Sunday, August 18, 2013

On Tests of Faith & the Necessity of Unanswerable Questions

I had the opportunity to share these words with my church congregation this morning, and I wanted to pass them on to my lovely readers! Whether you're religiously inclined or not, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts on the topic.

I think it’s hard to admit to ourselves that our faith is being tested.

It’s human nature to want to hide our flaws and present more polished versions of ourselves to the world. One of my favorite quotes (that I discovered via Myke, who is a male blogger, you guys! A good one!) is by author John Steinbeck, who said, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” I’m a big believer in this idea -- the power of being vulnerable and openly flawed. We all eventually reach that moment where we say “Hey, I have questions. I have flaws. I have some issues, sometimes small and sometimes serious. I mess up every day.” And when we’re finally OK admitting that, and not trying to gloss over our issues or put a bandaid over our wounds without cleaning them out first, when we reach that point of no longer being afraid of our own imperfections, is when we can really get to work on being GOOD. It goes in line with another one of my favorite quotes, this one from another author, Ray Bradbury, who said, “You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be.” I’ve written that quote on more sticky notes, white boards, and pieces of scrap paper than I can count. It’s a statement that drives me forward when I’m tempted to let my questions trip me up or my trials stop my progression. “You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be.”

I think our faith is sometimes tested by trials, the physical and emotional things in the moment of hard stuff we’re going through.

But I also think another big way our faith is tested is by questions.

Sometimes our questions come because of specific “why did a family member die” or “why do people get cancer” or “why did i lose my job.” Other times, the questions cut right to the core of our relationship with the gospel as we find that some of the “natural man” parts of ourselves disagree with parts of the gospel. What happens when, down deep inside ourselves, we feel fundamentally different about an issue than what the gospel teaches we are supposed to feel about it? What happens when we try to gain a testimony of a particular point of doctrine and can’t seem to resolve it, even after careful prayer and study? What happens when we do everything right and the answers don’t come? I believe our faith is most tested by the questions we cannot easily answer.

BYU professor and choir director Ronald Staheli said in a BYU devotional, “By design we are asked to live with the stress of unanswered questions, paradox, incongruity, enigma, and seeming absurdity, which will try our tenacity, patience, and faithfulness. Our thinking will be challenged, our powers of reason will be overwhelmed, leaving the heart free to wander toward an unrealistic world of self-deception.”

When it comes to troubling times and hard questions, sometimes I fall into the trap of trying to hide that part of myself from Heavenly Father.

But like any relationship, you have to be real with Him. You have to be honest. No good friendship is built with people who are bothered or angry or confused but put on a fake happy face and bottle it up inside forever. Real friends talk about the hard things, and I want my relationship with God to be real. So I have to let myself be honest with Him. I have to admit to Him what's troubling me. I have to tell him when I’m mad or frustrated or disbelieving. I came to this realization a couple years ago. I stopped always praying in a perfectly polished, pretty way and I FINALLY allowed myself to be honest with Him. I started allowing myself to express frustration and admit when I disagreed with God. I brought my questions to Him rather than tucking them away. And that's when I found Him.

I grew up with a pretty cookie cutter brand of faith. Not any less real or important, but I think immature in a lot of ways.

It was easy for me to believe, it was easy for me to never question, and that worked for me as a teenager and often throughout college. But in the years since then, as I’ve started finding myself more and figuring myself out, I realized some things that I deeply felt weren’t in line with the gospel. I found myself asking questions, uncovering sticky parts of my relationship with the gospel, and to be honest it scared me a little at first. It troubled me. Something about the idea of questioning or doubting shook me up a little. I watched friends struggle with really hard issues, and I didn’t know how to box that up and put a pretty bow on it and label it and file it away. The hard questions felt difficult for me to reconcile. I tried to seek out answers but couldn’t seem to find them, and sometimes that shook my faith because I felt ASHAMED. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t believe as easily as I did when I was younger, that every little detail and point of the gospel didn’t seem to fit in the nice little boxes I was used to.

As some of the glossier fronts and veneers of my faith fell away, I started to feel a little bit like I had lost myself, and it made me worry that maybe I had lost God.

But He was not gone. And I was not lost. My faith had CHANGED but it hadn’t LEFT. I was not ultimately the disciple of Christ I expected to be but I was still a disciple nonetheless. And maybe even a better one than I had planned. Because now that I could stop demanding perfection out of myself and my faith, without questions, in every way, right now...because I could stop demanding that impossible, immediate perfection, I could be good. When my faith is tried, I can question...and I can seek...and I can still stand with God through all of that. I’m grateful for the faith of my youth because I know I needed it and it set a wonderful foundation for me -- but it was just a starting point.

I believe God raised me to be able to easily believe...but I believe He then moved on to maturing me to be able to question.

To be able to withstand tests of faith. My faith is so much more RICH for the questions I’ve had to face, and for the questions I have yet to answer. Heavenly Father has to ask us the hard questions. His plan requires opposition in ALL things. Our very softest and most tender spots, those little corners of our hearts and our deepest, most personal struggles, those places are EXACTLY where He is going to test us. The answers we most struggle with, those are EXACTLY the specific, individualized, personal essay questions He’s going to ask us. Why? ...because He needs to know who we’re going to choose. He needs to know who we choose, what we choose, in the hard moments, because that’s when it matters. That’s when our choices count.

I’ve frequently heard it said that when you take steps into the dark, then the light comes. I disagree. 

I've heard that you take a step in faith, and then an answer appears and you see the reasons and the explanations and doors open and light floods in. I do know that happens sometimes. I’ve had it happen for me. But my experience has also been that some paths in our lives will ALWAYS be dark. I believe we will be asked to walk some paths blindly. Blindly going in, blindly going through, and blindly looking back with no clear 20/20 hindsight at all. Some questions, I don’t think we will ever have answered in this life. But Heavenly Father needs to know that WE. WILL. WALK. ANYWAY. Not seeing, not knowing, doubting, questioning, wondering, asking...with all that baggage weighing on our shoulders and settling heavy in our hearts...we still go. And we keep going. To me, THAT is my greatest test of faith. Not going and seeing and then having courage to go’s going and NOT seeing, STILL feeling blind, and still finding courage to move forward. It’s asking questions, struggling to find the answers, never quite being sure of some answers, and still choosing to believe. I think THOSE are the paths, the journeys, and the questions where REAL faith is born.

As much as I sometimes hate the hard questions that get under my skin and make my head spin a little, I’m grateful for them in kind of a “love/hate” way. I’m grateful that they’ve given me the opportunity to stand at forks in the road and decide that I STILL CHOOSE CHRIST. I choose Him IN my questions, WITH my questions, even on days when maybe I don't feel very faithful. On days when I don't feel like my best, most worthy self. I choose Him because I went to the temple and promised to ALWAYS choose Him and I do not break my promises. I choose Him because I want him, because I love Him, and because I trust Him.

Our relationship with Christ is crucial to the process of questioning, because when we walk through dark or gray areas of our lives, we don't have to go it alone.

I believe that Christ is willing to walk right there with us as we navigate the sticky parts and the shadows. Don't shut Him out. Don’t think you need to navigate that on your own. I can testify that Christ’s promise to always be with us and bear our troubles and carry us on His shoulders can be a very real power in our lives. Do not choose to face your questions and walk your hard paths alone when He is ready and willing to walk through all of it with you.

Another purpose to questioning and tests of faith, I believe, is that God needs advocates.

He needs believing, faithful, relatable people who can serve as bridges of faith for people whose questions separate them from the gospel. He needs faithful people, who have had their faith tested, who STILL CHOOSE to stay and believe. He needs firm believers to admit to and face their personal questions so they can relate to non believers who grapple with the same issues. By tasting our own doubts and concerns, we become relatable to people who are also struggling to find answers. I’m grateful I’ve been given the opportunity to question, to struggle to work out my own faith, because it has given me empathy.

Empathy is maybe the most cherished character trait I want to achieve and hone in this life, along with charity. I believe empathy and charity are very closely linked, maybe enough so that you can't really have one without the other. Charity is the pure love of Christ, and Christ's crowning glory is that He felt all of our pains, troubles, joys and hurts.

What more is the Atonement, in the end, than the grandest and most perfect embodiment of empathy?

Asking honest questions and having our faith tested makes us relatable. Being relatable teaches us empathy. And in those moments of pure empathy, when we feel the hurts and doubts and emotions of other people in our hearts as tangibly as if it is our own personal test of faith, in those sacred moments -- and I have had them -- I believe we take Christ upon ourselves and act in His name in the truest and most divine sense of the covenant to do so. Without stretching our own hearts by way of test and trial, we cannot have room for the hearts of others. And what else is a heart for than for letting people in and keeping them safe?

I thank God for making something bigger of me.

I thank Him for testing my faith, for making me face the hard questions, and for allowing my heart to relate to people when they walk their own hard paths. And I have a sure knowledge that it took some tough stuff and hard questions to do that, and that it will take more hard things and more sharp, specific tests of my faith to keep shaping me into bigger and better things. I'm a firm believer in the idea that God HAS to test our faith. He HAS to break our hearts because that's how the light gets in.

The prophet Brigham Young said: "We talk about our trials and troubles here in this life: but suppose that you could see yourselves thou­sands and millions of years after you have proved faithful to your religion during the few short years in this time, and have obtained eternal salvation and a crown of glory in the presence of God; then look back upon your lives here, and see the losses, crosses, and disappointments, the sorrows . . . , you would be constrained to exclaim, 'But what of all that? Those things were but for a moment, and we are now here.'"

I want to testify that no matter how much our faith is tested, no matter how many hard paths we are asked to walk, no matter how many difficult questions we ask and how many questions we sometimes can’t seem to answer, that God has a plan. I testify that Christ is with us for every stumbling step. I testify that, in thousands and millions of years, in worlds and heavens to come, that like Brigham Young said, we will look back on every heartache and be constrained to exclaim:

“But what of all that? Those things were but for a moment, and we are now here.”


Sierra said...

You've done it again! Sometimes I feel like you're in my brain.

This was beautiful, and you toughed on a lot of things I have been struggling with.

Just one more reminder that sometimes prayers are answered through the blog posts of others.

Jenna Foote said...

How 'bout a round of applause? A standing ovation!

Sierra said...

awkward typo that I realized far too late. *touched

Myke Olsen said...

"What happens when, down deep inside ourselves, we feel fundamentally different about an issue than what the gospel teaches we are supposed to feel about it?" This has been my life for the past year.

This is so awesome, Katie. I will undoubtedly return to this throughout the week to ponder. Thank you for sharing this.

GMP said...

I'm profoundly uncomfortable with this blog post. I'm not going to lie, I really hated reading it, not because I disagreed but because I agreed completely. God's been breaking me down for a few years now and I'm really screwing things up. But thanks for sharing that He also rebuilds us and helps us become more than what we are.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope you continue to find peace of mind as you honestly question your world.

Amanda Schroeder said...

This is amazing. You're a fabulous writer, and I'm sure, a fabulous speaker as well. I'm so glad that you posted this today! I posted a quote a few days ago that said, "Perhaps faith is not faith until it has been tried." I LOVE that. And I'm super glad that I can admit that I do things wrong. And forgive myself.

Jael said...

um, wow. I spoke in church two weeks ago about faith in Jesus Christ and compared to yours, mine sounds like a 5 year old wrote it. This is lovely, thanks for sharing.

Jessica Walters said...

I love all your posts, especially this one. I couldn't agree more with everything you said. I love how you talk about your LDS faith so much on here. I love reading :)

Elise Frederickson said...

The cool thing about you is the deep and personal way you understand the principles you are learning/have learned. and also your personal experience with doctrine. And also the way you share it that makes me feel like I can almost taste the experiences that have led you to the understanding of what you share. almost, in the way that its just enough to make me want to find out for myself. I like you. Also, I was chatting about blogs with bishop's wife tonight and I told her to read yours. The end.

watertread said...

The hardest thing is trying to faithfully work your way through doubt when you're not even sure if God is there in the first place. I personally have a difficult time believing in a God who helps middle class Americans find their lost keys or get a new job but can't be bothered to help the millions of diseased and starving children in the world. I really appreciate your compassion and empathy for those like me who struggle in the crucible of doubt, but sometimes there just aren't easy answers for how to get through with your faith intact.

sydni said...

I love this. I think remembering that trials of our faith is apart of the process has given me a lot of comfort when facing those trials.