This post is for anyone who feels they no longer “fit” in some vital part of their life. Even if you’re ambivalent about religion or spirituality (I’ll be relating my experience with surviving a crisis of faith)—or even if your experience of spirituality has only ever brought you joy, you can probably relate to the feeling that you no longer fit within confines that were once welcoming and familiar.
What do you do when you realize that you don’t fit within your own life?
Setting the Stage
I’ve had an inborn affinity for spiritual things since I was a young child. This natural sense of devotion was magnified by my upbringing in an active religious home where our family identity was largely (okay, almost entirely) defined by our church membership and beliefs. My spiritual beliefs and the teachings of the church guided my life, and I’ve met some of my dearest friends there. My beliefs have brought me genuine comfort in times of grief, abiding peace when facing death, and clear perspective when troubled. I met my wife—the single most important person in my life—through our church.
My Crisis of Faith: God in a Box
Yet for all these blessings, my relationship with the church (colored by my own perceptions and experiences) has also brought me great pain over the years, and especially within the last decade. Hearing the spiritual and emotional crises of others, day-in-and-day-out, in my work as a Marriage & Family Therapist has also taken a toll, although I’ve never regretted my choice of profession (keeping an open heart is really important to me). Though I always encouraged people in their honest inquiry and in their search for faith, inwardly my own questions grew in intensity over the years. As I mentioned in a previous post, this struggle crescendoed to into an almost unbearable crisis last fall.
(By the way, I’m feeling really vulnerable writing this. Although my friends and some members of my faith community know my story, what happens when I release this story to those who don’t know me?… So go gently on me, please, even if the path you need to take is very different from mine.)
I felt miserable. While my soul hungered for spiritual nourishment, my weekly experience at church seemed mostly to magnify the things that brought me pain: the apparent contradictions between some church teachings and church practice; the frequent over-emphasis on “programs” at the expense of the essential (I do realize that identifying what is “essential” is subjective); and a cultural slide within certain elements of the church toward fundamentalism: ideology without empathy, and the prizing of dogma over people. These issues seemed to put God inside a box where He didn’t really fit.
At the Crossroads
Something in my life didn’t fit in the church anymore—and I was terribly afraid that “something” was me.
Did I no longer belong in the community I’d lived in for all of my life? Was there room for me, with all of my questions? Did I need to leave the safety of my tribe (with all of its goodness, memories, and richness) to keep my integrity and rescue hope for a more peaceful relationship with God?
Staying seemed like a sentence to death by dissonance; yet leaving would bring a loss so deep that it could not be soothed. Connection, attachment, and love provide the foundation for everything I believe. Leaving my community would create an immense hole in my heart.
My experience as a Marriage & Family Therapist tells me that many (if not most) of us face this sort of dilemma at some point in our lives—even if the struggle isn’t focused on spirituality. Maybe you’ve felt trapped in your career; maybe a relationship that once was sweet now feels suffocating; maybe you’ve lost sight of your calling or peace or dreams in pursuit of “success.” Maybe you’ve just been caught up in the busyness of life, and you woke up one day no longer recognizing your own heart. Maybe someone or something (a parent, a friend, a church, a belief) that once provided you with safety transformed nightmarishly into a source of pain and betrayal.
We’ve all had that feeling, right? That feeling that we needed more room to grow, more space to move, than our current situation, relationships, habits, or beliefs seemed to allow.
If my experience with my clients holds true, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for what to do in those situations. Sometimes people have to leave; they have to make a break and let something end in order for something better to be built in its place, even at the cost of pain. But sometimes people need to stay, so they can expand, reconcile, heal, and work to find change within their circumstances.
All I knew was that something had to change.
And change it did—but (here’s the miracle of it) without the agony or struggle that had come to characterize my experience of church.
The rescue of my faith and my life in the church began in a way I didn’t expect. It began when I met a new friend who talked about God in a lovely, open way, completely unencumbered by the things that weighed me down. My friend (who is not a member of the same church as me) also suggested that I read some writings from a 14th century Persian poet, of all things….
Here’s a sample of what I read:
The God Who Only Knows Four Words
Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does anything weird,
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come dance with Me.”
Intrigued by the idea that I didn’t have to struggle to figure things out (at least not now), I began trusting God again. I began to relax. I began to let go of my need for everything about God and the church to fit (right now!) into a coherent, tidy package.
A few images recently came to me that capture my experience:
God is claustrophobic. He is expansive enough that he doesn’t fit in a small box. I needed to stop cramming Him in there. He needs a bigger space, a wide-open field.
My search for God through struggle was like looking for a sunrise from the inside of a shell—I needed to break out in order to again behold His beauty.
Looking for God inside a box of dilemmas was a distraction. As long as I was in turmoil about my issues, I would remain distracted from focusing on the work I have to do in the world, and from discovering God. I discovered that the loving, joyful, playful God (for whom I’ve always longed, and who isn’t plagued by contradictions) was already waiting for me—on the outside of my box of questions. I needed to put it down to take His hands.
By the way, I’d be really sad—and a little angry—if anyone were to twist my intentions and use my words either to minimize someone else’s struggles (e.g., “Just do what Paul did—stop questioning—and you’ll be happy!…”) or to push them away from their faith or commitments (e.g., “Just leave your faith, your marriage, your job; happiness is outside of the box!”). So don’t do that, please. People have to search their own hearts and find their own paths, and it’s likely they’re more in need of our caring than our “expert” advice. None of us need more judgement; most of us are too judgmental with ourselves already.
So if you share this, share it humbly.
Where I am Now
My questions are still there. The same annoyances and contradictions still try to take me hostage. But I know that for now, spending much energy on those things is a distraction and a waste of my time.
I’d rather devote the precious days and hours of my life to things that bring connection, joy, and peace: my relationship with God, receiving His loving kindness, and making a difference in the world around me.
This new take on God is also freeing me up; I feel less judgmental toward the church, its people, and its imperfections. Heaven knows that I’m a work in progress too. Patience, Paul, patience.
So I’m staying.
I’m staying, and I’m trying to contribute to making things better. I think God needs all of us to do that, if we’re really going to learn how to live together in a healthy, loving community with people who are very different from one another.
I’m staying, and I’m trying to keep my heart open to discovering God, rather than defining Him. I know I have a lot to learn. I’ll hold to truths I believe, but not so tightly that I strangle the life out of them, or so tightly that I’m not free to embrace other truths as they become clear to me.
I’m staying, and I feel free to find beauty and truth both in and outside of the church. God is claustrophobic, after all! I don’t believe He lives in a little box, nor do I believe that He puts many limits on where and how He shows up in the world. I often find Him in the church (even if I have to look obliquely at times). I definitely find Him in family and friendships. I find Him in the faces of people who are very different from me. I expect that I’ll find Him in many more places, experiences, and people in the future. I only want to have eyes that are open to see, ears that are open to hear, and an understanding heart that is able to feel His love in all of its manifestations.
How is my path different from making excuses for the church? Am I just doing mental acrobatics to escape the dilemmas posed by my faith? I’m not entirely sure. But the evidence in my heart—greater peace, more connection, and more energy to do my life’s work—tells me I’m going in the right direction. I’m not driven by fear; I’m beckoned by God to dance with Him once more. In seeing the BIG canvas that God paints on, feeling His presence in my life has become a much more familiar experience.
I’m making decisions that I can truly live with. I’m measuring my life not by how well I “fit” in any particular little box, but by how much I can E X P A N D — how much I can love, how much I can learn, how much of the divine I can experience, and how much goodness and compassion I can share with those around me.
I believe that God loves wide expanses. As I go toward that open place, I hear my heart and my God whisper something beautiful to me: “Welcome home.”
What do you do when you realize that you don’t fit within your own life? I’d love to hear your comments and insights below! And if you know someone who could be benefit from these thoughts, please feel free to SHARE the love on Facebook. :)