How to Prepare for a Faith Crisis

Tony Scarcello

By Tony Scarcello. Learn more about Tony here, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

In 1968, a thirteen-year-old boy went to his small-town Lutheran church carrying a copy of Life Magazine. After the service, the boy approached his pastor and asked, “If I were to lift one of my fingers, would God know which one I was going to lift before I did it?” 

The pastor responded, “Yes, God would know.”

The boy then handed the pastor his copy of Life Magazine, which showed two starving children in a far-away country on the cover. “Does God know about this?” the boy asked with distress in his voice.

The pastor looked at the photo, paused for a moment, and said, “Yes. God knows about that. Don’t worry about that. You just have to trust him.”

With that answer, the boy concluded Christianity was intellectually untrustworthy and spiritually unsatisfying. He would later go on to pioneer a small tech start-up that changed the world forever.

His name was Steve Jobs.1This story appears in Walter Isaacson’s book Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011).

It’s hard to make sense of suffering and evil in a world created by a good and loving God. Most answers to this problem can seem unsatisfying, making us feel as though we need to either turn off our brains and disengage from the world’s pain, or deconstruct our faith and embrace a naturalist worldview. 

Deconstruction can trip up earnest disciples if we don’t have a deep enough reservoir to draw from when life is at its most complicated. But what if deconstruction doesn’t have to be a crisis? What if it can be an opportunity for spiritual renewal?

I’ve spent several years of my life going down the deconstruction rabbit hole, only to return to historic, orthodox Christianity in the end. Here are four strategies I wish I had learned before I began that journey, strategies that could have made my deconstruction less of a crisis and more of an invitation into spiritual and intellectual renewal.

1. Commit to Holistic Christian Spiritual Formation.

In his latest book, Practicing the Way, John Mark Comer astutely observes that spiritual formation is not a Christian thing; it’s a human thing. We don’t have a say in whether we are being spiritually formed, only what we’re being formed into and what—or who—is forming us. 

I’ve heard it said that Christian spiritual formation is a whole-life orientation towards Christ. Whole-life orientation includes saturating our minds and hearts in Scripture. It includes yielding ourselves in quiet contemplation before our Creator, allowing him to do his work in the deepest recesses of our souls. It includes obeying Christ as Lord with our bodies, not only abstaining from harmful things but also engaging in life-giving activities such as caring for the least of these, committing to beloved community where vulnerability is anticipated, practicing Sabbath rest, sharing meals with people who wouldn’t be caught dead in religious spaces, and more.

Spiritual formation into the likeness of Christ requires intentionality and commitment. Make no mistake: if we are not being formed into the likeness of Christ, we are being formed into something else. The more we engage in holistic spiritual formation, the more the character of Christ is formed in us. The more the character of Christ is formed in us, the more likely we are to engage difficult questions and tragic stories with love, joy, peace, and the other fruits of a life in deep union with God.

Commitment to holistic spiritual formation empowers us to respond to troubling situations and questions in a way that reflects, not eclipses, the person of Jesus. 

2. Be Aware of Cultural Pressures.

If holistic spiritual formation leads to the likeness of Jesus, then it also leads to awareness and embrace of the values of Jesus.

The way of Jesus will always lead Christians to embrace values that contradict our dominant culture. Cultural values change every few decades, but the values of Jesus are the same yesterday, today, and forever. We need a sturdier foundation than the sand of cultural values.

Christians today face immense pressure to conform our values to the temporal and shaky values of our culture. While cultural values differ depending on where we live, how we’re raised, and our political tribes, these values will always demand compliance in order to be welcomed in (or be seen as “holy”) in the eyes of our culture.

The backlash to resisting cultural values can be vicious. And our subconscious attempts to avoid backlash and conform in order to fit in can compromise our fidelity to the way of Jesus. Many sincere believers have had their faith slowly eroded by dominant cultural pressures. We need to discern between the values of Jesus and mere cultural values. When we live with the expectation that our values will clash with our culture’s, we are free to lovingly engage without being caught off guard.

3. Strive for Emotional Health.

In their book A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer remind us that our souls are delicate, especially as we interact with Christ and his church at a soul level. When our souls are damaged or broken by the church, this betrayal hurts far more than when our hurt happens outside the church, and it takes far longer to heal.

This visceral pain can easily derail us spiritually when Christians or churches hurt us. Some hurts caused by the church are so severe that we might feel our only option is to withdraw, reflect, and re-evaluate how to “do church” in health. Sometimes, unfortunately, our lack of emotional health can cause our legitimate hurts to cloud our view of Jesus. If we’re not careful, we can project our feelings towards the people who hurt us onto Jesus himself, distancing ourselves from him.

Years ago I, like so many others, faced the sting of church hurt. I felt rejected, abandoned, and condemned. It was one of the deepest pains of my life. And I don’t fault myself for being hurt. However, I was not an emotionally mature person at the time, and in my anger at church I grew angry at Jesus. I wasn’t able to differentiate the church that caused me pain from the God we were all trying to worship.

Emotional health means being aware of the emotions that drive us and influence our thinking, testing them against the Ultimate Reality found in Jesus, and processing them in safety. Safe processing can include prayer, emotionally healthy habits like journaling and gratitude, trusted relationships, and in many cases a good therapist (emphasis on good). When we are aware of our emotional state and in touch with it, we are less likely to allow church hurt to define the entirety of our spiritual journeys. Emotionally healthy Christians can discern when a Christian or church is unhealthy and still know that Jesus is the path to goodness, truth, and beauty.

4. Test Your Theological Competency.

A little under 2,000 years ago, the majority of the New Testament Letters were in circulation to the first churches, teaching orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right living). However, before these letters were canonized into what we now call the New Testament, most churches did not have access to the entire library of Scripture. As a result, the early church was littered with controversy and infighting as Christians feuded over theological beliefs.

In 325 C.E., a large group of church leaders came together and, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, crafted the defining statement on Christian doctrine.2At least, that is this writer’s persuasion. This statement was called the Nicene Creed. About a hundred years later, a shorter Creed called the Apostles’ Creed started circulating in churches as well. 

Whichever Creed you prefer, the doctrine laid out is virtually the same. What’s remarkable about the Creeds isn’t just what is included, but what’s not included. There is no statement about the age of the earth, or the inerrancy of Scripture, or what your view of the end times should be, or even what political party you should align yourself with. The Creeds are not comprehensive Christian theology; they are the bare minimum of Christian theology. 

It is all too common to see someone leave the church because they didn’t believe in a literal seven-day creation and were told that if they couldn’t get on board with on the young earth perspective, they could not in good conscience call themselves Christian. In my city, there are large swaths of people who left their churches because they were told that if they didn’t vote for Trump, they weren’t real Christians. What a waste for someone to leave the faith altogether over stuff like this. 

Can you get on board with defining God as a Triune Community of self-giving love? Can you get on board with the Lordship of Jesus and surrender to his teachings of love, justice, generosity, and holiness? Can you believe in the cross and the resurrection? The forgiveness of sins? The belief that one day Jesus will return and, as Tolkien writes, make everything sad untrue?

If so, you are not losing your faith. You might be changing your mind, re-examining how you read Scripture, or figuring out what branch of the Church you most belong to, but this does not mean you have to leave your faith.

These four strategies are not a fool-proof plan to prevent your deconstruction. They don’t answer the most difficult questions or resolve the agonizing tensions. They won’t protect you from church hurt. And, of course, if you really just don’t want Jesus to be your King anymore, these strategies won’t fix that either.

But if you’re determined to love Jesus, then I pray these four strategies equip you to follow him for the long haul.

  • 1
    This story appears in Walter Isaacson’s book Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011).
  • 2
    At least, that is this writer’s persuasion.
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