Stages of Grief in a Faith Crisis

Faith Crisis: It can feel like dying

Going through a faith crisis is not for the faint of heart.  It is an emotional rollercoaster.  It can often feel like something within us has died.  At the minimum, there is a great loss.  In truth, it is a type of death—the death of certainty, the loss of a straightforward belief.  And like the grieving process we go through when a loved one dies, we experience a similar grieving process as we undergo a faith crisis.

The Stages of Grief can be modified to illustrate what we might experience on a faith journey. Keep in mind that these stages are fluid and we often jump back and forth between them or only briefly experience a stage.

Stages of Grief:

Denial

Denial is the first stage of grief in a faith crisis.  When we first start questioning and doubting, I think a very common response is to push those doubts down, ignore them, or “put them on the shelf” to deal with later.  We try to convince ourselves that the questions aren’t important or that we should have faith that they’ll be answered in the future. In an attempt to qualm our doubts we might double down on our church activities and check lists—pray more, read scriptures more, serve more, whatever it takes to get rid of the questions. As we continue to deny our doubts, things start to feel like we are on the edge of a real crisis, hence the term, Faith Crisis.

Bargaining

Normally Anger comes before Bargaining in the Stages of Grief, but I think in a faith crisis, bargaining might just come first.  When we can no longer deny our doubts, when our questions are clamoring for attention, we turn to God and try making some deals.  We give God a litany of things we’ll do, if in return our doubts are taken away.  It ties in to the “doing more” category.  It’s often as if we are trying to prove to God that we’re more than good enough and therefore we shouldn’t have these questions.  Or that we will do more and be “better” if only our doubts are taken from us.

Anger

Anger is the third stage of grief in a faith crisis.This can be a very scary place, at least it was for me.  Once we realize that Bargaining won’t work, we might just get really pissed off at God.  It might be the first time we’ve ever felt anger towards God.  There might be some guilt or shame associated with feeling angry. We might also be mad at leaders in our church, or other congregants, or family members.  Often times this is when friends and family start to notice something different about us.

If we share our feelings with a friend or leader, there’s the distinct possibility that they won’t understand the anger at all and out of their own fear, tell us exactly how to get rid of the anger.  It often includes a call to repentance, which usually just makes us angrier.   Also, we might have people interpreting our anger and misery as proof that we are doing something wrong, that we are not obedient enough.  During this time, our training in binary thinking kicks in sometimes we resolve to leave religion altogether.

Depression

The fourth stage of grief in a faith crisis is Depression.  Sometimes the depression seeps in early, even being masked by our Denial.  Throughout this faith journey (for we might just recognize that it’s truly a journey, disguised at first as a crisis) we can feel utterly alone.  We recognize that our doubts are valid and that they deserve recognition at least, if not resolution, but we can get discouraged by how our questions are affecting our relationships with others. We begin to feel the strain it can have on marriages, friendships, family relationships.  Sometimes it’s exhausting to carry the doubt.  At this point, we are deep into the uncertainty <link coming> and it is unfamiliar territory.  We might feel like we’re wandering around in the wilderness with no home, nothing to root us to our past feelings of certainty.  These are truly the dark days.  Our “dark night of the soul” <link coming> seems to stretch on forever.

Acceptance

The final stage of grief in a faith crisis is Acceptance.  Slowly but surely, we learn to accept our doubts and questions.  We learn to see the world through a lens of “yes, and” <link coming>.  Although this lens doesn’t provide us strictly with answers, we learn to lean into the discomfort of uncertainty.  There is a peace.  God, spirituality, faith, religion–all of these things get bigger.  Our relationship with it all expands as well. We can look back at our journey and see how we’ve been transformed.  We’ve been reborn.

At this point, we might have chosen to leave our faith community, but it’s not based on an “either/or” mentality.  Or we might choose to stay with our community but move through it on our own terms. It’s possible we remain actively engaged, but not to the same degree as before.  We might become the Sage of our congregation, quiet but knowing and willing to share when needed.  Another possibility is that we change churches or religions.  Or maybe we become atheists.  The end choice isn’t as significant as the face that we’ve moved to this stage of acceptance and are making choices from a place of peace, rather than denial, fear, or anger.  When we reach the Acceptance stage, we see our journey as the natural progression of faith that it is. <link coming>

From Death to Rebirth

There are days I find myself revisiting each of the different stages.  I get thrown back into them for various reasons.  But having reached a point of acceptance, I’m finding I can accept each stage without fear and judgment.  I can recognize my anger and accept it.  I can feel down and know it’s okay.

As you move through these Grief Stages of a Faith Crisis, have faith (irony intended) that you are in a normal process.  It is okay. You are okay.  You will make it through this, and you don’t have to do it alone.

Try and remember, or at least hope for the understanding, that all new birth starts in darkness.  And as always, we must die before we are reborn.

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