How To Navigate A Loved One's Changing Faith (Or Help Them Navigate Yours)

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Faith moves.

It is never static. Whether we are religious or not, even in the times we feel most settled in our beliefs, things are always shifting. As we head through time and space we are renovated by circumstances and experiences, by people and relationships and we are constantly, gradually being altered. Immobility is a myth.

Inevitably most people of faith will face a crisis of faith. Chances are you already have, maybe a few times or a few thousand. This may consist of only a handful of moments when questions rise up and then quickly subside, or a sustained season of heavy doubt that lingers. It might be a subtle eroding of some small things you once felt were true but are no longer sure of, or you may have had the very bedrock of your belief system pulled out from beneath your feet, leaving you in free fall.

And when we go through these faith-shaking, soul testing times, we don’t go through them alone. Yes, we experience doubt and deconstruction in a profoundly solitary way, but since we also live in intimate relationship with people who love us deeply, they too end up sharing that road with us, often as reluctant, unsuspecting participants.

This is for all those surprised passengers along for the terrifying, disorienting ride and for those who seem to be driving.

One of the greatest tensions a marriage, family, or friendship can ever face is one member’s evolving spirituality. Most commonly, someone finds their once iron-clad, orderly religion suddenly in doubt and they gradually (or quite quickly) become less rigid and more open to new ideas, even other faith traditions. They might begin to dissect the creeds they once accepted as givens or start looking at the Bible differently or even question the very reality of God. Yet the reverse also happens quite often too. A person who previously espoused no religious beliefs, suddenly and dramatically comes to faith and finds their entire worldview turned upside down literally overnight.

Yet regardless of the actual scenario, the fallout in these relationships is shockingly similar. There is quite often a palatable sense of betrayal; the feeling that someone has changed the rules in the middle of the game, leaving the other to play catch-up and to try and find their new place in a relationship with someone they no longer feel they know quite as well as they did before. An invisible, yet very real barrier often goes up between people and their cherished bond becomes presently strained.

Here are some things that are helpful to remember when navigating this changing spiritual season with someone you love, from either side of the divide:

For those loving someone in the change, remember:

1) This is not voluntary. Faith is rarely as much of a choice as it is a conclusion. People don’t often go through an existential implosion willingly, but after a great deal of denial, struggle, and grieving. For your loved one, this is them telling you where they are; what their living and studying and praying and questioning have yielded right now, regardless of whether or not it saddens or terrifies them. Try not to see them as the cause of this crisis, but as the recipients of it.

2) This is not about you. Yes, you are probably impacted greatly by your loved one’s changing spirituality and yes, it’s likely sending all sorts of stomach-churning ripples through your life, but ultimately this is about their journey and the authentic contents of their hearts which they are vulnerable enough to share. That is a gift. Resist the temptation to focus on your reactions to their revelations, and listen first. This is first and foremost their faith story, so let them tell it.

3) This is not your responsibility. In a well-meaning but panicked, knee-jerk response, you might be tempted to try and convince your loved one to feel the way they once did, to believe what they used to; to try and talk or will them back to where they were when you met them—but this is impossible. These are spiritual things and you, as flesh and blood cannot do spiritual things. And try as you might you can’t push or pull them back to where they once stood. Listen, ask questions, offer your perspective, and pray, but don’t saddle yourself with altering their or anyone else’s spirituality. That is far more than you are asked or qualified to do.

For those whose faith is changing, remember to:

1) Let people catch-up. You’ve probably been wrestling with these things for a lot longer than you’ve talked about them with people. Those close to you may have seen this news coming for a while or it may have blindsided them like a runaway truck, but either way they haven’t known as long as you have and to the depths that you have, so you have to be patient and give people time to process this and to make up some of the rugged ground you’ve already covered on your own. Kindly wait on them.

2) Tread Lightly. This is especially true if you have abandoned certain tenets of your shared faith tradition. Your newfound liberation from ideas or concepts or systems feels freeing now, but these may still be sacred to your loved ones, and your joy may feel like a slap in the face. Do your best not to make them suddenly feel inferior or wrong or unevolved for believing what they believe. Simply and gently convey your perspective from where you now stand, but be extremely sensitive to the fact that they are standing somewhere else, and it matters dearly to them.

3) Cut yourself some slack. You probably feel a great deal of guilt (either internally or from your loved ones) for pulling what feels like a spiritual bait-and-switch, but you know that isn’t true. You know the road you traveled to get here, what you’ve wrestled with, how fervent your prayers have been, how diligently you’ve searched, and how long you’ve been struggling. These are the biggest questions of this life and you’re smack dab in the middle of it, so give yourself a break if the answers are elusive or different right now than they’ve been before.

And for both of you, remember:

The story isn’t over. You are each a work in progress, and where you are now, most certainly won’t be where you will find yourself a year or five or thirty years from now. Being in a relationship with someone else is about walking alongside them as they travel the long journey, and about weathering the difficult places and adverse conditions that trip takes you to and through.

If you can help it, never make someone else feel guilty for what they now believe or no longer believe. We each have a unique testimony that we can’t change even if we wanted to. Try not to make a moral judgement on the faith convictions of another person. The roles could just as easily be reversed one day. Then as much as now, mutual respect, great gentleness, and real compassion will carry you through things you never believed you could endure together.

Whether or not you find agreement on anything else right now, agree to try and love one another well in this. Regardless of what is changing or will change in either of you, strive to let that be the rock you cling to together.

0 thoughts on “How To Navigate A Loved One's Changing Faith (Or Help Them Navigate Yours)

  1. Pingback: How To Navigate A Loved One’s Changing Faith (Or Help Them Navigate Yours) | Reluctant Mysticism

  2. This is so very helpful and I so wish I had this advice a few years back. I fear I went at it a bit like a bull in a china shop and caused far too much damage. But thank you, John, for the wisdom you have gleaned from dealing with so many who have been through these life-changing, and often devastating, experiences. I hope I learn from this and become a little less bullish than before.

  3. I really, really appreciate that you mention it isn’t voluntary. I used to be super conservative-evangelical, and I’m not anymore (you might call me a Christian agnostic who desperately wants to hold on to faith), and I am scared. Faith was always presented as a choice and I’ve heard pastors in my old community say they refuse to talk to people whose beliefs changed because it was a selfish choice on the person’s part. And I’m scared I will be the next poster child for freely abandoning beliefs due to an evil liberal influence…since that’s not what happened at all. 🙁

    • You and I share some similar circumstances and, probably, outcomes. When I look back on my spiritual journey, I can see that faith has consistently found me. Not the other way around. “Faith” and “belief” are often used interchangeably in Christian circles; they are not the same. I no longer identify with a religious sect (though I have been known to jokingly refer to myself as a recovering evangelical). I just wanted to offer a word of encouragement. Do not be dismayed by the reactions of those who cannot understand what you are experiencing. Trust that God will remain steadfast, as He promised. Sometimes in life we find that in order to stay true to ourselves we must separate from another’s belief system. I know firsthand how painful this can be and how hard it is to navigate the stormy waters of loss, grief, and doubt. But, hang in there! Cling to the One who will provide the peace you so desperately crave during these hardships. He sees you. He hears you. He loves you. Right now, in this frightening place you find yourself, exactly as you are.

    • Christian Agnostic, brilliant, I have been looking for a good description of my faith stance right now. I know how you feel. I am a ministers daughter with a gay son and I have walked away from the church. Do what feels right to you, your guy will never lead you wrong.

    • You aren’t being influenced by outside people. Your struggle is real, it’s yours, and you are just as genuine now as you were when you were convinced. I know the struggle of believing in a god that seems so eager to be silent on all these matters. For me, it was like loving a parent that didn’t love you back. I clung on to God as long as I could, fearful of what had to be true, that he isn’t real. Logically, either he isn’t real, or he is and he is horrible and not worthy of worship. And if I have it all wrong, and he really is merciful, good, and understanding, then our logic will be perfectly clear to him, and a truly loving god would never punish someone who really tried to work it all out.

  4. Pastor John,
    I have followed you now for a month or two, I agree with most of what you say here but my humble opinion- THIS is some of your best words. The most Christ-like, revolutionary, needs to be said THE MOST, stuff.

    As a born-again, Jesus- loving Christian, ex-pastor’s wife who just at 40 married the true love of her life, another woman- and finds herself finally equally-yoked—-I say thank you for saying the hard stuff, for truly working to be a bridge. I want to encourage you and your family who supports you to continue in love. Guard your hearts & call each other out in love. I have experienced the best and the worst of ministry, sometimes in tandem. It’s not an easy calling. I feel your work serves a very good specific purpose and I am adding you to my daily prayers.
    Please resist the temptation to respond to the naysayers, and repost their hateful confused comments, it’s where your humanity peeks through the most 🙂 I say this knowing this knee jerk reaction to defend oneself is strong, but remember you don’t answer to them. Take your own wonderful advice, it’s their faith journey try not to take it personal. (I often have to remind myself that even if THEY (those who’s faith is different than mine for now) think I’m the problem, I know I’m not.

    It’s hard. I know this first-hand. When you really love the ones who speak against you and really believe in what you’re saying it’s really hard to do. But even so much more important. Keep up the very good work & know that you are making a difference in so many lives.

  5. And you and your family are welcome at me and my family’s table in Orlando anytime. Would could it a privilege to break bread with you all!

  6. John, I’m reading the comments and being touched by the pain that others are feeling. That moves me to pray for them to find their way through and come to new hope and new life in faith. It helps too to make me feel connected somehow, no matter how remote it may seem, to the body of Christ, since I am in a place myself where fellowship is not possible just at present. Your blog is feeding me and sustaining me. I can’t thank you enough for the lifeline it is to me.

  7. Thank you for another courageous, thoughtful, and practical post on the issues most of us face at some time in our lives. Your church is very lucky to have you guiding them.

  8. With regard to this faith navigation issue, I would like to offer a word of warning to the many grumbling Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who visit this blog in hopes of renavigating apostate preacher John Pavlovitz and his apostate or nonbeliever readers to their way of thinking:

    1) The knowledge of and quoting of scriptures from the Bible does not guarantee you any sort of righteousness nor does it make you secure in what you believe.

    2) Satan can quote and apply scripture better than any of you could ever hope to do—and he can use you to do the same. However, just as is the case with each of you, his ability to do so buys him nothing certain in the spiritual realm.

    3) The priests of the Jerusalem Temple, the Pharisees, and the scribes were the guardians and masters of ancient Jewish scripture in the times of Jesus. They new the scriptures inside out and thought that they understood every verse and what it said. None of this knowledge helped them and none of it made them righteous. In spite of knowing scripture and prophecy better than any Christian fundamentalist or conservative evangelical of today, they totally missed the most important spiritual event in Jewish history—the coming of the promised Messiah. Not only did they miss it—Jesus failed to pass their understanding of scripture and they killed him.

    4) For God’s sake—you who are so certain of your understanding of scripture and everything else—seriously consider the possibility that you (who are much lesser than they were) equally misunderstand scripture (or blind yourselves to much of it) today and that you too may be wrong in much that you believe.

  9. John. You are welcome at my house too—and I do not live that far away. “I would like to encourage you to plant a seed—just one small…uh…little…uh…seed.” I get such a kick and laugh out of saying that. It just brings such joy to my fart.

  10. John, I LOVE reading your blog. I used to be very religious (born-again, evangelical), suffered OCD around religion (scrupulosity) and through years of pain and struggle, have mostly come to peace as a agnostic seeker. I love your blog because it allows me to consider Christianity without fear of judgment, allows me to consider and understand that many believers experience Christianity in different ways, and makes me feel a part of the Christian community even as someone who doubts more that she believes. I didn’t choose this path…I never would have; it was far too painful and debilitating over the years to be considered a “choice.” You’re blogs are giving me hope that there may be a place for someone like me to be a follower of Christ, and perhaps a way for me to experience “belief,” again. Thank you.

  11. Pingback: What I’ve Been Reading Online | Streams & Desolations

  12. We must all remember that even as we put Christ in the center of our lives, therefore at the center of our relationships, our faith is first and foremost a personal relationship. My husband and I have dealt with this on many occasions because we were raised in different denominations, and we have learned that we require different “fuel” to maintain and grow in our daily walk with the Church. I need more connection with a church family to connect to others, while he sometimes feel like human nature gets in the way of the true word of God. Your blogs continue to speak to me on such a personal level. Thank you!

  13. Thank you so much for this. I’m still in the middle of a radical (well, from my family’s standpoint) faith shift, and I’m just beginning to verbalize what I’ve come to believe. I don’t know if I’ll ever share my new views with my parents, but this post gave me a much-needed grace-based perspective on what I’m going through.

  14. Agnostic seeker and Christian Agnostic. These both describe me very well. The “squishy” idea of God is hard for me. I can’t see it/him/her. I can’t feel it/him/her. And yet, some seriously “coincidental” things happen all the time.

    I get mad at the it/him/her, as though this being is a separate entity, and if it/he/she can’t do the job, why doesn’t this being just resign and let someone else do it?!

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