For Faith to Grow, Keep a Faith-Friendly Environment
I feel like my faith keeps failing. I will have these moments when I feel close to God and strong in my faith, but then I always “crash” and feel nothing. What am I doing wrong?
Last month, we looked at the first thing that we need to keep in mind: the law of undulation. C.S. Lewis coined this term in reference to the spiritual life more than 50 years ago. He noted that it is exceptionally common for us to experience highs and lows in all relationships, including our relationship with God. Not only that, but we need the lows! We need those seasons of not feeling close to God in order to grow and mature our love for God. In fact, we likely grow far more during the seasons where we feel nothing than in those seasons of consolation.
This month, I would like to address your actual question: What can I do to maintain a strong and lively faith?
I often hear this question from people who have been on retreat or have been away at a conference or are returning from a time and place in their life when they experienced a closeness with God and have experienced a zeal for his presence. They will come back home (and “come down the mountain,” so to speak) and are wondering if the only time a person can feel close to God is on retreat. While on retreat, a person has placed themselves in an “oxygen-rich environment.” The things that make faith difficult to flourish have been eliminated, and the things that allow faith to grow have been introduced.
When a person is on retreat, they have placed themselves in an intentional environment. This environment is not only a place apart from necessary distractions and obligations but also one in which destructive and unnecessary distractions have been eliminated.
Too often, we tolerate “fire extinguishers” in our lives. If we are talking about “being on fire,” then we have to be aware of what puts out the fire. There are the obvious examples, of course: returning to environments that are based on sin or that make sin easily accessible. To return to an environment like this would be like taking a candle out into a hurricane and wondering why it didn’t stay lit.
As I said, that is the obvious example. But what about those environments we have created that don’t immediately extinguish the flame?
There are many things that we Christians tolerate in our lives simply because they are considered “normal” in our culture. They might not be over-the-top awful, but they certainly take our eyes off the Lord and our hearts away from him. This could be anything from the entertainment we consume to the things we read to the news we seek out. These intrusions can suck the oxygen from our lives, and while they might not immediately extinguish the flame, they make it far weaker.
Another element of many retreats that helps is the fact that we are surrounded by people who are also open to pursuing the Lord. When we experience what it is to live in a community that has a life in Christ as its very reason for being, why would any Christian choose anything less? Yet that is what so many do.
Notwithstanding the familial and marital obligations that most people have, we allow people in our lives who actively hinder our walk with the Lord. This is not a call to abandon all non-Christians and live in a self-selected commune somewhere, but it is an invitation to analyze if the relationships many of us have in our lives are actually worthwhile. Just because you have been pals with someone for a long time does not mean that you need to be pals with them forever.
We need to identify what makes the flame of faith harder to keep alive and do something about it. Again, while sometimes we might be able to actually change the environment (think of the alcoholic who gets rid of all the booze in the house and chooses to no longer spend any time with drinking buddies), there are other times when we can’t do anything to change the environment. In those cases, merely identifying the obstacle can be a step forward.
If there are necessary relationships or necessary environments that are toxic to one’s faith, merely identifying that fact is already a victory. Rather than continually being blindsided by those people or those conditions that rob faith and joy, knowing that you are entering a difficult situation can be enough to help steel yourself and prepare for the struggle.
I would maintain that there are few things more important than your environment that will assist in growing (or killing) your faith. We might wish that we were stronger than that or that our faith was more mature than that, but we don’t base our decisions on what we wish were true, we base them on what is actually true.
Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.