How to love someone who's questioning their faith.
I want to start by saying that the faith journey is a personal and individual one. There's no one size fits all and it's definitely not black and white. In everything I'm writing, it has come from my personal experience and the experiences of others I've talked with. Questioning one's faith is a tough journey. I can't say I've landed on definitive answers on lots of things...well probably most things, but I'm learning to be alright with uncertainty. This blog is from the perspective of working through questions in Christianity, though I'm sure some of this can apply to questioning other belief systems as well.
If you're struggling with your faith, this is to remind you that you're not alone. If you love someone who is or has questioned their faith, this is to give you some insight into what may or may not be helpful. The point of this isn't to get into theology or convince anyone of one thing or another, it's just to give some perspective from someone who's been on both ends of this.
To those heavily involved in faith still who have found a friend or loved one to be questioning theirs, you may find yourself tempted to say some of these things. These are things that have been said to me or common comments that I've heard. I want to give some insight as to why, for me and many other people, these might not be helpful. Truthfully, there have been times in my life I've probably used some or even all of these phrases, before I started my questioning journey. This isn't to shame anyone, I need to make sure that's abundantly clear. There are many people who I love and trust deeply who may not understand my questions, but we can share a deep love and respect nonetheless.
First, and super common is "deconstructing is okay, as long as you don't walk away completely".
I understand the sentiment behind this. It's the idea that it's good to ask questions as long as you don't lose the heart of Christianity or Jesus (at least what's taught about him in the mainstream western church). I don't think people understand that this comment can across as very conditional. This may communicate to someone that they might lose you and their relationship with you if they come to a different conclusion than you. The reality is, they may walk away. Asking questions sometimes leads to walking away and changing belief systems, and sometimes it doesn't. But if someone is taking the journey to question something they used to believe, the fact is they can't have a condition to it because they won't be real with themselves. To walk through the process, you have to be able to be honest with yourself and where you're at. Telling someone this can often communicate that your love and acceptance for them are conditional, even if that's not what you mean.
Second, "it's just a slippery slope".
Once again, I understand the thought behind this. The reality is, that's absolutely true. It
100% is a slippery slope. I remember the first topic I started to dig into because what I had been taught about it just didn't make sense to me. I won't get into the theology behind the topic or what I discovered when I dug in, but I do remember how terrified I was to start the research. I knew that if I found backing for a view other than what I grew up hearing, how many other topics would that mean could have been misinterpreted in my Christian bubble? I knew that once I turned over that stone the topics wouldn't end. And let me tell you, I have cried over this more times than I can count. It's felt like an identity crisis...it is a slippery slope. But sometimes it's unavoidable. The pain of pretending is much worse. To tell someone you're worried about them because this is a slippery slope can communicate that you don't trust their judgment and would rather they follow the status quo than stir the pot. Once again, I understand that this probably isn't your intent, but may still be a painful thing for someone to hear.
Third, "Your problem is with the church, and not Jesus (or God, the Bible, etc)."
This one is SO common. The fact of the matter is, yes, a lot of people walk away because of the horrible downfalls and scandals of the western church. It's far too common and it should NOT be shrugged off. People aren't "snowflakes" for leaving a toxic environment. I could go on for a while about that, but that's for another time.
However, a large number of people ALSO struggle because of what the Bible says. There are a lot of tough concepts and stories in the Bible. Personally, my questions have largely had to do with the Bible. Making assumptions and writing someone's doubt off simply as "church hurt" is to invalidate where they're actually at, (not to mention that even if it is just "church hurt", that's still entirely valid).
I remember saying this about people when I was heavily involved in the church. I would shrug my shoulders and write it off as them just not giving people in the church enough grace. I was scared to hear their reasons. It was much safer to assume it was a "them" problem so I could hold onto my safety blanket and not address my own questions.
Fourth and similar to the previous one, "I'm sorry that people who *claimed* to be Christians hurt you".
A big similarity in why this one is tough is what I wrote above; that it's assuming someone's doubt is because of "church hurt" and "flawed people" and not actual issues with the Biblical and historical narrative. But the biggest frustration with this is to say "people who *claimed* to be Christian". To use the word *claimed* is to avoid accountability for the institutional problems in the western church. I've heard people who ascribe to the same harmful narratives that discriminate and exclude people use this phrase as if to say that "if someone hurt you, they weren't really a Christian". That's a whole lot easier and more comfortable than listening and acknowledging that teachings or practices may be harmful to a people group. Christians, just like everyone, are flawed. They make mistakes and there always should be accountability.
Fifth, "You're just getting influenced by *the world*".
One of the really damaging narratives the western church can push is this "us against them" mentality. There are many gray areas even in Christian views and values. It's not helpful to assume that because someone is questioning their faith it's because there are "things of the world" that are enticing them. Similar to other examples, this is an easier reason to tell ourselves when we're scared to acknowledge the downfalls of an organization or belief system. It's easier to say "they've fallen into sin" or "the world enticed them" than to look at actual shortcomings that may be in our church. Quite often, people are questioning their faith because there are teachings and practices they can't reconcile with themselves, and that's valid.
Lastly, "Well what do you even believe then?"
When someone opens up to you that they're actively trying to figure out what they believe and the response is continuing to question and pressure them to have answers right away, it can strain a relationship. One of the scariest parts of questioning your belief system is the loss of certainty. For so long I was SO certain of what I believed. That made it terrifying to unpack and realize I may not even align anymore. The reality is, I am not certain about much these days. That may change, but it may not. People don't always have answers and it often takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to admit that.
That was a lot, I know. But let's get to the better stuff. How can you love someone better and what might be MORE helpful to do?
First, ask questions.
There are many assumptions when someone drops the word "deconstruction". People have called it a trend that younger generations are following because they're "too sensitive". People often make all the assumptions that I listed above. But the reality is, there are SO many reasons that people unpack their faith. Sometimes it's past trauma, and you can be there with them, listening to how they feel instead of pressuring them to continue to believe as you do. Sometimes it's genuine questions about what the Bible says or genuine disagreement with common church practices. It's never helpful to make assumptions, just like you don't want people to do the same about Christians. Before you comment or offer advice and wisdom, take the time to ask questions. Ask them why and how they got to the place they are, what they're wrestling through, or why they've come to a certain conclusion. There's power in simply trying to understand someone.
Second, take the pressure off yourself to "save" them. It's not your responsibility.
I understand this pressure. I felt this pressure for a long time. I remember sitting in services where the speaker would yell how the souls of others are on our shoulders. I also understand the pain when something feels so clear to you and you don't understand why someone you love deeply can't see it too. But you're not meant to carry that pressure. If you are close with this person, then trust their judgment and listen to what they have to say. You may not ever understand each other fully and that can be painful. You can share with them why your beliefs are important and there, of course, should be mutual respect, but it's not on you to "save" them.
Third, validate their intelligence.
It can be hurtful to treat someone as if they've simply been "brainwashed". Understand that they may have the same struggles with your perspectives and not understand the thoughts behind them. On both sides, grace is required.
Fourth, and most importantly, remind them that you will love them, no matter what conclusion they arrive at.
If you can do anything, please do this. I remember when I was deep in questioning, I would
cry and go to my husband, asking him what he would do if I realized I didn't believe any of it anymore. Would he leave me? Would he still love me? He would always calmly remind me he was with me no matter what. It wasn't conditional, and he never tried to convince me to stay in the box I was in when we first fell in love. But sadly, not everyone feels that type of safety with people in their life. A huge way you can love a friend or family member questioning their faith is by reminding them that they aren't valuable to you JUST because you share the same belief system.
Questioning one's beliefs can be a painful process for all parties. More often than not, it is a necessary one. Once again, if you made it this far, this is not to shame anyone or point fingers. Hopefully, you found this insightful and gained a little more clarity into how the journey may feel. I wish you all healthy and grace-filled relationships.