The odds of you knowing of someone going through a faith crisis seem to be increasing. Perhaps that is because more people are going through faith crises. Perhaps the internet provides an avenue for those people to be more vocal about it. Or, perhaps it is a combination of both. In any event, you probably know someone struggling with their testimony. If they are someone you care about, you probably want to help them regain their faith and return to the way things were before their crisis. The truth of the matter is things will never return to the way things were before the faith crisis. A faith crisis changes you. You may regain your faith, but it will be different than the faith you had before. This doesn’t mean you can’t help someone in a faith crisis, or that you shouldn’t try to help them. It simply means that helping them isn’t returning them to how things were before. Rather, it is helping that individual to find peace with their beliefs and to move forward in a healthy way.
I’ve read several letters and blog posts seeking to help people who are going through a faith crisis. Frequently they are written by people who, while quite educated and aware of some of the historical problems with the LDS Church, have never experienced a faith crisis. While well-intended, they often come across as arrogant and really are not very helpful. This isn’t just my perspective. I’ve been in many discussions with people who are in the midst of, or have gone through a faith crisis, and this is frequently their reactions as well. Contrary to the intention of the authors, this tends to drive them away rather than to gather them back in. In light of that, I figured it would be helpful to write a letter to those of you who are firm in your faith and are wanting to help someone who is struggling in their faith.
Before I get very far into this letter, I want to make an important distinction. Some people leave the church because they don’t like the lifestyle. From inside the church, this is often phrased as “they just wanted to sin”. Clearly, this happens. I have no advice for these cases. My faith crisis had nothing to do with wanting to live a different lifestyle. If you want to help someone in that case, you’ll have to ask them what will be helpful. Many people, however, have a faith crisis because of problematic church history and internal inconsistencies in church doctrine. This is my situation, and what I feel qualified to address. So, here we go. My advice on how to help someone going through a faith crisis…
Spend some time studying logical fallacies. https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com is a good website to learn more. You will find that those going through a faith crisis spend considerable effort learning about these fallacies so they can better understand sound reasoning techniques. Sound reasoning techniques better equip us for understanding the world around us, and what pieces of evidence mean.
The most important thing you can do is to listen. So many of these letters and blog posts go about answering questions or issues they think we have, but so often have no relevance. You need to ask us what issues are bothering us. Why are they bothering us? What have we done to try to find answers. What conclusions have we arrived at? What fears have those conclusions caused? Through all of this, your job is to listen. That is it. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t try to resolve anything unless we ask you to. Just listen. For so many of us, this has been a lonely process, and we’ve have very few people to talk to about our questions. We need to be able to process our thoughts and feelings, and verbalizing them helps us to figure it out. The earlier on in the process, the more likely we are to contradict ourselves. We haven’t had time to figure out how new information that changes one belief will affect other beliefs.
There will probably be anger. A faith crisis is a grieving process. It is natural and healthy to experience anger. We need to be able to feel and to express that anger in order to move past it. In my case, there has been anger because I felt betrayed. I devoted my life to the church. I tried to contribute as much as I could, and I tried to be honest with my church leaders. When I learned that certain aspects of church history had been hidden, and that those aspects had huge implications for the story of the restoration, I felt betrayed. I felt deceived. It felt like I was the victim of a fraud. Whether I had really been betrayed, deceived, or defrauded is secondary to the fact that I felt that way. Let me restate that because it is incredibly important. The fact that I felt I had been betrayed, deceived, and defrauded is more important during this anger phase than if I had actually been betrayed, deceived, or defrauded. As we move past this anger phase, we will be more capable of determining if we really were betrayed, deceived and defrauded.
For the most part, our anger will not really be directed at you, though it may feel like it. In fact, we may incorrectly direct it at you temporarily because we will want to lash out at someone. Please be understanding, and please be the bigger person during our moments of weakness. We eventually get past this, and apologies will be forthcoming. Anger towards the church is not anger toward you. Attacking the church is not a personal attack on you. It may feel that way, and I think we are conditioned to think it is so, but it is not.
On the flip side, we need to be understanding that you are also going through the grieving process and will experience anger. It is hard to see someone reject what you hold so dear, especially when you have a close relationship with them. It is important that we give you leeway to express that anger and realize that the anger is about the situation, not about us. We need to understand that you may lash out and say things you don’t mean, and to forgive.
Don’t reduce it to sin
I already addressed this at the beginning, but don’t reduce our faith crisis to sin. In many cases, sin had nothing to do with it. Often, a person in a faith crisis will become overzealous in doing the right thing. Reading the scriptures more, praying more often and more fervently, magnifying their calling, paying more in tithes and offerings, attending the temple, etc, etc. It is painful address new information that makes you question your beliefs, and the natural thing to do is try to find something that reconciles it so you can go back to your comfortable life. It takes strength to step back and really question if that new information is credible enough that you should consider changing your long-held beliefs. Telling that person that they just wanted to sin, while often is just patently false, is the same as telling that person that they are weak. It belittles the effort they have exerted, and the anguish they have felt.
Some, as they transition through their faith crisis, will chose to do things you consider to be sin like drinking alcohol, coffee, tea, getting piercings or tattoos, shopping or sports on Sunday, etc. Do not confuse their conclusions that these are not sins, with these things being the cause of their crisis. It is very natural, after a change in beliefs, to question whether the things you were taught are sins are really sins at all. However, this is after the crisis has already begun. It is not the cause of it.
Providing answers to questions
As we ask for answers to our questions, you will have the opportunity to share what you have learned and what is important to you. Tread very lightly when using apologetic sources to answer our questions. The odds are that we’ve already read many of the apologist responses because we wanted to find a faithful explanation that would help us regain our faith. Unfortunately, many of the apologetic responses contain logical fallacies, internal inconsistencies, and employ shaming techniques. So, please, before you send us a link to an article to answer a question, read it first to see if it is worth our time reading it. Even articles from the Ensign, please read them and try to read them from the perspective of someone who is skeptical. Will this article really answer their question? Does it give due consideration to the issue, or does it reduce it to you just need to have faith?
Be prepared for us to provide a response that questions certain conclusions, or that provides more context or perhaps contradicts the evidence shared in the article. To be honest, some of us will just be ornery, but for the most part we are just trying to reconcile as much evidence as we can. We are trying to figure out how a faithful or a critical response deals with conflicting data. In many cases, we focus on the critical or negative data because it is new to us. We’ve spent years studying the faithful perspective, so now we’re trying to figure out how this new information fits. It isn’t that we’re ignoring or discounting it, we’re simply trying to process the new data and what implications they have.
I must say, this is one of the most annoying responses I hear. “You need to remember the historical context and then these issues will not be so troublesome.” To be frank, the church history we learn in church has very little historical context. Many of the disturbing things we learn through historical sources, rather than the correlated curriculum in church manuals, is actually providing much of the historical context we’ve been missing. A side effect of learning more of the history is a desire to understand the historical context. The more historical context I learn around these issues, the more disturbing they are to me. If you are going to make the historical context argument, make sure you accept the context that supports the church’s claims as well as the context that hurts its claims.
Evidence matters, don’t discount it
Whether it is issues with the Book of Abraham papyri, anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, Native American DNA having no middle eastern influence from around 600BC, a lack of archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon, or any other of a myriad of problems, evidence matters. Absence of evidence, where it is reasonable to expect evidence, is actually evidence of absence. Let me provide an example. If I claimed to have an elephant living in my backyard, it would be reasonable to expect evidence of said elephant. You would expect to see elephant dung, footprints, the necessary equipment to feed and water the elephant, and most importantly the elephant. If you went into my backyard and saw none of those things, you would conclude that my claim is false. The lack of evidence in this case is actually evidence that my claim is false because the only reasonable expectation is that there would be evidence.
Conversely, it is not reasonable to expect evidence that Joseph’s first vision actually occurred. We can’t analyze the grove for “heavenly particles”. There is no chance of video footage of the event. There is absolutely nothing that we could use as evidence to prove it happened or that it did not happen. It is not reasonable to expect any evidence. In this case, the lack of evidence is not evidence. You either have faith it happened, or you do not.
There are lots of things that science gets wrong, or that science doesn’t know, but there are also a lot of things that we do know because of science. Please don’t reduce it to “there are a lot of things we just don’t know” or “science gets things wrong” when the evidence is not supporting your position. I would rather hear you say you reject the evidence because it contradicts your beliefs. That would at least be intellectually honest.
[Insert Leader] wasn’t perfect
We know. Nobody is perfect. We don’t expect perfection. The question isn’t if some leader made a mistake. Rather, the question is if that leader’s mistakes affect their credibility and am I willing to follow someone given those mistakes. As extreme cases, Adolph Hitler and Mao Zedong did horrible things. We could classify them as “not perfect”. Their mistakes are enough for me to decide to not follow them, nor to consider them moral authorities. When we question things that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young said or did, we are saying that we have a hard time seeing them as credible or as moral authorities. We have a hard time believing they could do and say the things they did and said, and still be called of God. We each have a limit of what we will accept and what we won’t. That limit is different for each person. Saying someone wasn’t perfect simplifies the issue too much, and serves as a thought stopping technique.
There was a time when I thought bearing a testimony was a powerful technique for teaching truth. In fact, I was taught to bear testimony because no one can refute your testimony. For one going through a faith crisis, bearing your testimony is not powerful. It does not cause one to think, “maybe I am wrong about all of this”. We mostly see it as an appeal to emotion (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/appeal-to-emotion) and anecdotal evidence (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/anecdotal). Frequently, testimonies are created by focusing on special spiritual experiences while ignoring the thousands of times things did not support your testimony (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/the-texas-sharpshooter). Testimonies are riddled with logical fallacies. It doesn’t necessarily mean your conclusions are wrong (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/the-fallacy-fallacy), just that a testimony isn’t a valid argument for why something is or is not true.
Additionally, what it really tells us is that you have no answers and are done discussing the topic. It is a thought stopping technique and is really frustrating to those who want to really analyze the issue and understand it. For someone going through a faith crisis and searching for answers, there is nothing more frustrating than someone ending the conversation and implying it is no longer worth discussing.
Priorities make the difference
Each person has different priorities. What is important to one person may not be important to another, or perhaps is simply less important. This, I think, is the heart of the problem, “why do some people know the problematic parts of church history and still believe, while others lose faith?” For some, myself included, the history is very important and speaks to the validity of the restoration claims. For others, their experience with the divine now is what matters most. Some may be ok with Joseph marrying teenage girls because they believe it was commanded by God. For me, the fact that coercion was used, polygamy was illegal, and deception was used to keep it hidden from Emma and other church members are enough for me to not believe that a loving and just god would command it. The honesty and respect of ones emotions and wishes are more important than if it was a commandment from God. I do not want to worship a god that would endorse such manipulation, and abusive behavior. I give those values higher priority than an edict from a deity. Joseph clearly gave more priority to following an edict from God when he said,
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.’
Understanding that the person going through a faith crisis has different priorities will probably not change your views to agree with theirs, nor should it. It should, however, help you to understand their perspective and have empathy. That will do more to preserve your relationship with them, than any answers you could provide.
Where we end up is not your responsibility
Whether we end up fully believing in the church’s truth claims, or partially believing, or not believing at all is not your responsibility. You have not failed or succeeded as a parent, sibling, friend, or whatever relationship we have, if we do or do not return to the church. That is entirely on the person in faith crisis and, if they still believe, God. Your success or failure is based solely on what you did to preserve your relationship with that person. Can you love them no matter what decision they arrive at? Can you understand the depth of internal struggle they engaged? Can you see they are doing what they think is right, and thus have integrity? Our relationship is more important than any religion, or church doctrine. How we treat each other is more important.
Cross-posted from https://uncorrelatedmormon.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/so-you-want-to-help-someone-going-through-a-faith-crisis/