Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

How Do I Cope When My Faith Is a Mess?

How Do I Cope When My Faith Is a Mess?

Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven.

I know not what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.

God is good, all the time—and all the time, God is good.

Know God, know peace; no God, no peace.

Have you come across these slogans of the faith? Maybe you’ve even repeated them.

They tend to slide into our Christian lexicon. We often repeat them in call-and-response type fashion, rarely questioning their accuracy.

But what happens when these slick statements and stock phrases run their course? What happens when we’re pushed to the edges of life, when life zigs when we want to zag, and we simply don’t know what to do or how to respond?

How do we cope when our life, despite the integrity of our faith, does not resemble the easy mantra of a bumper sticker?

The temptation is to think that faith provides easy answers to all our questions, or the divine rationale for all that we experience. It may even be tempting to think that Christian faith will make us immune to the imperfections of life. Unfortunately, we would be wrong.

Even when we stand upon the rock of faith, we may feel shaken by the world around us.

Even with a heartfelt reliance upon Christ, we may still harbour questions and doubts, or at times, feel that our faith is shaken at its core.

What do we do when our faith seems messy?

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1. Acknowledge the Messiness of Faith

We don’t always give voice to the messiness of our Christian faith. We like to project an air of stalwart confidence and unyielding resolve. It’s as if we believe that being faithful means never questioning, never struggling.

Thus, we downplay our struggles and deny our questions. Even though we may feel lost or confused internally, externally we project the image that we remain unaffected by life’s challenges.

The truth that we all know, but rarely talk about, is that our faith rarely exists in palaces of simple logic and problem-free solutions.

We face challenges and difficulties.

We struggle with God’s silence in prayer.

We sometimes are bereft of an answer for what’s occurring in our lives, or in the lives of loved ones.

Furthermore, despite all our good intentions, planning, and sincere faith, sometimes bad things happen to faithful people. There is simply no way to escape these facts or avoid these realities.

Pretending that such things do not occur does a disservice to our spiritual lives. When we rationalize such difficulties by resting upon easy answers or stock phrases, we reduce our faith to something safe and palatable, but ultimately unscriptural.

We turn away from the God of the Bible, and towards one of our own making.

Scripture is filled with messy situations. From Adam and Eve to King David, from Job to Jesus, we see faith lived out amongst the muck and mire of regular life. The struggles of human life color the pages of Scripture. And while people voice their doubts and questions to the Lord, rarely do they see a simple slogan or pre-packaged answer given in response.

The book of Job is a prime example of this. Job’s friends put forward multiple reasons for his plight: Job suffers because he deserves it! His sin has caused his calamity. Their logic seems airtight: Job is suffering because of sin, and he needs to repent.

Their theological outlook is quite simple: Bad things happen to bad people. Or, as one slogan put it “If you’ve got the fruit, you’ve got the root!” Full stop. Clean and crisp. No messiness to it.

Have you ever experienced something like that? Have you ever had someone give you the “reason” for your hardship, heartache, or tragedy? Sadly, it is all too common. Of course, those making these statements mean well. They’re trying to ease our hardship or pain.

However, like Job’s friends, these sound-bytes are ultimately unhelpful. Either they convey that the person struggling is at fault for what they are experiencing, or it assumes that the struggling person is simply not as mature or faithful as the one holding forth the answers.

It makes questions, struggles, and doubts a symptom of a weakened faith.

Yet if we have read the book of Job, we know that his friends are continually shown as those who do not speak rightly about the things of God. Job’s situation, like so much of our lives, defy easy answers.

Job’s life is messy. And so is his faith. 

2. Look beyond Easy Answers

The logic found in easy answers and Christian sound-bytes is often direct and pointed: Sin means suffering; repentance stops tragedy; keep calm and read your Bible.

Such statements offer nothing to the grieving or struggling person.

This is because easy answers are not designed to help, they only serve to let us off the hook. They provide a way for us to avoid having to wrestle with the deep questions of faith.

When we rest upon such answers—or worse yet, when we speak them to someone else—what we are truly saying is that we do not want to spend the time, nor the effort, to deal with such a messy reality. After all, it’s easier to rest upon false reasons than sit in the messiness of unanswered questions.

Returning to Job, however, we see that Job never receives the answer to his questions. He never learns the “reason” for his suffering. Despite all the chapters through which Job voiced his complaints, never once does he receive the rationale behind his experience. What he does receive, however, is far better.

In the end, Job receives an experience of the Lord.

Faith is messy. Faith is messy because no matter how perfect we are, faith does not make us immune to the unfair or the unplanned.

So, instead of attempting to avoid the mess by resting upon slick-sounding phrases, we ought to sit within our experience. We ought to take a page from the Psalms, or from Job, and give voice to our experiences of life, no matter how negative they may appear.

We can cry, shout, question and complain. God is big enough to receive it.

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3. Look for Jesus

The good news that we grasp in faith is that God’s presence is incarnated into our mess. This is the response of faith. Faith helps us articulate the divine relationship, not the divine reason.

Faith does not explain the mess away, it invites the Lord into it.

Again, we see this throughout all of Scripture, even right at the start. In response to their sin, God enters the garden in the cool of the day (a garden that has just become infinitely messier by the way), calling out to the hiding couple.

Despite the messy lives of Abraham, Moses, and David, the Lord presence is continuous. For Job we see that, despite all his questions, God provides no easy answers. Instead, God provides Job with an understanding of his presence. Job final words are “now my eyes have seen you” (42:5). It is in this reality alone that Job finally rests.

Of course, we see God entering the mess of our lives most profoundly in the incarnation. God steps into the world to take our mess upon himself and to bear it with us. After all, Christ’s life on earth was intimately intertwined with messiness.

Christ is born in a backwater town of Israel, surrounded by animals, unclean shepherds, and gentile mystics. Although perfect and without sin, Jesus is baptized to take up Israel’s need for salvation.

In the wilderness, Jesus experiences the temptations that so often besiege us. He is hated, despised, and rejected. He is beaten mercilessly and suffers an excruciating death on the cross. Such physical agony is only matched by his spiritual anguish as he cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Make no mistake, the messiness of Christian faith is precisely the fact that Christ becomes incarnate in the mess.

Easy answers rarely make us feel better. Stock phrases can never explain the deep things of our lives. We can never answer why, despite all our prayers, loved ones are not physically healed. We can never fully articulate the reason behind tragedy, hardship, suffering, or pain.

While we cannot give a reason for these things, we can claim that Jesus holds us each moment of these experiences. And in this reality, we can have some comfort.

See, when we fail to embrace the messiness of our faith, we fail to meet the one who embraces us in our mess. It is the presence of Jesus in our lives, not safe and easy answers, that makes all the difference.

Where is your faith a little messy at this moment? Perhaps you have questions that remain unanswered. Or perhaps those easy answers, previously offered, do not seem to cut it anymore.

Maybe you’re facing a hard conversation, a difficult road, an unforeseen circumstance. Whatever it is, what might it look like for you to embrace that mess? Instead of explaining it away, what would it look like to sit within it, recognizing, of course, that you do not sit alone.

Having a messy faith is not the worst thing in the world. For it is within that mess that you may just uncover the presence of the Lord.

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SWN authorThe Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada.  He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.comibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others.  He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca.  He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.