5 Tips for Healthy Deconstruction

February 27th, 2022

If you’ve followed Jesus for any length of time, you’ve been through a spiritual crisis at one point or another. This discontent is typically brought on by suffering, an extended period of waiting, family dysfunction, toxic behavior by a trusted leader, or the hypocrisy of another Christian. Experiences like these can cause you to question not only the presence of God but some of the beliefs you’ve affirmed about God or the practices that keep God in your house.

A trending term used to describe this experience is deconstruction. Deconstruction is a buzzword in some Christian circles, particularly those that emphasize belief more than practice. Depending on your theological tribe, the deconstructed state of mind is either met with empathy and understanding or fear and hostility. Imagine your belief system as a house. Deconstruction refers to the times when we critically evaluate the system or accumulation of doctrines and beliefs about God that we’ve housed in our mind and spirit.

Numerous examples of deconstruction occur in scripture and then throughout church history. Abraham, Moses, and David each had their faith stripped down and rebuilt. Jesus not only permitted but encouraged deconstruction by way of his frequent preface to ethical teaching: “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you.” Church founders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley sought reform by rebuilding houses of worship with essential beliefs and practices. 

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During times of massive disruption, large numbers of Christians are going through this experience of deconstruction due to political pressures, divisiveness about the pandemic, and the sectarian causes of schism among Christian denominations. 

As Lent approaches, you might consider some tools that mitigate the effects of deconstruction (which can result in leaving or discarding the faith) by reconstructing something better. Here are five guiding practices so that we might learn how to deconstruct faithfully: 

1 – Don’t do it alone.

One of the strongest tendancies during a crisis of faith is to withdraw and isolate ourselves from trusting others. Especially when the event that triggered this experience was the betrayal or mistreatment by another Christian, the natural tendency is to sever ties from the community as a whole.

At times it is healthier to create boundaries and put distance between oneself and other Christians when harm has occurred in the house. However, avoid becoming alone on an island. Christianity is a communal faith because we need each other. We need each other’s gifts to make the greatest impact on the world. Additionally, we need each other’s perspectives to arrive at a full, holistic picture of God. Without others to trust, our reconstruction will be partial and incomplete. 

It is normal (and healthy) to take a break from organized religion for a time. Try to find a trusted spiritual director, mentor, or a teacher to walk with you in this process.  

2 – Establish your foundation early.

As easy as it is to begin with what you don’t believe or won’t practice, start by identifying what you DO believe. Write it down. Think of it as the beginning of a personal credo. Even if there are only one or two things you are willing to bet your life on, identify what they are. Otherwise, this process of change will become destructive deconstruction instead of constructive deconstruction.

I recall the moment in my journey when I no longer subscribed to the cliche: “everything happens for a reason.” Like many before me, I had endured enough death, loss, and suffering until I became increasingly uncomfortable with God being the cause of everything happening to me. At first, there was an urge to overreact and overcorrect my beliefs. I contemplated setting fire to the whole edifice. However, amid all the mysteries surrounding divine intervention, one thing I knew for sure was that Jesus was a God of redemption. From scripture and my own experience, I knew Jesus redeems our pain and loss. He turns death into life. Crucifixion into resurrection. By clinging to this foundation, I was able to reconstruct a view of God’s sovereignty where God was no longer the cause but the redeemer of all things.

3 – Start from the outside and work your way in.

Another metaphor for thinking about a system of belief is a set of concentric circles. In the center are core convictions. These are the things that serve as the foundations and essentials of my faith. Some examples include convictions about the resurrection of Christ or loving my neighbor. The center circle holds my non-negotiables.

Then, as you move outward, the particular subject in question becomes more and more negotiable. Put differently, the subjects in the outer rings are gray areas. For example, I don’t hold my views about eschatology (how, when, etc.) in the same way I hold my view on the divinity of Christ. One I am willing to stake my life on, while the other contains a list of things I cannot predict. 

Whenever engaging in theological deconstruction that seems to unravel your trust, start from the outside and work your way in. Ask whether what you are debating, inside or out, is something the Church holds as “negotiable” within the Chrisitan faith. Does the topic have many different (and valid) opinions and viewpoints? If so, it’s fine to use discernment with those topics, but do so trusting that one day “God will make it plain” (Phil 3:15).

4 – Try to differentiate between belief and behavior.

As mentioned, a common cause for spiritual crisis is the mistreatment or hypocrisy of another leader or a fellow Christian. It’s painful to experience harmful behavior from another Christ follower. You might begin to question the common faith you both share. How is it possible that you believe the same things and act so differently? Conflict is sometimes due to a divergence in beliefs. However, many church wounds are not due to a difference in beliefs but rather a lapse in behavior. For example, two Christians can solemnly affirm Jesus’s doctrine to love our enemy; however, for reasons not always perceived, the other person failed to embody that conviction that day.

So here are two reminders. First, be careful not to judge, because odds are you’ve failed too. Each time I am hurt by another church member, part of my reconciliation process is reminding myself that I am not perfect either. I fail to embody my beliefs on a regular basis. Secondly, whenever a conflict causes me to question the validity of the Church writ large, or Christianity in general, I try to remind myself that there is a usually a gap between belief and behavior. Though someone’s behavior is harmful, it doesn’t mean their trust in Christ is invalid. I certainly need the charity of others when I fail to practice what I preach each week.

5 – Choose to do this work with God, not to God.

Invite God with you into this work of constructive deconstruction. If you are questioning an aspect of faith that eventually doesn’t align with the teachings of Jesus, then you are still engaged in something holy. In John 8:32, Jesus says that “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” I fully believe that Jesus not only wants to free us from sin and death but from dangerous theological misconceptions that are harming both us and our neighbors. 

Try turning your critical questions into prayers. 

God, I am really struggling to believe in ___________. Will you please grant me clarity? 

God, I really don’t know what to think about ___________. Please reveal your truth to me.

It might be a week, a month, a year or decades before you apprehend the semblance of an answer. However, the story of Jacob reminds us that the answers come to those who are willing to struggle for it. For those willing to wrestle with it. For those who dare to say to God, “I won’t let go until you bless me.” On that day Jacob was renamed Israel, “one who wrestles with God,” and this is where truth is found.

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