I stopped going to church my sophomore year at BYU. Moving up to Utah was a shock for me. There was nothing that I really loved about church before the move, but there were things I disliked completely about the student ward I was a part of on campus. I hated how fake everyone felt. I hated how everyone seemed to just be “playing church”. No one understood anything about the purposes behind the programs, and that’s fine. I didn’t expect them to. But no one was teaching us about these things either. We were just kids. It felt like a shadowy wasteland of people faking it until they make it, but no one was making it.
By the time I moved off campus the summer before my sophomore year, and had more freedom to not be judged or shepherded for not going to church, I was ready to step away completely. A boyfriend had moved out to Utah to be with me, and I allowed that to take up most of my time. That relationship didn’t last long, but I had already become used to not having to deal with the inauthenticity of the student wards, so going back wasn’t going to happen. Besides, I had spent a good year living as if there were no truths to live by, and regardless of my deep testimony that God loves me I believed the adversary when he told me I didn’t belong at church.
Then, one Sunday morning, an acquaintance who lived next door invited me to church. She didn’t hound me or make me feel like I needed to go in any way. It was a simple invitation at just the right moment, but I must have been subconsciously tired of what my life had become and I surprised myself when I said yes. I went to church, and even bore my testimony in testimony meeting that day of just a few of the things I thought I still believed and asked the bishop if I could meet with him after church.
I told him I understood that what I was about to tell him he would need to report to the honor code office, and that a call to my parents and a move back to California was probably in my future. I told him everything the prior year had been for me, and that I felt ready to give up everything I had to find something new. And he lovingly created room for me to be honest without the fear of being kicked out of school. I did go through a disciplinary council and disfellowshipping, but I never once felt disciplined or disfellowshipped. Bishop Heward and his counselors were my saviors during that time of my life.
I started coming to church regularly. I didn’t notice a big difference as a disfellowshipped member of the church. I couldn’t take the sacrament or hold a calling, but I didn’t really understand the meaning of the sacrament yet anyway, and I was definitely perfectly fine with not holding a calling. It was a safe place to just be, without any expectations or obligations. And in a ward with older kids I found friends. We were still just babies in the gospel, but at least we weren’t “playing church”. Maybe it was my perceptions that had changed, maybe it was the quality of the ward, but either way church wasn’t so painfully boring and fake.
Soon, I was back in full fellowship, dating a priesthood holder, and preparing for a temple marriage. I had some setbacks, and went through a change of bishopric, but I weathered it all. My new bishop, in his own well-meaning way, helped me feel comfortable seeking the blessings of the temple. And after my sealing and a few years of growing up together with my husband, I felt like I had put all of this behind me. I don’t talk about it much, but when I do I generally just say that I fell away from the church for a little while during college.
Now, I’m discovering that what I thought was a “faith crisis” so many years ago might not have really been a faith crisis in the traditional sense of those words. I left because I was bugged by people and going through a phase. I never actually stopped believing, in the gospel or the church. I didn’t fall away. I just stopped going. Sometimes I believed the lie that I wasn’t worthy to pray or receive revelation anymore. But largely, I was just experiencing the cognitive dissonance created by simultaneously believing that God loves all of his children, and that that love didn’t include me after the things I had done.
It was a crisis of sorts, but it wasn’t about my faith. Faith is something we have in Father and in Jesus Christ. I still had that, even as I waded through the muddy waters of the adversaries lies about my worth. What I had lost was a desire to deal with church and church people. That whole year I spent away from church I even continued to keep my tithing separate, and I paid it in full when I came back to church. I never had any major issues with church history or policy, two of the major things people tend to leave the church for. I was just bored with it and found no meaning in it, and then Satan capitalized on that.
I’ve been reading a book written by David Ostler about ministering to those who question. I highly recommend it, whether you’re currently going to church or not. It brings up a lot of useful concepts, including a list of attributes which can describe someone who has returned from a faith crisis. They:
- Take personal responsibility for their spiritual development, using leaders as valuable reference points along the way
- Have quiet humility regarding things that once appeared certain
- Understand historical problems and accept the humanness of leaders
- Have faith in ambiguity and hold nuanced beliefs
- Are comfortable with doubt and not knowing everything
- Have hope in beliefs they once held as absolute truths
- Find meaning and spirituality in diverse sources, including nature, music, stories, and thinkers outside of the traditional Church cannon
- Identify with spiritual or behavioral thinkers outside of the Latter-Day Saint tradition
- Read scriptures, ignoring historicity, with a focus on personal meaning
- Value relationships with others regardless of whether they hold the same beliefs (Bridges: Ministering to Those Who Question, Greg Kofford Books, Salt Lake City, 2019, p. 71)
As I read that list I realized that it described me rather well. My humility isn’t always quiet. And I’m not sure how much hope I have in beliefs I once held as truths (or even what that really means). But otherwise that list pretty much fits the bill. I didn’t develop those things immediately after my return to the church, however. These are things I’ve gradually learned, piece by piece, or line upon line, over the years. They don’t represent the outcome of the return from that crisis for me.
I kept reading and found that a lot of what members of Ostler’s Faith Crisis Member Focus Group were saying about their experiences with church were the same as what I was experiencing, and what I experience pretty often. They felt many of the same things I currently feel. Many of their gripes about the church really brought to the surface things I’ve been trying to keep sequestered. Things I thought that maybe if I ignored they would just go away. If I just have faith in Christ I won’t think those things, right? But they don’t just go away.
Maybe it’s all the years since returning to church that have been my “faith crisis”. It’s a constant thing for me. I am constantly questioning everything, and reevaluating everything, and feeling unsure about so many things. Since college, I’ve had to really deal with, I mean really confront head on and struggle with, all sorts of things regarding church history, policy, and even doctrine. Most things I have an understanding with now because I’ve learned to do those things in Ostler’s list. I found a new relationship with God and he’s helped me work through and see his hand in a lot of things. But others either keep coming back because they aren’t finished with me yet or are new policies or programs that I just struggle to get behind. And maybe I’m not the only one who experiences this. Maybe there are a bunch of us who feel like every day is some sort of crisis. And if every day is a crisis, does that mean none of them are?
What if this is just what this life is? Maybe this is just what being anxiously engaged in the gospel looks like for me. Maybe my specific type of dedication to my discipleship means I dive deeply into the doctrines, and in the struggle that often accompanies that practice I learn how to not struggle. In the struggle, the Lord teaches me how to be unmessable, firm and unshakable. How to love and serve and progress even with the turmoil of earthly life. How to see my faith when even some people in the church might say I must not have enough.
In this way, my struggles don’t have to symbolize a crisis of anything. I keep diving into new things and finding new ways to approach God and find answers. Sometimes that answer is that I won’t know right now, but when that happens I don’t put anything on a shelf. That never brings me any peace anyway; they just taunt me from their perch high above me and create sore spots. I’ve learned to just let it go completely. I don’t put it on a shelf; I set it on the ground, outside. I give it to God. It’s a complete surrender. They will come back to me at some point when it’s time and God will help me. I don’t need to have a pantry full of questions. I don’t need to have doubt storage. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (Matthew 6:34). I ask for daily bread, a constant drip of divine help, to give me what I need to keep pushing forward, one day at a time.
And I often go back to the things that don’t change for me anymore. This isn’t to say I’ve never questioned these truths, it’s just to say that in my quiet moments, when I’m kind to myself and let myself feel God’s love, I believe I really know these things. I know that Jesus is the Christ. Through him we are not only given endless opportunities to find our own divinity, but we are also given real ways to navigate earthly life and learn to love ourselves and others. I know God speaks to his children, in his own way and in his own time, but also to our understanding and to meet our needs and desires. I believe that the Book of Mormon can and does bring us to Christ, and that the Lord has organized a church and ordained prophets, seers, and revelators to help guide the building up of the kingdom of God on earth.
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ (the church),
Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.
That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;
But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–15)
I currently believe that the church can bring us to Christ, and that it is also our responsibility to bring our faith to church with us. I haven’t always felt that way. Some days I still don’t feel that way. But if I don’t like something about the culture of my individual ward I can bring my full authentic self to the mix and work to change it, with the power which all of heaven is governed by, including the earthly church.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death. (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–44)
I question, think, pray, feel, and act. I don’t kick myself when I think I don’t fit in. I try not to let any feelings of isolation or misunderstanding keep me from continuing to press forward. And I try not to make others feel like they don’t belong either. I try to check my pride at the door. I say try because all of this life is just one great big experiment and practice. I’m not always going to get it right. I don’t kick myself for sometimes, okay often, not loving going to church. I don’t kick myself for getting tired or wanting to take a break. And I don’t judge others for feeling that way. We are infinite and eternal beings. Who am I to think that what I’m feeling right now, or what someone else is feeling right now, is where God is just going to let us sit and stew until the end of days?
No, he’s got our backs. He knows we’ve got a long way to go, and he’s patient. He won’t ever get mad at us for anything we think, say, or feel. Because he sees all of this as just one tiny little piece of our history. He sees the end from the beginning, and isn’t bothered by our pasts or our presents. Nothing is a crisis to him. No one is beyond his love, and no experience we have here on earth can forever keep us from him. We’ve got time, and he’s okay with us taking all the time we need. He just wants to stay close so we can find him when we need him.
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)
Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not our thoughts, not our words, not our actions, not our questions, not our doubts, and not our years away from the church or our pre-angel Alma the Younger phases. Nothing. Keep searching for truth wherever it can be found. Our Father is close by. He has no expectations or deadlines. He doesn’t need to. He knows the eternal me, and he knows the eternal you. You bring him joy. When in doubt, just live in that for a while. I’m living in it every day too. He’s with us always, unto the end of the world and in all of our doubts and questions.
I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. (Matthew 28:20)