A Rational Faith

I'll begin this way: I have a very strong faith in God, and more than that, I have a personal relationship with Him. But what is it that makes me sure? Why have I arrived at these conclusions that a lot of people might deem highly irrational and foolish? I want to try and do my best to answer those questions concisely and rationally by exploring my personal faith journey a little bit.

The first step towards a faith in God is believing that there is a God in the first place. Why do I believe that God exists? Mostly, it’s simply from looking around and from learning more about the world I live in. Everywhere I am, I see an incredible amount of complexity, intricacy, and order – from the way every person’s appearance is completely unique, to the tiniest details of color and pattern on a bird’s plumage or a rose’s petals, to the scattering of stars and planets across a clear night sky, to the breathtaking vista seen from the top of a mountain. With all these, too, I can see overwhelming beauty and creativity; they are functional, but go beyond that to give pleasure and make this world an amazing place to live.

I’m reminded of the research that shows how miniscule adjustments to our planet’s precise location in the solar system would result in its being uninhabitable. I think of how science cannot explain what consciousness is or what exactly makes the difference between something being alive or dead. I remember learning about atoms and molecules and elements and all the things that we can’t see, and can barely even wrap our minds around, that make up the world we live in.

Then I start thinking of the sheer enormity of information that makes up and flows through my own brain and body: microscopic cells that are far more complex than the most advanced computer, all my systems working in synergy to keep me alive and healthy, incredible things that the human body is capable of, how the food I eat converts to usable energy. I try to mentally list all the knowledge and memories I have stored in my brain: the songs I haven’t heard for three years that I still remember all the lyrics to, the hundreds of people with whom I can match faces to names, the dance combinations I can see once or twice in a class and be able to perform, all the skills I’ve learned over the years, the sensations I associate with smells or patterns or music from past experiences, the ability to work out lengthy math problems or grasp abstract philosophical concepts, the connections and hints and common threads I can pick up on. I think of my personality, my likes and dislikes, my quirks and habits, my strengths and weaknesses, the way I relate to people, the way my mind works and the types of things I think about, the ideas and inspiration that come to me – and that I don’t even understand how all of that developed or what makes it different from everyone else’s.  Oh – and then I multiply this entire paragraph by about 7 billion to reach the earth’s current population of completely unique human beings, and that’s not even counting about six thousand years of recorded history prior to this.

In light of all these undeniable facts, it could not possibly be rational for me to conclude that all of this came into being with no direction, no intelligence, and no purpose. There must be something bigger than all of us, and history confirms that the vast majority of humans have reached the same conclusion, leading to all the major world religions, tribal traditions, and today’s general acceptance of “spirituality”.

At this point, I don’t just believe there is a God; I know there is. But how can I be sure I believe in the correct “manifestation” of Him? What makes me think Christianity is any better than Hinduism or Islam or Mormonism or worshipping the sun? Since my family is all Christian, am I just blindly accepting the faith I grew up with?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the most difficult objections to Christianity. I still have a lot of studying and learning to do myself in these areas. But here are some things I do know: the Christian Bible explains 
  • the creation of the world
  • the fall and subsequent nature of humanity
  • the story of God’s work in the world through His chosen people Israel
  • the life and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (an undisputedly historical figure, whose time on earth coincidentally divides our history in half), the perfect Son of God who died to save us from our ruined selves and restore us to a relationship with God, and who conquered death by rising three days later
  • what makes a godly, wise, purposeful life on earth
  • and a vision of what will happen at the end of this earth’s story. 
The sixty-six books that make up the Bible manage to explain all of this without contradictions, with prophecies made hundreds of years prior to the significant world events that fulfilled them, and with historical accuracy that has never been disproved by archaeology – despite them having being written by more than forty distinct authors over thousands of years. Christianity has been responsible for transformed lives, families, communities, cultures, and nations. It has been the impetus for medical care, education, and care for the poor. It has been dissected and discussed by some of history’s greatest minds, and found by them to be the best explanation for the mysteries and dissatisfaction his world so easily brings.

But it is also more personal than this to me. I don’t have a dramatic turn-around story, but I ascribe to Christianity because the God described in the Bible has changed me, and because knowing Him has made me understand that He is a God that I can devote my life to. How has He changed me? One way has been how I’ve gradually come to understand how incredibly beautiful and good God’s original intentions for so many things in this world are – like marriage, sex, use of time, stewardship, the purpose of life, work ethic, pleasure and rest, and the real nature of love, just to name a few. The reason that this serves as evidence to me is because what is described in the Bible on these issues often goes directly against everything our culture advocates. Being raised in the era and society I have been, it is not “natural” for me to think the way I do about these issues. It would be “natural” for me to want to live my life purely for myself, to say that anything goes and it doesn’t matter how anyone lives or what they do, to spend hours and hours on whatever kind of entertainment or activity or conversation that suited my fancy, to do whatever makes ME feel happy and fulfilled, to never deny myself anything I want. But the strange thing is that those are not my deepest desires in life.You might think I’ve been brainwashed by the religious climate in which I’ve grown up, or that I’m just a really strange outlier on the curve of “normal”, but I can tell you with certainty that’s not what it is. Nor have I just sat down and decided to be different, or that I would change my mind, or that my goal in life was to be a goody-two-shoes. Instead, I know I have been changed by a God Who is transforming me every day into the image of Jesus Christ, and into the person that He created me to be. There isn’t any other explanation for it. And ironically, the more I have invested into my relationship with this God, the more I have changed.

Another thing is that I can’t even imagine what my life would be like without God. I can’t fathom how confused, angry, purposeless, useless, and plain afraid I would feel, and how unfair and pointless life would seem. Why didn’t I get cast in the role I wanted so badly? Why haven’t I met a “soul mate” yet, and could it be because I’m somehow doing something wrong? Why did my friend die in a car accident when she was only twenty? What am I going to do with my future and what if I never end up being able to do what I love most? What if everything in my life was stripped away from me? What would happen to me if I died tomorrow?

Even though I don’t know the answers to most of these questions (except the last one), I don’t have to worry about them either. My God formed me with unfathomable love and care in my mother’s womb. He knows my name and the number of hairs on my head, and He holds every tear I cry. He knows everything I’m going to say before I say it; He sees when I sit and when I rise. He has searched me deeply and He knows me better than I know myself. He loves me with a love that is strong and pressing, but tender and caring, a love that loves me too much to leave me where I am. He redeems me, heals me, and makes me whole. He died for me. He died so I could live for more than what I wanted to settle for. He died to rescue me, restore me, and bring me back home. He doesn’t give me all the answers, but He doesn’t have to because He Himself is the answer. When I know Him, I know what I have always been meant to know. I find myself back where I belong because I was created by Him and for Him, to be in a relationship with Him.

Mine is not a faith of religious rituals, spiritual crutches to get through life, or blind acceptance of what I’ve been told. It’s not my own efforts to lead a “good life” or be a “good enough person” – whatever that even means. It’s not about me trying to cram what I believe down anyone’s throat or harshly judging people for what they do or don’t do. But it is about this: the God I love is the best thing I know. He’s the only God I know of Who doesn’t demand that I try in my own strength to change myself, but Who came down to earth Himself, put on flesh, showed me how to live, and died to pay the price for sin that I could never pay, all so that He could change me. And He did the same for every person He’s ever created, if they will only accept it.

I have come to understand this: we were created to know, love, serve, and worship God, and to be known and deeply, unfathomably loved by Him. His is an undeniably compelling invitation: come to Him, allow Him to save and rescue you, and begin to understand what you were meant for all along. His unconditional, undeniable, unforgettable love confounds every human notion of love. We love what is loveable and responsive, but He loves what is cold and rigid, unbending and unwanting, what doesn’t love or want or believe in or even acknowledge Him in return. His love softens but never breaks, surrounds but never forces. He gives you a choice. He is the tender warrior Who fights for you and for your freedom, but doesn’t claim you for His own until you let Him. But in the gentlest way I can ask, my question for you is this: how is a love like that to be refused?  

How God Loves

It was late one evening this past April that I finally began to understand how God loves me. I was in the wings, partly watching my friend dance her solo onstage in the ballet Coppelia, partly warming up for mine that came next, and partly begging God to get me through my dance because I was pretty sure I couldn’t do it on my own. It was one of the harder dances I’ve done because it required perfect placement and a lot of control on my part. My body was worn out from rehearsing every night that week, I had a bruised toenail and generally unhappy feet from being on pointe so much, and I was developing a rather painful strain in one of my inner thigh muscles. I found myself wondering how, when I was younger, I had never seemed to be quite this acutely aware of how my body was feeling. But more than that, I wanted to be able to dance and to do it well, and to infuse my beautiful solo – ironically entitled Prayer – with meaning.

So as the music began and I entered, I was still praying – mostly, “God, give me the strength to do this again.” Before each difficult section, I prayed again. And something pretty amazing happened – beyond the fact that God answered my prayers and sustained me physically. He also sent me an unexpected gift. One performance, the lyrics of a Third Day song popped spontaneously into my head:

I trust in Jesus, my great Deliverer, my strong Defender, Son of God
I trust in Jesus, blessed Redeemer, my Lord forever, the Holy One

During another performance, it was part of Isaiah 30:15 that came to mind: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Focusing on that was a huge and surprising help to get through Prayer, and more than that, it was above and beyond what I had asked for. It was God showing me that His love goes farther than I’ve dared to believe.

I wonder – is it a coincidence that both the song and the verse that God gave me had to do with trusting Him? It’s really hard for me to trust and not try all on my own to ensure a good outcome – especially when it involves trusting a God I know and love, but can’t see. But every time I do trust, such as on this occasion, He more than comes through. And it’s been this way that I’ve started to understand His love for me.

I think we often have a fuzzy, neat, and nice idea of what love is. It’s good feelings and comfort and warmth and ease and all the things we would wish for ourselves. If God loves us, that must mean that He will provide us with everything that we consider good, and keep us safe and healthy all the time, and in general give us a pretty easy life. After all, isn’t that what we would try to do for the people we ourselves love? God must be the same.

But I’m beginning to understand that that’s not quite true. I do believe that God loves to bless us, that He wants to give us abundant lives (John 10:10), and that every good and perfect gift comes from Him (James 1:17). But there’s also this truth that I’ve seen throughout the Bible, and perhaps especially in the book of Job: if God designed human beings to be in relationship with Him, then our greatest good is realized by being close to Him, and the closer we get to Him – even inch by inch – the better off we are. Therefore, I believe that God’s love entails that He gives us whatever it takes to bring us the closest to Him, and that might look different for each person. It might mean blessings and prosperity and material abundance for the person who would turn to God and praise Him through that. But for someone else, it might mean He takes away something they depend on or something that comes between them and Him – health, wealth, strength, security, comfort, people they love – if that’s what it takes to bring them back to Him. In our limited perspective, we might call that unfair, but that’s because we can’t see the big picture. We haven’t grasped that anything that brings us closer to God is good – even if it’s not something we could possibly like, enjoy, wish for, or have fuzzy feelings about.

God has blessed my socks off over and over again, and given me incredible opportunities I couldn’t have imagined. I am deeply grateful to be the recipient of so many gifts. But it isn’t so much through these tangible ways that I truly understand how God loves me. I’ve come to understand that His is not a soft, easy love that only gives to me and demands nothing of me. No – He loves me hard. He gives me a beautiful challenge I don’t think I can handle, and then He steps in with love that is strong and pressing, but tender and caring, and then He walks with me through every step of the way.

The reason I came to see this through my exhausting week of performing Coppelia is that ballet doesn’t come easily to me. I love it, and always have, but I wasn’t born with a “natural” ballet body and I haven’t always studied ballet quite intensively enough to truly get it in my blood. Sometimes I just feel clumsy and awkward and start to doubt myself as a dancer. Other times, I get so worn out from dancing, and my muscles get so tired and shaky, that I don’t understand why I ever thought I could do this as a career, day in and day out. Still other times, I look in the mirror and am so easily dissatisfied with what I see that I get discouraged and depressed. This is not an easy path to take, and there have been days when I just want to quit and study something “normal” like history or nursing.

This is why I can sometimes feel God’s presence and love the most closely and deeply when I’m on stage, giving my all to fight for something that I’m honestly not sure in the moment that I can do anymore. I’m reminded that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness. I don’t like being weak. I hate not being able to do everything. I wish ballet came naturally to me and didn’t involve so much effort, uncertainty, and self-doubt. But the reality is that I am weak, I’m not invincible, and the gift of dance that God has blessed me with is not an easy one.

Maybe if God loved me in our typical fuzzy human way, He would have seen me struggling with my gift and taken pity on me. Maybe He would have used others to gently counsel me to focus on one of my other interests, or to not seriously pursue my dreams of dancing in the future, or to assure me that it was okay to give up or not seriously try every day. Maybe He would have patted me on the back and given me something easier to love.

That isn’t at all what He’s done. He has seen me struggling and He has stooped down to help me, to give me the physical, emotional, and mental strength to get through and keep pushing. And when I don’t have any strength left, He Himself has sustained me. He’s given me Scripture in the middle of performances. He has placed numerous relentless encouragers in my life to tell me that for no reason should I quit, hold back, or doubt myself, but to believe that I am meant to do this. He pushes me onward, encouraging me to climb higher, try harder, and be more. His love doesn’t say, “It’s okay that you can’t”; it says, “Keep going – you can.”

It is precisely because dance is hard for me that I can better understand God’s love. He loves me too much to leave me where I am. That’s why He died to ransom, redeem, and restore me. That’s why He gives and takes away the things in my life that He does. He is in the process of transforming me into something better, something that looks a little more like Him every day. When I understand that, I can welcome with open arms everything that comes my way because I know that He has a purpose planned for it, that it will help me grow, and that it will bring me closer to Him. And that is how He loves me: hard – not necessarily for my immediate happiness, but for my ultimate good and the purpose I was created for.

Guarded in this kind of transforming love, I don’t have anything left to fear. It banishes my doubts, gives me hope, and fills me with the strength I need to step out on stage once again and dance for the only One Who is right there with me through every moment.