Why I Almost Left the Mormon Church
Growing up as a Mormon, the church was my life’s foundation. It was my rock. My family moved several times, and the church gave me something safe, stable, and familiar to hold onto. I knew that no matter what challenges or trials came my way, the church would still be there, offering me a home away from home, a place where I belonged. And I hope that, despite the recent changes in my belief system, I can still belong there.
Living on the passive income from my first company, I spend my time experimenting with ways to live life to its fullest. I am a dad, entrepreneur, and lifelong learner. This blog is where I share what I’m learning along the way, hopeful that it will help you on your path to becoming the most fulfilled YOU!
Disclaimer: I am an active, temple-recommend-holding member of the church. I purposely avoid sharing anything remotely close to “anti” in this article because I have zero interest in damaging anyone’s faith. This article is not intended to persuade anyone to alter their beliefs. It is simply an attempt to share my experience while hopefully creating understanding between those of us who are straight-line-believing Mormons, struggling-to-believe Mormons, not-believing-everything-anymore Mormons, not-believing-at-all-inactive Mormons, and everyone else in between.
Teenage Years: Letter of the Law
When I became a teenager, the church became the central focus of my life. I started keeping a journal, reading my scriptures every day, and saying sincere prayers before bed each night. I paid careful attention at church, seminary, and general conference, taking careful notes. I read the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet1 on a regular basis, using it as my guide to safely navigating my teenage years. I treated every word from church leaders as if it was coming from God Himself.
This reverence for all of the church’s teachings led me to obey every instruction with exactness. For instance, as I was reading Preach My Gospel in preparation for my mission, I discovered that “Latter-day Saints everywhere believe in obeying the laws of the country in which they live.”2 This led me to start following the speed limit with exactness. If the speed limit was 10, I actually went 10. If it was 65, I stuck to it. Mine was not the kind of car you’d want to get stuck behind. As you can imagine, this led to some interesting situations during family car trips when it was my turn to drive. Let’s just say, I got one turn and was never asked to take another.
When I started serving my mission, I applied my same unwavering obedience to the missionary rulebook. As an example, the rulebook asks missionaries to “Speak your assigned mission language as much as possible.”3 So I did. Just two days after entering the Missionary Training Center, I made a commitment to God to only speak Japanese from that moment onward. I’d only allow myself to speak English if I vocally asked for permission first. As you might expect, this resulted in great difficulty in developing relationships with missionary companions, but I remained committed to follow God above all else.
Early 20's: Spirit of the Law
After living in Japan for several months, one of my mission companions taught me something that changed my life forever. He taught me the difference between Doctrines, Principles, and Applications. In David A Bednar’s book, “Act in Doctrine,” he teaches that doctrines are eternal truths, principles are doctrinally-based guidelines, and applications are “the actual behaviors, action steps, practices, or procedures by which gospel doctrines and principles are enacted in our lives.”4
The important distinction for me was living according to general principles instead of strictly following nit-picky applications. For instance, instead of obeying every single traffic law, I slowly started trying to simply live in accordance with the overarching principle of “be safe.” As I implemented this new approach in my life, I felt greater peace.
Later 20’s: Cognitive Dissonance
I now attribute much of this newfound peace to a decrease in Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is anxiety caused by simultaneously having conflicting values, beliefs, and behaviors. When I followed the speed limit at the expense of other drivers, I experienced cognitive dissonance due to behaving in a way that directly violated my values of safety and kindness. Only once I was able to harmonize my behavior with my values was I able to feel the peace I was lacking.
As I focused on following principles over applications, I was able to slowly find greater harmony between my values, behaviors, and beliefs. But, there were still certain conflicting behaviors and beliefs that caused me great distress. It was very hard for me to resolve these conflicts because to do so would require me to give up some behaviors and beliefs that I saw as central to being a Mormon.
I did not want to give up my Mormon faith. It was my rock. It was my community. It was my worldview. To give it up would feel like giving up life itself. For this reason, I did everything I could to protect my slowly-crumbling worldview. I avoided listening to anything remotely close to anti-Mormon. When my brother left the church, I told him that I’d love him no matter what, but that I didn’t want to know why he was leaving. Anything to hold onto my worldview.
In addition to my growing cognitive dissonance, I was also starting to feel a growing emptiness in my religious practices. In my teenage years, I had spiritual experiences and revelations on a daily basis. I’d come away from every sacrament meeting, general conference, and seminary lesson with tons of meaningful notes and ideas. Now, I was lucky to even write down one meaningful note during the entire 3 hours of church or during an hour of scripture study. It felt like I was squeezing the last few drops out of a once-delicious orange.
I felt so frustrated because I would read an interesting blog article online and learn more in five minutes than I would from an entire hour of scripture study. How could this be? I figured I must not be trying hard enough, so I doubled down on my spiritual efforts. I did more family history work and even became a temple worker, but no matter how much I put into it, I couldn’t bring back the deep fulfillment I once experienced. No matter how much I loved the orange, I just couldn’t squeeze any more juice out of it, leaving me empty inside.
My Faith Crisis
Then one day, as I was sitting in a particularly unenlightening Sunday school class, my mind finally opened up to the possibility that maybe the answer wasn’t to invest more into the church. Perhaps the answer was to invest less. What if I didn’t have to believe and do everything the church tells me? Would that really be such a bad thing? For the first time in my entire life, I honestly reflected on this question and the answers I came up with surprised me.
That afternoon, I took some time for myself. I sat next to a beautiful lake and reflected deeply. I wrote down all of my thoughts about what I would do with my extra time if I wasn’t trying to follow every aspect of the church’s program. The mental block holding me back was finally gone, and inspiration began to flow through me.
After writing down all my thoughts, I said a prayer and asked God if what I was planning was okay with Him. In essence, I was asking Him, “Is it okay if I stop following every part of the church’s program?” As I asked this, I felt so much peace. I felt like God was smiling down on me and giving me a thumbs up to take full ownership of my spiritual beliefs and behaviors. For so long, I had put the church in the driver’s seat of my life’s car, and now God was giving me the keys.
For so long, I had put the church in the driver’s seat of my life’s car, and now God was giving me the keys.
A Peek Down the Rabbit Hole: An Unbiased Look at Church History
At this point, I felt free to explore some of the discrepancies that I had avoided thinking about. My first stop: church history. I approached it with extreme caution, not wanting to be deceived one way or the other. I wanted to look at it from a neutral, unbiased perspective.
This proved to be extremely difficult. Anti-Mormon sources are often written by people who have deep animosity towards the church and want nothing more than to convince you it is a total fraud and the world’s greatest evil. At the other end of the spectrum, pro-Mormon resources are written by church members who only want to prove the church is exactly as it says it is: the only true church on the face of the earth.
Because I was still fairly sensitive to attacks on Mormonism, I primarily stuck to pro-Mormon resources, the most useful of these being FairMormon.org, a non-profit website run by LDS apologists. My search through church history was painful because I learned that certain aspects of my religion were not everything I had thought they were.
As I searched through church history, my primary question was this: Is the church actually Christ’s one true church? Due to the biased nature of sources related to church history, I finally came to the conclusion that there would be no way to prove or disprove this one way or the other. Spending any more time trying to find proof in church history would be a fruitless pursuit. I realized that it was up to me to decide what I was going to believe about the church’s divinity.
Putting my Worldview Back Together
My faith crisis left my worldview shattered. This was an extremely painful, disorienting, and lonely experience. Once I reached rock bottom, I knew it was time to examine each shattered piece of my worldview and decide which ones to pick up and put back together. No longer believing that God was going to tell me what to believe, I knew that it was up to me to figure it out for myself.
I decided on a simple approach: adopt beliefs that add value to my life and remove beliefs that don't. By the time I was done refining my beliefs, I found that my worldview was much simpler. I felt so much more peace now that I was no longer trying to make every single belief and behavior in the Mormon playbook work. The cognitive dissonance was gone.
I also found that the emptiness was gone too. Now that I was free to believe and do what felt right to me, I was able to invest my time and effort into whatever practices brought the most light into my life. For me, this entails studying self-improvement and sharing my thoughts on this blog. It also involves practicing yoga and meditation. And, most importantly, it involves putting more time and energy into my marriage and family.
Can I Still Be Mormon?
Many of the behaviors and beliefs that seemed so fundamental to Mormonism no longer had a place in my new simplified worldview. This led me to have a deep struggle with knowing if I should continue being a member. At one of my darkest moments, I made one last desperate search in Google: “What's the bare minimum I need to believe in order to be Mormon?” and the fourth link in the search was “How to Stay in the Church” at StayLDS.com. It was exactly what I needed to hear. This part brought tears to my eyes because it highlighted how difficult my faith crisis has been for me:
In our experience, for someone who has reached your level of commitment and devotion to the LDS Church, it is almost impossible to simply "un-Mormon" yourself. As we mentioned before, your entire identity, moral code, sense of spirituality, family and social structures, and even framework for life have been built upon the foundation of Mormonism. It is the same for us. Mormon is simply who we are. This is our tribe, our people. We are Mormons through and through. We could in theory leave the church, but we could probably never, as they say, leave it alone.5
I felt this to be true. The first 27 years of my life had been deeply influenced by Mormonism, so it will always be a part of me. I realized that the answer wasn’t to leave Mormonism behind, but rather to find a way to move forward, integrating the best parts of what being a Mormon means to me.
Something else that has brought me a great deal of comfort is the talk “It Works Wonderfully” by President Uchtdorf during which he states:
Sometimes we take the beautiful lily of God’s truth and gild it with layer upon layer of man-made good ideas, programs, and expectations. Each one, by itself, might be helpful and appropriate for a certain time and circumstance, but when they are laid on top of each other, they can create a mountain of sediment that becomes so thick and heavy that we risk losing sight of that precious flower we once loved so dearly.6
I’m coming to realize that every Mormon is going to come to a different conclusion regarding which aspects of the Mormon belief system are central enough to be considered petals on that precious flower (See "Why Every Mormon Should Embrace Being a 'Buffet Mormon'"). For me, that precious flower is my new simplified worldview. The petals that make up my precious flower are likely different than the ones that make up yours, and that’s okay. We can both still be Mormons.
Can I Still Raise my Children In the Church?
Another question that caused me deep heartache was wondering whether I would still feel comfortable raising my children in the church. After a great deal of thought, I finally came to the conclusion that yes, it will be possible for me to happily raise my children with the church in their lives.
The reason I feel comfortable about this is because both my wife and I have committed to building a positive family culture that is stronger than the culture of the church (See "How to Build a Strong Family Culture: A Step-by-Step Guide"). In essence, instead of the church being the central unit, our family will be. The church will simply be a part of our family’s life. In essence, we hope our family will truly be “family centered, church supported.”
I now view the church in the same way that I view any other human or organization, having both strengths and weaknesses. My goal and the goal of my family is to benefit from the strengths and minimize the effects of the weaknesses.
Will You Still Accept Me?
After going through my faith transition, something that is still hard for me is to feel accepted at church. When other members get up and bear their testimonies, I feel like mine wouldn’t be as appropriate to share. I still feel uncomfortable about telling other members about the petals that make up my precious flower.
One thing that has helped is the acceptance I’ve received from my bishop and stake president. After I was able to reconstruct my worldview, I had temple recommend interviews with both of them. I shared with them my honest thoughts on each interview question, and in the end, both of them deemed me worthy to enter the temple. This gives me hope that our church is becoming more accepting of people like me.
As I’ve started opening up to people about my flavor of Mormonism (See "What I Believe Now After My Mormon Faith Crisis"), I’m starting to discover that there are many different, beautiful kinds of Mormons. Some of us believe every single church teaching (as I did during my teenage years), some of us have doubts but really want to believe (as I did during my early 20’s), some of us no longer believe everything anymore but still want to be a part of the church (as I do now), and some of us no longer believe and don’t currently want to be a part of the church. No matter where you currently find yourself, I view you as a Mormon of equal standing and worth.
Will you do the same for me?