I left the world of fundamental Christianity some time ago. Many, well, okay, most of the people I knew from that time in my life seem to assume that means I have either become an atheist (I have not), that I’ve gone right off the deep end (the jury’s still out), or that I have a demon (seriously-some have asked that in completely serious and genuinely concerned tones of voice).
I get it: from the outside looking in, many observing my life would find those conclusions logical. I have lost a lot, and many a thinly-veiled cautionary-tale sermon-illustration have been told based on observing my life from afar.
But, those assumptions are wrong. The folks making them are not bad, they’re just wrong.
Over the past couple years, I’ve gotten messages like this:
“You’re never going to be happy without the Lord in your life.” Um, yes I will. In fact, I am.
“You must never have been saved in the first place.” Either this is a way for this person to justify a belief in the doctrine of eternal security, or an accusation of the sincerity with which I believed as a child, which is when I became a Christian. It is highly offensive: it often is the depth of sincerity that drives a person to seriously examine their beliefs.
“Can I just show you a few scriptures to help you?” Not unless you want to field some unanswerable questions.
“If you just get back in church, you’ll be fine. You just need some good preaching and the fellowship of good Christian friends.” For many people, especially introverts, the manipulative facets of institutional worship drive them far from their faith.
“So, all of the things you did/said/sang/taught, was that all just lies?” This is a bit like asking a doctor who studied the prevention of infection during the 1800s if their belief in the effectiveness of using leaches and their actions toward their patients based on that belief, was all lies. Asking such a question is nearly the equivalent of a slap in the face.
“If you’re okay with not having the promise of heaven, are you okay with ending up in hell?” It’s not a question of “being okay with” a belief; it is a question of that belief’s validity.
In the interest of preventing others on both ends of such conversations further frustration, anger, and pain, I thought I’d post a few things people should consider when speaking to someone whose faith has undergone a major metamorphasis:
1. Understand that people who make serious changes to their belief system and worldview do not do so flippantly. These decisions are foundational, and most often are made very slowly, after much study and grief and pain, carefully and reluctantly, because the person making them anticipates the impending upheaval that will result.
In my case, the world of fundamentalism encompassed my entire life, spiritually, socially, educationally, and materially. My entire world was wrapped up in fundamentalism. (Note to reader: if you find yourself in such a place, where everyone you know and everything you’re involved in revolves around one organization or entity, be careful: they are controlling not only your entire life, but there is also a very high probability they are also controlling your mind.)
I knew honesty with myself would do irreparable damage to many of my relationships, because those relationships were based solely on a common belief system. And I was right: nearly all of them built in the church are simply over.
2. Understand that people who reject a belief system and a church are not automatically rejecting God. Oftentimes, they are actually moving closer toward God as they have come to understand Him. A faith that does not look like the one you practice is still a faith that deserves respect.
3. We know your lines. We’ve read, and actually even sometimes have written, your inspirational pamplets. They do not answer, nor do they even begin to satisfy, the questions we have. If they did, we’d still be sitting in the same pew.
4. We often will not discuss the specifics of what we now believe out of respect for the faith of those who believe as we once did. In my case, I do not want to cause someone to have a crisis of faith that becomes an earthquake in their life. It’s hard to speak clearly and honestly about this without seriously offending and hurting believers who I care for deeply. There is also the moral question of influencing younger people over whom I held some influence: they must be given the respect and grace they deserve to ask their own questions and find their own answers.
5. Reaching heaven, or avoiding hell, is no longer the goal of my life, nor is it the goal of many others who have left institutional Christianity. Attempting to motivate us with nebulous rewards or punishments in the afterlife will not get you anywhere.
What I am focused on is *today*. I want to be kind and honest and faithful and good because those things are right in and of themselves, not because I may be rewarded for them in the sweet-by-and-by. I do not intend to believe something because I will be punished in hell if I don’t according to the currently approved procedures of whatever the church says.
6. Words mean things, and interpretation matters. The terminology of institutional Christianity often holds a completely different meaning for those outside the church. Do not assume what one means by even the word “God” is the same as it used to be.
7. Truth is far larger than fact.
8. “But, the Bible says…” is not always a good argument. In some cases, it is actually just the opposite.
9. Saying, “If you just had faith, trusted and believed, you would know the truth,” will do nothing but frustrate the hell out of someone like me, who desperately tried to do just that for years. You can not fake it till you make it. For some people, belief does not work that way.
10. Love that is deeper than one’s belief system or worldview is a very rare and precious thing. Being able to honestly say, “I don’t see it that way, but I respect your convictions,” is the mark of a true friend.
11. It is love that gets its hands dirty that is real: the people who have shown me the most Christ-like love are those friends who have nothing to do with the church: they fed me when I was hungry, took me in when I had nowhere to go, gave me what work they could and paid more than I deserved, laughed and cried with me when I needed them. They set me on their donkey and brought me to the inn, paid for my care, and never asked for a thing in return. There is not a measurement large enough to calculate the depth of my gratitude for these beautiful heathen Samaritans, who demonstrate what it means to be human so effortlessly.
If you know someone who has left the church, or if you yourself have left, and the adjustment has been long and difficult, and just when you think you’ve lost the last thing you had to lose, the ground gives way again, be patient with yourself and with those around you. We don’t adjust easily, we make hurtful mistakes, we say stupid things and offend eachother needlessly. Change scares us, and people do dumb things when they’re afraid.
What we all need is a bit of grace.