The Spiritual Journey Part 2: Deconstruction (Or Playing Jenga with Your Faith)

Last time I talked about receiving the building blocks of faith, the stage of the spiritual journey we might call construction. How we begin to become people of faith because of other people of faith. Beliefs get handed down. And at least for a period of our lives, we accept these beliefs without difficulty or question.

For many, however, there inevitably comes a time, an occasion, or an experience that raises doubts. Questions pop up. Bits of what we’ve inherited seem to make less sense. Or how we’ve practiced our faith no longer seems to work.

“Why do we believe this?”

“Does the Bible really say that?”

“Do I have to ignore science to believe in God?”

“I really don’t want to go to church anymore.”

“Why should I believe in God, Jesus, and that what the Bible says is true?”

Or maybe we see stuff happening in churches or the larger Christian world and have trouble squaring that with what Christians say they believe. Christian leaders you admire make big mistakes. Your congregation gets into a fight over something stupid, revealing the spiritual immaturity beneath the facade.

Or maybe someone in the church hurts you. James says that the tongue is a fire (James 3:6). A thoughtless comment or a personal slight has led to many exiting churches. And because churches already are often places where difficulties, conflicts, doubts, and questions are handled poorly, those involved may feel badly but are either unable or unwilling to pursue reconciliation.

All of these questions and experiences, left unaddressed or dealt with poorly, can turn someone into a spiritual and theological refugee. All of these things can cause us to enter that spiritual wilderness we call deconstruction. Deconstruction means going through a season of profound spiritual and theological questioning and doubt. It means no longer being sure of what you were raised to believe. It means entering into the process of trying to figure out what you believe and why you believe it.

It’s destabilizing.

It’s painful.

It’s scary.

And yet.

It can also be good. Quite possibly necessary. It’s a process whereby you can actually grow and mature in your faith.

For me, it was an opinionated friend who had recently became a Christian, and while reading the Bible began comparing what it said to what different Christian denominations, including Catholicism, taught and believed. Let’s just say this led to several conversations between the two of us, conversations which were hard for me but still forced me to think through what I believed.

When I began to question some of what I was raised to believe, it felt like the ground underneath my feet was shaking. And when what you thought was firm ground begins to crumble, it’s hard to know where you stand. I was experiencing an epistemic earthquake of sorts. Whatever building blocks of faith I had received during my childhood, faith now felt like a game of Jenga. Would the whole thing eventually topple over, leaving me with nothing left to believe?

During this period I felt anxious about what my Mom and other members of my very Catholic family would think if they knew that this good Catholic boy was no longer sure about ideas like transubstantiation, the male priesthood, and praying to Mary and the saints. Piece by piece, I was pulling apart my Catholic upbringing. It was like living a double life. While at university I felt free to question and to explore, whenever I was home or visiting family I kept a tight lid on what was going on in my head and in my heart. Not only was my family thoroughly Catholic, for whatever reason I didn’t feel free or able to express my doubts or to share what I was going through. My being an introvert could very well have had something to do with it. But I also think that there was this underlying sense that you were just to accept what you were taught. Don’t think about it. Don’t express doubts or questions out loud, because they are not the stuff one brings up in polite company.

Here’s the thing about deconstruction. There is a healthy way and an unhealthy way to go through it.

Over the last few years, there have been several stories of prominent Christian leaders not only going through deconstruction but leaving the faith behind altogether. Often they cite a perceived conflict between science and faith, issues around sexuality, or other ways in which their faith comes up short against large, cultural questions and issues. It’s as though they had been living in some sort of impenetrable Christian bubble and were woefully unprepared to handle the intellectual and existential challenges that living as a follower of Jesus in our society involves.

Even more mystifying is the impression they give that somehow these questions and challenges are a huge surprise. Truth is, none of the hard questions we can ask about our faith, about the Bible, about Jesus, about church, and about God are new. Thoughtful Christians have been asking them for about two thousand years. And this means we have a long tradition of people wrestling with all the issues that cause people now to deconstruct their faith that we can draw upon for wisdom and counsel. We are never alone in our questions.

But then I wonder if this is how some of these people feel. Alone. Maybe they grew up in a church that didn’t allow questions or gave unsatisfying, simplistic answers. Perhaps they were never given spiritual and theological resources, to say nothing of the wise pastoral counsel, that would have helped them traverse the difficult terrain of deconstruction.

I’m guessing some feel embarrassed, guilty, or afraid of their doubts and questions, like somehow they are unfaithful and inadequate as believers for having them. Being honest and vulnerable about what they’re going through is too costly. “What will other people think and say?” “Will I be criticized and judged?” “If I don’t believe in a literal 6-day creation, will my church revoke my membership?”

So is it any wonder some simply decide to cut and run?

If that’s the unhealthy way to go through deconstruction, what’s a healthier way?

There’s a few things I would say. First, realize that everyone–and I mean, everyone–experiences doubts and has questions. If they say otherwise, I really wonder if they’re being honest: with themselves and with others. The point is, you’re not alone. Or you don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to come up with answers all by yourself. Nor do you have to feel ashamed or afraid. Questions and doubts are–and hear me on this–perfectly normal and even to be expected. Having doubt isn’t a lack of faith but perhaps is the surest sign that someone has faith. After all, you’re doubting something, aren’t you?

As a pastor, I would want people in my congregation to feel comfortable asking me their difficult questions. I don’t want them simmering in doubt but not addressing it. I don’t want people to hold onto their theological questions out of fear or guilt. Ask your questions. Speak out loud.

Another point to make is that Christianity also has a rich tradition of wrestling with and working through serious doubts and difficult questions. There are plenty of books that can help. Check out C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity or Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God, for starters. Read A.J. Swoboda’s new book After Doubt. I’ll warn you, though. You may very well have to do some work and push yourself a little more to think a little deeper than you are used to doing.

And while there is so much more to say about deconstruction that this little blog post can’t possibly hope to address, I will say one last thing. God is with you in your doubts and questions. It’s one thing to worry that you’re going to disappoint your family or your church, but it’s another thing altogether to worry that you’re going to disappoint God. Maybe we say to ourselves, “God wants me to trust him. He calls me to believe. And if I have doubts and questions, then he’ll be disapppointed in me.” We think having doubt is a failure of faith.

Let me say this: You can never disappoint God because you have honest doubts and questions. Never. Case closed. Full stop. Put that notion out of your mind right now. It’s a satanic lie, an absolute falsehood that, if we believe it, actually keeps us from growing in faith and walking with God more closely.

More to the point, God invites us to wrestle with our questions. See a time of deconstruction as an invitation from God to go deeper in your relationship with him. Let your questions drive you to your knees in prayer. Be willing to take the time to work through your questions. Have patience with yourself and with God. And stay in a worshipping Christian community. For goodness sake, don’t isolate yourself.

Roughly 30 years ago I began to feel the theological ground under my feet quake. I found myself unsettled and uncertain. Questions and doubts filled my mind. It wasn’t an easy process. It took years. Some of the building blocks of faith I received I have discarded. Not everything I was taught to believe do I still believe.

Yet I am still here. I still follow Jesus. The core of my faith has only gotten stronger. Do I have all of my questions and doubts resolved and answered? Not hardly. Do I still wrestle with God? Most definitely. But I am standing on much more solid ground. And part of that solid ground is the freedom of being able to address rather than hide from the questions that I find myself asking.

Next up we’ll talk about reconstruction.

A Short Prayer to Start Your Day

Are we starting our day in the right frame of mind (and heart)? Often our minds are already crowded and busy first thing in the morning. Or mine often is. For this reason, it is good to step back for a bit to quiet your heart and open yourself up to God’s presence. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

All I might add to Lewis’ words is that our fears and anxieties can also rush at us first thing in the morning.

What we usually need is to have our attention redirected from ourselves and our circumstances to God. Not to ignore our circumstances but rather to have our perspective changed.

Sometimes the very thing I do not want to do—including slowing down rather than rushing ahead—is the most needful thing. Specifically, prayer. Paying attention to that larger, quieter voice of Jesus. Abiding and resting in him. Not always easy to do, but for that reason all the more important. Sometimes I fail to exercise such wisdom.

Here is a little prayer that can perhaps get us started:

“As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
now and for ever. Amen.”

Humility

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.

C.S. Lewis

True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.

Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

I am far from a humble person, for I am filled with thoughts of myself. Sometimes these thoughts are driven by an insecurity that, while having lessened over the years, remains a part of me. It’s as though I can still be that scared, afraid to be unnoticed, stuck-on-the-outside-looking-in adolescent boy. This is the inner-sense of feeling like I don’t belong or fit in.

On top of that, I am also aware of an inner pride. Of how in subtle ways I can regard myself as better than others. It might not happen through conscious thoughts, but rather that I will occasionally “feel” myself to be–intellectually, spiritually, etc.–above others, or maybe this person in this moment. But I may not realize in the moment that this is what I am doing or what it means.

So, there’s my confession for the day.

The quotes from Lewis and Keller above express well what genuine humility is. Keller, in particular, articulates well how a lack of humility operates: by making everything about me. We can do this through insecurity or pride; they’re two sides of the same self-occupied coin.

No doubt many of us aren’t self-aware enough to realize this is what’s going on much of the time.

Keller speaks of humility as the “freedom of self-forgetfulness.” Imagine not only not worrying about what others think of you, but not even having it occur to you. Not because you think you are better, but because you’re not really thinking about yourself at all.

It’s almost counter-intuitive. We become more of ourselves when we’re not so pre-occupied with ourselves.

It doesn’t always help that I am an introvert. I can very easily end up living in my head. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, of course, except that when insecurity or pride get in the way what’s going on in my head is anything but healthy or life-giving for myself or those around me.

Put simply: I have at times in my life found myself wallowing in self-pity or worry or fear, my thoughts and emotions stuck going in the wrong direction. Not a great place to be. Though I have also found myself rationalizing it. Thankfully, in more recent years I am a little more self-aware when this is happening. Thankfully, too, I have a wife who has the wisdom to bring me out of such a stupor.

This is, by the way, why humility is not equivalent to thinking less (or poorly) of yourself. Thinking poorly of yourself is still thinking of yourself, even if poorly. And even if Jesus doesn’t want us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, he’s also not looking for us to beat ourselves up constantly. That’s not what being humble means. Being humble is not being a doormat. It’s not about ignoring our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. Perhaps we could say it’s about having a healthy, honest estimation of oneself.

Humility is a fruit of the Spirit, even if it doesn’t make Paul’s famous list in Galatians 5:22. Only God by his Spirit can more and more fully free me from myself in all the ways that needs to happen. Humility is the freedom to step out into the world knowing who you are in Christ and being able, because of that, to see people for who they are. Or I think that’s at least part of it. I think humility leads to an openhanded generosity towards others because we’re not constantly playing a comparison game.

And I think it begins by taking our eyes off of ourselves and putting them on Christ, who is our life, our hope, our joy, and our peace. We don’t grow in humility by focusing on it directly. Instead, it grows in us the more we take time to let Christ into our lives and hearts. The more we look at Jesus, and the more what we see, know, and experience of him transforms us, the more we will look at ourselves and others with healthier eyes and hearts. I think that’s what it means to grow in humility.

And I know I am not there yet. But it’s where I want to go, where I want to end up.

Friendship

A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a difficult time.

Proverbs 17:17

happy is he whose friends
adorn his furnishings
punctuate his evenings
with laughter
whose table is dented
by accidental kinship

Andrew Steeves, “Three Short Songs for the Departing”

“Friendship is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”

C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”

I get it, Jerry, I really do. And making new friends–indeed, even cultivating present friendships–isn’t any easier at 48 than it is in your 30s.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve actually joked with my wife, “Do you think that person needs a friend? Maybe we could be friends.”

Should I have an application process?

Over my kids’ March break, we’ve had friends over a couple of times. The other night my wife and I had friends over for dessert and played games (along with our kids). And then when the kids tottered off to bed, we hung out and talked for a good long time. It isn’t something we do very often. For that reason, it was refreshing. And tiring. We were up way past our usual bedtime and, sadly, felt it the next morning. No regrets, though. I think it was something my heart sorely needed.

Most of the closest friends I have had over the years live a province or more away. That’s life. You get older, get married, have kids, get busier, and sometimes move away. I’m grateful to have occasional contact with a few of them.

But I think of evenings spent with friends in living rooms, at kitchen tables, in restaurants over drinks and chicken wings, with no agenda or goal other than simply being together. Hours of conversation, laughter, and even occasional serious moments were the point. And it’s all the conversation and time spent hanging out that opens us up to those more serious moments. You see, the beauty of friendship is it often grows simply through time spent together seemingly doing “nothing” (thanks, Seinfeld).

Thankfully, even the best friendships I have now feel like that. Conversations can range from the silly, mundane, personal, to the more serious–and sometimes back again! But friends are those people in our lives around whom we can be ourselves, without apology or self-consciousness. Friends take one another as they find one another. There’s no need for pretending.

These days it can feel like I have more acquaintances than friends. But maybe that’s partly because friendship is much different at my age. It’s a function of the season of life I am in. When I was younger–that is, single and childless!–I usually had more free time than I ever do now. Yet, perhaps some acquaintances are friends in the making.

So while it takes some concerted effort to make time for friendship, to schedule a meal or even a coffee together, it’s still well worth it. Sure, gone are the days when I could simply call (text?) a friend on the spur of the moment to do nothing in particular. But it’s good to be reminded that there are people out there–friends!–who bless my life not through their utility but simply through who they are. And it’s good to know that I can bless them the same way.

“Pain and delight flow together”

I’m closing in on the end of The Return of the King, and I have really enjoyed reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy again. When I last spent some time reading it, something in the text stood out. In the aftermath of the victory over Sauron and the forces of Mordor, there is a scene where a minstrel breaks out in song. Here is the description of the effect his singing had.

In the midst of the their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

After I read this, I read it again, so beautifully did Tolkien capture our experience that “pain and delight flow together.” In a very real sense, our moments of joy are all the more joyful because of the pain we’ve known. So closely connected are experiences of delight and suffering that we can scarcely understand or experience one without having experienced the other.

Putting it the other way round, C.S. Lewis speaks of the relationship between joy and suffering in this way:

The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

In this instance, he’s speaking of dealing with the loss of his wife Joy to cancer. Grief is often the result of joy and love we’ve known.

This is why Tolkien says that “tears are the very wine of blessedness.” In The Return of the King, evil has been defeated, but there have been deep and painful losses along the way. Even those who have survived the War of the Ring have been profoundly marked by their experience of it. Theirs is a joy tinged with sadness.

It goes without saying that this is true of us with our own experiences of grief and loss.

Of course, the end of The Lord of the Rings is not the end of the story of Middle-Earth. More grievous ills may well plague those who remain. I can’t say, because this is all the Tolkien I’ve read, save The Hobbit. But for us, the story does have an end. The book of Revelation describes a key part of it this way:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.

Revelation 21:4

According to Scripture, therefore, a time is coming when God’s kingdom will arrive in its fullness, when the pain and loss we know in this life will indeed be overcome. Whether our experience of the new heaven and new earth will lack all remembrance of our earthly sorrows, I can’t say. But it seems altogether certain that even if we do have some such remembrances, the joy of being in the presence of God eternally will be so overwhelmingly profound and full that they will no longer be dampened by our tears.

Again, at the end of The Return of the King, Samwise meets Gandalf for the first time since the beloved wizard (seemingly) fell to his death in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Upon seeing him, Sam bursts out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” This is the promise–the sure hope–to which we are invited to cling, a hope made possible by the resurrection of the King, the Lord Jesus, and his eventual coming again. Echoing Samwise the hobbit, author Tim Keller once summarized all this wonderfully, when he said, “Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”