“I don’t understand, how could this happen?”
As a pastor, one of the most common sources of emotional pain I see in people’s lives is centered on a person close to them that drifted away from their faith. A son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, friend or coworker. Each story is unique, but the common denominator is the same. They walked away from the Lord.
I want to be careful to not broad brush every situation, as there is a spectrum of what “walking away” means, but I think you can generally categorize it into two groups:
- Those who may still claim saving faith, but show no display of it in their lives. No love for the Lord or affection for Jesus Christ, no visible signs of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, no involvement with a church or desire to grow in their faith.
- Those who have verbally and decisively denounced their faith in Jesus Christ for any myriad of reasons.
On some level, Christians should be concerned for all of those in their lives that are not believers, but the depth of pain seems to run deeper regarding those who had claimed Jesus as their Savior and even actively lived out that faith, but now don’t. When this happens, we tend to internalize: where did I go wrong? How could I have prevented this?
On this topic, I imagine every believer has someone (or multiple people) come to mind, and it always triggers a question as to how and if you should play a role in directly addressing those who walked away. I think you can, but at the same time, I want to warn you that it’s not your job to turn their life around. It’s a delicate balance, but a balance that is vital to keep. Here are four ways we can relate to those who have walked away from their faith:
1) Pray for Them
“…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Philippians 4:6-7
It’s a verse you’ve probably seen before, but we need to start here. When it comes to those who have walked away, it makes us anxious. Does this mean they were never saved? Could it mean they are saved, but just aren’t living like it? And this anxiety comes along with it a burden that seems to cover the vibrant color of our Christian life with a coat of hazy gray.
The Bible treats the ever-present reality of anxiety in an interesting way. In a fallen world, God knows we will feel anxious about any number of things, and so in his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul doesn’t just say, “quit being anxious!”. But rather, he prescribes us medicine for when anxiety hits, and the medicine is prayer. Let your anxiety be a trigger to begin talking to God, to making your requests known, especially the ones that cause you the deepest pain.
Prayer is this mysterious gift that God grants his people, where he not only allows us to approach the throne of grace freely, at any point, on any subject, but he also chooses to carry about his purposes in the world through the prayer of his people. Read that last part again. God is not dependent on our prayers, but he invites us to play a part in his kingdom-shaping work through prayer.
Pray for those who seemed to have walked away and keep praying as long as God allows. Even before we consider what to say to them, we should be active in praying for them. Even when the prayers feel like wordless groans, God understands our hearts desire. Just because your family knows you love them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still tell them often, and likewise, just because God knows the desires of your heart doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t tell Him often.
2) Listen to Them
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” James 1:19
We can tend to be so concerned with what we should say to those who have walked away from the faith in order to convince them to return, that we often fail to listen to them first.
Have you ever asked them why they walked away? Did you let them share their story and perspective without you immediately interjecting, with “yea but…!”
What’s their story? Did something terrible happen in their lives that made them question the existence of a good God? Did someone in the church or their family who claimed to be strong in the faith abuse their power and take advantage of them emotionally? Physically? Sexually? There may very well be deep hurt and pain within them on this very topic that we have no idea about because we never stopped to ask.
I all too often try to provide treatment for a person or situation without ever caring enough to seek out the diagnosis. After we pray, and before we speak, we should listen. We should never assume we know why people do the things they do, especially with something as serious as deciding what they believe about God.
3) Encourage Them
“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle,[c] encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14
This is admittedly the most difficult of the four, because there is no formula for how to engage and encourage someone who has walked away. We all should pray, we all should listen, but we all will approach people differently based on our relationship with them and the context in which we speak.
Some will have to be related to firmly, others will have to be handled delicately, but all will need to be approached in a way that is respectful (1 Peter 3:15). If the person knows we love them, then we should feel courageous and confident about speaking to them about it, because, as A.W. Tozer famously stated, “what we think about when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
Is their departure an intellectual one? Perhaps you can request to read a book together and meet a couple times a month to talk it over. Maybe you read a book of their choice first, and then a book of your choice. Even if you don’t have all the answers, it will cultivate dialogue where you can get the answers or right resources from others in your church who are willing to help.
Is their departure an emotional one? If their drift away from Jesus is rooted in a painful or tragic experience in their past, then that should impact the way we approach our conversations with them about faith. Perhaps you can read through one of the Gospels together and see how Jesus has come for all kinds of people, especially the broken and marginalized, and how he resonates with those who suffer. Not only does he understand our pain, he has come to provide give life and freedom to those who feel crushed under the weight of this fallen world.
Do they claim to believe in Jesus, but show no remorse for sin and/or have no need to be part of the church? Ask if they would be willing to read 1 John – it may take them 15 minutes to read through the whole thing, and yet it is chalk-full of ways that provide evidence of true faith, which will provide opportunities to ask probing questions about their life and allow them the time to consider it all.
For many, these conversations can get awkward and heated, so you have to be prayerfully selective as to when to approach the topic and not get easily frustrated if you get shut down. Chances are, their departure from the faith was not an overnight decision, and so if they return, it will be a slow and long climb back. Play the long game and be patiently persistent in the way you care for them. Serve them any way you can and live out the truth of the gospel in front of them.
4) Entrust Them to God
“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” 2 Peter 3:8-9
This is the final and most significant step in navigating life with those who have walked away from the faith. Brother or sister, you were not called to carry the weight of someone else’s salvation, and no matter what you do, you will never replace Jesus as their Savior. Pray for them, listen to them, encourage them, and then entrust them to the Lord.
Trust in His perfect timing, knowing that to God, a thousand years is as one day. He was patient with you and called you to Himself out of his grace in his timing, and if it is his will, he will call to Himself that person on your mind and heart in his timing as well. There are many paths to Jesus Christ, and every believer’s story, while ending at the same place, takes a different route.
The sovereign character of God over all things, when rightly understood, doesn’t mean you need to just kick back and wash your hands of it, but it inspires you to keep moving, keep praying, and keep working towards persuading those who have fallen away to come back and then trust that God will use it accomplish his means.
We pray. We listen. We encourage. We entrust. And all the while, we double down on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to keep us in the warm embrace of His salvation, clinging to the promise and exaltation that closes out the single-chapter book of Jude:
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Jude 24-25