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Understanding a Faith Crisis: For Those Who Have Never Had One

by | Aug. 03, 2019

Makes You Think

Have you ever needed to see a doctor, but when you call the office no one answers? You hear the automated message that says, “If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial 911.” This doesn’t just happen when we are physically ill. If you are reading this and find yourself in the middle of a great spiritual tailspin—that dark night of the soul, the notorious faith crisis—you may indeed feel like this is an emergency. What you’re experiencing is real and probably terrifying, or at least, at times, anxiety-ridden. It can be disorienting and exhausting, but I want you to know that things will be okay. Trust me, I’m a doctor (it’s true, I’m a literal doctor).

Even if you are not the one struggling, you likely have a spouse, sibling, child, or friend who has confided in you that they are experiencing a crisis of faith. Perhaps they said something like, “I’ve been having doubts,” or nervously stammered out the words, “I don’t think I believe anymore.” For me, I remember the exact date. It was a Tuesday afternoon. I was in my office and I typed out the words, “I think I’m having a faith crisis…,” in a message to a dear friend because I was too scared to tell my wife or family. As I hit send, I felt the tears well up in my eyes. 

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Since that day, I have spent countless hours toiling over how to explain this experience to someone who has never experienced it. For the majority of my life, I was that someone who had never experienced it. I had always been extremely active in the Church. I was a returned missionary, married in the temple, and had served in a variety of demanding callings, etc. Yet now, I wonder if I could explain to my pre-crisis self what a faith crisis is like in a way that he could understand. There’s only so much one can comprehend about another person’s experience, and in hindsight, I can recognize terrible advice I’ve given to people in my current situation—sometimes out of self-righteousness, but sometimes out of genuine concern and belief that the advice I was giving was helpful. Yet, after tasting my own medicine and bitterly swallowing many of my own words, I’ve seen and felt just how unhelpful and even hurtful those previous words were. I’d like to share a few things that are more helpful; however, before we can know how to help, we must first know what exactly a faith crisis is and what it is like for the person experiencing it. 

Let’s Start with “The Shelf”

In the world of faith crises, it is very common for people to describe their testimonies as having a proverbial shelf. When they come across an issue that is troublesome to their testimony in some way, they will “put it on the shelf.” This is a spiritual coping mechanism that allows a person to set aside a difficult topic and just go on faith in the meantime. It seems sustainable at first, so they repeat this process over and over again, putting things on the shelf until one day their shelf has reached its maximum load capacity. At that point, when they inevitably attempt to put one more thing on their shelf, it breaks. If someone says to you, “My shelf broke,” or “[This concern] broke my shelf,” it probably means their crisis has begun.

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Choice and the Lack Thereof

The first thing to understand with the shelf analogy is that no one gets to choose how much their shelf can hold. You cannot simply will your shelf to be unbreakable any more than you can will an actual shelf to hold thousands of pounds. Secondly, no one gets to choose what concern or doubt breaks their shelf. No two testimonies or faith crises are the same. It is very likely that the thing that broke one person’s shelf may not bother you at all, but telling them that won’t help.  To them, it will feel trivializing and invalidating, and they will walk away from the conversation unwilling to be open with their concerns and feeling like you don’t get it.

In my most orthodox days, I assumed there were a handful of reasons people had faith crises: they were lazy, offended, or wanted to sin. I told myself that their faith was probably just weak because they hadn’t been reading their scriptures, going to church, attending the temple, or praying. I, on the other hand, was active, loved the Church, and could count on my fingers the number of days I hadn’t read my scriptures since my mission. You can imagine my surprise and confusion when my own “shelf” broke yet none of my previously believed causes applied. I was not unique either. One of the most difficult paradoxes to understand about faith crises is that they often happen to the most devout.

For some people, arriving at this point is a slow, incremental process. It was for my wife. Her testimony was sort of like a ship with a small hole that gradually took on water until one day it could no longer stay afloat. For me, it was sudden and shocking. It was a ship going full speed ahead that crashed into an underwater reef. It was like waking up to find that my arm was gone and no amount of prayer seemed to bring it back. I kept saying to myself, “I didn’t choose this and I didn’t want this.” Yet there I was, left to navigate this new life with only one spiritual arm. Seemingly overnight, even the most trivial things felt different.

Ian and his wife, Katelyn.

Intellectual vs. Emotional

An easier (and admittedly oversimplified) way to understand faith crises is to categorically divide them into intellectual and emotional. Intellectual crises generally involve things like difficult Church history or scriptural details. People experiencing this will often express their frustrations using phrases like “cognitive dissonance” or say, “I just can’t reconcile x, y, or z.” Emotional crises typically involve people who may have felt rejected or conflicted emotionally. Perhaps they had a traumatic experience with a trusted Church leader, or felt unloved, unheard, or disconnected from God or their Church community. They may use words like “hurt” or say things like, “I just don’t feel [fill in the blank].” Somewhere in the middle of these two categories are social issues involving topics like women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. In talking to countless others like myself, I have found that most everyone in a crisis experiences all of these categories in some form, but breaking it down may allow us to understand where we can actually help.

So often with these issues, we tell people to double down on scripture study, triple their temple attendance, and quadruple the missionary lessons they sit in on. These solutions are great in theory but not in application. For those with intellectual issues, their actual beliefs have changed, and often what triggered their crisis is the very thing we are suggesting to them as a remedy. What they really need is a safe sounding board, a conversational padded room where they can talk about the things they have learned without worrying that they will send the listener into a faith crisis, too. This is why those who experience intellectual crises often seek out online forums and support groups of like-minded individuals. 

For those with primarily emotional issues, it is important to not only make them feel heard but to also actively hear them. They may ask for increased church involvement or they may ask for more space to breathe, regroup, and process. Either way, do your best to respect what they ask for and to honor requested boundaries. It is a small action that goes a long way.

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Now That I Know, What Can I Do?

First, listening and validating is key. We often attempt to offer quick reassurances like, “There are answers to your questions,” before we even realize the depth and complexity of a person’s actual questions (which may outreach the depth of even our own knowledge). I know that these responses felt more dismissive than encouraging to me. Fortunately for me, the close friends I initially confided in responded by assuring me that my concerns and feelings were legitimate and real, even though they may not have shared those same concerns. They allowed me to describe my experience before trying to prescribe their solution. I think even I was surprised at how healing and supportive this approach felt. 

As far as resources go, there are wonderful online ministering tools available at www.bridgeslds.com. Books that may be helpful for both those in a crisis and those just trying to understand include Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis by Thomas Wirthlin McConkie, The Crucible of Doubt by Fiona and Terryl Givens, Planted by Patrick Mason, and Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam S. Miller. I have also found these three simple rules to be my saving grace during the most turbulent moments of my personal crisis:

1. There is no deadline to figure things out.

Deadlines can be great for school projects, but for spiritual life they are often unnecessary and just add more stress to an already stressful situation. A person may need a week, a year, or a decade to process these changes, and that is okay.

2. You are allowed to change your mind at any time.

In this state of flux, feelings and beliefs will be constantly evolving. Beliefs not initially affected by the faith crisis may later become collateral damage. Someone experiencing a crisis may have a belief, lose it, and even regain it later, while other beliefs might permanently change. Give yourself and your loved ones the freedom and safety to do this.

3. You are allowed to say “I don’t know.”

During a faith crisis, it often feels like the more you study, the less you know. Sometimes the only conclusion you can really come to is, “I don’t know.” But this can be surprisingly tough to say with a background of once-a-month testimony meetings dedicated to making solely definitive “I know” statements. As difficult and unfamiliar as it feels, you are allowed to embrace your uncertainty—guilt-free.

A Final Thought

When all is said and done, we need to love people where they are and not for where we wish they were. If we perpetually hold out for the possibility of loved ones returning to the fold, we will lose many days to the hopelessness of the future that ought to be filled with the happiness of the present. Those in a crisis need to hear us say that they are loved unconditionally and that their relationship and value is not predicated on their church status. The scriptures teach us that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10) without any qualifiers on that soul. We should let them know that their worth is great in our sight, too.

Katelyn, Ian, Ian's sister-in-law, and his brother. All of them experienced a dramatic crisis of faith within a year of each other.

Ian Calk is a returned missionary and lifelong member of the Church from South Carolina. Currently living with his wife in Atlanta, he works as a sports chiropractor and is the frontman for his band, The Outview, as well as a co-founder of the Atlanta-based LDS LGBTQ group Rise.  He has also been a guest discussing LGBTQ and faith crisis issues on various podcasts.

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