Faith Crises: A Believer’s Guide

So you don’t  really care about Mormon history.  “People are people and the gospel is the gospel,” you say.  What’s the point? You have a lot of things on your plate. And whether Joseph Smith used a rock, some plates, or a pink kangaroo to translate the Book of Mormon, you read them, you love them, and you live by them.  What’s the point?

I sympathize with you. You’ve got mouths to feed, diapers to change, and school administration to haggle with about your son’s lacking math scores.  I get it.

But I guarantee that you have at least one friend–a person that you love and adore–who is wading through a faith crisis right now.  They’re probably not drinking, smoking, having an affair, looking at porn, or planning on doing any of the above.   I suppose it’s theoretically possible that that’s the underlying reason, but there’s at least an even chance that their gravest sin is, um, reading.

So what can a person do?

Lots.  In fact, I would suggest that you–yes, you with the spit-up on your shirt–are better disposed than anyone to help.  You’ll just need to put at least as much work into helping your friend as you would into moving a family or making a Relief Society centerpiece.

While I refer to this as a five-step model, it’s a little like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief–they’re pretty interchangeable.  You’ll be doing all of them at various times during your friendship with this person.

Step One: Pray.  Then listen.  No, seriously. Please listen. 

They pose no threat to you.  If you go in expecting to convince them of anything–at least during the first go-around, you’ll not likely receive a welcoming reception.  With a few exceptions, they’re probably scared to death that they’re facing these questions at all.  They feel that the questions they pose could threaten not only their theology but also their social network, their family, their friends, their marriages, their sex life, the very meaning of their existence. 

During the first conversation (and hopefully, there will be others), don’t even try to answer their questions.  Unless you’re a Mormon history freak, you probably won’t know what they’re talking about.  And that’s ok.   Remember all those tips you learned in that Preparation for Marriage class? Active listening? Validation?  It all works here too.  Remember how when you were on a date with that guy/girl you really liked? And you took note of things they liked so you could remember it the next time? Or the things they hated?

And yes, prayer will help you clear your thoughts, and more importantly, center your focus on their needs, not yours.

Step Two: Read from “the best books/articles/blog sites”  

Yes, you’ll have to read up. For every controversy in Mormon history, there is a faithful take on it.   While I support using the Church History in the Fullness of Times manual, I can tell you with certainty that the manual only goes so far.  It wasn’t written to help you handle faith crises.  It was written to give the Saints a quick overview of their people.  Using the CES manual during a faith crisis is like giving them a Tylenol when they complain of a migraine.  It’s fine as a routine remedy.  But when you’re laying on your bed, lights out, and your eyes are on the verge of implosion? It does nothing.  In another post, I’ll give you my recommendations for where to start (including your scriptures, obviously).

Step Three: Good conversations lead to good conversations.  So converse–where they are. 

Remember this scene from Good Will Hunting?  You know, the one where Matt Damon owns  the liberal jerkface at the bar? It’s great film and a fun spectacle, but even if you can do that, don’t.  Your friend is not a liberal jerkface, and  “one of them” that you need to convert to be “one of us.”  They’re one person who needs to revisit what faith means.  And as with any personal transformation, they’re not likely to come out the same person they were (and that’s probably a good thing!). They don’t need you to demolish their arguments with a pile of documentation.  They need a friend committed to talking to them in an informed way.

Step Four:  Be prepared to change your opinion.

Doctrine and Covenants 50 teaches us that in spirit-led conversations, both parties are edified.  And that doesn’t just mean in the “Yes, I’m really as right as I thought I was.”  You can’t have serious conversations like this without you adding at least a little to your own understanding of church history.  If you find out that their concern is well-foounded, work through it with them together.  And if you possibly can, don’t use the “faith shelf” analogy.”  If you’re suffering from a faith crisis, the wall holding up the shelf has collapsed.

Step Five: Be good. 

Even people suffering from faith crises enjoy your amazing brownies, a good pick-up game of basketball, or even going to an art exhibit.  They might not want to be invited to church events any more, but don’t assume that they want to cut themselves off from all things Mormon (some might–rare!).    But when Joseph Smith said that our relationships will continue into the next life, he didn’t say that it was contingent upon their membership in the Church.  Relationships built on faith, hope, and mutual concern are the stuff of the eternal network; the Church is a provisional holding cell to serve those ends.

Your friend is probably a good person with a burden to bear.   The Mormon social network is renowned for circling the wagons and protecting its own.   And your friend needs that now more than ever.

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12 comments on “Faith Crises: A Believer’s Guide

  1. TMS says:

    “They’re one person who needs to revisit what faith means. ” I agree with this, but I’d like to ad a caveat. That is exactly what a faith crisis/transition entails: revisiting what it means to have faith. I’ve been through a rather extensive faith transition over the past few years. And your suggestions are good. It was not the least bit helpful to have people show up uninvited and chastise me for being faithless or to testify to me of the truthfulness of polygamy. It wasn’t helpful to have the bishop take my temple recommend without ever talking to me or informing me. It wasn’t helpful to have someone testify over the pulpit that they couldn’t pray for me anymore because they didn’t feel they could ask God to bless me when I didn’t deserve it. All not helpful.
    I genuinely hope even if members can’t understand the concerns of their friends/family, that they might exhibit more compassion and less condemnation.

    Now for the caveat: for me, revisiting what faith meant didn’t lead me back to full-activity in the church. And I am at great peace with my decision. I am quite happy and feel like I am good with God. My wish would be that more members learn how to accept and love those who question no matter what the outcome for that questioner ends up being. None of us have all the answers to life’s great questions, but hopefully we can all try and be sensitive to others’ feelings even if we don’t share them. I really believe this is the core of Christ’s teachings.

  2. […] the NYT article has prompted The Mormon History Guy, Russell Stevenson, to post a couple articles in response.  Stevenson, a close friend of mine and a brilliant scholar, just published an […]

  3. JOW says:

    I think this is a thoughtful piece and certainly of a timely nature. As a culture, LDS seem to really struggle with what to do with someone having a legitimate faith crisis. If we don’t understand something, whether it’s a faith crisis or a dysfunctional family situation or a mental health issue or whatever, we tend to simply demonize it and demand greater faithfulness rather than really listen to understand. So much pain will continue to go on until we can fix this tendency. I am grateful to see this subject being addressed and think this essay is a great beginning step.

    I’m a little concerned about the idea that the person who wants to help should be ready to change their mind, but should not try to change the mind of the person they are trying to help. Seems to me you can’t have it both ways. Either respect each other’s positions without trying to change them, or debate full-on. But the idea that the person who is not having a faith crisis should be ready to change what they believe reveals the writer’s bias.

    • Does it? This essay is targeted at a specific audience: the believers (and I count myself among them). It’s tempting to try to change the other person’s viewpoint when you go into these conversations, and that’s not the way to build healthy relationships. That’s what I’m interested–that whatever we may think, we follow Joseph Smith’s “Grand Principle” of Mormonism: Friendship.

      So as much as I would like, I can’t reach out to every audience in every essay. But stay tuned: more to come!

      • JOW says:

        My only point was that it’s inconsistent to say ‘don’t try to change the other person’s mind’ AND to say ‘be ready to change your own mind.’ Personally, I think both parties ideally should be ready to change their minds.

        Otherwise, I really liked the essay.

  4. Chris says:

    Perhaps it’s better to say be ready to expand your mind rather than change your mind. Having our son go through his faith crisis and listening to his perspective has certainly expanded our minds to understand him and the questions that have bothered him. It has not changed our minds about the gospel in any way. If anything, our study of the issues he questions has increased our knowledge of Church history, our understanding of it and our testimonies. We have only changed in our wish that we had known of his doubts sooner and handled it better when we first learned of them. I wish we had handled it the way that this article recommends, but it was such a shock that he was at the point of leaving the church before we even knew he had doubts. Perhaps if we had been more approachable he would have felt he could talk with us about the issues before it became a crisis of faith.

  5. Daniel says:

    JOW, unless you’re willing to consider a different perspective and maybe add to or change what you think you know when helping someone through a faith crisis, you will not likely be able to do anything for them. In most cases unless you’re a mormonhistoryguy, you probably are coming to the table unequipped to deal with the questions your friend is grappling with. In fact, you will probably end up on their list of people to not talk to about their faith issues unless you are willing to acknowledge the reality they are struggling with, and that means being open to changing your mind. Hopefully, they are open to changing their mind as well. I don’t think you have to intend to convince the other person or “debate” them to get people to consider differing viewpoints. Words have their own power and a good conversation where to people are listening to each other can have lasting effects.

  6. Trish Cox says:

    Thanks for giving 50% of those in faith crises the benefit of the doubt. The other 50 % are still lumped into trying drinking, smoking, having an affair, looking at porn.

    Also, how about keeping the value on the Family including those with a mix-faith family? Don’t advise a spouse to divorce, don’t tell a parent that the only support is for a mission or BYU. Keep healthy boundaries and be respectful of both parents with different beliefs that have children in Church programs.

  7. Ignacio says:

    Russell I appreciate the advise but I think that in the end it is about salvation and not a membership in an organization that we have to worry about. To not try to help the person overcome their crisis and come back is to take lightly what they lose when they lose their faith. We should enter the situation with the intent of bringing them back. You can have them as friends forever but it would be better for them if they were your friends through eternity and receiving the blessings that come with membership in the kingdom. If you are a believer you know there is nothing better for them. Oh, they might feel less stress on the outside, they might find some good situations outside the kingdom but in the end they will have something important missing in their lives. You should never force, sermonize or badger someone to come back to the faith but to simply engage in friendship rituals is stop being your brother/sister’s keeper. The Lord did not give the parable of the 99 sheep to provide a way of letting a lost sheep find another flock or pasture, but to commit us to bringing them back to the fold. Yes, some will not want to come back and we don’t turn our backs on them, but if we go into the process to “just listen” and to help them ease themselves out of trials that come with membership in the church is to not do our duty and brothers and sisters in the faith. Let’s pray for them, listen to them, but we must never be engulfed by their own doubts and baggage. We must be there patient but always reflective of what we know. If our light does not bring them back, then nothing will, not by giving in to them, allowing them to think they are right or making it easy for them to wallow in their unbelief. There is a reason why they don’t feel good about leaving–yes, it can be tradition or family–most of time it is the spirit trying to desperately to hold on to them. I’m not talking to those who think the church is just another feel-good organization, or those who believe we can take it or leave it. those were never really converted. I talking about those who take their admonition to be our brothers/sisters keepers. We have a sacred obligation to bring our people back. I’ve seen people do many things wrong in helping others, but those they help come back because they see genuine love. What brought me back was someone who loved me and testified firmly about the truthfulness of the restored gospel. If they had just listened I would not have come back. I needed someone’s firm testimony in which to hang my doubts not a crying shoulder. Not all people are the same but I believe that most people who come back are those who feel more than love, they feel the spirit, and yes you can feel love but not the spirit and that love alone will not bring you back. Remember, we are converted through the spirit and we are reconverted through the spirit and the spirit is only there when we summon it, not when there is no room between two people lamenting the mistakes of men and women in the church and expressing friendship forever. I’d rather lose a friend that comes back than retain a friend who loses the blessings of the gospel. I will keep the friend whatever he/she chooses but I will never be truly happy if they choose not to come back. That is what brotherly love is about. Remember, God will give people a choice but He will be greatly sadden if they do not receive the blessing for which He sent His beloved Son to die and resurrect.

  8. melodynew says:

    Well done. Thanks for this heartful and helpful post.

  9. Bill Reel says:

    Russell, I love this. Amen brother. We need this in every members home. You should submit this to the Church magazine department and see if they might entertain publishing it.
    Bill Reel
    host of MormonDiscussion Podcast

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