If I believe in God I have faith in God, right? Maybe. Maybe not. It has taken me a long time to realize that faith and belief are not the same thing, and in some cases are diametrically opposed. I wish I had known this sooner. Confusion between these essential ideas created nearly insurmountable crises of faith in my life just when I needed faith most. Searching frantically for faith, I instead pulled out an entire wardrobe of beliefs. Surely this will fit! Surely that! But nothing fit. And nothing matched. My beliefs, however deep, broad, educated, flexible, magical and divine, did not suit the crushing occasion. As the experience continued and only got worse, I felt terrified, naked, vulnerable, unfit, and unloved by a God I had served well. On top of everything else, I was hurled headlong into an identity crisis. Who am I if not my beliefs?
If you've been through a terrible crisis in your life, I'm betting this has happened to you, and you are still trying to figure it out. It took me years. I think more people abandon God out of a crushing sense of having been abandoned by God first than for any other reason. But were you really abandoned by God? Or were you abandoned by your own beliefs? When faith is on the line, belief will almost always let you down. Let me explain why.
Belief is a product of the mind. A victim mind is already disadvantaged, but even a healthy, enabled mind runs into trouble. The enabled mind may say, "God is faithful. He will: answer my prayers; cure my child; land the plane safely; reconcile my marriage; replenish my wealth. God is just and will set things right." The enabled mind says that if we hold our beliefs strongly enough, God will listen and favor us. If we only believe! Believe in what though? Believe in our own version of an indefinable Being who transcends us and all created things? Our beliefs are mostly narrow and rooted in culture and upbringing. Sometimes our most closely held beliefs are in direct conflict with everything else we know to be true.
If we decide or are told that the persecution is God's idea, or worse -- his divine will -- then how do we reconcile that deity with the God of love and benevolence? This is so much easier when it's happening to someone else -- really. Intellectual abstraction is no substitute for direct experience. It can be argued that we only arrive at the intersection of faith and belief when we experience a life-threatening trauma ourselves. Once we do, we may be forced to change our beliefs or go crazy. We cannot stay mentally fit as exiles of our own minds. Changing our minds means changing at least some aspect of our beliefs. Beliefs shift because beliefs are modeled on personal and/or communal experience. And a belief, just because it has been handed down to us, is not necessarily true even when we think it is. Or more clearly, it is not necessarily the only truth.
Belief is a product of the mind, but faith is not. Faith is a product of the spirit. The mind interferes in the process of faith more than it contributes to it. To have faith in the worst of times will no doubt require us to silence, or at least quiet, the mind. Faith is what happens when our beliefs run aground. The spirit can be buoyed by our beliefs, but can also be brought down by them when they prove inadequate, as they most certainly will at some point in the journey. Even the beliefs humans have held most closely have come and gone over the course of a lifetime or a millennium. Think of Galileo.
We can believe an abstract truth, but as a result of our human limitations, we can never really know. And even our individual experiences with the same truth can collide. In time, as new spiritual and cultural information is revealed, former so-called truths can be revealed as arbitrary, false or irrelevant; i.e., slavery, polygamy, gender and race inequality, and previously sanctioned abuses by social, political and religious authorities. Beliefs come and go, but real faith is not so fickle. Real faith is not a statement of beliefs, but a state of being. It is living life midair -- standing commando on a tightrope fifty stories up with no preconception of the outcome. It is trusting beyond all reason and evidence that you have not been abandoned.
Since faith is conceptual until it is put into play, it is best achieved through commitment. To commit to faith is not the same as committing to a set of beliefs. In the throes of crisis it is impossible to know what the unknowable God and/or universe is really asking of us. But in the void of not knowing, we may ask: Is it God at all who asks this of me? Or circumstance? The answer of faith: It doesn't matter. You don't know now and you may never know. To not know in the context of faith is to remain humble and teachable. To toss away the conflicting and unusable beliefs of the mind is to be free of human chatter and hubris and a step closer to the divine. Where faith does not fill in the cracks, fear will. Faith is an attitude of acceptance of not knowing.
Knowing does not create faith. Unknowing does.
The next time you find yourself in spiritual crisis, my advice -- attach no value to it, positive or negative. Release your beliefs for the time being, and do not labor at bringing them into congruity with the crisis. Have faith that whatever is happening to you now will be neither lost nor forgotten, but witnessed and acknowledged in the fullness of its truth. With time and maturity, all that bears light will be made clear.