friends-of-faith-shifters: things that help, things that hurt

listen without fixing

Some things I originally wrote made it into Faith Shift, and some things didn’t.  After multiple conversations in the past several weeks, I thought I’d share some of the on-the-cutting-room-floor pieces of this part of the Appendix to offer some possibilities for those who have friends or family members who are shifting in their faith and you don’t quite know what to do about it.  If your faith is unraveling and you’re getting pushback in all kinds of directions, maybe you can print this out and anonymously send it in the mailbox to them, ha ha.

Below are some things that help, some things that hurt, a few simple thoughts on how you can stand alongside someone in the midst of a faith shift. There are some ways of engaging that do, indeed, help; at the same time, it’s good to consider things that could possibly hurt, too. These lists aren’t all inclusive, and there are many nuances depending on the person. My intent is that some of these thoughts will help minimize pain and increase the likelihood your friends or family members will feel better supported during a tricky time in their faith.

These ideas aren’t just my own; they come directly from conversations with other faith-shifting-friends, too.

What Hurts:

  • Trite spiritual phrases like “I’ll pray for you,” “God will lead you back home,” or “All things work together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” These can sting and have the opposite impact of their intent.
  • Statements and questions like:

“The Lord told me to tell you….” (even if you believe that)

“When are you going to come back to church?” (even if you hope they do soon)

“When are you going to stop being so bitter?” (even if that would make sense to you)

“I’m scared for you.” (even if you are)

“I have a sermon you really need to listen to (or a book you need to read)” (even if you want them to)

“The church is made up of imperfect people.” (even if you know that)

“You’ve got to be careful of the slippery slope.” (even if you want to be helpful)

“You still believe _______ (fill in the blank), don’t you?” (even if you want to know)

  • Accusing us of “becoming liberal,” “throwing out the Bible,” “opening our hearts up to Satan,” “being divisive,” “being deceived,” and “putting ourselves at risk by coming out from under the church’s spiritual covering.”
  • Using Bible verses against us or out of context to try to make a point. It doesn’t draw us toward you or God but instead repels us.
  • Posting comments on Facebook that detail biblical arguments.
  • Expecting us to “be better” or “back to our old selves” the next time you talk to us.
  • Questioning our faith and thinking that we somehow aren’t strong enough, faithful enough, dedicated to God enough.

What Often Helps:

  • Listening without judging, fixing, scripturizing, or advice-giving.
  • Phrases and responses (but only if you mean it; please don’t say these things unless they are sincere as that only hurts more!) like:

“I’m with you no matter what.”

“I care about you, not your beliefs.”

“I will walk with you in this.”

“I love you.”

“What do you need right now?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Regardless of what you believe, I am in your corner.”

“I trust you.”

“No matter how long this takes, I am with you.”

“I respect your integrity, honesty, and courage.”

“I will be friends with you no matter what.”

  • Respecting our anger. It’s part of our grief process. God can handle it, and it helps so much when our friends can, too.
  • Listening without judging, fixing, scripturizing, or advice-giving.
  • Honoring that there are a lot of ways to live out our faith other than go to church. Often, that’s all people focus on–our struggles with church. Faith is so much bigger than that, and there many other ways to engage with God, Jesus, or community beyond church participation.
  • Trusting our process. It takes a long time to move to new places in our faith–years, not months; honoring that reality and not rushing us or expecting outward movement helps so much. In faith shifting, a lot happens underneath the surface, and good friends trust our soul work.
  • Hearing others’ real stories of struggle and doubt.

And yes, I am repeating it over and over again because it’s the most important: Listening without judging, fixing, scripturizing, or advice-giving. 

Honestly, that is what we need the most. If you can stick with that and have patience to trust our process, it will make all the difference.

I’d love to hear what you would add.

What has hurt, what has helped?

//

ps:  Tonight I’ll be in Berkeley at American Baptist Seminary of the West, talking Faith Shift.  This is a little different format from the other Faith Shift Parties, but will be a lot of fun. All are welcome if you live near there and would love to meet you.  Also, yesterday was International Women’s Day (and the 50th anniversary of Selma).  I didn’t write a new post, but here’s the one I re-shared from a few years ago: 10 reasons i’m an advocate for women’s equality.  Here’s to more and more advocates, more and more change, here, there and everywhere.

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.

26 Comments

  • From what you say Kathy, I understand that what you want to encourage is the minimisation of pain for anyone going though a shift in faith. I’m a fan of the contemplatives. St. John of the Cross talks about the “Dark Night of the Soul”, a time of inevitable difficulty. In Fowler’s stages of faith, later stages exist where there are inevitable tensions.

    It seems, does it not that pain is inevitable in journeying with faith as indeed suffering is inevitable for being a human being imperfect and living in an imperfect world. Where we are naturally inclined to be attached to being happy and free of suffering and adverse to pain and fear.

    So it is is it not, about healthy management of pain, fear and suffering, accepting that absence of pain is not a reality for any one of us?

    For me times of greatest pain sometimes have also being times of greatest growth. While I don’t like pain, I am grateful for the strengthening in faith that has been accomplished through enduring it and confidence that gives me in the present.

    I don’t want to challenge any of the points you make, and I ask only for understanding and enabling in any faith journey. It seems does it not with Jesus there were rebukes for having little faith the need for humility, trusting in God etc. I hear the need to express anger that you talk of – the Psalms are full of it. That would suggest yes it is important that is addressed. I know there are times that I have been angry and frustrated with God and one or two have supported me through that. Those folks have been valuable to me. I also know that it is my duty to have compassion and forgiveness for myself and others and even though I don’t have all the answers be giving God his place not trusting in my understanding but in his direction. Otherwise like Jonah I might cause myself unnecessary suffering by spending a few days in a fish or like Job God might get angry with my complaints and say who do you think you are! I imagine for Job and for Jonah that these experiences were painful for them!

    So where I hear the important points being put forward about feelings of support and minimisation of pain, I would also want to suggest that pain and not feeling supported might be a sign of something right happening of growing in faith and doing something for the people that we love that prevents them from experiencing such may be a hindrance rather than a help to their “faith shift”. Also I would want to emphasis the need to be growing in forgiveness and compassion others, realising that withholding that keeps the prisoner captive and realising the prisoner is the friend or family member we are trying to help when they are adverse to forgivnig, instead of enabling freedom and healing.

    Also yeah those annoying superficial trite comments don’t help, and we know there is a need to be guarded and have healthy boundaries at such times.

    Hope that helps 🙂

    Reply
    • I believe there is a huge difference between the pain brought about by our personal faith struggles, or shifts in belief, and pain inflicted by people who are not able to walk with us without “judging, fixing, scripturizing or advice-giving.” As far as rebukes go, the Holy Spirit is more than capable of letting me know when I am on the wrong track. The last thing I need is to be bombarded with platitudes or judgement from people who say they care about me.

      Reply
      • Hi “Raincity”

        I hear what you say about the difference between pain due to our shifts in faith and pain from others who are less than helpful and all you need is the Holy Spirit to show you when you are on the wrong track. It is annoying irritating and boring isn’t it when people say things as you describe.

        I wouldn’t say for myself as you do in your walk in that I have never needed anyone to point anything out for me. I’ve had that happen both as a rebuke for things I wasn’t aware I was doing and as an encouragement when I wasn’t aware of the good that I brought or where I was gifted.

        For the times when someone hasn’t helped me with what they have done or I know I have not been helpful for someone else I have found that I can get angry – that feeling often isn’t a choice either directed to myself or another. However what I do with that feeling is and if I stay angry it is exhausting. If I practice forgiveness and compassion I find that is conducive to peace and connection and belonging with others which is what I desire.

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        • If you haven’t already, may I suggest reading Kathy’s book, Faith Shift. It will give you a clearer picture of what & whom she is talking about in this blog post.

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          • Hey Sheri thanks for your suggestion.

            I have a copy of the book. I’m aware of what she is talking about the pain it causes and the lack of support in our journey of faith. I left my last church when I confided in someone in leadership about a difficulty I was having with being mistreated and experiencing such pain. The response I got from them was to act towards me as if it were me doing the mistreatment with them claiming to be prophetic, so adding insult to injury. At the same time I know I had a responsibility to forgive and have compassion and keep my heart soft. I would encourage that too for anyone. It ushers in healing, peace and love. It’s harder to do that and open up yourself to the possibility of more pain after being mistreated but it’s necessary for connection and belonging I have found. If I don’t do this, I harden my heart and put up a wall which yes stops anyone from causing me pain but then prevents connection belonging etc.

          • Thanks for responding back Ducatihero. I am trying not to read into your comments that you are suggesting that people who are going through a Faith Shift have not forgiven, shown compassion, or are lacking a soft heart towards the God, religion, people or churches that they have left. But honestly that is how it is coming across in your writings – at least to me. Kathy kept repeating in her post: “Listening without judging, fixing, scripturizing, or advice-giving.” To me, it seems that you are doing these but using different words. If this was not your intent, I apologize, but this sounds quite a lot like “sermonizing” someone. I used to “unintentionally” do that to try to help someone when I was a pastor. Please read or re-read Kathy’s book with an open mind to those who are leaving the church & are going through changes in their belief system. This is serious stuff & not something that can be fixed with trite Christian words. Sermonizing does not help. It actually hurts the situation. Not in the way you are saying that we should embrace our pain so we can grow. Hurts it, as in making us want to flee the church & religion altogether because you are saying it! Kathy has wise words here for those who know someone going through a Faith Shift. Kathy, perhaps you can add sermonizing to your list?

          • Hi Sheri – Oh that certainly was not my intention to accuse anyone of not practicing forgiving and compassion. I did hope that my comment didn’t come across as a challenge to anything Kathy has written but something to help me understand. I thought it worth mentioning the importance of compassion and forgiveness in order to answer Kathy’s question about what has helped. Thank you for listening and trying not to read that I am not suggesting that people are lacking a soft heart or are not forgiving and showing compassion.

            It makes me feel sad to read that you think I am judging fixing, scrpturalising or advice giving. You have the opinion that what I wrote came across that people are being hard hearted, unforgiving and lacking in compassion. Couldn’t it equally be taken that you were giving advice with suggesting about reading Kathy’s book and advising about re-reading Kathy’s book? You are right that this is not something that can be fixed with trite words. Reading that, results in me feeling you not been listening to me about what I mentioned earlier about that.

            My taking the time to consider forgiveness, compassion, and to be vulnerable in sharing is doing the very thing in not being trite, and conducive to connection and belonging that those of us who have had difficult church experiences have not had resulted in the leaving that you talk of. I need support with this, to be listened to and to not be caused undue pain adding insult to injury just as Kathy talked of with needs.

            Nevertheless, I hear what you say about how I am coming across and this concerns me too. How might I communicate in a way that answers Kathy’s question about what has helped with regard to forgiveness, compassion and having a soft heart on a faith shift journey without that appearing to you to be doing anything that Kathy talks of as unhelpful, a hindrance or causing unnecessary pain in that journey?

            I don’t want to take the risk of any further difficulty for you from what I comment Sheri. Therefore I will make this my last comment towards you on this thread. I’ll leave you with the freedom to chose what to comment if you wish to respond (including further criticism about how I am coming across) without any concern of what you may get in reply from me.

            I wish you well with your faith journey and with your recovery form any ill treatment you have received in previous church experiences.

  • I was told last week that my “faith wasn’t strong enough” and that “you can’t choose what you believe in if you have real faith”. Both of those things made me want to run away from faith, certainly not towards it. In my personal faith journey, I don’t want to be called “wrong” or made to seem “less than” because I have questions or a shift in my beliefs. Overall, I want to be respected even though I have a different viewpoint – because I can still respect others viewpoints/beliefs.

    Reply
  • I think of the hardest/worst things that has happened is when others have challenged my ability to be safe as person. For example, I’m trained as a social worker and therapist, I have also done a lot of personal work/understanding self-awareness to be a good mom/friend/spouse/etc. – and in my faith shift, my parenting/safety has been challenged….as if I’ve somehow become this suspicious character who lost my ability to guide and protect children, or even to know myself. It’s absolutely demeaning to my core. It seems to be based somewhat in the Doctrine of Original sin, that without a certain set of faith beliefs (Evangelical Christian) I would essentially, somehow revert back to sociopathy, and be harmful to others. This idea seems to be prevalent, but not explored, in conservative Christian communities.

    Reply
    • Sorry to hear of the reactions you’ve encountered, and their impact. I had been a marriage counselor and psychotherapist prior to going through a major faith shift… good thing I wasn’t serving a mostly-Christian clientele during the transition, as that would have been tricky, I’m sure… Also was not in any of the church ministry I’d earlier been in, which was helpful!

      You are onto a big and deep subject re. “original sin” and related “core beliefs” and how Evangelicals see the world and personal psychology, organized around those… stuff for an entire book! There ARE more functional, healthy ways of understanding our selfish/sinful bent than the classical concept of original sin… One I’m more fully aware of just recently myself, despite a lifetime of theological study, is the work of Walter Rauschenbusch in “A Theology for the Social Gospel” (1917… a real classic of older “liberal” but still very much Christian theology). I will be reviewing the book soon on my blog… just finished it. That is just one example of many, in which one can see that the Evangelical interpretation of other framings of key truths is often a major distortion…. a “straw man” set up (falsely) so as to be easily dispensed with.

      Reply
  • Your articles have certainly helped me. My sister has helped me, having gone through the same situation. A pastor from an entirely different type church has helped me greatly by accepting me just as Jesus would. Some friends from another different type church background have helped me by just accepting me as I am. Those are the good points. The negative points are that most everyone in my church has totally ignored that I even exist anymore. A couple of folks keep in touch every once in a while but that is it as for as any interaction. I wonder which is worse, being lectured by the previous church folks or just being ignored totally? At least I don’t have people in my face very much bothering me.

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    • Jane, You can probably be “on target” if you assume that most of the ignoring, at least by people who had some real connection with you, is because they don’t want to even think about or face the issues you may represent… lest THEY kick up their own doubts, discontent, etc. They may also feel uneasy as to how to respond… doesn’t let them “off the hook” but may help you not feel as rejected or uncared for.

      Reply
  • In our experience it takes time to develop coping techniques to respond to people who question our faith shift journeys.

    Some are well-meaning but short on love and understanding and some are not well-meaning, but merely insecure supporters of their brand of religion. They need us to agree with them, their take on theology and Bible and just about everything else. We respond with love as much as possible, knowing that some of these people are also silently questioning their faith journeys. Then there are those people who just simply need to be avoided for the sake of our own sanity.

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  • This is me right now. In the process of leaving church I’ve heard so much of the things that hurt and so little of the things that help (but the things that do help reeeeeally do, and I’m thankful for those people). Thank you for this post, it really hit home.

    Reply
  • Actually, I would also add that sometimes “hearing others’ real stories of struggle and doubt” hasn’t always been a help to me, as those stories always came with the assumption that I personally was doubting or falling away, which was not how I felt, and that assumption I felt really undermined a lot of what else I was feeling.

    Reply
  • Kathy, this is so wonderful! Thank you for putting this together. I just sent it to a friend who has said so many of the helpful phrases you mentioned. I’m truly grateful for her! And, this is such a good reminder for me to say (and of course truly mean) these words with any kind of major life shift.

    It looks like unity and love to me 🙂

    Reply
  • I was in a VERY UNHEALTHY church situation for several years, and finally left. A friend of mine, who also worked for the same church, saw the egregious things that happened to me and others. She stayed on staff. Whenever we would see each other, she would often bring up the abusive pastor that I worked directly for and the bad things he was continuing to do, and then accuse me of being too emotional when I reacted negatively…because I was interrupting her time to vent. These consistent accusations started very shortly after I left the abusive situation, and the wounds were still very raw. Two hurts happened: 1 – it’s not a good idea to consistently talk about an abusive person to the person they abused; 2 – to tell someone they are being “too emotional” if they get upset so soon after detaching is a form of shaming, and it is harmful.

    Reply
  • Hi Bree, I just got done reading your link – it was beautiful than you for that blessing. I hope my reply there has done the same for you.

    Reply
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