For those who are in the LDS faith struggle

John Dehlin Mormon 20 Comments

Each week I continue to receive at least 2-3 emails from people who are deep “in the struggle” — having lost their traditional faith in the LDS Church, and don’t know where to turn.  They feel isolated and alone: often desperate.  Here is a summary of the best advice I can offer someone in this situation:

(Note: please consider this as a very rough draft.  I am very open to suggestions to make it better.)

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Thank you for sharing your story with me.  If there are a few messages I can leave with you…that I hope you will repeat to yourself over and over again in the coming years….it would be these things:

  1. You are not alone.  I have personally spoken to over 1,000 people with your basic story…and I am aware of tens of thousands more on the Internet who share your concerns.  Please know up front that this journey you are now traveling is one that more and more LDS people are beginning to travel — and that there will be fellow travelers and tip/tricks provided to you along the way (unlike in generations past).  To restate — You. Are. Not. Alone.  Thousands upon thousands (likely some in your own ward) share your thoughts/feelings, and more are emerging every day.  Don’t feel ashamed or broken. With the advent of the Internet, this phenomenon is becoming very, very common.
  2. Go slowly.  Sometimes it’s easy to let things spin out of control — especially if you are angry or feeling isolated.  Try to avoid this if you can.  Try to go as slowly as you can, and think of this as a lifelong quest for meaning, purpose, and enlightenment….not as something that you will resolve in a week, or a month, or a year.  Try to not do anything rash.  Try never to burn bridges.
  3. Find some mentors: As you begin this new journey of faith it is unlikely that family, friends, or leaders will understand what you are going through. Those family and friends who you choose to confide in may respond with fear or hostility. Remember that this new journey may be a shock to them and it requires delicate handling for all involved. Be open to different viewpoints and never close the door on ideas while in this state of flux, but remember that ultimately this is YOUR journey of faith. As you seek people who will be able to understand your concerns remember that you are not obligated to follow in the footsteps of those who offer their support. Now there are, many, many LDS folk who have traveled down the path you are now on — you can take solace in the fact that some of them might be able/willing to help you through the journey. Some are still fully active and believing (like Richard Bushman, Kevin Barney, Jeff Lindsay or Mike Ash).  Some are semi-active and/or semi-believing in the church (like the folks at StayLDS.com).  Some are inactive.  Some have joined or started other churches (like Shawn McCraney) and some are no longer members (like Bob McCue). All of those paths are possible for each of us — and each path will have its plusses and minuses for you, individually. Regardless, I strongly suggest over the coming months and years that you find some mentors who will listen and help you see all the options that are unfolding ahead.
  4. Some say that there are Stages of Faith: A famous professor of theology and human development named James Fowler once wrote that there are stages of faith.  No stage is better than another…4 is not higher than 3.  They are all just stages…nothing more.  Putting stages 1 and 2 aside for a second (they deal mostly with infants and children), he wrote that there are 3 main stages of faith for adults:
    • Stage 3 — A period characterized by literalistic, orthodox beliefs.  This is the “one true church” mentality — where you likely were in your late teen and early adult years.  Some never leave this stage — and that’s perfectly fine.  Remember — no one stage is better or higher than another.
    • Stage 4 — A period of disillusionment and disenchantment with the literalistic, orthodox, almost dogmatic approach to faith/religion that you once had in Stage 3.  Some have called it “the dark night of the soul.”  This is where you may be at present, if you’re reading this document.
    • Stage 5 — A return to valuing faith/spirituality, where there is: a) less of a concern with literalistic, dogmatic “truth”, b) a greater appreciation for the metaphorical and symbolic value/structure that religions of all types can provide, and c) a more universalistic or inclusive approach to religion and spirituality, that may select a particular religion or church to “practice” within, but finds value in the faith and theology of all religions, and even of enlightened agnostics and atheists.  The following podcast episodes can shed light on this stage, and this overall approach:
  5. Try to think of this as an opportunity for deeper joy/meaning: It may not seem like it now, but try if you can to view this journey you are now on as one that has the potential for greater joy, and deeper meaning in your life….much more than you ever felt possible in your previous stage of belief.  In other words…..this is not the end of your faith journey.  This is just the beginning. It may sound crazy, but think of yourself as being like Adam/Eve cast out of the garden of Eden, so to speak.  You have an opportunity to create a life with amazing new depths and possibilities that you never before imagined (and I don’t mean out of the church, necessarily. I mean in or out of the church…depending on what you feel is best for you).  I promise you that there is wonderful, joyous light at the other end of this tunnel, if you can hang on, and find meaning/value/depth in this experience.  But it does take a lot of work.  And time.  And patience.
  6. Isolation/secrecy can only last so long, and will likely lead to more pain in the end: One thing that I’ve seen repeatedly is the negative effects of being fully “in the closet” about your pain/struggles w/ loved ones and friends.  Just like a lid on a pot of boiling water — eventually the steam will escape…it’s just a matter of how/when….and with how much force.   So I would encourage you to slowly find non-threatening ways to let loved ones know (in general, not necessarily going into specifics) that you are working through some things, and that you are struggling.  You will know when the time is right for this — so I’m not telling you to hurry — but I can tell you from experience that it’s usually better to thoughtfully manage the “coming out” of your thoughts/feelings vs. having them eat away at you, and then explode in ways that damage both you and your loved ones.  I could be wrong here…or this may not be right in your particular situation…but this has been true in my experience, and for many/most of the people I’ve spoken with.
  7. Family First: While this might not be true in rare circumstances, especially where abuse is involved, remember that family is more important that anything else you’ll probably ever believe or want or do in this life.  Try your best to always remain supportive and a force for good within your family — even as you struggle w/ your faith.  Don’t let your faith struggles cause you to neglect those you love most.  That said, you must also avoid neglecting your conscience at the expense of keeping the peace.  A proper balance must be struck here, and only you can know what the right balance is.
  8. Pray (and/or meditate) and Study: Don’t forget to pray (and/or meditate) and study either the scriptures (even if only for non-literal inspiration and meaning) or other books which encourage wisdom, enlightenment and/or spirituality.  Those things remain a wonderful resource for me.  Even if your religious world falls apart — I strongly believe that there is great strength in prayer, meditation, spirituality and “clean living”.  Don’t let these things go…if you can help it — even if you find only metaphorical value in them, vs. literal value.

Some resources I can recommend:

  • Mormon Stories Podcast: Over 100 hours over exploration on issues of faith, history, etc.  Over the next year I am planning on addressing the loss of faith as a central theme w/ tons of new episodes.  The Mormon Expression podcast also has some excellent episodes, although their panel skews slightly towards the disaffected LDS perspective.  Still, I love those guys, and their hearts are in the right place.
  • StayLDS.com: A wonderful resource for those looking to stay in the church w/ an alternative, nuanced, non-literalistic faith.  Even though I remain a church member myself, I am no longer in the business of trying to convince others to stay in the church (it just never works, and often backfires — people have to decide this for themselves).  The folks at StayLDS.com are the same way.  They are not looking to convince anyone to stay LDS, but instead are there to support people who, for whatever reason, desire to stay in the church, but don’t quite know how to do it after the crisis of faith.  One resource that many have found value in from this site is this essay, “How to stay in the church after a crisis of faith.”
  • LDSBlogs.org or mormonblogs.com: For a WONDERFUL set of thoughtful, yet (mostly) faithful blogs which deal with Mormon issues.
  • FAIR/FARMS: For apologetic approaches to the church that seem to work for many.
  • New Order Mormon: Similar to StayLDS, but less moderated…and a bit more angry at times within the forum (though I totally acknowledge that for most, anger is often unavoidable, and sometimes even constructive…depending on the situation).
  • A New Earth — Eckhart Tolle/Oprah: This may sound cheesy, but this podcast/book by Eckhart Tolle on Oprah has helped me,  my wife, and many of my friends in ways I would never be able to fully describe.  Give it a try if you are open/willing.  It is 100% compatible with both LDS belief and complete atheism.
  • Speaking of Faith: An amazing archive exploring “deep” or “thick” religion (vs. thin/shallow religion)
  • For Those Who Wonder: A great resource by Jeff Burton
  • Faces East: Not sure how good this is, but I love the mission statement: “Devoted to the ideal of eternal marriage, even when a spouse does not accept LDS beliefs.”
  • There are many ex-Mormon and Post-Mormon resources out there, but I am always on the look-out for additional sites that are committed to a constructive, enlightened exit from the church (if that becomes your ultimate wish).  For those of you who can help me find a few additional links, please email me or post the links below.

Finally, please consider returning to these points when you are in your darker times.  From speaking w/ many others, I feel like they will guide you well whenever you get stuck.

I hope this helps!  Let me know if there’s anything else I can do.  And God bless you.

John Dehlin

Comments 20

  1. john – i know it takes a lot of time doing this work, but i’m glad you are back doing this blog. i hope you get something from it beyond just loss of time (i’m sure you do, or else you wouldn’t be pursuing this advanced degree).. anyhow, as i read this post my thought was “i wish i’d talked to john d. before leaving”.. maybe you would have convinced me to give it more time? but as i ponder that thought longer i know i did the right thing *for me.*

    i am blessed – i kept all my lds friends.. i sometimes go to my old ward for activities w/ preston & janiel and people still welcome me, plus i still get invited to baptisms, baby blessings and primary programs, which i always gladly go to (though, admitedly i sometimes struggle with things said around having to be worthy and implying at times we aren’t worthy of God’s grace, but that’s a whole other discussion). now that i have (finally) found my home in the pcusa presbyterian church discussions w/ my lds friends about jesus and the bible feel even more meaningful for me and i find myself loving talking to the kids of my lds friends about christ and his life in a way that i didn’t when i was in the church.

    my time in the lds church was a important and i’ll never regret it. but, what was right for me isn’t so for others. my exit was incredibly easy because of my short time in it, and lack of family entwinement in the church, along with all my friends loving me simply for who i am not what faith i belong to. i know that others don’t have it as easy as i did.

  2. John–

    You can’t believe how excited I was when my iTunes podcast subscriber downloaded a new episode of Mormon Stories! I’m so glad to know you’re still doing it. Mormon Stories is the best Mormon blog that has ever been put on the Web. I can’t imagine how, but I would love to help with anything in the future. Thanks for all you do.

    Also, your list of pieces of advice is great. I would add to the suggestion of Family First the idea that one should verbalize for themselves clearly what IS most important to them (I agree that Family ought to be above other things because the valuable human beings in one’s family depends on that). For me I have decided that obedience to my own integrity comes before obedience to my understanding of what the Church is teaching me (which is not to say that self comes before God). Making the decision that I would never do something that I felt was truly wrong, for the sake of the Church, has allowed me to come to peace with some hard issues. It has also allowed me to be even more faithful, because my faith has become a conscious choice rather than an imposed obedience. It makes sense that I do not understand all things, therefore it makes sense to act out of faith or do things I don’t fully understand. I know that I have been blessed in my life when I act in faith. And in that way my integrity is not threatened by acting in faith. In fact, I believe that the Church teaches very well the idea that integrity is important. Anyway, those are my scattered thoughts, and my way of saying thanks for all you do.

  3. I couldn’t believe it when I saw a tweet from mormonstories, John you have been missed. I have always valued your thoughts. Being from New Mexico I feel like it is more difficult to find anyone with whom I can share my situation, someone who has struggled with the same things. I feel like the podcast was my anchor, my fried who would keep me grounded and when it faded away, I truely felt like I lost a friend. I agree with what you mention in this post and I really do feel like I’m in a “stage” of faith. I completely understand the time and energy it takes to blog and to set up a podcast, but please know how much I appreciate it.

  4. John,

    I have been listening to and holding onto your podcasts like a lifeline for the past year. I was almost giddy to see your new podcasts! Your above suggestions are great. I am stuck on secrecy as I am still “in the closet” with my family (parents, siblings, etc.). I cannot find it within myself to stay (or allow my children to stay) in the church (and I am truly lucky that my husband is on the journey out by my side). Thank you for your voice! You have given my family a tremendous amount of strength and are a voice of intelligent reason.

    Sue

  5. John,
    It is truly wonderful to have you back. This list above is so thoughtful and reasoned. I especially appreciate that you wrote number 7 starting with this:

    “While this might not be true in rare circumstances, especially where abuse is involved, remember that family is more important that anything else you’ll probably ever believe or want or do in this life.”

    I come from an abusive family and cannot tell you how much it means to hear you acknowledge this. Thank you for ALL the time you put into this.
    love,
    K

  6. “There are many ex-Mormon and Post-Mormon resources out there, but I am waiting to find one that is thoroughly committed to a constructive, enlightened exit from the church (if that becomes your ultimate wish). If I find one, I will let you know. If you know of one, please email me.”

    You link to Bob McCue (a friend I consider both constructive and enlightened) in paragraph 3 but then say something like the above. You really can’t find a single post-Mormon resource that you consider constructive and enlightening, yet you send people to FAIR and FARMS and ldsblogs? Really? I must say I am extremely disappointed. I don’t expect you to send folks to places like Samuel the Utahnite’s blog, but how about Main Street Plaza? or Chanson’s blog? Or many, many others. I have dozens of blogs and web sites run by thoughtful, truthful, helpful, sincere, open, compassionate, and, yes enlightened friends linked at my blog, Equality Time. Come on, John. I expect better from you. I really do.

  7. Eric,

    I wrote this in a rush, which is why I am seeking feedback. I’m open to whatever. Can you please provide me the links you see as appropriate for the tone of the article? Thanks a ton!

  8. John,
    I am glad you are back. I know that you are seeking to help people and that is one of the reasons I really admire you.

    In other writings you have suggested that truth or falsity of a particular religious teaching is no longer a key interest of yours, and suggested a search for “the good” is perhaps more worthwhile. Here in this writing you mention Fowler’s stages including Stage 5 area with less concern for literalistic truth and a greater appreciation for metaphorical understanding. I have given this considerable thought recently, but you as a lifelong, multi-generation Mormon with extensive cultural ties, and me as an adult convert may look at things very differently.

    As children, I assume you and I were both taught similar cultural myths (Santa Claus, Jesus, etc.) but you were also taught the LDS myths and I was not. When we grew to manhood we may have doubted or flat out disbelieved the “literal” truth behind these common myths (Santa, for example), but retained them as useful cultural symbols and continued to enjoy those myths, now knowing that they were not literally true.

    Perhaps this is why it is more natural for you to adopt a similar attitude toward the LDS myths. Perhaps the idea of an anthropomorphic God standing in the air in the woods seemed real and literal to you as a child but now you accept this as a metaphor for good in the world in a way similar to you accept Santa as a metaphor for sharing.

    I on the other hand, as an adult, was taught by serious minded adult men that the mythological or metaphorical things of Mormonism were LITERALLY true, they actually happened, you can take that to the bank, it’s real, deposit it, write checks on it, nothing to worry about.

    I would encourage you to keep in mind that converts to the church, particularly those who converted as adults BECAUSE of the “truth” claims may have a very different experience when they come to doubt or disbelieve the “truth” claims.

    For those who entered into the contract to be a Mormon on the basis of capital T “Truth” to later be told “yeah, well let’s not worry about truth, let’s think about some other thing” seems a little like buying a car that quickly turns out to be a lemon, then being unpersuaded by arguments that even though the car is not reliable transportation, it still has a nice hood ornament.

    My experience with converts to the church who later left, suggests that those who were at some point truly converted (as I was) but then left, are often among the most angered. For many people I think that a “constructive, enlightened exit from the church” may difficult or impossible, because feeling betrayed by and lied to by the church you love is rarely initially constructive or enlightening.

    I am one of the people who has benefited from your work online and although I resigned my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have joined another church in the Latter Day Saint family and am trying very hard now to be a good Mormon as I now define it.

    Best of luck, and keep up the good work.

  9. This may be the first thing I have read in over a year regarding my personal trial of faith to bring me any peace. Hard to believe I am not alone–but it’s nice to hear. I will be saving this in my favorites for future reference. Lots of future reference…

  10. Another resource worth considering, especially for those who wish to remain in the church, is the AMCAP site (Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists). While not an apologetics site per se, it is a treasure trove of resources which address some of the mental and emotional issues that struggling members may confront. They have recently overhauled their website, and made the archives of their journals available in .pdf format. (And as a psychology PhD student, you will definitely want to dive in there!) I don’t belong to AMCAP, but I have found their resources to be extremely helpful to me personally.)

    http://ldsamcap.org/

    Welcome back, John!

  11. Not trying to be smarmy here, but what a about a link to the Book of Mormon? Although the resources linked above certainly do help, I can say personally that serious study of the BofM does more to help faith struggles than anything else.

  12. My recommendations for any LDS person struggling with their testimony would be the following:

    1-See their bishop (he is entitled to receive inspiration on behalf of the members in his ward).
    2-Pray daily.
    3-Study the Scriptures daily, especially the Book of Mormon.
    4-Partake worthily of the Sacrament weekly.
    5-Go to the Temple.
    6-Follow the counsel of the brethren, especially the prophet.

    There is much wrong information about the Church on the internet. I would stay away from that and follow the things I listed above. The LDS Church is absolutely true. Jesus Christ is at the head of the Church. The Book of Mormon is the Word of God and Joseph Smith saw God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

  13. I have a problem with the stages of faith. I feel that none of those stages described represent the stage of faith that people should aspire to. I also disagree that no stage of faith is better than another. I think that sentance is a conflict avoiding tactic. The ideal stage of faith encompasses all 3 stages described here. It involves literalistic orthodox beliefs like the idea of a literal God who literally loves us and literally answers our prayers and a literal savior, but it also involves a greater appreciation for the metaphorical and symbolic value and a more universalistic or inclusive approach to religion and spirituality which essentially means that one does not close his mind so tightly around what he already knows that he cannot learn anything more, and the ideal faith includes disillusionment, which is an important and powerful step in maturity of faith, where one stops seeing the cultural illusions that permeate all societies, Mormon not excluded (some popular Mormon illusions are that all missionaries are good people, that living the word of wisdom is some sort of general indicator of how “good” a person is, or that marrying “the one” in the temple=immediate solution to all life’s problems… OK those might be exaggerated a bit). Maybe the 3 stages you mentioned are like the 2 stages for children, maybe there are more stages once we mature beyond these 3. And I think that if you see these different stages of faith as irreconcilable, that they can not all be elements of a grander, more full and enlightened faith than I think that your faith needs maturing.

  14. John,

    Sometimes I think it’s crazy when I realize how much impact your words have had on me over the past few years and I have never even had the opportunity to shake your hand and thank you. I wonder how similar my admiration for you is to my wife’s admiration for Oprah. You will never know how far reaching your help and advice have gone.

    Your dedication to this endeavor and your honesty is very touching. I had no idea how to deal with my struggles of faith. My chest would actually ache as i stayed up late into the night searching through the internet for anyone who could understand and advise me for my situation. time and again I have found what I needed in your interviews and essays.

    You have helped strengthen the confidence that I have in myself. The spiritual truths I discover are much more profound to me now because they are discovered from a place of openness and honesty. I was tempted to abandon the church all together but I think I was able to follow your advice and slow things down. i don’t know what I’m waiting for but for some reason I’m okay with waiting now.

    I am definitely still in stage 4 on Fowler’s scale but I am starting to believe that I might one day find myself in stage 5. If I ever find myself back there I will probably be one of the most passionate members around because I will have arrived at that level honestly.

    Thank you John

  15. I recently had a conversation with a stage 3 person, someone who is a visionary with rock solid faith/testimony of the church’s orthodox teachings. Being someone who is probably between stages 4 and 5, I played him a long a bit, to see how he would respond. For example, he read the introduction to the Book of Abraham which infers that Abraham himself wrote the record on the papyrus rolls. I suggested this was not literally true and offered some reasons why. He started to get a little agitated and suggested I was siding with some common aquaintances who had left the church. I explained that one can view these things differently without rejecting core doctrines. We discussed evolution and other things, which he pretended, in a sarcastic way, that he was not smart enought to understand. My point here is that it can be difficult engaging in an open discussion with those in a different stage of faith, but we have to maintain a pleasant and open dialogue. I can concur with John’s sentiments above that it can be a struggle to find a mentor, or confidant who can share your faith journey, epacially in a small LDS community. I suggest that the leadership of the church should take a more public role in helping those who struggle, so that this trickles down to the lay membership and thereby fosters open discussion.

  16. Mr. John,

    Thank you ever so much for your mormonstories podcasts – they have been such a valuable resource for me in this difficult time. I hope my thank you is enough for you to know how important your work is to people like me. In a time like this, a trial of faith you are a shepherd to those who don’t know who to trust or listen to.

  17. My husband and I are now on this painful journey. We both try to stay active and positive, but it’s very difficult at times. Church leaders don’t understand, ward members stay away, and family members get mad and cry. We used to be leaders. My husband a bishop and myself in various presidencies. We are now a “service project.” We are glad that we know all about the history of the church, but it is very painful when the people around you think you are reading anti-Mormon literature and will not even listen to what you are saying. Thanks for your podcasts John. It helps us to not feel alone.

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