Just about once a week–sometimes almost daily–I receive messages from people who have observed our “journey” (as it is often called) over the last few years that want to know how to navigate safely out of religious tradition without the change destroying them, their family or their church. Though I have worked hard to lay low and keep these conversations private, avoiding public controversy as much as possible, I think I will at least lay out some of my thoughts to help those on the journey.
So. What advice would I give to those who are taking the journey out of religious tradition? Here are a few things:
1. Go slow.
Really slow. Change is dangerous. Move very carefully.
2. Search the scriptures.
As you start the journey of examining tradition, you will struggle mightily with the opinions of others and the voices in your own head. The only guarantee you have that you are not being deceived is the Word of God. Study it with an open mind, and–here is the key!–be willing to believe that the traditions are true if the Word of God supports them. The only guarantee that you have within your own heart that you are not being sent a strong delusion is the fact that you are willing to believe the truth whatever that may be.
When you listen to people on both sides of every issue, you will often feel confused and afraid. But when you look to the Word of God, the truth will be clear to your honest heart. Follow the Word.
3. Be filled with the Spirit.
Pray in the Spirit every day, all day. This is one reason why you must move slow–you must take time to be led by the Spirit. You cannot be sure you are not deceived unless you are taking time to be led by the Spirit in a careful and honest study of the Word. Change is dangerous. This journey is a long, slow walk through hell. You cannot survive without the strength of the Holy Spirit. Spend as much time as you can alone with him.
4. Bless those who curse you.
Change creates conflict. People will not understand you. Change often doesn’t make sense, and people who love you will be sincerely heartbroken over you. Don’t resent it, and don’t retaliate. The people who loved you the most will often hate you the most once you abandon them and betray their trust (as they see it). Out of their hurt, they will say terrible things about you. Do not respond in kind! Respond by being kind. Remember, you are the one that left them.
Bless those who curse you. When you bless them, you inoculate yourself against the curse. It cannot penetrate into your heart when you speak a blessing on them. Bless them as publicly as they cursed you.
Another thing: don’t yield to the temptation to retaliate by exposing the double-standard of many who attack you. Religious tradition produces an astonishing level of hypocrisy, and it will be tempting for you to expose it to vindicate you. Over and over, I have heard the indignant protests of those who are accused of “loving the world” and “living in sin” by people who cover their own issues with a phony, pious appearance. There is nothing more difficult than being judged by hypocrites. But, no matter what dirt you have on your naysayers, don’t sling mud! Let God handle that. Remember, you have been forgiven of so much, and God is the Judge. Hold your peace.
5. Let your conscience catch up with your knowledge.
Paul teaches us in Romans 14 that there is a difference between “knowledge” and “conscience.” You can know it is okay to eat meat offered to idols, to use Paul’s example, but your conscience still not be strong enough to do so without guilt. This is another reason to “go slow.” It is important when transitioning out of religious tradition to continue living according to your past requirements for a while even when you know that Scripture does not teach them (though Paul does not permit you to judge others who are moving faster than you). Otherwise, you will violate your conscience and possibly sear it. If you override your conscience in behaviors that are permissible, you will no longer have an inner compass to stop behaviors that are not permissible. This is how so many that start this journey end up living immoral and ungodly lives. Take your time. Your freedoms in Christ can wait for your conscience to catch up.
So many who contact me express genuine fear that they will “go too far.” Warnings about “the slippery slope” terrify them. And rightly so. The slope is slippery, and once you start changing, it is very difficult to stop. Especially when your pastor has been your conscience instead of the Holy Spirit. This is why so many from strict backgrounds do not survive the journey: they have no inner compass. They don’t know how to be led by the Spirit through the teaching of Scripture. Take it slow. And let your conscience catch up.
6. Fear not.
Fear is the single greatest emotion you will encounter on the journey. People will terrify you with predictions of your demise. They will send you sermons, buy you books, mail you cards, pronounce curses, prophecy doom and gloom and work around you to influence your children. They are sincerely panicked for you, and their fear is contagious.
Then, fear will boil up out of your own mind, surreal premonitions of disaster that can seem like God himself is standing across your path to prevent your descent into hell. Everything you have ever known is being challenged, and that is scary.
The answer is in the Word. Are you willing to love the truth whatever that is? Are you willing to remain in the traditions if they prove by the Word to be true? Are you willing to search the Scriptures out of love for truth rather than fear of error? God has not given you a spirit of fear. Perfect love casts out fear. Does God love you? Do you love him? Do you love truth? Then, go slow and work your way through the Word.
Ask the fearful people in your life if they are willing to take a deep breath and study the Word with you to know the truth. Are they willing to embrace change if the traditions are wrong? Are they willing to make the Word of God the standard for truth rather than their experience? If not, then do not fear them. If they are not willing to honestly consider that the traditions may be wrong–right now, with you, right here–then they do not love the truth. Do not fear them.
The one command that God gives us more than any other is, “Fear not!” That’s because he knows that following him is fearful for us. He calls us to “be courageous!” But he does not call us to be reckless. Fear is a tool that God uses to guide us. He did not give us the fear, but he will use it to save us. Fear keeps us honest. If you have no fear in the face of change, you are not fearless–you are reckless.
When we bring our fears to him and process those fears under the shelter of his love, then our fears safeguard us. Healthy fear is healthy. (That is profound.) But fear becomes unhealthy when we allow it to rule us. Take your fears before the Lord and let him speak peace to your soul. When your eyes are pulled away by the wind and waves around you–fearful people and scary consequences–you start to sink into terror. But when you put your eyes back on Jesus by looking to his Word, you can walk on the water. And he will say, “Peace, be still!”
The bottom line is that you must fear God more than you fear people.
7. Be willing to walk alone, but don’t walk alone.
Did you get that? You must be willing to stand alone against the world. But you are not standing alone against the world. Countless others have walked this road before you, and they made it fine. In fact, many of them openly welcome those who seek a home. Of course, you have to be careful lest you escape the lion and the bear and die at the hand of a serpent. There are unscrupulous people out there, and you cannot form alliances and make friendships based on a shared resentment for the past. Indeed, if they are hateful, run. If they are bitter, hide. Get away from them as fast as you can. You cannot afford to become bitter.
Still: be willing to walk alone, but don’t walk alone. Reach out to those who have walked before you. Pray for God to guide you to those who have a heart for your healing. The hardest part of the journey is broken relationships. (Defamed reputation follows a close second.) But you must allow old relationships to wither, if necessary, and new relationships to bloom. You cannot spend your time trying to persuade old friends to walk with you. They cannot change until the wind of God moves them. Period. Recognize that God moves people to change at the pace that is best for them. Let God handle that.
Leaving religious traditions is hard because your identity is tied up in it. It is who you are. When you make the decision to cross over, you will need time to find out who you are before the Lord. All your life you have been who they (family and friends) said you are. Now, Jesus is going to show you who you are before him. This will require solitude, and that may force you into a period of what seems more like solitary confinement. But just keep walking. The dark night of the soul doesn’t last forever. You will come out on the other side, and God will introduce you to new friends.
Be careful as you make new friends that you do not ricochet into the same sort of unhealthy networks that you just emerged from. There are many people out there who have abandoned the traditions, but they still have no idea who they are and depend on the approval of others to define them. You will leap from the frying pan into the fire–lipstick and all!–if you do not take time to learn who you are in Christ apart from the opinions of others. If you will let God work in you slowly but surely, others will come alongside you and walk the road together.
8. Be sure God is calling you to this journey.
Only one thing can keep you through the fire: you must know that you know that you know that God has called you and compelled you to walk this road. My single greatest piece of advice to those who have not yet started the journey:
Unless, that is, you absolutely have no choice before God. If you can in good conscience remain in your tradition, then, by all means, do so.
You must want Jesus and his church more than you want anything. If you are considering change because you want to be like the world, then you are setting yourself up for disaster. If you are changing just because you don’t like rules, then change will destroy you. Only the broken and humble can change successfully. Rebels die young.
9. Learn how to grieve.
The call to follow Jesus is a call to die with him. Following Jesus out of tradition is nothing short of dying. You will think you are grieving over old friends, but you will discover that you are grieving more for the old you, the now-dead you. Grief is crazy and unpredictable. There is no accounting for how it affects the mind. One day, good; the next, day hell-on-earth. You must learn how to process grief.
If you and your spouse are taking this journey together, then pray together, cry together and talk it out. Go to a professional Christian counselor if you can. Get help from those who walked the road. Know that you are not alone. You are not crazy, and you are not losing your mind. Jesus has borne our sorrow and carried our grief. Let him carry you.
Keep a journal. Write down every day everything you are feeling. Study the teachings of Jesus. You will be amazed at how much he talked about what you are feeling as your eyes are opened to the power of tradition. You will make it through.
10. There is life after death.
One of the most terrifying tactics used by people who try to dissuade you from leaving the tradition is to point out the worst-case scenarios, the most awful examples of people who left “The Truth”and lost everything. And while it is true that some have “made shipwreck,” there are multiplied thousands that have successfully navigated change. When they point out the worst-case scenarios, just smile and see it for what it is: desperation and fear.
The fact that they have to use the notorious worst cases tells you that they are either unaware or deliberately ignoring the multitudes that have made it fine, their family and faith still intact. And do not succumb to the temptation to point out all the worst-case scenarios of people who stayed with the tradition. You may know a thousand cases, but don’t stoop to wrangling over infamous failures. Every movement has them.
There is life after death. You are going to live again. Your faith is going to thrive. Your family will be fine. Just move slow and trust in God.