A number of years ago, a Mormon guy told me I was “the worst kind of anti-Mormon there is.” Why? Because I pretended to be reasonable, fair, and well-intentioned (apparently, I’m none of those things) in an effort to tear the LDS church down, one member at a time. He continued, “You’re basically someone standing in a pool full of sharks saying, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine!'”
At the time that really bothered me because I have never intended to draw anyone out of the LDS church. Looking back on the heartache I went through when I went through my “crisis of faith,” I think my main concern was that I wanted someone–anyone, really–to understand what I was going through and why, and to tell me I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t just “looking for excuses to leave.” Really, I wanted validation, and of course, that kind of validation is impossible to obtain from believing church members. Predictably, I received quite a lot of negative responses, and the only validation I got was from people who had been through the experience before me.
I didn’t watch LDS general conference this last weekend, but I see that a lot of people are talking about a talk from M. Russell Ballard wherein he discussed the safety and spiritual benefit of staying in the church compared to the lack of these things “the world” offers. I don’t have the transcript of the talk, so I’ll just quote from the Deseret News summary:
To these members, Elder Ballard asked, like Peter, “To whom shall [you] go?” The decision to leave the Church can have a long-term impact that can’t be seen at the moment.
He said, “If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.”
Elder Ballard urged members, “Never abandon the great truths revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Never stop reading, pondering and applying the doctrine of Christ contained in the Book of Mormon.”
Before making the spiritually perilous choice to leave, Elder Ballard encouraged members “to stop and think carefully before giving up whatever it was that brought you to your testimony of the restored Church of Jesus Christ in the first place. Stop and think about what you have felt here and why you felt it. Think about the times when the Holy Ghost has born witness to you of eternal truth.”
The organization, doctrine and teachings found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be found in no other place, Elder Ballard said.
Accepting and living the gospel of Christ can be challenging, as it has always been. Elder Ballard said, “Life can be like hikers ascending a steep and arduous trail. It is a natural and normal thing to occasionally pause on the path to catch our breath, to recalculate our bearings, and to reconsider our pace.” Not every hiker needs to stop, and there is nothing wrong with doing so if circumstances require a break. The danger comes when someone decides to leave the trail entirely.
If I had read that back when I was going through the turmoil of collapsing faith, I probably would have been hurt and angry. Indeed, back at that time I wrote a parable about those who were telling me I had to “get with the program” and go back to church, despite what I knew:
There once was a boy who lived all his life with a cardboard box over his head. His parents taught him that he should never take the box off, for doing so was dangerous and foolish. The box protected him from the scary world outside of it.
On the inside of the box, he could make out some letters, and he could see the outlines of the box around him. His world was brown cardboard. His parents taught him to study the inside of the box carefully, for in it it was all the wisdom he needed to navigate life. Inside the box was security and safety. Inside the box was reality.
Some of his friends told him that they had taken off the box and life was much better, but he didn’t believe them. His parents made sure he stayed away from these people, who clearly wanted only to hurt their boy.
But as he grew older, he found that he kept bumping into sharp and painful objects that he couldn’t see because of the box. His parents told him that those things weren’t real, that he was safest and happiest inside the box. But each day brought more injury as he seemed to constantly run into painful things.
“Just take the box off so you can see where you’re going,” said his friends.
“No! You can’t! You’ll hurt yourself, and you might even die!” warned his parents.
After too many painful days, he made up his mind to see what was out there on the other side of the box. The light hurt his eyes briefly, but after a moment, he could see colors and trees and sky. It was more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined.
He looked around and saw his friends, who smiled at him and welcomed him to a better world. And then he saw them. His parents and friends came groping toward him, boxes on their heads.
He called out to them, “Take the boxes off! You’ll see that there’s so much more out here! Trust me!”
But his parents told him sadly, “We have failed as parents. All we ever wanted was for you to be happy, and now you’ve rejected us and everything we hold dear. Please, son. Put the box back on, for us. You’ll see that we know what’s best.”
“But Mom, Dad. It’s so beautiful out here, and the world is full of possibilities. Can’t you just lift the box, if only for a moment? You’ll see that I’m telling you the truth.”
His parents turned sadly and told their friends, “We have lost our son. Let this be a lesson to you. This is what happens when you take off the box.”
And they groped their way slowly away from the shining sun.
But these days, the pain has long passed, and I don’t worry about what people say about me. I don’t often think about the differences in my life after leaving the church, but it strikes me that, as I wrote in the parable, I have a much broader perspective about life and my place in it.
As a church member, I always viewed life as “us” (members of the church) and “them” (the world outside the safe environs of God’s kingdom). I was taught all my life that life outside the church was rudderless, morality-free, and scary. If I didn’t have the church, what would become of me? I still shake my head at those who have told me that, without the gospel in their lives, they are sure they would be drug addicts or sex addicts or in prison, or something. Maybe we were taught that who we are deep inside–the natural man–is evil, an enemy to God. I certainly internalized that.
I will say that leaving the church left me feeling pretty vulnerable, without what I call the superstructure of the church, its practices and worldview, through which to frame and experience life. But this ended up being a good thing. I was forced to dig deep inside and figure out who I am and what I believe (hint: what I found isn’t evil or an enemy to God). I was forced to deal with people as people, not as members and non-members. It never occurred to me until I left the church that I had put up walls between myself and non-members; it wasn’t that I was shutting them out, but I always saw my relationships with them in terms of their possible interest in the church. (How crazy is it that for about 2 years, I found myself thinking “that guy would really benefit from joining the church”?)
And I’ve discussed elsewhere my battle with depression (and a suicide attempt) in the wake of my faith crisis, but even that turned out to be a real “blessing,” if I’m allowed to use that word. As a church member, I had spent my whole life telling myself how happy I was because of the church. Happiness was keeping the commandments, and I was keeping the commandments. Therefore, I was happy, end of story. But I learned subsequently that I’d been clinically depressed for many years, but it was impossible to admit that because I was so focused on telling myself how happy I was.
So, yes, it’s been an interesting journey, one filled equally with pain and joy, but I wouldn’t trade it for what Elder Ballard is offering. Not a chance. Mormonism works for some people, I get that. But, unfortunately, it’s a one-size-fits-all lifestyle, and nothing fits everyone properly. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the foundational claims of the church do not hold up to minimal scrutiny.)
You see, the life I had before was the life Elder Ballard and his fellows had prescribed for me. I was following their script, not mine. And it didn’t work. But rather than rebel against it, I had just denied who I was and tried to become the character in the play they had written for me. But who I was slowly faded into the background, and I sometimes wonder if there would have been anything left that was “me” had I stayed on that path.
While I was going through the turmoil of those days, I found an excellent therapist in Utah who understood what I was going through. She told me something that changed my life: “You have to get to the point where living a happy and authentic life is more important than any relationship.” This was completely opposite of what I had been taught all my life: put everyone else first, not least the church and God; subordinate your will to God and His prophets. Authenticity means being true to yourself, but the gospel is about denying yourself.
So, to whom shall we go when we leave the church? Does it matter? We go where our heart, our brain, our conscience takes us, and we find a happy and authentic life. Elder Ballard seems to be suggesting, as my mother would about people breaking the Sabbath, that people who leave only “look happy” but aren’t really happy.
But we are. I am, anyway.
So, yes, come on in, the water’s fine!