When My Faith Unraveled

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*I am continuing my Faith Shift blog series, where I unfold my own story of faith shifting as laid out in Kathy Escobar’s book, Faith Shift. The first week, I talked about fusing my faith, a time in my life when I found security in the certainty of my faith, and the gifts evangelicalism gave me. Last week, I recall everything I learned at Fuller Seminary and began a process of shifting my faith. Some people return to their fused faith after faith shifting, while I, embarked on the process of faith unraveling. Here’s my story:

You have to remember, I was a very good Christian girl. All my years coming of age were ones of striving to be as godly as possible. I was praised as a spiritually mature person, and I received those compliments in humility, as I knew I should. I was heralded alongside my husband as the remarkable young couple who sought long obedience in the right direction – to the mission field. I was looked upon as one who could give wise counsel and trusted as one who knew God intimately.

Then I lost all of that. 

Maybe not immediately, and certainly not visibly to everyone outside my inner circle. But inside, the dark night of my soul descended quickly upon me. Like the setting before a storm, the clouds turned gray, the winds picked up speed, and in the horizon, you could spot the seedlings of a tornado forming, ready to sweep through and uproot any semblance of faith that has settled in the vulnerable terrains of my spirit. 

That tornado left nothing unturned. I responded to the faith shifting that had begun, and allowed myself to pick up every doctrine, every practice, every belief I had, flipping it upside down, inside out, and slamming it against the wall a few times just for kicks, much like a toddler with a brand new toy. I became deeply troubled by some of the central tenets of my faith, aspects I previously accepted wholeheartedly and committed myself to – doctrines like atonement, salvation, evangelism and missions. Not just side issues, I went straight for the jugular and let myself bleed out. I drifted, actually, more like I swam with furious strokes, towards the peripherals of orthodoxy and beyond, trying on different theological lenses, testing my faith under every microscope to see if it’s viable. 

Intellectually, it was a process that was both illuminating and confusing. I learned so many ideas I wasn’t quite sure which one was right anymore. But the best thing that came out of my deconstruction was being okay with not knowing. I stopped worshipping at the idol of certainty, and instead of feeling adrift, I found more solid ground than ever. Faith, I discovered, wasn’t about demarcating boundaries of orthodoxy, but about the vulnerability of trust in a place of unknowing. 

Emotionally and socially, I was a wreck. I made people uncomfortable in many ways. Some people were intimidated by my intellectual wrestling because of my command of theological lingo. I resisted being called smart or labeled as an intellectual because it made me feel isolated and alone. I didn’t want to be put on a pedestal, I wanted to connect with people.

I felt estranged from my coworkers and friends from my past because of my evolving ideas about faith. I made up stories in my mind that they reject me, believe me to be a heretic, and that I had become “dangerous.” These made-up stories were not completely unfounded. They came to be because I watched the way communities reacted towards others who were like me, particularly on the blogosphere. When The Gospel Coalition would call out Rachel Held Evans on issues of equality for women, I imagined that must be what conservative Christians believed of me. I too, had become a fierce Jesus Feminist. 

But inside, the dark night of my soul descended quickly upon me.

I was not wrong. People from my past came out of the woodwork to “dialogue” with me, I found myself defending my faith positions in conversations I never asked to be a part of. Members in a Bible study I was in wanted to quit because I stirred up too much conflict. I made others upset in ministries because I insisted on presenting a divergent opinion and they felt I was not contributing to Christian unity. I was practically boo-ed out of a seminary classroom because they felt my ideas were too radical. I stirred up a hornet’s nest wherever I went just by bringing my authentic self into that space. 

Remember, I was the good Christian girl. This person I had become seemed to be an enemy of God, insistent on bringing destruction to Christian communities. It devastated me because I wasn’t trying to cause trouble, I was simply being honest with who I am. I felt shunned and excluded and filled with shame, to the point that I made up another grandiose story: what if, I am no longer a Christian? Because surely, if I still resembled a Christian, I could find even just a small seat at the edges of Christian community.

The last embers of my faith were about to be snuffed out. Just as Kathy describes in Faith Shift, my faith unraveling has taken me through anger, sadness, shame, confusion and fear. Were there any pieces of my faith left to be salvaged? Could I ever return to the vitality of my previous spirituality before unraveling? Do I have any friends left? I had never felt so alone.

Kathy’s chapter after faith unraveling is titled, “Against All Odds, New Life Springs Up.” The tornado has stripped everything down to ruins. I sat in the rubble of the aftermath and looked for signs of life. With my bare hands, I started digging. I was unafraid of the mess and disregarded the dirt on my fingers as I rummaged like mad. And as sure as the grass is green, I found some signs of new life sprouting in the most unexpected places. 

There was life. I just had to go to the brink of death to find it.

*follow or subscribe for the last post of the series: Rebuilding*

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  • Wow! This has me all over it as well – wonderful words Cindy. As a ‘missionary’, ‘teacher’, ‘pastor’ etc etc for the last 20 + years I so hear you! And I simply love this – “I responded to the faith shifting that had begun, and allowed myself to pick up every doctrine, every practice, every belief I had, flipping it upside down, inside out, and slamming it against the wall a few times just for kicks, much like a toddler with a brand new toy. I became deeply troubled by some of the central tenets of my faith, aspects I previously accepted wholeheartedly and committed myself to – doctrines like atonement, salvation, evangelism and missions. ”

    I have had to hide in much of my poetry for there I can be a closet heretic for a season whilst this delightful reorientation of a spiritual storm passes over my head. At times I think I am in the eye of the hurricane – sometimes it’s still, serene, almost peaceful – lol – Much is developed in my book Soulshift – but that is a few years old now and things became even more turbulent – that was when I wrote Awareness. Where I ask a whole lot more questions – the journey continues though – into the heart of wonder… 🙂

    • I love that – into the heart of wonder – thank you for sharing this with me, Steve.

  • Suzanna Turner

    So beautifully written Cindy. Uncertainty was such a scary thing for me. In the Episcopal the word mystery is used frequently to answer the unknown. I recently listened to a theologian Micheal Hardin talk about non-violent atonement and it just opened up my world but I have so many questions. For some reason at my church I couldn’t understand what in the world they were talking about. How can the gospel be the gospel without the atonement? Then when Hardin explained it clearly to me in a way I could truly understand. I think the main reason is that he came out of the same Baptist background. My Priest and others at church were cradle Episcopalian so they can’t understand the gravity of how deep and painful it is like waking up from a bad dream. Everything that I believed in was from a place of fear.
    Thank you so much for telling your story and by the way you have many friends me being one of them.

    • Thank you for being my friend, Suzanna!! <3

  • This is beautiful. I love the way you talk about the idol of certainty. I also love how you boldly point out the things that make the church uncomfortable — like how your authenticity and questions weren’t as welcome as they should be. I related with this post all too strongly, and I really want to know what happened next for you.

    • Thank you friend. I have one more post coming up. Hopefully will be easier to write as this one was PAINFUL…

  • dj

    Well, I could have written this myself, it so perfectly describes where I’m at. Looking foward to the next installment… hoping for hope. …

    • I’m so glad you resonated. Let me know what you think of the next post.

  • This unraveling is so familiar. It’s terrifying at first, isn’t it? Then exhilarating and freeing. God is in the undoing and the mending. I’m thinking it’s going to be a life-long process. 🙂

    • Yes, but I am already finding the process less unsettling. Or more like, I’m at peace with what is unsettling.

      • Yes. Me too. Thanks for sharing your story here, Cindy. I’m looking forward to reading the next part.

  • !!! You’re speaking my language. Or describing a close parallel of my experience. Except . . . I’m not to “the other side,” as you seem to be. I can’t describe my feelings about what’s happening in and around me, as Steve Roberts did, as “into the heart of wonder.” I am unwilling to give up the questioning, but there is nothing pleasant about it at this point in my life. Instead, I find it quite crushing, ominous, dark. Yes, “dark night of the soul.” Still. After close to 17 years. . . .

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