Today, Josh Harris updated his Instagram account with an announcement that he no longer considers himself a Christian. In his own words:
“…I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.”
The news is still so fresh that I’ve yet to see my social media feeds blow up over this, although I am sure it is coming.
I expect to see a lot of posts supporting Josh in this latest chapter of his life.
I expect to see a lot of posts mourning over Josh’s loss of faith.
I expect to see a lot of posts attacking Josh for not doing this sooner. Or not going far enough to apologize to those his theology has hurt (it’s important to also note at this time that Josh’s announcement also contains a heartfelt apology to those in the LGBTQ+ community who were hurt by his doctrine).
As a lifelong Christian, whose partner is an atheist and whose own faith has also dramatically shifted over time (including a period where I could have honestly called myself an agnostic), I cannot mourn this new development. I feel no sadness for the shift away from faith that his life has taken.
Many Christians will hear this news and react with great sadness. This is understandable and these feelings are valid. Evangelical Christianity teaches a worldview that without Christ, we are nothing. We are doomed to death and destruction, and even eternal torment in Hell. This kind of news, if you are an Evangelical Christian with empathy for others, is absolutely devastating. I’ve seen this same scenario play out on multiple occasions during my own time in Evangelicalism. I’ve felt that same depth of sadness. Truth be told, when my partner told me that he no longer believed, my heart broke for him. I wanted him to want Jesus again. I wanted him to be safely back in the folds of my version of faith. I wanted his soul to be safe.
What I came to understand over time is that my partner was doing exactly what he needed to be doing for his own emotional and mental health. He didn’t need my pity or my sadness. He needed my support and friendship. He needed people in his corner who trusted him to work things out in whatever way was best for him.
As my own faith began to shift a little bit later, I began to understand firsthand what it must’ve been like for him to evolve from a devoted Evangelical Christian to a happy and healthy Atheist.
During my own shift, I was able to find my way back to faith. My partner wasn’t. He may never find his way back, and that’s OK. I evolved in my faith as I needed to, and I trust that my partner will wind up where he needs to be. I trust that this is something that only concerns him and God. I trust that I worship a God who is good and understands exactly why and how he wound up unable to believe. I believe that there is room for grace and that it is not my responsibility to worry about his soul.
For some people, a shift like this means never returning to any form of faith. That’s okay. It’s hard for some believers to sit with that knowledge, but it is important to recognize that this is a reality for many people. It needs to be stated that trying to force any sort of faith on them will do nothing except hurt your relationship with that person.
It is also important to understand, especially for those of us who grew up in Evangelicalism, that shifting of faith is both normal and healthy. Its an essential part of individuation and becoming self-sufficient and healthy adults. We cannot expect anyone to remain the same type of believer they may have been as a child when they still depended upon their parents and community leaders to tell them how to think and what to believe. It’s an unhealthy culture that would demand this of anyone. Change must be accepted as a normal and healthy part of development.
James Fowler has dived into the topic of the evolution of faith and has released a book on the 6 stages of faith that most people tend to go through.
I won’t list out all the stages in this post, but it is a fascinating topic. If you wish to see the summary, here is a good description.
When I discovered the stages of faith model, suddenly my spiritual progression made a lot of sense. I no longer felt like I was falling down a rabbit hole for no good reason. I no longer felt like a sinner caught up in worldly logic that intended to separate me from Jesus (as my faith community had trained me to think). There was a reason behind my doubts and questions: I was beginning to spiritually develop the way that I was supposed to. This was healthy and necessary.
I also realized that I had been stalled for many years at stage three.
Stage three is the stage where you have progressed from relying on your parents to understand faith to adopt a more personal worldview. Your faith is now something that you genuinely believe and you have compelling reasons to believe that you can articulate. However, you also still rely on trusted authority figures and groups to maintain your sense of faith.
When you begin to think critically about your own beliefs and you find yourself willing to doubt your belief system, you have entered into stage four. This is the stage where you will find yourself experiencing pushback from your faith community, your family, and even your friends who have not shifted along with you into that next stage.
This is a hard stage to find yourself in. You no longer have that sense of security of feeling like you have all of the answers. You will find yourself feeling guilty of sin for questioning or doubting. You may find yourself struggling without a community to help you navigate these new waters. It can be a hard and even traumatic time, particularly at the beginning of this stage.
This is where I encourage all Christians who haven’t experienced stage four to show grace for those who are currently there. You may see them as backsliding. You may see them as turning their back on Christ. You may see them as falling into sin. And this is all fair: this is what your community has taught you to believe. But for the person currently in stage four, the perspective is very very different. They need their communities to hold space for them, even if they can’t understand what’s happening. They need the support that they’ve come to rely on during their time in your community. They need to know that you’re willing to stand beside them in the tension of disagreement. They need to know that you will still love them and accept them even if they come out on the other side unable to share your faith.
This is where I also want to encourage those who are currently in stage four (or who have passed through it already) to remember to show grace. Those who are just entering this stage will not progress as quickly as you want them to, and there is no guarantee that they will arrive at the same conclusions about faith and God that you have. They still need you. You know what this stage feels like. You may know the pitfalls to avoid. You may know what self-care looks like while going through all of the turmoil that comes with questions and the doubt. They need you to support them through this. They need to know that they have a place among the questioners, the doubters, the nones and the dones.
There is always room for compassion and empathy, even when it involves something as personal and as controversial as faith.
I trust that Josh will be okay. I trust that he is exactly where he needs to be in regards to God. I am not worried about his soul.
I only pray that he has people around him who know how to love and support him even if they cannot follow where his path may be taking him.
This is my prayer for all of us. We may never see perfect unity in matters of doctrine or belief system. But how beautiful it would be if we could find unity in empathy and compassion for one another?