Every now and then I find myself in the office listening to a person who has just passed through a crisis of faith. Many crises come as a result of a life-change or loss, perhaps in the midst of grief or anger. Whatever the cause, most crises of faith have in common the painful and slow process of understanding God in a new way.
When it comes to a crisis of faith, I always think of medical humanitarian and Nobel laureate, Albert Schweitzer, who founded a hospital in what was French Equatorial Africa. By age 30, the prominent Bach scholar and theologian became a director of a seminary.
There, he studied the historical and literary investigations of Jesus that had become popular at the turn of the twentieth century. It was in the midst of this study that Schweitzer fell into a crisis of faith and concluded that Jesus was a “stranger and enigma,” a person forever lost to history.
Furthermore, he came to believe that Jesus failed in bringing about the Kingdom of God as he understood it. Jesus tried to force God’s hand and ultimately died by the crushing cosmic cog of history.
How I see it, Schweitzer studied Christ at his own peril. He was an honest critic of his religion and that of others, but he failed to move from analysis to Spirit-empowered experience.
I can sympathize: In the midst of any crisis of faith, one is forced to take a hard look at one’s own belief system. Questions abound: Where is God in the midst of darkness, doubt, and grief? How will faith sustain and nurture a journey through trauma and change?
But a crisis must eventually lead to experience, for it’s in experiencing God’s presence that one may grow in faith and, ultimately, mature in understanding of God.
My own crisis of faith also resulted from studying Jesus and the Bible in college; and, although it was not dissimilar from Schweitzer’s, I had a very different result. I realized that no amount of study can replace an intimate relationship with the risen, still living Savior.
I was fortunate to experience God’s love even in the midst of analysis and doubt, and it helped me to come to know God in new ways. No person can return to life the same way again after that.
I recently preached on Ezekiel’s call to ministry (Ezekiel 1-3) when I realized that Ezekiel’s own crisis of faith forced him to see God in a new way. He, along with many of his peers and countrymen, faced exile under the mighty Babylonian empire around 600 BC. It was during that time that thousands of Jews, Ezekiel included, were scattered abroad, while the Babylonians literally destroyed the temple at Jerusalem.
With no place to call home and no sanctuary to vacuum and sweep, Ezekiel faced quite a crisis. That’s when he experienced a vision in which God came from a cloud, surrounded by angelic beings that had wings and wheels within wheels.
Ezekiel’s understanding of God was changing: At one time, he (like many Israelites at the time) believed that God was stuck in the temple and a particular region. Now, Ezekiel understood–and preached–that God was indeed on the move, mobile and sovereign over every nation and tribe.
God was omnipresent and omniscient, journeying with His people wherever they went. God never left them in the first place, temple or not. God’s covenant with Israel remained intact, and God expected them to be holy even if as refugees in a strange land.
Ezekiel’s calling changed too. He no longer served God as a priest but as prophet, a representative on the move with God. He was, in effect, a sentinel that stood between God and God’s people as they, too, were forced to understand God in a new way.
They, like Schweitzer and me, came to analyze their situation with deep trauma and grief. It was Ezekiel’s calling, however, to convince them that they would only survive if they moved, with God, from analysis to experience, an experience of God that would bring them to new places altogether..