Changing faith and changing relationships: Some things I learned the hard way

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
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This week we’ve been talking about how changes in faith affect our relationships, and today I wanted to share a few lessons that I’ve learned as my own faith has evolved over the past ten years or so. Your comments after Monday’s post gave me a lot to think about, so I tried to incorporate some of your questions and ideas into these reflections, many of which were arrived at after trial and error, failure and grace: 

We can’t drag others along on our faith journeys. When we have dear friends with whom we’ve experienced notable life transitions—high school, driving, dating, college, marriage, kids—it’s only natural to assume that they will be along for the ride when our faith changes.  Perhaps the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn as I’ve raised questions about Bible-Belt Christianity is that no amount of passion or persuasion can convince others to ask the same questions. In fact, forcing such questions upon other people almost always makes the situation worse. Like many of you, I’ve grieved as some of the most meaningful relationships of my past have grown superficial and flat as we avoid talking about matters of faith.  I desperately wanted these friends to join me on my journey because the road ahead was so lonely and frightening and new. But they couldn’t, and it was unfair for me to try and drag them along. 

A superficial relationship is better than no relationship. I’m terrible at small talk, so the prospect of spending the afternoon with a once-close friend talking about the weather is enough to make me physically ill. For several years, I resented the fact that those with whom I once trusted my deepest secrets did not want to hear about the things that were most important to me now. (Some have refused to read my book!) But I’ve since resolved that if this is the kind of relationship they want, I must be willing to walk the extra mile and do my best at maintaining it…always leaving the door open for something deeper, if and when they are ready for it.  

Online communities can really help. The nice thing about online forums like this one is that they let us know that we are not alone and they give us the chance to work through some of our new ideas without jeopardizing those “real life” relationships that are too fragile to handle brutal honesty.  I’m not ashamed to say that some of the most important conversations of my life have happened right here on this blog. 

New friends will come along.  Online friends can’t take the place of those face-to-face conversations over coffee or late-night talks about God.  It took a few years, but as I grew more honest about my faith, a surprising group of new friends (and some old friends!) came out of the woodwork. Ironically, people who used to be turned off by my unrelenting confidence (and pension for proselytizing) suddenly felt comfortable engaging in conversations with me about faith. Now my circle of friends is more diverse than it has ever been, and I am a better person for it. 

It’s not always right to rock the boat. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I get frustrated with Christians who seem to find it easy to believe everything their pastor tells them to believe. It makes me especially angry when my friends refuse to even listen to new ideas because they are either too certain or too afraid to see things from another perspective. But I’ve learned that it is not my job to test other people’s faith. My job is to be a friend to people who are already struggling through tough questions, to offer companionship on the difficult journey through doubt. I am to be a counselor, not a recruiter. It's not always right to rock the boat.

…But sometimes it is. When friends engage in conversations that are anti-gay, anti-Islamic, or anti-immigrant, I speak up.  When they speak with disdain about the poor or make general statements about people of another country or faith, I try to offer another perspective. Politics and theology are rarely worth arguing about, but when something cruel is said about another person or group, I think it’s appropriate to offer a gentle correction. I figure that at the very least, it teaches people not to make those kinds of statements in my presence. 

Don’t feed the trolls.  Online, trolls are people who show up to leave mean-spirited, off-topic comments that don’t really contribute to the conversation. In real life, they may be acquaintances who suddenly take an interest in “fixing” your faith or in harassing you about issues related to politics and theology via annoying email forwards and Facebook statuses. Engaging such people is almost always a waste of time and energy.  Don’t do it. 

“People who never get criticized aren’t saying anything important.” Dan offered those words to me once after I received a particularly hateful email in response to one of my posts.  Questions, honesty, challenges to old ideas, and arguments for new ones—these things are almost always met with resistance. I can certainly be wrong at times, but I think I have some good things to say and that it’s important that I keep saying them in the right context and with the right spirit.  You should too. 

Our lives are our testimonies. Living in a small Southern town has subjected me to a lot of hurtful gossip. Most of the rumors about my supposed theology are either untrue or exaggerated...and yet they are nearly impossible to dispel.  I have learned by trial and error that it is a waste of energy to try and track down and correct the source of such rumors. Better to spend my time learning to follow Jesus a best as I can. If my live exhibits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, people are more likely to doubt what they’ve been told about me. I can’t control what other people say about me, but I can control my attitude. I figure that if my words can’t convince people that I can be both Christian and a democrat (or a Christian and an old-earther), then maybe my life can. 

Avoid both blame and guilt. I have a bad habit of jumping to extremes, so I tend to see my failed relationships as either totally my fault or totally the other person’s fault… when most of the time we both share some responsibility. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to apologize and okay to be hurt when I don’t receive one in return. It would be easier if there was a good guy and a bad guy, a black vs. a white, but relationships aren’t supposed to be easy. In fact, they are valuable precisely because they are hard.  

What have you learned as changes in your faith affect your relationships? How do you live peaceably with those with whom you disagree?

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