This month I had planned to write about a Bishopric Training Meeting at which my Stake President invited me and my wife to speak about faith crises and faith transitions. It was a great experience. I was also tempted to post the text of my wife’s sacrament meeting talk about temples from a couple weeks ago. However, as I browsed several posts from people just entering into the depth of their faith crisis, I felt moved to attempt to address them. There have been so very many posts doing the same thing, but hopefully this will be of some help to some of you struggling. After this I’ll address the loved ones of those going through a faith crisis.
First of all, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry you are struggling. For some, perhaps many, this is the most painful and difficult thing you’ve experienced. The things that were an anchor for you, that were a balm to you in times of sorrow, are now the very things causing the pain. It hurts. It can feel incredibly isolating.
I was so worried and scared when going through my faith crisis. The consequences were vast and eternal. I didn’t want to talk to anyone else about it because I still hoped that soon I would get some revelation, or at least some level of assurance that in fact everything was alright.
But no assurance came. I felt lonely. I felt abandoned. I felt like crying out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I then waited even more, for my moment like Joseph’s in Liberty Jail in which God gives reassurance in my moment of pain. I read my scriptures more deeply. I prayed more sincerely. I attended the temple more frequently, all in an effort to grasp onto something in my spiritual free fall.
It pains me to say this, especially to those of you in the early stages of such a crisis, but this lasted not just weeks or months, but years. During this time I read and studied voraciously. I saw my faith and beliefs breaking down systematically into their elemental pieces whilst I frantically attempted to reconstruct them in a way that would be sustainable.
During this process I discovered that many of my crumbling beliefs weren’t built on solid foundations. Many times I seriously considered that all of them were on unstable ground and none could continue functionally. However, there were moments in this process in which I felt empowered. It was like I had the freedom and ability to reconstruct my own faith structure in the way that felt right for me. However, these moments were engulfed by the more frequent feeling of painful disorientation.
I wanted to feel some level of peace, some rest from the monumental cognitive taxation that a complete deconstruction of belief and worldview can be. I wanted answers that would solve my problems, and given the absence of discernible divine promptings the idea of just throwing it all away was at times appealing. I have many friends who were also going through a faith crisis and some of them did find peace in leaving. I was happy that they felt at peace, but I was also sad to see them leave this place we each called home.
I’d like to emphasize that the following is specific to me and not applicable to all or even most people going through a faith crisis. In one of my moments of struggle at church, which I was solely attending at that time for the sake of my wife and family members, I had a moment of clarity. I had been attending church and being constantly disappointed because it wasn’t uplifting for me or meeting any of my needs. But I remembered/relearned that church isn’t supposed to be about me and what it can do for me. Surely there were others struggling in the ward. What if I looked around at church and tried to see who the people were who might also be struggling? I began to spend my church meetings observing others and trying to comfort those who looked like they needed it. It was one of many turning points for me in my journey. I reached out to a few people in my ward, and as a result some great friendships were born. We were able to be there for each other and to make the more difficult lessons tolerable.
Here is another turning point that I had. Again, this is specific to me. I thought about the teaching we have throughout our scriptures that faith is a gift. I then realized that I had been incessantly obsessing over the fact that I didn’t have this thing called a gift. So if it is a gift, I’m not guaranteed I’ll receive it. I can try, but there isn’t a guarantee. God isn’t a vending machine. When faith is discussed as a gift it also discusses the fact that not everyone has the same gifts and that people with one gift (say, the gift of faith) can’t say to those without it ‘we have no need of you.’ I’m sure if you’re struggling with faith you can affirm that often members do insinuate if not explicitly say such things. However, the fact remains that you have many gifts which you can use to help the lives of others around you.
Eventually I reached a point at which I was no longer in pain. I no longer felt uneasy with my lack of faith. I have a desire for faith, but I’m not worried that I haven’t received it. I don’t have the answers I wanted, but instead I’ve found that my focus has changed. Rather than focus on which specific beliefs I should or should not hold, or focus on determining the historicity of the Book of Mormon, or the divinity of Joseph’s revelations, I’m instead more concerned with how I can best make my community better. I’m more concerned with the here and now than the details or existence of the potential hereafter.
Now please don’t read this as some message that “you should just focus on these things instead of your concerns.” I don’t claim that what has changed in my life can or should apply to others. I’m a white heterosexual American male, and I have to acknowledge the significant privilege I have as well as the impact that such privilege plays in my ability to be comfortable in church. I try to make my ward a better place for PoC, LGBT, women, and others who aren’t under the umbrella of privilege. To do this I try to be a good ally and speak up when I hear things that are offensive and harmful. I try to highlight the systemic problems we have in our organization and also to attempt to find solutions.
If I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that if I was not a white heterosexual American male, the chances are much lower that I’d find peace within the church. This saddens me so much. Even though I don’t have the gift of faith and I see the problems in the church, I’m sad to see friends and family leave. I’m often happy when they find themselves in a healthier place as they leave, but nonetheless I also feel some level of sadness at their exodus.
To conclude, I just want to again tell you that I mourn with you. I’m so sorry for the pain you’re experiencing. My heart goes out to you. I would mention that in my observations, taking some time to work through this is crucial. If you try to rush to a solution in either direction you run the risk of repeating the process again in the not-distant future. I hope you can find peace and I hope (perhaps selfishly) that you’ll find it in the church. That said, I know that for many people the church won’t be a place of peace and to you I say that I’m so sorry. Leaving is not easy. I’m glad for the courage you’ve shown in following your conscience and hope you’ll too find peace.
Now, to those who are the loved ones of someone going through a faith crisis…
I’m also sorry. I can’t empathize as much with you but I have much sympathy. You must be suffering seeing your loved one question so many of the things you hold dear and which you once both collectively held dear.
You are going to want to solve this problem as much as your loved one wants a solution or an answer to their concerns. As much as you want to do this, I’d encourage you to instead show them more love and mourn with them. Mourn with them and comfort them. If you jump too quickly to offering solutions, you run the risk of acting like Job’s friends. I know it’s from the best of intentions. This is something that your loved one will need to work through for her/himself.
Your loved one will likely be mourning the loss of the faith/belief that they thought they had. This doesn’t mean that they will no longer believe. It does mean that they will no longer believe in the same way that they once did. There will be stages of grief. Anger is one of the stages. Try to remember that this is coming from a place of pain.
(Aside to those going through a faith crisis: your loved ones will also be going through the stages of grief over the loss of the religious relationship they had with you. The one they had is gone and a new one is growing up in its place. They will also go through an anger stage. This is a difficult and painful process for them too and it is important to try to remember this.)
This is for everyone, those in a faith crisis and their loved ones:
This process has really made me consider just how important the promises are that we make at baptism. We promise to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. We don’t promise to get irritated when others aren’t understanding with us. We don’t promise to throw out solutions to fix others. We mourn with them and comfort them. The more love and understanding that everyone can muster in this process the better the chances that relationships will be maintained and even grow stronger, regardless of the outcome of the faith crisis.
Regardless of the ultimate destination of the person traversing a faith crisis, relationships with family and friends should ideally be the very things that ease the pain. Unfortunately they often produce more pain. They are also very frequently maimed or destroyed as collateral damage of the faith crisis. I don’t think this has to be the case. When talking with family and friends about a faith crisis, I feel too much focus is put on historic facts or on abstract concepts (such as the methodology of revelation). It can be more productive to express the feelings of pain and grief being experienced (both for those in the faith crisis and for those watching a loved one in a faith crisis). This won’t save all relationships. I do believe it can save many relationships which would otherwise be seriously damaged.
I hope this will be an aid for those people directly or indirectly experiencing a crisis of faith. I have other ideas for things to ease a faith crisis, but I feel this is the most important thing and so for this post at least, it is the sole focus. Please let us know if this worked for you. Let us know if it didn’t. Feel free to share other ideas in the comments.