What brings someone of faith to the point where they wake one morning unable to pray because they’re not sure if they believe in the listener anymore? This was a question I found myself reflecting upon today as Jack and I drank our coffee in bed and read the Bible together. Where normally we would pray for one another, I found I couldn’t- it seemed false, mechanical, disingenuous even.
I have experienced times of drought in my journey of faith, times where I have felt as though God has been at a distance, removed, maybe a bit disinterested in me and I in him; times where I have been in open rebellion against him, fully believing him to be there but unable or refusing to walk with him; there was even a time at university when I wondered if he was just a giant construct of my own making but I rejected the notion almost as quickly as it occurred to me.
This recent questioning has felt different. There’s been no one, singular trigger. It’s been a slow erosion of my faith, a siphoning off of the lifeblood that keeps my spiritual heart beating. It began when Jack and I became trapped apart from one another in different countries at the start of lockdown last year. I was in Saudi with the boys, he was in the UK with our daughter. The way out of the predicament was uncertain and confusing and I let anger and resentment settle in my heart as I wondered why this had happened. Rather than comparing myself to those who were ill or working to save lives, I compared myself to the families posting photos of their sourdough loaves and couples immersed in home improvements (I’m not sure why; baking and DIY aren’t our strong points and attempts at either would have led to strife!)
During that time, my weekly fix of wisdom from church and the restfulness of my prayer group were replaced with the dearth of education that was my version of home-schooling and the broken sleep created by our boys crowding into Jack’s empty side of the bed. My times with God were squeezed out to make room for the chaos.
Even once we were reunited as a family, living in a quarter in the UK, life felt hard. There were boxes to unpack, a home to set up, home schooling, now with a time difference to juggle (big fail from me on that score) and a husband to factor in who was WFH (which I thought was an expletive-filled acronym, and which, frankly, may as well have been, given the amount of friction it caused- we discovered Jack doesn’t like defending the realm alongside a child who wants to do Maths sitting on his head whilst banging a potato masher on his laptop).
Quite swiftly, I was able to look back on the way things had panned out and see a heavenly plan that showed mercy. Splitting us into 2 self-contained units, me schooling the boys whilst Jack worked in relative harmony with our eldest home schooler, meant we were all fairly productive and perhaps avoided a lot of the stress we would otherwise have encountered. But the move and the day-to-say stresses meant we never made it onto Zoom to join a church or meet with other Christians. Whilst we felt alright, the foundations for a good relationship with God were being stripped away, simply because we weren’t in touch with him very much. Like so many others, we were busy trying to survive lockdown, whilst often forgetting our best survival strategy: our faith.
As a semblance of normality returned in the autumn, with schools starting back, Jack deployed for 6 months and there was nothing normal about our existence whilst he was gone. Every day seemed to bring fresh surprises; the car found new ways to break on a weekly basis; our dog kept us awake most nights as his anxiety levels mirrored my own; there were 2 more lockdowns to single parent through; I had a different selection of room mates, depending on which children were home and which part of the house the dog had decided to roam; there were regular trips to get Covid tests and various spells of quarantine; it felt like a badly-executed circus show, with a flagging ringmaster. I made it onto a Zoom church meeting once and spent only sporadic times with God.
I joined a ladies prayer group in the new year and then Jack came home, in a better place spiritually than me, helping to bring structure back into our lives. Almost as soon as I started to feel the joy of time spent with God, a series of knocks came my way, robbing me of the joy of those rich and precious experiences. Like a bruised boxer, it took only a few punches to floor me.
Some of these were the tiniest of blows, the first were things said or not said on social media that I probably took the wrong way but which made me feel judged and unloved. If life is a battlefield, if the apostle Paul is right in teaching us that we are all involved in spiritual warfare, whether we can see it or not, then the enemy is artful. He knows where to strike, picking our areas of fragility, our most vulnerable spots. One of mine is the area of friendship, in a deep-seated (and I know, with my head knowledge, if not my heart, mistaken) belief, learnt over the years: that friendship leads to hurt, that it’s best to keep people at arm’s length because rejection is painful. A friendship blow is a particularly powerful injury for me. It made me want to withdraw, not just from friends but from God too.
The other blow came in the area of my perception of my self-worth. Standing at a cross-roads, with some of my mothering efforts not needed as often as they once were, I have started to question: what is my role? What is Katie meant to do next?!! I don’t think I want to return to law, I never felt very gifted in it, I can see we will have to move next year and possibly the year after for Jack’s postings. So where do I fit into this landscape? What do I want to do with the next season?
Three years ago, a publishing house offered to publish a book I wrote. It felt so lovely to have this dream on the back burner, something for me, something to hang onto when I doubted my self-worth or questioned what my next role might be. On a trip to their flashy London offices, I was served a turmeric latte at their top-floor cafe and told I was a writer. With the capital spread out beneath me, I felt on top of the world. It was a pinch-me-before-I-wake moment, too good to be true. And so it proved to be. Last month, the publishers emailed to say they no longer want the book. I crumpled like a discarded manuscript. It felt like that moment when someone you love, whom you thought loved you, tells you they don’t. It was a brutal swipe.
For various reasons, I thought God had been part of that plan. What really hurt was I’d put the book to bed 5 years ago and it was Jack who shared it with the publisher. I had already gone through the disappointment of shelving it and now I am back here again. So I have really questioned, this time round, what was that all about?! I am reminded, as I write this blog, that one of my biggest errors was attaching the book to my self-worth. This is one of the reasons why God teaches us to find our identity in him, in how he views us and what we mean to him, because he never shifts or changes, unlike jobs and accolades that can be given but also taken away, leaving us in tatters if we made the mistake of thinking that was where we derive our value.
The unraveling of faith can happen in a moment, with the seemingly unanswered prayers for healing for someone who doesn’t get better, a partner who abandons us, the death of a loved one. There must be an almost infinite number of ways this might happen. I can think of people for whom these are very real experiences right now and my heart goes out to them.
Sometimes, the unraveling can happen incrementally, as it has done for me, through a collection of poor choices, small hurts and disappointments that leave us questioning and doubting things we felt sure about, that were formally our compass points, the reason to get up each day, the purpose for our lives.
Everyone will have lost things as a result of this Covid-ravaged world and those losses may threaten whole belief systems and outlooks. I know a heart that goes cold for God can take a lot of warming up to blaze for him again so I am going to try and get back my faith back onto its feet before the referee counts it out. I know if I don’t, it might take me years to get it back up from the floor. I am fortunate that my doubts still feel manageable enough to allow me a choice in this- others may have had experiences where they feel that circumstances are so overwhelming any sort of choice has been removed. I pray that, if that is the case, God can prove himself bigger than the loss and show up in the pain.
After my coffee with Jack, I walked our dog around the camp where we live. I thought of a song some dear friends of mine from the other side of the world sent me almost 3 years ago. I listened to it on my phone, wondering what had put it into my mind. Perhaps it was seeing ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ painting at the weekend and trying to explain it to our 6 year old (who preferred to throw his Lego dangerously close to it).
The song is ‘It’s Alright (For Lazarus)’ by Pete Furler Band, based on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11:1-44. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus who died whilst Jesus was away. By the time Jesus returned, Lazarus had been dead for 4 days. From outside the tomb, Jesus called to him and raised him back to life. It’s the most amazing account, not just because it describes a miraculous event but because it is a foreshadowing of what would ultimately happen to Jesus with his own death and resurrection.
As I listened, I was struck by how many deaths we each experience in our lives. The physical loss when someone dies but also the loss of a hope, of a dream, a promise, a plan, a project we were excited about, a relationship we cherished, even a holiday, a picture we had in our mind’s eye of life in the future when we thought it would be more more fun, a bit easier. There are many sorts of death in our journey and often the loss can be inexplicable. In this story, it certainly was for Lazarus’ sisters, both of whom say to Jesus “if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32)
What the song seems to suggest is that, whilst Jesus may not stop every death (he didn’t stop Lazarus from dying, which is what his sisters had hoped for), he can penetrate through the loss and breathe new life into what is left. ‘Feel the rags fall away,’ Jesus says in the words of the song, describing Lazarus’ grave cloths dropping to the ground, ‘And through the shroud, hear my voice, over the crowd.’
The other thing that struck me is that Lazarus and his family would not have understood the full significance of this event. Loss often makes little or no sense to us but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a meaning. ‘This is not for you,’ the song goes on, ‘but if you knew all it would signify.’
Not many of us want to hear the words ‘This is not for you.’ In the song, the words seem to mean the miracle of Lazarus being raised wasn’t for the benefit of Lazarus. This seems harsh, callous even, but the meaning, I think, is that Jesus hasn’t chosen to raise just Lazarus, benefiting this one individual- the miracle he performs points to the resurrection that will allow all people eternal life. Where we might feel Jesus is being unloving with us, it could be there is an even greater battle he is fighting for us that we cannot see and do not understand. It doesn’t stop the loss from hurting, though. Despite the miracle in the story, everyone grieves, including Jesus.
As I end today, I find I can pray, tentatively. I’ve been on a journey, sailing away from God for some of this last year but discovering, like the song says, that God has provided a ferry back for all of us. As I play the song on loop, I am reminded of some of my favourite verses:
“I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God.”
Psalms 40:1-3 NLT