How To Navigate A Loved One’s Changing Faith (Or Help Them Navigate Yours)


Faith moves.

It is never static. Whether we are religious or not, even in the times we feel most settled in our beliefs, things are always shifting. As we head through time and space we are renovated by circumstances and experiences, by people and relationships and we are constantly, gradually being altered. Immobility is a myth.

Inevitably most people of faith will face a crisis of faith. Chances are you already have, maybe a few times or a few thousand. This may consist of only a handful of moments when questions rise up and then quickly subside, or a sustained season of heavy doubt that lingers. It might be a subtle eroding of some small things you once felt were true but are no longer sure of, or you may have had the very bedrock of your belief system pulled out from beneath your feet, leaving you in free fall.

And when we go through these faith-shaking, soul testing times, we don’t go through them alone. Yes, we experience doubt and deconstruction in a profoundly solitary way, but since we also live in intimate relationship with people who love us deeply, they too end up sharing that road with us, often as reluctant, unsuspecting participants.

This is for all those surprised passengers along for the terrifying, disorienting ride and for those who seem to be driving.

One of the greatest tensions a marriage, family, or friendship can ever face is one member’s evolving spirituality. Most commonly, someone finds their once iron-clad, orderly religion suddenly in doubt and they gradually (or quite quickly) become less rigid and more open to new ideas, even other faith traditions. They might begin to dissect the creeds they once accepted as givens or start looking at the Bible differently or even question the very reality of God. Yet the reverse also happens quite often too. A person who previously espoused no religious beliefs, suddenly and dramatically comes to faith and finds their entire worldview turned upside down literally overnight.

Yet regardless of the actual scenario, the fallout in these relationships is shockingly similar. There is quite often a palatable sense of betrayal; the feeling that someone has changed the rules in the middle of the game, leaving the other to play catch-up and to try and find their new place in a relationship with someone they no longer feel they know quite as well as they did before. An invisible, yet very real barrier often goes up between people and their cherished bond becomes presently strained.

Here are some things that are helpful to remember when navigating this changing spiritual season with someone you love, from either side of the divide:

For those loving someone in the change, remember:

1) This is not voluntary. Faith is rarely as much of a choice as it is a conclusion. People don’t often go through an existential implosion willingly, but after a great deal of denial, struggle, and grieving. For your loved one, this is them telling you where they are; what their living and studying and praying and questioning have yielded right now, regardless of whether or not it saddens or terrifies them. Try not to see them as the cause of this crisis, but as the recipients of it.

2) This is not about you. Yes, you are probably impacted greatly by your loved one’s changing spirituality and yes, it’s likely sending all sorts of stomach-churning ripples through your life, but ultimately this is about their journey and the authentic contents of their hearts which they are vulnerable enough to share. That is a gift. Resist the temptation to focus on your reactions to their revelations, and listen first. This is first and foremost their faith story, so let them tell it.

3) This is not your responsibility. In a well-meaning but panicked, knee-jerk response, you might be tempted to try and convince your loved one to feel the way they once did, to believe what they used to; to try and talk or will them back to where they were when you met them—but this is impossible. These are spiritual things and you, as flesh and blood cannot do spiritual things. And try as you might you can’t push or pull them back to where they once stood. Listen, ask questions, offer your perspective, and pray, but don’t saddle yourself with altering their or anyone else’s spirituality. That is far more than you are asked or qualified to do.

For those whose faith is changing, remember to:

1) Let people catch-up. You’ve probably been wrestling with these things for a lot longer than you’ve talked about them with people. Those close to you may have seen this news coming for a while or it may have blindsided them like a runaway truck, but either way they haven’t known as long as you have and to the depths that you have, so you have to be patient and give people time to process this and to make up some of the rugged ground you’ve already covered on your own. Kindly wait on them.

2) Tread Lightly. This is especially true if you have abandoned certain tenets of your shared faith tradition. Your newfound liberation from ideas or concepts or systems feels freeing now, but these may still be sacred to your loved ones, and your joy may feel like a slap in the face. Do your best not to make them suddenly feel inferior or wrong or unevolved for believing what they believe. Simply and gently convey your perspective from where you now stand, but be extremely sensitive to the fact that they are standing somewhere else, and it matters dearly to them.

3) Cut yourself some slack. You probably feel a great deal of guilt (either internally or from your loved ones) for pulling what feels like a spiritual bait-and-switch, but you know that isn’t true. You know the road you traveled to get here, what you’ve wrestled with, how fervent your prayers have been, how diligently you’ve searched, and how long you’ve been struggling. These are the biggest questions of this life and you’re smack dab in the middle of it, so give yourself a break if the answers are elusive or different right now than they’ve been before.

And for both of you, remember:

The story isn’t over. You are each a work in progress, and where you are now, most certainly won’t be where you will find yourself a year or five or thirty years from now. Being in a relationship with someone else is about walking alongside them as they travel the long journey, and about weathering the difficult places and adverse conditions that trip takes you to and through.

If you can help it, never make someone else feel guilty for what they now believe or no longer believe. We each have a unique testimony that we can’t change even if we wanted to. Try not to make a moral judgement on the faith convictions of another person. The roles could just as easily be reversed one day. Then as much as now, mutual respect, great gentleness, and real compassion will carry you through things you never believed you could endure together.

Whether or not you find agreement on anything else right now, agree to try and love one another well in this. Regardless of what is changing or will change in either of you, strive to let that be the rock you cling to together.

John Pavlovich