and…8 ways you can support friends or family experiencing a spiritual shift

and the greatest of these is love

yesterday i shared some things to remember when we are in the midst of a spiritual shift. one thing i want to remind everyone–no matter how hard we try, we can’t make certain people fully understand. at the same time, i think sometimes people are just at a total loss on how to respond. our language, our anger, our shifts freak them out and they just aren’t sure what to do.  i thought it might be helpful to revisit some ideas for friends, family, communities, and yes, churches, who are wondering what do we do when people we know are spiritually spinning?

here are a few helpful hints:

1. love us, not the words you are used to hearing us say.  often, when we stop expressing things in the exact same words people feel comfortable with we get judged, rejected, abandoned, slowly cast off.   the most healing and beautiful thing others can do to those in the midst of spiritual vertigo is love us no matter what, stand by us no matter what, be willing to see beyond words & activities & your comfort zone, and still love us as people even if we disagree.

2. simply listen & don’t to try fix, scripturize, or give advice.  it’s so hard to sit with people in their pain. we have a knee-jerk reaction to try to make it better and i always feel it, too. ” what if they just…” is often running through our brains. it’s so important to learn how to just listen, acknowledge the feelings, and not offer advice or solutions.  it’s also not a half bad idea to read through this list of helpful & not so helpful things to say & do when people are deconstructing, too.

3. recognize that there are lots of ways to live out our faith in Jesus, community, church.  many people are finding “church” in ways that look nothing like sunday at 10 am with music & a sermon.  i do believe that community is essential but there are lots of forms for it.  affirm ways we are growing, learning, serving even if it looks different and honor that God is big and can work in wild and crazy ways that look “wrong” or “not spiritual enough” just because they don’t fit into our limited paradigm of church. remember, God is big.

4. respect our anger.  as much as it feels like it is, anger is not a sin. it is a helpful propelling emotion if used properly and an important part of the grieving process. the sure way to get stuck in bitterness is to not have safe places to feel angry and keep moving through it toward letting go and acceptance. the ways we hurry past anger can really jack us up in the end and prevent us from finding more solid ground.

5. don’t hold us to everything we say & do.  we are in process. i sometimes rant, i sometimes rave. i still sound bitter & angry one day, forgiving & hopeful the next. i have been all over the place. just know some things i said a year ago i don’t necessarily hold to today and some things i am saying now i probably will be embarrassed about in a year.  allow us to change our minds and see things differently at different times. let us give up on going to church services or try some what-may-seem-weird ones.

6. trust the long (and i do mean long haul) process (and God). it takes a lot of time to move to new places in our faith. we can have doubts and still believe. we can be confused and still serve. we can be sad and still love. we can be angry and not sin.  don’t use your own pre-determined measure of “movement” and assume we’re missing the mark. there’s a lot more going on underneath in our hearts, our minds, our souls than meets the eye and it takes years, not months, to unravel what needs unraveling. God is always at work, whether it’s in our language or not. trust that beautiful truth.

7. ask what might be helpful.  i ask people a lot if there are things that do help during hard seasons.  sometimes people can articulate them, sometimes they can’t, but i’ve gained a lot of great insight into small ways that my friends feel loved and supported. it’s so much better to ask than assume.

8. consider creating safer places in your existing communities.  i know what it feels like to be a notorious sinner in a group of put-together-do-the-right-thing-and-then-you-won’t-suffer-christians. it feels terrible.  in some ways, spiritual questions can put us in the same precarious situation as lepers and adulteresses; we become outcasts.  it would be so beautiful if we could learn to live together somehow–the certain & the uncertain–and listen, respect, and trust each other, our differences. this takes some heavy duty relationship skill, putting people’s hearts–not belief-expressed-the-way-we-feel-comfortable-with–as the highest priority. but it is so possible with brave people willing to put people above programs and relationship over doctrine.

i know some of you might be thinking “how can i send this in an anonymous email to certain people?” (i can do it on your behalf if it would help, ha ha).

oh, change is so hard, for both sides. i totally respect how weird it must feel for some of my old friends, to hear me talk the way i do now. we will need to find new ways to love and honor each other through these shifts so there can be less hurt, less damage, less isolation in the process. a whole lot of grace & unconditional love seem to be the most important ingredients.

these are 8 off the top of my head, and i am quite sure there are many others.  what would you add?

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Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

20 Comments

  • I think I would add:

    – ensure that whatever help is offered is of service, not out of fulfilment of a desire to be doing “ministry” and finding purpose in your “mission”.
    – be willing to have your own assumptions and presuppositions challeneged
    – acknowledge your own bias comding form your gender, life experinces, culture, background, nationalilty and be willing to be self-critical in a helpful way
    – remeber it is not about you although in what you are doing you may find as a bi-product that you find fullfilment in it
    – be willing to go through times that are not easy – if somethign dosn’t cost much it isn’t worth much!
    – when you have an adverse reaction to something stop think breathe accept it is happening and ask yourself where that is coming fomr with curiousity and compassion
    – be willing to hear the same story again. Sometimes it takes revisiting things in the healing process to be able to recover and move on
    – have healthy boundaries – make sure you are able to be there to walk beside someone for a while. No point in you becoming a casualty too!
    – know that just being there and being present is all that someone needs sometime.

    -Dont give out “pat answers” or shove a book under someone’s nose. People will feel fobbed off!

    – Be yourself – don’t try to mimic a guru pastor, life coach etc in oredeer to treat someone as your “project”

    OK I think I have written enough 🙂

    Reply
  • This is really helpful, Kathy. Especially for someone who is often on the receiving end of those in transition … with open arms, and warm embrace, and a listening heart. I can always do whatever I am doing better, and I need all the advice I can find. Your voice is so very needed. I am privileged and humbled to be sharing this journey with you.

    Reply
  • this is perfect. i like the number ‘8’. too much is, well, just too much! this is a great “starter’s list” to pass on to those in my circle and network of friends that don’t understand my spiritual “awakening”. i know they want to help and mean well. but i only want them to listen when they ask how i’m doing. i don’t expect them to “get it” nor do I want them to just agree with my decisions when they really don’t. i want them to know it’s okay if they can’t empathize with me. but also that they can’t judge me unless they’ve walked a mile in my shoes. so thank you so much for this. it will shed a lot of light into my relationships with friends and family.

    Reply
    • thanks, jane. one of my favorite songs is “what it’s like” by everlast. it’s got some hard words in it but it’s so good and i think of it often. we can never know what it’s like until we’ve experienced it. peace and hope to you as you keep moving forward!

      Reply
  • We can’t “fix” anyone else, whether it be with Bible verses, theology or whatever. But we can come alongside and walk a mile with a friend allowing them to tell their story while we listen rather than tell them what to do. Sometimes a little practical help, a cup of water or plate of warm cookies says “I care”. We want someone to care. Few want to be someone else’s fix-it project.

    Reply
    • it is so true, it’s the most interesting phenom, how “fix it” mode is our natural reflex and how much anxiety it creates in people to trust God and others and the long haul.

      Reply
  • Both of these posts are very good, and timely for me as I come to grips with the fact that while in many areas, I feel more fulfilled and content as a person, my faith is indeed hanging by a thread and I’m no longer sure how or where it fits in. Thank you.

    Reply
  • These two postings have been very helpful for me. Thanks for sharing. I was wondering if, while on your journey, you found yourself pushing away life long friends because there were expectations you had for them (to understand or stand with you etc) which, for legitimate reasons they were not able to live up to those expectations? What advice would you give to those of us who are willing to walk beside you in this journey and see you pushing away the people who love you the most because they are not being who you need them to be as your friend at this time? Do I let it go in the name of love or gently ask questions to see what is going on? Do I encourage the “shunned” friend to hang in there and wait for the one experiencing the shift to get her feet back on the ground? I understand that when someone is experiencing a spiritual shift (I’ve been there, done that) it is a lonely road to walk and that the thread holding you is thin indeed. I do not want to make it harder but it is heart-breaking to watch my friend make decisions about life long relationships when her body, soul and spirit are still spinning from this spiritual shift. I am asking this question the best way I know how and I pray there is no offense by my wording. My heart wants to love and support and I am at a loss for how to best do this in this situation. It may be that you have addressed this in another post and I missed it. Thanks.

    Reply
    • hi joni, thanks so much for taking time to share and it’s such a good question. and oh, there are no easy answers. but i guess one thing would be to remember it’s so messy and that sometimes we swing all over the place as part of the healing. i agree, breaking off lifelong friendships is so painful, but sometimes it’s a piece of finding healing somehow. in the end, many have to go back and make amends and apologize for our behavior during this shift. these shifts don’t get us off the hook for hurting others, too, but it’s sometimes a piece of our human mumblejumbleness. i don’t have perfect wording for you but one question to sometimes ask is if people are open to feedback. if they are, sometimes it is a place to be able to say “i just worry about cutting off….” and then let it just be. so much depends on the kind of relationship you have. i do know that usually we get into more trouble when we give unsolicited feedback but when people are very sincere in asking first, it can sometimes help. another thing to consider is just that you can’t control anyone’s stuff at all and so as hard as it is to let go of it, it’s probably the reality and to just know we can’t direct other people at all and that is so hard, to let go, to pray, to love, to trust the long haul. peace and wisdom to you!

      Reply
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