How to Respond When Someone You Love Is Deconstructing Their Faith

woman standing still while people are moving around her

Over the last decade, “deconstruction” has become a pervasive cultural buzzword. And if you have a friend or family member who is in the process of deconstruction, you might find yourself on the receiving end of some polarizing advice. 

For some, the idea of deconstruction is dangerous and alarming, and their feedback might leave you feeling very nervous about your loved one. Their advice could encourage you to take stands that will only alienate your loved one, helping to create the exact scenario you might be worried about.  

On the other end of the spectrum, you might be encouraged to take the topic way too lightly and take a hands-off approach that isn’t at all helpful.

Let’s examine what deconstruction is, what it can look like, and the most helpful ways to respond when someone is deconstructing their faith. 

What is deconstruction?

Philosophically speaking, deconstruction was a phrase popularized by Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher who gained popularity throughout the 60s and 70s. The philosophy was based on questioning literary, political, and philosophical texts and ideas. Challenging religious ideas was undoubtedly one element, but it wasn’t the whole of deconstructionism. 

As a philosophy, deconstructionism finds its roots in relativism. Relativism says that things like truth and morality are primarily contextual and only make sense within the context from which they arose. This is one of the main reasons why the topic of deconstruction strikes such a deep chord in many faithful Christians.    

The idea that, at its root, deconstruction is about loosening oneself from any claims of absolute truth is definitely some reason for alarm and should be taken seriously by Christians. 

How is the term deconstruction used today? 

Like many popular movements, the term “deconstruction” is pretty far removed from its roots. It has entered into popular culture to communicate the critical examination and dismantle all or part of one’s systems of belief. For the most part, the average person using the term knows virtually nothing about Derrida’s philosophical underpinnings.

For many in Western culture, it might feel like the term is focused on Christianity, but that’s because Christianity is so prevalent in the West. But deconstruction in Eastern cultures might look like questioning inherited beliefs of another religion. Sometimes it can even refer to the examination of political views.

This is helpful to understand because it makes it much easier to engage with someone who may be questioning their beliefs. It can feel heavy when the beliefs they are questioning are your own beliefs. Remember that a person who is walking through deconstruction feels a personal need to wrestle with the positions and ideals they have held for a while. And if they were of a different belief system, they’d wrestle with those, too. 

What does deconstruction look like? 

Deconstruction (not to mention the goals and outcomes) can look different for everyone. Some people go through this process after shedding some unhelpful theologies, practices, and perspectives, and they end up with a stronger, more vibrant faith. Other people begin examining their faith and end up abandoning it entirely. 

It’s essential to recognize that this isn’t an enjoyable process. Most people sifting through their belief systems are having a crisis of identity. They’re trying to understand what impact these beliefs have on their life and who they are apart from them. They’re also genuinely struggling with the potential losses associated with changing their beliefs. Will people in their lives still love them? Will they lose their connection to community and relationships?

Understanding that this isn’t easy can help you navigate their deconstruction in the best possible way. You can strongly contend for your beliefs, and be there for them as they wrestle with their faith. 

Some helpful perspectives on deconstruction 

From the faith perspective, feeling worried about a loved one walking through deconstruction makes sense. For a Christian believing that Jesus’ work on the cross is a reality and the only means of salvation for everyone who believes, watching someone dismantle their faith can be heartbreaking. We’re concerned for them and their eternal destiny. 

Here are some points to remember alongside the emotions you may feel:

We shouldn’t be afraid of the same reflection we expect from others 

Any time we share the gospel’s good news with anyone, we expect them to examine their worldview. We hope they will question what they believe and be willing to accept the truth as we present it. 

If we expect others to examine their beliefs, we shouldn’t be afraid of people within our faith tradition examining theirs, especially if we can walk beside them and help them see our perspective. If we respond too strongly, it can push them away, and they can do all of this self-examination without any positive Christian input. 

Deconstruction doesn’t necessarily mean the end of faith 

You may likely already disagree with other believers on certain doctrinal issues or some traditional practices. And on that end, you may disagree with the positions that someone lands on during their deconstruction. Remember that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re abandoning Jesus. 

Much of the gospel is about deconstruction 

Over thousands of years, Israel had constructed an idea of who God was and what God wanted from them. They knew He was going to send a Messiah, but from their perspective, that Messiah was coming to overthrow enemies and establish His kingdom on earth. 

For most people to get on board with what Jesus was doing, they needed to let go of their preconceived notions about what God was doing for Israel and how He would bring salvation into all the world.

Keeping this in mind can be comforting—a willingness to examine what we think and what we believe can be helpful. Plus, we can find comfort in knowing that the foundations of Christianity are true, so we don’t have to be afraid of what someone finds as they examine what they believe. 

Don’t forget that Jesus is alive and intimately involved in their process 

The whole Christian faith is built upon the idea that Jesus exists and is actively involved in the redemption of our world. When a loved one is processing their faith, we can take our eyes off this truth and assume it’s completely up to us to keep them grounded. And we can end up fearing worst-case scenarios. 

The truth is that even if our loved one gets to the end of their search and decides to walk away from the church, that’s not necessarily the end of the story. Jesus is still at work in their life, and things can always turn around. And if you’ve walked with them through this process, you may still play a significant part in the next chapter of their journey.

Seven tips for loving someone through their deconstruction  

Whether they call it “deconstruction” or not, you’ll likely have a loved one questioning some part of their faith. How can you love and support them through this process in a way that doesn’t alienate them from the truth?

1. Pray, pray, pray 

As we previously stated, Jesus is intimately involved in this process with them. Praying for your loved one as they question their faith and explore their options is the most important thing you can do. 

First of all, it recognizes Jesus’ involvement in the world. He loves this person even more than you do and doesn’t want to let them go. Prayer helps remind us that the Lord is at work, and it’s not our responsibility to fix everyone and everything. 

Let’s be honest. When a loved one starts questioning their faith, it can feel like they’re questioning us. Sometimes it can even feel like they’re belittling us for not having the same questions. Prayer gives us an outlet for those fears and resentments. We can bring our frustrations to Jesus so that when we interact with our loved ones, those hurts don’t get in the way of our relationship. 

2. Try to listen without judgment 

We should be able to listen to our loved ones share their questions and perspectives without feeling the need to interrupt them or immediately respond with a counterargument. When we really do the work of trying to understand their perspective—even when it differs from ours—it will go a long way when they invite us to offer our thoughts and opinions. 

3. Do your best to understand and validate their feelings

The deconstruction process can be messy sometimes. Your loved one has huge questions and strong feelings. And occasionally, those feelings might come out in hostile and argumentative ways. Instead of responding in haste, do what you can to understand the feelings your loved one is experiencing. Understanding their feelings can help you show empathy and make them more inclined to truly listen to you, too. 

4. Probe your own feelings about their deconstruction

The loved one of someone questioning their faith will have a lot of feelings about the issue. If that’s you, you may feel sad, or perhaps you’re feeling angry. And you’re not always going to understand what’s behind those feelings. 

It’s not always easy to get to the bottom of those feelings, and in this situation, it would be easy to think, “I’m upset because this is so important.” And that’s valid! But upon closer examination, you might recognize some other matters at hand as well. For example, when a parent raises their child in a household of faith, any rejection of that faith can feel like a rejection of them.

We’re much more likely to indulge the emotions we cannot identify. So, we might respond in anger, but if we examine our hearts more closely, we’re actually hurt. If we can determine why we feel the way we do, we can take a step back and get some clarity. And we can be honest with our loved one. That might look like saying, “Hey, I really want to hear what you have to say, but since faith has played a big role in our relationship, it feels like you’re also deconstructing who I am to you. So please be patient with me as I try to be here for you.”

5. Avoid the temptation to fix them 

Your loved one knows where you’re coming from, and they will expect pushback from you. In fact, when they decided to talk to you about what they were going through, they were probably bracing themselves for what they expected to be a contentious discussion. 

When we see it as our job alone to convert or argue someone back into the fold, it can actually diminish our influence. The minute they feel embattled, they’ll quit confiding in you or turn every conversation into an argument. But our influence grows when we approach the conversation respectfully, and they’re much more likely to listen to our perspective. 

6. Find common ground where you can

Identify the areas where you overlap. When they ask a question that you have pondered yourself, it’s OK to acknowledge it or even share how you’ve processed through that question in the past. Let them know when they espouse a belief or opinion you agree with. You’re not condoning every opinion they have when you recognize common ground. Instead, you tell them, “We might not be as different as you assume. I’ve shared many of your concerns, and we align in several important areas.” 

They’re likely expecting you to go after them in the areas you disagree, and it will be disarming for you to find and lean into those places you align. This is another area where your influence grows as you demonstrate you’re for them and not against them. 

7. Recognize their journey doesn’t end here 

In the same way that we must remember that Jesus is alive and at work in the lives of our loved ones, we need to recognize that they’re not static. They’re growing and changing individuals, and even if they make the heartbreaking decision to step away from their faith for a season, it’s not the end. A lot can change over time, and with loving support, encouragement, and prayer, you never know how their faith can grow. 

This is important to remember because the genuine faith, love and spiritual fruit that we demonstrate consistently will always be speaking to them, and Jesus may be using it to capture their hearts. 

Get to know your loved one’s personality

The fact of the matter is that different personalities struggle with different kinds of concerns and questions. The better you know your loved one’s personality, the easier it is to speak to their unique concerns. We published “How the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Can Help You Share the Gospel,” and you might find it helpful in learning about yourself and how to speak meaningfully to your loved one.