This is the first guest post from Bill Reel. He is the operator of Mormon Discussion Podcast. He has served as a Bishop in the Church and is currently the Ward Mission Leader in his ward. His podcast seeks to help fellow Latter-Day Saints work through their doubts, leading with faith. The podcast is found at http://mormondiscussion.
Faith Crisis….. It’s the cool issue right now. Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman are giving firesides on it. Hans Mattson, former General Authority, has gone public with his. Marlin Jensen was answering questions about it at Utah Valley University. And Elder Holland just used it as the backdrop of his recent Conference talk.
But while everybody is talking about it, lots of people are having one. They are hurting and struggling and need help.
As one who is knee deep in this discussion every day and having had a faith crisis myself that was very deep and painful, I would like to offer 3 suggestions to those of you who know someone that is struggling and 3 suggestions for the person in “the Dark Night of the Soul” or “Crucible of Doubt”.
To the Ninety and Nine (that’s you family, friends, and local Church Leaders.)
- Love them. You can do this by validating their pain and their frustration. Validating their emotional state doesn’t mean you are conceding the Church isn’t true. Rather you are offering them your love, Christ-like charity. You are showing you can faithfully keep the trust they placed in you when they confided in you this tough experience. This doesn’t mean you have to let them build a case against the Church with you being the jury. Rather you should take the conclusion off the table for a moment and simply be a Christ-like beacon to them in their darkest hour, something firm they can hold onto when everything else is giving way.
- Study with faith. Take some time to study and grasp that faith develops in a certain way through certain phases or stages so that you might understand your loved one better. Many people see someone for the first time having serious doubts and frustration and they make the false leap to that person being an apostate or moving backwards away from Christ. Moving away from that mindset, study up on faith development. Check out any one of the development theories such as “Perry’s scheme for cognitive development” or “Fowler’s Stage of faith” or any number of others out there. One soon realizes that as faith develops forward in a progression, there are turbulent stages in that growth. It is not a negative thing but rather part of the process. The conclusion may be different from person to person once they get through that stage but the stage itself is not a bad thing. We need to stop pointing to sin or a desire to sin as the culprit. While some faith crises end with sins as an outward behavior that results from the crisis, it is normally not sin that throws them into the crisis to begin with.
- Give them flexibility. One in crisis doesn’t need you to prove to them Evolution is wrong, or that what one leader over in this corner of the gospel said, is absolute truth; rather, they need flexibility. They need to have room in the “perceived” tent of Mormonism to apply their newly discovered truths (and even some still being tested theories.) This allows them to fit safely in the tent without being judged. Sometimes this is not possible. If a person concludes the Church is led by Satan, they will likely leave the fold as the tent is never going to get that big. However, the tent is a lot bigger than we think and the Church is more patient than we comprehend with beliefs that do not fit snugly in what the majority would agree on. When we consider that David O. McKay while prophet expressed that he believed evolution, that he actually knowingly ate rum-cake, and that his two counselors were Democrats, we begin to see there is more flexibility in the Church, even though some preach that we should be inflexible. (And that is just one man and only 3 facts about him.)
Your friend, ward member, and loved one is discovering new information. While some of this information is false or misconstrued, some of this information is true, based on facts that you were probably unaware of until your loved one’s world crashed. Some of these facts may contradict what you thought the gospel was and how Church history in your mind traveled very smoothly. But in reality the world is not black and white and we shouldn’t expect the Church to be either. Give them the flexibility to believe different than you, within reason obviously, as I am not advocating absolute tolerance at any length. But I will say, having come through my own crisis and returned to faith, I have learned the tent is way bigger then I ever imagined it was before my faith fell apart.
To the one (yes you) with serious doubts:
- You can’t go back. Entering this uncomfortable arena where everything you knew with “every fiber of your being” now having become “unknowns” or “not believing that anymore” is hard. At times you have wished to go back to where everything was innocent, to where all the pieces fit and made a beautiful picture that was consistent and dependable. Now you have awoken and discovered that you now realize it was multiple puzzles that you possessed that lay on the table, with missing pieces and some pieces that don’t even belong. You want to go back…… but you can’t.
This process is a progressive one when engaged correctly. When done incorrectly it is a lateral change. You can never get back to where you were. That doesn’t mean you have to conclude one way or another; rather you should understand that you will never see the bits and pieces of information in the same way again. The only options left are (1) to move forward, (2) stay in crisis, or (3) exchange one unrealistic paradigm for another. The angst you feel is the emotional tug of trying to hold onto both worlds.It’s a tough situation. You can remember feeling that you believed that the Church was everything for you and your friends, and it helped you to form your character. Now your eyes have been opened to new things and you desire to pursue these new truths. There is conflict, and the only way through is to let go of the trying to put things back as they were.
- You have to take your time. There is a term discussed in Faith Crisis talk called Cognitive Dissonance. It is that tug we spoke of in point 1. It tells your brain that an immediate decision must be made to rid yourself of this anguish; that you must make up your mind quickly and that you should lean towards the decision that will likely provide the least amount of cognitive dissonance in the future.To alleviate this dissonance, many choose to leave the Church, and many of those go one step further and lose complete faith in God and become atheists. While I respect every individual’s journey and try to judge no one person’s truth as less important or less credible to them then my truth is to me, I have met plenty of ex-mormons and atheists who feel they have transcended Mormonism to a higher level of thinking only to exchange one dogmatic approach for another. The quick decision regardless of whether you stay or go, almost never provides the experience that allows you to truly move forward. Rather, those who make a quick decision, as pointed out in the section above, trade one bad paradigm for another, one that is just as flawed. Hanging in there and testing all things with an open mind and open heart is the only way to move forward, regardless whether you end up as a believing Latter-day Saint or something entirely different.
- You have to tear the house down and then rebuild it. Faith Crisis revolves around discovering that your framework, your paradigm, your assumptions, and expectations no longer hold up under new and sometimes drastically different facts and information. The immediate response is that my framework is realistic and since these facts do not fit then it is the Church or Gospel that is wrong. While that is one possible conclusion, the quick decision you make rarely reflects your framework being realistic. In other words, regardless of your end conclusion, your assumptions and expectations have a lot of changing to do and any decision that doesn’t require changes in your foundation will still be faulty.
In my crisis, I had to tear it all down. What is a prophet? When is a prophet acting as a prophet? Is what I think is official Mormon doctrine actually official Mormon doctrine? What am I required to believe to be an active worthy Latter-day Saint? How regular is God’s interaction with Prophets? If Joseph Smith made statements that turn out wrong, is it possible he was just sharing an educated guess or opinion, or must he have been proposing the will of God? There are hundreds of these kinds of questions. While some of them are difficult to work through and while I agree that loss of belief is a reasonable conclusion, I also see plenty of room for the Church to be what it claims and I see plenty of room for faith. Talk to someone, ask others who have been there how they made sense of these issues. Ask questions, dig deeper, test your assumptions and be open to your expectations needing to change. Last of all, know your not alone… never alone.
I’m sure that there are others that have advice for dealing with a faith crisis. What are your suggestions?