I recently strolled into Best Buy to replace an ancient laptop that was finally giving up the ghost. By the time I had finally picked out the right model, with the right number of pixels and bytes, the price tag was a touch high. So what’s a guy to do? Well, I threw on my best smile and tried to negotiate the price. I have always thought I’m pretty good at negotiating, but all I got this time was a “free” case thrown in (that i didn’t really want anyway). Apparently my skills aren’t as good as I thought.
But negotiating isn’t only something we do when making a purchase. We negotiate with friends about where to go out for food, parents about things from car privileges to tuition help, and professors about extensions on papers. Hopefully you’re better at negotiating than I am. But this isn’t a concept we use when we talk about faith, right?
Well, I guess it comes down to exactly what you mean about negotiating your faith. We don’t bargain with God, making deals about what parts of the Bible are included or not. We can’t change what makes someone a Christian, or whether murder is wrong or not. But I would actually say that we negotiate over and over again, or renegotiate, the terms of our faith.
As I just said, to negotiate your faith is to come to an agreement about the terms of your faith. But what is meant by terms? Well, God gets to define the terms of how someone enters into a relationship with him, through faith, and by grace, but the living out of your faith has many things that are negotiable:
- What type of church denomination will you attend?
- Which version of the Scriptures will you use?
- What methods of Bible study will you employ?
- What worship style best ushers you into God’s presence?
- Who will you be accountable to?
- How much will you give from your income to God?
And on and on and on come the decisions that each of us make on a daily basis.
Now I don’t write that list as a millstone of burden and shame to hang around your neck, but to illustrate that faith isn’t always as simple as some would make it seem. That is why many of us struggle, when our streamlined systems of faith get bumped along the way, often by moments of transition, for example by a move, a divorce, a life-altering medical diagnosis or injury, going away to school, getting married, having kids, etc. Each one of these major transitions requires you to take stock of where you have been and figure out how you will fit into where you are. And this takes more than a smile…it takes real effort.
Take moving out of your parents’ house and into a new city for university/college. For most, this is the first time each of us will have to take stock and renegotiate anything. Up until this point we often don’t have a lot of say in defining the terms of our lives, but at this crucial, future-determining moment we do. How will you structure and determine your life, now that it isn’t prestructured by parents, youth leaders, programs, and friends? Often this will involve more than decisions of faith, like: Will I eat a tonne of KD, pizza, and fast food, or try to maintain some semblance of cooking? Nah! However, this is often the first time the questions of “Will I even go to church?” or “Will I get involved with Christian community?” and “What the heck does that look like?” come into play.
I remember sitting in residence in first-year university—new roommate, new city, new everything—and making the choice to ditch it all. I mean, church was so early that the buses didn’t even run at that time. The only “approved” church from my denomination was on the other side of the city. And I knew hardly anyone. There were no programs for me, and all the “church cred” that I had had back home had suddenly vanished. My stable youth group experience was traded for dry Sunday sermons. It was too hard to figure out church. So I didn’t.
Don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t really love my church back home either. It was full of grey hair, stuffy hymns, no youth my own age, and full of judgmental, stern looks. But it was familiar and it was home. I was known and loved by lots of people, who thought I was great just for even showing up. I didn’t have to try. It came easily to me. Now, at university, and in a new city, everything was difficult and foreign. It took a long time, feeling totally lost and miserable, and to be honest, meeting some pretty girls who offered to drive me to church, before I was willing to put in the work of carving out what it meant to be a Christian at university.
But what it really meant was going back to the negotiating table to redefine how I approached my faith and nurtured it. When I was little, my parents made all the choices about church: involvement, worship styles, Bible study, rules, expression, etc., (and this is what is supposed to happen). But, somewhere along the way, it would have been nice for them to have taught me how to do these things for myself. I understand why they didn’t, it’s hard for them too. They were trying to figure out raising teenagers and faith as well.
And so I got busy. I took a fresh look at how I structured my relationship with God (the terms of my faith), and I carved out a Christian community that met me where I was at. I went to youth rallies to rub shoulders with other passionate on-fire people, started a Christian campus ministry with some friends that not only stabilized my faith but jump-started it, began really making my faith my own, and started to differentiate my faith from the faith of my parents. This was the key. I had to figure out what faith and God meant to me, not my parents and former youth leaders. They couldn’t do the living for me; I had to figure out what my relationship with Jesus would look and feel like.
And then I rode off into the sunset happily ever after…right? NOOOOO. Each chapter of my life has brought unique challenges and unique opportunities to come back to the table to renegotiate the terms of my faith.
You see, it’s not the substance of my faith that changed at each step, but as I grew up, matured, got married, and had kids, I needed to take a look at the ways in which I approached my faith, and adapt (i.e. renegotiate). Now as an adult with kids, the way in which I approach worship, Bible study, my reading list, sermons, home groups, church, the arts, theology, etc. has all changed, but the God I serve has remained steadfast throughout it all. And it won’t stay stagnant from here on out. I fully expect to continue this process of adaptation for years to come.
So my encouragement to you is to get good at understanding where you are in your faith, and differentiating it, adapting it, or renegotiating it, to help you connect with God through the various transitions that will happen in your life. What you call it isn’t important; however, getting good at the skill of taking your faith from one stage of life to another is extremely important.
To relate it back to my own life: not all of the furnishings of my young faith served me well as an adult. In fact, some of them needed to be put down, because they were not only benign but had become cancerous. Jesus chided the religious leaders of his day for having the appearance of godliness, but not the substance. So too, the trappings of our faith which were designed to give life may become something altogether else.
As you begin this process, may I suggest three tips to help you succeed. Firstly, don’t go it alone. Take trusted friends along with you. One of the best ways in which to be successful in renegotiating your faith to a new stage in life is to be connected to other people who will help you through this process. Secondly, be patient with yourself; it takes time to process everything and make the right decisions. Lastly, bring the Holy Spirit along with you. He is called our Helper for a reason. Ask him directly for help, cutting through the clutter that’s obscuring your view of Christ, and wait for him to answer.
This process takes more than a smile. It’s easy to give up, easy to throw out babies with the bathwater. It’s hard to make lasting change. Hard to adapt your faith. But you can do it, and it’s worth it.