Guest Post: The Proper Care and Feeding of Faith Crises

By Erin Moore

Where I Started

Even though I’ve never felt like the church and I totally jive, I can recall the exact moment my “faith crisis” started. I lived in Provo, but at the time I was technically a California resident, and I received a phone call from a well-meaning fellow student inviting me to a fireside on Prop 8. He also asked me if I’d be interested in calling other BYU students from California to “spread the word on this important issue.”

I hung up the phone with a terse “No, thank you,” and I remember a surprising sense of disgust welling up in me. At the time, I didn’t have the language to articulate what I was feeling. My privilege had kept many issues related to the LGBTQ community off my radar, and to that point, the church and I had gotten along alright. But boy did I feel weird.

It’s hard to believe that was eight years ago. Discovering that my church might be actively working against the interests of an already-marginalized group was a disturbing one, and it led me to wonder how else Mormons act out of self-interest. What unfolded was an exploration of this and other questions through study, writing, prayer, and countless conversations.

It’s a journey I’m still on, but out of it have come two firm beliefs: first, that much of what I’ve been taught as doctrine is culture, and second, people who internalize that culture are sometimes motivated to keep power in the hands of few by limiting the growth and freedom of others.

What I Wish I’d Known When I Started

It’s pretty hypocritical of me to offer advice to my fellow doubters. When questioning the Mormon church, many of us reach the conclusion that nobody should tell anybody else how to live their faith. I definitely believe that if I had been given more freedom to be myself and worship how I wanted, I wouldn’t feel so unmoored in the church today.

However, for all the belief I’ve lost, I can’t shake my conviction that Christ is community, that people ought to help each other, and that our struggles are common. Even now it’s hard for me to predict where I’ll end up with the church, but I’ve been reflecting on the experience of actively exploring doubt, and there are some things I’d like to share. Please, consider the personal and therefore limited perspective this originates from. And remember that I don’t actually have a clue what the hell I’m talking about.

Beginning a Faith Crisis: A Few Guidelines

1. Don’t let anyone tell you where you belong.

Faith is a complex experience, and most of us are really limited in our ability to express it. One of the best coping mechanisms for this insecurity is team-building. People in the church want certainty that you share their convictions. People who’ve left the church, or never belonged, want a commitment that you’re on their side and never going back. Know that this pressure usually comes from an honest place, but what others want for you might not be what you want for yourself.

2. Getting answers isn’t as scary as asking questions.

The Mormon church has a myriad of official and cultural mechanisms for discouraging questions, but when I built up the courage to ask them anyway—whether that was directly with leadership, with my peers, or just in my own head—I found relief. Oftentimes this journey has been a process of admitting things that I’ve always felt but knew I wasn’t supposed to say, for example that polygamy is not, and never was, a divine principle.

Does that conclusion set me up for a number of other, potentially more difficult questions? You bet your testimony of divine authority it does. But don’t underestimate the value of claiming authenticity in your beliefs. We so often feel pressure to express “knowledge” of certain principles, and grabbing hold of something you actually believe can be a breath of fresh air.

3. Being able to question your faith is a privilege, even if it’s painful.

This is more of a temporary salve than anything leading to long-term solutions, but I have found comfort in reminding myself that many people in the world are not given the opportunity to question their faith. Some do so against the threat of far greater consequences than I will ever know. Even in deep sadness over my loss of belief, I try to remind myself that the capability of losing belief is, ironically, a sign of freedom and privilege.

4. There is black and white thinking everywhere, not just at church.

Many people begin a faith crisis with an aversion to the certainty and over-simplification they hear expressed at church. But Mormons do not have a monopoly on narrow-minded, all-or-nothing thinking. For example, I am often discouraged to find that people who oppose the church sound hauntingly similar to people who love it.

“Oh those poor, simple people, so easily deceived. If only they knew the truth. I’m so glad I’ve got the truth. Someday they’ll see.”

The lesson here for me is this: as you explore other ways of thinking about the world and spirituality, don’t just look for contrast. Contrast is cheap. Look for depth.

5. Hopelessness is contagious.

This has been the most painful lesson for me, and it’s something I’m really grappling with right now.

We learn as Mormons that without the church, we can’t experience full happiness. And if you choose to let go of some of the church’s teachings, the truth is you will likely feel some of that emptiness.

I believe there is occasional value to staring into that void. But here’s the problem: if you do it too long, that spiritual emptiness can overwhelm you and bleed into other areas of your life. And you’ll forget how capable and creative you are, and you’ll start to feel despair.

Adrienne Rich says that “Despair…is, like war, the failure of the imagination.”

You are not to blame when you discover inconsistencies in your inherited belief system, but you are the only one who can build something new in its place. If you feel yourself moving away from the church, don’t just think about all the things you find problematic, or things that are a source of negativity in your mind and life. Think about what you really want instead. Imagine what your faith would look like without so much outside influence, and consider how you can create more of that while also removing things that trouble your mind and cause you pain.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you well as you make your way through your own faith journey!

Erin lives in Salt Lake City and works at the University of Utah. She loves any combination of writing, movies, politics, friends, and food.

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18 Responses

  1. A Happy Hubby says:

    Thanks for sharing Erin. Very beautiful and great advice.

  2. Caroline says:

    This is really wise and helpful.

    I especially appreciate this advice. “The lesson here for me is this: as you explore other ways of thinking about the world and spirituality, don’t just look for contrast. Contrast is cheap. Look for depth.” I too have noticed that black and white thinking is everywhere — which is one reason I really appreciate places like Exponent. Nuance feeds my soul. Thanks for sharing your nuance and wisdom with us.

  3. Jess R says:

    Number four was a tough one for me. I went from one black-and-white-thinking group (the church) and ended up finding another black-and-white thinking group of disillusioned former church members. Neither one was for me.
    This is all excellent advice. Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. Violadiva says:

    Loved this post. Reminded me of a dear, wise-woman elder of our church pronouncing emphatically, “Be whatever kind of Mormon you want to be! Be there on your terms!”
    Such great advice here, thank you!

  5. Andrew R. says:

    I am going to preface what I am about to say with a general comment that I believe this is a very useful article for those who have a faith crisis (of any sort). I do find that there is a need for people to question their beliefs, study, pray and increase in testimony. No one can increase their testimony without the process of, essentially, “read, ponder and pray”. And study will always bring new challenges.

    Now my niggle – and it may just be interpretation. And I do not want to upset anyone, and nothing I am saying it black or white, or calling anyone to repentance. It is simply my thoughts.

    In 2 you seem to imply that through your process of study and prayer you came to the belief that “for example that polygamy is not, and never was, a divine principle.” The implication is that this was an answer from God.

    The problem with this is that many, including myself, have come the opposite conclusion. I do believe that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all acted with God’s blessing in their polygamous marriages. I also believe that in this dispensation there was a place for Polygamy – the extent to which it was practised as the Lord intended is another matter. And I further believe that the polygamous sealing that still takes place is correct.

    So – which of us is getting our answers from God, and who is not? I’m not going to answer that question. But it seems to me that only one of us can be correct. If you are correct that the Church can not be true for me because I am getting the wrong answers and clearly my testimony is based on a false premise. Of course the same holds true if it is me that is correct.

    So for me we need Prophets, Seers and Revelators – albeit imperfect people – to guide us on our path. And for the most part following them is the right thing to do. But we are given a lot of latitude, I my opinion, in how we practise our religion. A few examples.
    1 – tithing – PSR “pay your tithing”. What we are expected to pay is up to us, in terms of what we consider our “increase” to be.
    2 – temple – PSR “attend the temple regularly”. What we are expected to do in terms of regular temple attendance is between us and the Lord.

    Even on things like Prop 8 (and I confess to not being super aware of exactly what was asked of members) I don’t believe anyone had to write to politicians, campaign, etc. even if it was asked.

    I have said before that from a political point of view I have no problem with same sex marriage. As a Latter-day Saint I do not believe that such marriages are ordained of God. I do not believe such marriages are compatible with membership in the Church. But I would attend the wedding of two men, or two women, who were friends and wanted me there. Of course, if we should allow any two consenting adults to marry why should we not allow any three, four, or more consenting adults to be in a polygamous marriage. Surely the same arguments apply?

    • A Happy Hubby says:

      Andrew, I applaud your thoughtful and logical reflections on this topic. I appreciate the logic you have put into the subject of attending a gay wedding – that of having a political view of the world you can logically hold at the same time as your religious view and the two don’t have to trample one another. I wish more members could get past emotions and thing things through to the point you have. I too also look at the incongruity of “going after” excommunicating gays members that marry and members that live together without being married.

      But I do have to say there is one item you bring up that I really can’t quite go to where you end up with your logic. I agree that we call can feel led by God to different opinions, even when honestly trying to do our best. You then postulate that we need prophets to guide us. Sounds great. So how do we decide WHICH prophets to follow? I assume you are saying the prophets of the LDS church, but how do you decide on that set of prophets vs. Jehovah’s Witness, vs Scientology, vs RLDS, vs many other “leaders”? I assume you would say that you have to study and pray about it – which seems to me a method you already admitted can be less than perfect. In the end I have to conclude that each of us need to follow what we feel God is telling us, with a limitation of not infringing on others right to do the same (such as killing someone because “God told me to”).

      • Andrew R. says:

        Truth be told I was speaking in a solely LDS context. Either one believes that their Prophet is called of God, or one doesn’t. I believe that ours are.

        Without any prophets we would have no scriptures. Now yes, we could postulate that God is not in the scriptures of any particular faith group, nor is He speaking through the leaders of those faith groups. At that stage we just do whatever we believe is right with God.

        However, I am not sure how one even starts that journey without the scriptures, written by the prophets.

        The Father-in-Law of one of my daughters is the Third Elder, and second counsellor in the First Presidency of a very small LDS based church. Their prophet teaches that the keys were lost upon JSjr’s death and restored to him about 10 years ago, buy Enoch and Joseph.

        He gives some good sermons, and much of what he says is very well thought out. His take on tithing is that you pay, at the end of every year, 10% of what you have then more than last year. ie 10% of saved income. That would make my tithing about $10!

        So I think the leaders you choose is important too – me I believe in the Plan of Salvation, and that it requires us to live by certain doctrine, principles, ordinances and covenants.

        Whilst I personally believe that we should be much better at calling members to repentance on living together, etc. I do see a couple of differences.

        1 – you call a person who is living with another to repentance, hold a DC and they cease living together. You might disfellowship them. They come back into full fellowship and live according to the principles of the gospel. Having married there is a finality – the marriage would have to end as part of the repenting process, so excommunication is pretty much the only answer.
        2 – the majority of members living together are doing so in an inactive state. I believe that inactive members marrying in SSM’s would likely not be excommunicated either, until it was known about. The majority of SSM’s that will result in excommunication will be active members choosing to enter in to a marriage that is not ordained of God. Personally if that were me I would leave the Church anyway.

  6. D Saw says:

    Andrew R. represents the same kind of cultural and institutional dogmatic thinking that discourages personal growth and ultimately leads to a perpetuation of ignorance. His arguments;
    – Your conclusions and promptings from God cannot be valid because they contradict my experience and my understanding of God.
    – You can ask questions, but the answers have already been decided and aren’t valid unless they match what “my organization” currently authorizes as answers, so ultimately, it is useless to try to seek answers independently.
    -Nobody can possibly learn anything unless they do it the same way I have, using resources “approved” by my organization. (No one can increase their testimony without the process of, essentially, “read, ponder and pray).
    -If you REALLY were LDS then you have to think XXXXXX

    Objectively, his arguments are ridiculous.

    Even early LDS leaders understood the danger of this type of thinking (see quotes). The LDS church doesn’t even currently believe that everything past LDS prophets taught as eternal truth is currently true (see church essay on race and the priesthood).

    What makes it more ridiculous is that his close-mindedness masquerades as open-mindedness. I am sure if a same-sex couple knew how he felt about their union he would never be invited to their wedding.

    My advice; run as far away from this false-dichotomy ridden dogmatic thinking as you can Erin.

    Quotes
    “We have heard men who hold the Priesthood remark, that they would do any thing they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong: but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God, who seeks for the redemption of his fellows, would despise the idea of seeing another become his slave, who had an equal right with himself to the favour of God; he would rather see him stand by his side, a sworn enemy to wrong, so long as there was place found for it among men. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty (!) authority, have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the Saints were told to do by their Presidents, they should do it without asking any questions.
    When the Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience, as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves, and wish to pave the way to accomplish that wrong; or else because they have done wrong, and wish to use the cloak of their authority to cover it with, lest it should be discovered by their superiors, who would require an atonement at their hands. ”
    “Priesthood,” Millennial Star 14/38 (13 November 1852), 594–95; italics in the original

    “What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders”
    Brigham Young, (12 January 1862) Journal of Discourses 9:150.

    • Andrew R. says:

      Well thanks D Saw for so eloquently telling me what I think.
      “Your conclusions and promptings from God cannot be valid because they contradict my experience and my understanding of God.”

      That is not what I said. What I said is that we can’t both be correct. I didn’t say she was wrong. I except that I could be. The problem is, how do we decide? I don’t know the answer. However, for MY (and I can only speak for me) faith to continue I have to work on the basis that the PSR’s are telling me the truth. If they are not, then hard luck for me. If they are not, then why continue to be a Mormon? I think that’s a valid question. If the Plan of Salvation is needed, in the fullness of the New and Everlasting Covenant – and we can live as we feel God wants us to – why have any organised religion? Which I except is a way of life for many.

      “You can ask questions, but the answers have already been decided and aren’t valid unless they match what “my organization” currently authorizes as answers, so ultimately, it is useless to try to seek answers independently.”

      Again, thanks for expanding my understanding of what I said. Of course one can seek answers independently. But if those answers are different, at least if they were for me, I would not remain LDS; paying tithing, doing my calling, etc. If our leaders are not speaking for God, and I knew that because God told me something different, I would follow God. The point, for ME, is that He hasn’t done so.

      “Nobody can possibly learn anything unless they do it the same way I have, using resources “approved” by my organization. (No one can increase their testimony without the process of, essentially, “read, ponder and pray).”

      I did not say that the study had to be of only “approved” resources. And the Church doesn’t either. Teaching in Church, should be from approved resources, for obvious reasons. But what we study in our own homes is up to us, and always has been.

      “If you REALLY were LDS then you have to think XXXXXX”

      Again, not what I said. I did say that if you believe this is the Church of Christ, that the New and Everlasting Covenant is established in this Church and that only the President of this Church holds the Keys to administer the Ordinances of Salvation, then you have to live according to the dictates of this Church.

      If the Lord is telling you something different then do what He tells you.

      I believe that President Uchtdorf’s talks recently have been very helpful in this respect recently – not least of all the one he gave at the Women’s Session of the October 2017 General Conference, “Fourth Floor, Last Door”.

      I have never once gone to a Bishop or Stake President to ask them how I should live my life. I do not, and never have, rely on them for guidance on how to live my life. I take the comments made by General, Area and Local authorities into my thinking and apply what is useful to me. There are many great, and obvious, things that I have heard in GC’s and in other settings, that I continually fail to manage to do.

      The closest things we have had in the UK to Prop 8 (in terms of the Church taking a stand, and asking members to write to members of parliament) were:-
      1 – Sunday Trading laws were being changed to allow large super markets, home improvement shops, etc to open on Sundays
      2 – Same Sex Marriage

      In neither case did I write a letter. If I had been inclined to do so I would only have done so for Sunday trading.

      • D Saw says:

        Andrew R, you are doing it again.

        You main thesis here is that if somebody doesn’t believe ALL of what “current” main-stream LDS leaders (Q15) teach then they may as well not be LDS. Would you disagree with me ?

        It is unfortunate that the LDS faith has evolved to this mentality. The quotes I shared demonstrated that this was not the case when Mormonism was founded and is a departure from past brands of mormonism. The current brand, which you seem to represent, sees no value in even asking questions that may lead to answer that could be contrary to the current thought of the brethren, because if contrary, then you must NOT have a testimony of _______ (living prophets, modern revelation, the true and living church etc..)

        Faith is personal and if Erin comes to the conclusion that polygamy never was a divine principle, then that is HER faith. Why do you insist on showing her why that particular belief of hers is damning to what your version of a “testimony” is?

        The black and white, in or out, thinking gets further complicated when what past LDS leaders taught as “Eternal Truths” are disavowed by later leaders. Take, for example Brigham Young’s quote on Blacks;

        “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so”
        http://jod.mrm.org/10/104

        Compare this to the current essay on “Race and the Priesthood” on lds.org;

        “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

        Lets say that Erin was LDS during Brigham Young’s time and had a personal belief that black skin was not a curse and that black members should be afforded the same opportunities (temple worship, priesthood etc..) as white members. She would have been branded an apostate and would only be vindicated by LDS leaders over a hundred years later, despite being correct.

        Ultimately, faith is intensely personal. It bothers me that the current LDS leaders and members push a “believe it all or leave it all” mentality.

      • Andrew R. says:

        “You main thesis here is that if somebody doesn’t believe ALL of what “current” main-stream LDS leaders (Q15) teach then they may as well not be LDS. Would you disagree with me ?”

        Of course I would. This is such a difficult way to express these ideas, and hold a conversation.

        My point was more about why God would say one thing to one person, and the complete opposite to another, and still be an unchangeable God. You mention the priesthood ban. I do not wish to get into that one, but I have my own beliefs on the matter. However, fundamentally the ban was always limited – they would some day get the priesthood. God was going to bless them with all that they deserved, just as he was going to do with everyone else. Even BY stated that.

        But there are things that if they changed would shake my faith to the point where I would consider that either I had been duped into believing the LDS Church is the true Church, and way back to God, or that the leaders were no longer following God. Either was I could not continue. Both of those would be contentious to discuss here.

        So, in the context of this post – how do we resolve the idea that the Church is God led, and that we are God led, when the two diverge on doctrinal issues and principles? And, if the Church isn’t God led, in the sense that we need to follow PSR’s because we can all “find out way” what is the purpose of the Church?

        I am not trying to be antagonistic, I am trying to understand.

    • Andrew R. says:

      D Saw – I thought I would tackle this one separately.

      “What makes it more ridiculous is that his close-mindedness masquerades as open-mindedness. I am sure if a same-sex couple knew how he felt about their union he would never be invited to their wedding.”

      Now not only do you know my mind, but you know the minds of those I know.

      Virtually everyone I know knows my religious beliefs. They know that I did not sleep with my wife until we were married, and that I would have considered it a sin to have done so. The extension of that is that I believe those living like that to also be sinners. However, they do not share my religious beliefs, and what I (and the Church) think of their situation is something they find interesting, but not insulting. They same has been true for the (albeit smaller number) of gay people I have known. They know my opinion, on the basis of my religious views. They may think it odd, or even extreme, but it has never changed how they feel about me – because I am their friend.

      Please try not to make too many assumptions about me simply because I choose to accept the PSR’s as the Lord anointed leaders of His Church.

  7. A Happy Hubby says:

    D Saw, I agree. I just didn’t see it worth my time to post a rebuttal. I have found it not to be effective in getting a real discussion going. Maybe in real life it is, but not via a comment section.
    Not trying to say your reply was useless, but just agreeing with you and explaining why I bowed out.

  8. MDearest says:

    This is a wonderful and most helpful post. The fact that you admit that you “don’t actually have a clue what the hell [you’re] talking about” inspired my confidence. All of it is good food for thought and action.

    • MDearest says:

      Also, having read the comments, the thought occurs to me that it is quite possible to have two opposing ideas be correct for the respective believers, especially when considering the context. However, that requires avoiding the proverbial failure of imagination.

      And lastly, I believe we have no record of Isaac as polygamous, either with a wife or a concubine.

  9. eastcoastgirl says:

    Wonderful and thought provoking post. I really loved your steps through faith crises, as I too have suffered since Prop 8. My crisis has rolled down the wintertime hill, at first a snowball rolling, and now it feels like the heavy boulder, like that of Sisyphus, and like him, I feel like I have to roll it up the hill to get back to the top of the snowy hill. That way, I will be the way I once was, faithful and easy going, and not plagued down by the information I now know is undeniable facts that the Church believes are “true” and they are things that I believe a just and merciful God would not and cannot impose on His children. So for that, I thank you for the acknowledgment of the pain we feel together, and also the sense of community we can regain by talking here.

    The only problem (and it’s more of another thought not a problem) I have with the Post is the last phase “hopelessness is contagious,” and the decree to not lose all faith in humanity. I think it’s very OK and perhaps significant in this journey to feel like your world is crashing down around you. That it may feel this way, it will not always remain this way. Remember that some of these doctrines:cultural needs have been instilled in you since you were perhaps 18 months old. To feel true cognitive dissonance, where all you have been told by trusted and loving parents, teachers, and friends, does not compute with all that you now understand as a grown and critical thinking person. That is exceptionally hard. I think hopeless is contagious when it spreads to your husband, friends, or kids, and yet being brought up in a very social and anti-individualist community, it’s almost impossible to make a move without checking with all of your people.

    I also think it’s important to seek counseling (non LDS) when going through a faith crisis, as depression and even suicidal thoughts can quickly overtake you. Perhaps you served a two year mission and now you feel guilty for all the people you led to the baptismal font. Perhaps you’re a young stay-at-home mom that now questions why she chose this life, or did she even choose this life that she is now forced to live. Now perhaps you can see these are not dead end moments in life, they are fleeting and all hope is not lost for you. Anyway, I did love the OP I just wanted to qualify how important and valuable the journey is, and perhaps you’ll return to the church and maybe you won’t, but you should realize what an important soul you are to so many as an individual.

  10. Moss says:

    I enjoyed your insights! One thing I have done that has helped me is read up on Biblical Studies. Understanding the nature and limitations of the Bible (while still appreciating it’s value) has helped me gain a better perspective on revelation and scripture in my own faith. It has made it just about impossible to sit through a Sunday School lesson, but I’m in primary so it’s all good. But I have come to see Mormonism as more expansive- there is so much we don’t know and attempts at claiming certainty just make things worse (like the priesthood/temple ban).

    I lived in California during Prop 8 and I felt like my temple covenants were being invoked. You could argue about if they actually were or not, but I sure felt like it.

  11. Melody says:

    Beautiful, thoughtful post. And well-articulated. I especially enjoyed the last paragraphs. “You are not to blame when you discover inconsistencies in your inherited belief system, but you are the only one who can build something new in its place. . . Think about what you really want . . .”

    I believe God wants us to be clear about our own spiritual needs and desires and will help us best when we are able to identify those needs, then honestly communicate them to Him/Her with clarity and determination.

    Thanks for taking time to share this. It’s really lovely.

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