I teach religious and Mormon studies courses at a public university. In the classroom, we deal with all kinds of difficult issues—some specific to Mormonism like polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, others more universal like the problem of evil and the nature of God. Since I’m at a state university, I cannot bear my testimony to counteract any of the cognitive dissonance our discussions sometimes generate. Nevertheless, over the years, many students have come to me privately to discuss their faith crises. I mostly listen. Sometimes I wonder and worry about how the conversations go with their relatives and loved ones. Quite frequently, I offer private prayers for both my students and their families. I’ve written elsewhere about my initial concerns about being an instigator of dissonance and about how I have come to think about faith and doubt. Here I want to offer a few suggestions for the families and friends of those going through a faith crisis.
- Don’t freak out. Once when my first-born child, Mary, was about four or five years old, our little family was sitting down to dinner at a crowded Maryland restaurant. During that awkward time between finishing the meal and receiving the check, my daughter was getting fussy—bouncing on the seat, making whiny noises, and generally starting a melt-down. I told her that she needed to sit still and be good for a few more minutes and maybe she could get dessert. Then my sweet, innocent little girl unleashed (something she must have picked up from the football dorms located right next to her preschool) “the queen-mother of dirty words,” as Ralphie Parker called it. My wife, very calmly, quietly, and firmly, looked at me and said, “do not react!” I did my best to comply, though I’m sure my face revealed at least some of my shock. Nevertheless, the next time Mary got angry with one of us, she used a different “F” word: “French fry.” I know that first hearing about someone’s faith crisis can be hard. If it’s your spouse or child, it’s can seem like the end of the world because we Mormons put so much emphasis on the eternal nature of families. But if you react with anger or you let your own emotions overpower you, that loved one is going to feel like he or she can’t be honest with you and future talk about faith is over before it’s even begun.
- Just listen. Empathy—knowing someone really hears and understands what you have to say—is crucial for someone going through a faith crisis. I think we can learn a lot from looking at Job’s friends and how they approach his life crises. In the beginning Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar just sit with Job: “So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” But later each one blames Job for his troubles. Surely he must have sinned for God to have allowed so much suffering. (Most scholars believe the introduction and conclusion to the Book of Job were written by a different author than the middle parts, so that probably explains the different responses.) Follow Job’s friends’ first response: sit and listen. Maybe not for seven days and nights, but just be there.
- Don’t judge. Just as Job’s friends assume Job’s suffering must have been caused by something Job did, we often assume that a faith crisis is caused by bad behavior. I’ve heard speculation many times from Latter-day Saints that people who leave the Church do so because they have committed a grievous sin. There are many reasons to doubt. And more often than not it’s people who are doing what’s right—attending church meetings, reading scriptures, going to the temple—who confront a faith crisis.
- Don’t Preach. While it’s impossible not to long for your loved one to come around and find renewed faith, preaching is the last thing they want to hear. It is guaranteed to shut down the conversation. And bearing your testimony to them can come off as condescending and presumptuous. Just listen. They don’t want an answer, at least not yet. They want comfort. They want to know they can trust you, that you care. They want a friend.
- Be prepared to learn something. A person going through a faith crisis has inevitably encountered some information or a worldview that is new to them and will likely be new to you. It’s a big world out there. Don’t think you’ve got all the answers. People who do have rarely asked enough questions. Plan on doing some reading. Expect to be surprised. Anticipate your own doubts. If you have really listened with empathy—if you’ve put yourself in their shoes—you are going to start seeing things the way they see them.
- Approach this moment with confidence. If you’ve come this far you cannot go back—at least not to the way you were. You’re just like Adam and Eve after having been kicked out of the Garden. You’re eyes are now open. Your world and your loved one’s world are never going to be the same. But in Mormon theology Adam and Eve were never meant to remain in the Garden. They were meant to leave it. That “lone and dreary world” is where they learn and progress. But don’t be afraid. It’s not all that lonely and dreary out there. Growth and wonder and beauty lay ahead. My father-in-law used to say that “the Gospel is like a football; you can kick it around but it’s still there.” Believe that. Trust that. There are satisfying answers to questions and new ways of seeing the world that will allow you to keep faith. But know that the new answers and new worldview are going to be a lot more complex than the old ones. Just as children’s physical and cognitive abilities develop and grow, so too should their faith. Make room for paradox. Accept complexity. Savor depth and nuance. The Gospel is still there, but it’s going to be nothing like what your child-like self thought it was. It’s going to be bigger, more expansive, more robust, more exciting!
- Remember that whatever happens it’s not the end of the road. It may be that your loved one stops going to Church, maybe even leaves the Church, maybe stops believing in God altogether. I know this messes with the traditional narrative that if you’re sealed in the temple and you’re all faithful, you’ll be together for eternity. But trust in God’s grace and mercy. Our Heavenly Parents have an eternity to work with us, and I can’t believe they would allow 60 or 70 or 80 short earth years to completely ruin our chances for an eternity of joy and togetherness. (If you want to blow your little mind by exploring just how vast eternity is, Steven Peck has a book for you!) Remember: Mormonism is an optimistic religion. No one (well, almost no one) is going to hell. And we will continue to grow and develop in the hereafter. Our theology of salvation must embrace a universe as limitless as our cosmology does. Our Heavenly Parents love their children at least as much as we love our own (and I’d wager they love them much, much more). Their hearts seek us out. Their desires for our happiness and well-being are limitless. Gospel means “good news” not “damnation, death, and destruction.” Christ tells us that “in the world ye shall have tribulation.” It’s tough out there and we’re going to get dirty, bruised, and banged up. But, he reminds us “be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
- Preserve the relationship. Patrick Mason has stated that the greatest test of discipleship for our generation is how we respond to those who doubt. I cannot agree more. Just as God doesn’t withhold love on the basis of what one believes, neither should we. Don’t let this change come between you and your friend or love one. Extend more love, not less. Sometimes people worry that having a doubter around family will cause doubt to spread like a contagion, that children might be enticed toward “bad behavior” and “bad ideas.” But the way you treat that doubter—the way you extend or withhold love—sends an even more powerful message. Worry less about “corrupting influences” and worry more about being kind. Joseph Smith called friendship one of the “grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism.’” He further stated that “I don’t care what a man’s character is; if he’s my friend—a true friend, I will be a friend to him.” Mormonism is an inclusive religion. Love on!