Let’s start by defining innocence. When we watch children play and think, They’re so innocent, what are we observing that elicits this reaction? One dimension of their innocence is their innate sense of safety that allows them to play as if everything will be okay, a sense that life is fair and the future will be good.
One reason this innocence stands out to us as adults is that we’ve lost it. We don’t live with an innate sense of safety. We know it takes a lot of hard work and a bit of good fortune for things to turn out okay. We outgrew the idea that life is fair a long time ago. All of this is normal adulthood, adulthood without the painful experiences that would make us angry with God.
This loss of innocence goes by another name: maturity. Maturity is a good thing. While innocence meant we lived fully in the moment without a care in the world, maturity means we anticipate problems, plan for the future, and learn to respond wisely to the unfairness that exists in a broken world. Maturity is resourceful, observant, and anticipatory.
Faith can get disoriented in the transition from innocence to maturity. One reason this transition can be so hard is that faith is often equated with a naïve innocence that is blindly optimistic about any hard situation. Conversations with someone who believes a strong faith is an innocent faith go something like this:
Alan: “I don’t know how I’m going to pay the bills after my injury and losing my job.”
Brett: “Don’t worry about tomorrow. God has cattle on a thousand hills and will take care of everything.”
Alicia: “That person took advantage of me. I don’t trust them and don’t think you should either.”
Beth: “We should believe the best about everyone because we’re sinners just like they are, and God didn’t give up on us.”
Aaron: “I don’t think my life will ever be the same after [traumatic experience].”
Brandon: “You can trust God has a great plan for your life and won’t waste any of your suffering.”
As we think about rekindling our faith after an experience that caused us to stagnate in angry grief, we fear conversations with Brett, Beth, or Brandon. Their innocence feels dangerous. Conversations such as these can create an emotional allergic reaction to the possibility of embracing hope again. We feel as if hope is a return to false innocence. But reembracing hope is a core component of healthy grieving (1 Thess. 4:13).
That brings us to our questions: What does a healthy-but-less-innocent faith look like, and how do we cultivate it? Stated another way, How do we honor the maturity that comes amid painful experiences without undermining the hope that is essential for healthy grieving? It is possible. It is not easy. It is worth it.
Talking with Naïve Faith
What is the biggest problem with the responses Brett, Beth, or Brandon are offering? After all, much of what they say could have Bible verses in parentheses after it. When we aren’t comforted by what they’re saying, then we feel as if we’re arguing with God. Their surprised and disapproving look when we don’t embrace their optimism only reinforces this notion. When we consider their responses, we can see at least three problems.
1. The problem of pacing is how quickly they move toward pronouncing everything okay. If, as you accelerate a car, you skip from first gear to fifth gear, you will blow out the transmission. That is what we do to our souls when we try to (or feel forced to) skip from mourning to rejoicing. The combustion comes out as anger.
2. The problem of the failure to lament is their seeming inability to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Notice the context for the simple verse, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). It occurs just moments before Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. The sinless son of God did not rush his own or anyone else’s emotions. We can take from this that God-honoring faith sometimes cries and is willing to be sad.
3. The problem of perspective is that they are forcing an end-of-the-journey perspective on a middle-of-the-journey moment. Imagine getting to be a voice-over in the movie trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Imagine that in every scene where Frodo is despondent you yelled, “Cheer up! You win! So, this moment really isn’t that bad!” Even though the second statement is true—Frodo wins—that fact doesn’t validate the first or third statement. Cheerfulness is not situationally appropriate. The moment is bad and should be honored as such.
When believers assume that in hard times faith should be fast, cheerful, and already containing hindsight, their attempt to encourage faith has mutated into naivety. We don’t have to disagree with the biblical truths Brett, Beth, or Brandon cited to be dissatisfied with what they are calling faith. When life is hard, the song of faith will be played in a minor key; that is, robust faith can have notes of weariness and discouragement in it.
Less Innocent Faith
We can affirm that less innocent faith is not less good or less strong faith. It may be more cautious. However, the degree to which our faith honors God is not diminished simply because it lacks the innocence that was present before our painful experience.
Let’s use a biblical parallel. Do you remember the story of the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1–4)? Jesus said that the poor widow’s gift, although small, was great in value because it was given at greater sacrifice. When faith is expressed out of trust-poverty, a comparable principle is active. God knows and appreciates the sacrifice from which our faith is given. What some might see as a larger expression of innocent faith is not more precious in God’s sight than the smaller expression of less innocent faith.
The takeaway is that less innocent faith is precious in the eyes of God. It is good, even if the context it emerged from was bad. It will be honored, even though we may fear it will be shamed. The questions are, Do you believe this? Do you value less innocent faith? If not, you may dismiss what God cherishes. You may feel embarrassed about what God admires. If this is you, take a moment to reflect on 1 Corinthians 1:27b-30: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
God has never bought into the economy of achievement, size, and grandeur that we are prone to embrace. We tend to compare ourselves to people around us—and that comparison causes us to fear that our faith is somehow less than their faith. God has never bought into this scoring system. Even before we were hurt, God wanted us to be free from this type of thinking.
We need to learn to see less innocent faith as healthy faith and allow it to nurture healthier emotions. We can rest in the reality that God will receive our less innocent faith with all the enthusiasm and joy he receives from any other flavor of faith.