Or a crisis of Faith.
Call it what you want. As a Christian, a crisis of Faith can feel very much like an existential crisis. If we were created by God for His purpose, and for His worship, then lost faith in God means lost faith in our very reason for being. A low point when you begin to question the very foundations on which you have built your entire life and planned out your entire future cannot BE considered anything less than existential.
Such an existential crisis can present itself in many forms. Most times in my life, those seasons of doubt have been led by seasons of great disappointment, when God didn’t come through for me like He said He would or like I thought He would. Other times they come when we feel like we have been giving God and people our everything and receiving very little in return. Sometimes that doubt creeps in in those moments of comparison – when we look over the lives of others in comparison to our own and begin to wonder why serving God has not gotten us as far as those who do not. And sometimes that kind of doubt just pops up when it feels like God is God for everyone but you. You may even begin to question your methodology for approaching God and/or His response to you: ” Am I not fasting enough? Do I need to pray longer? Am I not trying hard enough? Is it His will for me to be alone? Am I not righteous enough? Is this sin preventing me from seeing God in my situation? Does He even see/hear me?”
And the theologian/teaching spirit in me has all the right answers to these situations. “God’s timing is perfect.” “He’s never late.” “God blesses those who diligently serve Him,” “Your reward is in Heaven.” “We work onto God and not onto man.” “Obedience is not for God, it’s for us.” “Comparison is the thief of joy.” “Some things only come out by fasting and prayer.” “Sin can’t separate you from God if you are in Christ Jesus.” I’m sure if you search through the archives of this blog you will come out with a thousand and one responses to any of these questions, each of them well-thought out, researched, and supported by Biblical truths.
But sometimes hearing the truth from others just doesn’t help. Sometimes trying to live out these truths for yourself doesn’t make a difference in how you feel. The struggle is as real as they say it is, and we all know that when it comes to this kind of crisis, feelings often win out, no matter what we tell ourselves.
I want to stop here for a second and say that if you have ever gone, are going, or will ever go through such a crisis, you are not alone. Too often as a church community it is our knee-jerk reaction to paint over doubt, to label it as sinful, or to whittle it down to the equivalent of a cold – something you’ll get over in 5-7 days. Yes, doubt might be as common as the cold, but some doubt – especially the kind that questions the very core of our belief systems – can often feel like a lot more than a simple whisper to be dismissed with scripture. While we do all doubt our abilities or capabilities from time to time, doubting the reason for our existence falls into a whole other category and can eat away at what is left of our faith if we do not acknowledge it and face it head on.
I remember my first existential crisis. I was searching for purpose and meaning, and could not seem to find it anywhere – not even in God. I had been through a lot and it somehow always seemed like God had decided that my life was the one life He was not really keeping as close of an eye on as He promised in His Word. It felt like I had been all in for God, and he was the parent who quietly slipped away during my most important game to take an even more important call. There was a particular Sunday when I was feeling extra ready to quit, but decided to give this faith thing one more shot. In the moment I was feeling most unseen by an All-Seeing God, He sent someone my way to remind me that He’d never taken His eye off of me.
His name was Pastor John.
I don’t know about the pastors in your church; they might be of the skinny-jeans, leather jacket, hat-wearing variety, and many of mine were at the time. But not Pastor John. No, Pastor John was not your run-of-the-mill millennial Christian pastor. He stood at what seemed to be 7 feet tall, wore suits and button down shirts, and would cast a demon out of you if you looked at him funny. He had perfected the Christian side hug, and had a strict policy on punctuality. He definitely wasn’t everyone’s favorite pastor, but as stern and old school as Pastor John was, he loved people in a way that I think is lost on many of us as Christians today. His ‘how are you?’s were genuine and caring. His words were firm but always uplifting, and he had such a heart for worship and discipleship – the kind that saved my life.
On that Sunday, it just happened that when I went up to the altar for prayer – a last ditch effort to connect with a God who seemed to be sending me to voicemail – I was met with Pastor John’s concerned eyes as tears streamed down my face. He asked me my name, and where I was from. He stood there silently for a moment, his eyes closed, then asked me to meet him after service. I went back to my seat, annoyed that I hadn’t gotten my prayer, but also surprised that this man was concerned enough to make time for me in a multitude of people that were probably vying for his attention.
When service ended we sat in the bleachers in the back and he looked straight at me, as if looking straight into my soul, and said in his southern drawl:
“Eudora, I want you to know that you are not the only one to go through what you’re going through. We have all been there before – and by ‘we’, I mean all of us who have been called to something great in Christ. It might feel like you are the only one experiencing these doubts and fears, but you aren’t, and you won’t be the last. Understand this: the enemy only attacks that which is valued most precious by God. And He’s doing it now, because you are at the cusp of a breakthrough that will completely change the trajectory of your life, and the lives of many others. So don’t give in. I know it feels helpless and like God isn’t real anymore, but don’t you give in!”
The enemy – whether you believe in him or not – is real. And while he cannot take your faith or your purpose or your salvation, he can get at them by impacting the way you see God. His ultimate goal, after all, is not to rid you of wealth or satisfaction or happiness, but to place a wedge between you and God. In order to do so, he will go after the things you value most – the things that set your heart on fire, the things that you care about, the areas in which you are emotionally vulnerable. He did it with Job. He did it with Jesus. And he does the same with you and I. Maybe it’s your desire for children in the face of barrenness. Maybe it’s your desire to help others in a season when you have nothing to give. Maybe it’s your longing for companionship, or your desire for promotion, or your call to leadership. Your heart is the combination of both your spirit and soul, and if the enemy can get at your heart-soul, then he can get at your spirit. Once he starts to chip away at what you value – pointing out your shortcomings, failures, and lack of progress – you will find yourself questioning God just like Job did.
“Is this what I get for serving you faithfully?”
“Why did you bring me here if you knew I’d fail?”
“Where are you?”
Then the voices of Job’s wife and friends join the chorus…
“I must have done something wrong…”
“God doesn’t make mistakes – I must have heard wrongly.”
“I am not worthy.”
“I should just give up on this faith thing – or at least take a break.”
“What’s the point?”
I love that the Bible relates to me on levels that only someone who was well-acquainted with my human existence would know to. I love that, even more than encouragement and exhortation, the pages of this book speak my pain too.
But now we know the problem – what’s the solution? Matthew 6:21 says, “… your heart will always pursue what you value as treasure.” If the enemy can only get to your relationship with God through the things that you value – the things your heart pursues – and you are feeling the strain, maybe it’s time to stop pursuing. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying quit your day dream, or give up on purpose, but you need to refocus your heart on pursuing what matters most and what the enemy cannot take away from you – God.
I have spent the last month complaining about how there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things God has placed on my heart to do and in the process missed focusing on the one thing that is most important and fuels them all: a strong, thriving, growing relationship with God. Like Martha I’m so busy making sure that everything that needs to be done is done, and that the feast I’m preparing for Jesus is so perfect that I miss the opportunity to just idle at his feet for a bit like Mary. And it isn’t that the work that Martha is doing is wrong. No, Martha is a hostess – she has a heart for people and for creating environments of love and joy for her guests. She desires nothing short of perfection. She wants to create an environment for others to encounter the King. But she finds herself so frustrated in her own busyness and inability to get everything in perfect order that she lashes out at her sister and completely misses the fact that she may never have this opportunity to sit alone and learn with Jesus again. Her heart was in the right place – but in that moment, it could have been in a better place.
I know that your natural instinct is to cut off the thing that is causing you grief, pain or disappointment – and in some seasons that thing might seem like Jesus. It might seem like your walk with him is more cumbersome than fruitful, and that He doesn’t seem to pay you as much mind as some of his others. You might feel like you need a break from God to restrategize how to get to your goals, or at the very least time to reevaluate your approach to Him. Well, God being omnipresent means you couldn’t take a break from Him if you tried, and God doesn’t need you to reevaluate your approach to Him because He has always approached you first. In fact, He pursues you. And He has already prepared everything He has for you before He formed you, so He’s the best resource in getting to where you need to be.
Thankfully, being that Jesus resides in your heart, he is well acquainted with its inner workings and the crisis you are going through. In fact he’s well-versed in such a crisis himself. It’s one he faced himself in the desert after fasting 40 days and 40 nights, and was the first challenge he faced before beginning his three year ministry that would change the world forever. Jesus’ response to such a crisis was the Word.
And it should be our response too.
Hebrews 4:12 says:
For we have the living Word of God, which is full of energy,and it pierces more sharply than a two-edged sword. It will even penetrate to the very core of our being where soul and spirit, bone and marrow meet! It interprets and reveals the true thoughts and secret motives of our hearts.
This says to me that the Word of God is the only thing that can sever connections between the two parts of your heart: your spirit and your soul; between what you know to be indisputable Truth, and what you feel. Between your connection to God and your connection to the other things you value. The Word of God is the only thing that will help you see clearly that God’s faithfulness is not contingent on your current circumstances, and that God remains who He says He is regardless of whatever you may think or feel about Him in any given moment. The Word of God will remind you that your delay is not a denial, and that God will never ever disappoint you even though you may feel disappointed.
But as I said before, sometimes it’s not enough to just quote Bible verses or listen to a sermon here or there. That would be like trying to put a Band-Aid on a gunshot would. An existential crisis isn’t a time to give up, and it requires more than just a prayer and crossed fingers.
An existential crisis requires a Sabbatical.
Growing up on a university campus with a professor for a father, and friends who all had professor parents, the word ‘Sabbatical’ was one I heard very often but never really understood. From the little my 13 year-old mind could glean, it was the coveted paid year off that you earned to travel after teaching long enough and publishing enough papers. What I know now is that a Sabbatical isn’t just that. It’s an extended absence in one’s career in order to rest, learn, and achieve something, and as it turns out it has Biblical roots in Leviticus 25:
God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai: “Speak to the People of Israel. Tell them, When you enter the land which I am going to give you, the land will observe a Sabbath to God. Sow your fields, prune your vineyards, and take in your harvests for six years. But the seventh year the land will take a Sabbath of complete and total rest, a Sabbath to God; you will not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Don’t reap what grows of itself; don’t harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land gets a year of complete and total rest. But you can eat from what the land volunteers during the Sabbath year—you and your men and women servants, your hired hands, and the foreigners who live in the country, and, of course, also your livestock and the wild animals in the land can eat from it. Whatever the land volunteers of itself can be eaten.
This might seem antithetical – how can one achieve something when one isn’t even working at the thing that one wants to achieve? How can I find a partner if I’m not out dating? How can I start that business if I’m not up all night working on it? How can I reach leadership position if I’m not putting in all the extra hours? How can I do what God has called me to if I’m not… well, doing it? God in His wisdom understands what hard work it is to till the soil hoping to produce a harvest. He knows what it is to experience bad crops, pestilence and loss. He knows that it is a continuous exhausting process of sowing and reaping, not certain how exactly the crop will grow or when/if the rain will come, and an exhausting cycle of sowing, pruning, weeding, harvesting and starting all over again. And so He required a year of rest for His people where they would take a break. They didn’t suddenly quit being farmers and take up something else. They didn’t burn their fields in frustration. They simply took a break.
Here’s what a sabbatical does for us as believers:
- It gives us a season of rest where we learn to stop striving and start relying on God to give us whatever He has for us in this season. It stops us from trying to do everything our way and failing miserably and keeps us still long enough to hear from God how He wants it to be done.
- It is a season to renew our faith. When we stop striving we learn to start subsisting and trusting God to provide even the most basic of needs. We learn to hand the wheel of the plow back to the only one who ever really has control of it.
- A sabbatical is a time for us to learn new techniques for growing what we’ve been called to plant. If my agricultural studies class in high school taught me anything aside from being able to name several varieties of goat, it’s that you cannot take the same approach to cultivating the land every single year. After a while, you must reevaluate your use of the land so that it continues to produce and maximum yield. Keep using the land without giving it a break and eventually it will stop producing for you.
- A sabbatical gives us time to stop being Martha and start being Mary, refocusing on what’s most important – our relationship with God. This is our sunshine, fertilizer and rainfall all rolled into one, and without it, nothing we plant will produce much fruit.
- It gives us time to refocus on what we’re growing with God instead of what He’s growing with others. While we are staring at someone’s tomato harvest and trying to create our own, we can completely miss the fact that our soil is not suited for tomatoes, but is actually better fit for cocoa. If we spend time with the Master Gardener we will learn more about our land and the seeds He has given us to plant, and to stop uprooting things prematurely because they don’t look red, juicy and plump. Cocoa might take a long time to grow, and it might not look appealing on the outside, but on the inside of those pods you will find one of the most valuable commodities on earth.
I never had the opportunity to tell Pastor John that his words that day completely pivoted my life for the better as he left for seminary soon after, but I hope some day I will. I will share the same advice he gave me, along with some of my own, to encourage you as you walk through this season. I hope that even as Pastor John saw me in my most unseen moment, God will use me to remind you that He hasn’t taken His eye off you – not even for a moment.
Stop striving, stop trying, and simply start listening. Spend your time in the church, in church community, and in God’s Word. Be content to simply sit at Jesus’ feet. Everything in your being will scream at you not to – tell you that no one cares or understands, or that you do not have a place there. It’s a lie. Talk to God about everything you feel, even if it feels like you’re talking to no one in the moment. You don’t need to quit God – you need more God, and a deeper revelation of who He is. When you feel the need to pick up those crosses again – to remind yourself of all the disappointments and failures and things yet to be achieved – resist the urge to do so and leave them where He can take care of them.
Take a break. Even your job requires you to take hours off every day, days off every week, and weeks off every year to recuperate. Your passions and your desires need breaks too. Your dreams will not go anywhere – they will only be better for it. Don’t work harder, work smarter – ” Wisdom is the most valuable commodity—so buy it! Revelation knowledge is what you need—so invest in it!” Proverbs 4:7 TPT. Take time to deal with your heartaches and heartbreaks and failures with God. Don’t run from Him, run to Him. Stop trying to be the perfect Christian and ignore your doubts – just be someone in need of Grace. Don’t give up. You are on the cusp of a breakthrough. Understand that this space is not the end of you or your relationship with God. In fact, this place is the best space you could ever hope to be in:
For this is why a thorn in my flesh was given to me, the Adversary’s messenger sent to harass me, keeping me from becoming arrogant. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to relieve me of this. But he answered me, “My grace is always more than enough for you, and my power finds its full expression through your weakness.” So I will celebrate my weaknesses, for when I’m weak I sense more deeply the mighty power of Christ living in me. So I’m not defeated by my weakness, but delighted! For when I feel my weakness and endure mistreatment—when I’m surrounded with troubles on every side and face persecution because of my love for Christ—I am made yet stronger. For my weakness becomes a portal to God’s power. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10