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Grieving the Beliefs You Leave Behind

Photo of Matt DabbsMatt Dabbs | Bio

Matt Dabbs

Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

[Thomas] Campbell concluded by announcing a rule to guide them: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” . . . [Someone stood and said,] “Mr. Campbell, if we adopt that as a basis, then there is an end of infant baptism.” . . . [Campbell] simply replied, “If infant baptism be not found in Scripture, we can have nothing to do with it.” Thomas Acheson, deeply moved, jumped up and said, “I hope I may never see the day when my heart will renounce that blessed saying of Scripture, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’” Overcome with emotion, he broke into tears.[1]

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As we grow in our knowledge of the Bible, sometimes we have to give up beliefs. It’s part of the process of learning and growing. What we often fail to focus on are the losses we face as we go through changes in our belief system. As we grow, we gain new knowledge, but we can also experience ourselves leaving things behind which were deeply rooted in our identity.

Such significant losses ought to be grieved as we come to embrace a new and healthier reality.

We don’t typically refer to the Kübler-Ross stages of grief in the context of giving up beliefs. But I find it helpful. Here are the five stages of grief, according to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Now a sixth stage has been added: finding new meaning.

We will find ourselves walking through each of these as we change our theological beliefs–whether it be your beliefs within Christianity or even a conversion to another religion, such as someone coming to Christianity. Certain things are lost and need to be grieved.

We have this misconception that we’re going to sit down with someone, study for a few weeks, and they’re easily going to come to some kind of acceptance. What we need is a deeper appreciation for what a conversion to a new belief system means for our psychology. We are digging down deep into the roots of someone’s identity and asking them to flip flop it into something else.

As Christians we are focused on what someone gains by becoming a Christian. However, whether we realize it or not, when we reach out to people with the gospel, we are also asking them to go through a process of loss and even grief.

First comes denial.

Denial is characterized by avoidance and confusion. “But my Bible teachers told me . . . My parents said . . . It cannot be that what I have believed my entire life has not been true.”

The truth is, however, that you may discover certain components of church or Bible interpretation passed down that are mistaken. As we wrestle with what the Bible actually teaches in context, we begin to notice that some of the things that we once believed don’t hold up well, and the first thing we’re going to do is push back. This is just a survival mechanism.

Anything besides the foundation of Jesus will show fractures, and we need that foundation to be exposed as being faulty so that we can begin to reestablish our foundation in Jesus.

But before we can do that, we have to walk through a season of denial. After all, we have a lot invested in our theological stance, and even relationships which are contingent upon the stance.

But if one’s current theological stance just doesn’t hold up, there comes a point when we stop being able to deny.

This leads into a season of anger.

This can be anger at other people. I can’t believe they told me those things. Why didn’t they tell me more?

Or perhaps the anger is directed at God. Why, after I asked God to help me understand, didn’t He answer the prayer sooner? I’ve wasted all these years believing/teaching the wrong thing. Or perhaps you’re embarrassed and feeling frustrated at yourself.

Emerging out of the anger is a season of bargaining.

This could be reaching out to God and asking Him for a sign to confirm that the new perspective is indeed true. Or perhaps we bargain for the old perspective to come back around.

If only there was a way to still hold onto these things.

When the bargaining fails, we often enter into a season of depression.

This is a time of hopelessness and helplessness. It’s a season of feeling overwhelmed. You realize people will be angry at you for this new perspective. You begin thinking about the loss of relationships that could take place as you begin publicly embracing the new belief.

When you get through the depression, you enter a season of acceptance.

This involves exploring options, making new plans, moving on, accepting this new reality for what it is, and embracing your position within it. When it comes to leaving old beliefs behind, it’s easy to struggle with elitism at first. But you’re going to have to realize that not everyone is where you are.

Many people follow the stages in this order; others will go through the stages in a different order. The main thing is that we can recognize these predictable stages to help others process through them.

The further you have walked through acceptance, the less bitter you should be toward the people who still hold the beliefs that you had. Finding a new meaning (the sixth stage) involves working through your acceptance and no longer being angry at those people who no longer see things as you do.

Many of us have taken steps toward a more biblical worldview, and these steps haven’t been taken without losses of some kind.

For example, many of us have embraced a more biblical view of our future resurrection: the resurrection is not just a spiritual, platonic thing, but rather a physical new heaven and new earth. This new belief means we leave behind environmental callousness in favor of our original vocation as being caretakers of creation.

Many of us have changed our view on salvation from a works-based legalistic perspective to a grace-based perspective. We’ve changed our view on the Holy Spirit from seeing Him as absent and not working today to seeing the Holy Spirit as present and active today.

Each time we leave a less biblical viewpoint behind, we walk through some grief.

The things that were comfortable to us—the things that were nostalgic to us—are no longer as appealing as they once were. Even though you can feel grief and even guilt over leaving beliefs behind, you learn to embrace a new, more biblical reality.

These are the kinds of foundational issues that you base eternity on. So do your due diligence and work through these things. Make sure your beliefs are biblically-reasoned, well-studied, and prayed-through.

And on your journey, remember that whatever stage of loss and grief you may be in, there is a next stage. It’s all part of healing on our way to wholeness.

[1] James B. North, Union in Truth: An Interpretive History of the Restoration Movement (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1994), 86.