Chapter 2 – A Metaphor for Faith
Painful events and ongoing trials can threaten the foundations of our faith. We are only human, and the pathway to peace can include episodes of confusion and prolonged seasons of grief.
When our hearts are breaking there are few instant cures, yet the ability to organize our thoughts and feelings into a tangible form can help. This is where our #2 pencil enters the stage.
I am not sure why I first chose to use pencils to illustrate a framework of faith. As I recall, one day I was struggling to explain to a friend how Satan distorts our thinking in times of trouble. I opened my desk drawer and pull out three pencils. Yes, they just happened to be #2 pencils. I placed two pencils parallel to each other about two feet apart on my desk. Then I positioned a third pencil halfway between the two (Figure 1).
I proposed the distance between the two pencils on each end represented the sum total of the faith we stand in as we seek to follow God. The middle pencil represented a sliding gauge between those things we understand about God, and those things we don’t. (I have since defined these respective regions as “certainties” and “fears and doubts.”) I estimated the things I understood about God made up approximately 80% of my faith. The things I didn’t understand accounted for about 20%. As I spoke, I moved the middle pencil in my illustration to a position that represented this ratio. I also explained everyone has a personal baseline with distinct percentages, but that believers typically view their faith with more certainties than fears and doubts.
I explained when difficult trials enter into our lives the pencil gauge in the middle begins to shift. As painful questions fill our minds we are less certain of the things we thought we understood about God and more troubled by the things we don’t understand. I moved the pencil to reflect this reality.
Later, I reflected on my spontaneous metaphor and noted some additional ways in which it helped me frame my own spiritual experiences. My 80/20 ratio represents a core value, but Satan warps my perception by unsettling my soul with chaos. He pushes against my certainties and uses the fierce spiritual battle at the moment to delude me. In time, my confidence wanes and my spiritual doubts are compounded by self-doubt.
The good news is, I have discovered as personal trials subside, the delusion loses its power. This doesn’t mean our lives will return to normal. On the contrary, we will never be the same. Our certainties will reflect a more mature awareness of God’s grace and providence, and the things we don’t know will remind us of the complexity of our human experience.
In my first #2 Pencil conversation, when I adjusted the middle pencil to demonstrate Satan’s delusion, my friend exclaimed “That’s me!” His struggle didn’t immediately disappear and God didn’t instantly answer the myriad of questions weighing on his heart. But my illustration provided a tool to better understand the test. It reminded him his circumstances and God’s hand in them were a part of a process, and the timeline moving forward was yet to be determined. Things were not always as they seemed, and while worshippers of God experience many battles, the future is always filled with hope.
Since this initial pencil talk I have used the same metaphor with others who needed a structure to help them process their feelings. Sometimes the people I share with aren’t ready to move forward, but just knowing there is a tool they can use when they are ready seems to give them a sense of control.
Like all metaphors, mine has its flaws. Not everyone is comfortable viewing something as complex as faith on a sliding scale. Others believe all questions are ultimately answered by the power of the cross and we should not even speak of fears and doubts. I too am confident in the cross, but am also comfortable living with uncertainties, as long as they are held in check by my certainties.
A metaphor can also oversimplify the dire circumstance of human suffering, and trivialize our grief and pain. I recognize this danger and am careful to point out my characterization of trouble is merely a conduit for one’s thoughts and not a thesis leading to an instant cure.
I characterize my #2 pencil metaphor in this way: it is a picture of faith that helps us work through our disappointments in search of spiritual peace and clarity. I take my cue from Jesus who used parabolic examples such as sparrows and grass to describe the providence of God. Sometimes Jesus even used a sliding scale to convey degree, as in the parables of the talents and the sower. There is no intent on my part to raise my #2 pencil tool to the level of Jesus’ parables, but I am thankful for the lessons I learn from His methodology. It is true the subject of testing is not a simple one. Therefore, our discussion must begin with an admission of two of the life’s most common faith frustrations.