THREE LITTLE GIRLS
Three little girls ages seven, eight and nine trekked together for over a mile through the city streets of the north-side of Chicago. In one hand they clutched a quarter for the offering plate, and in the other a dime for the candy store. They ventured weekly to Saint Bartholomew’s Church in preparation for their first Holy Communion. After that big day came, and once they filed through the aisle of the ornate church with a bevy of other little girls in pretty white dresses and little boys in suits, they no longer went back to the candy store.
I was that eight-year-old girl; one of three sisters that naively navigated their way down the sights and sounds of Cicero Ave. The details of this memory are as fuzzy as this old photo (missing my older sister), but clearly centered around the candy store where I would anticipate the bright pink candy lipstick or the beaded candy necklace that threatened to break my new teeth.
I remember nothing of our religious instruction that preceded the sacrament, I just recall my pretty white dress and veil. My spiritual heritage was predominately cultural. My parents only stepped through church doors for weddings, christenings and funerals. Once the portraits of us in our mini-bride dresses were taken, we never went back.
AFFILIATION VS. FAITH
Without any formal guidance my sisters and I were left to figure out our spiritual lives on our own. While we were Italian Catholics it was more an affiliation than a faith. Those weekly trips to St. Barts were my introduction to Jesus, but my actual path to faith took several odd turns.
During this time I spent many years with a second-hand Jesus. A deity that I heard about from the church and from others, but who I knew little about personally. While I was operating as an adult, I was still wearing that pretty little white dress when it came to understanding faith.
Second-hand Jesus was convenient. He allowed me to be independent, self-sufficient and wrapped in comfortable ignorance. I made Him up as I went along and fashioned Him to my liking. But every now and then what I fashioned would let me down and leave me empty and disappointed.
As the trials of life assaulted me, I was ill-equipped to handle them with my borrowed knowledge of God. Blame and anger were my response to the Jesus that I saw sculpted on a cross; the God who was supposed to love me. I knew what He was, but I didn’t know who He was, and that made for a miserable spiritual experience.
Even with a converted, personal faith it’s not very hard to go through life in ill-fitting spiritual clothes because it doesn’t require much effort, thought, or self-exploration. What’s hard though is when what we’ve constructed doesn’t cut the mustard, doesn’t provide the answers we seek, doesn’t help us make sense of this sometimes-senseless world, and most of all doesn’t fill us with purpose and peace.
As life would have it, a series of opportunities invited me into a deconstruction of my second-hand Jesus. All these entryways brought me to one place – the Bible. It was here that I engaged cognitively, spiritually, emotionally and physically with God. Since we are beings made up of body, mind, heart and soul we need to explore God in each of these realms. Not doing so can leave us spiritually bankrupt, immature, confused or deceived.
For example, EMOTIONALLY: you can’t just operate your faith with feelings, or conversely say you don’t feel God, so therefore He must not exist. SPIRITUALLY: You can’t just be metaphysical and experience His creation in ways that exclude Him, or solely be charismatically swept away by the Spirit. COGNITIVELY: You can’t just be academic and know your Bible inside and out, but never experience the touch of His Holy Spirit upon you. And, PHYSICALLY: you can’t use your bodies to work your way to heaven, or to forget your way through life.
To truly construct a personal faith, you must ponder what factors have shaped your impression of God and then reconstruct them with the full context of His truth in the Bible. There is a myriad of things that influence and inhibit this faith-building process:
- Relationships that can taint our perception of God’s character.
- Other religious philosophies or worldviews that imbue false beliefs upon God’s true nature.
- An empty church life that can leave you with immature or ill-informed notions about Jesus.
- Lies and deceptions that can twist the character of God.
- And sadly, religion itself; when it takes a front seat to Jesus.
As I mentioned, there are some benefits to hanging on to a second-hand Jesus because it protects us from some of these felt challenges:
- Weighing the cost of what it would take to go deeper with God, without weighing the benefits.
- Giving up things and behaviors we would rather hold on to.
- Moving through the fear of what we might hear from God if we get too close.
- Letting go of control.
When we hold any of these positions (and more like them) we allow discontent to reign, we concede to emptiness, and permit fear to bully us.
If you think, “Well, I’m saved…that’s what’s important.” you’re missing something so much more, because experiencing grace is not the extent of knowing God. While it is the biggest, most important decision you will make in your life, it’s the little white dress version of being a Christian. God has more than just salvation for us because eternal life begins the moment we receive Christ as our Savior. It is up to us to invest and participate in what that eternal life looks like this side of heaven.
THE FOUR PILLARS OF ENGAGEMENT
God invites us to know Him personally, not merely to know of or about Him. He wants us to have first-hand knowledge of who He is and not to settle on second-hand information and experience. Like any healthy relationship it requires time and effort; specifically in four pillars of engagement: Cognitive, Spiritual, Emotional and Physical.
OUR MIND | COGNITIVE
God invites us to bring reason to our faith, to use our minds to learn about Him and draw conclusions aligned with His truth. It’s more than the academic learning of Scripture, it also includes parsing out the cognitive dissidence between our worldview and His Word. Knowing His Word brings context to a fallen world and perspective to who He is.
OUR SOUL | SPIRITUAL
God’s reality is entirely spiritual. While Jesus came for a short while in bodily form, we worship a God of Spirit and Truth and are meant to experience God predominately on a spiritual plane. This is a sacred privilege we can enter into through solitude, meditation, inner healing prayer, stillness, and silence. If you’re not entering into these spaces, you’re not experiencing the fullness of God.
OUR HEART | EMOTIONALLY
What we feel about God tremendously impacts our spiritual walk, but it’s not meant to overtake it. Feelings are important information, but may not always be reliable. God invites us to evaluate our feelings, challenge them, seek His truth and then change our behavior according to His leading.
OUR BODY | PHYSICALLY
We are God’s temple – The Holy Spirit indwells within us. There is a definite physical aspect to our relationship and engagement with God. We are here to be His hands and feet to others. God animates us as we serve one another with our spiritual gifts.
Our spiritual lives are not meant to rely on only one or two of these pillars. Doing so gives us a lopsided faith. Relying on our feelings without applying our reason or academic effort leaves us creating the God we want, rather than the God who is. Engaging with God in only physical ways, through service, leaves us with a hollow faith that wears thin over time.
Engaging each of these pillars equally will create a dynamic faith that will stand up under pluralistic worldviews, open us up to the multi-facet dimensions of God, give us self-control over emotional information that might divert us from God’s best, and will save us from burn out.
We all grow up with some aspect of a second-hand Jesus; it’s called borrowed faith. Many of you have rich spiritual heritages, but until you take the time and construct your own faith, one-on-one with Jesus, it will likely leave you lacking. For others who have had bad experiences with second-hand Jesus and have turned from faith all together, unless you deconstruct those lies you will never encounter a love so deep, a grace so pure, and a mercy so rich, as what first-hand Jesus has for you.
I learned through this process that the God I initially wanted, was not the God who is. That was hard because there were parts of Him I liked and others I didn’t. At one point it dawned on me that I treated God differently than I did my loved ones, because I’d love them regardless of what they did, or what they believed. Spiritually this led me to choose whether I wanted a sham, or a Savior. What I realized was that while there are parts of God that I may not like and do not understand, I am not called to like God, I am called to worship Him, and it’s through worshiping Him in each pillar that my love and understanding of Him grows.
So, what’s your story? What size Jesus are you wearing and how second-hand is He? It comes down to one thing…your faith is your responsibility. A dynamic faith requires work within a partnership where God shapes you over long passages of time. And so, if they say that what you believe about God is the most important thing about you, what does that look to the world?
These questions are ones that I’ve asked myself throughout my journey. My faith construction came via a circuitous route of religion, new age, astrology and a self-constructed God. Through these many detours I have come back to where I first began, and that was not a church, or religion, but the first-hand, divine personhood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Devoting myself to the four pillars has provided a sound way for me to navigate my life this side of heaven. Thankfully I am no longer walking these streets alone, I am being led by a holy God that imparts incredible purpose and peace. And that, my friends, is a whole lot better than candy!
We all need to construct our own faith. If you’re feeling stuck, or need another perspective, I can help you move from where you are to where God wants you to be. If you’d like to get unstuck, then let’s chat. I’d love to support and encourage you!
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