For the well-meaning Christian: humility in listening.

Hey, every­body! Wel­come back! I’m so glad you’re here, espe­cial­ly if you were at our last talk. You know, some­times I real­ly wor­ry about hav­ing these kinds of con­ver­sa­tions with Chris­tians, because they so often just don’t go very well. But I know you’re real­ly try­ing to be kind to me and peo­ple like me, and you real­ly want to inter­act with peo­ple out­side your spheres in as lov­ing and help­ful a way as pos­si­ble. And you know what? We’re total­ly on the same page with that! I think we could do such impor­tant work in the world around us if we can fig­ure out a way to work togeth­er.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we’re still run­ning into com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems. You see, I know what it’s like to be in your shoes — because I’ve actu­al­ly been there. It’s so easy for me to empathize with where you’re com­ing from, in part because of my per­son­al­i­ty but large­ly because it was scant years ago that I would have been work­ing from your same belief sys­tem and world­view.

This is going to sound awk­ward, but…from what I can see, you don’t real­ly seem inter­est­ed in under­stand­ing my per­spec­tive on much of any­thing.

The two great­est com­mand­ments Jesus is said to have ever giv­en were these: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neigh­bor as your­self. As Chris­tians, I know you seek to fol­low these com­mand­ments with par­tic­u­lar fer­vor since Jesus Him­self placed such a high pri­or­i­ty on them. When you talk to unbe­liev­ers like me, you’re try­ing to be lov­ing to us. I know that, and most of my fel­low ex-Chris­tians know that, too. Not many of us doubt your sin­cer­i­ty as a whole.

But last week, when I tried to explain the impor­tance of approach­ing unbe­liev­ers with empa­thy and respect, I think I may have been talk­ing over your heads a lit­tle bit. Not that you don’t know what empa­thy and respect are — I don’t doubt your intel­li­gence one bit, and I know you know they’re impor­tant aspects of lov­ing your neigh­bors. I just think we’re work­ing with fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of those words.

Basi­cal­ly, you do and say things you think are respect­ful and lov­ing, but they just don’t trans­late into respect or love to the peo­ple you’re try­ing to reach. And that’s a pret­ty mas­sive prob­lem. Cas­sidy puts it like this:

If we grew up in a house­hold where smack­ing some­one upside the head was inter­pret­ed as lov­ing, and then went out to smack some­one upside the head to show that we loved that per­son, we’d get told imme­di­ate­ly, “That is not lov­ing to me; it hurts me and trau­ma­tizes me. Please stop it.” And we’d be mor­ti­fied, because we want to show love and obvi­ous­ly we chose a way of show­ing love that our tar­get did not think was lov­ing at all but rather found hurt­ful and dam­ag­ing. We’d find out what our tar­get thought was lov­ing, and we’d do that instead. We’d know that some­times peo­ple just don’t have the aware­ness to know this stuff with­out ask­ing and learn­ing, and we’d be more inter­est­ed in ensur­ing that our tar­get felt loved than about get­ting our way.

Because we are lov­ing and empa­thet­ic peo­ple, we would not say, “Well, smack­ing you is how we show love, so you’d bet­ter just get with the pro­gram because we’re not chang­ing.”

So if you don’t mind, today I’m going to walk back a lit­tle bit and cov­er some things that might seem even more basic than our last con­ver­sa­tion. I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page.

An inte­gral part of lov­ing some­one is lis­ten­ing to them with humil­i­ty.

Quick to (mis)hear.

I was recent­ly fea­tured in a blog post that sought to explain why peo­ple like me leave the faith, and what Chris­tians can do about it. I actu­al­ly don’t mind posts like this in gen­er­al. In fact, I think if more Chris­tians asked those of us who aren’t believ­ers any­more why we leave, y’all could make the church a hap­pi­er and health­i­er place (which would in turn make the world a hap­pi­er and health­i­er place — win­ners all around!). But that’s kind of part of the prob­lem. I wasn’t asked any ques­tions at all. My sto­ry, instead, is being used as a cau­tion­ary tale of how to athe­ist-proof the faith of the next gen­er­a­tion. This per­son, well-mean­ing though I’m sure he is, didn’t lis­ten to a sin­gle word I said about my own expe­ri­ences grow­ing up in the church or why I left. He cit­ed my arti­cle, but drew dras­ti­cal­ly wrong con­clu­sions — con­clu­sions that, had he actu­al­ly lis­tened to what I’ve said about myself and my expe­ri­ences, he couldn’t pos­si­bly have reached.

The state­ment he makes that frus­trates me the most is the fol­low­ing: “The focus on what not to do and who not to asso­ciate with left a bad taste in their mouths and act­ed as pre­cur­sors for their decon­ver­sions.” This is absolute­ly not true — for me or for many, many, many of my fel­low ex-Chris­tians. In fact, the point I’ve per­son­al­ly sought to make often in my writ­ing is that Chris­tian­i­ty meant the world to me, and fol­low­ing the rules was how I showed God my love for Him. I loved my upbring­ing. I was thrilled to go to my church (which, by the way, is actu­al­ly less fun­da­men­tal­ist than many Ply­mouth Brethren assem­blies, not more). I adored my church camp. My clos­est friends and role mod­els were Chris­tians in my par­tic­u­lar denom­i­na­tion, and I didn’t feel mis­treat­ed or unloved or restrict­ed — in part because I knew no oth­er way of life, and in part because I embraced faith in God as the only part of my life worth liv­ing and obe­di­ence to those He put in author­i­ty over me as proof of my undy­ing devo­tion to Him. In fact, I often imme­di­ate­ly gave up things I thought God want­ed me to give up — not because I was focused on what I could and couldn’t do, but because I was focused on what would bring me clos­er to God. Such a bla­tant mis­char­ac­ter­i­za­tion as was made in that post isn’t lov­ing or respect­ful at all.

This sort of thing hap­pens a lot. You’ll approach me with why you think I real­ly stopped being a Chris­t­ian, as if it’s a huge secret that, if you can just crack the code, you could make sure no one would leave the team ever again. And usu­al­ly, much like this per­son said, you assume I just didn’t pick the right fla­vor of Chris­tian­i­ty. Or I just didn’t real­ly know Jesus. Or as a recent read­er sug­gest­ed, I just left the bad Chris­tians behind but not Jesus.

You’re tak­ing own­er­ship of my sto­ry, man­gling it beyond recog­ni­tion, then insist­ing I accept your ver­sion rather than my own. You’re say­ing you’re a bet­ter judge of my expe­ri­ences and life than I am. And when you sup­pose these things about my life and my beliefs, you are being incred­i­bly dis­re­spect­ful and unlov­ing. Like Cas­sidy said. it’s like you grew up in a home where smack­ing some­one upside the head was con­sid­ered lov­ing, and you’re now indig­nant that you can’t smack me, too.

I get it. I do. I did the same thing. I believed rather strong­ly that any­one who left the faith was nev­er a Chris­t­ian to begin with but had been deceived into think­ing they were. And I wasn’t shy about this belief, nor did I fal­ter in said belief.

Until it hap­pened to me.

You’re wel­come, fel­low for­mer CCM fans of a par­tic­u­lar cal­ibur. Phil Keag­gy is basi­cal­ly always rel­e­vant, even if I total­ly dis­agree with his mes­sage.

My expe­ri­ence of mov­ing from True Believ­er™ to Athe­ist com­plete­ly flies in the face of every­thing we’ve been taught about how the world both phys­i­cal­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly works. And that’s some scary stuff. If you believe like I did, your faith teach­es no one can pluck a child of God out of the Father’s hand. Any­one who has real­ly tast­ed the fruit of the Lord could nev­er leave. The heart of man is deceit­ful and des­per­ate­ly wicked, so of course he may think he’s saved when he’s real­ly not.

Hon­est­ly, there are all kinds of real­ly con­ve­nient faith-proof­ing beliefs that make pro­cess­ing the exit of a for­mer Chris­t­ian a lot sim­pler than it would be if you were to actu­al­ly lis­ten to what we have to say about our own expe­ri­ences. It’s just way eas­i­er to explain away my sto­ry with a God-approved pre-made argu­ment rather than believe that I real­ly and tru­ly loved God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength…right up until the moment I couldn’t believe any­more.

This is where humil­i­ty comes in.

Grace for the humble.

One of the sim­plest def­i­n­i­tions of humil­i­ty that I’ve ever heard is that it’s “the qual­i­ty or state of not think­ing you are bet­ter than oth­er peo­ple.” Typ­i­cal­ly, humil­i­ty is often jux­ta­posed with arro­gant pride (not to be con­fused with the healthy kind of pride). And believ­ing you have spe­cial knowl­edge about a person’s life that over­rides and con­tra­dicts that person’s lived expe­ri­ence and stat­ed per­spec­tive of their own life is noth­ing if not arro­gant.

There are, of course, excep­tions to this, usu­al­ly with demon­stra­ble evi­dence to back it up. For instance, when peo­ple like Lar­ry and Cari Williams are laud­ed as “lov­ing par­ents with the abil­i­ty to raise chil­dren appro­pri­ate­ly,” evi­dence clear­ly indi­cates that actu­al­ly they didn’t raise their chil­dren appro­pri­ate­ly — from the emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal abuse of their birth chil­dren to the cru­el and unusu­al tor­ture they rained upon their adopt­ed chil­dren, even to the point of death. In instances like these, it’s clear that out­side per­spec­tive and cor­rec­tion is need­ed because some­one isn’t self-aware enough to real­ize the harm­ful delu­sion under which they’re liv­ing.

I know that a lot of times, that’s exact­ly how you see us. You believe we’re liv­ing under a harm­ful delu­sion that we won’t be bar­be­cued for­ev­er along­side Satan and his hoard of evil min­ions, and so you have to do what­ev­er it takes to make us see rea­son. Before we hop along that rab­bit trail, I want to point out that this line of argu­ment with some­one who doesn’t believe in the super­nat­ur­al is com­plete­ly and utter­ly point­less, and gets you no clos­er to your goal of actu­al­ly demon­strat­ing your love and care for us. In fact, it’s an exten­sion of not lis­ten­ing to us — it’s like you think deep down we real­ly do believe so if you can scare us with what’s to come, we’ll change our mind, or if you suc­cess­ful­ly cold read us, we’ll “break down and start weep­ing aloud the Sinner’s Prayer.” Those sorts of things are also incred­i­bly dis­re­spect­ful and dare I say manip­u­la­tive and under­hand­ed?

So what are you sup­posed to do then? Your belief sys­tem says one thing, and yet almost every­one who’s left says some­thing dif­fer­ent. It’s so much eas­i­er to cling blind­ly to your faith and write off an entire swath of peo­ple whose expe­ri­ences are incon­ve­nient to you. It real­ly is just so much eas­i­er, and I under­stand why so many of you do it.

But is that the lov­ing thing to do?

Are ideals more impor­tant to you than the actu­al real live peo­ple in your life? Is it more impor­tant for you to be right than for you to form a con­nec­tion with anoth­er human being? Are you so deter­mined to be right about your faith and right about how wrong we are that we’ve ceased being humans only to become projects or obsta­cles?

What if you could hold your faith and our expe­ri­ences in ten­sion togeth­er — lis­ten­ing to us with­out react­ing defen­sive­ly and maybe even val­i­dat­ing our expe­ri­ences and per­son­hood? After all, don’t you believe we’re all made in God’s image? What would this even look like in a prac­ti­cal sense?

Don’t be so quick to brush us off because our beliefs aren’t the same. Sur­round­ing your­self only with peo­ple who agree with you cre­ates an echo cham­ber that will nev­er help you grow.

Don’t assume you know us bet­ter than we know our­selves. Accord­ing to your own scrip­tures, only God knows the heart and you shouldn’t be con­cerned with what He’s doing in some­one else’s life any­way.

Believe us when we tell you about our for­mer faith. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you that some­one could love God then not believe in Him any­more, believe us. We know our­selves bet­ter than you do. We were there the whole time. We know what hap­pened.

Resist the urge to become defen­sive when we tell you about our lives and expe­ri­ences as Chris­tians and the prob­lems we encoun­tered there­in. Instead, be will­ing to exam­ine your own heart and your own church. Are you just angry that chang­ing how you show love means you can’t smack peo­ple any­more? Or do we maybe have a few points about what’s wrong with the church?

Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. It may just be pos­si­ble that even we have some­thing to teach you about fol­low­ing God’s sec­ond great­est com­mand­ment, if only you’ll show humil­i­ty in lis­ten­ing.