As I scrolled down my News feed this morning, an article titled 6 Things Christians Should Stop Saying to People Who Doubt caught my eye. While a heavy eye roll was my natural reaction to yet another article that seemed to paint Christians in a negative light, I couldn’t resist clicking. As my eyes traveled down the page, the feeling of conviction grew heavier and heavier. Not because it painted Christians in a negative light but because of how valid most of the author’s points were. Needless to say, I was guilty of every single one of them.
As I finished reading, memories of when I counseled my non-Christian or doubting Christian friends flooded back. My personal accounts of “Christian therapy” sessions consisted of a lot of talking on my part but not much listening. It consisted of many assumptions and not as much empathy along with a generous helping of judgement. As I stood in the middle of a Manhattan gym, I felt the overwhelming urge to call and apologize to every person I’ve ever tried to fix by spewing religious, cookie-cutter canned responses that I didn’t even truly comprehend.
See, in my defense, I did mean well. My pleas were based on genuine love and care for them. However, we as Christians need to improve our method of delivery. When a friend or acquaintance communicates their doubt or complete denial of God, we go into a Sir Fix-a-Lot frenzy as if the next sentence out of our mouth holds the power to determine the ultimate fate of another human being. So we counsel them in meticulous detail about what they should do, why they’re wrong and what will happen if they choose door A or B. And in most cases, as the author recounted in her own experience, this does more harm than good.
Then, how should we respond when a friend or family member confides that they’re starting to doubt or move away from their Christian faith? While these aren’t hard or fast rules, here are a few suggestions.
1. Replace You statements with I
In my personal experience, whenever a friend starts to describe their struggle with believing in God, faith, etc. my brain goes into auto-pilot and psychoanalyzes every single word they say. I call this practice divine projecting. Not only do I try to dissect exactly what they’re feeling and why, I make every attempt to align their current situation with my past experiences. Essentially, I’m projecting my own faith journey onto them.
If they say that they don’t feel connected to God anymore, I tell them it’s because they aren’t praying and reading their bible enough. If they mention that they think Christians are hypocritical, I assure them it’s because they’re going to the wrong church. If they admit to exploring other faiths, I go full-on Baptist preacher and break out the holy water. In reality, while these are some of the reasons why I’ve struggled with my faith in the past, assuming that my journey is the same as theirs is also assuming God created a bunch of human clones with identical lives, paths and struggles. I think we can all agree that’s not true. Instead of layering your own experience onto theirs, if they are open to listen, share your own faith journey without deducing it’s the same path they’re currently on.
Because YOU JUST DON’T KNOW.
Let them absorb what they need from your story but don’t force it. The God of the universe doesn’t need your help to fix anybody, he just needs you to be open to share with those who ask.
2. Be Vulnerable About Your Own Doubts
I don’t know about you, but I’ve made some definitive statements about Christianity that I was less than 100% sure about. Like a lot less than 100%. Modern religious systems have cultivated an atmosphere where doubt equals weakness. When a friend reveals that they are struggling with their faith, aggressively retorting about how you’re 150% sure about everything in the bible is a great way to send them running in the opposite direction. I can’t help but wonder if our overzealous need to convince others that we’re completely on point with our faith is a way of compensating for our own doubts and disbelief.
Also, how do you think a person who’s struggling with their faith feels when you tell them you’ve never struggled with doubt or disbelief? When dealing with a loved one who’s doubting, aim for authenticity, not a false veil of unattainable spiritual perfection.
As the old cliche goes, God is bigger than our doubts, so why are we so scared of them? The three most under utilized words in the Christian vocabulary is I don’t know. Use it. Share it. Embrace it.
3. You’re a Christian, Not Miss Cleo
In our mission to convince a doubter to turn back to Christ, we tend to adopt a results-driven approach. There’s nothing worse than foreshadowing someone’s faith future only to be utterly wrong and have to explain yourself later.
Don’t make promises on behalf of God.
I’ve been guilty of advising people that once they say the Lord ’s Prayer, their life will transform into unicorns and rainbows. I’ve told people that once they get baptized, their doubts and fears will wash away soon as they break the surface. I’ve even told people that if they just prayed, they can have anything and everything they desire. Just because it’s what someone wants to hear doesn’t make it biblical.
Can all of the aforementioned claims come true? Of course they can. Is it my job to play spiritual prophet and say whatever I feel will increase their chances of turning back to Christ? Nope. While I completely believe that certain people have been anointed in the spiritual gift of prophecy, if you’re not sure you have it, you probably don’t.
That’s all. Just listen.
If this sounds like Christian-bashing to you then I apologize. If looking within ourselves and admitting that we’ve somewhat stumbled at this evangelizing thing is Christian-bashing, then feel free to bash my article. If anything, consider this my humble attempt to reconcile mistakes I’ve made throughout my own faith journey. While I won’t assume that you’ve committed the same, I hope it inspires you to reflect on your own path as well.