The Frightened Elephant in the Living Room of Faith

By Keith Miller | June 1, 2009

Keith,I’ve been a Christian for many years. I’ve committed my whole life to Christ and have been taught that I should trust God. But inside where I face the challenges like (1) the changing economy that threatens my vocation, (2) the reckless and (to me) dangerous behavior of my teen-aged son and daughter and (3) recurring fears that I (or they) will not be able to meet the challenges and will fail. And yet at the same time I keep receiving the strength to go on. Am I just an underachiever in the faith department?

These are good questions. I believe that I and many other serious followers of Jesus have been afraid to be honest about our real feelings. But my experience of this paradox goes like this.

One morning I was lonely. My wife and children were all there with me, and we loved one another very much. But I was facing some fears of failure that could not be shared with them. I felt that my performance on a very important examination involving the future for all of us would not be adequate, and I was anxious and afraid, like a small boy. Yet God seemed very near. If I failed, he would be there, and I could pick up whatever pieces there were and do something else. And this gave me a deep underlying courage. But the conditioned franticness which made my mind a beehive of fears was a carry-over from a lifetime of feeling that I must succeed to be acceptable.

This paradox is hard to understand—a sincere commitment to Christ combined with human insecurity in the face of failure. And many of the great Christian speakers and writers have left me alone in my predicament by neglecting to tell me of these paradoxes of the inner journey. As I have read devotional books and listened to the evangelists and teachers of the faith, I have tried to reconstruct from their words a picture of the inner way. But many of them have omitted so much of the sweat and gravel from their descriptions of the Christian life that I am left with visions of untroubled saints, walking through the quiet aseptic corridors of their souls with unchanging attitudes of serenity and courage.

I am finding that serenity and courage are very different in “appearance” inside my own life. And as I counsel with other Christians, I realize that I am not alone in this. The record of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as he wrote from the Nazi prison camp before his martyr’s death, sounds stimulating and rather glorious at first glance. But as I read his letters* more closely, the actual daily experience for Bonhoeffer seems to have been very different. Much of it was made up of the buzzing whine of summer flies around his face, the maddening frustration and disappointment as his hopes for release were agonizingly prolonged or smashed, fear and doubts, and despair. All of these were things that often filled his mind as he lived out those days and nights of “marvelous Christian discipline and courage.” Yet because of the paradoxical joy and hope he experienced, Bonhoeffer was able to go through that miserable imprisonment and make of it a great positive sign for all of Christendom. And this same paradox faces thousands of ordinary men and women who are trapped in jobs or marriages that seem impossible. But because they think that a “truly committed Christian” should feel victorious, they hide and feel ashamed of their painful fear and loneliness and the guilt they bring.

That morning, as I was confronted by the threat of changing to a new vocational direction in midstream of life with my bridges burned behind me, I could risk it because of my faith in Christ. But the fear of failure rode with me in the pit of my stomach as I went to the examination that would determine the next chapter in my life. If I passed the test and “succeeded” in my new venture, some of my friends might say someday, “What courage, to have launched out in faith at your age!” And I wondered if I would remember the anxiety that made my palms sweat. Or would I only smile, humbly “give God the credit,” and forget to tell how slender the thread of faith seemed to be that I was following through the jungle of my fears that morning?

“I have repeatedly observed here how few there are who can make room for conflicting emotions at the same time. When the bombers come, they are all fear; when there is something good to eat, they are all greed. . . By contrast, Christianity plunges us into many different dimensions of life simultaneously.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prisoner for God

“It is rather in overt behavior that we must look for a measure of belief, and it is principally this that is inhibited in doubt or disbelief.”

D. E. Berlyne, as quoted in Signs, Language and Behavior

Lord, thank you that you give us the courage to go ahead and “risk it” occasionally in trying to follow you, forgiveness when we “chicken out” and cannot, and the clean slate of a new day after each of our failures and denials. In my attempts to witness to the hope and joy of your presence in ordinary life, help me not to whitewash the frailty of the humanity into which it came to dwell as I try to trust you in everything. I am grateful that even you had some struggles in facing the challenges in your life.

Anguish and dismay came over him, and . . . he went on a little, fell on his face in prayer, and said, “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

Jesus in Matthew 26:38, 39 NEB

Topics: Christian Living, Weekly Devotional | Comments Off on The Frightened Elephant in the Living Room of Faith
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