22. Bathroom Interrupted: When Our Faith Journey Is Stalled

FOR EVERY HOUSE IS BUILT BY SOMEONE, BUT THE BUILDER OF ALL THINGS IS GOD. – HEBREWS 3:4

The bathroom in this little cottage has been started and stopped, started and stopped, and now seems to be stalled indefinitely for a variety of no-good reasons: lack of ambition, other projects, fear of the unknown, or just downright procrastination.

Oh, it’s mostly beautiful. There’s a long vanity on one side with a striking hammered copper bowl sink. There’s a big mirror with wall sconces on either side; a timed electric wall heater, and a light that comes on when we walk in the doors.

The replaced window that looks out on to the back porch has been hung with a stained glass window and the new medicine cabinet is an extra mirror above the new water-saver toilet that has a bidet option. It’s mostly luxurious. Especially compared to what it used to be and how long we lived with it.

There is only one project left: the shower.

Seventy-five percent of the supplies for it are purchased and stored out on the back porch. I have alternately nagged, been silent, suggested we hire someone else to do it, asked when the start date might be…The last time I brought it up (after several months of silence) it started a series of unpleasantries that have not been reconciled. I’m not sure what to do, so in those cases, prayer is usually the answer.

Like interrupted home projects, faith journeys often get interrupted, stalled, or stuck. Sometimes outside events or other people are the cause, sometimes it is our own lackluster faith, and sometimes God intervenes for reasons of His own that we might not yet be able to see. Many times there seems to be no clear path forward: a faith that used to bring clarity and joy to life now brings only doubt and struggle; decision-making becomes muddied and almost impossible; and life is covered over with a gray cloud of angst and depression. At least, that’s what happened to me. I couldn’t pray; I couldn’t hear or see Jesus in scripture; love and joy was gone from my life, I doubted God.

I don’t have any instant answers. I will only speak about what thousands of others before me have said:

When you can’t pray, just say, Help me Lord. That in itself is a prayer–perhaps the most poignant prayer that you’ve ever prayed. It is a hard truth that God often sends suffering and sorrow to mature our faith, to help us achieve wisdom, to make us give up our illusion of control and rely on Him. This is especially hard when your soul seems dry and your prayers seem weak. Sometimes a beautiful prayer or piece of writing, written by someone else, and read out loud just made me cry. I used these three books: The Songs of Jesus by Tim and Kathy Keller; Praying Through the Names of God by Tony Evans; Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund; and I also re-read the book that was instrumental in bringing me to Christ–Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his small book, Psalms: the prayer book of the Bible that “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”

So when the poverty of your heart is overwhelming and you can’t hear Jesus in scripture, just keep reading. Read your favorite passages. Read them out loud even. Pray them. I read Psalm 139 over and over and over. Psalm 24 also, because it, too, is one of my favorites. I read and re-read Philippians 2 and John 14. You have your favorites–read them. The vision I kept trying for was remembering Christ on the cross. For me. And reminding myself that it isn’t about me. In a way, all that ennui and spiritual malaise I was suffering, was just another form of thinking about self. But more about that later….

Find a verse that speaks to you. In my readings, I found this scripture: All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.–John 6:37. I wrote it on my kitchen chalk board. I made a bookmark of it. I memorized it. And whenever the doubts and depressions came over me, I said it to myself. Out loud, sometimes. And I found plenty of verses on the Lord’s faithfulness. I wrote this one on the kitchen chalkboard too: Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged, for the Lord Your God will be with you wherever you go.–Joshua 1:9

Find someone you can trust and talk to them. I had several friends who knew that I was struggling; I talked to a godly old friend; I went to a godly new friend. They all prayed with and for me. They sent me cards. They sent me lyrics to songs. They sent me texts and blog posts and sermons and reassurance. You are not alone; thousands of faithful believers have gone through periods of darkness for thousands of years before this has happened to you. You are not the first; you will not be the last. It has a name, “the dark night of the soul,” so named by St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite friar who wrote of the soul’s struggling journey to find the ultimate love of God. “In the dark night of the soul,” he wrote, “bright flows the river of God.”

“God is at home. We are in the far country.”

–Meister Eckhart

Find beauty in a new way. My go-to spiritual renewal has always been delighting in the natural beauty around me and thanking God for His creation. In this far country, my old habits didn’t work, which only increased my sorrow. Instead I rediscovered my earbuds. Listening to my favorite hymns, anthems, and praise-songs brought tears, deep breaths, and refreshment. Using the earbuds helped to shut out the noise of living. I also discovered a Compline podcast put out by Samford University, Compline: An Evening Liturgy for Anxious Souls and I listened to it each evening before turning out the light. The quiet music, scriptures, and prayers brought a peace that helped me sleep. I was reminded that even when we are wandering and lost in the far country, there can be times of calm.

Do something for someone else. When you are handing someone a box of food, a hot meal, or a loaf of homemade bread your own troubles fade. St. John of the Cross is also famous for this quote: “When there is no love, pour in love and you shall draw out love.” In other words, Don’t Wallow. There is always something you can do for someone, even something as small as sending a text, a message, or a card. And yes, back to thinking about yourself–doing a loving work for someone else keeps your own self-pity at bay. Mostly we just need to get over ourselves and concentrate on Jesus. On love.

I can only write this now, on the other side of the dark. It’s been eight months, and only now am I beginning to feel like the heaviness and the gray is lifting. I understand that God was and is walking through this with me. In times of heaviness, depression, and angst, God does not desert us–indeed God is always faithful. It is just that we have to push aside those gray clouds of despair in ways that we aren’t used to. That yearning? That desire for God to fill our hearts? God created it in our hearts from the beginning. (He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. –Ecclesiastes 3:11). No, we cannot fathom it, though sometimes we can get a glimpse. Sin–my sin, your sin, our sin–is the gray cloud we have to slog through (the slough of despond, anyone?) and we, being humans, sometimes have a hard time pushing it out of our eyes, our minds, our hearts. But remember,

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in Him.

–Psalm 40:2-3

He, in this Psalm is Jesus. The one who came to atone for our sins and the sins of the whole world. (See 1 John 2:2) Keep your eyes on Jesus. The darkness will not last forever, sojourner. Fight through those gray clouds, for on the other side is the Son, waiting to welcome you, me, us back into His presence. He never left; we were the ones in the far country.


I wish I could tell you that the shower is finished and show you a lovely photo. But just as our interrupted faith journeys sometimes take months to get back on track, alas, so do home projects. And it’s best if I tell myself that it really doesn’t matter that much. It’s just a material desire, unimportant, and all things material will pass away.

(I just hope that I don’t pass away before the shower is finished….)


Spend some time finding and writing verses about God’s faithfulness and our trust in Him. I will get you started with one of my favorites:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. — Psalm 51:10-12

Foreword: Faith and Grace

for every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. — Hebrews 3:4

Rebuilding a house is an exercise in faith and grace, hammers and nails. And screwguns, and table saws, and paintbrushes, and caulking guns, and… The list of tools that reside in our basement and the still unfinished rooms goes on and on.

It’s been eight years since we’ve begun the work on our Apple Hill Cottage. God’s presence has been everywhere — from the very way we acquired the place, to now, as we continue to work on it while we live here, working and living out our faith with fear and trembling.

I don’t think it is a stretch to write about this old cottage and the metaphors of God that sometimes my mind manages to unscramble. Scripture is full of metaphors, parables, and figures of speech. Jesus himself was accused of not speaking plainly by his disciples in John chapter 16 when they said, “…Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech.”– John 16:29. This was just before they agreed that he knew all things and came from God.

Scripture also compares physical houses with spiritual houses. The most famous scene that comes to mind is the parable in Luke 6:48-49 about the foolish builders who built their house on sand versus the wise builders who built their house on the rock of Christ. But there is also the story in Mark 13 when Jesus tells us about the man who leaves his house and puts his servants in charge at the door to keep watch. The servants do not know when the master of the house will return and some fall asleep. For we do not know when the owner of the house will return; and we don’t want him to find us sleeping. Jesus is really telling us that our spiritual house must not be in disarray when we meet him–we don’t want him to find us at the door, nodding off.

Paul also compares buildings and spiritual houses in Ephesians when he tells the Ephesians that they are members of God’s household, which is “…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:20-21) And then he says, we too are being built together to become a dwelling where God lives by His spirit.

Comparisons of physical and spiritual buildings aren’t just in the New Testament:  Isaiah says, “You counted the buildings in Jerusalem and tore down houses to strengthen the wall. You built a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the Old Pool, but you did not look to the One who made it, or have regard for One who planned it long ago.”(Isaiah 22:11) Our buildings, our houses, our walls — the physical accoutrements of our lives — must be accounted for and approved by God who ordained from long ago the way we are to live now.

And Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord build the house, the builders labor in vain.” I wrote that several times on various unpainted, rough plastered walls throughout the cottage. Unless our spiritual house–our faith–gives glory to the Lord, our works (or fruits) are empty and useless in God’s eyes.

 

FAITH IS THE HAMMER

Faith is one of those slippery words. It’s hard to hold on to; hard to explain; hard to wrap our brains around. When I was a young teenager asking my mother hard questions about God, her answer was “You just have to have faith.”

I wish I had been told, way back then, that it was okay to have doubts; that the doubts precede and make stronger one’s faith; that doubts are just a part of faith: a stumbling block that one trips over, but Jesus is there to grab your hand to keep you from falling. Alas, I was a young skeptic  — and where does faith live when the house is empty of belief? Or if Jesus is not there to keep you from falling? As a teenager I had no foundation to my house of beliefs, so when they were challenged, it was easy to open the front door and wave goodbye. Carefree, I didn’t have to think about those troubling stumbles any longer. I was free to run.

But I wasn’t free. I was chained instead to the world and its culture of self. Even though it worked for awhile, when the self realized that it was fallible and not such a good self as originally thought, the house nearly collapsed because it was built on the sand that shifts with high tides and storms.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering and thinking about faith: where it comes from; why it appears, and then becomes as if it has always been. When faith shows up, it becomes the rock and all the previous wonderings and doubts become less important. But that rock of faith is shaped by our own knowledge and insight; all faith is prejudiced. Someone who has faith believes based on their own personal experience. God has made himself real and that awareness of God — the Holy Spirit — is foolishness to those who’ve never experienced it–unlike reason, which demands impersonal evidence and proof. (Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. Zondervan, c2000, p. 33)

Madeleine L'Engle quoteMadeleine L’Engle says that “Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason.” (L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water. Waterbrook Press, c2001, p. 15) Notice what she did not say–she did not say that faith is the opposite of reason, or that faith is contradictory to reason, or that reason is real and faith is illusory. Faith is for the events or ideas, the tragedies or joys that we cannot understand. When reason fails us, faith can sustain us.

Hebrews 11:1 emphasizes this paradox of faith by actually using the word evidence in the description of faith — Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Another translation, the ESV, writes it this way: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The strong concrete words that describe faith –Evidence;  Substance; Assurance; Conviction–are the same strong hammers that build our houses of faith, belief, hope.

Jesus reassured us in Matthew 17:20 that if we have a small faith — the size of a mustard seed, we will be able to move mountains and nothing will be impossible. What glorious words to fall back on when our fears and insecurities and doubts threaten to overwhelm us. It is just one more paradox of faith — that we don’t have to have it all figured out, that indeed, if we just have a tiny seed of faith, it can be used by God for seemingly impossible things.

William Lane Craig said, “You don’t have to have all your doubts answered to come to faith.”⁠(Craig, William Lane. Found on www.reasonablefaith.org)  An even more affirming thought on doubt comes from Francis Bacon: “If we begin with certainties we will end in doubt, but if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently we may end in certainty.”⁠(Bacon, Francis. De Augmentis found in L’Engle’s Walking on Water, p. 135.) May we all journey through doubt, disbelief, hesitation, and end in certainty.

bent nails

 

GRACE IS THE NAIL

The hammer of faith has to strike over and over — our faith can be challenged daily by the world, our jobs, our acquaintances, our families, our circumstances.  But the grace of the nail is this:  it holds; it bonds; it joins unequal things together; it supports and grasps and keeps from falling. Without seeming to work, the nail connects to something larger. It pierces with a hole and then fills the hole with itself, a secure fastener.

Read that paragraph again and use Christ instead of the word nail. I think of the title of Max Lucado’s book– He Chose the Nails. Christ himself was pierced with those nails on the cross, but in His case it wasn’t the physical nails that held him to the cross. It was His love. For us. Those nails were love; those nails were grace.  For us. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this:  while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

Belief in God, or faith, begins with the realization that you, me, we are not those good people we thought we were. That our selves are prideful, envious, selfish, lustful, lazy, greedy, gossipy, murderous even. But grace… Grace is admitting you have a hole and asking God, Christ, to fill that hole. But we have to ask. We have to say, Yes, God, I am a sinner and I need you in my life.

grace in God's heartGod and His grace are everywhere —in a newly built house, clean and sparkling and ready; in a humble cottage, bursting at the seams with children, love, strife, emotions; in the cold mansion on the hill, where it seems nothing will grow; in the tumbling-down shack in the country; in a crowded apartment in the city…. We all grow at different times and hear the word in different ways, but through grace, God is always available to us. Yet He will never force us to believe. His love though? His love is with everyone — those who scoff, those who question, those who seek, those who have faith, those who love Him.  All we need to do is hear and respond. And I am thankful that, after a long time in the desert, He gave me ears to hear, eyes to see, and a heart that is open to Him. A heart that used to have a hole in it, but now is filled. I pray that everyone comes to know this faith. “Righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:22-24

Entire books have been written about grace and faith; I cannot possibly do them justice in this small introductory essay, but when I opened my bible to make sure that I had the exact wording of the Ephesians 2:19-22 text above — God’s household is built on the chief cornerstone of Jesus Christ — I discovered these defining words in the margin: Grace is the pure, undeserved goodness of God. All that is needed of us is our willingness to accept that grace through faith. Yet, that faith, is given to us through grace. When faith increases, so does grace; it is God’s circle of life.

William Lane Craig said, “You don’t need to have all your questions answered to come to faith.”  I wish someone had told me that earlier. But maybe someone did. Maybe someone planted that seed that just took a long time to grow.

Fifty years have passed since that first conversation about faith; I never did get hit with a lightning bolt, but life itself — the Spirit of grace — eventually brought me to belief. To hope. To faith. Later than many would have hoped. I read. I studied. I looked at sunsets, and flowers, and all of nature which reflects God. And eventually I prayed. And God made himself known.

I whined. God, why didn’t you make yourself known to me earlier? Then I could have raised my kids in faith — in your love… I would have lived for you longer, better, more effectively. But God is outside of time; he operates simultaneously in the past, the present, and the future, so all of God’s actions within time happen at just at the right time. He is never too early or too late.⁠ (Wilkin, Jen. None Like Him, Crossway, 2016, p. 71.) It is only our own perceptions of time that put boundaries on God. He is God Himself, who is eternal, everlasting, endless. He will redeem our time, grant us grace, but rarely on our ephemeral human time lines.

If we go back to Ephesians, Chapter 2, you will find the major passage in the New Testament for understanding grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast…” (Ephesians 2:8-9) So, God reveals His gift of grace to all of us at just the right time. May these small house stories — metaphors of faith and grace — either be a seed for you, or add to the hope of your own faith story. And may they be at just the right time.

Books read while writing these essays:

  1. Everywhere God, Alicia Brummeler
  2. Scribbling in the Sand, Michael Card
  3. Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle
  4. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
  5. He Chose the Nails, Max Lucado
  6. In the Grip of Grace, Max Lucado
  7. Grace Transforming, Philip Ryken;
  8. The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel
  9. Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas
  10. None Like Him, Jen Wilkin
  11. Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, N.D. Wilson
  12. Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief
  13. Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright
  14. What’s So Amazing about Grace? Philip Yancey

Blogs read while writing these essays: The River Walk, Desiring God, Informing the Reforming, The Housewife Theologian, Reasonable Faith.

All Bible quotations use the 1984 NIV translation unless noted otherwise.


Note: In some ways this introduction is the hard theological part of the chapters that come next. The essays that follow are generally concerned with just one aspect of life or faith, while this introduction is more of a broad discussion on the basic and overarching doctrinal principles of faith and grace–two big fuzzy words that often get thrown around without delving deeply into what they mean. Let’s be less concerned with what the ‘theologians’ say about them, and concern ourselves with the personal: What does Faith mean to you? What does Grace mean to you? And what are your most personal and favorite Bible verses about Faith? Grace?