The most remarkable year of my life and easily the one in which my faith grew the most was the 12 months I spent as a young man working at a rural college in India. The double blow of not knowing God and not knowing anybody at all brought me to a place of loneliness and crisis. Once I was able to acknowledge my complete inability to cope, God was more than able to meet me, and in fact brought me to a small but loving fellowship in which I began to learn what it meant to walk with God. For the remainder of that year my faith was flying as I grew in understanding and dependency.
Sometimes I feel a wave of sadness looking back – why isn’t my faith still like that? In fact since then (almost 30 years) my faith has changed, several times. Like most Christians I have had to work through doubts, think about why God “doesn’t do what he’s supposed to”, and even my understanding of who God is has changed.
But in fact it’s OK, even necessary, for our faith, our understanding of scripture, and our idea of God himself to change over time:
Our relationships change over time
Think about your relationship with your wife or husband. Over the years it has changed. You have both grown as individuals and you have also grown in your understanding of each other. Perhaps some of the early romance or unpredictability has gone, but then so has much of the arguing about nothing. You may have new shared interests and have lost old ones you never imagined you could do without. Or think of your relationship with your parents. As we grow older this changes as we transition from dependency to a kind of equity, to finally being depended upon. In all our close relationships as our knowledge of each other grows, we can increasingly anticipate each other’s reactions, moods, and even thoughts.
God made us in his image, to be in loving relationship with him, but good relationships develop.
Our understanding of God’s word changes over time
God himself is unchanging but our understanding of him must change. Some may find this a sign of weakness and feel that their understanding of scripture must never alter. On the core principles of faith I agree these should not change. Examples of core principles could be the nature of Christ fully God and fully man, or the centrality of the cross, or the fact that our salvation is by grace alone … On all of these our faith, our beliefs, should not be in flux. But on many other important yet less central areas of scripture and faith it’s OK and even healthy for our understanding to develop. A personal example for me is my understanding of the role of women in leadership. In 1992 I voted against the ordination of women in the Church of England where I was a member because of certain sections of scripture. But in the intervening years my view has reversed as I have understood more of the direction in which these scriptures were headed.
This is not “being tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4.14). It’s having the humility to accept that we might be wrong. We none of us know if we are right or wrong. Our understanding of God is always growing but always incomplete.
The only way our understanding of God and his word could never change is if it was perfect to begin with. But the only person in this universe who has a perfect understanding of God is God himself. We are not God.
And the way we experience faith changes over time
Various people have written on the “stages of faith”:
- Infancy / institutional faith – we accept at face value what we are taught and learn by rote (memorise)
- Adolescent / critical faith – we question our faith, look at opposing arguments and independently try to discover meaning
- Adult / faith as mystery – we become aware of the complexity and conflicting nature of our world and our God, and we learn to hand our lack of understanding over to him
We don’t simply progress through these stages as quickly as possible. Rather we must keep all three in in balance as we grow into maturity. For example memorising scripture, asking the “why” in the storms of life, and remaining in awe of our God of mystery can all occur together. So it’s not about progressing from one stage to the next, it’s about maintaining all three in balance. It’s not about knowing all the answers, it’s about knowing one who does. And it’s not about ruling out doubts, it’s about winning through doubts to a place of greater confidence — yet greater mystery.
As we grow God shows us more of himself, and importantly, more of ourselves. This will change us, as will the triumphs and tragedies of the life we live. In my case as I look back to my year in India I do so with some envy at the manner in which I seemed to doubt nothing at all. But I am also glad to have passed through my own experiences to a point where I am least beginning to know how much I don’t know…. As I believe Alice once said, “There has been an alarming increase in the number of things about which I know nothing”.
Stages of faith taken from God of Surprises by Gerard Hughes.
If you enjoyed reading this post try this real life story of travelling and wandering: The Boulder
This blog was also published by The Baptist Times