The long, slow process of faith formation
In recent months, I've felt an inexplicable longing to immerse myself in Scripture.
I first noticed this several months ago, at the start of lent, when Margaret Feinberg challenged her readers to join her in being “Wonderstruck by Scripture” by reading the Bible in 40 days. I wanted so badly to participate in that challenge then but knew the timing wasn't right. I was finishing my master's project and then, as things turned out, just a few weeks later, suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage.
Nevertheless, this longing to read Scripture, not just in fits and starts, but quickly, in it's entirety, never dissipated. So on Monday, I began this Bible reading challenge. So far, I've loved every moment of it. Reading Scripture this way – for breadth and not depth – is different for me.
I like it. I'm noticing things I haven't before and I'm excited to see how God will use this not just in my life, but in the lives of others. (I'll finish this challenge at the same time my new youth ministry programming year begins. I don't think that's a coincidence.)
As part of this challenge, yesterday I read the second half of Genesis. What struck me most about this reading were several verses from the story of Jacob.
After Jacob steals Esau's blessing, he flees. While camping in Haran, he has a dream during which he powerfully encounters God. In that dream, God tells him, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac... I'll stick with you until I've done everything I promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15)
Upon waking from this dream, Jacob realizes,“God is in this place – truly. And I didn't even know it.” (Genesis 28:17)
Shortly thereafter, Jacob – ever the bargainer – makes a vow with God:“If God stands by me and protects me on this journey on which I'm setting out and brings me back in one piece to my father's house, this God will be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-22)
Now, I admit I'm no Old Testament scholar. Even so, what struck me about this passage is how it showcases Jacob's faith formation.
Like all our Bible heroes, I know the Old Testament patriarchs weren't perfect. I know they weren't even likely candidates for the positions of leadership and authority God placed them in. I've even lost track of how many times I've given this message to my youth group kids.
My error comes not in assuming the perfection of our Bible heroes, but in assuming their faith.
I think of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as people who somehow had an inherently strong faith; Not people who's faith was formed in the same way yours and mine is; Not people who, like the kids I work with, had to one day take ownership of their faith and decide for themselves what to believe.
And yet, here, in Genesis 28, that's exactly what I see happen with Jacob. This young man moves from knowing about the God of his father and grandfather to powerfully experiencing the presence of God himself. As a result, he finally takes ownership of his faith by challenging God and saying that if God comes through, then “This God will be my God.”
This captured my attention because as a youth worker, I'm passionate about the faith formation of teenagers. My greatest joy comes from seeing a student move from knowing about the God of his father to powerfully experiencing the presence of God in his own life, to taking ownership of his faith and declaring for himself, “This God will be my God.”
I was privileged to see this progression happen in one of my students on our recent mission trip. As part of this mission trip and a reminder of the way Jesus empowers us for ongoing kingdom work, we washed one another's feet. During the foot washing, one of my students sobbed uncontrollably. Afterward, she described her experience by saying, “I've never felt God like that before.”
On this mission trip, this girl experienced the presence of God palpably and tangibly, maybe even for the first time.
To be clear, I wholeheartedly believe that just as God was at work in Jacob's life long before this moment in Haran, so God was also at work in this student's life long before this night on our mission trip.
That said, I think this moment will be a defining one in this girl's faith, one that will further her ability to take ownership of her faith and decide for herself what she believes about the God of her father. As a youth worker, I'm excited to see where this journey takes this girl. I'm also committed to walking alongside her as she journeys. I look forward to fielding her questions – answering some, and leaving others unanswered. I'll do this, not to be cruel but because I believe, as Tony Jones does, that “Although you outgrow the answers, you never outgrow the questions.”
I'll stick with this girl, through good times and bad and help connect her to both our youth ministry and church because I know they'll also stick with her. In so doing, they'll embody Jesus to her.
And I'll look forward to the day when this girl can confidently declare, “This God will be my God.” Maybe this will happen this year, but maybe it won't.
That's the thing about God's timing. It doesn't always coincide with our timing.
What I'm learning, though, is that's OK.
You see, faith formation is seldom, if ever, instantaneous. If it wasn't for Jacob, who's grandfather was Abraham, how can we expect it to be for anyone else?
Rather, faith formation is a long, slow process of recognizing and naming God's presence, even in those places where it may surprise us to find it. It's a long, slow process of recognizing that God is at work: Pursuing us, working in our lives, and using us for his kingdom work.
It's a long slow process of transformation through which not only we, but the world around us, are changed.