

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  4. Let's start our base with:
    1. Sin is sin no matter how big/small or reasons.
    2. God loves the person but not the sin
    3. No matter what sin, accept Jesus and it will all be washed away.

    Most people hate the whole person due to the sin. Rather than love the person but hate the sin.
    If the one you love (ex. Family) sins, you don't Just cast them away. You still love them but you hate the sin or mistake they did. God's love to sinners never diminished, as just His hatred to sin.

    The next statement is my own view with my understanding of people and God.
    I do not hate gays etc. But, I do not like them practicing it, but I do not have anything againts them loving another person (even same-sexed).
    It's as if you are so angry and you start killing people. Being angry is fine and most of the time justifiable, but killing someone no matter the reason is never right.
    It's about self control to sin.
    Most of the time, it's outside of our control whom we love, but what we do with that love that can be the issue.

    Some want to sin by practicing same-sex practices.
    Some want to sin by committing murder/forgery/lying/fraud.

    Sin was defined by God, if someone doesn't believe in God, then basically for them sin doesn't exist.
    But as Christian,

    Sin happens where we want to do or have something that is forbidden by God. So self control is the key.

    A sin is a sin.
    Hate the sin, not the person.
    Our understanding of the word and love of God is often muddied by our own fear and hate or self righteousness.

    My apologies if my explanation is all over the place.
    Hopefully we all start to love each other regardless of anything.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is such a good read dear. Indeed, we grow outside of our comfort zone. Living in a different country, with a different environment, different culture, and different people - it's the best way to understand that there is more out there outside our "bubble". Whatever your belief is, confronting them is one of the best ways you can do for yourself - to rediscover yourself and to have a deeper understanding of others.

    Anyway, have a beautiful day dear!

    Jessica | notjessfashion.com

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