Faith in God can be one of the deepest experiences of being human. So if we lose faith it can hit us hard. We may feel like we are deserting God, or our family.
But we may feel we have no choice. Maybe we just can’t keep believing in a good God. Or perhaps christians or the church have hurt us so much there’s no going back. Or maybe there are teachings that we just can’t believe any more.
But what if we could let go of the bad stuff and yet still believe? What if there was another way to look at it all? What if there are safe and honest ways to a new faith?
Here’s a few thoughts that may help.
Two different issues
We recognise that there are two quite different issues that may lead to doubt and loss of faith, and they each need to be addressed in different ways:
- Doubting christian belief. We’re doubtful God is there, or that Jesus really was his son. Or maybe we can no longer accept as true some christian teaching, or some parts of the Bible, which in turn leads to doubting God. For this, we need factual answers if we are going to keep believing.
- Doubting the church. Perhaps we have been hurt by the church, or we see things in the life of the church that are toxic or unethical. Or perhaps the behaviour of a christian leader or friend has hurt us. For this we need comfort and reassurance, perhaps through a new community of believers.
Throughout this page, I will try to address both these issues.
If you’ve been wounded …..
If you’ve been hurt by the church, you need to look after yourself. We humans benefit from peace of mind and time to think.
If someone has been traumatised by church, there are self care steps that will help in recovery. Things like removing yourself from the situation, hanging out with people you trust and who have your best interests at heart, and trusting your feelings even if other people don’t. Help is available for those who would benefit from it.
Many different ways to follow Jesus
It is important to understand that there are many different forms of christian belief, many different understandings of doctrine and the way churches are run. Very few of them are core doctrines and essential behaviours.
- Some christians believe the Bible’s teaching, for example on creation, should take precedence over scientific understandings such as biological evolution. But other christians believe science adds to our understanding of the Bible and shows that sections like Genesis 1 should not be seen as literal history.
- Some chrstians believe the Bible is inerrant – everything it says is the reliable, accurate, truthful message God wants you to hear. But other christians believe it is an unfolding revelation, and not all of it is true for us today.
- All christians believe God is loving. But some christians believe a loving God nevertheless ordered wholesale genocide in the Old Testament, and was justified and moral in doing so, while other christians believe a loving God didn’t give those commands.
- Some christians hold to traditional views on gender roles and definitions, while other christians believe God is calling us to new understandings on those issues.
- Some christians see standing against racism, sexism and inequality as core to their faith, while others don’t.
So if we struggle with some of these things, we may be able to let them go without leaving the christian faith. We may just be moving from one form of christianity to another. There are christians who will tell us that theirs is the only correct version of christian faith, but rarely are the differences genuinely core teachings.
There is more consistency about behaviour and abuse. All christians condemn sexual abuse, though some justify some behaviours that others see as abusive. But not all christians see the problems of unbalanced power relationships. And unfortunately some churches think protecting their good name or their priest’s or senior pastor’s good name is more important than preventing abuse and caring for someone being abused in some way by these clergy.
But there are churches where we can all be assured that these matters are taken seriously and abusive and belittling behaviour isn’t tolerated. Leaving a toxic church environment and joining with a more caring community can be the pathway to a renewed faith.
Can we still pray?
We may not feel like we can honestly pray any more. But it is important to give God the invitation to reveal truth to us. So if we have doubts about whether God is there, perhaps we can still honestly say something like this: “God, if you’re really there, please help me to know the truth.”
Likewise, if we don’t doubt God, but we cannot trust the church, perhaps we could pray something like: “God, I’m struggling to trust you right now. Please help me to find peace.”
Take an inventory
When we feel up to it, it may be helpful to take an inventory. Write down the specific issues that are troubling us. Are they personal – how we’ve been treated, or seen others treated?
Or are they doctrinal – things we’ve been taught that we can’t hold onto any more?
It can also help to write down what we think we can still believe.
We may not feel certain about any doctrines, but we may still hold to basic christian ethics. We may not feel confident that Jesus is the son of God, but we may still respect him as a teacher.
You may know that you have been mistreated, but that means you still have a strong ethical view of how you should have been treated. Perhaps God is on your side, he sees the hurtful behaviour and doesn’t approve of it either.
This reflection can help us see clearly:
- where our difficulties lie – with God, or the church, or the Bible, or whatever,
- whether we need to move on to another church,
- what areas we may need to deconstruct and let go of, and
- which beliefs we can still hold onto.
If we strip out what we can no longer accept, what do we have left?
Holding on to what we have learnt
We will likely come across christians who disapprove of deconstructing and taking inventory – aptly described as “God’s theology cops, policing the borders of orthodoxy”. If they have thoughtful comments to make, it may be worth listening to them.
But if they show little understanding of the path we are on, if they misrepresent our motives, or if they try to manipulate us or shame us into their orthodoxy, it is time to move on past them.
This can and should be a journey guided by the Spirit of God, and we shouldn’t give up the progress we have made out of fear. If the critics are right and if our quest is honest, we’ll end up where they say we should be. But if they are mistaken, it is they who need to change course, not us.
What do we think about Jesus?
We can put aside questions about his divinity and resurrection for a moment. We can start by just focusing on the historical Jesus. If we need to go back to the absolute basics, this is a good place to start. Ask ourselves a few questions about him:
- Can we accept the consensus of secular historians that Jesus was a real person and the gospels tell us useful historical information about him? (You can read more about what this entails at Jesus and the historians.)
- If so, do we admire his teachings? Do they seem to be giving us deep truths about life and the world?
- Do we feel we can trust him as a person?
If we have negative answers to those questions, perhaps we can read one of the gospels again, asking ourselves these questions as we go. If we are going to rebuild our faith, this is probably the place to start.
However if we have a positive answer to those questions, we can consider what more we can believe about him. Was he really the son of God? Did he really rise from the dead? Can we continue to trust him to help us today?
Following a process like this avoids throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. We can identify the toxic beliefs or behaviours, and see whether they are core to christian belief and practice, or less essential. We can let go of what we find problematic, at least for a time, without letting it all go.
This gives us time and clear air to decide what we now believe. Opportunity to Build back better. Perhaps find another faith community that will care for us or better reflect our values and beliefs.
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