helpful & oh-so-not-helpful things people do and say along the way.

blog helpful and oh not so helpfuli have a a theory about people and pain.  when we see others in it, we don’t quite know what to do. the anxiety and discomfort of what other people are going through causes us to do and say a lot of really stupid things.

almost every hurting person i know has a least a couple of stories of things people-said-and-did to them along the way that really was not helpful.  in fact, it often hurt–sometimes deeply.  simple fixes, trite spiritual phrases, and direct messages about getting-better-quick left many of us feeling more shame, anger, and loneliness.

at the same time, often there are people along the way who offer healing balm for our wounds, who stayed with us in the darkness, who provided love & hope & encouragement in such beautiful tangible ways.   their gifts of peace sustained us.

in my own journey through healing from personal pain and physical pain also through my faith shifts, i have experienced both. i know who and what was good for my soul and i know who and what did more harm.  who i willingly drew closer to and who i avoided with a 10-foot-pole.

i think we’re all pretty clear by now that the deconstructing-rebuilding process is a messy, painful journey, not only for us but sometimes for those around us, too.  and we all have stories of things that people said-and-did along the way that helped us and may have also hurt us.

the purpose of this series was to provide some hope & a loose framework for fellow sojourners. my hope was also to create a space to say out loud some things that needed to be said so that we could learn how to navigate through this process ourselves–and with others–better.

as an appendix to the last 2 weeks of posts together centered on rebuilding after deconstructing, i’d love to create two lists that we can share with the world:

1. a list of things people said and did during the bloody messy deconstruction process that helped, soothed, encouraged, and strengthened us.  

2. and a list of ones that were oh-so-not helpful.  it can become the top 10 please-don’t-ever-say-this-to-people-in-the-deconstruction-process.

i’m going to compile all of the responses into something cohesive as part of this series so i really hope you’ll take a few minutes and participate.  this is a time to honor what worked and be painfully honest about what didn’t.  a time to celebrate the good & let it rip on the bad.

here are mine, the helpful & the oh-not-so-helpful things people said to me during deconstruction:


#1, without a doubt – when people just listened & didn’t offer any advice.

“it’s really hard”

“i’m with you no matter what”

“oh, i know that feeling”

“i care about you, not just your beliefs”


“when are you going to stop being so bitter?”

“i’m scared for you” 

“i have a sermon that you really need to listen to.”

“the church is made up of imperfect people–what do you expect?”

“my church is so awesome! you’d really like it”

“you’ve got to be careful of the slippery slope.”

i know some of you have much more painful ones than these.  please, share them freely.  others need to know how nuts it can be.

what about you? what helped?  what hurt?  thanks for sharing.

my hope is that we can all keep learning how to be safer for others along the way.

* * * * *

ps: i just got back from chicago and a lovely weekend in conversation centered around sacred friendship.   i met so many wonderful people & it brings me so much hope, these conversations about men and women learning how to love & live & learn & lead alongside one another as equals, as friends.  alise wright blogged a recap each day, and you can read them here and here.  if you are new to this blog and haven’t read anything yet about friendship here, i have a list of posts on the bottom of the past series page.

next here:  soul care & spiritual practices that sustained us during deconstruction 



Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • I had someone tell me “well, you probably had a very shallow faith”. Now, this could be looked at both ways. It was a very blunt statement and frankly a bit hurtful. But, it’s also true. Perhaps it could have been phrased differently.


    You’ll get through this. (double points if the person is saying this because they have gotten through it in the past).


    You’ll get through this. And come right back to where you were.

    This is a paraphrase of what my former pastor told me. He said that in his experience, people only reject Christianity if they want to fool around on their spouse, or indulge in some other sin.

    Right. No one could POSSIBLY have a logical objection to Christianity! What a foolish notion! Sigh.


    • Yeah, it drives me crazy that people assume they know the _real_ reasons people are not Christians. “They don’t really want to be accountable for their actions, they want to sin, their hearts are hard, they are deceived by the evil one, they were never really believers in the first place, they are blaming the failings of a few (ha!) fallen people on God, etc.)

      • yeah, it is very interesting. whenever i talk about the image of God being in us, that there is something inherently good in us because we are created by God and image bearers from the beginning, there’s a whole group of people that think that’s somehow being soft on sin, that if we lean into any goodness we’ll forget the sin part. that has never been my experience, in any circle i have been in christian-wise, the sin part’s a piece of cake, the other part continues to elude and jacks everyone up in all kinds of ways, making the most insecure group of people. makes me sad!

    • i like the double points 🙂 i forgot the “oh, you’ll come back to where you were in the end” one. i remember when a few people realized i wasn’t coming back, like really, and i think they are still shocked. and the logic one still boggles me.

  • People who pray with/for you and when they finish immediately ask “do you feel better?”

    Probably the most unhelpful and soul-destroying question ever…

    • Or they expect you to feel better the next time they talk to you. Ok, we prayed, you’re on the upswing now, right? (Because you haven’t been praying about this on your own for weeks, months, years…)

      • That is definitely one I get a lot…some days I have a hard time responding as graciously as I know I ought to.

        Chronic/complicated/poor health, being an older single, and what may be a ‘messy’ season (especially faith wise) all seem to be arenas of life that tend to attract those comments, especially when prayer has been involved. And especially if someone has all three of those elements going on at once!

        • thanks lisa, so much needs to keep being said about chronic pain and helpful/not-so-helpful things, too.

  • This is really thought-provoking, Kathy. I’m surprised to find that most of the unhelpful and hurtful things said to me have been said by my own head. In fairness, all those hurtful things are the repository of judgmental words and attitudes I have been hearing all my life in the church, and, sadly, at times have done myself. That has kept me from trusting people with my journey a lot of times.
    That said, really helpful, encouraging comments have been:
    -I respect your journey
    -It takes a lot of integrity, honesty, and courage to follow this journey.
    -I will still want to be your friend if you decide not to be a Christian
    -I know what kind of person you are, and that doesn’t change because you think differently (this wasn’t verbatim, but it was the essence)

    Some really unhelpful things:
    -being perplexed that God and a relationship with God is still important to me when I am letting go of the “Christian” way of pursuing it.
    -needing me to give myself a label (which of course label me as an outsider)–wait, so what are you, then? Agnostic, atheist, Buddhist?
    -labeling things I’m pursuing (Quaker–so, is that, like, new age?)
    -not recognizing how emotionally-laden Christian buzzwords and labels are.
    -assuming my journey is “because I’ve been hurt,” or otherwise interpreting my journey as doubt and weakness triumphing rather than strength and honesty emerging in a new and valuable way (albeit messy)

    • i really like what you said, christen, about some of it being in our head based on other conversations, situations, assumptions, etc. that is such a good reminder. some are definitely real, and some can be “we are sure they are thinking that” (even if it’s based on fairly good data, mind-reading isn’t the fairest thing, ha ha). the labeling thing is so interesting, too, and our need for very clear definitions to make sense of things. i also get the “because i’ve been hurt” one a lot and of course because i’ve been public about my journey there’s an assumption that that is why when in reality i had been wrestling with some of these things for years before then because they are honest questions. thanks for sharing.

  • Ellen – that’s one of the things I’ve been having friends say to me.

    Having regular quiet times is something that I have been needing to step back from. But I have had a few friends tell me that’s not a good thing to do.

    helpful: just take your time, it’s okay if this process takes a long time.
    I’m here to listen if you need me

    • i think so many people get afraid that God can’t speak any other way. it’s also amazing to me, in reading these comments, how all of the helpful things have the same beautiful thread of presence and love.

  • I think one of the biggest challenges for me was my questioning was seen as divisive or a threat to church unity. Also, the comments about spending time in the word, quiet time, prayer, etc. were also irritating as that was the cause of my questioning. Another major disappointment for me was to have people say they loved and cared about me, but as soon as I stopped coming to church, so did their love and concern.

    I was fortunate to find a place where I was able to work through my anger, hurt and frustration with others who experienced hurtful interactions with those in church. The idea that I was where I needed to be in the process at any given time was very comforting and relieved the pressure I felt on trying to get “it” right. I was also able to watch other people follow the Spirit within themselves which gave me permission to find my own path while still being in relationship with others who may not be doing the same things I was doing.

    There is one quote from the movie Doubt that really spoke to me during a dark period. “Certainty is an emotion, not a fact.” Father Frank says this towards the end of the movie. Coming from an environment where people were so certain about their faith while I was so uncertain made me feel inferior about my decisions. I was able to hold onto this statement whenever I felt less than or I was doing a bad thing in leaving the old ways behind and awakened to new pathways of faith.

    • i love that movie doubt, so well done. i think that perception of our wrestling being divisive is so prevalent. it is indeed so comforting when we are somehow with others who understand, even if their circumstances are different, some of the pain and the bumpy path. thanks so much for sharing.

  • Not Helpful:

    God is in control.
    I hope you can “move on” or “you should just move on,” (ironic since I had been told to move on literally by so-called church leaders)

    I will walk with you in this,
    I find to you to be courageous, noble, and authentic. It’s an honor to know you.
    What happened to you is wrong,
    I love you.

  • Un=helpful:
    If you just had enough faith you would get better. (Right==I control God by having faith.)
    Call me if you need anything. (hoping you will not call and if you do, NOT doing what little you may ask of them)

    I don’t understand what you are going thru, but I’ll be here with you thru it.
    I’m taking you out for coffee. What time should I pick you up? (and doing it)

    • thanks for taking time to comment, janelle. the assumptions about chronic illness and also healing through really hard stuff are so damaging–if we just pray a certain way, believe a certain way, do certain things, then magically we are better. it really hurts. i really like your helpful list, too. so good and a reminder that our friends don’t have to understand every in and out of what we are experiencing to be helpful.

  • 1. Helpful:
    – Tell me about your journey.
    – I want to hear what’s going on with you.
    – How can I help?
    – I’m behind you.
    – I’ll always love you, wherever you end up.
    – I miss you.

    2. Not helpful:
    – You know no church is perfect.
    – You’ll just be trading one set of problems for another.
    – Spiritually-mature people are willing to lay down their freedoms for others.
    – ( total silence )

    • oh your #3 and 4 on the not helpful list are extra painful.

  • Ooh, not helpful: “Ummm, be careful that you aren’t opening yourself up to the attacks of the Enemy”

    ” That secular mindset can just creep up on you. *insert shaking head*

    “Oh, when you spend more time at work then in fellowship, you reap what you sow”

    “You can’t possibly be safe Out There without a spiritual covering?!”

    aaand I have more, but I am kind of getting grossed out remembering, haha

    ost helpful is reflective listening, without a blank gaze. 🙂

    • glad you stopped when you needed to! oh the fear is so hard for me, how much is built on fear and not freedom. blank stares suck.

  • Hmm…wow. This might be tough….

    No matter how long this takes or where it leads, I will still be here.
    I trust you.
    Just openly listening without judgment.

    If you leave the church, you will be unprotected and open to deception.
    Leave the past in the past and move on.
    The Holy Spirit will comfort you. That’s what he does – comfort.
    Just give it to God and let him heal it.
    If you go to a counselor, they will plant false memories.
    Seeing the glazed look come over the face as they search for a way out of the conversation.

    Umm… there are so many more, but I’m already in a unsteady space tonight from being told to “Man up, get over it and move on” concerning molestation, so that will do for now.

    • glad you stopped yourself, too, my friend. the dynamics of spiritual abuse are so painful and horribly damaging. you are such a brave woman to leave and we, your friends out here, weep for those words told to you about your abuse. it infuriates me on your behalf and i’m so sorry. may we all be praying for the many, many others still under the teachings of those who demand, shame, and scare in Jesus’ name.

      • Kathy, thank you. You have no idea how much your encouragement and friendship has meant these past few years. (Maybe you do.) With a variety of things that have happened in the last few months, I feel like I have slipped back into survival mode. Sigh. You always call me brave. Thank you. I don’t really see why, but it feels nice to be called that. 🙂

  • I want to thank all of you for stirring up the bitter memories which have driven you to wherever you are. I can’t imagine how hard that is in such a public space as this.

    And, yes, it is 4:30 in the morning … I couldn’t sleep … and, yes, there are tears streaming down my cheeks. It happens … and I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing right now.

    I have a dear friend, a sacred friendship, a woman in our small group, a single mom, who left her church and her faith a long, long time ago. She comes to share a meal, to share the hugs. She comes for the love … and the support, the encouragement … and the acceptance … of wherever she is on whatever path she is following. We love her for who she is and whoever she wants to become.

    And she disappears, sometimes for years at a time. And that’s OK. I’ll ping her a few times and then let her go … but I never turn my back on her. Our love for her is an oasis, not a firehose. She has disappeared for over two years now … and just the other day I got a text from her out of the blue. I spent maybe two hours on the phone with her. We are meeting her for dinner on Sunday. I can’t wait to run and greet her.

    All of these comments have been very, very helpful in my (teeny tiny) ministry to her and others like her. Thank you. My soul weeps for where you have been and what you have had to go through.

    It also thirsts to walk with you, hold your hand, give you a hug, and help you refill whatever part of you has been emptied … a different kind of refilling than I wrote about before … and one I am being drawn into … learning how to do this love-your-neighbor thing better.

    I am wondering if we should start a private FB group as a safe place to walk this critical journey together. Thoughts?

    • What an incredible lifeline you must be to this woman (and others like her). Wow. I pray the Lord will continue to bless you with patience and energy and joy as you show his unconditional love to others. We need more like you. I’m encouraged by your example.

      • Thank you Lisa. The Holy Spirit is pulling me today. Not sure where She is taking me, but I am certainly enjoying the ride. I can’t wait to see where we end up together.

    • thank you for your heart and love, jim. it is healing balm. keep us posted about what might emerge for continued conversation around the critical journey, too.

  • helpful: “I trust you, even though I don’t understand.”

    not helpful: “oh, so you’re a lapsed christian?”

    (puzzled, critical look) “reeeeeally?”

    “well, I just take the Bible at its word. I don’t question.”

    ” you still believe Jesus is the Son of God, don’t you?”

    • “i just take the Bible at its word. i don’t question.” it’s so interesting to me, basically that is someone saying “i don’t question the person who is interpreting it for me”! wildest logic in town. thanks for reading & sharing, my friend.

  • Is this something like Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists? The top ten best and the top ten worst things “Christians” have said to us?

    I just hate:
    *”Forget about it and move on.” (Yeah, like the jerk who says that is going to forget about it and just move on if someone kills his child. )
    *”You’re in big trouble if you think…..” (Fill in the blank about anything that disagrees with what they think about religion or politics.)
    *”The Bible says…..” (My “interpretation” of the Bible, which just happens to support the way I believe and which just happens not to support what you’re saying, the way you believe, or the way you live…..)
    *The Lord told me/led me to…..” (Again whatever they did, God told them to do it, just like God tells them what the Bible “plainly” means, as opposed to me – the one God never tells to do anything and never tells me the real meaning of the Bible)
    * “What you really ought to do is…..” (Now I guess God is not only telling them what to do, but also what I ought to do, which again means God talks to them but not to me.)
    * “God loves sinners, but hates their sins, and so do I.” (Give me something to throw at people who say this so they’ll stay away. I don’t like egotistical, self-righteous liars.)
    * When these folks expect me to immediately answer their phone calls, return their calls and respond to their e-mails (When I contact them, I’m surprised if they ever respond.)
    * When these folks get in touch ONLY when THEY want something (Sometimes it’s o.k. to just be used, but lots of times it’s not – That is actually demeaning and says that they think they and what they want are more important than others. A caveat – I know there are those who are so hurting and so needy at the time that they only need and have little or nothing to give back.)

    I love when someone tells me:
    * “I’ll walk with you”
    * “Thank You”
    * “I’ll sit with you”
    * “I’m here to do whatever you need done.” (What the “atheist” said when she showed up at our door the day our first child died.)
    * “You’re wonderful”

    • Oh my God Sam, I’m so sorry about the loss of your child … And the words of the atheist just pierced my heart …

    • yeah, sort of, i think i’ve got some good ones that are a similar theme. but whoa are these painful. and the healing ones all have the exact same lovely thread–presence, no conditions. ps: you’re wonderful 🙂

  • Not helpful:
    Make sure you have some accountability.
    I trust God with you.

  • Helpful:

    ~I love you no matter what.
    ~listening, accepting, not being personally invested in MY faith and what it means for theirs.

    ~I hope you are being fed biblical truths
    ~I hope you find a new church soon (a friend likened it to leaving an abusive husband and being told “quick, find a new man”)
    ~Remember, the first thing satan did was question God’s word.
    ~This is not edifying

    I am sure I will have more.

    • thank you so much for sharing; it’s so interesting how i can hear those unhelpful ones with a real voice. painful. keep letting them rip if you need to. it can be helpful. your #1 helpful is probably all of our #1’s!

  • Unhelpful:
    1) “Lord, please show her what she may have done to bring this on herself.”
    2) “Here, take one of these [Valentine pens with churchy/scripture-y sayings on the hearts]. In fact, YOU can have a whole bunch of them!”
    3) From the pulpit: “Romans 12:20 means that if someone is your enemy, you should be REALLY nice to them, because it will mess with their heads.”
    4) “Well. I guess we’re just reading a different Bible.”
    5) [Long, drawn-out story of a man who falls into one hole after another, and eventually learns not to fall into holes… um, which could be summed up, if I’m not mistaken, by “learn from experience”?]
    6) “You’ll know you’re really healed when fresh wounds don’t hurt anymore.”
    7) *sigh* “I was young once too.”
    8) “YOU don’t have any REAL problems.”
    9) [Long, drawn-out story of their latest adventures in missionary tourism]
    10) Anything that involves the appearance of “keeping sweet” combined with borderline sociopathy.

    1) “I really don’t have any idea what kind of advice to give you. But I’m here to listen.”
    2) “How can I help?” (While meaning it.)
    3) “So, what do you think about…”
    4) “Some people don’t realize that’s what’s been helpful to them, isn’t necessarily helpful to someone else.”
    5) “That is just crazy that she would say that to you.”
    6) “Deconstruction…” (Thanks, Kathy.)

    • oh i can hear those long drawn out stories. thanks so much for sharing. what an awesome list.

  • I can relate to Sharon, that’s how it is going for me too. The process is pretty new to me, I was just shunned by church. They actually won’t even let me in the building because of their fear of division. I am getting a lot of comments like “you just need to move on”, God has something better for you” “You need to forgive”.”People have let you down God hasn’t so don’t lose faith “.”People are not perfect”. Like Sharon, most of the peeps who said they loved and cared about me at church now want nothing to do with me. The only ones who have said anything helpful have been the facebook friends not from the church. They say things like “I am praying for you” But sometimes they also give advice such as “find another church”.

    • oh that is so painful, sheree. i am so sorry for the way you are being treated. it’s just so wrong and our hearts ache with you. do you have any safe people outside of your community?

      • Well, yes and no. The youth pastor is a very good friend, but the pastor has forbid him from seeing or talking to us, under threat of losing his job. But he is still trying to support us. We don’t really know anyone else locally. I have only been about to find supporters online.
        Thank you for your support.

  • My family have provided the most unhelpful comments, including:
    1. “If your grandfather found out about you leaving/questioning the church, it would kill him.”
    2. “What about the children? How will you feel if they go to hell?”
    3. “The fact that your husband survived 2 major illnesses this past year is God trying to send you a message.” (This one is most unhelpful because if God sends messages through aortic aneurysms and tumors, I think he needs to find a better and less lethal method.)
    4. Daily scripture text messages from my mother – unhelpful, but I know she’s doing what she believes is best.

    Since my family’s reaction has been so negative, I have not shared my situation with anyone else. I love finding blogs like this – thanks so much for sharing – I don’t feel so alone in this anymore. What would be helpful would be some sympathy or understanding – less judgment and fear and guilt.

    • oh those family ties are so hard, extra hard with a whole other set of dynamics. that’s a lot to stand up against. i am glad you are here and hope you can keep processing anything you need to in this safe space.

  • The helpful:

    People who were willing to listen
    People who affirmed the legitimacy of my thoughts, feelings, and struggles
    People who had been asking themselves some of the same questions
    Disagreeing with grace and humility
    My husband, and everything about his response to the situation (listening, being open to my thoughts, holding his tongue when needed and offering gentle criticism when I needed it, lots of hugs and even more patience, and just loving me anyway)

    The not-so-helpful:

    Posting articles on my Facebook page explaining, in excrusiating biblical detail, why I was wrong
    Un-friending me when I politely make it clear that said articles will not solve the debate or change my mind
    Accusing me of becoming “liberal,” whatever that means anymore
    Accusing me of rejecting the Bible
    Accusing me of rejecting God
    Accusing me of rejecting the church
    Writing me long notes full of the same weary old evangelical arguments that I’ve had memorized my whole life as if they’ll bring me back now
    Arrogance–the whole “I’m so above that wishy-washy post-modern liberal crap” act
    Not really hearing and understanding what I’m saying, but latching onto little details and picking on them relentlessly

    • oh that not-so-helpful list is so painful and i think so many of us can relate. thanks for your honesty.

  • Favorite bumper sticker: Faith is a journey, not a destination.

    Most helpful:
    Not pushing me too hard, but being available so I can talk and ask questions. Reminding me of the positive things I may have forgotten. Telling me that I am doing a great job in the midst of such trauma. Applauding me if I can make it through church without having a panic attack, and applauding me for trying if I can’t. Telling me of their own doubts, questions, and how they were resolved (if that is the case).

    Most painful:
    One of my closest friends telling me that our faith was what we had in common, and if that has changed for me, than so has our relationship (and then dumping me as a friend). A woman from my former church actually emailed people privately and warned them to steer clear of me (she has a prominent role ministry role in that church, and it makes me sick to even see her picture or hear her name). My former pastor telling me that my anger was a sin and I needed to repent. People saying that God must be disciplining me, which is great news because He “severely chastens” those He loves the most.

    I cringe when I hear “Everything happens for a reason.”

    I can quote from any book of the bible, was a Christian for 23 years, led a worship team, taught classes, and today, I don’t know if God is real. It is a legitimate question, and one I need time to wrestle through.

    Jim suggested a facebook support group and I’m all for it!

    • oh deanna, the pain of lost friendship is great for so many. i had one of those, who said they couldn’t be friends with me anymore, and how painful that still is when i think about it. i have os many friends from all over the place related to faith, and somehow because my shifts were somehow too dangerous for her. so ugly and so unnecessary. here’s the link to the facebook group that jim started:

      jim, i’m not sure exactly how to do it, is there a “join group” button? let us know.

      • If you search for “Faith Under Construction” there should be a “join group” link on there. I can’t see it because I am already a member of the group. Let me know if you have problems and I’ll do some sleuthing.

  • The link worked for me, thanks! When I clicked on the link, it brought me to the page that described the group and there was a “Join Group” button.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.