I recently read a book on the deconstruction of one’s faith called After Doubt by A.J. Swoboda. I’d highly recommend it. In it, he suggests everyone goes through three phases in their faith journey: Construction Deconstruction Reconstruction.
The Construction Phase
The construction phase is when we first come to faith (usually as kids) and receive what Swoboda calls precritical beliefs. We don’t ask questions, we don’t wonder why, we simply accept what adults teach us.
When I was a kid, I was told that Jesus rose, and I believed even though I knew dead people stay dead. I was told that God is triune (1 + 1 + 1 = 1) and I didn’t question the math. I was told the Bible was inspired and I believed, even though there’s difficult material to swallow. My upbringing was complementarian, cessationist, premillennial, young earth, and much more. I embraced it all. But as I grew older, I reached a point where I had to put my precritical beliefs under the microscope.
The Deconstruction Phase
In the second phase, called the deconstruction phase, we come of age and start to ask, “What do I actually believe?” There are all sorts of triggers here:
• You meet people who practice a different religion but seem nice and happy.
• You take a class from an intelligent professor who asks hard questions.
• A pastor you respect experiences a moral failure.
• You realize low-key racism exists in your church.
• You recognize you were taught a theology that leverages shame, guilt, and fear.
• Something awful happens, and you wonder how a God of love could let you or others suffer like this.
• You have questions about the Bible’s historicity or its supernatural parts.
• You discover the sweet old ladies who taught your Sunday school classes are wild on Facebook, politically compromised, and into all the conspiracies.
Cultural scorn and disparagement are among the most powerful triggers for deconstruction. When we realize people will think less of us for our beliefs, we rethink them (no matter how old we are at the time). Even if our beliefs are biblical, we don’t want to see friends leave (or attendance wane if we happen to be the pastor!). We don’t want to be shamed by popular culture.
If you love someone in deconstruction . . . I want to pause for a second and talk to you. Maybe it’s your kid, friend, spouse, or sibling. Here’s my advice. Let it happen . . . but don’t let them deconstruct alone. I say this because it doesn’t feel natural to watch those we love deconstruct their faith. When we have any level of spiritual authority or influence over someone who starts to doubt, we tend to want to shut it down! The last thing we desire is to see loved ones lose their faith, so we say irrational things or use coercive measures.
We struggle most when it comes to our kids. Young people have more access to diverse perspectives than ever thanks to social media and the internet. They want answers. But confronting them or trying to coerce them in conversation rarely ends well. And because of what’s said in a heated moment, we often blow our opportunity to walk through the issue with our kids. Look, if your kids are bringing their struggles to you, take a moment, step into the other room, and thank God they have this sort of trust! Then take a deep breath and try to keep a level head. If you don’t, kids will eventually stop bringing their questions to you. They will turn to other places for truth (YouTube, peers, TikTok, etc.).
If you are a student . . . let me speak on your parents’ behalf for a moment. Hear me out. It’s unnerving to raise a child in an age of deconstruction. If your parents love Jesus with all their heart and love you as well, one of their great fears will be the possibility of you rejecting Jesus. Here’s what I’m saying: A lot is on the line for them when it comes to your faith. Cut them a little slack if they get squirrely, snippy, or irrational when you have hard questions. They really want you to get this right.
Back to the parents . . . we must overcome this fear and engage well. If you think you can protect your kids forever by sheltering them from outside influences, ignoring hard questions, or shutting it down, you’re wrong. This is an established principle of identity theory. At some point your kids are going to test the faith and values they inherit from you. Deconstruction is inevitable.
Deconstruction also is essential as young adults develop a distinct sense of personal identity, psychologists say. One author used the metaphor of fence building to describe the process. When children are young and lack independence, you build a fence to protect them. Each fence post is a value, belief, or behavior you consider important. At first, children don’t even notice the fence. They blissfully play inside it. As they grow older, though, they start to notice. They may ask about the fence. They may push on the posts or test some of the beams. Eventually, they may climb over the fence or break right through it. You build it, but eventually they will either tear it down or grow old enough to move out and build their own. You probably hope their new fence is as close to yours as possible.
You can develop two key strategies to engage with your child as they walk through doubt. First, be a believable person. Live an authentic life. You can’t control what your kids believe about God, but you can control what they believe about you. You can’t control if they question God, but you can control if they question the sincerity and integrity of your faith. Second, walk with them through their doubts. Welcome them to test the fence.
For the record, I don’t want to romanticize doubt. I don’t think we can doubt too much, but I do think we can doubt from an unhealthy place. I’ve seen it happen a hundred times. When the problems of our childhood faith or church emerge, we are tempted to lash out in anger. We are embarrassed to have been duped for so long. We are appalled those who raised us won’t even listen to our concerns. We want vengeance. We want those people who hurt us to hurt. So, from a place of vengeance and vindictiveness many swing to the opposite ideological extreme.
The well-worn path today is the road out of churches “on the right” to communities “on the left.” Young people leave their theologically conservative churches because they are compromised by right-leaning politics. Sadly, they swing straight past Jesus into theologically progressive expressions of Christianity equally compromised by left-leaning politics or out of the faith altogether. Why? Often, it’s spite. For the record, that’s not deconstruction. That’s demolition. The goal isn’t to build something truer, it’s to tear their house down, burn the wreckage, then dance on the ashes. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The Reconstruction Phase
Deconstruction done right can be discipleship. It can lead to the reconstruction phase—something more beautiful and biblical than any of us previously imagined.
This is why a hospitable posture toward doubt is critical. It’s important to say that, though it may sound a bit provocative because many were raised in churches where faith was likened to psychological certainty . . . where faith meant trying our hardest to believe, even it if meant popping a blood vessel to convince ourself. The thought was, the higher your degree of psychological certainty, the stronger your faith. I don’t think this approach always jives with Scripture. If God wanted faith to be certainty, he would’ve called it certainty. Instead, he called it faith, which implies an element of uncertainty. This is what I see in many biblical heroes. Heroic faith is not the presence of total certainty but the willingness to be faithful in the face of great uncertainty.
Christianity is the only major world religion that recognizes acknowledging our own wrongness as spiritual. We are literally told to habituate confession, repentance, and reconciliation. It’s called sanctification. You are being a good Christian if you hold your convictions with humility, acknowledging we all have room to grow. In John’s Upper Room Discourse, Jesus told his disciples the Holy Spirit would be their teacher. I like that. Great teachers often create cognitive dissonance and doubt in the mind of their students to bring them to a higher state of truth. I wonder if sometimes our doubts and questions aren’t the prompting of the Spirit.