The Spiritual Journey Part 4: Belief, (Un)Certainty, and Why Everyone is a Person of Faith

After my three recent posts on construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, I had a few extra thoughts I thought worth sharing.

To begin, this whole process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction is all about going through a time of serious doubts regarding your faith. It’s a period of profound questioning, one many experience. Some find that they lose their faith altogether. All you have to do is Google “Christian deconstruction” and you will find several examples of prominent Christian leaders and celebrities who have recently deconstructed but not reconstucted their faith. They have left Christianity completely. Others who go through such a season reconstruct their faith so that it is more “progressive,” which means reimagining or even jettisoning some traditional Christian beliefs.

But it is possible to go through this process and simply become more resilient and confident in your faith.

It all depends on how you go through the process, the resources you find to help you, and whether or not you are willing to be honest about your questions and are also willing to doubt your doubts. Especially if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, and know a lot of committed believers who are living out their faith with integrity, you should be willing to take your time. You owe yourself (and those who helped you construct your faith) that much.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a simple and neat process. It’s not necessarily a straightforward, linear path. Nor do I want to give the impression that once you enter the reconstruction phase that all of your questions and doubts will go away. I think part of the experience of this process is not so much ridding yourself of all questions and doubts, but of learning how to deal with them in a more mature, honest way. That is, I think our doubts and questions as Christians are a part of being on this spiritual journey.

Of course, there are some who want an absolute 100% certainty when it comes to questions about their faith. They want definitive, unassailable proof that God exists, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that what the Bible says is reliable and true. Beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Here’s the thing: we can’t be that certain about anything. Not in a modern, scientific sense that people often mean. I would even say that it’s even unreasonable to expect that level of certainty. Indeed, I think this is even true of scientific knowledge. Not only that, but proof is not the same as evidence. I would say there is plenty of evidence that God exists, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that the Bible is reliable and true. But can I 100% prove it? No, I cannot.

But there’s more to it than that. We’re not merely intellectual creatures. It’s not just our rational thoughts that determine how we handle doubts and questions as people of faith. Our experiences, our relationships, our emotions, our temperaments–all of these things bear significantly on how we approach big theological, spiritual, philosophical, and existential questions.

Think of it this way. You might be familiar with the so-called “new atheists,” people like Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Well, the truth is, there was nothing really new about the intellectual arguments these writers used. In fact, in some cases their arguments were quite poor and demonstrated very little understanding of religious faith and the intellectual case that can be made for faith. What was new was the vitriol with which they wrote and spoke. There was almost an anger, or at the very least a deep disdain for religious faith and belief. This is particularly true of Dawkins. Given this, I have to wonder if there is much more going on than simply intellectual questions and arguments.

Whatever their reasoning is for their atheist stance, there is definitely an emotional, personal dimension to their attacks on religion. Or at least it seems that way to me.

Consider the following words from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

So when it comes to doubt and decontruction, remember that it’s not always about ideas. And I think we know that. We know people–maybe you’re one–who have left faith behind because they’ve been hurt by other Christians. Perhaps a trusted pastor has broken that trust in a profound way. Or maybe something in their church experience has made them question their faith. There are people who go through deconstruction who do so precisely in reaction to a legalistic upbringing or a painful experience.

And a process of deconstruction and reconstruction might very well mean having to come to terms with issues that are personal and emotional rather than theological or intellectual. Because of a poor experience of growing up in the church, what you were taught to believe is guilty by association. This fact speaks powerfully to how the credibility of what we believe depends significantly on how our lives reflect (or fail to reflect) that belief. No wonder Paul tells Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16).

And anyone having a conversation with someone for whom this is their experience needs to proceed with great sensitivity. If someone says they don’t believe in God or that Jesus is true, it’s quite possible that what they are saying is about something else much deeper. This is really about that. About the fact that someone in their church abused them when they were young. About the fact that though they grew up in a Christian home, their parents were strict and cold. About the fact that when they expressed doubts or asked questions, they were told to simply believe or were criticized for having weak faith.

Deconstruction is never only intellectual. Often there is something else going on.

That said, let me add this: being disappointed in a Christian leader doesn’t disprove the resurrection of Jesus. Having had a negative church experience doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t reliable and true. The worst of childhood experiences with respect to church and faith needn’t permanently lead anyone to reject belief in God.

So while we our experiences can have a profound impact on our faith, we cannot base our faith (or lack of it) purely on our experiences. When we find that our experiences fall short of our faith, intellectual, historical, and theological arguments and reasons can genuinely help us to trust God.

Another important point to consider is that everyone has faith. None of us believes everything we believe because we have 100% incontrovertible evidence. Being a scientist takes faith, being an atheist takes faith, and being a Christian takes faith. Life requires trust–in someone, in something, in that which is outside of ourselves. Life requires holding beliefs that we cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt. Living otherwise is sheer nonsense and impossibility. It’s never a question of whether one person has faith while another does not. Instead, it’s a question of where (or in who) you place your faith.

The Christian life always includes questions and doubts. Because none of us who follow Jesus can lay claim to having perfect or comprehensive knowledge of everything–including what we claim to believe. Yet we can still have good evidence. One intellectual position–atheism or Christianity–may be more persuasive to someone for various reasons. I believe Christians can make a persuasive case for their truth claims. For that reason, I also believe that this is the reason we can make it through periods of deconstruction with a robust, defensible worldview. That said, as in deconstruction, more is at work in this process than intellectual arguments. Christians who seek to build up and defend their faith, and persuade others of it, need more than well-thought out theology. We need to trust that God is living and active and will draw those to himself who are open to him. Because, ultimately, faith is not an accomplishment, but a gift of the living God to whom our faith ought to be directed.

The Spiritual Journey Part 3: Reconstruction (Playing LEGO with Your Faith)

My 12 year old son Eli loves LEGO.

Indeed, for the last couple of years we’ve gotten him a large LEGO set either for Christmas or his birthday. He’s got a 12-inch LEGO Yoda, the Avengers quinjet, and the Batman batcave. When he opens a new set, gets out the rather large manual, he patiently and meticulously assembles all the pieces into an impressive whole. And when it comes to the big LEGO sets, once finished he puts them on display.

That’s what we call construction.

Now, there’s one thing we all know about LEGO. It doesn’t take long before a prized creation gets dissembled, its manual misplaced (or ignored), and the pieces mixed in with all the other miscellaneous LEGO pieces you have.

Thus, deconstruction.

Then the fun begins. You get to use those very same pieces to build something new. You take what you’ve been given and make it your own.

In other words, reconstruction.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it gets us going in the right direction.

During the construction stage, we receive the building blocks of faith. Others we know and trust implicitly pass on their beliefs. Because we trust them, we assume the beliefs they’ve handed on to us are true—that they are trustworthy and reliable.

When we find ourselves going through deconstruction, questions and doubts lead us to rearrange and even get rid of some of these building blocks. While this is happening, we’re not sure what will be left or what it will look like. It can be difficult and disorienting.

But like I said previously, this is a normal process that a lot of people go through.

For some, however, it leads to the abandoning of the Christian faith altogether. All the building blocks of faith end up in the trash can or packed away in a box never to be reopened. Believing nothing from their upbringing is salvageable, they post on Facebook or Instagram that they no longer believe. Sometimes along with a serene image of themselves sitting on a lakeshore under calm blue skies. Shades of Psalm 23’s lead me beside still waters, except without the Good Shepherd anywhere in sight.

But where does this process lead? Where can we expect or hope to end up? That brings us to reconstruction. In his book After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing it, A.J. Swoboda describes reconstruction this way: “Having asked, challenged, and prodded, we return a second time to the same faith we were handed . . . after doing the complex and exhausting work of putting it through the fire.”

When it comes to reconstruction, I need to point out that this part of the spiritual journey is only possible when we go through deconstruction honestly. Only if we are asking our questions sincerely and seeking genuine answers will we arrive again where we once began, this time with the roots of our beliefs having penetrated that much more deeply into the soil of our hearts and minds.

The truth is, some jettison their faith not for theological, spiritual, intellectual, or ethical reasons. Instead, they do so because they simply want to live how they want to live, sleep with whomever they want to sleep with, make choices which make them happy, without worrying about what God, the Bible, or the church has to say. This is not healthy deconstruction. This is the rejection of the Christian faith. And they are most decidedly not the same.

All those years ago, when I first began wrestling with what I believed, there were a few things that really helped me. For starters, I began reading the Bible. I took university classes on the Bible. I actually bought my first Bible! Thankfully, my professor was actually a Christian even though I was attending a secular university (Mount Allison). I learned about the history of the Bible, the different literary genres of the Bible, and of course the actual content of the different books of the Bible.

So don’t let your questions about the Bible keep you from reading it. Perhaps you need a fresh way to engage the text of Scripture. Purchase a new study Bible, like the ESV or CSB study Bible. Or pick up a “Reader’s Bible.” This is the kind of Bible that removes all the chapter and verse divisions which are not part of the original manuscripts, allowing you to read it without dissecting it into disconnected bits. Many different translations offer Reader’s Bibles. You can also subscribe to Bible Gateway and you will get access to all kinds of Bible dictionaries, commentaries, devotionals, and atlases. Buy Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. It’s a classic book that is accessible and helpful.

In other words, make use of resources that can help you understand the cultural, literary, and historical aspects of the Bible.

On the one hand, the Bible’s basic, foundational story about God and salvation are easy enough for a young child to grasp. On the other hand, how each story, character, and book of the Bible fits into this foundational story isn’t always simple to grasp. We all need help to understand.

Something else that was key for me was community. While going through this process I still went to church. I got involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. I spent time with other believers, including people my own age from a variety of church backgrounds. I had other people of faith encouraging me. I didn’t isolate myself or reject the church. Even during the season when I didn’t know what church I could be a part of anymore. This meant that as I was wrestling with my questions, I wasn’t alone.

For some, it might feel strange to go to church when you’re struggling with what you believe. Perhaps seeing other people who don’t have your questions makes you feel awkward. Could be you think that you wouldn’t be welcome if people were aware of your doubts. But while I can understand and imagine some situations when a person might stop going to church for a time, cutting yourself off from your family of faith will leave you spiritually vulnerable. We always need people in our lives who are there to listen to our doubts, ask us tough questions, and to encourage us. Maybe you’ll discover someone else in your church who not only has asked the same questions, but has thought through their answers too. I’m guessing they’d be glad to share.

I’ll also say this. If you find yourself in a period of doubt and wrestling, identify the questions you have. Write them down. Be specific. Try to capture in words as best as you can what is making you uneasy about your faith and what you were taught to believe. Do the work of going after answers to those questions. Is your struggle with the reliability of the Bible? Find resources to help you with that. Is it a particular doctrine? Find out what the Bible and the Christian tradition has historically said on the matter. Is it how Christians deal with certain social and cultural issues, like human sexuality? I can help if you don’t know how to find such resources.

And remember, like Pastor and author Timothy Keller once said, “Doubt your doubts.” In fact, go read this article Keller wrote a few years back. In it he discusses five doubts you can doubt. His books, The Reason for God and Making Sense of God are both fantastic, though the first is much more accessible than the latter.

Know this: God can handle your doubts and questions. They don’t surprise or anger him. In Jude 1:22 it says to have mercy on those who doubt. Surely, if Scripture tells us to have mercy on those who doubt, God’s mercy for those who struggle with doubt and questions must be infinitely vast. Keeping this in mind throughout the process is also very important. You can bring your hard questions to God. You can still pray, even when you’re wrestling with your faith and not entirely sure of everything you believe.

One final thought. Even if you’re not someone who has doubts and questions assaulting your heart and mind, it’s still a good idea to build up your faith and to increase your understanding of the Bible and Christian theology. Don’t wait until you begin struggling with your faith.

Romans 12:2 says Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.

2 Corinthians 10:5 says we are to destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.

1 Peter 3:15 says in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.

When we learn to do this well and in the midst of Christian community, then we will discover that on the other side of deconstruction not only is our faith intact but stronger and deeper than before.

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.

The Spiritual Journey Part 1: Construction (Receiving the Building Blocks of Faith)

We all have beliefs, ideas that we hold to be true and that matter deeply to us. I have beliefs and you have beliefs. Like me, you have beliefs that underlie the way you live, relate to other people, the decisions you make, and how you understand whatever is happening in the world around us.

And just as we all have beliefs, we can also have our beliefs challenged at times. Sometimes we experience such a significant challenge to our beliefs that we find ourselves disoriented. Maybe our beliefs begin to shift or change in light of something new we learn or something we experience.

Even though I am a Christian, not everything I believe has remained static for the last three or four decades. Our beliefs don’t all remain precisely the same for our entire lives. Some beliefs deepen, others we discard.

I’ve been reading A.J. Swoboda’s new book After Doubt, and in it he talks about the different stages of faith or the spiritual journey. He describes them as construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. While reading his description of the spiritual journey, I realized that I saw myself. I thought to myself, “That’s how it was for me!”

Over the next few posts, I am going to talk about these three stages of faith. Of course, the spiritual journey isn’t neat and tidy or easily quantifiable. To divide it into 3 “stages” is somewhat artificial. At the same time, it is a helpful template to understand our experience of faith and belief.

So, the first stage is this: construction. Or think of it as receiving the building blocks of faith.

In my case, I was raised as a Roman Catholic. And in a lot of ways I assumed the beliefs of a Catholic without ever really thinking through those beliefs. I was taught to pray the Lord’s Prayer, so I prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I was taught the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, so I accepted that understanding of the Eucharist. Etc., etc. For years, it never occurred to me to think about or practice my faith any differently.

After all, this was the faith of my Mom and all of my extended family. Being Catholic and being a Melanson went hand in hand. Church was part of our spiritual DNA. In an important sense, I was born Catholic. But it means that for the first several years of my life, I accepted uncritically the faith and spiritual practices that were given to me. I was receiving the building blocks of faith.

Not that I didn’t have or ask questions, but any questions I had during this stage were almost always about how things within the Catholic tradition worked, like “Why don’t priests marry?” “Why do we do things this way?”

And there’s nothing wrong with this stage. Everyone goes through it; everyone has to go through it. While each person born into a religious tradition eventually has to make the decision to own their faith (or not), initially we need to learn the ropes, take the first few steps with the help and example of people already on the journey. Our faith has to begin somewhere, usually because of someone.

It makes me think of 2 Timothy 1:5. The apostle Paul is writing Timothy, and says this: “I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and now, I am convinced, is in you also.”

Timothy, then, grew up with a believing grandmother and mother–and they are the ones who spiritually nurtured Paul’s protege and planted the seeds of faith. Those early years gave Timothy the building blocks of faith. He would have to grow and mature as a believer, but this is how it began for him. And so it is with every person of faith.

As a Dad (not to mention a pastor!), I often think about how I might be failing or succeeding in instilling faith into my children. I want them to become people of strong, personal faith. And I sometimes get these little glimpses that tell me much of what they believe they only believe because I and my wife believe it. To some extent, they’re a little more like parrots than songbirds. They are repeating what they’ve heard, not singing their own tune. They are receiving the building blocks of faith.

Honestly, there are times when I have to remind myself of where I was at their age. Because you have these worries as a parent. Am I doing a good job at teaching and modeling what it means to be a Christian? Or do I simply assume I am? Somewhere in the back of my brain there are insistent questions: “What if they reject what I’ve tried to teach them?” “What if they walk away from God and from the church?”

And the truth is, they might. At least for a time. That is, faith cannot always remain inherited faith. As the saying goes, “God has no grandchildren.” Whenever a person is raised in a Christian home, there comes a time when they have to make their faith their own. That will be as true for my kids as it was for me.

Although we all receive the building blocks of faith, religious or otherwise, each of us has to do something with those blocks. The spiritual journey of coming to hold our beliefs begins with construction.

Take a moment right now and think about your core beliefs. How did you come to believe those things? If, like me, you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and that he is the Son of God, where did you get that belief? How did you receive the building blocks of faith? Who passed those building blocks on to you?

Or to put it another way: how did your journey of faith begin?

Next time we’ll take a look at what is called deconstruction.