I hear it all the time. People explain their devotion to Christ by referring to having “fallen in love with Jesus.”
I get it. They’re trying to describe the intense existential experience of gratitude and admiration they have for Jesus. They’re trying to say, “I’m not just a casual or unconscious Christian, I’m really emotionally invested in my faith.”
It’s like the way people used to refer to having an “assurance of salvation.” Back in the day, when it seemed like everyone was a Christian and churchgoing was the thing to do, evangelists would say, “You might have been baptized and you might attend church regularly, but that doesn’t make you a Christian. Do you have assurance of salvation?” They meant, do you have the kind of intense, overwhelming feelings that indicate a heartfelt experience of God’s grace in Christ. They were referring to the inner witness of the Holy Spirit that allows a Christian to truly know that he or she is justified.
Somewhere along the line that got turned into the language of falling in love: “Sure, you attend church regularly, but have you actually fallen in love with Jesus?”
What’s Wrong with Falling in Love with Jesus?
Subjective assurance isn’t a bad thing, but using the language of romance is a problem for two reasons.
The first is that the experience of falling in love is a specifically erotic experience. And before anyone objects, you don’t refer to falling in love with your children, do you? Your love for them is intense, but you would never use that phrase to describe it. We don’t fall in love with our friends or our parents either, even though we care for them greatly. As psychiatrist-author M. Scott Peck says, “We fall in love only when we are consciously or unconsciously sexually motivated.”
That kind of language just isn’t adequate to describe our devotion to Christ.
But secondly, and more concerningly, I think, the romantic experience of falling in love is always a temporary one. Don’t believe those youth pastors who talk about still being “in love” with their smoking hot wives after all these years of marriage. That’s hyperbole or rhetoric. Or BS.
In any long-term relationship, sooner or later you will fall out of love. That’s not the same as saying you will stop loving your partner, but the feelings of ecstatic lovingness that characterize falling in love, well, they always pass. Always. And it’s then that a couple has to decide whether they are willing to undertake the beautiful work of love.
Back to M. Scott Peck, he defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” In other words, it is an extension of one’s limits or boundaries for the benefit of another. Peck writes,
“When we love someone, our love becomes demonstrable or real only through our exertion — through the fact that for that someone (or for ourself) we take an extra step or walk an extra mile. Love is not effortless. To the contrary, love is effortful.”
Falling in love, on the other hand, is not an extension of one’s limits or boundaries; it is a partial and temporary collapse of them. To fall in love with someone is not the same as loving them. It is the gateway to true love. Counselors often say, when the joy of being in love passes, then the opportunity for real loving begins.
Falling Out of Love is Like Deconstructing Faith
And all this brings me to the vexed process of deconstructing faith. While some Christian leaders think of it as a dangerous abandonment of all that is true, I see it as the period an adult “falls out of love” with Jesus.
All those lovely, gooey, butterflies-in-the-tummy feelings we have for Jesus when the concept of grace drops from our head to our heart don’t last. And neither should they. They are the feelings we have when everything we’ve learned as children from our family and our church finally rings true. We feel as though our faith isn’t just something we inherited. We own it. In our heart.
The problem is that many churches pat us on the back for getting to that point. They baptize us and then leave us to our own devices. We have a children’s curriculum of Bible knowledge and we’ve fallen in love with Jesus and we’re good to go.
But we’re only good to go for so long.
The feelings abate. And what we’re left with is a middle school level of understanding. We begin to question everything, which only makes people uncomfortable. What we need is a safe, nurturing environment in which to ask questions, have deep discussions, and be welcomed no matter what. Instead, we get slammed for deconstructing our faith.
Melanie Mudge defines deconstruction as “the taking apart of an idea, practice, tradition, belief, or system into smaller components in order to examine their foundation, truthfulness, usefulness, and impact.” Or, as Rachel Held Evans put it, deconstruction is about undertaking a “massive inventory of [your] faith, tearing every doctrine from the cupboard and turning each one over in [your] hand.”
But isn’t that what we do in marriage as well? After the feelings of being in love pass, we find ourselves turning everything over in our hand, re-examining every aspect of who we are, who our partner is, and what this marriage is all about. It can be a painful time for a couple, but it’s the true (and difficult) work of extending one’s boundaries to nurture the spiritual growth of the other.
Helping Deconstructors Like We Help Marriages
People have swallowed all kinds of myths about romantic love — myths presented to us by Hollywood and popular music — that we need to divest as we grow into a mature, lifelong marriage. So, what if we treated people who are deconstructing their faith the way we treat people going through marital struggles? What if we held regular “deconstruction retreats” to support people as they fall out of love with Jesus and their old childhood faith? What if we provided “deconstruction counseling” and “faith enrichment courses” in the same way we do for couples?
We need to acknowledge that developing a grown up faith isn’t easy, especially when all the children’s and youth ministry we consumed taught us to fall in love with Jesus. We can’t offer people no help when they are deconstructing their old faith and then complain if they abandon that faith altogether.
And what if we stopped encouraging new generations of Christian kids to fall in love with Jesus and instead developed a curriculum of learning that allowed them to grow into an adult faith, a faith that develops by degrees, accommodating the peculiar challenges we face at different stages of life. What if we took mentoring and coaching more seriously? What if we stopped singing romantic love songs to Jesus? What if we scheduled regular opportunities for us to refresh our understanding of Jesus?
Grown-up faith is difficult.
We need all the help we can get.