When God Failed Me

Mette Ivie Harrison is a well-known mystery and young-adult novelist and frequent guest here. She is also the author of The Book of Laman, published by BCC Press.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about “faith crisis” within Mormonism at this point. Most of them fall into two categories: those whose faith is shaken by historical information that contradicts the dominant church narrative, and those whose faith is shaken by the actions of church leaders or fellow members that seems unchristian, from sexual abuse to the new policy against same-sex couples to failures to help in a difficult situation. My experience seems to be the outlier, in that I felt less like the church failed me and more like God Himself had let me fall without any attempt to reach out a hand to catch me. How do I reconcile this experience with a choice to return to God and faith now? I’ll get to that eventually.

When my daughter died at birth in 2005, I tried to turn to God for peace and healing. I wanted an answer to the question “Why did this happen?” Every prayer I said was a plea for this. Night and day, I turned to the heavens to ask God to take the burden from me. And I felt like I got some specific answers from God, including, “You will never find the answer to why this happened” and “It’s time to move on.” These answers were so damaging to me, not just to my faith, but to my sense of how the world works and to my self-worth. I felt that God had judged me unworthy to be a mother to this child and that my grief and sense of being unmoored were my own fault. If I were a more faithful believer, I wouldn’t have had these problems. I could have accepted what had happened as “God’s will” and tried to find the good in it. But I couldn’t.

I became suicidal instead, and church services made me worse. A friend suggested that I should do more extended fasting, because that was a way to convince God that I was serious about demanding answers. Eventually, she assured me, if I continued to ask, God would answer me. But that wasn’t what happened. The more I asked, the more God seemed to recede from me and the more difficult it was to resist my suicidal impulses. I felt more and more unworthy of God’s love and I had no idea how to go back to the person I had been before. I desperately wanted to be a full believer again, but finally, I gave up for my own mental health and chose to reject the God who had rejected me.

It took almost seven years until I felt more emotionally stable and able to make a decision about trying out God again. I look back on those years with gratitude that I was able to consciously choose something that helped me to feel better about myself. I can also see that a good deal of the judgment that I felt came internally, not from God. And I have come to believe that the God I believed in then was incomplete and not at all the God I believe in now, so it was an important part of my journey to a more complete understanding of God to reject that God.

So did God fail me? Or did I fail myself? I’m not sure there is a perfect answer to this. It certainly felt like God had failed me. I continued to attend church because I felt that my church community was still trying to help me and I didn’t know how to explain what had happened to my relationship to God. I’m not suggesting that everyone who goes through a faith crisis has had at base the same experience that I had. Nor am I saying that if you’ve had a faith crisis, it’s because you’re at fault because your belief wasn’t “true” enough.

Within Mormonism, I do think sometimes we’re too quick to blame institutions and others around us for what has happened, rather than blaming God Himself. We’re told that God is perfect and so we can’t accuse Him. But isn’t the church His institution? How is blaming the humans who God supposedly inspires any different from blaming God?

If you look at this from an atheist perspective, you just throw it all out together, which is what I did. God is no different from the institution of the church because God is a made-up creation that is useful for social control and manipulation. Or God is simply an invention of our own imagination, so of course my worst (and best) thoughts become “God.” That’s one way to solve the problem of a faith crisis. Give it up. Only it’s not so easy from the inside, when your entire worldview is dependent on a God and you have to recreate yourself from it.

I’ve reached a point now where I’m not bothered by people who tell me that I still sound like an atheist (these are mostly people from inside the church, though there are some other atheists who say I’ve never really gone back to belief). I’m also not bothered by the thought that maybe I’ve just decided to delude myself again, that my faith is perhaps still as made-up as it once was. I *choose* to believe in God because I want to, because I need the comfort and the hope of an all-loving being. This doesn’t work as proof. It’s simply my experience, but I think it’s valid even so.

But if you accept that I’ve come back to a real belief in a real God, then here’s what I have to say about a faith crisis: it’s part of the process. And it won’t hurt God for you to stop believing in Him. As I was coming out of my crisis, I told a friend that the best advice I had for someone going through a faith crisis was to blame it on God, to hate God rather than the other people around them. God can take our blame. God can take us turning away from Him. And when we can see the world differently, maybe we will come back. Or maybe we won’t. That’s up to us.

Comments

  1.  “I *choose* to believe in God because I want to”
    This is so powerful, and what I think what God wants for us. It is an extreme act of faith to hate God. To know he can take it, and that he will still be there.
    There is such a powerful hope in your story. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I’m with you, Mette: my faith crises have always been more about God than the Church, in part because my faith itself is more about God than the Church.

  3. The entire piece is wonderful and tender, but that last paragraph is especially poignant – reminds me of the fulcrum scene in Scorcese’s film ‘Silence.’ When the tortured Jesuit finally hears a voice that says “go on, step on me, I can take it.” Also found a poem recently that says faith isn’t faith until it has been shattered. I will try find it again and send it to you here. I lost a child at seven weeks old, and all of the LDS teachings and doctrine on that experience (which I still consider the best and most generous I’ve seen) do not prepare you for the sorrow and sense of betrayal that comes with it. The pain is too big to be shoved into a neat little box of doctrine. But that sort of makes sense in a way because if the teachings alone prepared you for the experience what would be the point of even having the experience? We could have just stayed up in the pre-mortal life twiddling our insubstantial thumbs and swapping aphorisms, which is just like several HPG meetings I have attended by the way. 🤔 Anyway, thank you so much for your words…part of the experience dern it. Way too true sometimes- reminds me also of Alma 7:11-13, which I am increasingly coming to see as the most seminal passage in Mormon theology. Important piece you wrote here, thanks 🙏🏻.

  4. Dog Spirit says:

    Lovely piece, with much to think on. My faith crisis has been centered on God, but in a way that is tightly linked with the church. I became alienated from and afraid of the God the church had given me, beginning with God’s deafening silence to my earnest young prayers and ending with the peculiarities of God’s relationship to women in the temple and institutional church. I felt I had to choose between Mormonism and a belief that God is love. Strangely, I’ve been trying for several years now to choose to believe in a God who is love, but my fears have resisted my efforts to rehabilitate deity. Each prayer is a staggering vulnerability offered to a God I do not trust, but who I still long to lean on from the roots of my worldview. Often, I snatch the prayers right back.

  5. When my faith crisis struck, I recognized very clearly what was happening. I said a prayer to tell God that I was going to struggle for a while and that if He wanted me back, he was going to have to put up with it. Then as I spent the next 7-8 years working through my crisis (plus all the historical and social stuff that just then happened to then start coming out), I always knew where God was. I never had a doubt He would wait me out, give me the space to figure things out.

    The hard thing is that other members of the church don’t see that as valid. I no longer talk about it, but when I did they all thought I had let go of the rod, fallen off the path. I never quite made it back to their rod/path, but I never quite let go of God at the same time.

  6. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I find that being angry at God can be quite cathartic. And, as you say, he can take it. On a number of occasions, one of my children has been quite upset with me for something I had nothing to do with. But, recognizing that they needed to be upset, to blow off some steam, and then, hopefully, be ready to move on, I gladly took the heat. Sometimes they apologized for taking things out on me, sometimes they didn’t. Doesn’t matter, because I just want what’s best for them. I imagine God, as Heavenly Father, is happy to take the heat, whether he deserves it, or not (and I’m still not convinced it isn’t sometimes deserved). He can take it.

  7. Sometimes leaving brings us back stronger and that’s the point. The lesson we are to learn. Maybe the lesson is about becoming a better listener or accepting the fact that God does answer prayers, only sometimes the answer is not what we want to hear. And man is flawed. My own lesson learned, after 30 some odd years away from the Gospel, was to work on my one on one with God and let the rest of humanity do the same…it’s not my job to judge them or even care what they do vis a vis their levels of compassion, intelligence (because some faithful members sure believe and say some really stupid things), or anything else. It’s their journey and I have mine and you have yours. Glad you found your way back to the Light.

  8. For me personally, at the very least having somebody to yell at is so much less abysmal than the alternative eloquently conveyed by Christopher Hitchens: “To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?” Whether the deadly silent cosmos is more consternating than a Heavenly Parent we feel is aloof is up to each of us to decide for ourselves, but the anchor of my theistic belief is when I get a sense of His personality in those “where art thou” moments (and not the calm “where art thou”s.) Sometimes it’s a disciplinarian, sometimes it’s a “great calm,” (although not as often as I’d like), but the person on the other side of those inquiries is clearly not some Freudian manifestation of some archetype of love, punishment, or what have you, but the manifestations of a real father personality with all its texture. (Of course, it took a guilt-ridden adolescence to separate HF from the little rat in my head pretending to be God and continually nipping at me about this or that, but I’ve think I’ve finally killed that rat.)

  9. Your average Mormon says:

    Oh my, you hit my feelings right on the head.

    In 2013, my husband and I had to make a decision about which grad school he should go to. It was between two choices— one being a local school that offered a scholarship and the other being a more expensive school across the country. We prayed and fasted and prayed and fasted (total count was 10 Times) and EACH time our answer was to move across the country to the expensive school. We asked so many times because that option didn’t seem logical and yet, the answer was firm.

    So we did. And we spent the next 3 years struggling. Over those 3 years we got various priesthood blessings. Some we asked for, some were for callings. And each blessing (a total of 10 different men) promised my husband success in grad school. A few even gave deadlines. So when it all came down to the line in May 2016, my husband failed out of grad school. (Actually the professor failed 5 of the 18 students in his cohort in the penultimate semester to graduation, and the average grade on that final was 63. The school made her a Dean for her excellent work in failing so many students).

    We had done everything right— callings, Temple service, family history work, following the advice given in priesthood blessings, fasting every month, FHE, tithing, you name it— we did everything.

    And yet God didn’t keep his promise. 10+ times he promised that if we did the things he asked, my husband would graduate from this program. And when it came down to it, God didn’t deliver.

    So, where does that leave us? We are dealing with in different ways and I will leave my husband to tell his own way (if he chooses to). As for me though, my testimony was shattered. A God who lies? A God who doesn’t care? A God who doesn’t care AND lies? What kind of God is this and what kind of obligations do I have to this God? I made promises to him and have kept them, but he hasn’t done the same for me.

    It’s been 18 months. The agonizing, crippling pain from the beginning is gone. I spent a good 6 months simply not talking to God. Paid tithing and went to church for my kids and husband and that’s all the effort I put into it.

    The next 6 months were spent cursing God.

    Then 6 months ago the second counselor in my ward (who did a recommend interview with me and got to hear ALL of it) recommended “The Sin of Certainty” by Peter Enns. Turns out the 2nd counselor had been through a decade long faith crisis and knew where i was coming from. He didn’t judge me, but instead said that “doubt means your relationship with God is about to change”. He is very open minded (and his wife too) and he was really the first person I’d met IRL that was a member but didn’t believe all the things more “traditional” members believe (not trying to be offensive).

    The last 6 months have been much more peaceful. I read the Enns book. I still have trust issues with God. But I’m also able to recognize that I’ve had some pretty strong spiritual experiences and can’t deny them. It’s okay that I don’t have the answers. It’s okay that I’m not sure of much anymore. It’s okay that I sometimes still (mentally) curse God for this disappointment and financial devastation. It’s okay to be in the middle space where I don’t always think the same as other members. I don’t know who this God is anymore, but I believe in him and I have made that choice to believe. I believe he is there. I go to church with my kids and do my best in my callings, because even when I disagree with things at church, I see a lot of good too.

    And so on itngoes, and I have hope that some day I’ll have a better understanding. This is my journey and yours may be different.

  10. Your average Mormon – if you found Enns’ book helpful, you might also appreciate Falling Upward by Richard Rohr.

  11. Profound. Thank you.

  12. I’ll stay with first person — “for me” — but I’m mighty close to generalizing . . .
    That for me there is no real “coming back.” The G_d I come to know and the Church I come to see is not the god and not the church I grew up with. And so “back” is not a return but a step forward. Into the wildness.

  13. Your Average Mormon: Me, too!

    I had a similar experience except on fast forward. I was in the USAF in a miserable position counting the days which were over 400 before I could get out. A call came on a Thursday early in the evening, describing as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a new assignment to fly in the F-15. The catch was I had to be in Texas by Saturday. I begged for a few hours to decide and he gave me until 0600 the next day. I had far less than 2 years of retention and this assignment required at least 2 more years of retention so I would have to give them another year or more of my life. I hated the military but maybe this would be different. One more year of misery versus 2 more years of maybe something better, maybe something worse, and no time figure it out.

    My wife had a great job but she was at work 2 hours away and I could not get her on the phone and she would not be home until late. (Before cell phones) As I did a cost benefit analysis on paper, the bishop called and asked me to drive 2 hours to pick up a ward member at the hospital where his wife was dying of cancer and drive him back home, another 2 hours.

    I took this as a test of faith and that perhaps the answer to my decision might be found in a 2 hour conversation with this likely wise and spiritual man. So off I went with no possibility of discussing the decision with my wife before 10:00 pm. The man with the ill wife told me this was typical of the military and would be a good way to demonstrate my commitment to them. Most assignments were not miserable and this would likely be an improvement.

    My wife was skeptical. She did not want to give up her job suddenly and move with 2 days notice. We prayed fervently. I felt strongly we should go to Texas and she felt strongly we should not.We argued about it for a few hours before collapsing in exhaustion. Honestly, I didn’t really decide until the phone rang promptly a 0600. I suspected my wife would follow me to Texas, but she would hate doing it and probably not be happy. I didn’t trust them.

    I told them no, and he told me I was a “damned fool.” I regretted it every day as my job grew more intolerable until I left the military. A month after discharge the squadron I was slated to join was mobilized to Saudi Arabia. The First Persian Gulf War had started. My wife saw it as a miracle deliverance. I saw it as dereliction of a duty, called to by God and my country. I felt guilty as I saw other families suffer and come unraveled. Had I stayed, it would have led to a career in the USAF and retirement probably a decade ago.

    I left the military and went into another direction and have seemed to be dogged by bad career opportunities, My wife and children prospered and I am proud of their accomplishments. But every July 4th when we go to a concert where they honor the military servicemen by having them stand while the song of their branch of service is played, I can’t help hearing the voice in my mind say, you are a fraud and close to a deserter. You ran when God and country called. Sit down and bow your head in shame.

  14. Ben E Paxton says:

    Wonderful post and thoughts. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Thanks for this. I resonate with it on multiple levels. My faith crises was related to the existence of god rather than history or actions of others- frankly I think that those two denote a superficial approach to faith and religiosity.

    I too, believe in god because I choose to. And that’s why I am perfectly fine with the Mormon narrative. The existence of God is a long shot- But I choose to believe it is probable. I’ve had a few (ok a lot) of prayers where I’ve shook my fists and cursed at the heavens. And the process refined my faith in priceless ways. I found deeper charity for others and more wonder at the mysteries of godliness and the possibility of the restoration.

  16. Joseph Stanford says:

    This reminds me of some of the insightful parables by Peter Rollins that explore the intersectionality between faith in God and atheism.

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