Competitive Faith

Three years ago, after a fifteen year layoff, I returned to the tennis court and have thoroughly enjoyed the more vigorous exercise and face to face competition that it supplies. One of the first things I noticed was how much better tennis shoes and tennis rackets are now than they were when I last played. The shoes are lighter and more supportive, if perhaps uglier and more strangely colored. The rackets are remarkably stronger, significantly lighter, and enable the players to hit with a wide range of spin and power that we were  not able to produce with earlier rackets. There simply is no comparison and I am regularly surprised that shots off my racket are so effective. It just feels like such a huge advantage. The rackets have gotten most of my attention but the shoes…. The shoes may be even better.

My experience, over the years as I have met with people to discuss their faith lives and share my own, is that we all tend to approach faith in pretty competitive terms. Life is a series of struggles and faith is like a racket in our hands to fend off attacks or smash opponents. The more balls we can get back the better we feel, the more control we think we have, the more we feel like we are winning. These rackets of faith we use when the balls of life are flying at us. When things calm down we toss the rackets back in their bag, occasionally restring them with a little bible study or Lenten discipline, but their use is limited and specific. We don’t use faith unless we’re in a competitive struggle where we need it. Life sometimes feels like a game or even warfare and we approach faith as an implement to help us win the battles.

We pray for strength to make it through the day, or the illness, or the quandary. We pray for solutions to big and little problems. We exhaust our ability to solve things and we hand them over to God hoping he will be able to fix the things we cannot fix. We search the bible for answers to our questions. We look for a new prayer practice that will bring us that extra little advantage. Most every day a new devotional book will be published and we scurry around to buy the latest and greatest wisdom that our friends have told us about. “Hey, I got this new racket that you’ve got to try.” Faith is like some illusive secret that is always a little out of our reach. The faith we have, we are convinced, isn’t quite good enough. We always need more of it to keep up with the struggles.

Faith does have incredible uses and enables us to endure many things that have the potential to destroy us. But surely there is more to faith than winning the game of daily living or gaining some thrill of control over trials and tribulations. Surely faith is more than an implement to use here and there. Surely faith is more than an extension of our ego.

So, back to the shoes. Maybe faith is more like the shoes on our feet than an implement in our hands. During a match all my attention is on the ball and what I can do with my racket to win the point. I never think about my shoes but they’re doing a lot of work down there on the ground. Without them, my feet are slipping and sliding at the wrong time, bruised and blistered. A good shoe is never really felt. A good shoe connects my foot with the ground in such a way that one step leads to the next in a very natural way. Alas, however, we can get pretty competitive about our footwear too: “If I only had some better shoes, I could win more matches.” But I’ll stick with the image: faith is more like the shoes on our feet than an implement in our hands.

We think of faith more as a tool than a gift. We think of faith more as a commodity than a way of being. We think of faith as knowing what is going to happen so that we may be prepared rather than walking into the unknown with trust. Faith has more to do with being caught than it does with sticking the landing. Faith is more of an activity of God in my life than it is my own accomplishment. Faith is a dynamic that God is carrying out and I am either opting in or out. Faith is more the ground under my feet than it is some flashy victory I may win. As I put one foot in front of the other, as I take one breath after the other, I come to know that there is something that holds me together and sustains me. As long as I am concerned with where my next step is going to land, or where my next breath is coming from, I’m operating in my own ego and cannot naturally participate in the life force that is supplied to me.

During Lent, try living more into acceptance and awareness. Imagine God more as the ground under your feet than some being way up in clouds. Try resting in God more than seeking after God. Imagine faith as being grounded in God more than something to pull out here and there.

 

Yours faithfully,

Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.