On Having Faith When You Have No Faith

Being Found by God in the Small, Everyday Moments of Surrender

Mockingbird / 3.11.21

This post by Madeline D’Elia first appeared on the site in June of 2018:

Sometimes you think you have things figured out, but you quickly see that you don’t when you find yourself in a men’s shower room, enveloped in a gust of steam and inches away from a half-naked Tunisian man because you walked past the shower room you were supposed to use and missed the memo that coed shower rooms would never (ever) exist in a conservative Muslim country.

Other times you think you have things figured out, and you continue to falsely believe that you do because there are no half-naked men and gusts of steam to suggest otherwise.

Tunis, Tunisia, was different from any city I had been in before. Rows and rows of mosaics, alabaster squares painted in brightly colored hues, lined the walls of the small hotel I was staying at. The yells, the footsteps, the prayers; the citrus, the motorbike fumes; the raw, rich smell of human skin — all tangible within those square walls. Three levels of wrought iron railings carving a square that opened to the biggest skylight I’d ever seen — an open roof.

I climbed up there one night with my friend to sit on the stone and look at the stars; I pulled my knees to my chest to feel their familiarity. The flat white tops of roofs were scattered with clotheslines and surrounded by blue sea; the roofs fit together like carefully laid bricks or meticulously planned Lego pieces. The sky didn’t seem dark enough for the stars to be so visible, hazy gray with milky charcoal swirls. The sporadic streetlights shone below, car lights appearing like lightning bugs on the road behind me.

And yet in Tunis, where there was so much beauty and novelty to my foreign eyes, there was a felt sense of little hope. A country mostly in poverty, my generation of Tunisians were let down by the Arab Spring, which they thought would give them a brighter future. Most young people felt like there was no hope in the religion of their parents, and now this political movement had let them down, too. I wanted to look up at the stars and feel the rooftop’s stone under me, but instead, I felt as though the stone was on top of me, heavy and cold.

It was in this moment that I felt like I grasped the gospel for the first time, like I finally “got it.” The all-consuming love of Jesus and my faith in Him as Savior was the only hope worth clinging to.

Afterwards, on the plane home, I remember thinking that from now on it would be easy to surrender my heart to the Lord. It wasn’t. In fact, sometimes, it was impossible. There were days when I felt like I didn’t have faith at all.

In Karen Marsh’s book Vintage Saints and Sinners, Marsh reminded me of someone who understood that having faith was not necessarily some grand thing but merely surrender to Christ. Thérèse of Lisieux was a nun who lived in the late 1800s who often spoke of the “Little Way” — her belief that small actions led to a life of full surrender to the love of Jesus. Though there were big decisions along the way, like her choice to enter the monastery at just nine years old, Thérèse’s faith was not based on this one moment, this one calling; instead, it was in these small, everyday moments of surrender. Marsh says:

[Therese] put it simply, saying, “Jesus does not demand great deeds. All He wants is self-surrender and gratitude. That is all Jesus asks from us. He needs nothing from us except our love.” Day in and day out, Thérèse lives an ordinary witness of extraordinary love — theology on its knees. Though the Little Way brought her no glory, she chose it anyway. (pg. 28)

My belief that the faith given to me in one moment could give me enough faith for the rest of my life has been blown over by a gust of hot shower steam. To believe — the only thing God wants from us — is one of the most difficult and most complicated parts of our lives. Yet in its difficulties, Thérèse is right — Jesus does not ask us for grand deeds (i.e., to work harder, do more, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps). We don’t need to perform, or be good, follow rules, complete religious rituals, or fit in with American church culture. We don’t need to firmly decide to sin less and then tell ourselves we can accomplish that goal, and then feel guilty and wallow in shame. He asks us for our love and our surrender. And love and surrender come from faith, not from grand deeds. And faith is given precisely amid difficulties.

God gives us faith in the most unglamorous places and times. Which is why the hard work of faith is not dismal and bleak, but joyful. Because it doesn’t look like hard work for us, it looks more like a gift, earned by the hard work of Jesus.

I was making salsa a few weeks ago, and with one fatal slip of the knife on the avocado pit, I cut into my finger instead of the avocado. The whole scene was pathetic. I had already been crying because my counselor pretty much makes me question my entire state of being every time I see her (this is a long story, look for my next post), so really this incident was just a springboard for despair.

Fast forward through tons of blood, and I am lying in my bed trying not to faint while throwing myself a pity party. And then all of a sudden I am asking God a series of existential questions like if He even loves me and what’s with predestination and what’s romantic love anyway. (I like to think I mostly reached this point from counseling, not from the avocado, but who’s to say, really.)

In the midst of those questions I whimpered a small “Give me faith, Lord” prayer in my heart. And instead of gaining an answer to any of my questions, I just believed that God heard me and that He was with me. In my room, watching me hold a paper towel around my finger with one hand and with the other Google “when should you go to the hospital when you cut yourself with a knife?”

And because of nothing I did or any goodness of my own, I had faith.