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How losing your faith may help you keep it
Afraid of going to college
When I was in my senior year of high school applying for college at universities with journalism programs, I remember talking to my parents about hoping I would get into Temple University (which has a fine journalism program). My parents had shipped my sister off to Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s huge Christian university, but I was certain I didn’t want to go to a Christian school. But my parents were worried that if they sent me to a “secular” school, the brand of fundamentalist Christianity they raised me with would fall apart, and more likely, in their mind, I would lose my faith altogether. It was important for them to keep me in the Christian bubble I grew up in so that I wouldn’t lose it. As I recall this, I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for sending me to public school, which helped form and shape me in ways that helped me to form my faith on my own. But that didn’t keep
I admit, I was worried when I stepped foot on Temple’s campus that I would be influenced by other faiths and philosophies and that I would lose my faith. I was anxious about what I had heard and thought I’d actually drift away from Jesus and someone would end up in hell. Amazingly, the opposite happened. I was able to recreate my faith and hold on to it. And if I had gone to Liberty or another Christian school, I may have lost it altogether. As I wrote a few weeks ago, my opposition to the Global War on Terror led me to change my faith, and I needed to find a place that would accept my conviction without causing me to lose my faith. Circle of Hope, which I found because I lived in Philadelphia, helped me do that.
I’ve been writing more about fundamentalism and how it can constrain or limit our faith lately because I’ve been filled with gratitude that I was able to hold on to mine. I am grateful I never lost mine, but was able to adapt it to new contexts. I consider that a gift from God in fact, that I can hold on to my faith, even in adversity. I admit I do not have the gift of faith, but it is through study, which is another important spiritual discipline, that I have been able to keep forming and adapting my faith.
Jesus saves the oppressed and the lost
I understand though that that’s just me, though, and not everyone has the privilege to hold onto their faith the way that I have. My life hasn’t been easy, especially as a child of immigrants, but I am grateful that it has been free of much of the existential adversity that others have faced. In fact, my experience of being an oppressed minority has shaped my theology. But not every oppressed minority has such a benefit, for some, the abuse or mistreatment they’ve undergone is just too great for them to continue, and Jesus has a special word for those who cause them to stumble.
His disciples approach Jesus and they ask him who the greatest is. Jesus tells them to take on the posture of children, an overlooked and vulnerable group of people, just like Jesus was as God incarnate. He proceeds:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”—Matthew 18:3-7
Jesus reserves incredibly harsh judgment for the ones who cause the little ones to lose faith. If you oppress someone to the point of them losing faith, it would be better for you to have a millstone hung around your neck and that you were thrown into the Sea of Galilee and drowned. I am hopeful upon reading this passage that if you lost your faith because of oppression, you will still have a place in the age to come. That is good news for LGBTQIA folks and other oppressed groups who lose their faith. God won’t turn God’s back on you.
And if the fundamentalist theology left with you with a God you couldn’t worship, whether it was because He (and it’s always a He) would send people to hell for a thought crime, or because God is supposedly all powerful but also benevolent, yet He let the Holocaust happen or let a loved one die prematurely. I think that once again, God will be graceful with those who were taught theology that caused them to lose faith.
Give yourself permission to step away, so maybe you step forward or back
But though God’s grace abounds, I am saddened by people who have been harmed and oppressed by their faith to the point of losing it because eternal life in the age to come is not the only thing our faith can offer us. It offers us hope for the struggle of our life today, perseverance through difficulty, and joy amidst our suffering. I pray for people to be able to discard the parts of their faith that don’t make sense to them, and see what’s left.
If that means stepping away from the Bible, worship, prayer, even the church for a time, though I feel saddened by that as a pastor, I also understand it. If you feel like you can never get out of your faith, it might be hard to get back in. If you never permit yourself to lose faith, to experience unbelief, then how can you ever pray to God to help your unbelief? I think that like the church, our faith should be porous; you should be able to come in and out of it, without condemnation.
I think when we make it too harsh—when you can never leave your faith—it’s hard to journey back toward Jesus. But accepting loss of faith as a normal part of our experience may help us make a comeback, or make a peaceful transition. If we have expectations that we think God places on us to be “faithful” without question, we may just discard the entire thing. I want us to hold our faith and our expression of faith loosely, so that we don’t grip it so tight it slips between our fingers.
Keep moving with what the Spirit is doing next. Allow your experience with God to be formed not just by doctrine that’s written down or the Bible, but by the relationships you build and the creation around you. You have permission to step away and think, and if you practice this, if you flex that muscle, you’re more likely to return to faith. Don’t condemn yourself for confusion and doubt, but rather embrace it as a normal process and part of your faith. And at the same time, don’t be afraid to let your faith change in ways that it needs to do for you to hold on to it.
It was hard to hold on to our faith in the pandemic. In isolation, without the warmth of community, even when we fostered it online. The death, despair, and depression that surrounding us may have dampened it, too. I’m currently speaking to a lot of folks who lost their faith, and I hope that you can give yourself grace as you do that. Maybe by doing so, you’ll feel God alongside you too, in an unusual way. There may be a way back to what you left, or forward where the Spirit is moving next.