Reflections From A “Latter-Day” Faith Crisis

Nearly a decade after Latter-day Saint or “Mormon” pioneers began building the Salt Lake City Temple, cracks were discovered in its foundation. As the story is told, the sandstone foundation would need to be completely removed and replaced. The workers were devastated. In an instant, years of effort were lost.

This is what a faith crisis feels like.

My Foundation

Born and raised a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I never struggled to believe. Whatever the challenge, question, or struggle, I always had faith.

And then one day, I didn’t.

It’s tough to say why. A recent move, a new job, caring for young children, stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, etc. were likely all contributors, but also things I experienced previously. Doubts and questions flooded my mind. I assumed this “phase” would pass in a few months, so I began writing notes to capture my experience.

That was nearly five years ago. Those notes are a disorganized 60+ page document. As this blog is somewhat of a lifelong learning journal, I wanted to add my thoughts to what I see as an increasingly necessary discussion for the Latter-Day Saint community.

My Notes

Faith crises come in all shapes and sizes. Some prefer other labels for their experience. I have not appended “in my opinion” or “in my experience” to every sentence, but the following thirteen insights could be read that way.

1. Spiritual Tides

Latter-day Saints have developed a habit of using binary language to describe spirituality. You have faith or you do not. Someone is “active” in the Church or they are not. You know something or you do not.

I experience tides.

Tides of faith, doubt, frustration, devotion, apathy, etc. All of these emotions come and go repeatedly. Sometimes a tide is high. Sometimes a tide is low.

One day, I can’t help but doubt. The next day, I can’t doubt. I have learned to appreciate the journey for what it is, and I avoid making major decisions based solely on the current tide.

For believers seeking to help: Know your loved one will experience highs and lows. Be there for them. Everybody’s situation is different. Don’t assume a particular outcome is guaranteed just because the tide came in.

2. Immediate Empathy

Intellectually, I thought I understood why someone might not experience spirituality the same way I did. Emotionally, I didn’t have a clue. Until you experience it, you can’t comprehend how strange it feels to be surrounded by those who profess to believe while you desperately fail to.

“Some seem to be born with a testimony of the gospel and a sensitivity to spiritual things. For others, belief comes slowly, and the process may feel difficult or frustrating. They spend years or even decades striving to feel the Spirit. They want to have a testimony, but they can’t honestly say that they do.” — Dieter Uchtdorf

For believers seeking to help: It’s not always about trying harder. It’s not always about being more obedient. Your loved one may want to believe but can’t.

3. Faith and Love

I have never prayed to know whether I love my wife. She has never prayed to know whether she loves me. The idea sounds absurd to us. We just love. That realization was freeing for both of us. Faith and love are developed through separate means. One can thrive without the other. They can thrive together.

Families are central to Latter-Day Saint theology. For that reason, a loved one’s faltering faith can be a legitimate cause for concern. They are still the same person. A faith crisis brings new fears, disappointments, and challenges for all involved. A loss of love does not have to be one of them.

For believers seeking to help: Love them. Love your child, spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent, cousin, etc. That’s all.

The two of us. Love this woman.

4. Doubt that Inspires

The first day I felt little to no faith was both terrifying and inspiring. Terrifying because my worldview was crumbling — inspiring because I experienced who I am without the slightest expectation of “blessings” for being that way.

Take away major aspects of my belief system and I’m as committed as ever to being a better husband and father. This is true for many in society, but I had never experienced it disconnected from my broader religious worldview.

Instead of accepting the beauty of Earth as something that was planned or inevitable, doubt let me see it simply as something that is. That brought tears to my eyes. I similarly found myself relieved from a burden of shame and self-doubt I didn’t know I carried.

I have had similar experiences as a believer, but a faith crisis helped me see firsthand that doubt is not necessarily the dreary reality some believers assume it must be.

For believers seeking to help: Don’t assume your loved one is miserable. Don’t assume they are happy. Faith journeys are complicated. Listen to your loved one’s experience with an open mind.

One of my daughters and I at Yosemite.

5. Spiritual Exhaustion

I have always loved church on Sundays. I still do. I also love the volunteer opportunities that are integral to life as a Latter-day Saint. At times, however, a faith crisis feels like working spiritual overtime.

On multiple occasions, I have spent nearly sleepless nights wrestling with my faith. The next day I show up to serve or attend church exhausted. What could easily be perceived as a lagging interest in spiritual matters is quite the opposite.

If I have learned anything from this experience, it is how inaccurate behavior can be as a measure of spirituality.

For believers seeking to help: I view staying engaged in my religious community and volunteer opportunities as essential to evaluating the church’s truth claims. Others may not. Be compassionate whenever you are tempted to rely on outward indicators to evaluate someone’s faith.

6. Belief and Belonging

As human beings, we form opinions based on what is acceptable to our social circles — then we consult the facts. This is hardly a pattern for rational decision-making, but it is a great pattern for building like-minded communities.

“The hard part of intellectual life is separating what is true from what will get you liked.” — David Brooks

Nobody should live or leave their faith because of what someone else thinks. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. Latter-Day Saints are known for tight-knit communities. As a result, a faith crisis can be extremely lonely. When someone doubts, their questions often evolve from whether they believe to whether they belong.

For believers seeking to help: Respect your loved one’s courage. You are not responsible for their decisions, but feeling ostracized will never strengthen someone’s faith. Recognize that what you say behind closed doors may not always stay there. Say nice things.

7. Feeling Heard

Over the last year or two, I’ve been increasingly open with my local congregation, leaders, and others about my faith or lack thereof. Generally, the response has been positive. This blog post is part of that.

Many Latter-day Saints lack a faith-promoting environment to discuss their doubts. Oddly enough, one of the most faith-inspiring moments of my journey was chatting with a close friend who left the church. Finally, someone was willing to just listen.

For believers seeking to help: Listen to your loved one. Acknowledge their concerns and doubts even if you don’t understand them. Respect their privacy; they may feel comfortable sharing thoughts with you that they are not ready to share with others. Let them know that you love and respect them even if you don’t agree with them.

A Conversation With The Master (Nathan Florence, 1972)

8. A Culture of Knowing

“I know [insert topic] is true” has become standard verbiage for Latter-day Saints expressing their beliefs. That’s unfortunate. I’d love some more nuance. Hyperbole or not, defaulting to “I know” skips the thrill of living by faith:

“…faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” — Alma 32:21

Perhaps “I know” is just a socialized norm, but for me, the “culture of knowing” extends far beyond the language we use:

  • It is found in the attitude of some members that other faiths should bring their beliefs “and let us see if we may add to it” but not the reverse.
  • It is expressed by some as they allow certainty to fuel harsh judgments of others’ lifestyles but completely ignore our community’s historical pattern for getting such judgments wrong.
  • It is on full display when some choose to elevate our church members’ spiritual experiences above those of other faiths.

The possibility to know is supported in Latter-day Saint scripture, but so is simply believing or even hoping to believe. Latter-Day Saints can encourage faith at every level.

For believers seeking to help: Years ago, I learned confidence often results from a lack of information. Let’s stay humble. Remember doubt is not denial. It implies at least a sliver of faith.

9. “You doubt because…”

I have heard it all. Sometimes directly, sometimes implied. I am too lazy, sinful, or otherwise unworthy. I am too prideful. I must not be relying on church resources. I don’t study the scriptures enough. I don’t study the scriptures well enough. I don’t care enough. I don’t try enough.

I get it. I don’t blame those who accuse me of these things. We see this every day in politics. By attacking my character they seek to avoid the discomfort of confronting potential flaws in their own worldview.

It's not that I am perfect. I’ve had plenty of missteps on this journey. I also understand as much as anyone how uncomfortable confronting such ideas can be, but it is exhausting and even painful to have your effort and integrity constantly questioned.

For believers seeking to help: If a loved one has actively fought to reconstruct their faith for years, respect that. Know that catchphrases like “doubt your doubts” are well intentioned but can come across as tone-deaf if that is exactly what your loved one has been doing. This article on the church’s website has great suggestions on how to listen effectively.

10. Finding Anchors

Why bother trying? Why not give it all up? If you let it, a faith crisis can push you in any direction. I choose not to give every voice I hear the same weight. I look for patterns. I embrace ambiguity. I follow my conscience.

Some use the analogy of a shelf. Your faith is the strength of the shelf. Every unresolved concern, doubt, or question is weight added to that shelf. A shelf “breaks” if someone’s faith can no longer sustain the weight of all that is placed upon it.

Some people find they need to tear down the shelf immediately. Others secure it instantly or build a new shelf altogether. It is difficult (perhaps impossible) to make an unbiased decision. That’s ok. I have learned to no longer rely on others’ experiences to set expectations for my own.

For believers seeking to help: Christianity supports a broader range of worldviews than society gives it credit for. The subcategory of Mormonism should be no different. There are many different ways to understand the gospel. That’s a good thing.

11. Cultural Commandments

Faith crises serve as a refiner’s fire. They burn away everything in a spiritual worldview that is based on cultural norms, opinions, and Latter-Day myths (Side note, this is a fun podcast episode from the church about those myths).

As a child, I learned to see a particular style of music, way of dress, and form of speaking as the “proper” way to worship God. Some of this was learned implicitly, and some of it was explicitly taught. When cultural practices foster meaningful experiences in a believer’s life, it can be difficult for that person to not see such practices as divinely necessary for others.

There is evidence the church and individual members are shifting in this regard. Regarding dress and appearance, the church recently clarified: “What is appropriate varies across cultures and for different occasions…members and leaders should not judge others based on dress and appearance. They should love all people, as the Savior commanded.”

I like that.

For believers seeking to help: Your loved one is likely frustrated with some of the cultural norms other members claim are based on gospel truths. One of the top reasons people leave the church is feeling judged. Look into the origins of these practices and you may discover their frustrations are justified.

12. Faith as a Choice

I hope for a Latter-Day Saint culture where experiencing doubt is accepted, perhaps even celebrated as an integral part of developing true discipleship. Belief requires a leap of faith. A leap in logic. It always has. It always will.

Trust in organized anything is rapidly declining, especially religion. That doesn’t mean there is no reason to believe.

From a spiritual lens, I’ve found beauty in this experience: I am given the opportunity to deliberately choose spiritual habits I once took for granted, I get to actively wrestle with claims I never thought to question, and I’ve discovered insights I never knew existed.

For believers seeking to help: Good luck on your own spiritual journey!

Contemplating life’s greatest questions…or just looking for a Geocache.

13. A Final Note for Believers Seeking to Help

While you may do everything you can to help, you are not responsible for your loved one’s decisions. Let go of that burden. Recognize that Latter-Day Saint theology reveals surprisingly little about how things will work out after this life.

As a community, we can do better. Those who leave the church should not be condemned as “lost sheep” or “lazy learners”. Call them neighbors. The vast majority do not “go off the deep end”. They drink coffee. They do not become drug addicts and murderers. They volunteer for the PTA and as coaches for your kid’s soccer team.

As world religions go, the Latter-Day Saint movement is extremely young. We forget that sometimes. Perhaps we could learn from religious movements that have lasted thousands of years while building a sense of community that even disbelievers continue associating with.

Conclusion

Frankly, I don’t know what all this means for the future of my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I know that isn’t a satisfying conclusion, but it’s where I’m at. That said, I take heart in knowing the true story of the Salt Lake Temple’s foundation.

Although the widely shared narrative suggests the initial foundation was completely removed, photos from renovations in the 1960s display granite resting firmly upon a layer of sandstone.

Five years ago, I learned the foundation I’d personally built for my life was sandstone. Nobody was more surprised than me. I discovered cracks in what I thought was unshakable faith, felt devastated, and assumed years of hard work were lost.

Today I see things differently.

Believer or not, I don’t have to worry about replacing my earlier foundation. I’m building upon it. The project is intimidating and the timeline unpredictable, but whatever I build will only be stronger because of the foundation that came before it.

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