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R&V Reflections: Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans

Hands open in prayer. Credited to Annie Spratt

When I saw that Jeff Chu was going to finish the writing of Rachel Held Evans’ last book, her posthumous work, Wholehearted Faith, I immediately placed it on my to-read list. Rachel and I were almost the same age, and although I never met her, I felt this deep kinship with her across the Internet.

I suppose probably many other women have felt the same way, about Rachel and about other women of faith who speak boldly in public, because authentic faith journeys are compelling. When others are willing to share where they came from, where they have been, what they have learned, and what God is doing in the midst of their lives, we are drawn in. Their truth, wisdom, and love is magnetic because truth, wisdom, and love is magnetic. We want more of it in our lives. We want truth, wisdom, and love to be seen in our story as well.

Rachel died in 2019 at the age of 37, and, like so many other people, I felt crushed by the sorrow of her sudden absence in the world. 

Maybe that seems overly dramatic. Like I said, I didn’t know Rachel personally, but her story and her words had woven themselves into my own narrative. Her struggles with Scripture and her open vulnerability about faith and the ways we engage in the world as followers of Christ paralleled my own, and the open-ended questions and places she found answers had brought peace to my soul. Ah, here there was a woman who understood me. Here was a woman that knew my heart. 

So I wept when this fellow sojourner’s life was cut short by sudden illness. There are other contemporary women writers who are plodding along the same path as me, I believe, but Rachel’s work always seemed to meet me right where I was on my journey with Jesus. She seemed to be constantly joining me on the trail and saying, “Let’s walk together through this.”

With Wholehearted Faith, she did it again.

Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans, with Jeff Chu.  © 2021 Rachel Held Evans, Harper One Publishing 

Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans, with Jeff Chu

At the time of Rachel’s death, she had completed about 10,000 words towards this book on wholeheartedness. Her friend, Jeff Chu, took that work-in-progress and wove it together with a series of her other unpublished essays to form this beautiful collection of ruminations, candid questions, and evolving ideas about our faith history and the traditions we carry forward.

The book begins with a Prologue called, “Because They Said Yes.” Well, actually, it begins with a Foreword, a Letter to Rachel from her husband, titled, “You Don’t Read the Introduction?”, an Introduction, and then a Prologue. You really ought to read them all. Good luck not crying.

“Because They Said Yes” is a beautiful narrative on why Rachel Held Evans is still a Christian, what compels her forward in her faith, what holds her in love with Jesus, what keeps her connected to this religion, and it is summed up by this: “I am a Christian because of women who showed up. I am a Christian because of women who said yes.” This statement bridges the gap between women in the Bible who are part of our faith story and women in Rachel’s life who were part of her faith story. The combination of these many stories form the foundation of Rachel’s thesis, that wholeheartedness and vulnerability within this beautiful, challenging body of believers is what God invites us into.

“Humans are fickle, faith can be fragile, and the church—that rambunctious collection of the fickle and the fragile—is a broken and complicated institution. Wholehearted faith means putting yourself at risk of being hurt by that institution and its people,” writes Rachel. “Yet I have not managed to find a corner of it where grace cannot break through and where there is not enough oxygen for that grace to grow. If we make ourselves vulnerable to the possibility of hurt, we also open ourselves to the hope of healing, to the hope of being touched by that ridiculous grace.”

Moving forward out of that prologue, Rachel continues what she’s always done in her books, to examine our inherited traditions and notions about ourselves and our God, and to question. To lean in, the way Jewish scribes and scholars have done for thousands of years through a process called midrash, to turn to the text and see its many different facets, observe the way the light refracts and changes as you rotate the gemstone in your hands. 

God honors the questions. He loves our questions. He wants us to wrestle. He even, as Rachel points out, named his people “Israel,” which means, “wrestles with God.”

This is partly what it means to have a wholehearted faith. “Wholeheartedness means that we can be doubtful and still find rest in the tender embrace of a God who isn’t threatened by human inconsistency,” Rachel writes in her chapter, “My Wicked Little Heart.” “Wholeheartedness means that we can ask bold questions, knowing that God loves us not just in spite of them but also because of them—and because of the searching, seeking spirits that inspire us to want to know God more deeply. Wholeheartedness means that we can approach the throne of grace in the confidence of the God who made us, the God who redeemed us, and the God who accompanies us.”

Rachel continues on, later in the same chapter, “I have come to believe that wholehearted faith, like all wholehearted living, requires taking risks, cultivating vulnerability, and embracing uncertainty—both in our individual lives and in our communal life together. It demands that we admit all that we cannot know, and it encourages us to pursue it nonetheless.”

After I read that, I wished so much I could reach out and text Rachel a resounding gif of Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf jumping up and down and clapping. Yes, yes, yes! This is the humility that is required of us to follow our questions into the heart of God. This is the same message James wrote, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10 NIV).

This is the same prayer that Paul prayed over the church at Ephesus, declaring, “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-19 NIV).

Rachel’s idea of wholehearted faith requires holding your own understanding with an open hand and allowing the love of Christ to pour into that understanding, swell it, bend it, break it, and rebuild it until you’re “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

That’s wholehearted faith. 

It was a searingly bittersweet, aching delight to read Rachel’s words again. I hope you will find her books and invite this sweet spirit’s lasting beauty into your life.

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