When faith falters

Noticing Monsters

I’ve spent a lot of time the last few weeks thinking and writing about faith. But this week, I started asking some different questions about the monsters in life, the things in ourselves and our world that get in the way of our faith. I wonder:

How much of my faith has to do with fear? or loneliness? or anxiety? And how much of my faith has to do with hope? or love? or deep joy?

Sometimes faith is like the light on the doorstep that welcomes me home, signifies that I have arrived at safety again. But sometimes faith is like the distant beacon that calls me into discomfort and darkness. It’s hard to wrap my mind around something that can do both of those things. And sometimes I wonder if admitting the things I fail to believe would say more than admitting the things I do believe.

What happens when faith falters, when what I fail to believe in becomes more powerful than what I do believe in? How do I act toward God, toward others, when my faith is collapsing?

Like a brute beast toward God

This week I’ve been revisiting Psalm 73, in which the Psalmist speaks of becoming himself the very monster that stands in the way of trusting God. The Psalmist cries to God:

When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you. (73:21-22)

The powerful imagery in this Psalm has alway stood out to me. The Psalmist has come to this place of brutishness toward God because of jealousy and confusion. Much like Job posed the question “Why don’t the good prosper?” the Psalmist here asks: “Why do the wicked prosper?” Not only are they prospering, according to the Psalmist, but they are entirely unconcerned with the injustice of their actions.

They say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain I have kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence. (73:12-13)

We have all felt the way the Psalmist feels. God, why do things go so well for those who aren’t faithful to you, but so badly for me? God, where is the comfort or reward for my faithfulness? God, why do those who ignore your teachings live such easy lives? Haven’t we all felt like it is in vain that we pour time into our faiths, only to continue experiencing so much suffering in our lives?

Going into the sanctuary of God

The Psalmist, plagued by these questions of justice and redemption, finds rest only when he fully enters God’s presence.

But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God… (73:16-17a)

In the sanctuary, the Psalmist realizes that what he perceives as the fate of the wicked isn’t really prosperity after all, because they lack communion with God. I love the comments offered by Jewish theologian Martin Buber regarding this turning point in Psalm 73:

The one who is pure in heart … experiences that God is good to him or her. One does not experience it as a consequence of the purification of one’s heart, but because only as one who is pure in heart is one able to come to the sanctuaries. This does not meant the Temple precincts in Jerusalem, but the sphere of God’s holiness, the holy mysteries of God. Only to the one who draws near to these is the true meaning of the conflict revealed.

How beautifully appropriate those words are to the themes we’ve been exploring here about deepening faith in God, having the imagination to perceive God’s glory, and resting in the mysteries of life. Once in the sanctuary of God, in that place of open-hearted vulnerability before God, the Psalmist realizes that God was with him all along. The Psalm concludes:

Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward receive me with honor/glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
you put an end to those who are false to you.
But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge,
to tell of all your works. (73:23-28)

The Psalmist stops worrying about what others are doing and starts focusing on his own relationship to God, discovering that closeness to God is what he desires most of all. In the very moment of his brutish jealousy and anger, that is when he learns that God is with him, guiding him and even holding his hand. Buber comments on the sweet intimacy of that hand-holding imagery:

God has taken his right hand … as in the dark a father takes his little child by the hand, certainly in order to lead the child, but primarily in order to make present to his child, in the warm touch of coursing blood, the fact that he, the father, is continually with the child.

And what a precious thing it is to have the counsel of God, especially in times of questioning! Buber emphasizes that this does not mean that God directs the decisions of his followers; rather, he interprets the counsel of God to be further evidence of God’s constant presence with those who love Him.

The guiding counsel of God seems to me to be simply the divine Presence communicating itself to the pure in heart. One who is aware of this Presence acts in the changing situations of one’s life different from one who does not perceive this Presence. The Presence acts as counsel: God counsels by making known that He is present. He has led his child out of darkness into the light, and now the child can walk in the light. The child is not relieved of taking and directing his own steps.

When are times that you have been pure in heart and aware of God’s continual presence and counsel? When are times that you have felt like a brute beast toward God? When you struggle with questions of justice, what reminds you to enter the sanctuary of God? What do the monsters of your faith life look like?

As we begin the final stretch of Lent, may we truly find the time and space to enter God’s sanctuary, hold His hand, and seek his comforting counsel! Easter is on its way!!

Final notes on this post:

  • The Buber quotations are taken from his essay on Psalm 73 called “The Heart Determines,” originally published in 1950. I found it in this anthology of Buber’s work: On the Bible: Eighteen Studies by Martin Buber edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (199-210).
  • I use the trusty Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible for my scripture quotations. I highly recommend it for Bible work (although I also have a lot of love for a few other translations and will try to be explicit about which ones I’m using in specific posts.)
  • Also: I struggled with the pronouns in this post. I chose to use masculine pronouns to refer to the Psalmist, since it’s widely held that the author(s) of the Psalms were male. However, I think the personal sentiment expressed in Psalm 73 is one that followers of God, of any gender, can relate to. I did try to change the Buber quotes to use gender neutral pronouns (“one,” “the child,” etc.) when possible, and I hope that Buber and the readers of this blog will forgive me for the messiness of that. Perhaps we should open the tricky subject of gender in the Bible (and in theological studies) on this blog and see where the conversation goes!
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7 Comments

Filed under Lent 2011: Deepening Faith, My Faith Journey, Theology and Faith

7 responses to “When faith falters

  1. Tom

    I feel most pure in heart when I am least stuck in or identified with my thoughts, stories, imaginings, and ideas; when my attention seems to receive information through my whole body, rather than primarily my eyes and mind; when I seem to be able to simultaneously hold both the positions of witness and of raw experience. To me, this seems most like taking God’s hand. The more I do not do this – the more I become stuck in or identified with my thoughts, stories, imaginings, ideas, etc – the more I catch myself feeling like a brute beast, flying in the face of God. I lose track of both the witness and the raw experience, (con)fusing my experience and my thoughts/stories/imaginings/ideas about my experience.

    I don’t think that I struggle with questions of justice in the sense that you describe, since I think of justice as a concern of the living and not a concern of the divine. Or, to put it differently: I do believe that that which humans consider just might be a preference of the divine. However, I think that that preference is more of a magnetic pull to be aligned with or not, rather than the kind of desire that might be thought of in relation to a (human) personality. So, when I seem to reawaken to the magnetic pull, I am reminded to enter the sanctuary of God.

    I think that “monsters” of my faith tend to be expressions of the kind of individualism that tends to be found in U.S. WASP culture, being focused on personal progress and having right understanding. I focus on my seemingly right understanding of reality at the expense of precisely those values that make up my understanding: community, relationship, humility, servitude, and so on. This sometimes results in such ridiculousness as feeling judgmental of others’ seeming lack of humility as compared to mine, or frustrated that my own understandings of community are not shared by those with whom I am actually in community. It can be difficult for me to orient myself to the “territory” itself, rather than my conceptual map of it.

    • Tom, thanks for such a thoughtful response! I especially appreciated how you described being experientially connected to your spirit with your whole self as a way of being pure in heart.

      Your thoughts about the magnetic pull of justice brought to mind the words of Theodore Parker (later quoted by MLK) when he said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one… And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” That idea that the arc of moral history “bends toward justice” is intriguing, and I see why that phrase has been so lasting. You certainly know more about Parker than I do, and maybe you have some thoughts on that idea (either specifically relating to abolitionism, or more generally relating to moral struggles.)

      Also: I truly relate to your struggle with monsters like individualism, separation, judgment, and obsession with progress/perfection. Thanks for your openness in sharing those thoughts.

  2. Jason G.

    Sorry, this is going to be short, I’m currently out of town, and it’s 11pm.

    Wow.

    I know I should have, but I wasn’t expecting such a well structured, beautiful, and impactful sharing as I found in this post. You are really taking on this blog full-force and I’m very proud. I have always loved that verse about being a “brute beast” before God (if you recall, it’s written on a notecard on my desk). Thanks so much for your thoughts, insight, and sharing. I’m gonna have to start reading this regularly.

    Great stuff.

    J

    • Thanks, Jason! It means a lot to me to have your encouragement on this project. I know you’ve been busy this spring, but I’m really looking forward to getting to hear more of your thoughts on these topics. I know you will have a lot of valuable insight to add. Feel free to guest blog anytime!

  3. Sarah

    mmm. I love the part about realizing that the “reward” of those not surrendered/communing with God is not really a reward. The idea that surrender/communing itself is the reward; it’s the only reward that transforms, grows, deepens. Like you suggested B, that sort of reward isnt always fun! It can be challenging and make us uncomfortable, and ache. Thanks for the fellowship you give in this entry; nice reminder that we arent alone in attempting to choose the “real” reward, and dealing with our humanness along the way… love you!

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