“I’m just not sure I believe any more.” “I had faith once upon a time, but now I just don’t experience anything.” “If that’s what it means to be a Christian, I don’t think I can call myself one.” “I can’t seem to find my way in religion. In fact, I have real doubts about how any of us can.” As a professor of philosophy and religion, I have heard comments like these many times. Faith crises happen. Not everybody seems to have them, but many people do have some kind of a crisis of faith at some point in their lives. They are disorienting, but they are not impossible to navigate. It’s a lot like learning to find your way around in the dark.
Ever been somewhere that you have never been before, in the dark? Really dark? What did it feel like? Confusion? Fear? Emptiness? You reach out and nothing is there. You take a step and wonder where you might fall. It is so easy in times like this to panic, but the first rule of navigating the dark is, “keep calm and don’t panic.” Sometimes a faith crisis feels like the edge of a black hole: we don’t even want to get close to the edge and so we avoid it, we deny it, we label it something else. We call it like “anger at the church” or something like that. But when we are honest, we admit – “I don’t know where I am, really deeply, and I don’t know how to find my way.”
Once we calm down and admit that we are having some kind of faith crisis, we can start feeling our way around a bit. You know how it is in the dark: you kneel down, reach your hands around you and notice what you feel. That’s the way it is in the dark. That’s the way it is in a faith crisis as well. Only the “reaching” and the “feeling” are more interior. The thing to do is to take some time and ask yourself: “What does this feel like?”
•Is it a question or set of questions that you can’t seem to answer?
•Is it like a hurt or wound that still cries “ouch!” whenever it is touched?
•Is it a sense that you don’t belong any more with a group of people?
•Is it that you have a different experience (or perhaps a lack of experience) than what you once had?
•Is it that you are no longer comfortable with certain values or practices that you had thought were central to the faith?
•Perhaps you are not sure whether you can ground your life in the basic story of the Christian scriptures or in the person of Jesus Christ.
•What does this doubt feel like? Perhaps it is some blend of these. See if you can describe your “crisis.”
Naming what we feel around us helps us take the first step forward. Can you describe the elements of your own faith crisis? Even if it is dark, if you can recognize the shape of some of your obstacles the challenge of navigating them is easier. The first lesson of finding our way around in the dark is to calm down. The second it to investigate our surroundings. The key here is honesty.
Next, we identify a strategy. It is one thing to walk across a slippery floor in the dark. It is another to avoid falling in a big hole, or to dodge sharp objects. Each challenge requires a unique strategy. And so it is with our faith crises. Wounds require healing. Awkward relationships require reconciliation or re-positioning. We learn new practices to replace those that don’t seem to “work.” Once we have identified our obstacles, once we have taken a good look at our crisis, we can plan our way forward. Do you need to read a book? Do you need to sit and cry? Do you need to talk to some people, certain people? If we are clear (honest) about our obstacles, we will be clearer about the next steps forward.
Calm down, pay attention, identify strategy. These are some good steps to take in a faith crisis. In my article next month I will talk about doubt and asking questions. We will see how a few basic strategies regarding these two common obstacles can help us navigate some of the most painful times in our Christian life. Finding your way in the dark. It is not easy. It can be done. It may just be a step of growth.
Evan B. Howard, Ph.D. is the founder/director of Spirituality Shoppe, an Evangelical Center for the Study of Christian Spirituality. He is an affiliate faculty with Fuller Seminary and is the author of many books and articles, including Praying the Scriptures. He leads workshops and seminars on Christian spirituality. Evan is a member of All Saints Anglican Church. He and his wife Cheri have two adult daughters.