Do you have any advice for people deeply struggling with their LDS testimonies?

by John Dehlin on January 21, 2010

Each week I continue to receive at least 2-3 emails from people who are deep “in the struggle” — having lost their traditional faith in the LDS Church, and don’t know where to turn. They feel isolated and alone: often desperate. Here is a summary of the best advice I can offer someone in this situation:

(Note: please consider this as a very rough draft. I am very open to suggestions to make it better.)

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Thank you for sharing your story with me. If there are a few messages I can leave with you…that I hope you will repeat to yourself over and over again in the coming years….it would be these things:

  1. You are not alone. I have personally spoken to over 1,000 people with your basic story…and I am aware of tens of thousands more on the Internet who share your concerns. Please know up front that this journey you are now traveling is one that more and more LDS people are beginning to travel — and that there will be fellow travelers and tip/tricks provided to you along the way (unlike in generations past). To restate — You. Are. Not. Alone. Thousands upon thousands (likely some in your own ward) share your thoughts/feelings, and more are emerging every day. Don’t feel ashamed or broken. With the advent of the Internet, this phenomenon is becoming very, very common.
  2. Go slowly. Sometimes it’s easy to let things spin out of control — especially if you are angry or feeling isolated. Try to avoid this if you can. Try to go as slowly as you can, and think of this as a lifelong quest for meaning, purpose, and enlightenment….not as something that you will resolve in a week, or a month, or a year. Try to not do anything rash. Try never to burn bridges.
  3. Find some mentors: As you begin this new journey of faith it is unlikely that family, friends, or leaders will understand what you are going through. Those family and friends who you choose to confide in may respond with fear or hostility. Remember that this new journey may be a shock to them and it requires delicate handling for all involved. Be open to different viewpoints and never close the door on ideas while in this state of flux, but remember that ultimately this is YOUR journey of faith. As you seek people who will be able to understand your concerns remember that you are not obligated to follow in the footsteps of those who offer their support. Now there are, many, many LDS folk who have traveled down the path you are now on — you can take solace in the fact that some of them might be able/willing to help you through the journey. Some are still fully active and believing (like Richard Bushman, Kevin Barney, Jeff Lindsay or Mike Ash). Some are semi-active and/or semi-believing in the church (like the folks at StayLDS.com). Some are inactive. Some have joined or started other churches (like Shawn McCraney) and some are no longer members (like Bob McCue). All of those paths are possible for each of us — and each path will have its plusses and minuses for you, individually. Regardless, I strongly suggest over the coming months and years that you find some mentors who will listen and help you see all the options that are unfolding ahead.
  4. Some say that there are Stages of Faith: A famous professor of theology and human development named James Fowler once wrote that there are stages of faith. No stage is better than another…4 is not higher than 3. They are all just stages…nothing more. Putting stages 1 and 2 aside for a second (they deal mostly with infants and children), he wrote that there are 3 main stages of faith for adults:
    • Stage 3 — A period characterized by literalistic, orthodox beliefs. This is the “one true church” mentality — where you likely were in your late teen and early adult years. Some never leave this stage — and that’s perfectly fine. Remember — no one stage is better or higher than another.
    • Stage 4 — A period of disillusionment and disenchantment with the literalistic, orthodox, almost dogmatic approach to faith/religion that you once had in Stage 3. Some have called it “the dark night of the soul.” This is where you may be at present, if you’re reading this document.
    • Stage 5 — A return to valuing faith/spirituality, where there is: a) less of a concern with literalistic, dogmatic “truth”, b) a greater appreciation for the metaphorical and symbolic value/structure that religions of all types can provide, and c) a more universalistic or inclusive approach to religion and spirituality, that may select a particular religion or church to “practice” within, but finds value in the faith and theology of all religions, and even of enlightened agnostics and atheists. The following podcast episodes can shed light on this stage, and this overall approach:
  5. Try to think of this as an opportunity for deeper joy/meaning: It may not seem like it now, but try if you can to view this journey you are now on as one that has the potential for greater joy, and deeper meaning in your life….much more than you ever felt possible in your previous stage of belief. In other words…..this is not the end of your faith journey. This is just the beginning. It may sound crazy, but think of yourself as being like Adam/Eve cast out of the garden of Eden, so to speak. You have an opportunity to create a life with amazing new depths and possibilities that you never before imagined (and I don’t mean out of the church, necessarily. I mean in or out of the church…depending on what you feel is best for you). I promise you that there is wonderful, joyous light at the other end of this tunnel, if you can hang on, and find meaning/value/depth in this experience. But it does take a lot of work. And time. And patience.
  6. Isolation/secrecy can only last so long, and will likely lead to more pain in the end: One thing that I’ve seen repeatedly is the negative effects of being fully “in the closet” about your pain/struggles w/ loved ones and friends. Just like a lid on a pot of boiling water — eventually the steam will escape…it’s just a matter of how/when….and with how much force. So I would encourage you to slowly find non-threatening ways to let loved ones know (in general, not necessarily going into specifics) that you are working through some things, and that you are struggling. You will know when the time is right for this — so I’m not telling you to hurry — but I can tell you from experience that it’s usually better to thoughtfully manage the “coming out” of your thoughts/feelings vs. having them eat away at you, and then explode in ways that damage both you and your loved ones. I could be wrong here…or this may not be right in your particular situation…but this has been true in my experience, and for many/most of the people I’ve spoken with.
  7. Family First: While this might not be true in rare circumstances, especially where abuse is involved, remember that family is more important that anything else you’ll probably ever believe or want or do in this life. Try your best to always remain supportive and a force for good within your family — even as you struggle w/ your faith. Don’t let your faith struggles cause you to neglect those you love most. That said, you must also avoid neglecting your conscience at the expense of keeping the peace. A proper balance must be struck here, and only you can know what the right balance is.
  8. Pray (and/or meditate) and Study: Don’t forget to pray (and/or meditate) and study either the scriptures (even if only for non-literal inspiration and meaning) or other books which encourage wisdom, enlightenment and/or spirituality. Those things remain a wonderful resource for me. Even if your religious world falls apart — I strongly believe that there is great strength in prayer, meditation, spirituality and “clean living”. Don’t let these things go…if you can help it — even if you find only metaphorical value in them, vs. literal value.

Some resources I can recommend:

  • Mormon Stories Podcast: Over 100 hours over exploration on issues of faith, history, etc. Over the next year I am planning on addressing the loss of faith as a central theme w/ tons of new episodes. The Mormon Expression podcast also has some excellent episodes, although their panel skews slightly towards the disaffected LDS perspective. Still, I love those guys, and their hearts are in the right place.
  • StayLDS.com: A wonderful resource for those looking to stay in the church w/ an alternative, nuanced, non-literalistic faith. Even though I remain a church member myself, I am no longer in the business of trying to convince others to stay in the church (it just never works, and often backfires — people have to decide this for themselves). The folks at StayLDS.com are the same way. They are not looking to convince anyone to stay LDS, but instead are there to support people who, for whatever reason, desire to stay in the church, but don’t quite know how to do it after the crisis of faith. One resource that many have found value in from this site is this essay, “How to stay in the church after a crisis of faith.”
  • LDSBlogs.org or mormonblogs.com: For a WONDERFUL set of thoughtful, yet (mostly) faithful blogs which deal with Mormon issues.
  • FAIR/FARMS: For apologetic approaches to the church that seem to work for many.
  • New Order Mormon: Similar to StayLDS, but less moderated…and a bit more angry at times within the forum (though I totally acknowledge that for most, anger is often unavoidable, and sometimes even constructive…depending on the situation).
  • A New Earth — Eckhart Tolle/Oprah: This may sound cheesy, but this podcast/book by Eckhart Tolle on Oprah has helped me, my wife, and many of my friends in ways I would never be able to fully describe. Give it a try if you are open/willing. It is 100% compatible with both LDS belief and complete atheism.
  • Speaking of Faith: An amazing archive exploring “deep” or “thick” religion (vs. thin/shallow religion)
  • For Those Who Wonder: A great resource by Jeff Burton
  • Faces East: Not sure how good this is, but I love the mission statement: “Devoted to the ideal of eternal marriage, even when a spouse does not accept LDS beliefs.”
  • There are many ex-Mormon and Post-Mormon resources out there, but I am always on the look-out for additional sites that are committed to a constructive, enlightened exit from the church (if that becomes your ultimate wish). For those of you who can help me find a few additional links, please email me or post the links below.

Finally, please consider returning to these points when you are in your darker times. From speaking w/ many others, I feel like they will guide you well whenever you get stuck.

I hope this helps! Let me know if there’s anything else I can do. And God bless you.

John Dehlin

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