When you have gospel questions, are you able to freely explore them or does anxiety and a sense of crisis paralyze you? Are you afraid of even having these questions in the first place, or afraid of what you might find as you look for answers? If you have experienced these feelings of anxiety, you are not alone—and you can learn to diminish your anxiety over gospel questions.
In this article I explore five principles for calming religious anxieties. The first three principles will help you lay a foundation to guide the process of your gospel seeking. They are:
1. Give yourself space to accept and explore your gospel questions without making premature decisions.
2. Explore the nature of God.
3. More fully embrace the concept of grace.
The last two principles will give you tools to address the specific content of your gospel questions:
4. Expose yourself to your fears about the content.
5. Expose yourself to the specific problematic content.
1. Give Yourself Time
A foundational step in calming religious anxieties is to give yourself space and time to ponder the content of your religious concerns. Anxiety can produce a false sense of urgency that could cause you to prematurely foreclose—making a decision that is not well pondered, studied, or explored because you crave relief from the discomfort and cognitive dissonance caused by the anxiety. Thus, you will not make much progress addressing the content of your faith questions if high levels of anxiety are getting in the way.
Anxiety is powerful with its intense and miserable physiological sensations. If you are anxious in religious settings or when dealing with religious content, the anxiety may make you feel that your problem is with something in the religion or the Church, when it may in fact be an anxiety problem (such as social anxiety disorder or scrupulosity OCD). The urgent nature of anxiety may entice you to believe that you have to make a final decision about your faith and religious participation right now. That is one of anxiety’s lies. In reality, there is no arbitrary deadline; you can take all the time you need.
Further, since you aren’t certain about the correct course of action, the discomfort of the anxiety may lead you to believe that the only acceptable decision is to separate yourself from your religious faith and community to find relief. Avoiding triggering content or experiences is a common response to anxiety, but it is generally unhelpful as avoidance serves to reinforce anxiety rather than diminish it. Instead, finding a way to soothe the anxious feelings (whether on your own or with a therapist) will make it easier to give yourself time to patiently work through any religious concerns without the press of anxiety weighing on you.
2. Explore the Nature of God
A second foundational step to calming your religious anxieties is to explore the nature of God.1 In one study researchers explained, “In general, the research has found that belief in a benevolent God is associated with better psychological well-being, whereas belief in a punitive God is associated with poorer psychological well-being.”2 Research has also shown that individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—including a religious form called scrupulosity—who have a more negative concept of God tended to have more severe OCD symptoms.3
In my own clinical work as a psychologist, I have found that someone’s negative belief about the nature of God is clearly related to their experience of religious anxiety. Through the therapy process, one of my clients with significant religious anxiety came to the awareness that the God that she had been worshipping was the “wrong God” because in her mind, He was a “scary dictator-with-a-check-list type of God.”4
Another client I worked with struggled feeling that God didn’t care about her desires and needs, and this false belief created religious bitterness that escalated her religious anxieties. However, after taking time to explore the nature of God through the scriptures, the words of Church leaders, and through specific phrases in her patriarchal blessing, she later told me:
“Because of my religious anxieties, studying this doctrine has often been overwhelmingly scary to approach. But, as I have pushed through the anxiety, I have learned that the doctrine brings more peace than pain. My view of God has changed. I am now starting to see Him as a loving God, a gracious God, and as someone who has my best interest in mind. This change hasn’t come immediately but is progressively getting better as I study about Him. I’m able to trust Him more and realize that His intentions are good, and that has reduced some of my religious anxiety.”5
3. Understand Grace vs. Legalism
A third foundational step to calming your religious anxieties is to explore the core doctrine of grace. The Bible Dictionary indicates that the main idea of the word grace is “divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.”6
Researchers at Brigham Young University studied the relationship of grace and it’s contrasting principle legalism to mental health. They defined grace as “the idea that God is active in helping us in our lives,” while they defined legalism as “a strict, literal, or excessive conformity to a religious code.”7 With a sample of 635 BYU students, the researchers found that a legalistic view of God led to poorer mental health. The researchers commente: “A legalistic view of God may lead to poorer mental health partially because it interrupts the ability to experience grace. Legalistic beliefs and practices appear to diminish a sense that God is aware of their concerns, attends to their needs, and provides for them through divine grace.”8
More fully understanding the concept of grace can expand your beliefs about God’s nature, while also helping you understand His relationship to you as His child. A great place to start would be by reading the Book of Mormon and looking for examples of God’s grace for His children as well as teachings about the specific forgiving and enabling grace offered through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Grace will influence your perspective on your gospel questions. It may promote feelings of patience or understanding, it may prompt you to dig further to explore precious gospel doctrines, or it may enhance your experiences, letting you feel God’s loving interest in helping you on your search for gospel answers.
▶You may also like: How to let religion benefit, not damage, your mental health
4. Try Imaginal Exposure
A fourth way to address your religious anxieties is to confront your fears with an imaginal exposure. Exposure is a standard approach in anxiety disorder treatment—instead of avoiding the fear, you purposely engage with it. With imaginal exposure, you use imagery, ideas, or words to address your anxieties.
You may write out your main fear, such as: “I’m afraid if I learn more about ______ that I will lose my testimony and apostatize.” Or, “I’m afraid if I study about this and learn that the gospel is not true, then I will lose my family and everything I’ve worked for.” You could write several sentences or a paragraph. To truly make the exposure effective, you may write out your fears again and again for a specified amount of time every day for a week or two. Or you may record yourself reading the sentences over and over and then listen to the recording daily. Generally, anxiety will spike as you begin to fully engage with your fear, and then it tends to diminish and gradually lose its power over you. Once you can face your feared outcome without it triggering so much anxiety, you will find more emotional freedom to fully explore your faith.
5. Confront the Question Head-On
A fifth way to address your religious anxieties is to confront the specific content of your concerns head-on. Are you panicked about something from Church history? Are you uncomfortable with the Church’s official position on a particular social issue? Have you steered clear of a certain topic because it upsets you? Try leaning into it instead; engage in purposeful learning and clarify any doctrinal misconceptions you might have.
Invite the Holy Ghost into your study so that you can be directed to trusted, truthful sources. Remember this counsel from the Book of Mormon: “Search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ” (Moroni 7:19).
Retired BYU professor, author, and lecturer Susan Easton Black has taken on hard gospel topics throughout her career. In an Q&A interview with Deseret News9 she discussed what her thorough research has done for her faith:
DN: What drives you to keep studying Joseph Smith’s life?
SEB: He never denies [the gospel]. Because of what I’ve learned about Joseph Smith, I’ve been able to know more about Jesus Christ. I’ve been able to learn more about the Old Testament and the New Testament, different eras, because of insights he’s received through revelation.
Light my hair on fire, pull out my fingernails, I’d have to say he is a prophet. You’ve got all these people now that are saying, “Hey, I’m leaving the church because I have so many questions.” I go, “What? Not me. Look behind me [gesturing to shelves of books], I found so many answers. ... I’m sticking in.”
DN: How do you respond to critics of Joseph or Brigham?
SEB: Anytime we are quick to criticize it’s because we don’t know all the facts. I view it as sloppy scholarship on [the critic’s] part. In many cases, they delete faith and delete revelation to be able to come up with their conclusion. In the case of Joseph or Brigham, you can’t possibly do that and know the men you are talking about. Truth has to edify.
I recently took to this type of head-on exposure process. A particular gospel topic was uncomfortable for me, so when it came up, I tended to avoid diving more deeply into it. Yet, an individual in my life began making it a repeated topic of discussion, including making disparaging comments about Church leaders as if they were fact. I assumed what the individual was saying was not true but had to humbly admit to myself that I didn’t actually know for sure. I decided I wanted to know for myself, so the topic became the focus of my weekend reading and studying and a discussion topic with trusted family members. I spent several months exploring the topic from a variety of angles. I came to understand what I reasonably could about the topic, had my own ideas about what I had learned as I felt the Spirit whisper to my soul, and ultimately made peace with it—even though some of it must still be taken on faith. Now, I have no hesitations discussing the topic.
Using these foundational principles and tools, you can learn to separate your anxiety from your gospel questions, allowing yourself the emotional freedom to question, study, explore, research, and discuss the topic in faith without the suffocating aura of anxiety pressuring you. Indeed, the Lord invites us to do so: “Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me.”10
Note: This article addresses religious anxiety that is common in many individuals when they encounter gospel questions. If you find you have anxiety about religious issues that feels difficult to manage, persists over time, and is impairing your ability to function, you may struggle with a more serious anxiety disorder called scrupulosity OCD and may benefit from contacting a trained mental health professional to assist you with formal psychotherapeutic treatment.
1. For a talk on this topic: Ashton, B. K. (Oct. 2018). “The Father,” www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2018/10/the-father?lang=eng.
2. Silton, Nava R., Flannelly, K. J., Galek, K. and Ellison, C. G. (2014). “Beliefs about god and mental health among American adults.” Journal of Religion and Health, 53:5,1286.
3. Siev, J., Baer, L., & Minichiello, W. E. (2011). “Obsessive‐compulsive disorder with predominantly scrupulous symptoms: Clinical and religious characteristics.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67,1188–1196. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20843
4. Client story, used with permission.
5. Client story, used with permission.
6. Bible Dictionary: Grace. churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/grace?lang=eng.
7-8. Judd, D. K., Dyer, W. J., & Top, J. B. (2018). “Grace, legalism, and mental health: Examining direct and mediating relationships.” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication. dx.doi.org/10.1037/rel0000211.
9. Toone, T. (Sept 16, 2021). “Q&A: How this prolific author/historian found her passion for Latter-day Saint history.” Deseret News. deseret.com/faith/2021/9/16/22661554/q-a-how-this-prolific-author-historian-found-her-passion-for-latter-day-saint-history-susan-black.
10. Doctrine and Covenants 19:23.