Stages of Faith and Beauty in the Wilderness

I originally posted Beauty In The Wilderness in March 2011 as I prepared for Lent.  I have done a rewrite so I could post it today as a contribution to the November Synchroblog: “Faith Stories”

walkingdesert2_thumb

Over the years my faith has changed significantly – as I believe it should. For many years my faith was mostly about ascribing to a list of beliefs that were non-negotiable. Today my faith is more about living into the way of Jesus which mostly ends up being about loving others.

When I first started having questions and doubts about “the list” of non-negotiables I was really thrown off balance but over time I have become pretty comfortable with having more questions than answers and embracing the mystery of God.  I no longer believe that changing my mind about some faith related issue is evidence of a weak faith or being an immature Christian.  In fact, I ascribe to the idea that an active, vibrant life of faith will often lead to stages of faith that are filled with questions and doubts (see stage 4 in the chart below) which can lead to wonderful revelation and transformation (stages 5 & 6 in the chart) that always seemed out of reach in the midst of being so certain about everything. [1]

nextreformation.com wp admin resources stages of faith.pdf

These days I assume that I am surely wrong about a multitude of things that I believe at any given moment. However, that doesn’t stop me from living out my faith with conviction and passion. Instead, it imbibes me with a dose of humility that keeps me from feeling like the world has ended if I happen to discover that what I thought was true doesn’t hold up under serious study, thought, prayer and scrutiny.

One of the things that I have a significantly different perspective about these days is suffering … or “the wilderness” as it is often referred to by Christians.

“The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask.” - Nancy Wynne Newhall

I grew up hearing sermons and bible lessons that talked about God leading us into the wilderness in order to teach us something – about Him, about ourselves, about the world we live in. The “wilderness” was another word for suffering and the reason (they said) God led us into suffering was because in the midst of suffering he was able to get our attention, to cause us to trust him and to make us teachable and transformable.

I believed it and it made me very afraid of God.

Whether it was a relationship problem or an illness or unemployment I didn’t just have the anxiety of the problem at hand to deal with – I also had the emotional and spiritual agony of believing that God was making me suffer in order to get my attention so I could be transformed.

I don’t believe that anymore.

Now don’t get me wrong – I believe there are things I can learn in the wilderness and I believe my wilderness experiences do change me.  I even believe God can bring good out of wilderness situations – I just don’t believe God is causing or orchestrating my suffering. Of course I still battle those beliefs that set God up as my adversary but after I talk myself into remembering God isn’t causing my suffering I can more easily trust God in the midst of my wilderness.  And for as much as I dislike wilderness experiences and spend a fair amount of time and energy avoiding wilderness experiences it is in the wilderness where I have found out the most about who I really am and what my life is really about.  Not so much because of the suffering that takes place in the wilderness but because of the self awareness and self examination it causes, because of the focus it produces, because of the questions it births, because of the humility it generates.

“the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.” Barbara Brown Taylor

It was during a wilderness experience where I discovered God wasn’t the perpetrator of my suffering – that I didn’t need to be punished for who I was and it was okay for me to be me – in fact, it was better than okay, it was good.

Not long after that particular experience I ran across the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver and fell in love with it … not just because it is a beautifully crafted message but because it reminded me of the beautiful truth I had just discovered while wandering in the wilderness with God.

I leave you with Oliver’s poem in hopes that you too will discover something beautiful about yourself, about God and about the world you live in even when you find yourself wandering in the wilderness.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986

[1] If you want to explore more about the stages of faith:

Read these three excellent blog posts about Stages in the Life of Faith  herehere and here which may lead you to read the book: The Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet O. Hagberg & Robert A. Guelich

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Check out the other posts for this month’s synchroblog:

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