I have a great relationship with scripture. I read it more than ever, and try more earnestly than ever to be shaped by its pages (though ‘try’ is the only honest word). But as a person who loves study and learning, it has also been a turbulent relationship. I have ridden great waves of high and low love and devotion for the Bible as I’ve travelled through my studies and explorations, which have often brought about the gut-wrenching — even traumatic — razing of my younger expectations about God, and the simple, childlike faith of my youth. The loss of that child is not a step forward. It’s not even okay. Childlikeness is the finish line for the disciple, not the starting block, and it must somehow be preserved, and if lost, restored. It is where joy is found in God’s presence, where we happily sit at his feet, lost in his truth and love.
In this post, I want to talk about the struggle of being constantly committed to learning more about God, the Bible and life while maintaining a rich and dynamic faith. That, it seems, is very hard to do.
In my adult life, I have become obsessed with learning. After coffee, my priority every morning is to learn something challenging and valuable (whether it’s faith-related or otherwise). The only thing that comes before this in the order of my day is the devotional time which fuels and directs that learning. But after some silent time in prayer and the gospels, it’s game on. It’s time to learn something truly worthwhile, then figure out how to make that knowledge useful to myself and others. That, mixed with some good music, more coffee, and interesting work, make my ideal day.
When you’re obsessed with growing and learning, though, your faith can live mostly in your brain, and things can quickly go pear-shaped. You can become that person who can answer (or at least engage) every important bible question, and maybe even many deep questions of life and existence, but can’t shed a tear when a friend has lost his father or daughter. You no longer feel that stab when you read about a disaster in a faraway place in the news. Suddenly it’s just part of the ‘great drama of the human condition’, or something like that. You’re no longer deeply moved by worshipping in groups or churches, because you’re too distracted by the song’s lyrics and how they didn’t get their theology quite right in that last line. You can become cold, clinical, and worst of all, unflappable. Unflappability may be an asset if you’re Winston Churchill in 1942, but for the rest of us, trying to follow Jesus in the here and now, staying flappable is pretty much the goal. For the rational western person, being properly shaken up is like a breath of fresh air. It feels fully human, and can steer us back to sanity.
The Problem of Objectivity
Here is the problem for the studious Christian, as I see it. Deep learning is a cruel mistress. To learn anything well, you have to attempt to see it within its context, which means seeing it as part of some bigger picture. In order to see this bigger picture or larger system to which it belongs, you must do your best to assume some position of objectivity; you must step back or zoom out as far as you can to see how the whole thing fits together. This attempt at objectivity is incredibly rewarding, because that’s where you make connections between distant or abstract ideas. And since learning is basically the act of making such connections, you shouldn’t avoid this step. If you are studying the Bible, this is where you discover those deep and often distant connections between the whispers of the Old Testament, and the truth revealed later in Jesus, for example. The most rewarding wonders of Christ would be simply unavailable to humans if we couldn’t step back in such a way to see what he has fulfilled and accomplished.
But there’s a dark flipside: objectivity equals detachment whenever it’s maintained for long. As we continue to attempt a better analysis, we distance ourselves farther and more often. We quickly become primarily a spectator of those events, people and things which we learn about, rather than being primarily a participant. We are no longer caught up in the drama. We are no longer in the mud with the characters. We are too busy thinking about what the mud represents, and how this character is just a symbol for that other Biblical truth found a thousand pages later. And here is the truly cruel twist: We might be absolutely right in our observations, but in that moment, the story will lose its grip on us. The very moment in which we see the ‘big point’ of the story, we might miss the point of reading a story in the first place. To be caught up — to inhabit the story like a child stepping onto Narnian snow as the back of the wardrobe dissolves — is what it’s all about. Our relationship with this wonderful, horrible tool called objective reason must be set right.
This problem is not unique to faith. We can talk about lots of situations in which the objective study of a thing can distance you from the thing itself, leading you to both understand it in one sense and misunderstand it in another. If we were to listen to a scientist talk about human affection and love, we would probably hear lots of truths in the material and chemical sense, but be repelled at their language which totally misses the mark on the subjective experience of love. If she were to define love on her terms, you would think something like, “She doesn’t get it at all. That’s not what I talk about when I talk about love.” And you’d be right. It’s one thing to observe the chemical manifestations of love at some expert level, but to do so hardly makes you an expert lover. Just an expert observer.
The same is true for faith. As we continue to grow in our understanding of Scripture, of Christian belief, and of how we can (and even should) express our faith in the real world, we can often become so obsessed with understanding the parts, their histories, and how they all fit together, that our primary relationship with ‘faith’ is much like our scientist friend and her ‘love’. This is not a small problem, because the primary point of faith is to live it. To let it overflow into every area of your life. To let your beliefs be manifested in your flesh, just as the truth of God was manifested in the person of Jesus. To truly live in the blessed, loving relationship that has been made available to us in Christ. God doesn’t really care if you can understand and explain his justice. His question is, “Will you live justly? Will you take what I have shown you in Jesus and let it rearrange your life?”
To ‘understand’ the scriptures and the nature of your faith more than you experience either is a deeply misguided adventure in missing the point.
Love Before Knowledge
With this in mind, in recent months I’ve rearranged my life, and I encourage you to do the same if you relate to the above dilemma. Since pondering this problem, I’m now far less bothered by the quantity of things I read and watch, and far more interested in the quality, and where they might take my inner life. I urge you to keep reading your books, but don’t worry how many remain unread when you die. FOMO be damned. Continue your learning, but place your worshipful devotion to Jesus at the front rather than the middle or back. The child that’s still alive in you (probably almost buried by life’s trials) is primary. Rescue and feed it. The adult within you is great and important, but don’t let it run your faith life. It probably gets to run everything else.
That will look different for different people, as we all have different worship styles, and our own honest expression of love for Christ will be unique. But the pursuit of this honest, subjective, unique, loving relationship really is the main thing of your faith, and even your life. It will grow far beyond your individual experience to affect your life in the world, if you let it do its work. Please, for yourself, your God and your world, make it so. Don’t be anxious about all the knowledge (or other experiences) you’ll miss out on if you’re praying or walking in the woods instead. Trust me, you’ll be better off.
I should say one last thing. In writing this, I’m not for a moment discouraging critical thinking or rational thought. And I’m definitely not discouraging the asking of questions. Some even go through a necessary season (or several) in which they must ask seemingly endless questions in order to make peace with their faith. In that season, constant rational questioning may be their main focus, because some crisis has forced them to revisit or reconsider some things they have believed. This process can be important, and shouldn’t be shut down prematurely. I have been through many such valleys. As a critical thinker, I’ve had to put God in the dock for long enough to hit him with my deepest questions. In the end, though, I’ve always found myself like Jacob wrestling with God. When I eventually loosened my grip, I realised that I had been fighting one who I loved, and who loved and blessed me, even mid-struggle. My own wrestles might not have changed my name, but they have humbled me and changed my identity for the better.
If you‘re in such a valley right now, then may God strengthen you through it. If you engage him truthfully, I know that he will. Just remember to let a season be a season. Life is not designed for endless winter. It may be overdue, but when the spring sun finally does rise, don’t fight it (as the hurting heart so often does). You might still have questions when God shows his face, but who doesn’t? In the end, the point of faith is not to know everything. The point is to know Him.