It’s the small words that make the difference. That’s something you learn as a writer. A conjunction, for instance, can divert the entire point of a sentence. “And”, “or”, “but”, “yet”. All different avenues of thought.
Big words usually have very set definitions. There aren’t any alternate meanings to “antidisestablishmentarianism.” But “life” and “death? “Hello” and “goodbye”? “Heart”? “Hurt”? “Hope?”
Will we ever know all the facets of these?
Faith is one that’s always tripped me up.
It’s funny how, at 31, you can start to realize all the things you thought you knew you don’t actually know. You start to realize that what you were told was Gospel actually turns out to be opinions, and not accurate ones either.
Some time ago, in those oh-so-important formative years, someone gave me rules. They set out a system and said, “If you follow this, you’ll be fine, you’ll have purpose, you won’t doubt, and God will be so happy with you he’ll send all the good things your way. And if he doesn’t, then you’re not trying hard enough.”
Someone told me it would be easy. Not in so many words, of course. But their life and their attitude was such that the cracks never showed, so I assumed there were no cracks. I assumed that faith, hope, and love were straightforward ideas, so, naturally, I was the one making them complicated.
I figured faith was a simple matter, easy to find, easy to hold on to. If I were good, that is. After all, look at all the faithful people, who suffered pain and prison and heartbreak. They never doubted. They never despaired. They never lost faith. So what’s my problem?
I’ve said before that one of the worst things we can do to people is treat as easy something that is very hard. It’s not only unkind; it’s dangerous.
Because if we think faith is simple then when it gets hard the only reason we can find is that we’re doing it wrong. If we think faith should be easy, when it’s not we have no one to blame but ourselves.
And it does get hard. It’s been very hard lately, and by lately I realize more and more that I mean: for the longest time. Life is full of ups and downs, but sometimes, and maybe this is depression and anxiety, it feels like a disproportionate amount of downs.
This week I caught a bit of daylight, a feeling of popping my head above water, like my patience, and faith, had paid off. Then, not a day later, darkness again. Disappointment. I came the closest I had come in the last 6 months to getting a job, only to be rejected, yet again. And, just like that, back to square one. Back to exactly what I have been doing for the last 6 months: applying, trying, hoping, and waiting.
A man can only take so much rejection. And telling him to just get back out there and keep going, at some point, is telling him to just keep getting hurt.
Of course, it wasn’t the bad news itself, it was the feeling that my hoping for it, my faith, had somehow been a waste, and in that feeling, guilt that I felt that way at all. Because it’s supposed to be easier than this, right? I’m supposed to see the difficulty as a trial and just push through it. I’m not supposed to feel like a failure, abandoned. And I wouldn’t if I had more faith, right?
Which raises a really important question that I have never heard answered: how exactly does one measure faith?
Here’s the funny thing, we’re told people had great faith. But “great” isn’t necessarily a measure of volume. It’s really more a measure of ability and, more often, of results. To say someone had “great faith” is really saying their faith did great things. But, according to Christ, the smallest faith can do that.
So what does it mean to have more or less faith? Because, elsewhere, Jesus accuses the disciples of having “little faith.” But how could their faith be too little if a mustard seed-sized portion is more than enough? Maybe “little” here just means the opposite of “great”. Ineffectual.
I don’t know, but I’m starting to realize we mess up faith by thinking it’s something different that what it is.
Because it’s not easy. Whatever someone tells you about faith, I’m learning it’s not easy. And, whatever else they say, it doesn’t fill you with a devil-may-care confidence.
I don’t know where we got the idea that faith is code for bravado.
Because there have been days where I have really wanted to break apart, to let go and leave nothing left to piece back together, because it hurt too much to be resilient. There have been days when my faith has felt so small, so ineffectual.
Yet I’m still here. And I wish I had more confidence in that fact alone than I do.
I really wish I had more faith. Or, maybe I should say, I really wish having faith made me feel better. But maybe that’s not the point. Because all those faithful people felt pretty bad sometimes. We don’t like to tell those stories. We don’t like to be reminded that Mother Theresa woke up some days and just wasn’t sure about God. We don’t like to think that the great heroes of the faith were human.
And yet, even Christ, in the last moment, wondered why he had been forsaken. Do we really think it’ll be any easier for us?
It’s a slow process, but I’m beginning, through trial and error alone, to build a better idea about faith.
I’m learning it’s not a thing we need to worry about measuring. We may want amounts, measurements, grades, but God gives us metaphors.
How much do we need? A mustard seed.
What is faith made of? The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.
Yeah, try and make a rule out of that.
And that is so typical, isn’t it? Here God writes us a poem, challenges us with a riddle, something to stretch the muscles of our souls and woo our imaginations, and we want something that’ll fit on a bumper sticker.
“Yeah, yeah, ‘substance of things unseen’, I get it. But, like, what is it really? And do I have it? More to the point, does he have it? And am I allowed to rub it in his face if he doesn’t?”
But it’s not as straightforward as we think. Because, I’ve learned, the moments when we really need it are the same moments when it feels like we have so little. Maybe the mustard seed image isn’t so much an illustration of the power but of the amount we’re likely to feel like we have in those dire moments. Maybe Jesus is just saying, “Don’t worry. You’re not going to think it’s enough, but it is.”
I’m learning faith is trust, and trust is built. It comes in different degrees and flavors, but it is, at its foundation, a saying “yes” when you could say “no”, a saying “yes” even when you don’t have all the information, because you don’t have all the information, a saying “yes” when “no” looks like the safer option.
It’s the art of going to bed every night believing that tomorrow may just surprise you, even though you have nothing to convince you that it will except for the belief itself.
I’m learning faith is hard. Thankfully, I’m also learning that it’s supposed to be.
And I’m learning that it’s worth it.
(Image by Chaitra: http://itspinkpot.com/creative-convex)