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.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing Brother! I'm so grateful for the Gospel. I know it's brought and continues to bring a deep sense of joy, purpose and excitement to life as I exercise faith in God :). It's incredible how easy it is to forget, or simply to not remember some amazing spiritual experiences I've had. I know I've had spiritual experiences beyond doubt, I just have to record and remember them. The best way I've found to nurture my testimony is to seek to serve others and become an instrument in God's hand. The more I try to forget myself and align my will, with God's, the more I've seen His power, oversight and inspiration in my personal life. Which is simply incredible.

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  2. Beautiful article, Adam! I love the analogy of the puzzle and your own real experiences. I'm going to share something like this with my 12-13 year old class.

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  3. Wow. A person could say "who knew?" Great article, Adam.

    I am not surprised that you went through this and believe that we all go through the "fiery furnace" at some time in our life where our beliefs are tested and tried. Maybe more than once.

    Knowing what we know about the times to come, helps us to know many things but not completely why. There is a negative force that will push back at you/us as we try to overcome inertia and our positive attempts to push forward in a positive direction.

    We had a lesson taken from a conference talk by Joaquin E. Costa "To the Friends and Investigators of the Church". I had to teach this lesson and I thought "what will all the members get out of this lesson and for what purpose would I be teaching these things if no one in the audience fell into this category. As I pondered, read and prayed about it, the thought came that there might be those of us that needed to be re-taught or re-converted. Further pondering brought the thought that we put a lot of energy into schooling, special talents etc. Some people achieve a great deal of competency in these areas but if they neglect what made them excel in an area such as dance, piano etc by not continuing to practice, stretch, further instruction etc, they will not be able to maintain their level of competency and knowledge.

    We commit numberless hours to reach this competency in areas that we love and enjoy. We sacrifice money, time and physical comfort to achieve this competency and even a degree of perfection.

    So the thought came, why do we expect to achieve such levels of competency/perfection in the gospel without countless hours of stretching, practicing and continued learning. How badly do we want to achieve our spiritual goals? Are we willing to pay the full price because it is after all we can do, that the Atonement comes into play...providing the missing puzzle pieces that we cannot find.

    Love to you all. Glad you were able to find a way out and continue the climb upwards.


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  4. So I've read this entire article and tried to be as open as possible. My perspective is similar to yours in that I "journeyed away" and started a faith journey back but my journey did not lead me back back to Mormonism. I had put together enough of the pieces to get a good idea of what the picture looked like. And yes - a family is part of that puzzle, but there's so many more pieces than family. Family isn't even in the center of the puzzle. Obedience - that's the center. Articles of faith #1-3 make that very clear. In fact, you will notice, the word "family" doesn't even make it into a single AOF. I am not suggesting that Mormon theology is limited to the Articles of Faith - but you have used them to express what brought you back.

    I didn't just read "negative stuff". I read and still continue to read the "positive stuff". But after I put it all together, I just didn't like the picture I was seeing. And there was a whole lot of pieces on the table that didn't belong to the Mormon puzzle and would never fit the Mormon puzzle. Mormons told me that these pieces were not truth, but many of them were true to my experiences. Pacifism and equality in particular were beautiful pieces to me. (Let me clarify that I am not trying to say that no Mormons are pacifists or that no Mormons believe in equality for all. I'm just clarifying that those pieces don't really fit the puzzle that is Mormonism's particularist theology. Some people make them fit and for that I am grateful.)

    So - I thought outside the box. I tore it all down, starting with the concept of authority. But I kept the pieces of love, peace, inclusion of all, and I few other puzzles that I picked up from Progressive Mormonism, and I started putting together a new puzzle. The picture of the new puzzle was fuzzy and abstract, free of answers that didn't make sense to me, but I seemed to find that picture more pleasing.

    Now this new puzzle doesn't have leaders, doesn't have prophets, doesn't have authority. But it compels me to make peace with all, and respect the diversity of humankind. If God made man in its image, and the image of mankind is diversity, then my new God shall be diversity. Diversity sits at the center of my new picture, sitting directly in the middle of a very clear peace sign. Everything else around this picture is abstract, swirling, and complex. And - to me - very beautiful.

    I communicate this parable with you to help you understand a different perspective. Like you, I love article of faith #9. They are pieces in my new puzzle, rooted to the idea that God still loves us, still talks to us, and that we are all children of the same creation. #11 is rooted in my core value of respecting diversity. And #13 are just great, universal principles of goodness. We may not agree on the rest of the picture, but it's my hope that these are enough to stand together and build bridges between our faith communities in a time where divisiveness has taken hold of our culture and set us against one another.

    All the best, Adam. For what it's worth, I think your faith journey has given you a lot of perspectives on those of us who leave. You have not immediately dismissed us as "lazy" or "offended", which is a helpful first step. But you have suggested that we don't know how to make puzzles correctly. And that still kind of hurts. And I understand why you say it that way - your base assumption is that I am wrong for not believing your church is true. I'm not sure how to truly heal the rift as long as you truly believe that those of us who leave are broken. Because I do not believe you are broken. I believe you are part of the faith community that works for you.

    I hope that perspectives like yours can help Mormon culture move away from automatically fearing those of us who leave, and instead wanting to make peace with those of us who want to make peace with you.

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    1. Much love, Dave. I really appreciate you chiming in. Sounds like our tables have a lot of shared pieces, which we can celebrate and encourage one another with. You're right that there are differences in our beliefs. I don't think that makes you a lesser person in my eyes or God's. I apologize if that's what I conveyed in my post. We all just do the best based on our limited understandings. To me, the puzzle represents all truth, not just the truth about families. I believe that there are some absolute truths, rights and wrongs. And yes, one of those absolute truths that I choose to believe in is that God restored the priesthood power to Joseph Smith. Thanks for respecting my thoughts and feelings and sincerely sharing yours. I love it when we can disagree without being disagreeable. Though I think we both agree about much more than we disagree. God bless! Thanks again for reading and sharing your feelings. And, of course, you're always welcome back into the Mormon church if you ever choose to head that way again. :)

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    2. I agree with you as well on the thoughts of there being many universal principles. As a universalist myself, it's important to recognize that those who pursue love and empathy share more in common than those who pursue divisiveness and fear. I respect that you believe what you believe about the authority in your spiritual community, and even if I do not share this base assumption with you, I respect your community's right to organize as it wishes. May God and/or the light of empathy bless you as well. (I know that was complicated - I'm agnostic.)

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  5. Thank you for your inspiring article. Everyone gains (or loses) a testimony in his or her own way. Each lost piece of the puzzle is different for each person. You are to be commended for stepping back and appreciating the pieces that fit and the picture that was beginning to form. I get the impression sometimes that people in your shoes are appreciated by the Lord because they do care and are not willing to just go with the flow.

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  6. Thanks for posting Adam. I really appreciate you sharing your experience.

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