Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of A.J. Gregory's new book, Messy Faith: Daring to Live by Grace, (Revell, 2008).
Your spiritual journey isn’t a straight path to flawless faith; it’s a winding path that sometimes takes you through significant struggles. You want to believe, but doubt stands in your way. You want to live faithfully, yet sin creeps up on you.
No matter how messy your faith is, however, God will meet you in the middle of it. Here’s how you can trust God to make something beautiful out of your messy faith:
Embrace grace. Even if you think you don’t deserve to receive God’s grace, God wants to give it to you. Realize that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make God love you any less or more than He already does – and He loves you deeply and unconditionally. So don’t be afraid to approach Him, despite your shortcomings. And don’t try to earn His favor. There is no formula you can follow to become a better person through your own efforts. That will only occur when you confess your frailties to God and rely on the power of the grace He offers you to grow. Once you truly repent of your sins, God forgives you, so forgive yourself and move on. Spiritual masochism will only sabotage your efforts to get closer to God. Remember that your mistakes don’t define you, and neither do your good works. Only God’s love for you – and how you respond to it – determines your destiny.
Be honest about your imperfections. Don’t waste your time or energy trying to be or seem perfect; it’s futile. Take a hard look inside your soul and ask God to help you see all that truly lies within it. What kind of imperfect attitudes and behaviors do you notice? Tell the truth about them – to yourself, to others, and to God. Admit the ways you fall short in what you think, say, and do. Then, whenever you become aware of one of your imperfections, pray for God to help you in that area rather than trying to cover it up. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you happen to be living a strong Christian life right now, you’ll be immune to sin in the future. Recognize that all human beings have the capacity to sin in every way if they’re not regularly relying on God to help them. Instead of aiming to be a perfect Christian, focus on becoming a true Christian – one who stays connected to God through struggles and keeps maturing in the faith. Rather than trying to look, act, and sound like a person who has it together all the time, simply be yourself. Expect God to continue to work through you as you continue to trust Him.
Pray. No matter what’s going on in your life, it’s crucial to make time for prayer. Pray even when you don’t feel like it, because prayer fuels your faith. Don’t worry about what your prayers sound like or how distracted you are when you pray. God doesn’t judge the quality of your prayers; He is simply pleased to see you make the effort to connect with Him. Remember that God is always listening, so feel free to pray anytime. Even though you can’t anticipate how God will choose to answer your prayers, you can rest assured that He will always give you the blessing of His presence when you pray. You can also be confident that God will respond to your prayers by working for your ultimate good – even in the worst situations. Don’t get discouraged when God doesn’t answer your prayers in the ways you’d hoped He would. Keep trusting Him.
Stop judging. Don’t judge others who are struggling with their own messes in life. While you want to be the kind of person who will reach out to help others by telling them the truth, you need to do so in love. Check your motives before saying something to people that you hope will help them: Do you genuinely care about them and want to help them, or do you secretly enjoy seeing their flaws and want to admonish them? Pay attention to what’s going on in your mind when you find yourself thinking or saying things that are less than pleasant or edifying. Ask yourself why you’re judging: Are you scared of your own failures? Are you frustrated with yourself? Are you lonely? Are you jealous of the person you’re judging? Having the courage to explore these hard questions will help you grow in your faith.
Recognize the value of brokenness. God accepts and redeems your brokenness, and when you trust Him, He’ll take the broken pieces of your life and put them together in ways that will make you stronger. Don’t be afraid to approach God in the middle of your brokenness; go to Him with a humble and repentant heart, inviting Him to help you. Remember that being broken doesn’t make you a bad person or a lost cause; it simply gives you a way to come home to God. Accept the love He offers you.
Trust that God will take care of you. Even with all of life’s uncertainties, you can rest assured that God will somehow take care of you. But when you feel some doubt, just be honest about it, and pray for God to help you overcome your unbelief. Don’t rely on stuff, people, religion, or anything else to comfort you when you doubt God’s goodness or power. Instead, face your questions and work through them. Realize that you can’t anticipate exactly how God will lead us out of your struggles and into a better future you can’t see, but you don’t need to try to guess. All God asks is that you keep moving forward with Him, trusting Him to lead you in the right direction day by day. Remember God’s promises to take care of you, and keep walking with Him, expecting Him to keep His promises.
Forgive. God has forgiven you often, and He calls you to forgive others who’ve hurt you and yourself for your own mistakes. Let your gratitude for the many times God has extended forgiveness to you motivate you to obey His call to extend forgiveness to other people in your life. Choose to forgive – whether or not you feel like it – and expect that, as God works through you to empower you to forgive, your feelings will often change as a result. Forgive whether or not the people who have hurt you ask you to forgive them; do so to be faithful to God and to free yourself from the bitterness that will poison your soul if you refuse to forgive.
Break free of addictions. Look beyond the symptoms of whatever addictions you might be struggling with – drinking, smoking, engaging in unhealthy sexual relationships, working too much, eating too much, watching too much television, etc. – to figure out what issues within your soul are feeding your addictions. Instead of looking for a quick and easy cure, pray for God’s deep healing over time – healing that will result in a completely transformed life, in which you’re whole and at peace. Realize that only God – not anything you’re addicted to – can truly fulfill you. Practice relying on God as your ultimate source for everything you need day by day and even moment by moment, and your ability to trust Him will grow.
Know that God is enough. Place your confidence in God, despite His intangibility and invisibility. Rest in His presence rather than relying on things or people that can’t ultimately deliver the help you need in life. Instead of trying to make yourself feel better by looking at things or people right around you, look beyond them to God, who can handle your most messy situations and transform them into something beautiful. Confess your confusion and uncertainty to God whenever you hit a rough time, trusting that even when everything and everyone else is stripped away, God will still be there, leading you through the mess and out to the other side. Stay connected to God through prayer on a regular basis, since that will give you the peace you need to know that He truly is enough for all you need.
Look for treasures in the darkness. Whenever you experience dark times in your life, remember that it’s often through those times that your faith is authenticated. You can figure out whether what you believe about God and yourself is really true, whether you love God as much as you say you do, whether the Christian faith is really worth it, whether believing in God matters, and whether you trust God enough – even through the unknown. Ask God to shine His light into your darkness to give you hope and guide you toward His purposes for you. Use what you learn during your times of darkness to encourage others in their own dark times. Trust God to transform your darkness into light that shines in ways you’ve never imagined possible.
Adapted from Messy Faith: Daring to Live by Grace, copyright 2008 by A. J. Gregory. Published by Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Mich., www.revellbooks.com.
A.J. Gregory is an accomplished freelance writer who has helped author seven books. Messy Faith is her groundbreaking attempt at finding some equilibrium between spirituality and the realities of life. She is a member of The Life Christian Church, a seeker-friendly congregation located in a suburb of New York City.