I’m excited to move on now that the past three posts on specific issues within the church are out of the way. I felt like I needed to include them so people can understand. That has been one of the biggest difficulties in this whole process; not feeling understood. I wanted members to realize that I had valid reasons for my disbelief, rather than being labelled lazy, offended, or a sinner. Like I have said before, I have spent months researching and the only conclusion that I could come to after all that time was that, while the church and its leaders are doing the best they know how, the truth claims cannot be sustained. But now that I have written that piece of my story, I can move on to other aspects of this process.
But before I do, I wanted to relay a story. I attended church last Sunday. I wasn’t struck by lightning. I didn’t spontaneously combust. And I didn’t get throat-punched. I was pleasantly surprised! Seriously though, I need to say that this last Sunday was really positive. Members were very friendly, which they typically are. The message from the pulpit was very welcoming. And while I did not agree with all aspects of what was taught, I felt like I was beginning to be able to look outward rather than only inward while at church. I saw the meaning and purpose behind what was being taught and I could appreciate that. I seemed to be able to think less about how this message could be applied to me in my situation of disbelief and more about what the message tries to convey for the believing members. The lessons were essentially that all are welcome and that we should seek to continually improve ourselves. I could generally appreciate and agree with those messages! So, I believe it is becoming easier for me to let go of some of the more difficult emotions that I had struggled with in the past. I’m sure negative feelings will arise in the future, but I’m hoping that my path continues to become easier as time goes on.
Anyways, to summarize where we are at this point, I researched for months into the history and current practices of the church. While I believe that there is a lot of good in the church, the history did not add up and I was able to see certain negative aspects within some church practices that I did not realize until I was able to take a step back. While this all began for me around December of 2017, the process of researching took me to early July 2018 before I had determined that I could no longer believe the truth claims of the church. This post will be about how I felt as I began to realize that I could no longer believe what I had been taught over the course of my life. The five stages of grief exemplify my process, as I definitely was grieving. I was grieving the loss of my planned future, of my belief, of everything I had done in the past leading up to that point believing it was for a purpose. I was grieving the loss of my community, and possibly my family. I was grieving the loss of relationships (as things inevitably and unfortunately change) and most importantly, the surety of my afterlife. People typically don’t go through the stages of grief in order, nor do they complete a stage then move on to another. I fluctuated between each of the stages throughout my process, and continuing through to the present, but I definitely went through every one.
Stage 1. Denial
This was likely the first stage I encountered. As I researched, I began to feel overwhelmed with the information I was learning. I vacillated between shocked disbelief to severe anxiety about the history I was uncovering. I wanted the church to be true. I couldn’t imagine my life outside it. I would have arguments with myself in my mind trying to find ways to make it work. Before all this, I had my life laid out before me. I knew what to expect. I denied that this information could be correct. I denied that these things I was reading were true. I would research and re-research, looking at the same information over and over. I admit, there was information that I did not believe. I was able to scrap poor sources of information through careful research. But there was too much accurate, believable information to throw it all out. As I researched, there were times when I had to just throw my hands in the air and walk away due to the frustration and fear I felt. What would this mean for my marriage? What would this mean for my family? What would this mean for my afterlife? I kept looking at the problems from different angles, but I could not make it work. No matter how I tried, no matter what direction I looked at it, there were no good answers available for many of the issues. I slowly allowed myself to entertain the idea that it was possible that the correct answers weren’t the ones I had been hoping for. Perhaps the correct answers were the difficult, scary answers; that the church wasn’t true. As soon as I was able to at the very least be open to the possibility that the church might not be all I thought it was, the floodgates opened and it all made sense. It’s not that I secretly wanted the church to be false, it’s that I could no longer believe that it was true due to the evidence I had. I began to accept the reality of the situation. Not that I enjoyed it or was okay with it. I accepted that I had to start thinking about life moving forward and what that might look like.
Stage 2. Anger
This stage was perhaps the strongest for me. I’m typically very in control of my emotions. I’d like to think that I’m a logical thinker and focused on what I can and cannot control. As such, it takes a lot for me to become upset. It takes even more for me to show that I’m upset. But I felt it this time. Before I told my wife that I no longer believed, I was attending church regularly. I would sit and listen to the talks and lessons given and I would feel horrible. I would grind my teeth when my children heard messages about people that no longer believe. I would be upset when I knew that something being taught was not historically accurate.
While this example was more recent, it describes my frustration well. The church recently had its General Conference. Leaders of the church give talks from Salt Lake City, Utah and these messages are broadcast to church buildings and over the internet so members can watch at home. Members are strongly encouraged to watch the 8-10 hours of these talks over Saturday and Sunday on Conference weekends. In a message by the current president and prophet of the church, Russel M. Nelson, he stated that those that do not remain in the church will not be permitted to live with their families in the afterlife. Those that do not fully embrace the gospel of the LDS church are “choosing to settle for second best.” That we are “settling for a most meager roof over your head throughout all eternity.” He suggested that those that have distanced themselves from the church should “do the spiritual work to find out for yourselves. Time is running out.” Statements like these are infuriating. What this man has no idea about is that I have done the work! I prayed with everything that I had while I was going through this process! If God wanted me to have an experience, I would have had one. Nelson goes on to say, “If you truly love your family and if you desire to be exalted with them throughout eternity, pay the price now – through serious study and prayer – to know these eternal truths and then to abide by them.” This is spiritual blackmail. How am I expected to sit in church hearing these messages and have my family listen? How is it okay that my family hears that I don’t love them enough to work harder, to put the effort in, and to live what the church teaches. I have seriously studied and have come to a conclusion that I believe is true. I came to the only conclusion that made any sense at all. I have prayed. There was no answer. If my child was struggling and came to me for help, I would IMMEDIATELY be there for them. I would do anything for them. So why wasn’t God there when I needed Him? Nelson doesn’t get to tell me that I don’t love my family enough. He doesn’t get to say that I need to pay the price now. I have paid the price. I paid ten percent of my income for decades. I paid in time, effort, and belief. I have paid the price by going through this faith transition with little to no support. We have had several friends and family members ask how we are doing and talk with us openly, but it has been the exception rather than the rule. To return to the talk, it’s not a matter of making a choice to not abide because I deep down know it’s true and I just want to take the easy road. This road is not easy. No one would choose to follow this road if there were any other option available. Nelson does not give talks to people that are struggling with doubt or who no longer believe. He gives talks for active members in order to keep them in the church. Because the stories that are told about those that leave are inaccurate and horrible.
Wow, I guess I’m not completely through my anger phase…But messages like these were extremely harmful for me. Not because I believed them, but because my family would. And because the leaders of the church are so woefully unprepared to understand people that leave the church that its frustrating. They have no clue what we go through. And it hurts. As I went through this, I felt irritable at home. I felt betrayed by the founder of the church, Joseph Smith. I felt betrayed by current leaders. I felt betrayed and abandoned by God. This led to anger, and underneath that anger was pain.
Stage 3. Bargaining
I had to think about this stage as it was less apparent than denial and anger. But I did go through bargaining as well. At first, I bargained with God. As my doubt was growing and my faith hanging on by a thread, I attended the temple one last time. After completing an ordinance there, I sat in the Celestial Room after the ordinance was complete. This room signifies the peace and beauty of heaven and we are taught that it is here that we are as close to God as we can possibly be. As I sat there, I pled with God to answer my prayers. I held nothing back as I sought Him out and promised Him that I would do anything that He required of me if he would simply answer my prayers. But I received nothing. I’m sure some will find reasons why my prayers were not answered, and that’s fine. I know that I sought out answers from God and there is no adequate reason why I should not have received them.
I also bargained with my wife in the hope that we could maintain the status quo. I was terrified of our relationship breaking down, so I did what I thought I needed to. Initially I told her that I could fake belief. I promised that I would continue attending church and that I would pretend to believe. I honestly thought that this would be sustainable and that I could do it. I wanted to do it for my family. But in the end, I couldn’t. It was a battle between doing what I thought I needed to in order to keep my family together and my integrity. Luckily my wife and family were supportive of me and my process, as I could not continue living this inauthentic life. I already discussed the anger. It worsened as I made attempts to internalize my frustrations by not speaking out. I felt guilty for not standing up for what I believed in.
At times, I wanted to go back in time. This is a type of bargaining. Wishing that I could reverse the clock and forget what I had learned. Ignorance is bliss as the saying goes…but this was impossible. I tried pretending that it was okay. That nothing had changed. But I couldn’t do this for long. I know members that choose to stay in the church. Some try to be a catalyst for change from within. They speaking out without letting others know they no longer believe. Others choose to continue pretending. They find a way to cope through the façade, which I was not able to do myself. But as I stated in a previous post, research has found that those that choose to attend church while no longer believing exact the highest price in the form of mental anguish. I hope those people are okay and I’m available for anyone to talk to if needed.
Stage 4. Depression
As the reality of what I had learned solidified, I had periods of depression. While I understand that I did not meet diagnostic criteria for clinically significant depression, I definitely had moments of very low mood. I had previously thought I had life figured out. I thought I had all the answers to all the questions that really mattered. But I discovered that I didn’t have any of that. I was unsure about what my future would look like moving forward. Would my wife leave me? Would I only get to see my kids four days in a month? What would my family believe about me due to my change in belief? As I ran these questions and others through my mind incessantly, there were days that I hated every minute of that day. I didn’t want to get out of bed (I always did but I didn’t feel like it). I didn’t want to go to work. I wanted to call in sick and go home early. But on certain days I didn’t want to be at home either. There was no way to escape these feelings.
Some members will likely say that I had lost the spirit and this caused my low mood. That this was caused by being led astray by Satan. Or that I could never feel joy like I could if I was an active believer. I don’t believe its fair to paint me with this brush. While I have had very low times, I have also had many joyful times. Being able to 100% authentically support and empathize with my gay and trans clients brings me feelings exactly like those I used to attribute to the spirit. I have had spiritual experiences telling others about special moments I’ve had being in nature. I have had many great, happy, and joyful times. Just because I have had low times doesn’t mean its because of my disbelief. Members of the church can become depressed as well. People in the LDS church don’t have a monopoly on spiritual experiences or happiness. Just like members aren’t immune to negative events, bad times, and depression.
I felt low because my life was upside down. There was no clear path forward. I realize that I have been repeating myself. I know I’ve said certain things multiple times in this post as well as similar things in past posts. But part of my purpose in writing these is to help people understand. Because I have not felt understood. The things I repeat were the things that were constantly on my mind. Members of the church may think they know what my process has been. But unless you have spoken to me at length about it all, no one really knows. If you are leaning on what has been taught in church about those that leave, those narratives are about as far away from accurate as is humanly possible. So, to help you understand, I can say that I was in pain. In certain ways, I am still in pain.
Stage 5. Acceptance
I am not quite here yet. I do believe I am getting closer but it’s still a way off. I am hoping that by the time I complete these blog posts (I have around eleven more with possibly some guest posts) I will be ready to move forward. Which will hopefully be by the end of the summer.
There is a saying in the church that people can leave the church but they can’t leave it alone. I don’t believe this is a fair statement either. On the one hand, people can leave the church but the church can’t leave them alone. Personally, I want to continue with any and all positive relationships, regardless of an individual’s beliefs. But there are constant reactivation efforts for those that request that this not occur. Members are told to never give up on people and to continue contacting them even though they may not want contact. Even if only by letter once per year, there is still contact. The pot does not get to call the kettle black. On the other hand, those that leave have a lot of processing and unpacking to do. We grew up believing a thing so completely that when that belief ends, it takes years to sort out. We cannot be expected to just walk away.
The path to acceptance is almost always a long one when speaking of loss. It doesn’t mean that we are okay with the situation but that we acknowledge the reality of it and find a way to learn to live with that new reality. I realize that I have a future ahead of me, a very positive and fulfilling future, but it is a bit different than the one I had planned. For instance, couples in the church often plan to leave for a mission for the church after retirement, whether it is a church history mission, a proselyting mission, or a service mission. My wife and I will never go on a church mission together. There were difficult discussions and feelings of loss about this as well. But we have also discussed alternatives, such as leaving to a struggling country to build schools or dig wells for drinking water. So, while life may not look exactly as we had originally envisioned it, life will continue to reflect what is important to us.
I currently have to take each day moment-to-moment. My optimism, mood, and outlook on the future fluctuates but, in the end, I know that my family and I will be okay. We will keep some relationships but unfortunately have to let others go. I obviously don’t want to let go of any, but I have come to the realization that no matter what I do, some people may not be able to remain comfortable with me considering where I’m at. We will find a way to move forward. But I hope that as I continue this blog, members of the church will begin to realize my purpose in writing it: a means of understanding. Understanding what this is actually like. Understanding the whys. The process. The pain. And eventually, the healing. The progress. The happiness. The joy.
I hope that friends and family continue to read these. I know these posts may become tiresome or uninteresting, if they aren’t already there. But I hope that by reading, we can get to a place where we are comfortable again. I don’t like these things constantly being the elephant in the room. It seems like the expectation is that I should be able to continue to speak about church, missions, callings, etc. while the struggles of this faith transition are not discussed. It has been…disappointing. But part of my journey towards acceptance is that I accept this state of affairs may have to continue for many of my relationships. And I am willing to do this. But I hope we can get to a place where at the very least I’m understood.
My next post is already written, I plan on posting sometime next week. It will include the letter I gave to my family and close friends explaining my disbelief. I find it somewhat sad that I needed to write something like this but I have found that it is a common occurrence among those in my position. I hope it helps those in a similar situation to mine as well as increasing the understanding I wrote about earlier.