Hello! It’s your friendly neighbourhood disclaimer here…
For the sake of bringing some organization to this topic of navigating relationship with someone who is choosing a different belief system than you, I’m breaking my thoughts into two posts. I understand that relationships don’t necessarily follow neat steps and stages. This post (part one) is about listening and responding in difficult initial conversations about changing beliefs about God and/or the Bible. Part two will discuss moving forward after the initial conversations. These posts are written from the perspective of the person who is processing the “changing beliefs” that a Christian (or formerly Christian) friend is sharing with them.
While I’m disclaiming anyways, I should also probably apologize for my excessive use of the phrase “changing beliefs.” It’s vague. I know it is, but I kept using it because I wanted your brain to fill in that blank with whatever difficult topic you and your loved one are navigating. In general, when I talk about “changing beliefs”, I’m referring to someone choosing to not be a Christian anymore, admitting they don’t believe in God, or taking a stance on a topic that, to you, seems contrary to what the Bible says.
Also, I’m also going to break out the bullet point list format, even though I don’t want to. Sorry. You’ve been warned.
This is the sort of post that feels like it could have one million caveats and asterisks and “but what about-s”. I’ve used a lot of words, and I’m sure that they aren’t all the right ones. This post comes from a heart of gratefulness for the generous way that my people have loved me and listened to me over the past few months/years. I want to share the things that I have learned and appreciated, in case they can bring perspective to others as well.
Did you know that Matthew West has a podcast?
It’s called The Matthew West Podcast, and it has the catchiest theme song in the world.
Somewhere on the social medias, I saw that Matthew West had done an interview with Jon Steingard for his podcast. It caught my attention because I knew that sometime in recent months, Jon Steingard (lead singer of Christian rock band Hawk Nelson) had announced that he was no longer a Christian. I thought to myself, “How will a Christian worship leader interact with someone who has renounced their belief in God?”
So I listened.
Folks, it was good. (You can listen to it yourself here, if you want to.) It can be difficult to interact with people who have chosen different beliefs than you, but Matthew and Jon navigated the conversation well. The words that kept coming to my mind were respect and humility.
I think that this topic of “discussing changing beliefs” is something that we all do well to spend some time thinking about.
Have you had difficult conversations lately?
I have. I’ve been on both ends of it. The end where I’m the one who admits that a certain belief of mine has changed (or never truly existed), and the end where I need to process what someone has shared with me about their changing beliefs.
Change is a natural part of life. It’s part of being a living, healthy human being. Change takes place in our spiritual lives as well. (I’m still pondering how much control we have over that kind of change- over the doubts and questions. Perhaps it is more that we have control over how we respond to the doubts? But still… how much power do we have? Let me know if you have knowledge on this.)
Change may be natural, but it sure can hurt.
A friend admitting that they no longer believe in God.
Differing views on homosexuality.
Giving up practices that seem clearly God-ordained to you.
No longer believing there is a hell.
Different ideas about what the Bible is and how it should be approached.
How can we love our spouse, our child, our parent, our sibling, or our friend and discuss these things well when it feels like the ground has been pulled out from under our feet? When we are reeling with disappointment? When we fear for our friend’s soul? When we feel anger about their lack of willingness to just believe or just obey?
How do we move forward?
In our fear, we may be tempted to argue, defend, or guilt-trip.
But I think….
I think that there is a better way.
I think that we need to begin by listening.
Here are some things to consider when someone is sharing their beliefs with you and what they are saying feels wrong and disappointing to you.
- If someone is sharing their doubts, questions, and struggles with you, they have most likely already been on a long private journey. We can honour that journey by listening without interrupting. Without arguing. Without defending. Don’t act as though they “haven’t thought this through.” It takes a lot of courage to admit to yourself and to others that you don’t believe what you used to be sure of. If someone invites you into their story, be respectful.
- Let’s be careful to not respond in a way that indicates that we love them less or wish that they were different. Let’s not indicate that their questions are an unbearable burden to us. These conversations can be raw. It’s plain old hard. But think about it this way… aren’t you glad that they wanted to be honest with you? Sure, the relationship may have felt simpler before, but it wasn’t whole. Now we have the opportunity to move into deeper relationship.
- When someone shares a belief that is different than yours, it can be tempting to prove your point by throwing out all the Scripture references you can think of. After all, “be ready to give an answer to he who asks!” Right? Of course, there is a time to remind someone of what the Bible says. But there is also a time for us to accept that they already know what the Bible says. The knowledge is in their hands now. They don’t need Scripture quoted at them. Chances are that they are carrying some hurt and fear with them, and what they need is someone to say, “I don’t love you a stitch less than I did before you told me this,” and then to live the Gospel in their direction.
- I believe that questioning and doubting is something that a lot of Christians experience, but I think that we need to be able to listen to other people’s doubts and questions without attempting to prove to that person that we have had similar doubts that we overcame by reading certain books/praying/choosing to have faith. We can never truly understand what another person is feeling. Let’s not presume.
- We shouldn’t assume that just because we presented our belief more eloquently means that they should drop their beliefs and accept ours. It can be hard to express a fresh belief. It’s almost like learning a new language. Be patient and gracious if your loved one has trouble explaining clearly what they are thinking and feeling. Don’t use their poor expression as an excuse to disregard what they are saying as something shallow and not well thought through.
- Let’s be willing to release people from the molds that we have for them. Don’t expect them to ever fit neatly into that mold again. That’s too much pressure to put on a person. (Do we ever come back from any kind of journey exactly the same as when we left?) Even if we don’t verbalize it to the person, I think it’s easy for us to project the idea that we are hoping and praying that God will restore them to a past version of themselves. Let’s fight that. The old has passed away, and God is doing a new thing now.
It feels to me that I mainly tell you things to not do in this article. Please don’t take that to mean that I’m telling you to be passive, or that I’m saying that we need to be accepting of every belief that comes our way. That’s certainly not what I think. Healthy relationships have room for each person to express themselves and room to challenge each other.
What I’m trying to say is that I think we can listen well even if we don’t agree with what the person is saying. It’s easy to feel threatened and panicky when someone close to you expresses a very different belief. When someone shares with you, they are most likely not asking you to agree with them. They are asking, “How deep does the bond between us run?” I hope that as we search our hearts when we find ourselves in these difficult conversations, we find that the love of Jesus is rooted deeper than we ever knew. I hope that we offer love generously, not because of what we have in common with a person, but because they have been created in the image of God and hold an eternal soul within them.
After all, isn’t this why God gave us this good gift of relationship? To live out unconditional commitment and love?
That’s what He offers us, isn’t it?
Let us grow together in generosity, courage, and truth.
My next post will discuss moving forward after the initial difficult conversations about someone’s changing beliefs.
It probably won’t be this long. Hehe.
So what are your thoughts?
Do you agree with anything? Disagree with anything?
Which is more important: changing a person’s mind when you think they are wrong (potentially causing a rift in the relationship) or caring for the relationship?
What have you learned about listening in difficult conversations?
I think that a great third post on this topic would be a discussion about things to consider when you are the one sharing a changing belief that you know will be hard for your “listener” to accept. Any volunteers? 😀