When I was young my parents purchased a set of World Book encyclopedias. It was a wealth of information from A to Z. When I had questions, I could pull a book off our living room shelf and look for the answer. Sometimes the encyclopedia covered the topic; sometimes it didn’t. If there was no coverage, then I could either 1) ride my bike to the library or 2) acknowledge that I just wasn’t going to get an answer. Times have certainly changed. Information on almost any topic imaginable is available instantly via the internet. No need to purchase expensive encyclopedias. No need to leaf through pages or travel to a library. A simple search will typically yield thousands and even tens of thousands of resources that relate to any possible question. But this ease of access to information has come at a significant cost. Whereas encyclopedias were checked and re-checked to ensure the accuracy of the information contained therein, the internet is subject to no such safeguards. We live in a time of information, misinformation, and disinformation like no other.
Formerly opaque portions of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have come to light through the explosion of information afforded our generation. The Church has formally addressed difficult topics in the Gospel Topics Essays. There are many other sources presenting alternative viewpoints on such topics, ranging from investigative to disparaging. This increased access to information often causes people to think of questions they had never considered.
Questions are wonderful. Joseph Smith’s questions led to events that formed the foundation of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in this dispensation. The Savior Himself has invited us to “ask, and ye shall receive” (D&C 88:63). For some, questions lead to seeking answers through divinely appointed sources and ultimate strengthening of testimony. For others, questions lead to increased doubts and ultimate distancing from truths they once believed. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends throughout the world are often shocked and saddened to hear that one of their loved ones is questioning gospel truths or has left the faith altogether. If you find yourself as one of the “shocked and saddened,” here are some suggestions that can help you cope while your loved one follows their new path.
Understand the Culture
The core doctrines of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ are perfect and eternal. They teach principles that, if followed, will lead to happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come. Yet as flawed mortals attempt to live that doctrine, we often create cultural morays and expectations that are not consistent with truth. The Savior’s command to “be ye therefore perfect” (Matthew 5:48) can be misunderstood and contorted to become toxic perfectionism. Perfectionism is the idea that one must do something perfectly, all the time, or else it is unacceptable. It can be the source of considerable anxiety and stress. One of the problems with doing things perfectly all the time is that it is impossible. We are born flawed, we are designed to be weak (see Ether 12:27), so that we will be humble and reach out for heavenly help. Sometimes, a cultural expectation of perfectionism can lead individuals to become so stressed and ashamed that they feel the best option is to just leave the fold altogether.
Others fall into the trap of scrupulosity. This has been described as a religious version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Due to feelings of chronic unworthiness, people with this condition practically wear themselves out in the observance of religious rites and rituals yet get none of the peace and satisfaction that typically come from such behavior.
Dr. Debra McClendon described this as follows: “Prayer, scripture study, and church and temple attendance often no longer bring feelings of peace or a connection with the Spirit because they are generally done out of fear of punishment and create feelings of condemnation. Religious focus tends to become narrow and trivial; religious practice gets extreme; and behaviors such as praying and confessing become repetitive, persistent, and unwanted compulsions that cause a lot of distress.” Again, individuals who find themselves in such a state may feel so emotionally overwhelmed that it feels more desirable for them to abandon their religious beliefs than to continue in the faith. What can we do? For our part, we can be accepting and kind. We avoid constantly promoting super-sanitized and heavily edited views of our lives on social media. I’m not suggesting we air our dirty laundry all the time, but sometimes it’s comforting to know that even the so-called “perfect families” in the ward still have their struggles. We can do our part to remain faithful to doctrinal truths and not contribute to cultural deviations that sometimes do more harm than good.
Understand Your Loved One
I know a man who left the Church to the great surprise of his family. In prior years he had been very faithful to gospel principles but had found a new path. While discussing his experience, he expressed that he felt like no one wanted to hear his reasoning. He just wanted to be listened to. As we talked about the journey he took to reach his new destination, I came to realize that he had agonized over his decisions. That was something I had not previously supposed. Yet it made sense. Many who have a crisis of faith can be troubled by the conflict between their new thoughts and their old beliefs. Some of them had a lifelong commitment to the Church before their doubts. The change can be a troubling experience. As Alma the Elder invited us to “mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:9), he didn’t put any caveats on who should qualify for our compassion. Instead of confronting or challenging those whose doubts have taken them away from former beliefs, we can strive to be understanding and considerate.
Patience is also critical in this process. Everyone deserves the opportunity to receive a witness of truth at their own pace and on the Lord’s timetable, not ours. In the example of the prodigal son, it was not until he “came to himself” (Luke 15:17) that he returned to his father’s home. There was a period of time where he needed to learn and understand the things that led to his new decision. Joseph Smith “learned for himself” (see JSH 1:20) through a process as well.
Alma the Younger spoke of his own journey to learn truth: “Do ye not suppose that I know of these things myself? Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety? Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself” (Alma 5:45-46). Whether or not everyone who has a faith crisis or steps away from the Church follows Alma’s pattern, implicit in the teaching is the idea of a journey of discovery to know for oneself. As we are patient and understanding during their journey, we can bless their lives and ours as well.
My father is an eagle scout and has five sons. Each of us earned our eagle scout award as well. When my youngest brother earned his, we got a picture of the six of us in our scout uniforms, sporting our eagle medallions. I have five sons as well. For many years I wanted a photo similar to the one with my brothers but featuring myself and my five sons in our eagle regalia. Four of my sons earned the eagle rank. By the time the fifth one was old enough to earn his, the Church had started to distance itself from the Boy Scouts of America. My son was extremely busy with very good activities, the sorts that were teaching him skills of discipline, leadership, and perseverance. In addition, his interest in scouting had waned as he became more involved with other character-building endeavors. As I considered the likelihood that he would not earn the eagle rank, I grieved a bit about the “eagle picture” I had desired but wouldn’t get. Then I realized something important. Getting that picture was far more about my desires than what was truly good for my son. I dropped my rigid expectation, embraced the change, and celebrated the skills and talents my son developed as he continued to excel on his chosen path. I understand that when loved ones question gospel truths, there is potentially much, much more on the line than getting a nice picture. But the sentiment is the same; we can’t make this process more about us than about them.
As we learn to better understand our loved ones who question or leave our faith, we need to make sure that our supporting efforts are focused on helping them. Instead of feeling betrayed or damaged, perhaps we can ask questions such as “What would the Lord have me do to better love and understand?” or “How can I be more Christlike in my interactions with my loved one?” We can follow the Savior’s example of putting the needs of others first. We can increase our capacity to hear the voice of the Lord and follow His direction as we interact with loved ones. President Henry B. Eyring tells of concerns he once had about extended family who might not qualify for exaltation based on their choices. An Apostle counseled him as follows: “You are worrying about the wrong problem. You just live worthy of the celestial kingdom, and the family arrangements will be more wonderful than you can imagine.” I believe that is true. I pray that as you learn to cope with these situations, you will ultimately be filled with the “peace of God which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).