What do you do when life falls apart, and it feels as if God has left you? How do you keep going when your faith is rocked to the core? With his new book, When Faith Gets Shaken, influential youth leader and national speaker Patrick Regan draws on his own experience to explore some of the hardest and deepest questions of life.
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What was your motivation for writing When Faith Gets Shaken?
I went through a stage in my life six years ago where everything went wrong. My little girl Keziah got a condition called HSP and my Dad got cancer. He was meant to be in hospital for a week for a routine operation but ended up staying for nine weeks due to complications. Every day I’d visit him praying that God would make him better, but every day he got worse. His weight plummeted to 9½ stone and it felt as though he was disappearing before my eyes. During this time I was diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition which means I need to have both my legs broken in three places and an external metal frame put round my leg, with pins going through my legs and metal drilled into my bones. The frame has to be on for between 6 and 18 months so the consultant asked me to decide when the operation would happen. It was a bit like waiting for a pre-destined car accident! My wife and I started thinking about the best timing and what we wanted to achieve I would be out of action for so long. We decided to try for a fourth child but we lost the baby after 13 weeks of pregnancy. It felt like a perfect storm; everything was going wrong at the same time.
Just before I went into hospital for the operation, I wrote a blog called ‘When Faith Gets Shaken’ and in it I was incredibly honest about some of the challenges I was going through and how that was affecting my faith. I was amazed by the response. I had so many Facebook messages and emails saying people really appreciated my honesty and telling me about some of the challenges they were going through. There was a 37 year old who had leukaemia, numerous people who were going through chemo and radiotherapy, people who were caring for elderly parents with dementia. Part of my reason for doing the blog was to show a bit of the behind the scenes of my life. So often as Christians we preach the ‘show reel’. We stand on a stage and tell 25 minutes of spectacular story after spectacular story in order to encourage each other and build faith. I realised that alongside those amazing stories, maybe we also need to also hear the hard stuff. The mundane, painful, normal parts of every person’s life. I wanted to share a little bit of my behind the scenes, not because my life is more interesting than anyone else, but because I wanted people to realise they are not alone.
Buy ‘When Faith Gets Shaken’ for just £5.70 (RRP £7.99)
Is there a temptation for Churches, and members of a Church, to avoid confrontation with someone asking the sort of hard questions you discuss in the book?
I think the short answer is ‘yes’ but we have to be honest that life doesn’t always go to plan and it isn’t always easy. We all have times where we get sick, hurt, confused and frustrated and we don’t quite know what’s going on. I think it’s OK to be fearful and it’s OK to be miserable, anxious or angry now and again because that’s what being human is. It’s OK not to be OK the whole time. As we connect with those things, as we tell people what’s really going on in our lives, we start to share our common humanity. Someone read one of my blog posts and said, “I’m not a Christian but there is something powerful about someone sharing their common humanity”. Walter Brueggemann (an Old Testament scholar) says there are three stages of faith and three stages of the life of faith. The first is that everything is securely orientated. Then there is a phase of being painfully disorientated, where suffering comes into our life and knocks us off track. Then he talks about the third stage where faith can be re-orientated. Some Christians spend their life in the first phase where everything is black and white and many get stuck in the second phase, struggling to come to terms with their pain. For some, it leads them to drop out of church altogether because they feel like they’re not allowed to ask questions or to feel the way they’re feeling. They end up feeling guilty and anxious instead of being allowed to express themselves. It can feel like faith is broken and there is no way to fix it. But when you read the Bible, you can see many people (such as Abraham, Moses, Job and Hosea) who went through this painfully disorientating phase but it actually led to their faith being deepened. We need to know that God is with us in our times of struggle and times of doubt. As churches we need to be communities that allow people to ask questions; we need to hold of from judging one another and just love each other through the difficult times.
What advice would you give someone when their already tenuous hold on faith is further shaken by rejection in the Church for asking hard questions?
Hang in there and look to Jesus. He treated people who had doubts and questions with dignity and respect; he engaged with them. When we have questions our first reaction can be one of guilt. We say to ourselves: ‘I shouldn’t be questioning. I should be OK; I ought to be over this by now. I’ve got to have my life together.’ But it’s natural to ask questions. We see this is in the story of Job where he moans and groans, swinging between faith and despair but refusing to give up on trusting God. Right at the end of Job we see he comes to his knees and, even though he’s been angry with God, he realises that getting angry with God is actually OK but allowing pain and bitterness to take root in your heart is only going to lead to more pain and destruction. Engaging with God is where we find release. Pretending that we’re not angry means we don’t engage with him in a real way. Emotions like anger can drive us into the presence of God, looking for answers and deepening our relationship with him as we understand that he loves us no matter what we feel or what we do. His love is unconditional; he can handle our questions.
Is there a danger that the Church emphasises temporal happiness or success, at the expense of an eschatological hope?
We’re always living in a tension between the culture we live in now and heaven – the kingdom that is to come. That’s why they always describe the Kingdom as the ‘now and the not yet’. God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus but has not yet been completed. I think the key is what type of person are we meant to be in the now and not yet? Oscar Coleman talked about living between D Day and VJ Day. Allied forces had effectively won World War II on 6 June 1944 but it wasn’t until 2nd Sept 1945 that the enemy surrendered and victory was finally secure. We live knowing that Jesus has won the victory between life and death and our eternal future is secure but we continue to live in a battle before the kingdom is fully realised. For me the question is what hope is there in the now? The Bible is very clear that it’s ‘Christ in me the hope of glory’ and I believe that we can’t say ‘Oh well, it will all be good in the end. We’ll all get to heaven’. Shane Claiborne says we need to be people that believe so much in another world that it is possible to start enacting it now. So we refuse to give up on hope. We don’t place our expectations too low. Isaiah 65 talks about a ‘new heaven and new earth’ and I think that he is probably saying that we don’t hope too much but we hope too little and we miss out. When we talk about what successes is, what are we hoping for? Are we hoping for a bigger church? A bigger youth group? Or is it for God to invade our streets and our schools? Is it to see the end of poverty, the end of injustice, and the end of disease? That is a bigger picture of God’s kingdom and it is important that we hang on.
Ultimately God will wipe every tear away from peoples’ eyes; there will be no more pain, no more addiction, no more homelessness, no more poverty, no one wandering trying to find a home, crossing dangerous seas, living in fear of their lives. All that will end when this new heaven and new earth is created. But until that day we get on with doing the work of the Kingdom. God’s ultimate intentions for human history are his intentions for us now. So we’ve got to hang on to that belief. Hope is the refusal to accept a situation as it is.
What should our response be to someone who is struggling with these sorts of questions?
A really good example to me is Elijah. After Carmel he ran for his life and we find him in the desert in 1 Kings 19 v 4 where it says he came to a bush and sat down under it, praying to die. “I’ve had enough Lord”, he said “take my life”. Most of us have been in a place where we thought life was going to work out differently to how it has. For Elijah he probably thought everything was going to be OK and instead he got a death threat from Jezebel and had to run. It’s interesting how God responded to Elijah. He didn’t say, “Cheer up mate”, or criticise him for losing his faith. He didn’t remind him of the great victory he had won and question why that wasn’t enough for Elijah. He didn’t tell him better days are ahead. He sent an angel to care for him tenderly, providing him with food to give him strength. Elijah was exhausted. He didn’t need a pep talk, he needed compassion. And of course, Elijah thought he was the only one. Sometimes when we’re going through struggles we think we’re the only ones in that situation. But just like God said to Elijah that there were actually 7000 other prophets, there are others going through the same things as us. One thing I’ve learnt again through writing this book is how many other people are in similar situations. It’s as we journey together, support each other and love one another that things start to become a little bit clearer.
Do you think there is a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sort of doubt?
Yes. I remember Jim Wallis talking about the difference between being sceptical and cynical. He was saying I understand why people are sceptical. Sometimes scepticism is questioning things you’re not sure about when something doesn’t feel right to you and it’s OK to be sceptical sometimes. But he says cynicism is dangerous. Because cynicism often says I don’t believe anything will change. It’s OK to ask questions, as long as that doubt drives us into the presence of God and doesn’t make us completely cynical.
What do you hope people take away from When Faith Get’s Shaken?
In many ways I was very nervous about writing the book. I didn’t want to pretend to be an expert in any of the areas that I’ve talked about. I’m just a very ordinary guy who’s very much on a journey of working things out. In some ways it’s been the most difficult book I’ve written and it’s certainly felt the most vulnerable. I’m passionate about loving God, loving others and learning to love myself so I just wanted to be honest about some of my struggles. I wanted to show some of the behind the scenes of my life because I know there are many people who are facing similar difficulties and I think it helps if we are honest about that. Church and Christian community shouldn’t be somewhere where we have to plaster on the ‘everything is great’ smile, it should be a place where we can be real. What ultimately led me to put pen to paper was meeting with others on a similar journey to me and I genuinely hope they’ve found it helpful as they’ve read some of my story.
My prayer is that whatever people are going through they will know that they’re not on their own. That God is with them. I pray that they would be able to trust him and know that in their brokenness they are held together by his love. I pray that they will continue to show courage and vulnerability, allowing others close enough to them to share in their journey. I pray they find peace that allows them to feel safe in the midst of a storm. I pray that they would learn to be kind to themselves and exercise some self-compassion, giving themselves a break when they need it. I pray they won’t internalise anger but where necessary would be able to forgive others, themselves and God for the suffering they may be experiencing. I pray they would be able to dream again, aligning their dreams with God’s big dream and that they would know in their hearts they are very special people and they would learn to live in the Father’s love which knows no bounds.
Buy ‘When Faith Gets Shaken’ for just £5.70 (RRP £7.99)