While the Bible is replete with passages describing faith as something one wears, I gave the metaphor little thought until I heard singer-songwriter Steve Taylor’s “Harder to Believe Than Not To.” The lyric’s protagonist finds the fabric of his faith becoming less holy and more . . . well, holey.
“Shivering with doubts that were left unattended / So you toss away the cloak that you should have mended,” Taylor sings. Instead of taking the cloak to a tailor for repairs, the wearer rejects the once godly garment altogether.
I am drawn to stories of religious deconversion because of the people in my life who once identified as Christians, but no longer know how to believe. They once heard the apostle Paul’s call to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14), and they delighted in dressing in the finery of faith. The robes they once rejoiced in, however, became more like rags as doubt and disillusionment bored holes in their beliefs.
As the son of a minister, I dressed myself in Christ at age 9. While the fabric of my own faith has become threadbare in places and seen stitches, too, I can still wear the cloak—more like a superhero cape in my imagination, really—that I first donned as a boy.
When I think of those who no longer believe—who can no longer clothe themselves in Christ—I wonder what Jesus would say to them. How might He lovingly seek to repair that which has become riven?
This year I took it upon myself to read through the Bible for the first time. I soon found Jesus addressing cloth in a metaphorical capacity in a parable that appears in three out of four Gospels (see Matt. 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22, Luke 5:33-39).
In Luke, when the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast, he replies:
No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins (Luke 5:36-38).
On the surface, the response Jesus offers seems like a non-sequitur. He appears to be playing a game of topical hopscotch, leapfrogging from fasting to garments and garments to wineskins, all to flummox the Pharisees.
A closer reading of His response, however, reveals that Jesus is offering a new covenant that is fundamentally incompatible with the practices of the Pharisees. In the way He relates fasting to patching an old garment, Jesus seems to affirm that the practice helps close the chasm that separates man from God—but fasting is not enough.
The parable of the wineskins points to this: Jesus is offering something new that will invariably explode the confines of any container the Pharisees might use in an attempt to control it. Of the three variations of the parable that occur in the Gospels, only in Luke’s does Jesus talk of tearing “a piece of cloth from a new garment.” The new garment Jesus offers us—the new covenant—cannot be cut into swatches and sewn onto the old one.
Surely the God who can change the very fabric of faith in His people’s lives can make the faith that once clothed the deconverted new again. In His capable hands, a holey cloak becomes whole and holy again.
In the video for the Steve Taylor song, a woman discards an old coat in an outdoor trashcan. A homeless man soon finds it. In the quiet of a nameless alleyway, with a needle and thread, he restores the once hopeless coat—and wears it.
The image of this man suggests a picture of God to me, working behind the scenes—picking up that which we have left behind, and working to make our ruined rags into robes of glory once again. With needle and thread, our Creator lovingly performs soul stitching on us.
We who still believe can dress those who have left the faith in the clothing of unconditional love, grace, and—most importantly—prayer. When we are discouraged, we can also take heart: For the God who did something new so openly in Jesus may be at work in the secret hearts of those who no longer believe, mending tears or fashioning new clothes for their souls.