Faith is a Puzzle

In the past I’ve done a lot of puzzles with my kids. We started off when they were little, doing simple puzzles. Often there was just one piece with the image of a tractor or a cow and it fit into a board with cutouts that were tractor-shaped or cow-shaped. My girls graduated to more complex puzzles, with 12 pieces and then to 24 pieces and then to 50 pieces. Eventually, my kids started helping me put together puzzles that were much bigger, with 500 pieces or 1000 pieces.

When I put together any size of puzzle, I typically start by trying to find the corner pieces and then trying to find the edge pieces and then trying to put the frame together. Then I focus in on particular areas of a puzzle and examine all the pieces, staring at each one and trying to figure out where it belongs.

There are times when doing puzzles has served as a meditative exercise and the whole process has been quite calming and filled with intention and deliberation. I feel like faith is a lot like that, like putting together a puzzle.

I want to talk a little bit about faith as a puzzle, and my story of belief as being represented by two different puzzles.  I imagine that my faith as an LDS woman could have visualized as a puzzle, with every aspect of faith being represented by a small puzzle piece. This was a very large puzzle, as my faith had so many facets to it, perhaps as many as 5000 or 10000 small pieces fitting into a neat whole. At some point in my young adult life, I completed this puzzle.

At the center of this puzzle was an image of God as a white man. The image is well-defined and all other aspects of faith and church life revolved around this well-defined image of God. He sat on a throne in the Celestial Kingdom and directed all of life. It was an elaborate and perfect puzzle and it represented just the kind of believe that my faith community valued. 

I started to realize that sometimes there were bits of this puzzle I didn’t like. Pieces that bothered me. The ones that caused the most friction were those that didn’t seem to fit well with my image of God. This lead me to ask the question “is this puzzle piece really from God? Is this a necessary part of my faith? Does God need me to believe in this one?”

I believed in the whole picture of the puzzle so much that it wasn’t easy to ask these questions. Sometimes I could find answers that let me put the questions aside, but sometimes I came to the conclusion that I didn’t know what God thought about a particularly troublesome piece or that a given piece wasn’t from God. Over a period of perhaps 15 years, I started removing a few puzzle pieces. Just a few and nothing central in the puzzle’s picture, nothing related to the image of God. Just some some some background pieces that I didn’t need. Some of these pieces didn’t seem essential to me, but were hurtful or made me feel strange. Two of the pieces that hurt the most and felt all wrong to me were misogyny and homophobia. I was confident that they didn’t come from God and that God didn’t need them. Surely they were relics from an earlier age.

Even with my my puzzle mostly intact, I started to notice that people in my church community grew more and more suspicious of me. I wasn’t vocal about removing my puzzle pieces at church, but I engaged in online activities where some of that was visible to those in my community. I was sure that my puzzle still looked basically like everyone else’s. After all, I’d only removed the hurtful pieces. However, there was a strong feeling in my community that everyone’s puzzle needed to look the same. Even if my puzzle was about 80% the same as others, 20% of missing pieces were enough to create an awkward distance. I had once tried to so hard to be at the center of my church community and I suddenly observed myself at the edges, even with so much shared belief. In church on a Sunday, I received strange looks, people avoided me in the halls, and others started to make complaints about me to my local leaders. I was invited to meetings with my bishop where I was confronted about the loss of a few pieces and I tried to point to the bigger picture. Surely there was still plenty of common ground here?

In what felt like a short space of time, I had travelled from edge of the center to the outer edge of my community. This move created shame and pain. The pieces I had determined were not from God were pieces that other people deemed essential. My worth and worthiness were being questioned by others. After the unintentional loss of many more pieces, I realized that I could not stay in my church community any more. I knew that I would never be able to get those pieces back, and worse still, I did not want them. My belonging in the community was not worth the harm that they had caused me.

In deciding to leave my church and try another faith community, the deterioration of my puzzle accelerated. In a short six months, I realized that I had lost most of the pieces in my puzzle, all moved to the discard pile, and that I’d even lost pieces in the center that had shaped my idea of God. I lost them because they were no longer required of me. I was no longer trying to keep the same pieces as everyone else. I realized that I would lose all of the God pieces at the center of my puzzle if I did not try and stop the disintegration. If I wanted to choose God, and I did want to choose God, then I needed a new puzzle.

The first puzzle I had built was made up of pieces that I had eagerly received from others and it was giant. The second time around, I knew that my new puzzle would be smaller and have far fewer pieces. I also knew that creating a new image of God was central to holding onto a belief in God. I examined a lot of new potential pieces, sometimes adding them to my new puzzle, but also taking away ones that didn’t work. In my creation of a new idea of God, I first found an idea of God that I thought could last, a new image that could grow with me, that would be flexible enough to last for a long time and maybe even the rest of my life. My new God did not have a clear image. New God wasn’t a man and wasn’t white. For a while, it was easier to point to ideas that did not belong to God than to identify God.

As I thought about the new puzzle, I decided that instead of going in the middle, my new idea of God was going to be the frame. God would be the corner and the edge pieces. Upon evaluating a bunch of potential God pieces, I could only settle on the idea that God was love and that God was always with me. My new frame was made up of these two pieces: God-as-love and God-is-with-me. 

The rest of the puzzle is a work in progress. I try on other ideas, and sometimes keep some smaller pieces, attaching them to my frame. I am continually looking for God in the center of this new puzzle, but the more I try to pin down fixed elements of God, the more God seems to resist a fixed image. I am continually searching for God and God is continually present as a process of seeking into the mystery.

One of the benefits of this new puzzle is that my questions about God become their own puzzle pieces. Instead of questions destroying this new puzzle, they add to it. Questions become new pieces to sit next to my ideas of God-as-love and God-is-with-me. Questions become an essential part of this new faith, instead of the destroyer of faith. Some questions come and go, some will find answers, and some will remain relevant on my faith journey. They all have a place in my new faith puzzle that grows and understands God anew as I journey to find God.

I am still on the edge, certainly on the far edge, of my old faith community. I have lost a lot of elements of my faith together with a faith community. Sometimes I feel that loss very acutely even though I have a new faith community. Today I am building my spiritual home on the edges. It is not comfortable, but there is a lot to learn and explore in this space, and I feel a call to live into that.

Things to remember:

  1. Beliefs that don’t sit right with us can lead to doubt and questions.
  2. Doubt and questions often put us on a journey of searching.
  3. The act of searching is an act of faith, and so instead of doubt being about a lack of belief, doubt is linked to faith in a cycle of developing belief.
  4. It is possible to put belief back together and that when we do so, we can and should sit with, try on, and weigh new faith ideas, including ideas about God. When putting belief back together, it will likely look different in its new form.
  5. God is with us, even as we ask fundamental questions about the existence and nature of God, who is big enough for all of our doubt and robust enough for all of our questions.

Where are you in the process of asking questions? Where are you in the process of putting faith back together?  What are you leaving behind? What is central to your new faith? What feels sacred? How is your understanding of God changing as you go through this process?

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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4 Responses

  1. Dani Addante says:

    Great post! I especially love this part: “The act of searching is an act of faith, and so instead of doubt being about a lack of belief, doubt is linked to faith in a cycle of developing belief.”

  2. Caroline says:

    This is so good, Nancy. Thanks for describing so beautifully the complexities of your journey. I admire your drive to reconstruct a puzzle, if only partially. I’m having a hard time summoning the energy. I wonder if the fact that I attend LDS church dampens my energy to reconstruct and explore.

  3. Chiaroscuro says:

    such a beautiful post <3 love your new idea about god always being with you and god being love. my favorite quote was the same one dani posted above

  4. Brittany says:

    I was thinking about the analogy of a puzzle the other day. For me, it felt like I was working on a puzzle with a few pieces that just didn’t seem to fit no matter how hard I tried. When I asked others for help, they insisted that I just needed to keep looking at the picture on the box and I’d be able to make all the pieces fit. More wonky pieces kept coming up, and I was studying the picture on the box like crazy, but I just couldn’t see how the pieces fit. And since I’d been looking at the picture on the box for so long, I started to think I didn’t even like it. What’s the point of finishing a puzzle I wouldn’t want to keep or put on display? Thus my journey of exploration and reframing began. I love the way you’ve put it.

    I especially love your point that doubts and questions fuel searching. We sometimes don’t like what we find, but faith is all about the search.

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