Here’s a story you may have heard. The names and places change, but the plot points remain the same. Two young, attractive people fall in love with God and then, later, each other. When they marry, they share a mutual understanding of what the future will generally look like.
And, for the most part, this basically works out. There are more curveballs than they thought—there always are—but the foundational elements of the dream stay unchanged. God. Family. A home. A job. It’s all very straightforward … until it isn’t. And for Lisa Gungor, there came a day when everything became decidedly less straightforward.
“[My husband and I] are just walking around in Denver, strolling our little girl,” she says. “And we
were having some kind of theological debate, and he just kind of went on this rant, and I don’t remember what it was about, but he did end it with, ‘And so therefore, I don’t believe in God anymore.’”
You probably know of Lisa and her husband, Michael, as the Christian duo Gungor, extraordinarily popular musicians among a certain segment of Christians who take a critical—also read “deconstructive”—posture toward faith. As key members of the beloved spiritually progressive podcast The Liturgists and acclaimed songwriters, Michael and Lisa are, as she herself puts it, “professional Christians.” But in Lisa’s new book The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen, she details the grimy tension of this odd narrative, and the secret battles she’s had to fight along the way.
“God was the center of everything,” she says. “The center of our marriage. God is the reason we got married. We sang worship songs to each other in a little practice room, and that’s how we fell for each other—songs about God. It was all Christian romance. So it was a huge shock when he said that to me. We were traveling the world and singing songs about God, and he didn’t believe any of it.”
“I loved the story of Jesus growing up,” Lisa says of her childhood. “We went to this very wild, charismatic church, and the church was exciting and the way of Jesus was revolutionary to me. And I had little questions, but you weren’t really allowed to ask them.”
And for a long time, that didn’t bother her. Or at the very least, she didn’t know it bothered her. But not long after she and her now-husband started dating, the questions became harder for either of them to ignore.
“I think when we’re not allowed to ask these questions it creates this tension in our faith,” she says. “When you finally are able to ask them, it collapses. Our whole lives revolved around [Christianity]. And it was wonderful that as we began to travel more, those questions that we both had from a young age just kept gnawing at us, and we started digging to the bottom of them. In the tribe we were born into, these questions weren’t really allowed. Doubt was the opposition of faith. And so [if you doubt], you’re seen as a bad person. So, I felt like I was a bad person for questioning. That made this perspective shift really difficult and painful. We ended up getting kicked out of the ‘Church’ for some of the beliefs that we had.”
It’s not uncommon. Many Christians have dealt with the pain of being rejected on some level by their faith community for asking questions that fell outside whatever lines of inquiry their church found permissible. But for the Gungors, it was different. This wasn’t just the loss of friends or a place to be on Sunday mornings. This was their livelihood.
“We were on the same journey, and there were times I told Michael that I don’t know if I can read the Old Testament,” she recalls. “I don’t know how I feel about this or the way we interpret it. And I was like, ‘I can’t even read the Bible now anymore.’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t think you should tell people that because that’s kind of a huge thing for Christians.’”
The dichotomy grew to be a stark one. Playing shows and singing songs about faith while journeying through doubt and skepticism offstage. “We then started to wrestle with [the question], ‘How honest are we in public?’” Lisa says.
The answer, she says, was to be brutally honest. “We absolutely had to be,” she says. “Because [when you’re not] it rips people apart and marriages and their own selves apart in the process of trying to have this public- private life.”
This sort of honesty meant that when Michael finally opened up about not believing in God anymore, it was not totally out of the blue.
“I knew his struggle,” she says. “I knew the leaders who failed him.” But it wasn’t expected. “I clearly remember looking at Michael and saying, ‘Gosh. I thought an atheist would look different than this.’”
“He didn’t become a different person,” Lisa recalls. “I think there was this idea in my head that once you don’t believe in God, now he’s gonna cheat on me and murder people. What [is he] gonna do? Have sex with everyone? And I was like, Wow, he is still a great father. He’s committed to me. His moral compass didn’t break and disintegrate.”
It’s easy to believe that a loss of faith will mean a loss of not just your defining attributes but your own humanity, but Lisa says that was not the case, and she found that hugely reassuring.
“But on the other hand, we were not in the same place,” she admits. “I still believed in God because I had all of these experiences.”
But even that was precarious. “Some days I would really believe, and others I thought, ‘Maybe all of this is b*******,’” she says. And this wobbling continued back and forth, “good days and bad days” until one experience in particular brought her to what she calls “rock bottom.”
It came not long after Lisa and her husband visited Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp in Poland and were feeling especially aggrieved over the sheer amount of evil in the world. A cousin was fighting a losing battle against cancer, and the rest of the family was praying for miraculous healing.
I’m trying to live in the way of love and the way of Jesus the best I know how. I know I don’t have it all right, but I love the way of Jesus. I don’t have a definition for that.
“And so I get this call one day, and my cousin is healed,” she says. “And everyone’s rejoicing and saying, ‘Praise God,’ crying. And I want to do that and have that feeling because I miss that. I miss that rejoicing. God has broken into the world and decided to heal someone. This is amazing and I’m so glad he’s healed. But also …” she pauses here.
“This is really sh***y and unfair that other people are dying while they’re asking for healing,” she finally says. “So I’m the cynical person in the family wrestling with questions of why, and
I didn’t want to be. I tried to just wash away the questions I had. I was like, ‘I’m just gonna jump back in.’”
And that’s when she got another phone call from another family member explaining that her cousin had not been exactly healed. “‘Well,’ they said. ‘He’s partially healed.’”
“And I lost my mind,” she says. “Like, what does that mean? I went on a finely worded rant, all in my head and with Michael. I was like, ‘This is garbage! This whole idea is garbage!’ I said, ‘I don’t believe any of this, I’m an atheist.’”
However, that declaration was short-lived. “And that lasted for a whole day for me,” she says.
“I didn’t want my cousin to suffer with cancer. I wanted that to be different. I didn’t want Michael to be an atheist. I wanted that to be different. I wanted us to be fine and to keep traveling and writing songs, and I didn’t want people to hate us, which is what happens.”
This was rock bottom, the point in Lisa’s life in which she felt the most desperation. And she says the core question—the thing it all boiled down to was love. “What do I believe about love?” she says. “Love is the whole story that I’ve bought into about Jesus Christ, so what do I believe in?”
The answer to this question arrived through a lot of labor. Lucy, the couple’s second child, was born with Down syndrome. “And it was kind of this painful, epic, beautiful, wonderful climax for me,” Lisa says. “This little girl is born into a world that our society says is broken, and needs to be fixed and at the same time, I’m feeling that within my self. I’m broken, and I need to be fixed because I don’t believe like I used to.”
The peace Lisa found in Lucy was not a resolution to her doubts but the understanding that she could live with those doubts and they didn’t change who she was.
Lisa says she doesn’t quite know what she’d call herself now, but she says both she and her husband have had “some pretty amazing experiences …that led us into a fuller understanding and love of God.”
“I think labels and definitions can be good and helpful sometimes,” she says. “But if there’s anything I’ve learned about having a child labeled as ‘Down syndrome,’ it’s that [labels are reductive].”
Because of that, she says she’s moved away from having a term for her current belief system. “You can look at our life and the way that we’re living and if you think that’s against the way of Jesus and love, OK, that’s your perspective,” she says. “My perspective is I’m trying to live in the way of love and the way of Jesus the best I know how. I know I don’t have it all right, but I love the way of Jesus. I don’t have a definition for that.”
Looking back at the crisis of faith remains difficult, but she says she’s learning how valuable the experience was for her—and how it’s shaping a better future.
“In the middle, it’s just painful,” she says. “But on this side of it, I think it’s interesting that we have such attachment to that. As a parent, I can understand that. I want to raise my kids with this idea of the world and faith. In my mind, if they’re completely falling off the deep end, I interpret that as being a bad parent who didn’t do their job well because my child is struggling. But I think that’s changing. I’m so grateful for the tragedy of losing faith because I think it was a necessary path. It was a path we had to be on.”
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.