One of the greatest surprises of my life is that I believe in God. Faith has never come easy to me, and I’ve let go of it several times, but it tends to make its way back. Here’s what I wish people understood about what it’s like to believe in God:
1. Belief in God is a creative act.
Believing in God means using your imagination. That used to be a scary thought to me because I thought that “imaginary” things are just fake or false. But today, one of my favorite things about believing in God is the creative juice. And since I practice Christian faith, I attend to a great work of creative imagination everyday. I used to read the Bible for information about God, which was frustrating, defeating, and boring. But now I let the scriptures provoke my imagination, and I listen for what they have to say human experience and the divine. It’s like walking into a strange museum that turns out to be an even stranger church.
2. Belief in God involves not just your brain, but your entire body.
I first found faith in a Pentecostal setting, which meant lots and lots of dancing. I later lost my faith, and when I discovered it anew, I was in a liturgical setting, which meant lots and lots of kneeling and signs-of-the-cross-ing. Either way, I was moving my body. Today, I often run (preferably in the woods) to commune with God, and when I go for long stretches without running, I become more unfit for faith.
3. Belief comes and goes and comes again.
Sometimes, I find that I don’t believe at all. I think the jig is up, and my life as a believer in God is over. Then belief returns, and it always feels like a surprise. Ever noticed in a movie how one shot is fading out as the new one is fading in? In film editing, that’s called a “lap dissolve.” My faith has lap dissolves — belief turns to doubt, or doubt turns to faith. I also know what it’s like to experience hard cuts, but for me it’s usually a slow fade, in and out and in again.
4. Doubt in God is not the opposite of belief.
Most everyone gives this idea lip service, yet doubt feels like the absence of faith, or at the least a very serious threat. And so it can be. But I’ve come to see that doubt is part of the life of the believer just as sickness is part of being in a body. And as with sickness, over time you grow immune to some questions, then encounter problems that are deeper still.
5. Beliefs are habit-forming. (Or, habits form faith.)
I practice my beliefs with spiritual habits — reflective reading, prayer (mostly via the Book of Common Prayer), silence, and serving other people, over and over again, week in and week out. I find that when I keep these habits, all is more right within my own world, my own heart and soul. Not doing spiritual disciplines can be habit-forming, too. When I let these practices go for a while, faith slips away.
6. Believers are everywhere.
Reports of the death of belief in God have been greatly exaggerated. Traditional religious affiliation may be in decline, but 9 in 10 Americans believe in God. What they believe about God varies, but for the vast majority of people, some sort of abiding faith is an indelible part of the human experience.
7. Believers are lucky.
I know people who have a pretty uncomplicated take on beliefs, and while some of those people are just hard-core fundamentalists who refuse to admit any doubt, some others are people for whom sensing things spiritual just comes natural. When I take time to get to know these people (rather than, say, just reading about them), I tend to find them wonderful, and tend to find myself envious of them. Being able to have and nurture faith in God is a lucky thing. If you’re one of those types, try not to hate those of us for whom it doesn’t come so easy.
8. Believers are fools.
St. Paul said it first, and he said it best: “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” He’s being ironic, and there’s some darkness to his overall message in the passage, but the point is this — faith does not just look foolish because we live in a super-smart and skeptical scientific age. It’s always been that way. It always will be. And to be sure, there’s a ton of foolishness and downright silliness in a life framed by faith in a God whose existence you’ll never be able to prove. But as countless people have discovered, there’s a lot of goodness to be had in that foolishness.
9. True belief is hard to talk about.
I can write you this list, or an essay, or even a memoir. But if we’re at a party and you ask me, “What do you believe about God?” I’m likely to stammer and stutter. I won’t be sure what to say. Partly that’s because of #3 above — I may be in a place where uncertainty feels closer than faith. But mostly that’s because I find all these things hard to express. My belief in God is a secret place in my life, one I’m working out with a lot of solitude, reflection, personal experience, and conversation with trusted friends.
10. Belief is not certainty.
There’s no point in acting like we can have certainty about matters of faith. Kierkegaard was right: uncertainty is the rational part of your thoughts, and without it belief has no substance. Belief is more like love than knowledge; like love, belief can form and fill knowledge. I find these uncertainties necessary, even enjoyable. I used to want to be sure that what I believed was 100% verifiably true. But today I rather like the uncertainty of believing in God — it correlates well to the uncertainty of the rest of life.