It seems that nearly every person who becomes a believer and then walks away from their faith or away from the church does so because of disillusionment or disappointment. The simple response is to say that they never believed God, but that response lacks nuance that dismisses rigorous reflection and more effective soul care.
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In my article about a man walking away from his faith, I said,
Maybe there are more than two Christian types: (1) Those who authentically believe in Jesus and never walk away and (2) those who say they believe in Jesus and can walk away.
Christianity is not that neat, and sin has never been that respectful. The Hebrew writer is saying there is a third Christian type–a believer, who for whatever reasons, spurns the grace he once received.
I will assume, for the sake of this article, that all of the people who become disillusioned and walk away from the faith are Christians. It is unreasonable and unwise to categorize every person who walks away from God or the church as an unbeliever.
That would be a stretch, though it would be an easy way to explain the exodus of the disillusioned while keeping us from having to do the hard work of reflective thought or messy engagement.
It is not a leap in judgment to say that most of these Christians who walk away from the faith and the church do so because they became disappointed in some way. God regenerated them because they were searching for something, and they believed that Christ was the answer.
From Belief to Unbelief
Because of the clarity and the hope that the Christian message offers, these people chose to follow Christ. They believed it was right for them to step onto the Christian track and start running the race.
They made the decision, and things went well for them—at least for a while. The riddle of their lives was beginning to find a resolution, which was enough to spur them farther down the Christian path.
The Christian experience can be similar to a new car, a career, or buying a puppy. The thought of it is intriguing, and the early involvement of it is satisfying. The hard part about any relationship, whether it is with Christ, a car, a career, or a canine is that there will be future trouble, temptations, and disappointments. The church and Christ are not impervious to this reality.
These dissatisfied Christians ran down the church track, and then they stopped. Like Forrest Gump, they got tired and ended their running days with the church.
I had run for three years, two months, 14 days, and 16 hours…I’m pretty tired; I think I’ll go home now. And just like that, my running days was over. – Forrest Gump
I have talked to dozens of these people, who quit the faith–whatever that means–because it was not satisfying to them. It did not completely or consistently satisfy their most profound struggles and longings. My brother is an example of this kind of person.
Three Case Studies
He became a believer, which I believe was authentic based on a whole lot of reliable data. He became a fundamental Baptist at a church ran by an angry and domineering man. After a few years of attending church, they had a verbal, heated, sinful exchange and he walked away from the church.
Though his heart was tender toward the Lord, his hurt was too confusing and painful. Through an unrelated, though equally complicated narrative, his wife murdered him. He never went back to the church.
Mable was born in a Christian home. It seemed reasonable to her to follow the path that her parents laid out for their family. Being a good kid, she checked all the Christian boxes–the things that Christians expect from their kind: she participated in children’s ministry, youth ministry, single’s ministry, and went to Christian schools. She eventually married a Christian.
During her teen years and early twenties, she wrestled with a moderate uncomfortableness in her soul. She typically shrugged it off, if she was not tacitly engaging it. She always believed God was right and based on that one truth, she did all the right things and continued to meet the expectations of Christian assumptions, though her internal struggles never subsided.
She is now thirty-five years old and feels trapped in her marriage. She is on her own; she is a real adult—a person that has left her parents and is living in the adult world making adult decisions. This new life is her Christian faith—if it is faith at all.
Trust God, Press On
Biff’s story is similar to Mable’s. The difference is that he has been struggling with same-sex attraction for as long as he can remember. He knew it was wrong because the church said it was wrong.
Saying it is wrong is an inadequate response to the gay question. It is easy to say something is wrong, shut the door, and assume the internal struggle of same-sex attraction will go away. To say it is wrong, while not engaging the reality of what is going on inside of the struggling person is unkind and un-Christian.
Biff felt like the child, who just got yelled at for doing something dumb, but his parents would not help him with the internal temptation that led to the wrong thinking, feelings, and actions.
The “you’re wrong, trust God” cliché construct further complicated his already confused and labyrinthical soul. His only recourse was to stuff how he felt further down inside and follow the conventional path that Christians are supposed to walk.
He dared not talk about what was happening to him because he would be alienated by well-meaning Christians who would plaster him with over-worn mantras like, “the gay lifestyle is wrong; it is sinful for you to participate in that lifestyle. You need to repent.”
Like the scolded child that is lectured, but never helped, Biff could only churn in disappointment, while continuing to do Christian stuff. Thus, he married a Christian lady, secured a good job, and began to build a family.
He is also thirty-five years old, and he is finding it no longer reasonable to ignore the attraction he has for other guys. Biff, Mable, and my brother found themselves in a trap that was in their souls while separated from the help the Bible claims to provide.
Mentioning the Unmentionable
Their most perplexing problems in life—the deeper ones (not the common ones) were unnoticed and un-discussed. They represent many Christians who live the quiet life of desperation.
In too many of these instances, they choose to walk away from the faith, hoping to find something that will solve the entangling mystery that is inside of them.
These people create a dilemma for us. They are not like us, or maybe they are like us, but the difference is they are becoming outspoken about what is happening in their lives. Rather than not dealing with the issues about the disconnect between what they believe God can do and what is wrong with them, they are talking.
The easiest way to solve the riddle in their lives is to say they are not believers or they are not fully trusting the Lord. This simple response would undoubtedly keep us from digging deeper into their problems. To say “they weren’t believers” or “they need to get their hearts right with God” would do several things:
- We could ignore the process needed to help them.
- It could keep our Christianity safe from being scrutinized.
- We would not have to learn how to bring the Bible to bear on problems like this.
- We could go back to our lives, which is less messy or at least we are more comfortable with our experience than theirs.
Do Not Disturb My Christianity
If we take any of these actions, we will be able to keep our Christianity insulated in our hermetically sealed and unchallenged worldview, while spurning anything that challenges our belief system or points to the possibility that we may be culpable in some way.
We do not have to live in this kind of fear or ignorance. Our religion should be good enough to endure the scrutiny of the most sophisticated gainsayer, as well as the person with the most challenging struggles. If any system of thought could survive the process of considering all of the possibilities of what is wrong with us, while bringing accurate and satisfying answers to the problems of life, it is Christianity.
- What if we removed the easy answers?
- What if we pumped the brakes a bit by not saying, “You need to trust God.”
- What if we spent more time bringing Christ-centered answers to well-diagnosed souls?
- What if we stopped checking the Christian boxes?
- What if we stopped playing pretend and started talking about what is wrong with us?
My brother was caught in the vortex of a messed up religious system that had no answers, and he was too proud to seek help.
Mable “painted by numbers” until she became an adult and began to think for herself. By then she had accumulated a Christian reputation, a husband, and a few children. That was almost enough to keep her from signaling to others that she had doubts about God.
Biff tried religion, hoping it would take away his desire for other guys. It did not do that for him, so he left his wife, children, and Christianity behind. Read, the gay guy said, “I was born this way.”
Will You Restore Me?
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:1-2
The one thing all three of these people have in common is their disappointment with God. That is the most effective way to communicate it. You could say they were disappointed with others or maybe a religious system or possibly Christian clichés that provided no transformative insight and application.
All of those things would be correct, but all of them ultimately point to God. He is the Designer behind the design. The buck stops with Him. He is in charge, and some of His children are not satisfied with what He has provided.
It is crucial that we have this discussion. I am not blaming God. I am not accusing Him of anything critical, negative, or wrong. I am merely saying that there is a consistent element of disappointment that runs underneath the surface of our lives and we have to do more than give standard answers.
- You need to trust God.
- You need more faith.
- You’re sinning, and you need to stop it.
- You’re making an unwise choice.
- You need to surrender all.
- I will pray for you.
You can work all of those statements into the discussion with the troubled soul, but complicated and struggling people need more than simplistic, conversation-stopping remarks that do not bring solutions to their problem with total depravity.
My daughter (8-years old at the time) had a hoarding problem. She would take the trash out of the trash can and hide it throughout the house. The simple way to parent her could have been to spank her. I could have mandated that she stopped hoarding. Or, I could have prescribed that she stop accumulating and if she did not, I would punish her.
These approaches will work to a degree, and she will more than likely respond with conformity to my demands. Eventually. Maybe. The thing that would be missing in this process is that I would not be addressing her unique depravity—the things that are wrong inside of her.
The Burden for the Church
Our inability to do discipleship well is my burden for the church. Going to church, reading the Bible more, and praying harder will not cut it for the case studies that I presented here. All three of those people did the Christian things, and it did not work. They are representative of millions more.
- How would you have counseled my brother?
- How would you counsel Mable?
- What would you say to someone like Biff, who struggles with same-sex attraction?
There is an answer to the riddle of their souls. There is a solution to the problem that could lead them back to God. We, the church, need to be doing more than doing church. We need to be equipping our soul care providers so they can bring real help to the hurting. If you’re interested in going deeper in your discipleship, here is my call to action for you:
I recommend you check out our all online, long distance training program. We live in a time when it is easier than ever to equip yourself so you can bring practical care to the body of Christ. You can begin today.
Also published on Medium.