Growing up with strict Catholic parents, the Christian faith tradition was ingrained in me from birth. As such, I didn’t have faith as a child as much as I had facts, since there wasn’t much room for independent thought in the tradition. Just as I was taught that the sky is blue and the grass is green, I was taught that God is real and so is the Devil.
Not knowing any better, I simply accepted everything at face value as though all the stories and teachings were historical accounts and literal in nature. It wasn’t until I was in junior high that I really began to evaluate the discrepancies that existed between the Bible accounts and the information I was being taught in my science classes.
While many people believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive, I have come to understand that just as religion at times requires large leaps of faith, so too does science when it comes to supporting unproven theories. Understanding this allowed me to recognize that faith is not solely limited to the realm of religion, but that it actually permeates throughout most every aspect of our society.
My theory is that everyone has the same amount of faith, with the primary difference being where we put that faith. While some people put their faith in God, others put their faith in science, the stock market, or themselves. Still others believe in their favorite sports team, their cultural identity, or their country. Regardless of where a person’s belief resides, the fact that they believe in something that isn’t guaranteed is a blatant exercise of faith, and where there is faith, there is doubt.
When it comes to matters of faith, I find it ironic that doubt is negatively perceived as faith absolutely cannot exist without doubt. If there were no doubt, then faith would not be required, as facts can be repeatedly proven. From this perspective, doubt is not the opposite of faith, certainty is.
Though many faith leaders may see doubts as a threat, there is nothing more dangerous than accepting something unproven (or worse yet, unprovable) as an absolute fact. This radical disregard for doubt can lead to dogmatic, fanatical, and even intolerant views that will certainly drive more people away than it will attract. Before long, these views will result in a faith group that is seen as isolated and out of touch, rather than a growing, thriving, community of like-minded believers.
So, rather than rejecting doubt outright, the healthy response is to explore that doubt. In a never-ending commitment to seek truth, doubt should be welcomed with open arms and investigated thoroughly. If, through this investigation, your entire faith tradition crumbles, good! It is far more beneficial to find out now that something isn’t real than to spend a lifetime investing your faith into something that will eventually betray you.
In my life, I have experienced this situation first hand with the belief that having an abundance of money will make you happy. Even though I grew up in a family that came from humble beginnings and was always very happy, I believed what I was taught by a capitalistic society that money is what would make me happy as an adult. So, I invested my time and energy into obtaining as much material and financial wealth as I possibly could, only to find out that I should have been investing in my marriage instead. Unfortunately, I didn’t fully learn that my faith was misplaced until after I was divorced and unhappy, despite still having a six-figure salary.
Whether you intend to or not, it is inevitable that you’re going to invest your faith somewhere. If not in religion or capitalism, perhaps you will become a flat-earther or a new age hippie. One way or another, your faith has to go somewhere.
Life without Faith
Though I dabbled with atheism in my adolescence, I found that it required significantly more faith to believe that there wasn’t some sort of higher power and that everything was just completely random than to believe that a master plan did exist. On several occasions, I heard this reliance on faith referenced to as a crutch, with which I fully agree. Candidly, Bonnie and I converse regularly about not comprehending how people without faith in a higher power are able to deal with everyday life. As even regular days can be extremely challenging, we are beyond grateful that we have something to lean on when the really tough days come.
How else do you explain the unexplainable? How do you deal with the trials that don’t seem to make any sense? What do you attribute the purpose of the challenge to when it seems completely senseless? For us, we simply credit everything to God and press forward:
“I don’t know why this is happening, but it must be for a reason. Only God knows.”
While I am completely aware that this may be seen as taking the easy way out by flippantly dismissing all of our problems on to God, what is the alternative? Am I supposed to blame myself or others when tragedy strikes, and I don’t understand it? Or, is it better to assume that everything is random and there is no reason? Faced with these options, I have found it most beneficial to believe that everything does have a purpose and there is meaning in each situation I encounter, despite not knowing what it is.
Not that I have hardened proof to support this belief, but the engineer in me says it’s more probably than not.
Probability & Statistics
It probably sounds ironic that I use my background in
engineering to justify my belief in a higher power, but the math
speaks for itself.
Let’s assume that every action and every decision we make in a given day is a variable (x) in an equation. These decisions include everything from the route we drive to work and the shirt we wear, to the friends we hang out with and where we choose to eat lunch. As we make an infinite amount of decisions every day, and each of those decisions has a seemingly infinite amount of options (y), you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that the probability of your day going a certain way is infinitely small ([1/y]^x).
How small is infinitely small? Well, let’s simplify it and say that you only made ten decisions in a day ( x = 10 ) and that each decision only had ten options ( y = 10 ). The probability of all ten decisions being made the way you made them literally has a 0.000000000001% chance of happening. But this calculation only takes into account one person’s decisions. When we start to take into account everyone else’s decisions as well, the probability becomes even smaller.
I don’t even know if it is possible, but if we were to calculate the probability that I actually finish writing this book with all of the obstacles standing in my way and somehow calculate the probability that this book falls into your hands and you find the time to actually read this book with your crazy life, I’m willing to bet that probability would result in a 0.00000% chance.
Yet, here we are.
So, did this happen by sheer coincidence? Or was it dumb luck?
What about this morning when I forgot my wallet and had to run back into the house to get it? Theoretically speaking, that little hiccup put the rest of my day on a 30-second delay. Had I been thirty seconds earlier, I might have made that green light and would have ended up in that 10-car pile-up that I drove past on my way to work. Likewise, had I been 30-seconds earlier, I wouldn’t have accidentally bumped into my good friend walking out of the cafeteria and he wouldn’t have been able to offer me his extra ticket to the game tonight.
Was it just dumb luck? Perhaps. But the chance of it happening this way is infinitely small. Or perhaps it was all meant to be. I have no proof either way, but believing that I am a part of something greater definitely seems to make my life easier to navigate and more meaningful.
Like all things, having faith has its advantages and disadvantages.
Growing up in the Catholic church, one of the major disadvantages that I experienced was having to deal with what I later came to understand as “Catholic Guilt.” Though I’m sure there are many different definitions of Catholic Guilt, my experience was the shame or guilt that one feels out of obligation rather than legitimate remorse. Whether it comes from eating meat on a Friday during lent, because I missed Mass, or because I didn’t go to Confession, this guilt didn’t come from my own personal beliefs, but from a legalistic belief system that was essentially imposed upon me.
I must admit, leaving Catholicism was definitely a freeing experience. Not only was I able to shed the guilt from a system I didn’t legitimately believe in, but no longer having to ask a Priest to forgive my sins or adhere to the idea that saying ten Hail Mary prayers was a realistic penance for my lustful thoughts made way for a much more authentic faith experience in my life. Unfortunately, just being a Christian in the United States still comes with more baggage than a 747.
Though more than 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christians (according to the 2015 Pew Research poll), it is unclear how many actually believe in all of the doctrines of Christianity and how many are just confusing Christianity with Nationalism. While I’m sure that most all of these people “know of” Jesus, I’m am skeptical that many legitimately “follow” Jesus as His teachings are not in line with American culture in general. For starters, the general sentiment in the United States is that the U.S is the greatest country in the world, far superior to all other countries in every way. This is despite the fact that the U.S. has inferior education systems, health care systems, environmental protection, and income equality programs than most other developed nations. On the other hand, the U.S. has the largest economy and the strongest military, which is why many consider it to be the best. But this isn’t what Jesus taught. On the contrary, Jesus taught not to store up treasures on earth and that whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword. Additionally, He made it very clear that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”. All of this is very negative news for “American Exceptionalism.” Yet, there are still many who incorrectly think that Jesus is pro-military, pro-guns, anti-gay- marriage, and anti-immigration, despite the fact that He lived His entire life as a non-violent refugee, primarily associated with the outcasts of society, and seen as a threat by the most powerful government in the world.
A few years ago, towards the end of a Sunday Church Service, the Pastor gave an impassioned speech for the entire congregation to “be bold in their faith and stand up for what they believe.” As he was reaching the crescendo of this call to arms, a number of manly sounding “yeahs” and “amens” could be heard responding in the crowd. While I sat quietly in my seat, a part of me wanted to join in and echo with my own “amen,” but I was conflicted. Though I understood what the pastor was encouraging us to do and I’m 100% on board with this message, I wasn’t exactly sure if that was what the “yeahs” and “amens” were agreeing with.
As unfortunate as it is, the name of Jesus Christ and His church has been hijacked in the American culture by political and social strategists, in order to move forward agendas that have little to do with the actual teachings of Jesus. The result of this hijacking has become, at best, a misrepresentation of what Christ actually lived (and died) to accomplish and at worst, a simple legalistic formula of what it takes to live life by your own rules and still consider yourself “saved.”
Thus, the reason I was conflicted.
When I heard the pastor call for us “to be bold and stand up for our beliefs,” what immediately came to my mind was that we needed to stand up for what Jesus stood for: Compassion. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Grace. Mercy. And Love. I heard a call to go against the ways of the world (an eye for an eye) and instead to turn the other cheek. I heard a call to be inclusive, not exclusive. I heard a call to give second, third, and fourth chances and to love our neighbor, even if that isn’t the direction our society is heading. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and care for the poor. Furthermore, I heard a call to take the plank out of my own eye, to let him without sin cast the first stone, and to judge not, lest we be judged. Though I know I fail regularly at answering these calls in my daily life, when my Pastor said it, I wanted to shout out “yeah!”
But I didn’t.
Not because I’m ashamed of Jesus and not because I lack faith. I didn’t say “amen” because I care about what other people think. The irony is that it’s not the people inside of the church whose opinions I was concerned with, but more so the people outside of the church. For as soon as I heard one of the men in the congregation shout out their “amen,” I subconsciously heard all of the “Christian Rhetoric” fill the room, too…
“Yeah! We need to stand up and let this world know what they’re doing wrong! Amen! We need to stand up against the drinking and the smoking and the cussing and the Muslims and the Gays! Yeah! We need to pass laws against those who are different than us! We might not be perfect, but at least we’re not as bad as those folks, Amen!”
Now, nobody actually said any of these things and I don’t know whether anyone in that church actually thinks this way. But because I have heard this Christian Rhetoric so many times, in so many different places, it seems likely.
As much as I like to say that I don’t care what other people think, the fact is that I do care, and for good reason.
Like I said before, I’m not ashamed to stand up in the name of Jesus. I believe wholeheartedly in His teachings and say “yeah and amen” to all of them. But because of the Christian Rhetoric, I believe many people are being discouraged from exploring their faith and finding this compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love, which is why I am conflicted. If I’m not careful, my genuine faith in Christ could also be hijacked and twisted into the Christian Rhetoric that divides, excludes, oppresses, condemns, and ultimately drives people away from Christ.
As perverse as the Christian Rhetoric is, we can’t just shout it down. We have to drown it out with the actions that actually follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. So, rather than point to my own successes, or to the failures of others, my goal is to simply point to the forgiveness, acceptance, inclusivity, and compassion of Jesus.
In God We Trust?
The phrase “In God We Trust” can be found on both U.S. currency (bills/coins) and on twenty-one state license plates, often below a picture of the U.S. flag. While I personally do trust in God, and I am beyond grateful to live in the United States, I find the combination of “God, Money, and the Flag” both confusing and ironic. Which God is this statement referring to? Is it the Jewish God, the Christian God, or one of the millions of Hindi Gods? Or is it promoting the symbolic God of Capitalism and Nationalism? As it stands, this statement leaves much to interpretation.
With 70% of Americans identifying as Christian, I understand how most will interpret this God to be Jesus. But if this statement actually is referring to Jesus, I find it ironic that it isn’t His picture on the currency and the license plates. From the larger societal perspective, this cross-pollination between religion and nationalism contributes to the subconscious narrative that Jesus is a white, capitalist, militaristic, American, male. This ironic narrative is most evident every time the National Anthem or God Bless America is sung at a church service in place of a worship hymn.
Again, I’m in full support of the brave men and women who serve the United States in uniform. Three of my older brothers are veterans of the U.S. Military. What I don’t agree with is the idea that the teachings of Jesus Christ and American Exceptionalism are one and the same. In no way do I think that Jesus values American lives over the lives of any other human, nor do I believe that Jesus supports every action of the United States.
I’m fine with someone subscribing to the belief that the United States is the greatest nation on earth. I subscribe to this belief. But to confuse this belief with the teachings of Jesus is incorrect. The scripture reads, “For God so loved the world,” not “For God so loved the United States.”
Inclusive vs Exclusive
Whereas Jesus was radically inclusive throughout His ministry, the institution of American Christianity is often times viewed as a very exclusive organization. To the extent that many people feel a man like Jesus wouldn’t even be welcome in many church buildings.
While the Good News of the Gospel is meant for everyone and Jesus explicitly commanded His followers to make disciples of all nations, there are many people who are outcast from religious organizations. With many churches following the exclusive model of requiring people to “come to church” as opposed to Jesus’ method of “taking the church into the community,” the majority of the population will never see the good news. They may hear of the good news, but it’s a tough message to accept when it is only delivered from a pulpit, to select group of people, one day a week.
Jesus specifically said that He came to proclaim the good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). But, if the poor, prisoners, blind, and oppressed don’t feel welcome at a religious service on a Sunday morning, how will they ever hear the good news? If the actions of the religious institutions don’t match the words of Jesus, the good news is only spoken to clean, sober, upstanding citizens dressed in their Sunday Best, then what is so good about it?
So long as religious organizations are exclusive in their actions, then they aren’t spreading the Good News of Jesus to the intended audience.
Jesus was radically inclusive through His words and His actions. Religious institutions that claim to follow Him should do the same.
When I pray to God, I ask Him to help me be the best father I can be to my children. Specifically, I pray that he helps me show my daughters (and my son), by example, what a “man after God’s own heart” literally looks like. Through the Holy Spirit, His response to me has always been that my daughters are “smart, powerful, and beyond capable.” He says they don’t need me to do anything for them, they need me to teach and guide them, so that they can do for themselves. He is confident that they can be and do anything they set their minds to, and that my job is to support them in their endeavors. Most of all, He tells me not to hold them back, but to get out of their way, and be ready to pick them up and dust them off when they fall. Unfortunately, this is not what most religious institutions teach.
According to many churches, my daughters can be almost anything they want: Doctors, lawyers, astronauts, engineers, and even President of the United States. However, they are strictly forbidden (by these churches) from being a leader of a local congregation. Seriously?! My daughters can fly in outer space, but leading a Sunday Service is beyond their capabilities? This isn’t what Jesus taught in the bible and it isn’t what He tells me in my prayers.
Sadly, this type of toxic masculinity is rampant within the male-only leadership of most churches. From banning women from serving in leadership positions, to instructing women to stay in abusive relationships because the apostle Paul said that “the husband is the head of the wife” (Ephesians 5:21-33), many churches treat women and second-class citizens. Fortunately, I have personally witnessed amazing women leading, preaching, and teaching the Good News on countless occasions. From my wife, Bonnie, and my wonderful friend, Heather, to Pastor Tish Bryant, Amanda Clark, and Elizabeth Bunbury, I have been incredibly blessed because these women didn’t adhere to the ridiculous limits some churches seek to place on their leadership abilities.
In order for more women to serve in leadership roles within the church, it is paramount for both women and men to demand this change, as it will undoubtedly benefit our society as a whole.
On a regular basis, through the endless commentary stream of social media, I see strangers arguing about who is going to heaven and who isn’t, how we should always obey the government, how the church shouldn’t get involved with social justice issues, and how you can be pro-life and pro-death penalty at the same time. Back and forth, one party will cite the bible scriptures attributed to Jesus, and the other party will cite verses from the apostle Paul or something from the Old Testament.
What baffles me about these interactions is why either of these strangers care about what the other person thinks. Just because some random dude on the internet went to bible college or took a weekend class in hermeneutics at his local church, this doesn’t mean they have any actual authority. Unless you give it to them.
If they are a leader at your church or an influential person in society, I can see how their opinion could matter greatly. But when some random stranger decides to voice their negative opinion about the eternal salvation of others, you can count me out. Anyone who thinks they have all the answers and authority over my spiritual life is beyond delusional and should be completely ignored. They have absolutely no authority over me. Unless, I engage with them as if they were a credible leader.
Feeding the trolls only makes them stronger. They literally must be starved of attention.
Long, Hard, Lonely Road
Unlike the CEO of a corporation or the owner of a small business, a pastor/ministry leader has a never-ending line of people from the community they serve asking them and their family for help. From spiritual guidance and marriage counseling to financial assistance and support for a personal project, a faith leader is the model of a servant leader. Unfortunately, though it is incredibly rewarding to serve other people all day, it is also emotionally exhausting.
In addition to the extremely long hours and the on-call status, a ministry leader has the added pressure of being above moral reproach. Whether this means not using curse words or being restricted from drinking in public, the expectations for a ministry leader are often superficial and legalistic. Worst of all, when a ministry leader does make a mistake (which they eventually will), their devotion to the faith gets called into question.
When I first started leading ministries over a decade ago, I met with a friend who was leading a very large youth group at a local church. Through our conversations, I asked him about his experience in faith leadership as I was under the impression that it was a long, hard, lonely road. After a lengthy response about the many responsibilities and different stakeholders that a faith leader must serve, he reluctantly agreed that yes, it was a long, hard, lonely road.
Over the years, on several occasions, Bonnie and I have been encouraged to both join church leadership and/or start a church of our own. But because of the unrealistic expectations that are required of professional faith leaders, we have always adamantly declined. Perhaps, if we found a community that was looking for a flawed servant leader who loved Jesus, dropped f-bombs, and drank craft beer, we might reconsider.
Tell Me What You’re For
While advocating against a negative situation in our society is an effective method to scare people into a voting booth, it isn’t nearly as effective when it comes to creating lasting change. Sure, people will vote against something in a heartbeat, but that is because voting is easy. Taking a legitimate stance and actually changing behavior is hard.
For example, voting to restrict illegal immigration is easy. But putting your money where your mouth is and boycotting grocery stores, restaurants, construction companies, and hotels that directly or indirectly employ undocumented workers is hard. This in itself should be proof that anyone employing negative scare tactics isn’t serious about solving issues. Especially not when they’ll rely upon these issues to secure your vote again in the next election cycle.
On the contrary, if someone is legitimately committed to making changes, they know they have to do so by getting others to believe wholeheartedly in the positive results that are to come. For this reason, it’s not possible to scare someone into losing weight or quitting cigarettes for the long-term. While it might work in the short-term, the change won’t stick because fear is based on the possibility of losing something you currently have, as opposed to gaining something great that you don’t have.
For example, fear says that if you don’t lose weight or quit smoking, you could get sick and die. Unfortunately, this argument is shallow in that you could maintain your lifestyle and possibly live to be a hundred years old. On the other hand, positive inspiration says that a better life is waiting for you and it will never be obtained unless you drop the unhealthy habits.
With this in mind, unless you’re just maliciously trying to scare someone into immediate action, being negatively against something is completely ineffective. Instead, if you’re legitimately working towards helping someone improve their situations over the long-term, then positive inspiration is the way to go.
Convince me of how great the Promised Land is and neither the highest mountain, nor the deepest ocean will stop me from getting there.
When I first started talking about how I wanted to quit my high-paying corporate job and move to the nonprofit sector, I struggled to justify whether my motivations were pure or not. Did I want to work for a nonprofit because it was an altruistic thing to do, or was I selfishly motivated to make this switch solely because it made me feel better about myself?
As I was in the midst of my own spiritual awakening, following the principle that love is not self-seeking or self- serving was very important to me. Yet, I was unable to distance myself from the fact that helping others made me feel good, and that made me feel selfish. For months, I wrestled with this conflict of wanting to do good for the right reasons and not just for my own benefit. (I can’t say for sure, but in hindsight it seems like my Catholic Guilt might have had something to do with this.)
Then, one morning, the answer became clear.
I was laying in my bed dead asleep, when my eyes suddenly opened. The sun was already up, and the room was well lit with a soft light. As I stared at the ceiling, I thought it was strange how abruptly I had awoken and how alert and present I was. Then I heard it. Not audibly, but in my mind, I clearly heard a voice that said the following:
“Of course it feels good to help other people! It’s supposed to feel good! I designed you that way!”
The second I heard these words, it all made sense. The guilt, conflict, and confusion were gone, and I was confident that my desires were sound. Just to make sure though, I went to the Gospels to confirm. Sure enough, it had been right in front of me all along:
When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said to “Love your neighbor AS yourself.” Not ‘despite’ yourself or ‘instead of’ yourself, but AS yourself. Take care of yourself, love yourself, treat yourself, and treat everyone else in the exact same way. This is the greatest commandment.
From that moment on, I no longer felt bad for feeling good about doing the right thing – I believe it’s how I was designed.
Posifocus Mantra #17
Nobody Knows for Sure.
What about faith do you struggle with? Have you defined for yourself what you believe? Is your current belief system different from what you were taught as a child?
Passionately explore your doubts and evaluate how critical
they are to your daily behavior.
Join the Posifocus Group and share your thoughts and experiences with the Posifocus Community! Use the hashtag #faithstruggles.