By Jen Zamzow

When Your Faith No Longer Feels Familiar

Faith shifts are hard enough when we can see them coming.

There are certain times in life when we expect our beliefs to evolve. When I was 19, I boarded a plane in my hometown in Nebraska and headed for Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. As I traded cornfields for palm trees and sandy beaches, I knew that my scenery would not be the only thing that would change. I would change. The suitcases I dragged with me into that freshman dorm were filled with more than just books and clothes and a hairdryer. They were filled with everything I had accumulated during my childhood — my beliefs, my values, my experiences, my faith. Choices that I had made and choices that had been made for me. There were things in those suitcases that had shaped me in ways I wasn’t even aware of until I began unpacking them.

As I spent those four years sorting through the things I had amassed throughout my life, I slowly determined what still fit me and what didn’t, which beliefs I wanted to keep with me on my journey and which ones I desperately wanted to leave behind. I didn’t know how I would change during college, but I at least knew that I would. College is a time and a place where we anticipate change. By the time I would step across the stage on graduation day, my faith would be different than it was when I stepped into my freshman dorm for the first time. I would be different. I knew change was coming.  

Change is harder when it sneaks up on us. Death, divorce, miscarriage, job loss, depression — there is no shortage of ways in which our lives can suddenly be turned upside down and we’re left asking questions we weren’t prepared for: How could God let this happen? Where is God in all of this? Is God even real?

In times of uncertainty, we often cling to anything that feels familiar. When we begin questioning and doubting things that once seemed so certain, it can make our faith feel precarious just when we could use it the most.

What should we do when we need our faith but it no longer feels familiar to us?

There are no easy answers to this question, but here are three important things to keep in mind when your faith begins to feel precarious:

1. Be patient with yourself

When we’re younger, it’s easier to grant ourselves the time and space to sort things out. We know that it’s okay that we don’t know everything just yet; we’re still learning. As we journey deeper into adulthood, however, we begin to feel like we’re supposed to have things figured out. We feel increasingly responsible for our own lives. New people enter our lives and, especially as women, we feel responsible for them too. This makes it harder to be patient in the unknown. People are counting on us. We are counting on us. We don’t want the messy middle; we want to skip straight to the answers. We feel a frantic need to get things right immediately.

But what if this is fear talking? And what would happen if we faced this fear? What if instead of jumping into the first answers we found, we took time to just sit with the questions even when it feels uncomfortable? We might not come up with the answers as quickly, but what if we are able to come up with better answers?

When we try to bypass the messy middle by clinging too tightly to our beliefs out of fear of letting them go, we can’t grow. We can’t get closer to the truth until we loosen our grasp on our current beliefs and take a good, hard, honest look at them. When we push too quickly for resolution without taking time to figure out whether this is even how we should resolve things, we end up with simplistic answers that don’t even address the questions that we desperately need to ask.

It’s okay to be patient. It’s okay to allow ourselves the time and space to process our thoughts and feelings about God, ourselves, and the world. It’s okay to spend some time in the messy middle, with our faith in flux. After all, faith is not about having everything figured out; it’s about doing the hard work of asking the difficult questions. Faith is not about pretending to have all the right answers; it’s about trusting that the answers are there when we don’t see them. Faith doesn’t require us to have the truth; it requires us to seek the truth, to admit that we don’t have everything figured out, to be willing to keep learning. We might feel like we’re failing those who count on us when we don’t have clear answers to give them, but isn’t patience in the journey an even better gift to give them?

2. See the opportunity

When we’re open to it, there are truths we can learn in the messy middle that we can’t learn anywhere else. As difficult as faith shifts can be, changes in our faith are not always bad. We often fear that doubt and uncertainty will destroy our faith. But it’s when we are not sure whether we should believe that we are driven to ask a really important question: Why should we have faith?

And it’s when we ask why we should pursue a life of faith that we are most likely to find a faith that connects with our deepest selves, a faith that is real and meaningful. Stepping back to look at the meaning and purpose of our faith gives us an opportunity to reshape our faith in more authentic and transformative ways.   

3. Be gentle with yourself

As we allow ourselves time in the messy middle, we need to remember be gentle with ourselves and with each other. It can be hard not to feel guilty when we don’t believe the things we think we’re supposed to believe.

But just as it’s okay to allow ourselves time and space to process our thoughts and feelings about God, it’s also okay to give ourselves time and space not to process. There are times when we’re just not ready for it. And when we ignore our limits, we get into trouble. We push ourselves too hard. We push others too hard. We let others push us too hard. And we end up collapsing under the weight of it all. While pushing ourselves a little past our comfort zone can sometimes be good for us, pushing ourselves beyond our limits can shatter us.

We cannot force ourselves to believe something through sheer will; that’s not how belief works. And guilting or shaming ourselves or others into holding onto particular beliefs about God does little more than further our depression and despair. It is not how we foster deep, authentic faith; it’s how we end up overwhelmed, anxious, or angry at God.

It’s okay to admit that sometimes, we just can’t. We can’t believe. We can’t even think about it. As in any relationship, it’s healthy to give ourselves some space when we need it. There are times to push forward, but there are also times to allow ourselves to be still and be embraced by a God who cares deeply for our hurts, our pains, our struggles. God made us with limits; we don’t need to be ashamed of them. Sometimes we need space. And that’s okay.

God waits for us in the messy middle.

About the Author

Jen Zamzow is a philosopher, a writer, and a mom to two little boys. She explores how we can overcome obstacles to our thinking and decision making so that we can live more meaningful, intentional, and connected lives. Jen lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and teaches ethics online for UCLA and Concordia University Irvine. She blogs about religion, politics, and parenting at jenzamzow.com.

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