Recently a friend asked me what it felt like to lose so much of my faith.
We’ve been doing a book study on “Faith After Doubt” and we were discussing the chapter about that fortress of certainty many Christians build to protect themselves, and what it’s like when that fortress begins to crack, and when the bricks start crumbling in the light of new information.
For a couple years now, I’ve been reevaluating a lot of my personal long-held matters of faith. Nearly all of them, in fact. There are still plenty I haven’t addressed just yet, but I’m certain there’s nothing that won’t be on my list soon enough. If you’ll pardon the pun, I’m finding that there are no sacred cows in my spiritual journey any longer.
To put it another way, I’ve long made it a personal policy to give God my “yes,” and He’s taken me up on it, quite thoroughly. Far more than I expected. My friend knows that, so his book study question was really quite appropriate.
I thought about it for just a moment, and my answer actually surprised me. Perhaps it was inspired.
I replied, “You know, I don’t think it WAS losing. It was shedding.”
And then the following illustration leapt into my mind, from C. S. Lewis, in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” One of the main characters, a very tiresome and confrontational boy named Eustace Scrubb (the book begins “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it”), makes the mistake of sleeping on a dragon’s hoard of treasure, and awakens to find himself turned into a dragon. At first he rejoices in his newfound power and strength and ability to fly and breathe fire, but after some painful adventures and discovering his separation from his friends, he regrets his condition.
Some difficult days later, the Jesus-figure lion Aslan appears to Eustace in his pain, and offers to remedy his situation. He leads Eustace to a pool of fresh water, and Eustace tries to scratch off his dragon skin all by himself, but he is unsuccessful. So Lewis writes:
“Then the lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”(C. S. Lewis, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”)
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off … And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…”
I realized, talking with my friend, that this was the perfect analogy for my own transformation.
And as I finished sharing that analogy with him, I realized it might be of some benefit to you to share it here as well.
I think I was too young when my spiritual journey began – I asked Jesus to be my savior when I was just five years old – to have had an experience like Eustance, where overnight I became a fearsome scaly creature separated from humanity. But by the time I arrived in my 50s, I certainly shared some characteristics with Eustace’s dragon. I wasn’t very gracious dealing with others; my attempts to present my doctrine and beliefs were often more akin to a dragon’s fiery breath than anything else. I had little empathy for others and in retrospect I see that I was as emotionally separated from my peers as dragon-Eustace was from his friends and fellow travelers. I didn’t realize that just like Eustace I was wearing a thick dragon-skin.
And then Aslan appeared in my life, and offered me a way out. To be honest, I’m quite sure He arranged the situation on my behalf, causing me to reach a crisis point where it was undeniable that I had to make a choice between continuing on my path, or being healed.
Thinking back, I could have rejected it. At the time I was fairly comfortable with who I was, despite my emotional damage. But being confronted so clearly with the deficiency in my character, I determined to walk through the process being asked of me. So I gave God my yes for Him to heal me – just like Eustace.
Many things happened over the next two years. Nine months of counseling were the start, where the Lord unpacked a lot of things from my past, and brought deep healing of old wounds. I came out of that season aware of the dramatic change in me, rejoicing in the goodness of the Lord and the new freedom in me.
I THOUGHT that was the end of it.
Here’s the section from “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” right before that passage above:
“So at last we came to the top of a mountain I’d never seen before and on the top of this mountain there was a garden — trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well. “I knew it was a well because you could see the water bubbling up from the bottom of it: but it was a lot bigger than most wells — like a very big, round bath with marble steps going down into it. The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don’t know if he said any words out loud or not.
“I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.
“But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this under skin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.
“Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.”(C. S. Lewis, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”)
So Aslan confronts Eustace with something fundamental: Eustace couldn’t fix himself. Scrape and scrape again, nothing really changed. There were simply too many layers.
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. God already had my yes, and I wasn’t stopping yet. And like Eustace, that’s when the recovery got really painful. It required Aslan to do what Eustace couldn’t do, and it required the Lord to do what I couldn’t do: dig far deeper, and remove the whole thick scaly outer skin.
Because after God came for my emotional baggage, next He came for my theology. I needed to repent of an awful lot that I held dear, as well as an awful lot that I didn’t know I even held.
The word that occurred to me as I described this to my friend was “accretions.” The Oxford dictionary defines accretion as “the process of growth or increase, typically by the gradual accumulation of additional layers or matter.” That is a perfect illustration of the situation: I was covered in layer after layer, that had been gradually accumulated over the decades of my life and faith journey, sometimes by trauma, sometimes by teaching, but always nearly imperceptible. By the time you notice, the layer can be quite thick and crusty and rather difficult to remove.
So when you strip away all the accretions at one time, the change is usually dramatic. It’s kind of like shearing a sheep. If you’ve ever watched it, you were probably surprised by how dramatically different the sheep looks in just a few minutes. You might be tempted to say that the essence of the sheep had been taken away, because we often think of a sheep as a fluffy ball of wool with legs and a face. But suddenly the sheep is this lithe, almost scrawny, pink thing cavorting away, freed from a hundred pounds of dirty, heavy wool.
And so it’s not surprising that more than a few people – including family, former friends, and plenty of naysayers on social media – have challenged me lately thinking that I’ve lost my faith. As a minimum, to them I appear to have lost some critical things that formerly made me a faithful Christian.
If you knew me before, you might have known that I’m a deeply intellectual person, very interested in truth and facts and data and certainty of thought. Like Sam’s journey in Chapter 4 of “Faith After Doubt,” I’d built a fortress of doctrine, utterly rigid and predictable and trustworthy and unshakable.
Except that God chose to shake it all up. Which was the most painful thing I think I could have experienced.
But like Eustace, I had already begun to recognize that I simply couldn’t do it. And like Eustace, even those hints of shedding a thin layer of skin were deeply refreshing – it’s just that it was immediately obvious that shedding just a few layers was completely insufficient, and much more must be removed.
So here I am, a couple years later, looking back at a pile of peeled-off thick and scaly skin that never really WAS mine, in which I’d been trapped for some time, not even realizing it was trapping me. Knowing, now, that removing all that accretion was the very thing that liberated me, let me become myself again – stinging for a time, but gloriously refreshing.
In reality, what has happened, as I explained to my friend, is that I don’t feel like I lost anything. Instead, like Eustace, I shed something. Something that wasn’t me, and wasn’t mine, but which was so tightly wrapped around me that I identified myself AS it.
There are limits to any analogy, of course. I’m quite certain I’m not done shedding. Better stated, I’m quite certain that God isn’t done stripping away the not-me that’s crippling me and walling me off from my fellow man and from Him. I may never really be done.
But God has my “yes,” and He’s proven Himself to be faithful to me, even when it is painful for a season. Because I’d rather be free from ALL of that dragon skin, for all time.
If you’re wrestling with yourself, if you feel trapped in a skin that isn’t you, or even if you feel normal but God is suddenly challenging your view of the world or yourself, join me in saying “yes” to Him. No big ceremony. Just tell Him plainly and simply, “You have my ‘yes’ and I trust You to care for me, even if it hurts.” The journey won’t be easy, and probably won’t be fun at times, but I promise you, looking back on it your testimony will be that He was good and you are far closer to where He wants you to be.
Because despite the changes in my life and my religion and my doctrine and my faith, my testimony is that Jesus is completely faithful, and He’s proven Himself to me over and over. And I trust Him to be just as faithful to you also.