A Pilgrim’s Regression {The Grove: Pilgrimage}

A Pilgrim's Regression

I expected a lot out of 2019. I expected that God was going to make some declarations and give some vision and direction for my future. I expected healing. I expected that God would honor my sacrifice by moving me someplace better, bringing good from my pain. After all, we’ve heard it said,

“Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God (William Carrey).”


“God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s provision (Hudson Taylor).”

I looked into graduate degrees that would give me opportunity to attempt great things for God. Intercultural Studies, Master’s in Social Work, Doctorate in Psychology were my leanings and I was even accepted into programs and encouraged into others. I could envision myself working alongside refugees or trauma survivors, bringing hope and healing, or even as a writer, sharing writing words that inspire others in faith, bringing clarity where there is none. But each path I started pursuing was blocked, bringing me to an impasse. 

In 2019 I’ve had no lack of attempting great things for God, yet 2019 did not hold any great things from God. There has been no breakthrough moment, no relief from the weight, no energy to keep pushing forward in pursuit of being God’s hands and feet. It’s been a year of further defeat and questions that have had no satisfaction, leaving me stranded. 

As I’ve contemplated pilgrimage this week, I’ve thought of places like Mecca, the Wailing Wall in Israel, Vatican City, and Wittenberg, Germany. All of these places hold significance because they connect people to the beginning, to the foundation of faith. These places pull people out of their current state and transfer them back, in a tangible way, to a time when faith was just beginning.

I find I am also on a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to find my faith again, to seek its foundation and find out its flaws. If what I have believed is true, then I am either an awful person or God is an awful God bent on hurting me. Neither of those options lend themselves to a content and faith filled life, instead they lean me into nihilism which only leads to harm. Because, if God is not good and I am not valuable, then where can meaning be found?

It’s a disconcerting place to be, asking questions that I thought I had already answered. Questions like, ‘what is sin?’, ’who is God?’, and ‘why was I created?’ Even going so far as to question the spirituality of cross-cultural ministry and questioning whether forgiveness can be offered if no one asks to receive it.

Henry Nouwen, in his book The Way of the Heart, suggests that, “There is seldom a period (in life) in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying or doing. We simply go along with the many ‘musts’ and ‘oughts’ that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord.”

You know, the Jewish Temple was razed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. It was burned to the ground and it is said that the fire was so hot that it melted all the precious gold and silver within the temple. The melted metals seeped into the cracks within the foundation, compelling the soldiers to break the foundation apart, taking the gold and silver with them. Leaving the temple completely desolate.

My faith is like that temple. It has been burned up and the heat has destroyed many of my precious theological ideals. The truth is still there, seeped into the foundation’s cracks but the only way to pull the truth out is to break the foundation apart. I have to desolate my faith and reanalyze all of my assumed “musts” and “oughts” in order to find the good news of Christ Jesus again. Because, at the moment, it isn’t clear to me what is true and what is religion.

Therefore, I will call myself a pilgrim because I am a true traveler, on her way to a holy place. I do not yet know where that place will be, because this holy place is not going to be a literal location. It will be a place within my own soul. A place that both God and I reside. I am nervous at the prospect and yet there is peace in me as well. What a strange juxtaposition it is, to be afraid and yet at peace, without the frantic restlessness that comes from attempting great things for God.

As this new decade dawns, I hope to find new faith and I pray the same for you. May we find hidden treasures beneath the broken and burned foundation of an old faith that could no longer hold up against the harsh fires of reality. While it may feel like a regression of faith, I am hopeful that it will prove to be progression, that I can join with the generations of pilgrims before me who have already walked this path and have found God in the process.

Do you get caught up in the musts and oughts of life? Do you believe that cross-cultural ministry is one of those oughts or musts?

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  1. Alexandra January 9, 2020

    Thank you thank you thank you. What you shared sounds so similar to this past year for me.
    Thank you for encouraging me to go back to the Lord in this process and for helping me feel less alone 🙂

    1. Joy Smalley January 10, 2020

      Hi Alexandra, it is nice to know I am also not alone 🙂

  2. KLH January 9, 2020

    Thanks so much for your very real sharing! This resonated with me too in many ways and I’m glad to know that I’m not alone in the questioning and the seeking.

    1. Joy Smalley January 10, 2020

      KLH, it is hard when we have to question and seek alone, without the comfort and security that togetherness provides. I’m glad this resonated with you. Blessings.

  3. Kara January 10, 2020

    Thank you for your bold vulnerability. You are not alone in the questions you are asking! I hope you have a spiritual director to meet with who is not afraid of this dark night of the soul. If you need recommendations, I have one!

    1. Joy Smalley January 10, 2020

      Hi Kara, it is a grace to know that I am not alone in my questions! I do have a spiritual director, one face to face and the others in books. Thank you for the suggestion!

  4. Sheila January 10, 2020

    This could be a direct excerpt from my brain currently. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one and it’s comforting to know there are other people questioning their faith without totally rejecting it.

    1. Joy Smalley January 10, 2020

      Hi Sheila, I am right there with you and I love the way you phrased, ‘questioning their faith without totally rejecting it’ because I see myself in that statement. Blessings to you, my friend.

  5. Elizabeth January 13, 2020

    I’ll be honest, I was surprised to see a post like this on velvet ashes, but in a good way. Not to find you feel like you are in regression of faith, but to find someone wrestling with faith foundations quite likely built on shifting sands rather than the solid truths of God’s redemption story. After leaving the field three years ago, I’ve been trying to re-enter into the American culture only to find myself frustrated with the struggles of politics, church-life, spirituality and the giving of human dignity to our neighbors. Living abroad can wreck a soul and unsettle one’s faith but in a life-giving way. I believe perhaps that is your journey fellow pilgrim. I am not sure your faith is being set back, but rather reset to resound God’s heartbeat. I don’t think you are alone in finding yourself at odds with the faith you once thought you knew. That’s the beauty of God’s redemption, the nearer we draw to him, the more our willful, self-inspired faith is shaken until the rot falls away and even in the midst of bare-bones faith he builds. I’m encouraged to hear your story of rebuilding, even if from the rubble, something far firmer, far deeper and far more genuine. I left overseas with a similar sentiment and have been on a pilgrim journey ever since. I am still a work in progress, but the journey has been one I would not trade for all the seemingly secure and tidy faith in the world. Real faith is messy, unsure, dependent and free because of Christ. I’ve even started blogging about these things to encourage others. Thanks for encouraging me today.

    1. Joy Smalley January 13, 2020

      Hi Elizabeth, thank you for sharing. It is always a blessing to hear how God is moving in the lives of each of us so uniquely. I think that part of what makes faith so hard is that we are often building on shifting sand without knowing it. It is only when it is threatened that we see just how shifty our foundation can be even if it is based on long-held theologies. Blessings to you on your journey.

  6. Kara January 15, 2020

    Thank you so much for this! 😭

    1. Joy Smalley January 15, 2020

      Blessings to you, Kara, on this journey of ours.

  7. Bayta Schwarz January 15, 2020

    Just realised I’d somehow not gotten round to commenting. So this is a little late but I wanted to say a huge thank you for sharing your journey, and for your courage in facing your questions! There is much in what you said that I can relate to. So good to know there are others on this journey – it can feel like a very lonely place!

    1. Joy Smalley January 15, 2020

      Thank you Bayta, for your kind words. I agree that it can be so incredibly lonely to walk this journey alone.

  8. Monica F January 15, 2020

    Once again, your posts cut right through to my heart Joy. Thank you for sharing this and opening up in a way that not all pilgrims are willing to do. I am blessed to have you as a fellow sojourner- thanks for being real, thoughtful, and compassionate.

    1. Joy Smalley January 17, 2020

      Thank you, Monica🤗

  9. Caroline January 26, 2020

    Thanks Joy: I’m also on The Pilgrimage like you and it seems, maany others. I came home last year, burned out & wondering if the previous 30 years had been worth my exhaustion. It was, but I’m needing the Lord’s affirmation to be written in my sore & tired heart. And I’m needing my first love for Jesus to be restored. And HE showed me He wants His heart back – that is, the heart I’d given to Him so long ago, but which I keep trying to protect by snatching it away!! You ARE gonna make it! And Jesus loves your honesty.

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