by Mark Taylor
Before some people see the word “flexible” and immediately think “relative” or “ambiguous,” let me quickly define what I mean by a rigid faith and a flexible faith. A rigid faith is a stubborn, eyes-closed, arrogant, unwilling to grow or learn, self-righteous, static faith. A flexible faith admits it doesn’t have all the answers; it’s a growing, seeking, learning, humble, strong faith. While flexibility defined as strength may seem counterintuitive, there’s a reason that modern engineers design structures with the ability to flex. When a structure is flexible, it can stand firm while it is twisted, contorted, and battered. When a rigid structure is battered, it tends to crumble and fall apart under the first signs of stress. Our faith is the same. Doubt, failure, differing beliefs, tragedies—all of these might cause a rigid faith to crumble, but a flexible faith can endure these and remain strong.
Rigid Faith Creates Defensive Walls
A rigid faith says that anything that differs from my viewpoint is dangerous and must be treated as a hostile enemy. While there are certain things to be avoided due to a standard of righteousness that brings abundant life, rigidity creates an impenetrable fortress. While it may keep some harmful things out, truth and love cannot move freely past the walls.
When I won’t listen to a different belief, or I fail to interact with those who are different from me, I have severed communication lines as well as any opportunity to love and serve. Differing views or opposing views feel like personal attacks, so I build the walls higher. I am in here, and the “other” exists outside my walls. If I reduce a person to a label (fundamentalist, homosexual, republican, liberal, sinner, foreign, protestant, conservative, hypocrite), I have denied the person humanity and therefore taken away their worth defined by being created in the image of God.
This fortress also says that I don’t want to listen, grow, or change. I have essentially said that I have my faith figured out, and there is nothing God or another person can add to who I am. When I’ve built my fortress, growth is an impossibility.
Rigid Faith Lives in Idolatry
I had a professor in seminary who once said, “When you think your theology (belief about God) is correct, you’re committing idolatry.” Now there are certain beliefs the Bible defines as off-limits and certain beliefs that are in-bounds, but my professor’s point was correct. If God is beyond our grasp in scope, depth, and complexity, then when I say I have it all correct, I’m worshiping my own creation. When my faith says I have no room to learn, grow, or seek new understanding, I have set up my own god and set of standards.
This is not relativism. This is not anything goes. We can all stand firm in many convictions: God is God alone, God created us in God’s image, Jesus Christ died for our sins, God loves us, we are lost apart from God, we are to love God and love others, etc. But how these core beliefs play themselves out in everyday life are anything but simple or well defined. So when I declare consciously (or unconsciously) that my way of handling these beliefs is absolutely correct, I’m worshiping my own set of beliefs, not the messy, complex, and glorious God of the Universe.
Rigid Faith is a Shaky Faith
A rigid faith is weak. How is this possible? A rigid faith only allows room for what is acceptable or already accepted. Anything that falls outside of my well-defined faith tears at its foundation. If I know that God rewards the righteous while judging the wicked, what happens when my friend’s little girl is killed in a car accident? If I know that God listens to every prayer prayed in faith, what do I do when I hear one person during service praise God for cancer taken away, while another person says the cancer has gotten worse and their dad won’t make it, knowing full well that people have been praying for both of them.
A rigid faith can’t handle discrepancies, tragedies, disagreements, or the unknown. Anything that doesn’t fit in my well-defined faith now becomes scary and dangerous. Does the theory of evolution attack the power and glory of my God? Does the death of a loved one shake my faith to the point of collapse? Is there room for doubt, questions, and new understanding in my faith? Is my faith built upon blocks of absolutes if when one is removed, my tower of faith collapses?
How do We Cultivate Flexible Faith?
So what does a flexible faith look like?
A flexible faith listens instead of defending or attacking. Does God need defending? Does my faith need defending? When I listen to another person and another belief, I have the opportunity to sift through the fallacy and truth. That person remains a human made in the image of God, rather than an ideology or a group I don’t agree with. Dialogue takes place, and I am able to grow in my faith while showing God’s love.
A flexible faith is humble. I don’t know everything. I can’t. Which means that God is continuing to reveal new things to me everyday through scripture, other people, and the Holy Spirit. There are things I knew five years ago that I think about very differently now. A humble faith says, “It took me five years to figure this out and accept it, so I can love you while you struggle through this right now.”
A flexible faith thrives in difficulty. Moments of doubt and uncertainty cause me to self-examine. Let’s take an old bridge, for example. Say this bridge has been around for ages, and it has proven itself sturdy and solid. But an especially heavy payload is about to be driven on it, it’s about to face a lot of stress, so engineers go out to examine the bridge. They will find one of two things, and both of them are fantastic. First, they may find that the bridge is extremely solid, and the engineers are reassured as they evaluate the bridge’s stability. Or two, the engineers find that there are places of weakness in the bridge, so they make the necessary repairs and improvements. Either way, the engineers now know the stability of the bridge and the payload can be driven across.
When I am confronted with a viewpoint that shakes me, when a doubt creeps into my mind, I can surrender that to God, trusting that God is sufficient and capable even when I seem unsteady. Then I can examine these issues with an open heart and mind, willing to reject them if need be, or willing to learn and grow from them if my faith is found insufficient. Either way, I come out a winner.
I may defend the rigidity of my faith by pointing to God’s standards and strong convictions, but if a rigid faith hinders my sharing of the Gospel and showing love to others, what use is it? My faith doesn’t stand on knowledge, or doctrine, or right practices, my faith exists in the person of Jesus Christ. My goal is to bring life and God’s love and truth to everyone I meet. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything that anyone believes, but it does mean I must treat them with the respect and love of God. It means I must affirm their humanity by listening to their side and accepting any truth found in that viewpoint. It means I must be humble enough to acknowledge my own limit of understanding and completeness.
Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” And while most of us are perfectly content to sharpen another person, we must be just as willing to have someone else sharpen us. May we never be stagnant and haughty in our faith, but may we be ever humble, ever seeking, and ever growing in our faith in Jesus Christ.
Mark Taylor is the associate director of youth at Collierville UMC outside Memphis, Tenn. He is a 2013 graduate of the Center for Youth Ministry Training.