The Ebb and Flow of Faith


“I must go down to the seas again,

for the call of the running tide

is a wild call and a clear call

that may not be denied.”

 – John Masefield, “Sea Fever” –

Like the tide, a living, thriving faith ebbs and flows within us, constantly present yet always changing with the seasons of our lives. In childhood, we accept the beliefs we’re taught and flow with a simple, accepting faith. Sometime later, most of us begin to wonder about our beliefs. Doubting, questioning, and examining are signs that our faith is alive and growing. Whether we find satisfactory answers or decide to live with our questions, we flow forward on this incoming tide with a new level of confidence or understanding . . . until the tide goes back out, leaving us in another stage of wondering and questioning. As this ebb and flow continues, our beliefs change and our faith grows. It’s a lifetime process.

But is it necessary? Can’t we settle for a simple faith and unquestioned beliefs, perhaps the “faith of our fathers”? Of course, we can. I suspect that in many cultures or sub-cultures – and even at certain stages of our lives – a simple, unquestioned faith is all we can manage. But I don’t think that’s the norm in cultures like ours that encourage thinking and questioning and have time to ponder different beliefs.

I wonder if faith might even follow a path similar to psychologist Abraham Maslow‘s famous “hierarchy of needs,” usually illustrated as a sectioned pyramid. The lowest and broadest section represents basic physical needs (food, water, sleep). As the theory goes, if these basic needs are scarce, we’ll spend our time and energy trying to find and secure them. If these basic needs are available, our attention turns to the next level up: safety (security in our homes, our health, and our jobs). If we feel safe in these areas, we move up to the next level: love and belonging. We concentrate on looking for love and finding out where we belong, which includes friendship and, at its best, family.

Once love and belonging are secure, we can spend time on the next level: esteem. We can give attention to our personal achievement, confidence, and self-care. When this level of needs is satisfied, we ascend to the top level: self-actualization, becoming our best morally, creatively, mentally, and so on. Atul Gawande, in Being Mortal,  says that some psychologists now suggest an even higher level, which is other-centered, “a transcendent desire to see and help other beings achieve their potential.” That makes sense to me, because according to researchers of moral development, that’s the highest level of morality (although every level of faith can and should include at least the basic morality of the Golden Rule, treating others the way we want to be treated.)

I suspect we could apply this model to faith development. At the foundational level, we may have doubts about our beliefs, even deep-seated ones, but we’re busy attending to basic survival, securing food, clothes, and shelter, which leaves little time or energy to examine our beliefs, even if we’re inclined to. At this level, blind belief and unquestioning trust in leaders may be the most our faith can achieve, especially if those leaders provide for our basic needs.

But if our basic needs are met, we focus on safety. If we don’t feel safe, then exploring our beliefs is lower on the to-do list. It’s hard to question our beliefs if we think that by doing so, we risk our safety. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, we lean toward believing and following leaders whom we think will keep us safe.

Once we feel safe, love and belonging become priorities. We’re likely to align our faith with the beliefs of friends and communities where we find love and belonging, even if we have doubts about our beliefs. If we feel that we and our faith questions are no longer welcome, we may look for love and belonging elsewhere.

The next level, the point of self-actualization, is where we really have the freedom to question. We come closer to discovering the core of what we personally believe and don’t believe.

When it comes to faith, I suspect that the lines between each of these levels is porous. In other words, we’re not locked into one level or another but move up or down the pyramid according to the circumstances we encounter in life. Since people have different tolerance levels for stress, and each of us can take only so much upheaval, I suspect that under pressure, many of us revert to old comfort zones and levels of faith that previously felt more stable and less uncertain.

There’s nothing wrong with faith at any of those levels. All levels of faith are valid; all are part of the faith journey. Being faithful – or faith full – means staying with the dance, continuing the dialogue, embracing the growth, staying with the ebb and flow. Being faithless – or faith less – means stepping away from the dance, leaving the dialogue, and refusing to grow.

Part of the mystery and beauty of God is that “If we are faithless, God will remain faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). If we step away or pull back, God stays in the relationship, in the dance, in the dialogue. God keeps faith, holds the path open, and stays with us. God is in the ebb and flow.

“. . . the call of the running tide

is a wild call and a clear call . . .”

Next week: Faith, Hope, Love . . . Why is Love the Greatest?

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy