July 03, 2017

Why I didn't leave God, Christianity, and Mormonism

During Sunday School today, my teacher asked, “By a show of hands, who has seen a close friend or family member leave the Church within the past two years?”

Most hands shot up. A sobering sight. 

I’m not writing to discuss how I have personally seen others’ faith appear to blossom or shrivel in recent years. I’m writing to share my own story.

A few years ago, I almost abandoned God, Christianity, and the Mormon church. Here’s why I made the choice to hold on.

It all started my second semester of law school. Winter. Cold and dark. The middle of an almost suffocating inversion. If you've never been to Utah during the winter, just imagine a haze so thick and air quality so poor that you can taste it.

While my peers were studying case law, I couldn't pull myself away from the internet. I fixated on my faith. I devoured everything I could find about Christianity and in particular, the Mormon church or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Actually, that's only half true. I devoured everything negative that I could find. Searched far and wide, deep and dark. 

After several weeks, I asked my Bishop if I could talk to him. He kindly obliged. I sat alone with him in his office, door closed. 

"I don't know if I'll be Mormon forever," I told him. In reality, I didn’t know if I could stay any flavor of Christian.

I don't tell you this to boast. A faith crisis is no badge of honor (nor should it be a badge of shame). I share it because it happened. It is what it is. And maybe, just maybe, sharing my story will benefit someone hanging by a thread over a chasm of despair.

Just how dark did it get for me? 

I think I can describe it best by twisting a few passages in The Book of Mormon. The passages describe what happened in the Americas at the time of Jesus Christ's crucifixion.

Great and terrible tempest. Terrible thunder, shaking my world as if it were about to divide asunder. Sharp lightning, never before heard. Core beliefs aflame or sinking to the depths of the sea. Smooth places became rough for me.

I tossed and turned. I wept in the shower. 

I told my wife the things that didn't seem to add up in my mind, the roads or connections between truths that had become broken up. 

I told my wife everything. She wept too. But man, she was a saint. 

She'd married me, in part, because we shared the same core beliefs about God, Jesus, and the purpose of life. There I was, on the verge of putting an ideological crater between us, a crater she never bargained for or ever saw coming. Though heartbroken, she listened as gentle as a lamb. She told me what she believed and why and then gave me the emotional elbow room that I needed to sort things out. I didn't know much; almost everything was in flux. But I knew she loved me.

The member of the stake presidency that came to visit me in our home was much like my wife. Kind and thoughtful. I could feel that he genuinely cared about me and my family.

Amid my doubts, I made some effort to reach out to God in a way the internet couldn't offer. I read scripture. I prayed. In fact, I probably prayed more earnestly than I ever had before.

I don't know that you need to know the specific truths or untruths that consumed me as I waded through the internet's dredges. I read a host of accounts from those who'd divorced their faith. I saw a bit of myself in the stories I read. But only a bit. Everyone's struggle seemed different. 

Yes, there was a similar tone of bitterness, frustration, and even anger, at times, in many stories that I read. And yes, many seemed similar in that the individuals would ultimately go their own lonely way, with at least an initial spring in their step, rejoicing in a perception of newfound "freedom." 

But one person would trumpet a particular discovery, whether true or not, that she or he could not reconcile with her or his faith. And another would trumpet another. No two shared the same set of concerns. No one shared my exact concerns.

Some of the concerns I read about were similar to concerns that I'd already had and felt that I'd reconciled. How could someone leave over something like that? I wondered. 

This got me thinking, how confident can I be that my own concerns, though not yet reconciled for me, are not also reconcilable? In other words, I began to doubt my doubts

And that, for me, was the beginning.

Over the last few years, I've reflected almost daily on how I almost left and how grateful I am that I stayed. What’s the most important lesson I learned from it all? I can best explain by running with a metaphor first introduced to me by a humble Mormon leader about a year ago.

Parable of the Puzzle

Imagine you're sitting at a table, building a puzzle. The puzzle's pieces are both big and small, and almost innumerable. You've been building this puzzle your entire life. Every time a piece snaps into place, you feel some exhilaration. The puzzle is far from finished, but from what you can make out, it's going to be beautiful. 

But then you see it. A hole in the puzzle. There are other holes, of course, but for whatever reason, this one captured your eye more than the others. This is the piece I will place next, you say to yourself. So, you start digging. You scan the pile, making sure every unplaced piece is right side up. You can't seem to find the right shape. You look at the pieces surrounding the hole. None of the pieces you're finding seem to be the correct colors. You look under the board, under the table, under the chair. Where is that piece? 

Your search becomes frantic. Your hands tremble. You look at the puzzle box. Maybe the puzzle is broken. Maybe it has missing pieces. Curse the company that made this puzzle!

You begin to question all the other pieces you'd laid on the table. Was any of this right? In frustration, you lift the legs on one side of the table and just as you are about to flip the table and walk away, you see it. 

No, it wasn't the piece you were looking for, but it's a nice piece and you can see where it should go. You take the piece and place it. Suddenly, you see other pieces that you can place, pieces that you'd ignored while you were obsessing over that one hole. 

For the first time in a long while, you step back and look at everything on the table. You still can't make out the entire picture, but the canvas is coming to life. Somehow, placing each piece not only fills the canvas, but also fills something inside you. There's still a healthy heap of pieces to place. So, you decide to stay at the table.

My Missing Pieces 

For a time, my concerns, my holes, my gaps, were all I could see. 

I felt no gratitude for the pieces already placed. God had already given me much. Countless experiences feeling God's love. From testimony meetings to temples, early morning seminary to late night prayer, quiet groves to mountain peaks. I dare say I had even experienced miracles. But all of that had faded from view.

I also felt no appreciation for the other pieces that were ready for my placing. There were principles, truths, that I'd been taught and understood, but had procrastinated placing fully in my life. I wanted to demand that God give me something else. Right then, right there. Fill this gap and this one, or I'm gone. I ignored the other gaps God was already offering me the pieces for—pieces that I frankly should’ve felt more urgency to place. Pieces that could and would elevate how I lived my life.

Why Missing Pieces Make Sense

If you’re Mormon, you may be able to recite the Articles of Faith. I memorized them growing up. But I never paid too much attention to number nine, until that humble Mormon leader helped me see it in a new light. We shouldn’t shake every time we have questions about our faith, even great and important questions, because “[w]e believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.Article of Faith 9.

That means even if you were a perfect student of the scriptures and you'd understood, remembered, and applied everything that every ancient and modern prophet had ever revealed, you would still have great and important questions.

If you’re not Mormon, but share our Christian faith, you may remember what Isaiah said about our limited understanding, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9 (if you have a moment, click the link and read the surrounding verses; they're amazing).

I certainly still have questions. Some of them are great and important to me. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy peace. Indeed, the “peace of God . . . passeth all understanding.” Philippians 4:7As I’ve tried to give a loving Heavenly Father the benefit of the doubt about which of my gaps should be filled next and when, rather than force His hand, I have felt peace beyond my understanding. I no longer shudder at the thought of my questions. But I do shudder at the thought that I almost gave up on God, Christianity, and Mormonism because of them. 

God is good. Really, truly good. If your faith is teetering, hang on a little longer. More light will come.