“I don’t believe in God anymore. At least not in the God I heard about in church.” Have you heard someone you love make this statement? Have you read similar declarations from people you once admired? According to the Barna institute, this trend is likely to continue. The younger generations are asking questions their parents never thought to consider—questions about gender, happiness, what it means to be human, equality, and what is “fair.” These questions push against traditional biblical teaching and sometimes lead to “deconstructing” from Christianity.
You can find podcasts, churches, books, and conferences now organized around the trend of deconstruction from biblical Christianity. Some who have gone through this process deny God altogether while others embrace a progressive form of Christianity that rejects the authority of Scripture and the supremacy of God as Lord and King.
Perhaps the only thing more discouraging than witnessing a Christian leader fall away is watching it happen with someone you love. A child. A sibling. A spouse. I recently heard from a young man desperate to save his wife and his marriage: “After two years of marriage, my wife is questioning everything! I don’t know who I am married to anymore. We actually met at a missions conference, and our relationship has been built around God. Where do I turn for help?” While a person’s relationship with God must be personally navigated, family and friends around them can be an important piece of coming back to God within that struggle.
Here are four critical things to remember if you find yourself or someone you love in the midst of “deconstructing.”
About every other year, I read through the entire Bible. Right now, I’m in the book of Numbers. Practically every day of studying the Old Testament Law, I hit something that causes me to feel a tension. I wonder how a loving God would allow that to happen? And why did God treat men so differently than He treated women? I wrestle to understand the God of the Old Testament in light of the love of Jesus.
Events in my life also cause me to re-examine my faith. The most effective Christian servant I know is diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 50. I see a severely disabled child and wonder why God would allow such brokenness in a human life.
In psychology, we call these experiences cognitive dissonance. It is the stress that results when we encounter something that doesn’t fit with our held beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is a normal part of human life, whether you are an atheist or committed Christian. The atheist must wrestle with the evidence of redemption in a person’s life (like Kanye West), every supernatural miracle they hear about, and deeper questions about why the universe has such complexity and order. As the Bible says, all of creation declares that there is a God.
We all experience continual minor deconstructions of what we believe. The question is not whether we will deconstruct, but where we turn for truth in the rebuilding process.
Sometimes in our own anxiety, we refuse to entertain someone else’s unsettling questions. We don’t want to hear about our child’s doubts or our friend’s anger toward God. Instead of listening and validating, we tend to answer gut-wrenching questions with empty platitudes. Doing this pushes people further into the realm of doubt. If the Christians they know can’t handle their questions, then maybe God can’t either.
Job is one big study in cognitive dissonance that could have led to Job walking away from His faith. His wife likely did. Job’s friends tried to explain away the hard questions and even criticized Job for asking them. Yet God was quiet as Job wrestled, knowing that this would be part of Job’s journey toward a deeper spiritual maturity.
The best way to deal with the anxiety of cognitive dissonance is to acknowledge it and hit it head on. Instead of ignoring or explaining away dissonance, embrace it. Just yesterday, I spoke with a young woman wrestling with disillusionment with Christians. She said something like, “How can Christianity be true if the Christians are critical and rejecting while my unbelieving friends are loving and accepting?” This is a valid reason why many young people permanently deconstruct from Christianity. They care about justice and love far more than they care about theology.
We must get comfortable with these conversations instead of shutting them down with a Bible verse. People deconstruct from Christianity when their questions are continually ignored or simplistically addressed. There is a time to talk about Scripture and God’s character, but it is often after listening and simply sitting with someone’s doubts and pain. The journey may be a long one. Be committed to walking it.
While people have always deconstructed from Christianity (or fallen away from faith), research indicates that we are seeing an accelerated trend. Barna’s studies additionally suggest that those who fall away today are less likely to return to their belief in God in the future. While there are many factors that contribute to this pattern, perhaps the greatest is that many Christians have a shallow understanding of theology. For many, reading the Bible means snacking on devotionals that promote a prosperity gospel Jesus who wants them to find personal happiness. In order to make Christianity more attractive to seekers, pastors and writers focus on Christian positivity, ignoring any teaching on human depravity, hell, judgment, eternal life, and the holiness of God. When trials hit, it’s no wonder that Christians question what they have been taught about God.
As a freshman in college, I took an Old Testament survey class that blew my mind. I had grown up in church and knew the Bible, but had never seen how the whole story fit together before this class. The prophets and the OT Law just seemed like obscure ancient history. A gifted teacher opened my eyes to see how what I didn’t understand about God fit within what I knew about Him.
The older generation of Christians (like me!) need to learn from young Christians about love, compassion, and inclusion. But we also need to be the teachers and mentors who unfold the treasures and puzzles of Scripture that have been ignored by feel-good devotionals and sermonettes. Cognitive dissonance begs for answers. Often those answers are not explaining, “Here is why God allows pain,” but modeling how “God’s plan is much greater than we understand.”
John chapter six records a time when many of Jesus’ disciples abandoned Him. Jesus had taught something that offended them and created a cognitive dissonance that they refused to work through. Jesus turned to the twelve and asked, “Will you also leave me?” Peter replied, “Where else will we go, Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life.” In his perplexity, Peter returned by faith to what he knew to be true, with the willingness to sit with an unanswered mystery. We see similar events in the journey of Paul, John the Baptist, David, and Mary. Hebrews 11, often referred to as the “hall of fame of faith” tells of many who journeyed by faith, believing what they could not explain or see.
Christian writers like A.W. Tozer, St. John of the Cross, and Brother Lawrence are often referred to as “Biblical mystics” because they went beyond studying the words of Scripture and ventured into the mysteries of God. The Scriptures “set the table” for us to ponder and experience a God who is beyond understanding. For us to know God will ultimately mean leaving the security of words on a page and grappling with a Being who defies our own reasoning. Every one of us must continually “deconstruct” from who we think God to be in order for us to approach the mysteries of who He actually is. Discipleship means not only embracing dissonance, but at times even inviting it.
The trend of deconstructing truth is heart-breaking. None of us want to see those we love or respect reject Jesus, particularly once they have walked with Him! Yet we must recognize the opportunity to love each other in the midst of pain, doubt, and disappointment. Questions can be either the end of belief in God or the catalyst to a mature faith in Him. May we be filled with God’s grace to meet friends in their struggle and with His wisdom to remind them that Jesus alone has the words of eternal life.
Follow up: Every Christian leader must be equipped to wade into these difficult and painful waters with the compassion and truth of Jesus. Whether you are in full-time ministry or a lay leader, join us for Equip, a digital summit for those who want to have gospel-centered conversations sexual topics.
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