An email to a friend, struggling with disbelief

Recently, some close friends wrote to me regarding faith in the church. My friends are members and have been for their entire life. These friends have recently come across some anti-Mormon material on the internet and, for all that they understood it as anti in origin, it caused them to start to question their belief. There was nothing particularly new in the information, but it was new to them. They know I’ve been writing blog posts for a while and assumed I had answers that might help. My response, such as it is, is below. I think they found it helpful, hopefully it might be of help to someone else.

First thing to understand: There is nothing I or anybody else can say that is going to make most of this make sense, seem less than crazy, or “make it better.” I haven’t watched the video, but I imagine it is an amalgam of true statements, anti-Mormon interpretations, speculation, and assorted what-not. That isn’t to say its bad (again, I haven’t watched it) nor would I say you should ignore it, but it is to say that, based on the 10 point summary it is about par for the anti-Mormon course nowadays. I could just point you to the FAIR wiki (http://en.fairmormon.org/Main_Page), but, honestly, while some of it is helpful in providing a context for oddball things about church history, it doesn’t really help that much. The truth is that some early church history just is super-creepy (Nauvoo-era polygamy is the best example, to my mind; but other people like to focus on the early Utah theocratic society; there is plenty of weirdo, creepy stuff to go around).

Second thing to understand: I don’t think, in a situation like this, that my testimony means a darn thing to you. Not that I don’t like it or anything, but my life and my experience are different than yours and I haven’t been able to figure entirely why Mormonism is my path, so I can’t really express well why it should appeal to other people. There are quite a few people to whom it doesn’t appeal and, frankly, I don’t blame them. I frequently wonder why God has called me to it; but here I am. So, I think Mormonism is true, but by that, I mean that I believe that the rituals and ordinances of the Church are effective in bringing people to God. It isn’t a better or exclusive repository of God’s truth and, frankly, it is just wrong about some stuff (in my opinion). But human people trying to fulfill God’s plan; “bound to get screwed up” is the name of the game.

Third thing to understand: If you, after you’ve thought about this, prayed about it, done whatever you feel like you need to do about, decide to stay in or to leave the church, you are not a bad person. Belief of any sort requires a suspension of disbelief and there’s only so much of that sort of behavior that a person can willingly give. Mormonism is different from many other religions (although by no means all) because it promises that you’ll be able to see the hand of God in your life (through priesthood blessings, miraculous key recovery, and so forth). Mormons believe that they live in active communion with the Lord and, frequently, when they aren’t, it is their fault for not being righteous enough. However, if we read Job correctly, we’d realize that, in spite of what the rest of scripture promises, bad stuff happens to good people. There is no magic prayer that will stop tragedy and it is not far from the truth to view God as a sadist (in fact, a common Islamic and Jewish criticism of Christianity has been to question how a God who demands the human sacrifice of his Son can be “loving” God?).

So, it comes to this: on average, the church (institutional and cultural) knows much less about God, Jesus, spirituality, and its own history than it thinks it does. This is, in part, because the Church has cultivated its own image as the one source for truth about the church. Generally, the Church doesn’t out and out lie, but it does mislead and omit relevant facts frequently in the official narrative. However it also is producing the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which is, by all accounts, historically nuanced and responsible. It also doesn’t sell nearly as well as whatever blather that John Bytheway has written recently. Mormons, as a people, are aesthetically dead, so I can’t account for any of their book buying decisions. We are frequently, as a group, giant dummyheads.

So, the church has been caught out by the internet and the ease of spreading information. They haven’t had to create a counter-narrative since the early 70s, because correlation was so successful at summarizing the history of the Church and glossing over the hard bits. The raised a whole generation of people who just accepted it all as the God’s honest truth, because they assumed that the Church couldn’t or wouldn’t be wrong. And, frankly, that generation got into power in the church and made the same assumptions. Thus a whole lot of crappy history has been handed down for a couple of generations as the best the Church has to offer. The problem, fundamentally, isn’t that the Church is “not true” or is fraudulent (in my opinion), it is that it has been lazy, complacent, unimaginative, and dogmatic.

I’ll take a look at the video tonight when I get home (or, more likely, in the morning, when I’ll have more time). I doubt that I’ll have much to say on individual charges and, frankly, the FAIR wiki page will probably do a better job of talking about individual historical points than I will, but I’ll tell you how I can sleep at night as a Mormon as best as I can. Note: probably there will some “I don’t care” or “I ignore that gaping hole” moments on my part.

Finally, ultimately, no matter what you decide regarding the church, it is going to come down to this: what you’ve been taught about the church up to this point is deeply flawed. Having done a bit of investigating yourself, can you suspend your disbelief again to have faith in it, or not? This may mean that you lose a testimony of Joseph Smith acting as a prophet in every word and deed, of current leadership as meeting with Jesus weekly in the temple (or some such), that your calling to the nursery is direct from God or some other unrealistic belief that folks (including myself at one time or another) develop in the church. We want so much for the church to be perfect, in spite of the people. But it won’t be. It is just as human, temporal, broken, and occasionally, unexpectedly beautiful as every other human institution. I think it is beautiful a little more than average (because I think God is actually involved in some way), but I wouldn’t be able to give you a percentage. In other words, to maintain your belief in the church, you may need to choose to expect a lot less from it. In any case, it is unlikely that you will come out of this moment with the same faith that you came into it with. And you may decide to walk away. I think that it is possible for God to call us out of the church, so I don’t think it will be a problem. But I admit that I am a massive heretic on this score.

What my friends will do is unknown. What would you counsel someone who has just learned some hard truth about the church? Someone who has endured a bad experience and questions their own belief? What would you say?

Comments

  1. Is the truth “anti”?

  2. I doubt I could express myself better than you have. Maybe I would add the following:

    The Church as an institution has made the mistake of implying that faith is easily gained. We don’t get to hear many Enos-like stories of struggle to come to terms with God and his Church. Instead, fellow members present their testimony to the rest of us, whole and complete, with no discussion of the messy process perhaps involved in gaining that testimony. So others assume that if the acquiring of faith is difficult and laborious, they’re doing something wrong. After all, it seems so easy for everyone else. If you are struggling with your faith, you are not doing something wrong but only you can determine the ultimate outcome of that process.

  3. Brad, facts are facts. Interpretations are pro or anti. Everyone chooses the interpretation that best explains the facts. But, more often than not, it’s a subjective choice.

  4. As a child I found beauty in Disneyland, Santa and God, but I am 65 years old and that means officially old with Medicare. Fairytales have beauty but so does reality. I see God in the faces of my grandkids and the mountains, forests, oceans and the sky, but mostly I see God between really good people loving and caring about each other. I don’t care about heaven or hell. While on earth we need to live our own dream, not Joseph Smith’s dream or the Pope, etc. We need to find our own joys and not hold anyone else responsible for that.

  5. Mostimportantly says:

    Thank you for this. I think it is timely considering our current missionary “Hasten the Work” push. I think often about those who I may need to share my testimony with, what my testimony is, and how I will be able to do this. I consider myself a very intelligent and rational person and that makes my faith a highly nuanced and personal thing. As a curious person and a history buff, I encountered and dealt with the facts that people are just now facing thanks to a little internet searching (which, I think everyone should do, BTW). So, my conversation (testimony) with friends and family members who have left on why I stay comes down to this. I am aware of the problems. I am aware of the inconsistencies. I have prayed about these issues and for some of them I have an answer that satisfies me. For others, the answer has been to just try not to worry about it for now. I stay because no matter what my questions are, I have seen miracles. I can’t deny them, even when nothing else makes sense. I have prayed on more than one occasion about the veracity of the gospel and whether or not to stay. My answer has always been to stay the course. I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know if it may change one day. I do think though, that the church is better with people like me and others with questions in it than out of it.

  6. “The[y] raised a whole generation of people who just accepted it all as the God’s honest truth, because they assumed that the Church couldn’t or wouldn’t be wrong. And, frankly, that generation got into power in the church and made the same assumptions. Thus a whole lot of crappy history has been handed down for a couple of generations as the best the Church has to offer.”

    The problem now is undoing crappy history, and there’s a ton of it – and that does not include immense problems with the BoM/BoA. And the problem with undoing crappy history is that some of that history was written under the imprimatur of the church, so you’ve got to undo (fix) both the flawed treatment the central issue of the crappy history received (polygamy/polyandry, for instance) and then the crappy history (book) itself, which the author may claim to have written by inspiration.

    AS for FARMS/FAIR materials, sorry, but most leaves a great deal to be desired in terms of honesty and completeness.

    What would I counsel? Patience, study and fearlessness – and this terrific post. I wish I had Mormon friends like you.

  7. There are so many viable ways to have a testimony, but our public [testimony] discourse is controlled far too much by the lazy, complacent, unimaginative, and dogmatic. Thanks for giving mine a boost today.

  8. Kobayashi Maru says:

    Give the the Lord equal time.

  9. Meldrum the Less says:

    We live in a scientific age. We try to mold our religion into something similar to science. Verifiable, reproducible, predictable. We experience a crisis when this fails.

    One thing I like to do is think of religion as more like art. Joseph is released from any obligation to satisfy the modern scientific mind set and becomes a creative innovative genius. (Ok, probably went too far in many ways.) Religion becomes good or bad not true or false.

    Rather than intellectualize all of the problems, let them wash over you. The unappealing parts of a painting might be essential to appreciate the whole picture. You can ruin a perfectly great painting or musical piece by over-analyzing it and measuring it to death. Step back and look with the eyes of the heart and experience it.

    For me the problem of the Book of Abraham, for example, is not as disturbing as the crappy music we sing every week. We can’t fix the history, but we can work on making the current church experience better. Here is how we give the Lord equal time by putting Him in the center.

    How can anyone root for the Oregon ducks? Yet, if you have attended the school or have a positive association with it then the duck mascot takes on another meaning and transcends its baseline unimpressive factual image. In the same way we come to appreciate even the difficulties.

  10. I believe you have a great chance of remaining good friends with someone when you take the tone and the approach you did in that response.

    If the response is to dig heels in and be defensive of the church, or suggest they must pray harder so they don’t let go of the church or they will be in the grasp of the evil one…well, it doesn’t help them overcome their doubts, and it only would put more of a gap between you and them, and they will seek answers from someone else.

    However, I sense you truly believe what you wrote. The response may be harder for someone whose testimony is strongly entrenched in a literal belief there is only one way to heaven…the church, and that all other “ways” are inferior and provide less blessings and less happiness.

    For those with that orthodox testimony, the response is probably less empathetic. But I have seen many wonderful stake presidents with very compassionate responses, even if they maintain there is one straight and narrow path and one gate. But the feeling from them is more tolerance and patience, and the others will hopefully “come around”, whereas your response is more validating to your friend that their feelings are real, and places the opportunity on them to decide what their faith should be.

    I like your approach. I may save it, and send it to my sister.

  11. From my own personal experience, and in the aggregate, I have to say that I disagree with your first two “thing[s] to understand.” For some people, you are right – no matter what counter-evidence is provided, they will simply feel betrayed or will not be able to get the doubt out of their mind (and based on your relationship with your friends and your own personal knowledge of their circumstance, this may be the case for them). But for many, all they need is some reassurance that the questions are not new; that there are answers out there; that good, faithful people have studied them and come to terms with them; and that those good, faithful people still have a genuine conviction that Joseph Smith was called as a prophet of God and that the church he established is what it claims to be.

    The first few times I came across literature critical of the church, I am grateful that my father, someone who I trust immensely, was there to reassure me and provide some initial answers to help me move on. Frankly, I was young and did not know how to read critically, and I needed that reassurance. I would later study church history much more deeply and come to my own conclusions and convictions, but I don’t think I would have ever engaged in that deep study had my father not provided that reassurance many years before.

    In the state I was in when I first read this critical literature, I think the response you provided would have actually led me away from the church. It would have given me the impression that many people in the church are aware of these issues but have no good answers or ways of reconciling them, that whether I stay or not is of no real consequence, and that many members lack actual conviction in the church’s claims. (Not accurate impressions, mind you, but impressions that I would have had nonetheless.)

    Again, you would know best the state of mind your friends are in, but my general suggestion would be to provide more of a reason for them to want to stay in the church and give faith a chance, as well as to share your own personal experiences with how you have come to terms with difficult issues.

  12. John, you need to give them a reason to stay, not a reason to leave. Your statements above imply that the criticism, whatever it is, is essentially correct, and that the LDS position or response, whatever it is, is untrustworthy. But most anti material is full of deceptive half-truths, and you should tell them that. Don’t talk down FAIR, at least they’re still trying. Maybe you’ve been hanging out at BCC too long. Yes, your testimony matters, even if it is just “Hey, I’m familiar with all this stuff and I still go to church on Sunday.”

  13. “hanging out at BCC too long” ??? you know everyone here and you still say this?

  14. Given that he is writing to someone he knows, and given that he can only write what he believes, I don’t think your criticism is fair, Dave. The email you want him to write would not be authentically John’s, and given the specific needs of his audience (unfamiliar to you), might be completely the wrong thing to say.

  15. Gabriel G. says:

    Let’s get one thing clear: God is NOT a sadist (or a near-sadist).

  16. Dave, that is a very strange reply to this post. I assume you actually read it?

  17. For the record, I am not the “Brad” of the opening comment.

  18. Well, that was…tepid.

    I’d be interested to hear what your friends had to say about it and then to see where they end up a couple years from now. I feel like I’ve just read your confession to a fellow Saturn owner that, yeah, maybe the car’s repair record ain’t great, and maybe it doesn’t handle as well as other cars, and maybe it’s not even cheaper, but heck, it’s what you bought, and you wouldn’t be offended if they ditched theirs and bought a Toyota.

  19. Y’know, Dave, Martin, JT–the point is sort of that John is telling his friends that a testimony is an individual thing; they’ll need to sort these questions out on their own. The fact that some Mormons insist on a certain form of testimony, a declaration of certainty calibrated to their own comfort level is what makes people who start to have doubts feel like they have to make a dramatic exit.

    At least you’ve nicely performed the problem.

  20. Boom.

  21. “Second thing to understand: I don’t think, in a situation like this, that my testimony means a darn thing to you.”

    Can I ask why you believe that your testimony does not mean a darn to your friend? A testimony can be as simple as explaining why you stay (in spite of certain doubts, problems, pain, etc).

    I remember reading how Richard Bushman responded to either a fellow academic aghast that he could believe in Mormonism or a member having a faith crisis.. I think it was in his On The Road With Joseph Smith where he simply said that being a Mormon was delicious to him. It was his home.

    That really resinated with me as a great response, as long as it is indeed a genuine statement.

  22. Kristine, the problem is much deeper than that, and I think you’ve responded to it very superficially.

  23. Couple points – unfair and uncharitable attack on Bytheway, et. al. In the same spirit, I could call you a tepid lukewarm believer who values intellectual study of history rather than immersing yourself and you actions into study of the prophets, and consecrating your life to God through service with an eye on the kingdom. MEh, counter productive and unfair to boot.

    In general since you put the letter out for comment I’d say it’s not something I imagine the Lord would write, and you (I presume) are endowed with his power and represent him through his Priesthood.

    Not to say it’s a complete do-over, but I think if the Lord would say something controversial, and he likely would, he’d also be strong about increasing, not waffling in faith. You’re his hands here. A lost soul reaches out, and you wonder if the plastic in the life preserver is free of PET.

  24. “In general since you put the letter out for comment I’d say it’s not something I imagine the Lord would write…”

    How nice it must be to have such a god-like imagination, and be so humble, to boot!

  25. “I could call you a tepid lukewarm believer who values intellectual study of history rather than immersing yourself and you actions into study of the prophets, and consecrating your life to God through service with an eye on the kingdom.”

    But why would you do that? Are you a sociopath?

  26. This is exactly the problem. We’re so insecure in our uncompromising longing for absolute certainty that we’d rather have someone in John’s position say something that speaks to and validates _us_ as believers than to say something that might help the doubter. The doubter does not need someone to tell him, in the name of Christ or the Church or the Priesthood, that he’s wrong and weak and faithless and stupid for doubting. Those of us who don’t struggle with serious doubts (and I count myself among these ranks) need to chill out and stop demanding that sources of doubt and expressions of doubt be met with BOLDSPOKEN CERTITUDE that chastizes doubters for having weak faith. I expect that the spirit of this post—a spirit of honesty, understanding, sympathy, and humility that nevertheless expresses patience with and faith in an imperfect thing (The Church)—much more closely resembles something the Lord would write than boldly telling the doubter that his faith is just not strong enough.

  27. Molly Bennion says:

    Your friends are fortunate for your response.

    To add to your superb “rituals and ordinances of the Church are effective in bringing people to God, ” I would say “rituals, ordinances, basic gospel message of Christ, (slightly but importantly different for such doctrines as a God who has not created evil and a humanity of family, doctrines which change the way we approach both God and man), and the volunteer organization of the Church.” The volunteer organization invites us to know Christ and his message by putting them to a test of action. There is no better way to learn to love, to come to God. And, though that organization introduces a multitude of human failings, I think professional clergy does likewise, without the benefit of self learning for our volunteers. The structure of the Church seems more inspired than other religious structures to me. But the individuals serving that inspired structure are not always inspired. Who can possibly read the scriptures or contemplate free agency and find that surprising?

  28. What Kobayashi said.

    I also recommend Michael Ash’s book “Shaken Faith Syndrome.” His discussions of cognitive dissonance and recalibrating our expectations are fantastic.

  29. I’m not sure why being certain or bold needs to mean looking down on or chastising. I imagine one could be certain and bold in affirming their knowledge of truth in an effort to strengthen faith through bearing testimony, yet be totally understanding, loving, and encouraging, devoid of any sort of holier-than-thou attitude. Affirming that one has gained a spiritual knowledge of something in the face of opposition in and of itself is not condescending, particularly when done in a spirit of care and friendship, imo.

  30. John C., thank you for sharing this letter. I like it. In answer to your question, I would say to such a friend:

    Thank you for trusting me with your questions, doubts and concerns. I’ve found that God has preserved me through some of most worst soul-wrenching, faith-crushing crisis’ I can imagine. And, although I’ve been tempted to curse God and die (more than once), I’ve only cursed God. . . turns out, He was okay with that. And I didn’t die.

    I’ve come to believe that the truth really does set us free. So, if there is truth in the anti-Mormon things you’re seeing or hearing, be courageous. Be willing to know the truth, whatever it may be. I’ll be here to help you however I can. Getting free of innocence and ignorance is an important part of life. It’s painful, by nature. So, I’ll be here to validate that pain for you too.

    My own experience is that the LDS faith contains some of the most comforting, reassuring truths on earth. It may seem strange, but the the very thing that caused me to doubt (a church that tends to hide ugly truths) also provided the tools I needed (loving friends and neighbors, the doctrine of Christ) to find a new foundation. A firm foundation in both ugly and beautiful truths. I really don’t know how else to put it. But I’m here – in the church – and in your life – for the duration. God bless you. Call me. Let’s talk.

  31. damn. I added “most” and didn’t delete “worst”. Oh, well. Call me anyway.

  32. Excellent post, John. As people like Bushman and Givens have observed, many members feel betrayed upon discovering that the CES materials they were spoon fed in Seminary and Sunday School are replete with errors and misinformation. As many have observed, it isn’t the unsavory historical episodes that drive people away; rather, it is the feeling that the institution they trusted to be honest with them has let them down. It will take years for the church to repair the damage to its integrity.

    Apart from misrepresenting its history and glossing over the messy evolution of its doctrines, the church would profit from making fewer truth claims. The fewer you make (e.g., “everything single Native American in North and South America is a Lamanite”) the fewer you have to defend.

    During the October conference, Brother Ucthdorf (who I respect immensely) advised those with questions to “doubt their doubts.” I, for one, would be more inclined to do so if my church leaders, from time to time, would “doubt their certainties.” On difficult, complex issues, I am much more willing to follow someone who says “we are not 100% certain this is the right approach but it is the best we can do given our current light and knowledge” than I am someone who says: “This is what the Lord has said we must do.”

  33. Brad, Kristine, when I was dealing with my own faith crisis, what I wanted from friends was something I could cling to, something that would give me hope, not just acknowledge my tough circumstances. If a man’s drowning and you have something that floats, you throw it to him, not just say ‘yep, it sure is hard to breathe, but that’s something you’re going to have to learn on your own”. If you have nothing to offer, or you’re barely treading water yourself, you’re not all that much help. I agree that one has to work through these things personally, but for me, the gentle, non-judgmental counsel and quiet, firm testimonies of others helped tremendously. What I needed was to know why others still believed even knowing what I knew.

    Obviously, my drowning-man analogy breaks down if one simply views religious beliefs as a matter of personal preference or views other churches as being roughly equivalent to ours. If that’s the case, you comfort them the same way you would a grieving kid after a teenage break-up: acknowledge the pain, tell them that in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t nearly as real as it felt, and assert than in the end it won’t matter (the John Dehlin approach, imo, back when I was paying attention to him).

    I believe God can and does lead people away from the church on occasion, but I think that’s pretty rare, and suggesting it for specific circumstances either takes a whole lot more or a whole lot less faith (and familiarity) than I’ve got.

  34. Kobayashi,
    Sure. But for folks who already feel alienated, I’m not sure that is helpful advice. “If you think the milk might be bad, you should drink the whole gallon to really make sure,” doesn’t really sound that appealing.

    JT,
    I very much appreciate your response. I agree that this probably isn’t the letter to send to every person who has a faith crisis. Part of the issue is that I’m half a world away from these friends so direct communication is hard and all they gave me was a link to a lengthy youtube video of anti-Mormon stuff in the Tanner mode (nothing untrue, that I saw, but a lot of subtle implication that Mormonism is bad, bad, bad). Anyway, they didn’t have to say untrue things, because some early Mormon history just looks bad. I’ve recommended Bushman and such in later emails (they’d already read Bushman, but would like to do it again). To some degree, this letter is a shotgun approach (believe it or not), trying to hit everything because I couldn’t quite see the target.
    As to the second point, obviously what I say matters to them, or they wouldn’t have asked. But, in my limited experience and definitely in their case, there is a strong feeling of alienation. They are already in a good ward and members of good families. And yet, they wrote to me (half a world away). In theory I could have said read the scriptures, fast and pray more (all of which would help, I think), but they already know that. They also already know that I’m familiar with much of the ugly and I’m still in. So, I’m not sure what my repeating my testimony would have accomplished, aside from alienating them. I figure they get enough of that sort of pressure/reassurance just from living in the Mormon-majority area where they live.

    Dave,
    I appreciate the concern.Setting aside the vagueness of the concerns when I wrote this, I agree that giving them a reason to stay is important. I did try to do it here and there in the letter, but I was also trying to express empathy for the alienation. In my limited experience, it seems like telling people who suddenly find themselves estranged from the church “how awesome the church is” makes them trust you less, not more. Note: I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but I’m skeptical that telling them that is the right call (at least, not every time).

    Gabriel,
    Of course not. I certainly don’t believe so. But I accept that people who see him that way aren’t being entirely unreasonable.

    Martin,
    For you: I believe that God our Father is a loving God and that, through His Son, Jesus Christ, he has revealed His Gospel, whereby if we repent and, through his and our ministrations, make ourselves more like him and serve others out of genuine unconditional love, we will have a good life in the spiritual sense. I believe that the study of the Book of Mormon, as well as other LDS scripture, can help one come closer to Christ, potentially closer than other sources of divine communion (I wouldn’t know, since I don’t usually use them). I believe that the power of godliness is manifest in the ordinances of the priesthood and that they are necessary for our salvation. But, even believing all that, I still think that God is essentially indifferent to whether you drive a Saturn or a Toyota, because ultimately I think he speaks to us according to our language and understanding. Some people aren’t going to find a common language and understanding with the Mormons, but I still believe them capable of a good life and the celestial kingdom. YMMV

    Sonny,
    I hope I answered your question in my response to JT. I felt like they didn’t need a testimony right then, they needed empathy. I accept that I may be wrong in that. In any case, it felt like the right response at the time. :)

    Dnp,
    “unfair and uncharitable attack on Bytheway”
    Impossible! All attacks on Bytheway are by definition fair, just, and necessary. I assure you that my dislike of him (and such ilk) is such that only one goofy, snide jab is actually demonstrative of great charity.

    “In the same spirit, I could call you a tepid lukewarm believer who values intellectual study of history rather than immersing yourself and you actions into study of the prophets, and consecrating your life to God through service with an eye on the kingdom. MEh, counter productive and unfair to boot.”
    Sure, but also probably accurate with some frequency. Not always, but enough to register me as human. If you are saying that snide comments about Bytheway are lazy, complacent, unimaginative, and dogmatic, I plead guilty. But note: they are also fun.

    “I think if the Lord would say something controversial, and he likely would, he’d also be strong about increasing, not waffling in faith. You’re his hands here. A lost soul reaches out, and you wonder if the plastic in the life preserver is free of PET.”
    I’m sure part of the problem is that I don’t think of them as lost and probably won’t even if they decide to leave the church. And since I can’t make them believe by sending special squiggly lines of heartfelt spiritual desire over the internet, attempts to do so seemed counter-productive. I am not, as it turns out, the Lord. I don’t even play him on TV. If they want to hear from Him (in some form other than the me-mangled kind), they’ll have to take it up with him directly. My guess is they are doing that, as well.

    Molly,
    You are just and wise. I definitely should have said something more like that and would have if I was smarter or more spiritual. Na ja.

    Dan,
    I’ll pass along the recommendation. I’m not that familiar with the book, so I didn’t think of it.

    SteveF,
    Agreed. But I don’t know how to say “God told me x is true” without implying, no matter how much I don’t want to, “So, if he didn’t tell you that, you are obviously doing it wrong.” To escape that, I just say that I believe what I believe based on my experiences with the divine and I allow other people their own. I’ll get more specific if they ask or if it seems appropriate, but generally I try to let other people figure their own testimonies out.

    Thanks to everyone for the comments, even if I didn’t mention it here. I appreciate your critique and ideas.

  35. Martin,
    “the gentle, non-judgmental counsel and quiet, firm testimonies of others helped tremendously.”
    Believe it or not, that’s what I was actually going for. I’m glad you had people who communicated better than I do when you went through your faith crisis.

  36. BCC (or T&S) should do a “Why I stay” series. I know I have several friends wondering about why, if Mormonism is true, it is filled with people who can make it very difficult, or even more existential questions like, “is there a God?” which seem harder to answer than Joseph Smith history.

    At any rate, thank you, John C., that was beautiful and lovely.

  37. I think being sympathetic with your friends and not just browbeating them with testimony can be a solid approach. Part of this is motivated, it seems, by your statement that your testimony won’t be helpful to them. In part, I concur: your testimony is evidence for you, but not necessarily for them. But I also think that, if the spirit testifies of truth, then what is evidence for you about the value of Mormonism can help generate evidence for them. That is, bearing testimony can provide a(n additional?) forum for the spirit to testify to them. That said, the same spirit that might testify of any truth you share with them may very well be the spirit that says “sympathize with them first”.

  38. Bravo! I think being authentic is more important than saying the “right” thing or the “correlated” thing (like bearing “pure testimony”), whatever that is. In fact, I think the most powerful “testimony” is being straightforward and honest and kind and loving about what we think, including the good and the bad, and without an attempt to persuade someone one way or the other. That is,the job of persuasion belongs to the Holy Ghost, not us.

    I don’t have a correlated five finger testimony of the gospel–although I accept them those five points. I am not sure that I have a “testimony” of God in the traditional LDS sense, but I believe I have experienced God. And I believe I have experienced God’s nudging me to continue as a committed member of the faith of my birth. The degree of my acceptance and belief and faith in correlated teachings ebbs and flows over time. But my decision to keep the covenants I have made in my faith tradition does not depend on the strength, say, of the case for the historicity of the Book of Mormon or whether Joseph Smith abused the plural marriage system or whether his relation with Fanny Alger was an affair or a plural marriage.

    Thus, my “testimony” is probably less powerful and I am less interested in persuading people one way or the other than John C is. But, as I said, I don’t view persuasion as my mission from God. Being honest and authentic is what I think he wants of me. And that is what I can “testify”, how I honestly feel, warts and all.

    The interesting thing is that several people have thanked me for my “strong testimony”, said things like my “testimony” is what brought them back to activity or to become a Church member or to stay in the Church. Really. It kind of surprises me when I am told that. Especially when I think my “testimony” at best is the size of a mustard seed or a molecule. I am confident though that what people may mean is that, with all the qualifications I put on the statement of my beliefs and conerns, the Holy Ghost bore witness of the molecule of belief I had. A couple of people have also said things like if Ican stay in the Church as a committed believer–with all the reservations and concerns I have–that maybe there is room for them too.

    Of course, I am sure there are plenty of people who are not moved one milimeter by my articulation of my beliefs. And I know plenty of exmormons and disengaged Mormons with whom I have openly shared what I believe and what I doubt who remain where they are. Perhaps they are more entrenched because I don’t call them to repentance or because I neither feel any fear for their “eternal welfare” nor express it (as long as they are honestly seek truth and good and love, which I think almost everyone on the planet is doing).

    But the beauty of their being multiple members of the Body of Christ, hopefully articulating our feelings and beliefs honestly and authentically, is that if my articulation or John C.’s articulation is not a catalyst for the Holy Ghost to testify, then someone else’s at some point might be.

  39. ” In other words, to maintain your belief in the church, you may need to choose to expect a lot less from it.”

    Absolutely. This is the major way I’m negotiating my own faith crisis. The rest involves expecting a lot less from myself with regards to the church. I do what I feel like I can and I skip everything else.

    Honestly, when people share their testimonies with me, it annoys and upsets me. It always feels preachy and like they’re saying I’m wrong because I haven’t come to the same conclusions they have. I avoid those people. The best responses I’ve had have been from friends who acknowledge that there are legitimate problems in the church’s history, practices, and teachings. They admit that they don’t agree with or understand many of these things, but that they’re turning to the Lord for comfort. They don’t pressure me into any get-a-testimony-quick schemes; they just say it’s up to me to figure out what I believe and what the right path is for me. And they assure me that they’ll love me no matter what I decide.

    I don’t know what I’ll decide right now, but one thing I’ve learned is that there are as many ways to God as there are people, and not all of them go through the mormon church. And for those that do, they don’t all follow the same cookie cutter pattern. I know mine won’t, whatever it looks like in the end.

  40. John C, very specifically, and many at BCC are a major reason why I stay. This post strongly resonates with me.

  41. We’re to be tried in all things and I think that means ALL things.

  42. An email to a friend, struggling with disbelief – By Common Consent, a Mormon Blog white and infrared jordan 6 http://www.mcrparish.com/html/store.asp?module=tags&brand=breds&tags=jordan-11-retro-white

  43. Thank you for this… I forwarded this to a close church friend and another close friend. I struggle to be the spokesman that I want to for our faith, but fall short. This frames it all well for a starting point for me. Thank you again.

  44. I am the “friend” that John C. wrote to this week. My husband and I actually are both doing some deep searching and have been for some months.
    First let me say thank you all for all your comments. Many of you have spoken wise words and I intend to read them more thoroughly through the coming weeks and months. I feel it would be inadequate to respond to all them so I won’t attempt that.
    I live deep in the Mormon majority, in, unless I’m wrong, the part of the Church where we are the most highly concentrated. I mention that because, unfortunately, I feel like John and his wife are the only ones I can talk to about this. I fear the response I would get from anyone in my ward or family. I don’t want to upset anyone or cause them pain.
    It’s strange because in our marriage I feel like I’m the one who has been “strong” in the church. I have only missed church when sick and have always done my visiting teaching and been very responsible in each calling I’ve had. I’ve been in a Relief Society presidency and although I know that all doesn’t mean squat when it comes to testimony, I’ve been very sure that the gospel as taught by our church is true all my life. My husband served a mission, in some part because I told him I would only marry a returned missionary. He is mostly active. He has always had a basic testimony but has realized that he doesn’t believe he’s actually received divine guidance or been told by God in any straight-forward way that the church is true. I have had to admit, that although I believe in God and have had some experiences where I can’t deny that some supernatural power has helped me, I haven’t had some “answer” that I can unequivocally say has told me that the church is true.
    I was raised by parents who were very real about the church. My dad was a church scholar in his spare time and we grew up with Sunstone laying around and discussing polygamy (just not the sordid details we now are learning about). A lot of this information isn’t new to me but some of it is and taken as a whole it’s a big pill to swallow. I would like it to turn out that I stay in the church and I am able to look past the proverbial warts and know again that the gospel is true. I don’t want to have to pick and choose between gospel principals when living this religion, I would like to believe it all and go on happily with my life like it has been, but I don’t know if that will be possible. I feel like I’m grasping at straws. Help!

  45. An interesting post, and comments. I suspect different people need to hear different things, and what one finds helpful, another might find less so.
    I’ve sometimes used a tree metaphor. It’s important to believe certain things, but those are very few in number. As for the rest, it’s important to be flexible. In a storm, rigid trees snap. Trees that are flexible are able to bend and survive the winds and storm. That’s not a suggestion of cafeteria mormonism or relativism, but a recognition that some doctrines are more fundamental than others, and (however you want to frame it), doctrine changes, our understanding changes, and a lot of what we receive (however authoritatively packaged) is tradition and rhetoric. Understanding that, for me, doesn’t weaken anything.

    Kevin has a good post along these lines.

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/07/19/lowered-expectations/

  46. Anon – Thank you for posting. I can only imagine the struggle you are going through. I have gone through a minor faith crisis in the past and worked with several friends and family members who have had more significant faith crises than my own, but I won’t pretend to know exactly what you are going through. Nevertheless, I appreciate your courage in posting your experience online and reaching out for help.

    As I have worked with various individuals (including myself) who have had a crisis of faith, the one thing I have learned is that everyone is different and that different things resonate with (or are stumbling blocks for) different people. That said, there a few things I might suggest that are, for the most part, generally applicable.

    I should be clear, first, that I include the following under the assumption that you mean what you said when you wrote: “I would like it to turn out that I stay in the church and I am able to look past the proverbial warts and know again that the gospel is true. I don’t want to have to pick and choose between gospel principals when living this religion, I would like to believe it all and go on happily with my life like it has been, but I don’t know if that will be possible.” By this I understand that you have left room for faith. If you have already made up your mind that the church holds little to no divine approbation, then the suggestions below won’t be of much use. If you still have an open mind and open heart (even if it is wounded), then I hope the following may be of some help, as they were key for me and several others.

    1. Keep reading church history. A lot of it. From a variety of sources (critical, faithful/apologetic, and primary) and on a variety of topics (i.e., more than just polygamy). Spend a lot of time in primary sources (e.g., the Joseph Smith Papers and Matt Vogel’s Early Mormon Documents) and works published by reputable academic presses (e.g., Oxford, Harvard, Yale, U of Illinois, Knopf, etc.). You don’t want to leave the faith of your childhood and family based only on a partial understanding of the issue that is causing you to doubt (even though you may feel like you currently know all that you need to know).

    2. Take a look at how others have dealt with the same issue. Remember that faithful approaches in church history are no less valid than critical approaches. By definition, both are apologetic. Don’t let someone else poison the well for you by giving the impression that anything that comes out of FAIR, FARMS, or even the Bushman/Givens camp is dishonest or that their scholarship is poor because they once made a mistake here or there. By and large, these folks put out good scholarship by any standard definition.

    3. Leave room for faith.

    4. If you can do #3, continue to pray and read daily from the Book of Mormon. Elder Ballard recommended that we “give the Lord equal time” when we have a faith struggle. I don’t think this is a trite phrase, nor are these simplistic recommendations. In the end, we are talking about spiritual things, and, in my view, the only way one can regain faith is through spiritual means. The additional study recommended above is simply a means to make room for faith to grow again.

    I hope these suggestions may be helpful in your journey, and I certainly hope that none of this has come across as flippant or condescending in any way. It’s a tough road you’re on, and I truly wish you the best. As for me personally, I have found that my additional study of church history (far, far beyond what I had read when I first came across troubling things) was not only worth it, but it helped me strengthen my faith and appreciate the lives of earlier saints who, despite their weaknesses, sins, and imperfections and the weaknesses, sins and imperfections of their fellow saints, did their very best to build what they firmly believed to be the kingdom of God on earth.

    All the best,
    JT

  47. JT,
    Thankyou for your excellent comments. I have read possibly more than average church history but I think you are very right that reading especially first-hand accounts could be a good place to start. As far as some of the issues I’m dealing with, I did want to spend quite a bit of time really delving into them individually because the last thing I want to do is throw away 43 years of church activity on hearsay.

    I’ve found FAIR to be very comforting and knowledgeable on my part probably because I’m not so well read that I can catch inconsistencies and I’m not a great critical thinker anyway so usually some good explanation can bring some sense of peace. My husband though is very good at seeing the issue clearly and isn’t as easily persuaded so I’m hoping what we read that you and others have suggested can help our faith.

    I plan on leaving room for faith–thanks for the reminder.

    I have stopped reading the Book of Mormon and I previously have received (I had thought) good feelings and impressions from it. You are right that I need to not give that up.

  48. And Ben,

    Good analogy on the tree. I went to Kevin’s post and I’m anxious for my husband to read it too. Thank you.

  49. “I haven’t read the full post or the comments, but I imagine it is an amalgram of true statements, TBM interpretations, speculation, and assorted what not”.
    Hard to have a discussion with that, isn’t it?
    In truth, I thought this was a good post, but I’d be careful with that “anti-mormon” label. There isn’t 1:1 relationship between anti-mormon/faith-destroying and “pro-mormon”/faith-promoting.
    The things that destroyed my testimony the most were things I read on FAIR (lecture at the veil and oath of vengeance were big ones for me). “Rough Stone Rolling” is hardly “anti” but has started MANY people on a path through a faith crisis.

    To me, I don’t think you can argue what is “true” because it depends on your sources and one’s individual priorities. In the end, if someone is doubting the church, talk to them about what is “good”. Is it good for them? Does the church help them meet their goals? Does the net positive outweigh the negative?
    For me the answer was no, but I can 100% understand that it is going to be a different answer for every individual. Even when I believed in the church with my whole heart, I didn’t feel like I was a good fit for it- so now I lost my testimony I have very little reason to stay. But I get that for some people it’s different.

  50. What about Elder Holland’s talk “Help Thou My Unbelief” from general conference?

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