When asked if he’s ever known someone who was influential on his faith turn from the gospel, Rev Jim Ramsay chuckles sadly. While he can’t name a mentor who went from following Christ to “hardcore atheist”, he has seen plenty of people close to him walk away.
“I had a close friend who left his wife for another woman. That shocked me,” says Mr Ramsay, who is chaplain for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches Australia and former head of the Department of Evangelism. “I know of a theological lecturer who has [given up his faith]. There was a man when I was in my teens who stepped away from Jesus. He just didn’t believe any more. I felt sad about that.”
Grief is a natural response
According to Karen Ray, a lecturer in pastoral care at Mary Andrews College, our response is shaped by the type of relationship we’ve had with the person who has turned away from Christ.
“If you’ve had a mentor, you have a relationship where you trust them,” she says. “They inspire you often, you’ve formed some of your own views perhaps on how they’ve explained or taught you. Now they’re telling you they no longer do, and everything they taught you previously or modelled they’re now saying isn’t true.”
It’s common to go through several stages of grief when this happens. We shouldn’t be surprised if we feel betrayed, or doubt, or express denial or anger, because what we’re experiencing is a loss of relationship.
The first thing Mr Ramsay does is point to 1 Corinthians 5:2, where Paul speaks about mourning the unfaithfulness of church members. “When people disappoint us or trash the gospel, it’s easy for us to get angry or judgemental,” he says. “I’ve found it curious and helpful to notice that when Paul becomes aware, the first thing he says is, ‘you should mourn’. It shows we should grieve in the face of deliberate sin.”
“We need to keep God as our primary relationship.”
Our faith in God must remain
The loss of a human relationship shouldn’t change our relationship with God. When another person influences our faith more than God, we are in danger of making them an idol.
“I’m not a big fan of holding tight to other people when it comes to my faith,” Ms Ray says. “I love my rector, but if he did something wrong I would see him as a fallen human being. I would be distressed, but it wouldn’t impact my faith. We need to keep God as our primary relationship.”
This doesn’t mean we won’t feel shaken by watching someone give up on Jesus. It’s okay to feel sad, angry and even betrayed in such circumstances. The key is not to bottle up these feelings, but rather to find the right people to listen to you.
“We’ve got to process those feelings to be able to make sense of them,” Ms Ray says. “People should speak them out with someone who can listen well and help them think about what they’re feeling. Once we understand the meaning of it, we can be inspired to understand how we can resolve those feelings. We need to talk through it, gain context and perspective, and find the insight that God wants us to have about the situation and rest in him.”
Relying on God is key
Another key element is relying on God and the Holy Spirit as we process someone turning away from the faith.
“The practical ways I see people rely on God differ, but at the end of the day it comes down to actually engaging in his word daily,” Ms Ray says. “Find in Scripture that which informs you about what you need at the moment. Be encouraged and supported in prayer daily, whether it’s having someone you trust to give prayer points to, or someone you pray with. Often when we struggle, prayer is the last thing we feel okay to do.”
She adds that if praying and reading the Bible feel too painful, reach out and ask for help. “We need a kind, loving and gentle person to sit with us and pray and read Scripture for us. People forget that when we’re struggling with prayer, the Holy Spirit will connect with God for us. God is working in us when we can’t work in ourselves. Reaffirm the truth that we know to ourselves.”
“If it can happen to them, it might happen to me. As Paul says to Timothy, watch your life and doctrine closely.”
Ways to pray
Christians should pray for their own faith, especially if they are in a position of encouraging others in Christ.
“We need to not think that this could never happen to me,” Mr Ramsay warns. “We don’t realise how important a gospel relationship is. You are, in one sense, an ambassador of God’s word to people. If it can happen to them, it might happen to me. As Paul says to Timothy, watch your life and doctrine closely.”
It’s also important to pray for ourselves as we process. “Pray for the words to express how we’re feeling,” Ms Ray says. “Pray for clarity, because for a while we’re going to be potentially quite emotional about it, so pray we can gain insight about what God wants us to learn from that.
“For the other person, my prayer would always be that they are drawn back to God. That the Holy Spirit works in them again to show them the truth of the gospel again. Pray for the hardness in their heart to be removed, that they repent and seek his forgiveness.”
We are in danger when we attempt to rescue the other person, and we must remember that it is not our responsibility to do so.
“I cannot make my children Christian, I cannot make my wife love me, I cannot rescue my old minister who has given up the faith,” Mr Ramsay says. “I might want to, but I can’t control it. But I can pray for people. I can ask God to change hearts, bring repentance and rekindle faith.”