As a Christian therapist in Silicon Valley I work with many clients seeking a safe space to deconstruct their faith, though most people don’t anticipate they’re entering faith deconstruction until after they are already in the midst of it.
Usually it starts when they smell something funky in the air – maybe something harmful happened among their church’s clergy and it was kept hush-hush from the congregation. Maybe they’re forced to question their theologically conservative upbringing when they realize their friend is not welcome in church leadership because they identify as queer. Maybe they don’t know how to reconcile differing opinions around national politics within their faith community. Or maybe they have been directly shamed or hurt due to being judged by people within the church “in the name of Jesus.”
It’s a messy world we live in, and people of faith (of all stripes) are not exempt.
Sometimes people in this state feel they don’t have anywhere safe to turn within their community, so they reach out to me for help in search of safety.
I’m in an ever ongoing process of re-understanding, deconstructing, and reconstructing my faith. Though I never faced a single epic event that brought me to question everything, I’ve noticed over the years that smaller events have shaped and changed my faith little by little over time, and as I look back on my beliefs and faith rituals 10 years ago, very few things look the same for me at this point as they did then.
Though many experiences have contributed to my own shifts, I believe a primary driver to my changing views is connected to the work that I do. Walking with therapy clients through their journeys leading them to question their faith invites me to ask my own questions. And though my purpose as a therapist isn’t to exploit my clients’ experiences for my own growth, I believe there is wisdom in allowing ourselves to be shaped through others’ experiences. And I hear lots of experiences on any given day!
I wish there was a step-by-step guide for what to do when our faith as we’ve known it is called into question. In truth, the title of this piece is a bit of a misnomer because each individual has their own unique journey. However, there are some pieces that are important to name aloud and post publicly so that if you find yourself with questions around your faith as you read this you would at least know you’re not alone and that others have made this journey before you.
You are not alone.
Often as my clients reveal questions, doubts, or concerns about their Christian beliefs they are fearful that this experience doesn’t happen for anyone else. Many faith communities do not foster safety around asking questions or having doubts, and often times they can shame or shun individuals who are vulnerable enough to reveal such questions. The result is a community filled with pews of people keeping their mouths shut about their experiences.
Suppressing your questions won’t work.
I’ve seen it before. Someone feels an inkling of doubts and quickly brushes them aside. This can seem like it works for a little while, but typically over time this process can go in one of two directions: the internal questioning becomes too loud to ignore it anymore, or the questions are suppressed to the extent that other parts of the self are lost with them, leaving just a silhouette of the person left for the world to see. When we have questions, we must not try to throw them away, but embrace them as part of our genuine experience.
Having questions doesn’t make you a “bad Christian.”
Unfortunately for many raised in conservative evangelical church, we were often told that questioning our faith is not allowed, and possibly even sinful. I’ve heard Christ-followers reference having “childlike faith” as a primary argument for why we shouldn’t ask questions (as an aside: on what planet do children not ask questions? Try hanging out with a 4-year-old for an afternoon and see how many questions they ask).
Because questioning is off-limits, it can seem that our only options left are either to zip our lips and fall in line, or leave the faith all together.
What terrible choices! If I believed these were our only choices, I would leave the faith. And that’s what so many already have done. Fortunately for them, they are able to see the oppressive nature of being forbidden from asking questions, so they want out from that abusive kind of relationship.
Find a safe space or community to express your thoughts, questions, and experiences.
If you don’t feel safe within the community around you, it’s important to find a safe person or community so you have a soft place to land as you get thrown about by your dynamic internal process. Some find it helpful to find a faith-based context to do this, and some are most helped by finding support outside of the Christian faith. You may be helped by the support of a spiritual director, therapist, or friend. You may even find it helpful to explore other religious communities that may be safer places to express questions and concerns.
Sometimes communities and people like this are hard to come by. If this is true for you I encourage you to find safe spaces through media like books, podcasts, and blogs like The Salt Collective. You may be surprised how many supportive people you can find on the internet as well.
Questions and Doubts are healthy signs of maturity.
If you’re asking questions about your faith, it’s normal. I would argue that it’s a healthy part of exercising your grown-up brain. If we were never allowed to question anything, we might still believe the earth is flat and that everything in the universe revolves around the earth. Questioning invites a curiosity that says, “I know what we were taught, but what if what we were taught was wrong?” From this space there’s room for creative thinking and an openness to discover new possibilities that might be more accurate, open-minded, and Christ-like.
If Jesus is real, he can handle you leaving the faith.
If Jesus as presented in the Bible is real after all, in theory he should be all-powerful and all-loving enough to handle whatever your faith journey looks like – even if you leave all together. This can be a strangely comforting thought even as people consider exiting the faith or question the existence of Jesus as God. Staying in the faith for the sole purpose of not upsetting God is a harmful dynamic to buy into, and it’s important to find freedom from that type of enslavement.
Faith questions can often bring up a domino effect of an array of existential questions. It’s common to experience some suicidal thoughts along the journey. Seek the care you need to keep yourself alive today. This is a normal part of the journey, but your life is more important than rushing too quickly to have everything figured out.
If you are having trouble choosing to stay alive today, please reach out to someone for help.
24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline