Years ago, someone told me to my face that “faith is a crutch for the weak”. I wanted to slug the person, not because I had quite thought through what he said, but because I did not enjoy being called ‘weak’.
The years between that moment and now have given me enough experience to admit my many weaknesses.
Still, I do not turn to God because of my weakness, even if my experience has shown me that mercy and grace are real things with real effects — such that the damage my weaknesses deserved were somehow limited, and I received understanding, forgiveness, and kindness instead.
If God were a part of my life just so my tracks could be covered, like some form of insurance, I suppose God could be just a crutch.
But God, in practically all faiths, does not present as a mere appendage to the human enterprise.
The God of the Bible certainly does not.
He clears any misunderstanding from the outset by stating His preeminence as the Creator, and as the story unfolds, claims his place as the unrivaled one who delivers, tends to, and executes an eternal mystery of outrageous goodness to redeem the world.
This God, through stories and poetry submission, obedience, and affection could not be a cold, lean-on-me-to-get-where-you-want crutch.
Sure enough, we often turn to God in times of dire need and desperation, when we have come to an end of ourselves, and our regular means for survival and sense-making aren’t working.
My faith-origin story runs in this vein. At age eight, I knelt on the bed, to ask for God to become real, specifically addressing Jesus, to become my best friend. My little heart had a longing for love and harmony, and my brother and neighbor were once again in a kerfuffle, waking me from my nap.
My earnest prayer was not for a transaction, or a barter, although that’s another common way to begin for many. It was a cry for a need that I had.
A need that all of us share: to feel safe, watch our loved ones get along, and never be absolutely lonesome.
I do not recall now if the boys quieted down.
Since then, the metaphor of this kerfuffle would continue to erupt: with siblings, parents, friends, teachers, seniors… at home, at school, in church, at work.
Why do we find it so hard to get along?
My prayers across the years have taken on more words, tones, and textures. But that first prayer, asking Jesus to be my best friend? Well, for many years after that prayer, He really wasn’t.
I was more invested in my pen pal from England. I was more hungry to be among the popular kids in school. I was more eager for the attention of the boys.
He was more like an imaginary best friend since he was not actually around. Or was He?
My parents allowed us to run off to church because we were bored at home and might end up in a gang (i nearly did). They were traditional Chinese religionists, which meant they tried their best to attend significant festivals that ward off evil, kept up a daily offering of joss-sticks on a small centre-piece altar in the living room with the occasional platter of fruit or cake when the means permitted them to.
I remember pointing to the figurine on the altar and asking my mom why we were wasting precious food and how the god was helping. She looked at me, almost angry, but then just sighed.
Honest questions are always hard to answer in a jiffy.
My parents did not have the time or means to put their faith under a microscope. They were hardworking folk who were handed a tough ticket, my mom had lost her dad when she was only three while my dad was singularly unloved by his parents. They were raised with this religious system they knew and they tried to follow it.
My father, being the artist, did go to a mosque, and also a Hindu temple. Both of them had friends from other races and religions, a common thing in our secular, multi-religious and multi-racial society.
With time, their adherence and practice thinned while four of their nine children regularly went to church.
We were all on our own journeys with the G-d question.
There was a time, my faith was full of pride — it was more plausible and experiential than what my parents held on to. In my zeal, I prayed, pleaded, and presented God to my parents in the hopes that they would experience what I had. But they did not budge. Perhaps it was because they were elders. Perhaps the Christian faith felt western and anglicized. Perhaps we weren’t such great kids after all.
Then it happened. First, my mother, then my father, went to church and decided against the faith they were taught to adhere to.
It will be amazing to say that things got hunky-dory, the blessings poured in and we lived in superlative harmony. We did not.
My parents, intuited better than I that a serious faith is hard stuff.
Their maturity made them think and ponder for decades before they set their heart and will on the Christian God. For them, it was a total and final allegiance. Their commitment made my older faith feel pale and rather insipid at times.
Just like years before, one of my heart’s longings was to witness my parents enjoy a loving relationship. Over the decades, they co-existed in the home and shared very little of anything. They were not disrespectful or unkind, just orbiting in different universes.
Upon our cajoling, they had agreed tentatively to take a trip together, to visit my sister in Perth. The trip never happened, for my dad died of myocarditis on a Sunday afternoon. I could feel the palpable disappointment in my dear mom’s soul. She was of the generation that would choose loyalty and faithfulness over personal fulfillment or pleasure. But here was, at last, a bit of brightness and it was denied her.
I had neither explanations nor consolations.
This would be one of many successive episodes of loss, grief, and pain that mom had to go through.
The miracle of her life is how she never complained or become bitter. I thought she would lose faith, and I may as well.
It turns out that in our lives, there is a solace and a hope that is deep and secure beyond the verities and vagaries of life.
Borne of Gift, Grace and Grit.
For a child in my circumstances, going to church was a gift. It happened most serendipitously when my brother and I decided to tail my older sister one Sunday afternoon. We found ourselves in an expansive space with playthings and books and kind faces.
To be stirred by my longings and turn them Godward in simplicity with honest albeit clumsy words is grace, especially when it continues to happen across the long years from childhood to having my own children.
Yet it also requires grit.
My poor dad used to buy the lottery. He may have had some small winnings, but he was making someone else richer each time. This misplaced hope required some effort, including fending off our vigorous arguments and even attacks on him for sticking with it.
I don’t think anything of worth will demand any less of us.
Watching my mom, observing life, growing through warm days and arid, wintry seasons as a woman, wife, pastor, and mother, I have come to understand that believing in God and trusting Him is a hard task.
Faith is a choice, a discipline, and a disposition. None of these happen without an exercise of the heart, mind, and will — even if underscored by Gift and Grace.
Truly trusting God is a hard task.
So if you tell me God is but a crutch, I just may slug you.
P.S. On why we find it so hard to get along, the answer is that we are self-oriented, broken people who need to have this selfish orientation turned around, and our brokenness gently healed over time. And there’s a Best Friend who cares to do just that.