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In this episode of Faith for Normal People, Jared and Pete have a candid conversation with Sarah Bessey about the highs and lows of her own evolving faith journey and how we can learn to embrace the wilderness of deconstruction—seeing it not as a place of desolation and doubt, but as an opportunity for growth and renewal. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • What does deconstruction mean?
  • What does wilderness signify to Sarah and where did she begin to see hope in that?
  • What kind of events triggered an unraveling of faith for Sarah personally?
  • Why not just give up on faith together if so much of your theology has changed?
  • How would Sarah respond to folks who say deconstruction is just an excuse to live a sinful life?
  • How can we learn to trust our own intuition especially if we came from a tradition that said we couldn’t trust ourselves?
  • How was letting go a part of this journey for Sarah?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • My deconstruction upended a lot of our life, and we did definitely suffer a lot of losses, whether it was from friendships and income and vocation, but also things around like certainty and security. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • I couldn’t really square up everything I thought I knew about Jesus with a lot of the rhetoric around me. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • [Deconstruction] was really upending, and I think it was maybe even intensified because I didn’t know how normal it was. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • In the wilderness, that idea of having someone to be alongside of you or even hear other people’s stories just makes you feel a little bit less alone. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • Ultimately what ended up pushing me over that threshold altogether was grief. And I think that that’s a shared experience for a lot of us. We can put up with a lot of things and we’ll say that we’re angry long before we’ll say that we’re sad. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • Maybe one of the things that is hardest about deconstruction in the beginning is realizing you don’t actually know how it’s going to end. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • It turned out when I thought I was rejecting Christianity, I was rejecting one teeny tiny one-sixteenth of it. It was so much bigger and more beautiful and diverse and good than I ever could have imagined. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • That stubborn insistence on the goodness and the abundance and faithfulness and welcome of God deeply shaped my life. And I don’t have any regrets about that. Even in seasons of unraveling, weaving it together and unraveling it again, I don’t know where else I would go. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • There’s still something so incredibly compelling and good about this way of being in the world. It’s the thing I’m willing to risk being wrong about. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • There’s a real sense of growing up that comes along with evolving faith that looks a lot like healing—like putting a bone back into place that was dislocated. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • It’s almost like there’s communities of people where you have to carve off parts of yourself to belong. I don’t think God’s like that. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • What if this experience of feeling like I’m in the wilderness, and I feel the risk and the loss and the fear of it—what if I can trust that this is an invitation from the Spirit instead of a threat? — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • If the love of God is kind and patient, maybe it’s kind and patient towards me. — Sarah Bessey @theb4np
  • A lot of us didn’t realize how fragile our belonging was until we really got into the wilderness. And then all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, turns out it’s precarious.” — Sarah Bessey @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Jared: You’re listening to Faith for Normal People, the only other God ordained podcast on the internet. 

Pete: I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas. [Jaunty intro music plays]

Jared: Before we get started with our episode today, we have a huge announcement to make. As you know, our mission at The Bible for Normal People is to bring the best in biblical scholarship to everyday people.

And for seven years we’ve done that through podcasts, books, and classes, but we’ve missed an important demographic: kids. 

Pete: Yeah, you know, we get asked all the time, how do I teach my children about the Bible without all the weird stuff attached? That’s why we’re creating a children’s Bible called God’s Stories as Told by God’s Children. With this project, our vision is to bring the best in biblical scholarship to everyday kids.

Jared: And when kids have access to a Bible that highlights the diversity, the nuances, and the historical contextual criticism in the text, rather than trying to cover that all up, then they’ll learn how to engage with God and their faith instead of being pushed away from it.

This children’s Bible has fun features to show kids how the Bible was written and reflection questions to help them draw wisdom from the Bible today, because if we’re honest, kids are some of the best critical thinkers out there. 

Pete: This storybook Bible will feature a collection of 60 stories written by a diverse group of biblical scholars, theologians, pastors, and ministers, writers, and activists from all over the world.

If this sounds like the children’s Bible you’ve been looking for all your life, now’s your chance to help make this dream a reality. We’ve just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $60,000 to fund this project, and we really can’t do it without you. 

Jared: Your money will go toward paying our amazing team of authors, illustrators, and designers, offsetting our production costs for printing and shipping, as well as the cost of promoting the book. So take a look at our Kickstarter page to check out some sneak peeks into the Children’s Bible itself. Plus, the rewards we have for supporters, which we’re pretty excited about. We would be so honored to have you join our mission to bring the best in biblical scholarship to the next generation. One Children’s Bible won’t change the world, but we’re hoping the kids who read it just might.

Pete: Head to to check it out.

Jared: Today on Faith for Normal People, we’re talking about deconstruction with our friend Sarah Bessey.

Pete: And Sarah is not a stranger to our podcast, and she is a New York Times bestselling author, co-founder of Evolving Faith with the late Rachel Held Evans, and also a fantastic writer. She’s one of my favorite writers and a trusted voice for so many people who are pursuing the reconstruction and the reimagining of their faith. 

Jared: Absolutely. So don’t forget to stay tuned at the end of the episode for Quiet Time during which we’ll reflect on our conversation with Sarah. Let’s dive in. 

[Music plays over teaser clip of Sarah speaking]

Sarah Bessey: “At a certain point, having someone that you trust, even if it’s the self that you are learning to trust within, say that ‘I’m not afraid, you’re deeply loved in this search, and I think you’re going to find what you’re looking for, even if it looks really different than everything you knew before.’ I think there’s a lot of exhale to that, that you almost have to start to let your real self live. All the blurry edges and the complexities and the loveliness, all those things get to be braided together.”

[Ad break]

Pete: Sarah, welcome again to our podcast. It’s so nice to have you. 

Sarah Bessey: I’m so glad to be here. Thanks for having me. 

Pete: Absolutely. Let’s talk about something that you may have noticed is, like, all over the place on social media. And I think even social media has given people the freedom to express themselves, but this whole idea of deconstruction. Could you just, I mean, what does that mean to you? What does that word deconstruction mean? Let’s start with that. 

Sarah Bessey: Well, I mean, it’s kind of interesting to me how almost the word has ceased to have any sort of meaning on its own. It’s almost like everybody brings their own interpretation of it or their own idea of it. And so for some people, it can be very scary and it can feel very, I don’t know, just almost overwhelming or like this thing to avoid. And even, I don’t know, I think one of the things that maybe gets a little bit tiring for us is a lot of people like to talk about or around people who are deconstructing.

I don’t really love the word deconstruction. I mean, if it works for people, I think that’s great. It just sounds a lot neater than what I experienced in that. So for my experience, I mean, whether you call it deconstruction or a faith shift or whatever else, I mean, I tend to like the phrase evolving faith, obviously.

It’s just this notion that you hit these kind of thresholds in your life and you have, there’s a lot of reasons why you’ll land there. Sometimes it can be questions about theology, it can be questions about how you move through the world, it can be personal trauma and challenges, it can be a lot of grief, it can be anger, it can be collective, it can be really personal, but you kind of find yourself running out of answers.

In some ways, I’ve almost described it as like God disappearing like steam on a mirror, like after a bath, you know, like just all of a sudden it’s just gone. Everything you thought you knew or the box you had for God or that you were given for God all of a sudden feels really small and you wonder if there’s more than just this.

And a lot of times people will come to that multiple points during their life. I think where we really kind of tend to trip over it a bit is we act like it is something to be afraid of or that it is something that is a mark of faithlessness. There’s some sort of like moral assignment to it. Like if you were a really true, true believer, you wouldn’t be having doubt and questions about scripture and church and your life and, you know, how you’ve been taught to move through the world or whatever else.

And I don’t know, I just, I don’t think that that’s really true, you know, I think that in my experience, almost everyone I’ve seen and walked alongside of, and even in my own experiences, we were usually the true believer kids, right? We were the ones who were like all the way in. And when we almost run into that brick wall of just like, Oh, wait, this isn’t everything I thought it would be, or I’ve run out of answers here, it can be profoundly disorienting. 

Jared: Yeah, can you say more about that experience for you and just, you know, you’ve walked alongside of a lot of people who are in the wilderness as you often call it. Can you say more about that disorienting place and as a moment of hope, also how you navigated that for yourself and You know, you’re several years now into the wilderness. You’re a little bit of a veteran. And so, kind of, what was that journey like for you of the wilderness? First, that disorientation piece. But then also, you know, what were those beginning signs of hope for you that maybe this isn’t the end of something, but the beginning of something else? 

Sarah Bessey: I think that’s one of those things that did kind of almost take me by surprise when I walked through that experience the first time, because I hadn’t really ever been taught how normal it is, right? I hadn’t ever been told that this was an entirely normal part of spiritual formation. And in fact, if you, if you haven’t had that experience, no matter how grandiose or, or small and simple, usually you’ve missed a few invitations from the spirit, you know, along the way. And so for me, when I went through deconstruction, it would have been, I don’t know, maybe 25 years ago. My husband was on staff at like a Texas megachurch in pastoral ministry. 

Pete: That’ll do it. 

Sarah Bessey: And yeah, when it came to that, I was absolutely the first one off the pier and it was like a mess. Just an absolute proper mess, I think. You know, my deconstruction upended a lot of our life, and we did definitely suffer a lot of losses, whether it was from friendships and income and vocation, but also things around like certainty and security.

And so I think that a lot of those questions that initially began for me were often theological, and sometimes it was, I think, I look back on it now and even wonder if some of it was cultural misstep of just being in a place that was completely different than where I had grown up in Canada. It was just post 9/11, and so things in the world felt very fraught, and I couldn’t really square up everything I thought I knew about Jesus with a lot of the rhetoric around me.

And so there was definitely this experience of like, I don’t know what I think about any of this. I don’t know what I think about the scripture, I think pretty much, and of course I came up in the charismatic renewal movements. So I was like, well, this also is a whole steamer trunk of baggage now to, to unpack.

And so I think as it kind of began to unfold, there was this sense of almost flailing to it. I talk in the book a little bit about how we often have like two responses when we very first kind of come to this crossroad and it’s you have this tendency to either want to double down on what has worked, you know, that’s the option of like, “I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine,” and you kind of stuff it down and pretend to just kind of, well, if this is the thing that they tell me is going to work, if this is the script, if this is the formula, if this is the, if this, then that path, I will hit every mark. I will earn every gold star. You hand me a Bible study written by a lady with an unfurling flower on the cover and I will fill out your worksheets. I will do the things that need to be done. 

But then on the other side, there can be this almost burn it down energy. And that’s definitely more where I landed in that stage of life. Just nothing here is salvageable. I’m pretty sure institutional religion is garbage. Is there still something that’s of truth here that I want to hold on to? And so, yeah, it was, I think, really upending and I think it was maybe even intensified because I didn’t know how normal it was and so it did feel scary.

Pete: Can I ask, I hope this is okay to ask you, Sarah, because people really—you know, when I’ve gone through similar kinds of things, other people’s stories were very, very helpful to me. It wasn’t like, here’s the explanation for just hearing other people and what they were going through. Would you mind fleshing out a little bit of just maybe more specifically what some of the triggers were, was there a really big one that was a straw that broke the camel’s back for you? And then flesh out a bit more your thinking and feeling process as a result of that. 

Sarah Bessey: Mhmm. I definitely agree with you. I think that sometimes, especially when we lack, I don’t know, companions maybe in the wilderness, that idea of having someone to be alongside of you or even hear other people’s stories just makes you feel a little bit less alone.

That’s definitely true. And so, I mean, on my end of things, I think it started almost very theologically. You know, I was grappling with a lot of the teaching that was surrounding me around prayer, around miracles, around women, um, and women’s place in the church and women’s, uh, voices and experiences. Some of it were things that were kind of related to politics and justice and, and those things showing up.

So all those things were kind of almost like this big tangled thicket of like, any one of them maybe wouldn’t have been enough to kind of push me over that threshold. But what ended up really kind of doing it was a very personal experience that I had around pregnancy loss. And Brian and I, uh, my husband Brian and I had been married for a short amount of time and we just experienced loss after loss. And I did everything I should do, everything that my tradition told me was right, everything that would assure me of an answered prayer, right? 

And I think that there are a lot of gifts of coming up in the charismatic movement that I’m grateful for to this day. One of them is that we had such a high view of God, you know? We never thought that God was someone who gave you cancer or, you know, was interfering in your life to, you know, somehow, you know, act like being terrible was going to be for your greater good, right? There was just this high, high view of God being good. 

But then on the flip side of that, when things went wrong, well, then you got the blame because it’s not God’s fault, right? And so you lack faith. You didn’t pray hard enough. Maybe you have secret sin in your life. And I’m looking at my life and going, I am completely broken open with grief and with wondering. But this extra layer of shame, of where are my prayers not being answered? What am I doing wrong? Feeling incredibly forgotten by God. And all of a sudden thinking, wait a minute, what if everything I’ve been taught about answered prayer and about miracles and about my exceptionalism to being a person isn’t true? And that was the thread I began to pull that ended up unraveling almost the whole sweater.

That was kind of the thing that pushed me over, I think, into the wilderness—was almost this sense of like, yes, I had questions. Yes, I had doubts. Yes, I had critiques. Yes, I had some very adverse and harmful experiences. Yes, I had a lot of anger. Yes, I had a lot of awareness that I was waking up to around the world and around justice and around embodiment of those things.

But ultimately what ended up pushing me over that threshold altogether was grief. And I think that that’s a shared experience for a lot of us. We can put up with a lot of things and we’ll say that we’re angry long before we’ll say that we’re sad.

Pete: Yeah. Alright, well, I appreciate you sharing that Sarah. I think that means a lot to people and Yeah, grief and pain are just, those are things that just—not just unexpected things. I don’t have this intellectual problem, it’s more like I really think it’s lived experiences that drive people to really question what they believe and to hear “Well, you’re less than for doing that,” which is very much the rage nowadays. I mean, I know you know that. It’s the way deconstruction is, it’s sometimes peddled by people as like a cheap thing, even like, well, I’m deconstructing. I’m deconstructing. You’re not, when you talk like that, you’re not being… [Chuckling]

Sarah Bessey: [Laughing in agreement] —here’s your badge. 

Pete: Yeah. But then other’s, you know, reactions to that as well. Like you just said, it’s like, it’s all bad, “only bad people with no faith do that.” But it may be people without experiences also that do that. They haven’t had really the opportunity to even take that first step into this wilderness that you described in your book.

[Ad break]

Jared: Can I ask a question around what’s led you to, you know, why not just give up on faith altogether? Everybody’s journey here is different and people end up where they end up and you know, there’s no prescribed—”It’s only legitimate to evolve your faith if it looks this certain way, or adapt your faith, or change your faith if it ends in a certain way.”

But for you it did end, or it’s ever evolving, but it has gone a certain direction. And so what do you think, what were the things that led your faith to evolve in the way that it has since that time when there is a lot of anger and a lot of grief and a lot of loss? What do you think led to where you are now with your faith?

Sarah Bessey: Yeah, I think there were a lot of, you know, moments and practices. I think that’s maybe one of the things that is hardest about deconstruction in the beginning is realizing you don’t actually know how it’s going to end. And you do have a lot of, often, I mean, we can see it in the books that are being published and the conversations that are being had oftentimes by establishment spaces, a lot of hand wringing and pearl clutching over people who are asking questions or experiencing doubt or are saying, but what about this and that and, you know, whatever.

And it has moved from being that intellectual discussion in a pub over atonement theory, as important as that is, Pete [chuckling with Pete]. Um, this element of like, like you said, just something that’s deeply personal there, right? And so I think that some of the things that ended up kind of keeping me snagged in the story.

Ages ago, I remember Rachel Held Evans talking about how this was a story she was still willing to be wrong about, and I remember feeling so deeply seen by those words because it felt like that for about a good 10 years for me, where I just wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure what I believed about church or what I believed about how to read scripture. I wasn’t sure about how people should move through their lives and what was in my, how to have certain opinions or certain beliefs or whatever else. But there was something at the center of it that I found so compelling. And for me, that was really centered around the person of Jesus. And so I remember having experiences where I almost felt like I was like reading the Bible for the first time during a lot of those years because I remember, you’re gonna laugh at this, you two, because I, I remember having this moment where I was like, well, I’m not calling myself a Christian anymore.

I cannot have that label. These people, this is too much. I don’t want nothing to do with this. And so I remember starting to call myself like a follower of Jesus, like I thought that was like such a different thing than being a Christian, and I needed maybe the space in my own mind for that distinction, but then I remember having this moment where I literally was like, well, if I’m calling myself a follower of Jesus, like I probably should figure out what that means.

What did he actually do? And what did he actually say? Like, in a lot of ways, I felt like I knew a lot about church, and I knew a lot about, you know, the doctrines we believed, and I knew a lot about the things we weren’t supposed to ask questions about, and the things we weren’t supposed to be doing.

Probably knew more about Paul than I knew about Jesus. And there was this invitation in that for me. And so, of course, being Protestant, I go to the Bible, and being charismatic, it’s going to be sloppy and experiential. But there’s this invitation that I found there, and I remember reading, this was probably five or six years into my first experience of wilderness, and sitting at our kitchen table and I was reading Luke 6. And I want to say it was a sermon, it was a sermon on the mount, and I remember almost getting angry because I had this sense of like, I would have followed this. I would’ve. Like, I, I understand why people dropped their nets and chased after this guy. I understand why it upended empires. I understand, because this is compelling to me. 

Whether or not ladies should read the Bible, that’s not compelling to me, like, in terms of discussions and debates, but this, this is something that’s worth building your life around. And there’s still a bit of an edge, I think, to my faith, and there’s a lot of practices that I have, you know, kind of learned the hard way in terms of what has helped me reintegrate or maybe even reimagine what faith might look like for me, you know? And some of those things are things that we talk about all the time around hope and around, you know, knowing how to tell the truth again and, you know, around community and, and being taught by people who read the Bible so differently than you do.

I mean, it turned out when I thought I was rejecting Christianity, I was rejecting like one teeny tiny one sixteenth of it. Because it was so much bigger and more beautiful and diverse and good than I ever could have imagined that there was actually a lot of paths out here and a lot of good guides that I had missed.

And so, I mean, for sure, I think there’s always going to be that little bit of an edge, but that stubborn insistence on the goodness and the abundance and faithfulness and welcome of God deeply shaped my life. And I don’t have any regrets about that. Even in seasons of unraveling, weaving it together and unraveling it again, you know, back and forth, I don’t know where else I would go.

There’s still something so incredibly compelling and good about this way of being in the world. It’s the thing I’m willing to risk being wrong about. 

Pete: Yeah. See, I mean, one thing that I’m going to use different language here for, I think, what you’re saying, and it’s your experience and really your intuition, I would say, that played a big role thinking things like, I’m still attracted to this Jesus person.

And one thing I hear from the naysayers of deconstruction is that your problem is you’re not listening to doctrine. You’re listening to your experiences, your fallen intuitions. So riff on that a little bit because I know you disagree with that, right? So just, I mean, how, how does experience and intuition, how can that be part of this authentic journey of, and I do agree with your language, evolving faith to me is a much better way of putting this than deconstruction.

Sarah Bessey: Yeah, I think that that’s one of those things that I ended up deconstructing along the way, is the idea that somehow those parts of yourself are at odds with what God is wanting to do in the world and even in your own self, right? I think that that’s some of those things that did such incredibly deep damage on generations of people saying that your intuition is not trustworthy, that your body is sinful, that your mind should be checked at the door and you should just be spoon fed doctrine by people who know better. I think there’s a real sense of growing up that comes along with evolving faith that looks a lot like healing.

It looks like almost like putting a bone back into place that was dislocated. And so it’s not that I don’t think that theology and doctrine is deeply important. I think very differently about them maybe now than I did, and I certainly have a lot of different opinions. And I also have a lot of non opinions, things where I’m just like, well, I don’t know, you know, and I’m content with not knowing sometimes.

But I think that invitation to heal that dislocation between our actual embodied selves and what I believe is God, I think that there’s something really that looks a lot like integration and wholeness to that. I haven’t yet seen anywhere in my experiences and even in a lot of my study and work around this, where people become less of the image of God because of that, right?

It’s almost like there’s communities of people where you have to carve off parts of yourself to belong. I don’t think God’s like that. I don’t think that there’s, there’s anything that makes you who you are, whether it’s your experiences, your way of moving through the world, your way of understanding things, your way of communicating, your way of being, your, your place, your people, the soil where you grew and came of. I think that all those things are part of how God speaks to us and how God relates with us. I think doctrine and theology is one part of that. 

Pete: I think what you’re saying too is that you found God to be bigger than what you had experienced beforehand. And again, in my experience, that’s exactly what people get worried about. “No, you got to keep it in this box.” You used the word before God in a box. And I think that’s one thing that’s threatening to a lot of people. I think it’s threatening to the people going through it, that it’s getting, I mean, I remember the first time I thought to myself, maybe God doesn’t send Jews to hell. That was a long time ago, but you know? Or maybe there is no hell, like, maybe I don’t understand God at all. And I think part of the wilderness experience is that we have to experience that. 

Sarah Bessey: Yeah.

Jared: Well with that, can you say more about that experience because I think a lot of people have that experience of “maybe I don’t know what I thought I knew” and sort of I was resting on that. And it’s tied similar to Pete and in your conversation about trusting yourself and your own intuitions and how did you navigate that part of the wilderness of learning to listen to your intuitions and, and discern what is good to hold on to? What do you let go of? You know, it’s a wisdom practice. There is no, I’m sure ABC, 1, 2, 3 linear process. 

But for you, particularly, just I, I think a lot of women who were told explicitly not to trust themselves and that they were being too emotional and, and it can be, it seems like, it seems like it would be a liberating experience, but in my relationship with some folks, it can actually be a painful experience to have to discern that and figure out how to lean on your own intuitions and when to still maybe lean on others in terms of guidance and things.

So how, how have you navigated that in particular? 

Sarah Bessey: Well, there’s a few different things that just kind of sprang to mind, and so I’m not sure if any of this will be helpful. But there’s this passage of scripture in Isaiah that talks about how that when you are on a path, you’ll hear a voice saying this way or that way, turn left or to the right.

And there was this sense of trust to that, that I found really beautiful of like, well, what if this experience of feeling like I’m in the wilderness and I do feel the risk and the loss of this and the fear of it. What if I can trust that this is an invitation from the Spirit instead of a threat? And I think even that shift initially for me, I think initially I thought that deconstruction was about trading one set of ideas and theology and principles for another. That it was like, you lost A-Z theology, and so now here’s a nice new tidy more progressive set of certainties. And purity tests, and fundamentalism. You know? And whatever else, right? 

Pete: Yeah.

Sarah Bessey: And that initial realization of like, oh no, that’s not the thing that’s being reset in me. It turns out that it was never about trading one set of answers for a different set of answers as much as it was actually being transformed and actually beginning to grow up. And realize that you had agency and wisdom and knowledge and experiences and that you could learn and ask questions and experience wonder, and even a sense of curiosity. 

The other thing I remember being really deeply foundational for me was being absolutely stubbornly, like hang on with white knuckles, nobody can take this from me, kind of convinced that there was nowhere I could go where God would not love me. I couldn’t outwander God. That I could get a few things wrong and still enjoy the friendship of the spirit, because that had been true my whole life previous. I’d gotten a million things wrong, and I still knew that I was loved by God. I almost had this like sense of, if the love of God is kind and patient, maybe, maybe it’s kind and patient towards me. [Pete laughs]

And, you know, in my own search for knowledge and wisdom, or let alone my, the kind of marriage that I want to have, how I want to raise my children, how I want to show up in my community, how I want to show up for the questions of our time, what are some of those invitations that maybe I’ve been sleeping through and that I’ve been missing?

And so I think that those undergirdings, and I could probably look back to my family of origin for a lot of the gifts of that. Like, I remember really early in my own deconstruction process having this very frank conversation with my dad because it felt like we were losing everything, you know, like vocation and jobs and ministry and certainty and friendships and the path we’d always thought we would be on, our evangelical hero complex, which I clung to with my eye teeth, you know, whatever else it was.

There was this moment where I remember him saying to me—and my parents were first generation Christians, and so, you know, we had kind of grown up in faith together, and we still are. But there was this sense of him giving me almost permission and grace for it. And I remember him saying, I honestly believe that you are really seeking God, and I think you’ll find what you’re looking for, even if it looks so different than what I found.

[Pete and Jared murmur in agreement]

And even just that permission. And that, that reminder that it might look really different than what he had found in God. But he was open and curious and he blessed that. And he acknowledged the fact that God might be bigger than his own experience and his own knowledge. And that was just the—

Pete: That’s huge. 

Sarah Bessey: Yeah, it was, it was a really big thing for me, I think. And it helped me withstand all of the slings and arrows that were coming from a lot of other corners in our life at the time. 

Jared: Yeah. I was going to say, even just hearing that phrase, I think would be such a breath of fresh air for a lot of people, to have that from family members and loved ones and people in their community to say, “maybe we’re not going to end up in the same place, but I think that I believe you’re doing this in good faith and I think you’re going to find what you’re looking for.” Yeah. 

Pete: Yeah. 

Sarah Bessey: I think that’s maybe some of the things we most need to hear at that moment is a lot of times you know, at a certain point, having someone that you trust, even if it’s the self that you are learning to trust within, say that I’m not afraid, and that I believe you’re deeply loved in this search, and I think you’re going to find what you’re looking for, even if it looks really different than everything you knew before. I think there’s a lot of exhale to that, that you almost have to start to let your real self live, right? All the blurry edges and the complexities and the loveliness, all those things get to be braided together. 

Pete: Yeah, I mean what you said before I think is very powerful to hear and I think people who are going through this or maybe despairing could use to hear that God is with you in the deconstruction. That alone shifts the entire issue. 

[Ad break]

Pete: I think the metaphor—I wonder, I don’t know, I’ve never heard anybody actually say this—but I wonder if the negative attitude towards deconstruction is this wilderness metaphor for some people, because the wilderness, at least in the Hebrew Bible, is almost always a negative experience. It’s not always the case, there are a couple places where it’s like a place where you’re nurtured by God. But for the most part, if you’re just reading like parts of Torah, for example, like in Numbers, it’s a place of punishment. It’s a place of alienation from God. Wilderness is outside of the land. It’s that place when you’re not in God’s presence anymore.

And I wonder if that has—the way that metaphor is used in the Bible itself, I wonder if that maybe fuels some people, even subconsciously, to think of this whole deconstruction business as, “I’m straying from God,” rather than thinking “there’s no place where God isn’t.”

Sarah Bessey: No, I think so. I think that is definitely part of it. I think, I want to say it was a couple years ago at Evolving Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor talked about how if the wilderness can’t kill you, then you’re just actually in a park, you know? 

Pete: [Laughing heartily] Oh, Barbara. 

Sarah Bessey: My evolving faith experience is, is really a community park with a nice slide. Uh, that would be nice. [Pete laughs] And I think there is that element of danger to it, right?

There has to be that dark night of the soul, that sense of quiet and silence even, where there used to be maybe a lot of certainty and voice that you thought you knew. So I think that is actually part of it. And I think that that’s maybe even part of the, the shift for wilderness for me was maybe around some of those ideas because I began to see there, there’s also invitations where this could be an invitation to intimacy because there is such a stripping away.

There is such a, this is shedding things along the path that you packed up and brought along with you that you thought for sure you were going to need, and it turns out they are just holding you back. And so, there’s oftentimes I think that initial experience of loss in the wilderness and that sense of danger, that sense of precarity, even, and fragility for a lot of it. I think some of the things we’re surprised to learn are fragile. Like, a lot of us didn’t realize how fragile our belonging was until we, we really got into the wilderness. And then all of a sudden you’re like, Oh, turns out, turns out it’s precarious. 

Pete: Where is everybody? Yeah.

Jared: Well with that, something you said earlier reminded me of early in my deconstruction processes probably 25 years ago at this point as well, there was, it sounds really corny and cheesy at this point, but In the Count of Monte Cristo, which I was a, I’m a millennial, so I’ll say I love the movie. I didn’t ever read the book. But there’s this point where Edmund Dantes is having this crisis of faith and he happens to be in prison with a priest who’s still constantly talking of God and all these things. And at some point, Dantes gets frustrated and says, Priest, you forget, I don’t believe in God anymore.

And the priest says, it actually doesn’t, it doesn’t matter because God still believes in you. And that was really a very impactful phrase for me at the time that really helped me kind of carry through some of the, the times. And so the dominant metaphor in my head became more of the, all the doctrine and all the things I needed to do. And even though I wasn’t supposed to have to quote, do anything, I knew that insider language. We knew there were still some behaviors that were good and things you needed to do and say and learn. And be smart about the Bible and these things. And there was a lot I needed to hold on to. And so there was a letting go process of needing not to hold on, but to realize that I’m held.

And so I’m wondering for you, was there a process of a letting go where that part of your evolving faith is in doing less, is in needing to perform less and to letting go of some of maybe the culture that maybe you grew up with. I know I did. So what, how was letting go a part of this journey for you as well, whether it’s letting go of our expectations or needing to do certain things, was that a part of your journey as well?

Sarah Bessey: Absolutely. It was, I think there’s almost like that distillation or crystallization that kind of can happen through all of that. So I grew up here in the Rocky Mountains or in the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta, and we moved away for 25 years and then came home. And I’ve been reminded of so many things that I learned then that I had forgotten that have kind of come back around being in the wilderness or being in the backcountry.

And that’s one of them, is how essential some things are and how inessential other things are. So for instance, even when we were talking just earlier about wilderness and about whether or not there’s a sense of like danger and loss and an exile even to it, oftentimes I found that I felt that sense of exile in the backcountry or in the mountains because I was trying to transpose my regular life to that space. I wanted to bring along all the creature comforts. I wanted the lanterns, and I wanted the flashlights, and I wanted all these, like, things that I thought I needed in order to exist in this space. And it wasn’t until I stopped trying to recreate inside outside that I began to realize how beautiful it actually is. That I was only scared of the dark when I was trying to press it away. But when I would put away the flashlight and I would let the moonlight and the starlight be the thing that guided me, I began, I let my eyes adjust to the darkness. It became like a friend instead of like something to be afraid of.

And you realize how much light there is to see by. And so I think that in some ways that metaphor of like, well, I don’t know that I get to transpose everything that used to work in the safe parlors of my life that looked like a lot of certainty. And instead, maybe a lot of those things do need to be left behind.

And you need to understand you’re not holding onto things as much as you are being held. And what does it look like to make friends with the darkness? to learn how to speak some truth, to let yourself be sad, to let yourself acknowledge the things that have been breathing down your neck that you haven’t wanted to make eye contact with.

And I think there’s an element of grief to that, but there’s also this huge other part of it that I don’t know that people who talk about deconstructing know, which is also the joy of it and the beauty of it and the invitation of learning how to see the stars outside. That’s, I think the other part of that maybe.

Pete: I mean, the word that comes to mind as I’m hearing you describe this, Sarah, is like there’s a purging element to this of the things that we hold on to, and the end result of that, it might not happen right at the beginning, but at least that’s my experience, but I would say there’s a sense of relief, almost, and a release of not having to hold on to these things.

And, yeah, we can call, this German can call that joy, I guess, if you want to. [Laughing] I don’t get to be forced to use that word, I don’t really know how to spell it, but um. 

Jared: What is this? I hear of this joy thing…

Pete: What is this joy you speak of? Anyway, this is the thing. The people that criticize this whole process as being somehow sub Christian—I know many people who have gone through this and have found peace with their own existence and, and it goes, and like you said before, Sarah, I think this is so important. You don’t know where this is going to go, but you’re dealing with God after all, right? So, why would you know where this is going to go?

And for some people, it goes into spaces that, you know, some others might not really think is, is a right place to go, but there are people who leave faith entirely. And, I mean, I don’t know how you feel about that, but that may be where they have to be given, you know, their background, their histories and maybe being traumatized or having the faith weaponized against them.

And you don’t know where it’s going to go. And that’s the question, that’s what people bring to this in a negative sense. You don’t know where this is going to go. And maybe the proper response is, I have to be purged of so many things, I’m not even sure how to handle that right now. I just have to, I can’t not go through this. I can’t, I can’t make believe, it’s just, it’s gonna happen, and wherever it goes, it’s gonna go. 

Sarah Bessey: That’s so true. And there’s, there’s both equal parts fear and permission in that, isn’t there? 

Pete: Yes. 

Sarah Bessey: There’s this real sense of like, I think that’s maybe one of the things that is difficult for people is that oftentimes we were very first introduced to religion as a path of certainty or faith as like, here’s all your easily memorized answers.

Here’s your index cards for apologetics. Here’s the, if this, then that performance of Christianity or whatever else. And so when you’ve been told your whole life that this is the thing that it gives you, I think it is that profound disorientation of like, what do you mean that wasn’t the point all along?

What do you, what do you mean? Right? And so I think that even that is developmentally normal. I think it’s in a lot of ways very similar to, you know, the developmental process of growing up where there is deep necessity and importance of that black and white toddlerhood. Right. Or kindergarten seasons.

Yeah, sure, it’s if this, then that. It’s good and bad, whatever else. But you know what? If by the time they’re teenagers, they’re not able to discern and use wisdom and make decisions, not just because you’re hanging over their shoulder or making those decisions for them, then you haven’t served your kids super well, right? And, and even had some room for them finding new things and teaching you things and exploring and, and, and opening up your life. And I think, you know, maybe that’s even part of where some of the fear is from folks who are around us, it’s because it was there on purpose that you’re almost meant to see people who question as threats or as outsiders.

That somehow we’re the ones who have it all figured out and we’re the, we’ve got all the, you know, the ducks in the row and it turns out, well, no, they were, you know, it was always just trying to like put kittens in a box. And so that’s what it was always going to be. I don’t know. Maybe we just weren’t ever taught that that’s normal.

Jared: As we finish up this conversation, maybe we can end with a little bit of a benediction, if you will, a place of hope. And so my question is, You know, Pete just mentioned some have found peace, some have found themselves, some have found joy in the wilderness. Can we maybe end with, what are some things that you found in your own personal journey? What, what have you found in the wilderness? 

Sarah Bessey: Pete, will you get mad if I say joy again? 

Pete: No, no. 

Sarah Bessey: I think that, for sure, I think that joy and happiness, not being some silly little thing, let alone pursuing healing and wholeness. That has been life changing, but then there’s other invitations that I, I think I would have missed. You know, whether it is just that bone deep convincing about the love of God being the truest foundation of things. I would have missed the fact that, that hope isn’t some wishful thinking, but like a real grit in your teeth, show up for the work, believe it, turn towards it sort of thing. I think that I would have missed learning how to tell the truth about myself or about the world or about the moments in time that we find ourselves in.

I think I would have missed a lot of beauty around me. I think I do not miss at all being afraid and being able to purge, like, fear as a driving force and instead being able to say, no, I’m pretty sure that love and hope and all these great big huge verbs and nouns that we really yearn for, like those are actually the things I want motivating me. Learning how to love the world again, learning how to be a peacemaker instead of just someone like I have a real tendency to be being more of a peacekeeper. So that’s when I’m still definitely working on. 

But I think that those are some of the gifts that maybe we’re not really told along the way, even new places of belonging and expanding practices of community and belonging outside of maybe the narrow ways and, and small lanes that I always understood it. There’s been a lot of beauty and goodness in being more true, and I’m grateful for it. And what’s interesting now at this stage, I’ve gone through this process of evolution in multiple places. I think the reasons maybe why I like the phrase evolving faith more is it lets me bring along the things that I still find precious and good while being able to discard and let go of and purge the things that need to be released. But there still are a lot of things that I love about this story, and a lot of things I love about my tradition, and a lot of things I love about us as a community. And to me, I’m not ready to be run off yet. 

Pete: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us, writing this beautiful book Field Notes for the Wilderness, and just thanks for spending some time with us today.

Sarah Bessey: No, it’s always a joy. [All laughing] [Music signals transition to Quiet Time segment]

Jared: And now for Quiet Time…

Pete: …with Pete and Jared. 

Jared: All right. Well, this is a topic that we know a thing or two about. Being in the wilderness, faith, evolving faith, deconstruction. So maybe just for people who haven’t had a chance to hear your story in three to five minutes. Take us through your wilderness period, and what are some things that you’ve learned from that?

I hesitate to say you’re out of the wilderness, so it’s not like it’s in our past, but that initial experience and where it’s brought you to today. 

Pete: Yeah, you never, I think you’re never out of it. You learn to find streams and shade in the wilderness, and that’s, that’s, I mean, forgive the metaphor if it doesn’t help, but yeah, for me, it really was—the beginning was intellectual.

Absolutely. It was reading the Bible closely first in seminary, but then really in graduate school and hearing people who talk differently about the Bible than I was used to. That for me was the starting point. And that’s when I began thinking maybe my tradition wasn’t right about stuff. And it scared the life out of me.

I just, I was, I was frightened at the thought of what if I’m just wrong about God? And I think the end result of this is like, well, of course, I’m wrong about God. I mean, why would you think otherwise, you know, being helped by communities and by, you know, not necessarily physical communities, but online communities, reading books.

Again, that’s how I process things that have helped me to understand the changes that I was experiencing. I’ve found a lot of help in a centering or contemplative approach to life. Which for me is about letting go of the need to be certain. I wrote the book, The Sin of Certainty, for a reason. Because I was working through all that stuff myself.

So the intellectual stuff started it. But then, you know, Jared, you got kids. You got your family. You got life. And, and it’s like, you know, things don’t ever go according to the script that you’re handed. And for us, part of that was, this is what a Christian family should look like, blah, blah, blah. And I never did that stuff well, like the morning and evening devotions and you’ll get dressed up to come to dinner because, you know, God’s here or something like that. I just…

Jared: Uh huh. So that’s really the, that’s what really unraveled things, is you were not good at being the Christian leader of your family. That’s really what it is. 

Pete: Well, that’s absolutely true. And I, but I think the reason why is because I felt very inauthentic. 

Jared: Yeah. It wasn’t true to who you were and how you were feeling.

Pete: It wasn’t true. Exactly. But then I tried to sort of hide that and make excuses for it instead of saying, I can’t help who I am. I mean, who I am is just this whole mess of genes and experiences and childhood. I mean, I never had a fighting chance. So, and I, then you have to believe that God understands that. And it’s like, it’s just not a problem.

And, and I’m working through my existence in my own way, and being comfortable with simply not having final answers to things, which drives some people crazy. Particularly with me like, “you never give us answers.” I’m like, you’re welcome. Yeah, I’m not giving you answers because I don’t even know what the answers are. But I know there are paths and better questions to ask. And at least we can eliminate what isn’t a helpful answer. And here’s why, you know, to sort of purge, to clear the path. So, how about you? 

Jared: I would say similarly, which I’ve appreciated, you know, having Sarah and others on talk about their deconstruction, because I think we had a similar journey in terms of just the intellectual path.

You know, for me, there was certain traditions, I’d say for me, the Southern Baptist tradition, came to an end of that, had too many questions, and it seemed like there was a charismatic answer to those things, and then kind of came to the end of that, and it seemed like Reformed Theology had all the answers I was looking for, and, and that sustained for a while, you know, they had a, they have a lot of answers for a lot of questions, that’s for sure.

Pete: Right. 

Jared: Um, but then, you know, you, at some point, you, you come to the end of that as well. And, and just the, there are just, are questions that don’t have answers. And then you realize, why were people so dogmatic about things that don’t seem to have clear answers? Nor is there any end in sight to the questions around things like God.

And then that, for me, started, I started questioning the whole enterprise, the theological enterprise because I looked at, you know, suspiciously at people who seem so committed to defending a certain way—

Pete: A system.

Jared: A system and a way of thinking about it. But as I got older, I’d say for me, what, where things got really heated and I would say productive and helpful was I started to recognize through all of that process, God was a means to an end. That really what I was after was safety and control and certainty.

And so these questions started to expose my true motives. And I think for me, as I’ve healed emotionally and psychologically, relationally, hopefully as I’ve gotten more mature and more reflective, my need for those things have gone down. And so God now in my life kind of gets to be God and not just a means to my ends. Like I, I need God to function in this way. God has to provide me with safety, control, and certainty. And whenever I have less of those needs, I have less of a need to put God in those boxes and to function in a certain way. And so that’s been a, uh, a helpful process for me in the wilderness. 

Pete: Would you say it’s sort of like for you—because that resonates with me—it’s not that God is a thing over there that has to adapt to my life or I adapt to this.

It’s more, God becomes almost like that presence and landscape almost that we’re walking in and—I don’t know. That’s not the most articulate way of putting it. But that’s a very different way of thinking about God as the being out there that can intrude into your existence, but rather—

Jared: Or needing God to function in a particular way.

Pete: Right. But God’s not, if God is like the landscape, God’s not functioning in any way, but that’s what I mean. Yeah, it’s like there’s a deep reality, but we’re humans and living our lives and we have the questions that we have and this landscape hopefully is aware of that. You know, the landscape knows we’re gonna trip over that rock or there’s shade over here, you know, but a lot of this is our finding our way. I think. 

Jared: Right. And that’s a big part of it too is recognizing that faith is big enough to include the journey of tripping over rocks and falling on our face and doing things wrong where, you know, my old metaphors of this judicial God who has just had me on trial all the time. And I have to be found innocent, and part of it is you’re not going to be found innocent, so that’s why Jesus came, and so you’re fine, but culturally there was this whole other thing of, yeah, but you still have to try really hard, and everything, you are on the stand all the time, you’re always being judged, and so letting go of that metaphor, and letting faith be the process of just trying to figure it out. And that’s okay. Not everything is this cosmic moral judgment was very liberating as well. 

Pete: And the big, one of the big turnarounds for me was reading the Bible from that perspective and watching biblical writers, frankly, working things out. And, you know, the examples are many. Paul is working out a theology in light of this Jesus experience that ruffled a lot of feathers and he’s not always consistent throughout his writings because he’s working things out.

Psalmists are working things out. How do we deal with this God who’s absent? You know, I just, I find that to be, again, getting back to Sarah’s episode, the normalizing of that is I think potentially a huge gift to people who are just struggling with the very stuff that you just talked about, being a part of a context where if you go in this direction, you’ve wandered off the beach blanket and you’re going to burn your toes and there’s no hope for you.

That blanket is just dissolving under your feet anyway. You don’t have a choice. You’re off the blanket just by standing still. 

Jared: Alright. 

Pete: [Sighs] Life is complicated, Jared. 

Jared: Life is complicated. 

Pete: I know. But you know what? I’m okay with it. 

Jared: But you know what the good news is? God is even more complicated. That’s good news.

Pete: Uh, amen. Okay. Alright, folks. [Chuckles]

Jared: See ya. 

[Outro music plays]

Jared: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to

Pete: And if you want to support us and want a community, classes, and other great resources, go to

Jared: And lastly, it always goes a long way if you just wanted to rate the podcast, leave a review, and tell others about our show. In addition, you can let us know what you thought about the episode by emailing us at  

Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of Faith for Normal People! Don’t forget you can catch our other show, The Bible for Normal People, in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Hodge, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Lauren O’Connell, Jessica Shao, and Naiomi Gonzalez.

[Beep signals blooper clips beginning]

Jared: Today on Faith for Normal People, we’re talking [stammers over words]. Will talking? [Pete chuckles in background]. 

[Beep signals next blooper clip]

Sarah Bessey: No, for sure. I appreciate you used the word veteran and not, uh, weathered. Come to our leathered guide— [all laughing] [Beep signals next blooper clip]

Jared: You know, we got all the—intellectual, Pete’s got that covered.

Pete: Do I though? 

Jared: As he always, as he always likes to remind us. 

Pete: Jared, you’re fired. 

Sarah Bessey: Pete ruins deconstruction. 

Pete: Pete ruins, Pete deconstructs deconstruction. [Everybody laughs] [Beep signals end of episode]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.