People change. And for those that watch that change, it can be very uncomfortable. The person you knew and loved isn’t the same any longer.
And that presents a quandary: what do we do about it?
This post will be more revealing than some I’ve recorded, because it gets pretty personal, about my recent story. But I think it needs to be explored.
In 2020, I began to dig through my collection of spiritual, doctrinal, social, and political “relics,” (in the sense of ancient artifacts usually with religious significance) and carefully assess each one for its eternal value. As I’ve shared in various posts on this blog, the process was triggered by some emotional healing, followed closely by observing the traumatic effect on some close friends of the George Floyd murder and subsequent upheaval in our nation.
As I traversed that collection of relics, I found that quite a few things that I’d inherited over the decades seemed to have either little eternal value, or were in various ways actually harmful to me. Things that I had cherished suddenly seemed worthless. Others that I had carefully held tightly were revealed as not actually having been given to me by God, but by well-intentioned but misled humans.
This change, not surprisingly, was very visible to many of those around me.
And just as unsurprisingly, it was not welcome to many of those around me.
They liked who I was before. In some cases, I’m sure that my faults had made them feel better about themselves. But in most cases, they valued what those relics of mine brought into their lives. Many of them I’d walked with through thick and thin, and been their leader in study groups and ministries in the church. I was accustomed to being asked deep questions by some of them, and finding my thoughts and accumulated wisdom (or at least knowledge) valuable to them. Many of my views and teaching and mentoring was informed by those relics, and I was setting many of them aside, no longer valuing some things that had bound us together.
So when I changed, and began to talk about social and political and doctrinal things that varied from their comfort zone, they bailed out. I wrote a detailed account of my reasons for stepping out of church leadership, and invited them to converse.
That didn’t go very far. Out of 40 or 50 people who received that information, exactly two reached out to me to understand better, and those two already (unbeknownst to me) mostly agreed with what I was now learning.
I’d like to think that my detailed account was self-sufficient, and the reason that the others didn’t ask any questions was because I had already answered them in that letter.
But as I’ve moved on in my journey, I’ve frequently continued to think about what happened, and I’ve realized that it wasn’t that I’d answered their questions. Instead, I think they were afraid to admit to any questions.
When someone changes so completely and abruptly, those on the outside looking in are presented with a quandry. In today’s typical American religious systems, with a very western, individualistic, and self-sufficient outlook, I’ve discovered that certainty and unquestioning belief are deeply valued as the very definition of faith. Someone who abandons what they grew up with is therefore the very epitome of unfaithful. And therein is the quandary: if we value someone’s wisdom, often for years or decades, and then they change spiritually, maybe they know something we don’t know. Why else would such a wise person change? But if we inquire about what caused the change, we might have to learn something that changes us too. That person’s new-found views might require us to rethink some deeply-held, tightly-grasped doctrine or political understanding. But that would make us unfaithful, given our definition of faith.
So the only solution, when a close and wise friend changes at a deep level, is to abandon that friendship, lest we risk losing our own faith. Because, again, our definition of faith – which I believe is deeply flawed – requires us NOT to change, no matter what buffets us.
And so it’s best not to ask.
Over the years, I watched several people leave our apparently tight-knit church circles, and either migrate to another church, or simply drop out of church altogether. Some of them I knew pretty well before they left. But even though they didn’t leave town, I never asked a single one of them why they left. I just started avoiding them. Even when a couple of them returned after a few years, I still didn’t ask. It was safer, and easier, to believe myself superior to them. I reasoned that they must have lost their faith if they left our faith community, because surely there could be nothing in our church that would merit leaving. If they came back, then surely it was because they discovered that they’d been wrong to leave. We just resumed our acquaintance as if they never left.
Now I know differently: I should have sought each one of them, and sat quietly while they told their story, not presuming myself to be better, or that I knew why they had left even if I thought they were self-deceived. I should have learned from them, both upon their departure, and again upon their return.
In fact, I really should have pursued a continuation of our relationship as they journeyed through their own wilderness. Not to change or fix them, but to learn from them. Even if they were fully wrong, I could have learned from their journey, without condemning a single step of it. And if they were fully right? I would have been vastly better off by learning from that too.
Now, this might sound like a rebuke to some who know me and didn’t reach out. It’s not intended as such. I’m trying to bring some clarity for how other people choose to act in the future.
For those who remain involved in my life, you have already heard my story, and we’ve figured out how to have an ongoing relationship despite differences of opinion. And I deeply value our friendships.
For those who might read this, and didn’t reach out when I changed, I’m not challenging you on that account. I’d love to explain what happened more fully, but I place no expectations on you. You’ve got a new circle of friends, and that’s fine.
But I would challenge you with this: eventually someone you love and respect will “deconstruct” or change some core aspect of their faith or political structure, and you’ll have a choice to make: stay in intentional even if painful community, and give them and the Lord a chance to reveal new things to you. Or, stay safe. Decide it’s best not to ask. Walk away from that friendship, and find another one to replace it, where it’s comfortable and familiar.
But if you do that, I suggest that you’ll be missing out on something the Lord is doing on the earth. And more than that, I suggest that you’ll be missing out on something the Lord wants to do in you, personally. Because even if someone else is walking away for unrighteous reasons, the Lord can, and often does, use such situations to mature the rest of us. So don’t judge them – learn from them. Without condemnation. Without fear for your faith.
In fact, the very best thing I think you can do is simple, but oh so hard: give the Lord your “yes.” Tell Him, right now, right here, even before it’s relevant to any situation, that you’re willing for Him to change you in whatever way He sees fit. It’s like David wrote in Psalm 139:24, “show me if there is any offensive way in me.”
It’s an incredibly dangerous thing to ask God. In fact, you’ll probably feel like…
It’s best not to ask.
But I say the opposite: it really IS best to ask.
Ask your deconstructing or changing friends why they changed. Ask God to remove any offensive way from you. Ask Him to help you to give Him your “yes.” You won’t be disappointed.