The following is the text to a message I shared at Westbank Seventh-Day Adventist Church in West Kelowna, BC, on August 17, 2019. Thank you to those who have been patiently waiting for me to publish this. I am grateful for your encouragement and support. My husband and I have been on a European vacation, and I haven’t had time to put this together until now. As I write this, we are on a small boat on the River Shannon in Athlone, Ireland, enjoying the beautiful nature across this land.
Reading time: 27 minutes
What is faith and what does it look like?
I don’t know about you, but this is a question that has been occupying my mind a lot over the last few years. Is faith our religion? Is it a set of beliefs? Is it intellectual assent to certain teachings? Does faith have to rest on what the Bible says? Does faith require certainty? Did God give us the Bible so that we can be certain about our faith? Can faith include doubt? What about if we disagree with what the Bible says? (Wow, can we do that? some might ask.) If we disagree with the Bible, does it mean that we don’t have faith or that our faith is weak? What does the writer of Hebrews chapter 11 really mean when he says that faith is the “substance of things hoped for” and “the evidence of things unseen“?
I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but what I do know is that what you think about faith and how you define it matters. It matters because as much as we would like to believe that faith is an entirely personal enterprise, our views on faith and how we incorporate it into our lives affect the people around us. For example, a lot of Christians believe that true faith is one that is based on what the Bible says. You ever call yourself a “Bible-believing Christian“? You ever tell your friend to find a “Bible-based church“? However, a recent study conducted by The Barna Group, a research company specializing in faith and culture in America, shows that only 34% of non-Christians and lapsed Christians consider practicing Christians they know personally to be non-judgmental when talking about faith.(1) Similarly, only 26% of non-Christians and lapsed Christians feel that the practicing Christians they know personally do not force conclusions.(2) I don’t know about you, but considering that Jesus calls us to share the Gospel (the Good News) with the world, the fact that people outside the Church — including people who may be in our families — don’t feel they can have meaningful conversations with us is a serious problem.
Now, what about the people inside our own Church communities?
If you have been following the news lately, then you’ve probably heard about Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson. For those who don’t know, Joshua Harris is a former pastor who authored the popular Christian relationship book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book that sat among the small collection of books I owned on dating and relationships as a confused teenager in the 1990s. In his book, Harris spoke against conventional dating relationships and popularized a system of courtship among conservative Christians in my generation that was based on “biblical principles“. He authored I Kissed Dating Goodbye when he was only 21. Marty Sampson is a worship leader from Hillsong Church in Australia who has written several songs for the award-winning Christian band Hillsong United.
On July 17, Joshua Harris issued a statement that he and his wife of 20 years, a woman he courted based on the biblical principles he promoted, were separating, and then on July 26 he announced that he had undergone a “massive shift” in his faith in Jesus, stating that by all the “measurements” he had for defining a Christian, he could no longer call himself one. He went on to say, “Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.”
More recently, on August 12, Marty Sampson announced he was “genuinely losing” his faith. The next day, while he clarified he hasn’t renounced it, he is “on incredibly shaky ground”. In his original statement, he said, “How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet–they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me. I am not in any more. I want genuine truth. Not the ‘I just believe it’ kind of truth.”
Not surprisingly, parts of the Internet and social media have not been kind or gracious to these men. One person wrote, “Joshua left ‘the unquestioning faith of his youth.’ But here is a question that begs to be asked, and might be helpful for Joshua to ask himself: Was it the historic biblical faith he left, or another faith that was passed off to him as the truth of scripture?” Another wrote, “Marty Sampson’s reasons for leaving Christianity are pretty weak and they underscore the need for basic apologetics to be taught in the local church.”
Unfortunately, you don’t have to dig deep to discover that the root of this problem — this sometimes combative and defensive posture, and condemnation of people who doubt and question faith — comes from believing a certain way about the Bible: what it is and what it’s purpose is for us today. Protestant Christians, including we Seventh-day Adventists, generally consider the Bible to be the sole authority of faith, what theology students know as the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. As a result, many Christians feel compelled to vigorously defend the Bible against attack. It is, after all, everything upon which faith rests, right? Take it away and what is left? It’s like taking away the foundation of a house.(3) If you ask me, because of this belief, there are many Christians who are far better apologists (an apologist is someone who defends a position) than they are disciples of Jesus.
As a Seventh-day Adventist, I have had a very interesting relationship with the Bible, as much as one can have a “relationship” with a set of books. Growing up, I was taught that the Bible is the Word of God, that I had to “get into” the Word before the crack of dawn to have proper devotions, that in order for something to be true and credible it had to be based on the Bible, that I can discover the Capital-T Truth if I commit myself to reading the Bible, and that the Bible tells us what to expect for the future so we can prepare ourselves for the End Times. I was taught that the Bible contains promises from God and that those promises were made for me personally, that from the Bible we derive the morals and values necessary to lead a good life, and, let’s be honest, that by leading a good life based on biblical principles, I can stay on God’s good side and ensure my salvation as part of the Remnant church (but, P.S., we are all saved by grace).
I will be the first to admit that in my younger years I had very narrow and rigid views about God and faith and how to do life as a Christian. In fact, when I was 17 I pleaded with my mom to throw all our vinegar away because its creation involved the process of fermentation, which was just about the worst thing ever since the making of alcohol involves the process of fermentation and I was taught that it was a sin to drink alcohol because the Bible “clearly” said so.(4) Like any good mother, my mom looked at me like I had grown a second head and said absolutely not, she wasn’t getting rid of her vinegar. Naturally, I thought she was heathen. (P.S. I don’t actually think my mom is heathen, and she’s been happily consuming her vinegar with a clear conscience all these years.)
Later, when I was 19 and had recently ended a long-term relationship with someone because I didn’t believe he was a true “Bible-believing Christian” I joined a Christian students group while studying at UBC in Vancouver. At the time, I was deep in my religion and was listening to David Asscherick seminars on CD on the way to school and on the way home from school on a near-daily basis. My mind was filled to the brim with Daniel and Revelation and Beasts and European history, but not a whole lot of Jesus. One day, the other Christian students in the group and I were discussing one of the Apostle Paul’s letters — I can’t recall which right now — during a meeting on campus and I remember I was arguing a point of view that was uniquely Adventist with someone. I imagine that some in that circle were fascinated by what I had to say, but I remember being so absolutely certain about what I said that I honestly felt these people didn’t know any better. That they didn’t know/ have “the Truth”. Even though I was among Christian friends, I was very aware of the distinctions between us. They weren’t part of the Remnant like me. I vividly remember feeling this air of discomfort descend like a thick fog in that classroom and sensing that the others thought I was someone who could not be persuaded to open my mind and listen.
Sadly, they would have been right. I left the meeting that day and never went back. After all, they weren’t Adventist anyway so, in my view, their interpretation of the Bible was not credible or trustworthy.
Sometimes when I look back on the things I believed before, a terrible shame overwhelms me.
As I advanced into my 20s, the Holy Spirit started to slowly peel the scales from my eyes to show me that my rigidity and narrow-mindedness was doing nothing but isolating me from the rest of the world and hardening the heart of my faith. For years, the Bible had its tendrils all over my soul. Whatever doubts and questions I had, I repressed or dismissed. After all, the first chapter of the book of James said, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” Harsh words, but it was in the Bible, so how could I disagree? (Could I disagree?) The only time I felt safe to ask questions was whenever the Bible had clear answers for it. When the answers were confusing, I sought out trusted authorities on Scripture who could pull off the theological gymnastics that were sometimes necessary to make the answer make sense, or who affirmed what I already believed so the stress would go away. I couldn’t even admit how frustrating it was that I couldn’t trust myself to read and interpret the Bible on my own. I needed the pastor, or theologian, or evangelist, or some other religious authority to tell me what the Bible meant and to steer me down the “correct” path. It hardly felt like it was a book for everyone. Yet I dismissed my concerns. The Bible was my guide, my answer book, my manual, my Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. It had to be protected.
Because I rejected doubt, I was certain in what I believed, and perceived that this meant my faith must be strong. But I felt completely empty. My intellectual appetite was satisfied, and perhaps also my ego, but my heart and my soul were extremely, profoundly thirsty. Deep down, I knew it was a thirst that no amount of Bible knowledge or trivia or information could satisfy. A thirst that no amount of certainty or even answers “based on Scripture” could quench.
Then, three and a half years ago, my husband and I lost twin girls in the fifth month of my pregnancy. To date, that experience remains the single most difficult thing I have personally ever had to go through. Not only did it mean losing our precious babies and all the hopes and dreams that came along with anticipating their healthy births, but it also marked the death of what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the first naïveté, a stage when I took the Church’s interpretation of Scripture and my religious beliefs at face value. It was the death of many things I was taught to believe and that I believed without question. It was the death of my spoon-fed religion.
Anyone who has ever lost knows how grief can force you to re-examine all of your past assumptions. It is a hard lesson on how wrong we can be about how our lives will turn out. When our “blessed” lives are upended by tragedy or loss or illness, it’s not so easy to go back to the way things were, and harder still to say that God is good because “the Bible tells me so”. Sometimes I think that only those intimately acquainted with suffering know this truth best.
Can I be honest? In those early days, what I needed was not more of the same biblical platitudes or to be told to “just believe” and “just pray” or that God was in control and had a purpose behind my suffering so I should rejoice. I didn’t need words that brought me shame in the middle of an already difficult season or a message that basically said I shouldn’t have feelings because God had a plan. What I needed was to let my grief, my disappointment, my ache, my profound sadness out. What I needed was the freedom to be angry with God, to ask, to doubt, to wrestle, to yell at the top of my lungs, to weep until my eyes were raw, to curse and swear, to distance myself from everything I was taught to believe about “what the Bible says”. What I needed was to be human, to allow my spirit to feel, to cry out from beneath my cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I wasn’t some piece of clay that a divine potter was molding. Clay has no personhood, no intrinsic value. I was—I am—a woman made in the image of God, and I am no less capable of feeling and thinking than Jesus was when God came to us fully human. Fully one of us.
At the same time, what I needed in the aftermath of our loss was a personal God on the other side of my pain, one who could give me the space I needed to grieve but who also heard my S.O.S. and went out searching for me in the dark. I didn’t need the “God of the Bible” because the “God of the Bible” had (and has) been co-opted by our religious institutions, our systems, our Babylons, our ideologies, our egos. The “God of the Bible” was unrecognizable to me. The “God of the Bible” had become just another term that people used to win arguments. What I needed was a revelation by God Himself, of a God who would sit with me and weep with me and be present with me, a God who would stay with me regardless of my doubts and fears and questionings and wanderings, a God who would carry me when I had nothing left.
So there I was. Breaking out of my first naïveté, and thirsty.
Paul Ricoeur says we enter into our second naïveté when we choose to move forward in faith and assume personal responsibility for our own beliefs after we achieve the “critical distance” necessary for us to take a step back and examine what we actually believe. The second naïveté is what happens after we have sorted through what’s left.(5)
In my second naïveté, the only thing that remains is Jesus.
A little over a month after we lost our girls my husband and I spontaneously decided to spend two weeks in California. At the time, my passport was due to expire in less than six months, but I was convinced that this should pose no problems whatsoever at the airport. Naturally, I was wrong, and I ended up having to separate from my husband at customs after we scanned our passports. When I arrived at the booth where my border official sat towering above me, I gave him my traveling document and then he took one look at me and gently asked why I looked so worried. I told him all about how we had lost our baby girls and that we were on our way to California and that I was desperate to get away. As I spoke, my voice broke several times and tears welled up in my eyes. I remember bowing my head, trying to avoid eye contact because I hated that I had fallen apart in front of this complete stranger. When the border official began to speak, I slowly moved my head up to face him and noticed the name on his chest. Eden. As I tried to compose myself, Eden took my hand and told me in the most comforting voice that everything would be okay because God was with me, and that he would pray for me. While Eden spoke, I remember my entire body shaking quietly beneath my clothes the way I imagine Moses must have been shaking when he stood on holy ground in the presence of God. Eden’s name brought my mind to the Garden of Eden in Genesis and then to the New Earth in Revelation, to John’s vision of a time when God restores paradise, a time when I imagine God will restore our children. I don’t know if Eden was an angel or if he was God in disguise or if he was just a nice man who took pity on a blubbering Canadian one day, but what I do know is that I felt more of God’s warm and tender presence in that moment than I ever felt waking up at the crack of dawn to read my Bible, feeling certain about what I believed.
As I think back on that experience, I wonder if the reason why I felt God’s presence more in that moment than when my certainty was strongest is because our experience of God begins and ends with relationship, not information. In John chapter 4, Jesus tells a woman from Samaria, “… whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” I don’t know about you, but I doubt that Jesus was referring to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Bible of His day, when speaking about living water during this exchange. In fact, he wasn’t. Later in chapter 7, He is explicit and tells a crowd and group of Pharisees gathered in the temple courts, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” In the next verse, John explains that the living water Jesus refers to is actually the Holy Spirit and that we access the Holy Spirit through relationship with Jesus.
But relationship with Jesus doesn’t mean “getting into the Bible” for John, because John proclaims in the first chapter of his Gospel (his Good News) that the Word of God is Jesus Himself. A couple of chapters before the episode in the temple courts, we find Jesus’ clearest statement on how we should see the Bible in relation to faith. In John chapter 5, Jesus rebukes his contemporaries for taking the Scriptures too seriously. He says in verse 39, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” For Jesus, the Scriptures are a testimony. End of story. Game over.
This may be difficult to hear, but it is the truth and the witness of the Gospels: Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith, not the Bible.
If our experience of God begins with relationship and not information, and if eternal life is not found in the pages of Scripture, then this changes how we should read our Bibles and where it fits in matters of faith.
In my view, the problem with faith today isn’t that we aren’t reading the Bible enough, or that we don’t know it enough, or that we aren’t believing in it enough; it’s that we are believing in it too much. Faith is not so small that it comes down to believing words on a page or believing in the right doctrines or creeds. It is much bigger than that, deeper than that, wider than that. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that He is the source of eternal life and not Scripture, He is saying that He must increase and Scripture must decrease, for Jesus is above all.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for faith, pistis, has far less to do with believing information and more to do with trust. In fact, the primary definition of pisitis in the Liddell-Scott-Jones English-Greek Lexicon is “trust in others”, which is what people in the early Church would have understood pistis to mean when reading the Gospels and Paul’s letters. Our ideas of faith as “belief in something without proof” came much later, after the Scriptures were translated into Latin, when the closest Latin word for pistis was fides, which means “trust, confidence, reliance, belief”, during a time when the Church tried to persuade people to believe in its doctrines.(6)
When Jesus rebuked Peter for having “little faith” in Matthew chapter 14, the Greek for the phrase “little faith” is oligopistos, which is used to describe someone who is “dull to hearing the Lord’s voice or is disinterested in walking intimately with him”.(7) It’s all Jesus ever wants to do–is walk with you and me, and for us to trust that He is safe, even in the middle of the wind and the waves of a raging storm on the darkest night.
On and on, the invitation of Scripture is to trust that the relationship God invites us to enter into is safe. Safe from judgment when we doubt and when we wander, safe from ridicule when we fall or come up short, safe from any reason to feel unworthy. Scripture invites us to trust that God is who He says He is, fully revealed in Jesus. The Quaker author and theologian D. Elton Trueblood once wrote, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.”
In order that we may trust that God is who He says He is, the ancients have left us with what Jesus says is a sprawling Testimony of God among them. Like all testimonies, no two testimonies are the same in this one. This Testimony is diverse, confusing, wise, messy, challenging, complicated, ambiguous, mystical, and mysterious. A true product of a collaboration between the divine and humanity. And, yes, it contains contradictions—but not because it is not inspired, but because it is. In my view, the contradictions we see in the Bible reveal that there was an evolution, a transformation, a movement, a change in the beliefs of God’s people. If people weren’t willing to change, how else could God work through them? It’s why Jesus called the Pharisees “unmarked graves”. To be spiritually alive means to be open to transformation.
In the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites testified of a God they believed was trustworthy because He was just as tribal as they were, and they entered into faith in God without the Bible as we know it, trusting that their assumptions of Him as a tribal deity were true. The Old Testament scholar Pete Enns writes, “… the ancient Israelites were an ancient tribal people. They saw the world and their God in tribal ways. They told stories of their tribal past, led into battle by a tribal warrior God who valued the same things they did—like killing enemies and taking their land. This is how they connected with God—in their time, in their way.” He goes on to say, “These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time, but not for all time–and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up “explanations” to ease our stress. And for Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read–which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word.”(8) Likewise, Chris Blake writes in Searching for a God to Love, “… God doesn’t agree with everything in the Bible. Much of the Bible is description, not prescription …”
In the New Testament, God corrects the assumptions of the ancient Israelites and reveals Himself to be trustworthy through Jesus and because of Jesus, not because of our own assumptions or ideas of Him. In other words, the Good News is that Jesus is the full revelation of God Almighty and that Jesus reveals God to be trustworthy, and we enter into faith (into trust) believing that God is who He says He is in Christ. When we go to the Bible for answers, we are placing our hope and faith in the wrong source. It is not where we access Living Water. It is merely an arrow pointing us in the direction of the Well.
As an answer book or instruction manual or magic 8-ball or “gatekeeper”, the Bible doesn’t hold up. It doesn’t hold up because the Bible is not set up to be the “gatekeeper” for the Banquet Table. The only one with authority to let anyone sit at the Table is Jesus. So when people like Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson and me, and maybe you, realize that we’ve been needlessly obsessing over the arrow and venture out into the wilderness on the scary, wearying, searching but liberating journey to find Jesus at the Well, don’t despair and don’t condemn and don’t criticize. The Church needs to become a safer place for us to go through our journeys, as safe as the home of the Father of the Prodigal Son. Far too many of us are too lost in our self-righteousness like the Older Brother to give people the space to work things out with God. Instead, pray for a safe journey and traveling mercies, and that we may find Jesus waiting with a well overflowing with replenishing water.
Though the Bible may fail as “the test” in matters of faith, as a Testament of God among us, it soars high above the clouds and carries us in our own faith journeys. Remarkably, even before God’s full revelation of Himself, and long before there ever was a Bible, the ancient Israelites modeled a faith in God that was marked by a fierce trust in God’s ability to handle their questions, their doubts, their fury, their journeys. We see this in Abraham when he dares to question God’s plans for Sodom, in Jacob when He wrestles God for a blessing on his way back to Canaan, in Moses when he pleads with God to spare the Israelites, in Job when he boldly challenges God over his suffering, in Jonah when he expresses his anger toward God because of God’s mercy over Ninevah, in David when he cries out “How long, O Lord?” And now, we are invited to be part of this same process, this same kind of relationship, this same dynamic faith. If you are concerned with biblicalism, it doesn’t get any more biblical than letting our most honest feelings and doubts out, and leaving ourselves open for God to change our life in ways we never expect.
Today, I have more questions and doubts about the Bible as an “authority figure” in my life, but I have never felt safer, more loved by God, more at peace, and more open to saying I don’t know. Gone are the days of certainty as faith for me. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know why my husband and I lost our daughters (and I refuse now to speculate) or why people who have no business being parents are able to have children. I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I know this because I trust God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus: God had absolutely nothing—and I mean nothing—to do with our pain. And I think that’s all that matters to me right now.
In my preoccupation with having the “correct” beliefs in my younger years, I always cared very little for the statement that I should tell others what Jesus has done for me. It never seemed enough. I needed to persuade people with good theology, stimulating and interesting prophecy, compelling apologetics, and, yes, even fear. But what I’ve realized in my second naïveté is that Jesus is enough. Maybe God needs none of our help in convincing people. Jesus will always take on that burden Himself. All we have been asked to do is to add our voices to the ones who spoke of God before us. To tell the story of Jesus.
(1) Barna Group, “What Non-Christians Want from Faith Conversations”, 19 Feb 2019 (https://www.barna.com/research/non-christians-faith-conversations/)
(3) But consider chapter 3, verse 11 of 1 Corinthians which says, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
(4) The fact that there are differing views and interpretations of what Scripture says about alcohol consumption shows that the Bible is hardly clear on the matter.
(5) I was introduced to Paul Ricoeur’s two naïvetés by fellow BC resident Sarah Bessey in her moving and insightful work Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith.
(6) For a terrific article on the subject of the meaning of faith in the New Testament, read this article from Truth or Tradition? https://www.truthortradition.com/articles/what-is-faith#.
(7) See Strong’s Concordance: https://biblehub.com/greek/3640.htm.
(8) Pete Enns, Chapter 2 (God Lets His Children Tell the Story), The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.