One of this blog’s central, recurring ideas is that faith has a life cycle with recognisable phases or stages (an idea originally developed by James Fowler).
It’s an idea that’s helped and supported me through the experience of my own faith and theology changing – at times changing quite drastically. Rather than this being a negative sign that I’m losing my way or backsliding, the ‘stages’ framework allows me to see it as a potentially positive sign of growth and development. That I no longer believe quite the same things as I did when I was a new Christian (or no longer believe them in quite the same ways) needn’t be a bad thing; quite the contrary.
Faith is a journey, and journeys imply movement and change. Faith is not a static state of being. Rather it’s a living and dynamic thing, and living things have a life cycle. Alan Jamieson likens the stages of faith to the life stages of a butterfly – from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis, to the ultimate beauty and aerial freedom of the adult butterfly.
Faith is also a relationship of course, and relationships too have their own kind of life cycle, or journey, or progression, or flight-path.
In particular, faith has close parallels to two specific kinds of relationship – that of a child to its parents, and that of a lover to his or her beloved. I’ve talked about the parent-child relationship elsewhere, and the changes that take place in that relationship as the child develops from utterly dependent baby to mature adult via the learning phase of childhood and the often stormy phase of adolescence.
So this time I’d like to look at faith as a love relationship between two adults.
Falling in love
When we fall in love, the world changes for us. Birds sing more sweetly, the sun shines more brightly; all the clichés become true. For a short time everything is blissful – except when we are parted from our beloved, or if our love is not reciprocated, in which case everything is terrible.
Spiritually, this is the new-convert stage of faith, which for some does feel like falling in love with God or Jesus. We’ve been given something amazing and special; the world is a different and wonderful place; we want to tell everyone about the new love and meaning we’ve found.
This early phase is often full of joy and excitement and discovery. We make all those ‘I’ll always love you’ promises; vows which arise from deep emotion and conviction but have yet to be tested in the grinding mill of everyday life.
At this stage, the romantic relationship is also completely exclusive, and other people – particularly old friends and family – can feel shut out. It can feel a little like that for old friends of new Christians too. Suddenly this person doesn’t want to spend the evening getting drunk with them – no, they’re off to a Bible study or prayer meeting. They don’t want to talk about the stuff they used to; no, they’re banging on about Jesus again. And the way they talk about their faith and salvation often unintentionally makes others who don’t share these beliefs feel excluded and inferior.
Beyond the honeymoon
Moving on, at some point the new relationship may be sealed in the official public commitment of marriage with a wedding service or, in the relationship with God, a baptism. There follows a brief honeymoon, and then the rest of life together begins. And it’s not always a smooth ride.
We even talk of the ‘honeymoon period’, meaning the initial phase of any new thing (new relationship, new government, new job etc) when everything’s lovely, before full reality sets in and we encounter difficulties. Marriage is like this of course, and the relationship with God is too.
The thing is, the initial experience of being in love is overwhelming and all-consuming, but it doesn’t and can’t last forever. That’s as true of our relationship with God as it is with human romantic relationships. At some point the glorious euphoria of that initial epiphany has to fade and give way to normal life – albeit normal life that now has a new aspect and purpose (and person). That’s not backsliding or ‘losing the fire’; it’s just how relationships work.
So we’re likely to experience some initial hiccups and conflicts along the way as we negotiate the details of shared life.
As time goes on, we start to see friends more often again; the relationship opens up and becomes less exclusive. And gradually we settle into the routine of married life, work and chores, hobbies, raising kids and so on. Similarly in the relationship with God, we settle into routines of church-going, prayer and Bible-reading, and whatever ministries or Christian work we’ve signed up to or felt called to.
The dangers of familiarity
In the midst of all this though, as years go by, much of the joy and spontaneity and fun can gradually leak out of the relationship like a slow puncture. We’re used to each other by now; we know each other’s ways, and things we used to find endearing or interesting can now seem merely irritating. Familiarity can all too easily start to breed contempt, or boredom.
This can be a dangerous or at least a testing time for a long-term relationship. For some there may even be extra-marital affairs, or else just the slow ‘creeping separateness’ leading to a coldness where the two former lovers have no more interest in each other, nothing to say to each other even. (I’m not saying it needs to be like this; just that it quite often can be.)
It’s the same with God of course. Years of faithful (or at least regular) service in a church community can start to feel like drudgery. Reading the Bible and prayer feel like chores. Prayer doesn’t even seem to change anything much of the time, and the Bible doesn’t seem to hold any new insights. We’ve heard it all, seen it all, done it all. Why bother – what’s the point? Why don’t we just go and have some fun outside of church, get drunk, enjoy some of the old things we used to do?
This stage of the relationship can be a crisis point. Not all marriages survive it, and not all relationships with God survive it either. We need something to restore and renew the relationship, or at least something to help us through this stage.
Christians (particularly charismatic Christians) talk a lot about ‘getting back our first love’. There’s a verse in Revelation about it, and many worship songs have been written about it and sermons preached on it. I think there can be more and less helpful ways of understanding it.
Renewing the relationship
If by ‘getting back our first love’ we imagine we can return permanently to the initial euphoric state of being ‘in love’, then I’m convinced that this is unrealistic and impossible, and will inevitably lead to disappointment. We simply can’t go on feeling ‘in love’ all the time; that would be like trying to have Christmas every day.
It’s like when we first learn to swim or to ride a bike, or master some other difficult and demanding skill. We feel exhilarated, euphoric, on top of the world. But before long this new skill has just become part of our normal experience. We can’t go on being that excited about it forever.
I think a more helpful understanding of ‘returning to our first love’ is that of renewing, refreshing or revitalising our love and our relationship. We can find fresh ways to keep walking the same paths, with renewed commitment and fresh vision. We can find new meanings in the old familiar things.
Rather than seeking permanently to be ‘in love’, we can perhaps learn occasionally to fall in love afresh, as we seek and discover new things about our life partner – or about God. But of course a lot of the time will just be learning to enjoy and appreciate and support each other without needing any great rush of emotions.
I know a few older married couples whose tender and mutually accepting relationship gives me tremendous hope for how things can be. Similarly I know some elderly Christians whose faith has survived and has become beautifully simple, even childlike. They don’t have all the answers and their prayers are by no means always answered, but they have a deep sense of trust, based on a long-matured and personal knowledge of God through good and bad times.
So yes, faith changes over the years, just like any relationship. And this is a good thing, something to be enjoyed not feared. We don’t have to beat ourselves up about it, or try desperately to ‘get the fire back’. It’s okay to grow up.