Not Who We Were: on breaking down theology, rebuilding faith… and staying married

Have you ever found yourself questioning the things you were always taught? Maybe the things you were told about alcohol or modesty started to fall apart, maybe a tragedy forced you to reconsider how much God really is in control, maybe you started to see some contradictions in the Bible and wondered if it’s still true if it isn’t always fact. 

If so, you aren’t alone. As Millennials have gotten older and have become adults, we’ve left the churches of our youth in droves. We’ve questioned the things we were taught to believe and pushed back about what faith requires; we’ve dismantled our theological foundations and found ourselves standing in the rubble. This isn’t unique to Millennials, of course, though it seems to be a thread too common to ignore. 

Deconstructing is scary. When you have worked diligently for your entire life to build a wall, to know the answers, to believe with confidence the things you have been taught, it is frightening when that starts to crumble, when you know you are not who you were… and a lot of people stop there. The dissonance is too great, and many are no longer able to reconcile any sort of faith with their experiences of the world. They leave the church — and Christianity — altogether.

And reconstructing is slow and painful. It’s fairly easy to say, “I don’t believe that anymore” and reeeeallly hard to say, “This is what I do believe now.” Reconstructing isn’t just about crossing out one word in a doctrinal statement and putting another in its place; it is about approaching the Bible from a completely different posture, about seeing God and humanity and ourselves through an entirely different set of glasses.

Doing this in marriage gets really complicated really fast; it seems every time I turn around I hear the story of someone who deconstructed, and maybe even reconstructed, while their spouse… doesn’t. Maybe they married young, and found themselves moving to a different position down the road that their spouse just can’t understand. They no longer are comfortable at the same church, and they either find a way to make it work, or they separate and divorce, having grown apart. 

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But my story is… different, because I deconstructed and reconstructed with my husband, together… while actively serving in ministry. This is a story that isn’t often told, so if you find yourself in these words, I’m here to say: It will be hard, and it will be worth it. 

The person I was when I got married 14 years ago is barely recognizable to me now… and I can say the same of my husband. But isn’t that what we all want, after all? To change and grow and become better people — not stay the same people?

I remember the first time I felt my wall start to crumble, as I cried into my phone to Jonathan,  “How can you say that and still be a Christian?!?!” We had a newborn, he was deployed to Iraq, and I was exhausted. I don’t even remember now what he had said that seemed so heretical at the time, but he had started deconstructing his own faith and was telling me about a book he was reading. It was like we were speaking different languages, and I didn’t know how — or if — we could stay married. I was scared and felt left behind as he started this process I did not understand — and really, didn’t want to. 

But, fueled by a desire to follow my husband, I bought my own copy of the book he was reading. We decided to read a chapter together, and talk about it every Tuesday when he called. It gave us common language and a starting point for conversation. When we finished that book, we read another. Then another. I started seeing myself on those pages and knew I was changing. 

By the time he came home from that deployment, we could — together — say, “We aren’t sure of everything, but we know we’re not who we were.” It took quite a while to start to fill in some of those blanks, and truth be told, we’re still writing and erasing. 

It’s been interesting, changing both individually and together. Over the past 14 years, there have been times we voted for different people and understood God and the Bible in different ways. We slowly changed our understanding of women in ministry and sexuality at different points and through different processes. There was even a period of about two years when we did not feel comfortable in the same church. 

And, I’ll admit, I can be, um, a little intense, so I know there have been times that I was frustrated and wasn’t as gracious as I should have been; being quick to listen and slow to speak is a constant struggle for me. But because we’ve been committed to each other, we have walked hand in hand throughout every stop and layover, every time we thought we were at a final destination — and when we just set sail toward a new one. The journey of deconstructing and reconstructing is never from Point A to Point B, and when you do it with a partner, it adds dozens of extra stops. There were many times when of us was ebbing and the other was flowing, times I questioned if we were even still in the same river. 

But through it all, even when we didn’t see eye to eye, we strove to understand the other’s perspective. “I don’t agree, but I can see where you’re coming from” and “This is where I am right now, and I understand that you aren’t here” and “So what I’m hearing you say is…” became common phrases in our household. We learned to offer each other the grace to change and explore that we each wanted for ourselves, discovering that there is no final destination to faith.

We’ve learned a lot about each other as we’ve changed. We carry each other’s secrets and are each other’s sounding boards. And we are still the very best of friends. 

As I look back on our years together, and all the ways we’ve changed, I’m grateful for the process that made me the person I am today: Every church I’ve attended and sermon I’ve heard has become a part of who I am. Every labored conversation with Jonathan over long walks, pushing a stroller (then a double stroller, then both pushing strollers) as we worked through new-to-us theological ideas, have become a part of who I am. Every time we sat outside over a bonfire talking through how — and if — God can be both good and sovereign, how we can — or can’t —  justify war, how we can think about what happens after earthly life… has become a part of who I am. The authors I viewed as radical when I started deconstructing have been put on my shelf as part of my history, but not those I turn to now… and they are all a part of me. 

I recently heard a song by Ben Platt that made me immediately think of my own marriage, and maybe it makes you think of yours too: 

You don’t ever have to leave
If to change is what you need
You can change right next to me
When you’re high, I’ll take the lows
You can ebb and I can flow
And we’ll take it slow
And grow as we go

So wherever you find yourself, just starting to pull out some bricks from your wall, or setting sail on an entirely new way of thinking, be patient with yourself. If your spouse is too, be extra patient with them. Tell them what you’re wondering and feeling, and remind each other that you don’t have to have it all figured out, ever. You will never be who you were… and that’s okay.

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