I’m not sure where the metaphor of the shelf began, but it found a good teacher in Camilla Kimball, wife of the President of the Church at the time, Spencer W. Kimball.
“I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them.”
“I still have some questions on that shelf, but I’ve come to understand so many other things in my life that I’m willing to bide my time for the rest of the answers.”
This concept is used as one of many tools to keep doubting people walking in faith until a greater testimony comes. In recent years, the shelf has become a symbol for ex-mormons as they discuss topics they tried to ignore for years.
What I haven’t heard discussed, though, is that other shelf. If the Mormon shelf represents unresolved questions or doubts about the church, the other shelf represents questions you wouldn’t have answers for if you didn’t believe Mormonism was true. The Mormon shelf helps keep you Mormon by ignoring what you don’t yet understand. The non-Mormon shelf helps keep you Mormon by emphasizing what you wouldn’t know without your Faith.
This method, coupled with circular reasoning and an emotional basis for discovering truth, helps keep members from straying too far into the unknown.
On the one hand:
“You don’t have an answer yet about why Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, but you know the Book of Mormon is true. Focus on what you do know and answers will come in time.”
On the other hand:
“But if the Church isn’t true, how do you explain the spiritual experiences you’ve had in the Temple?”
With uncertainty on both shelves and a path for certainty between, we walk the straight and narrow path, holding to the word of god as interpreted by our leaders.
“How do you explain?”
The questions on the non-Mormon shelf are rhetorical: as a Mormon I had no intention of actually looking for the answers. When I asked “How would I explain spiritual experiences without the Church?” I didn’t actually want to entertain alternative explanations of my experience. The narrative I carried was a good one, and this rhetorical question is meant to support that narrative while staying firmly on the non-Mormon shelf, to be glanced at only as a way to remind myself of the dark uncertainty I would experience if I ever fully doubted the Faith.
This is the experience of many Mormons. Some stay, some leave. For those who leave, something happens, some new weight is added to their Mormon shelf, and it finally outweighs the other side — the person leaves, but they don’t turn to their non-mormon shelf immediately. That takes time. Their mind is full of dogmatic ideas, and one by one those ideas need to be challenged — their worldview is breaking apart, and needs to break fully before being able to be reformed. Then, when they look back at this shelf, it’s not to glance, but to read.
I’ve been thinking about what it was like immediately after my tipping point, considering the unresolved questions and fears I had and comparing them with how I understand the world now.
I asked a group of fellow ex-members what questions were on their non-Mormon shelf at the moment they left the LDS Church, and here were their responses.
“How do you explain the past spiritual experiences you’ve had? How do you explain the existence of the Book of Mormon? How are you going to tell right vs wrong? What Church would you join? If you leave, you’ll be like everyone else and you won’t understand anything about why you’re here and what you’re supposed to do! If you leave, you won’t have divine guidance through the prophet, and you may become prey to terrible ideas.”
There was a distinct moment when I realized I couldn’t be Mormon. I had vacillated for two years, feeling an intense swing of emotions and faith, but I had always found a way to trust in the Church again, or at least to keep searching on the premise I would find answers to support it. Ultimately, that changed.
“So — today, after I gave Nate the blessing, [my fiancé] and I drove down [to Provo] and went to her ward. Sunday School and Sacrament meeting were both on temples —- and I realized I COULD NOT … it WOULD NOT be possible for me to believe that again. So — I set myself firm in my mind, and when we got in her car after church I told her I couldn’t do it, and explained a little bit of why.”
Afterwards, I went up to the mountain and called a few people. I felt a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. Intellectual freedom! I could look at politics, religion, sexual orientation, anything, without first looking at it through LDS doctrine to see what I was supposed to think about those topics. I was also afraid. I was afraid of that non-Mormon shelf. I was afraid of being deceived, of losing my moral compass, of the new vastness of possibilities. The non-Mormon shelf loomed overhead, intimidating, but I now had the freedom to open the books.
The Non-Mormon shelf
Well, here we are, 10 years later. I dealt with one thing at a time: Homosexuality was an easy one — the moment I left I no longer had any reason to not accept homosexuality as a perfectly equal orientation. I tackled “What church should I join?” first and “Which LDS standards do I still want to uphold?” Some questions resolved themselves, like “Where will I find a sense of community?”
But I left most of these questions undisturbed, like “How do I explain past spiritual experiences?” Having had years of experience with confirmation bias, I didn’t want to try to push those spiritual experiences into new worldviews — I was afraid I would distort them or try for simplistic answers. I knew what others might say about spiritual experiences — but they hadn’t felt what I had felt. They hadn’t had the experience of feeling for certain a religion was true and then feeling for certain it was not. What was my basis for truth, now? How would I know it?
So I waited. I waited so long I forgot the shelf was there. Well, I’d like to take some of those dusty books off that Non-mormon shelf and see whether they were as scary as I thought they’d be, to see if I’ve found some answers or they’ve remained unresolved.
I won’t be posting the answers to those questions right now, but over the next little while. I’m not sure which questions fully merit an answer.Most of the truth questions, though, revolve around the same overarching questions — “What were those spiritual experiences?” and “How can we know what truth is?” That’s the most important one, to me.
Some ex-Mormons never felt the spirit. I did. I continue to feel “it,” although it’s nothing metaphysical at all. The “spirit” as a way to know the truth is such a central part to the Mormon faith system that it deserves full consideration in its own article.
What about you? If you’ve left any religion, what questions or fears did you have at the time which had worked to prevent you from leaving for awhile? If you’re a member of your original religion, what questions do you think would be unanswerable without your faith?
I have one intention — to honestly explore ideas that affect my past and present. One of the greatest problems we face today is a growing tendency to divide into competing camps of thought where we can mischaracterize and otherwise mishear those who disagree with us. That tendency makes us stupid and it makes us easy to manipulate. Honest and careful dialogue about difficult subjects is the only way forward. That means I don’t care if I offend you, and I don’t care if you offend me. But I do see you as a complex and valuable person with your own background and perspective, and I approach you in that way whether you agree with me, disagree, or both.
Hopefully, it’s both.
If this is your first time here, stay awhile! Take a peak around and feel free to contact me directly. Probably my most personally cathartic article is Unworthy. Toss me a follow or a share on social media.
I had done it again, and somehow she knew. Call it mother’s intuition, inspiration, or just luck, but here she was, knocking on my door, four hours in to one of the most depressing moments of my life.
“Jefferson? Are you there?”
There was no way of hiding it, no way of concealing the tears, not in my voice if I spoke or on my face if I let her in, and I didn’t have the willpower to lie convincingly anyway. There was only one thing I could do so I answered and she came in and sat next to me and told me she had felt she should come talk to me.
From the second floor to the basement, where she rarely came, she had come out of concern for me, not knowing why.
I didn’t want to talk to her about it – looking at pictures of naked women and getting off to them isn’t exactly on the list of “comfortable mother-son conversations” for any teenage kid. All I knew is that I felt as dark and low as I ever had before and she was here because she felt like she should be. Maybe God had sent her to help me through this.
I told her and she hugged me and said words I’m sure were wise but which I don’t remember and I knew she loved me and cared for me and didn’t judge me.
I said I had been trying to stop for so long and I knew it was wrong but I kept doing it anyway and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stop. And then I said the series of words that ripped through her, words that would define the next decade of my life, words which, I didn’t know at the time, had defined much of hers as well.
“I just didn’t want to feel so bad about myself anymore.”
For all the darkest things of this world, guilt is there to add fuel to the fire of our own self-destruction.
In the LDS Church especially.
The Greatest Guilt-Inducing Doctrines in The World
I’d like for us to do an experiment together, you and I, one entirely accomplished in our imaginations. I’d like you to imagine a boy (preferably a nephew, son, or grandson – someone you love) – he will be our test subject. Together, we’re going to place him in a controlled environment where we can manipulate the thoughts, ideals, and dogmas of all the people around him – a Truman Show setting, but for social science instead of entertainment. Look around the earth for potential dogmas to give to the child–there are so many to choose from.
As the boy grows up, tell him he’s extremely special and important: of all the creatures on earth he’s part of the only species with a soul–he’s a human, a child of God–but that his uniqueness and specialness goes far beyond that common human trait; that of all the people who have ever been born, lived, and loved, he was held back to be born at this particular period of time, exactly when he was, so that he could have the truth and take it to others, and so he could help prepare the way for God to come to earth again.
Tell him he is part of a “chosen generation,” chosen because of how valiant and faithful he was eons ago, before God had even created the world. This idea will appeal to any child, given our natural desire to hear good things about ourselves, but we’ll want to confirm it with countless speeches, sacred texts, and emotion-filled statements by those he trusts. Have the adults, those who are in the usual place of respect in any society, tell the boy that he and his peers are better than they were as kids, that this is evidence that God is coming soon and that they’re so proud and excited to see the things he does. When those ideas give him that familiar warm feeling of righteous pride, tell him God is speaking to him, confirming the truth of what he heard.
Let’s not stop there. It’s important that this child really believes what we’ve told him about who he is – the rest of his life hinges on it. Have an elder in his society give him a special blessing, and tell the boy that the words the man says come directly from God. Use this moment of trust and openness to tell our boy that he will be a leader, that he will represent God in everything he does, that he will bring many people to baptism and that those people will be grateful forever for what he did, that he will personally participate in the second coming of Jesus Christ and that he must prepare for that event by walking uprightly before the Lord every day of his life . . . .
Evey day of his life.
Teach this boy he can be forgiven when he messes up. Tell him he can become perfect, but not in this life. Also tell him his spiritual power depends on his good choices. Tell him that if he’s slothful in his duties, he will be held accountable for those he might have saved, had he done his duty.
Tell him that miracles are possible, that he can move mountains, baptize many, heal the sick, and whatever else God wills, and that the main thing that holds him back is a lack of faith, righteousness, and from not following the promptings of the spirit.
Give this child people he loves who he especially needs to save – his father, sister, and a few friends will do nicely. Watch how this affects how hard he pushes himself.
Do this and you will have created me.
This is about me
You, dear reader, are already having one of many possible reactions to this article. Some of you are looking for weaknesses, for ways to point out where I’m wrong, and you’ve no doubt already found some. Since you’re also the only people who can do anything about the reasons I felt unworthy, I need to ask you to stop viewing me as an enemy. I come to this article with one intention – to portray what became the largest trial of my young-adult life – an unquenchable feeling of unworthiness in spite of my best efforts. Your experience of LDS doctrine may be different. This was mine.
It would have been a strange scene for others to walk in on – me in a dark basement, alone, pedaling on a stationary bike while watching a movie and crying. I was at the end of Schindler’s List and what I had just seen filled me with fear.
The Alliance had beaten the Nazis and were going to soon arrive in the area where Schindler’s factory was located. Throughout the war, Schindler had, through flattery and bribes to some of the worst people history has known, purchased a Jewish work-force of over 1100 people, saving them from concentration camps and putting them to work creating pots, pans, and faulty ammunition. Now his workers were hours away from being fully liberated, but Schindler himself had to flee or face the risk of being charged as a war criminal.
He’s outside the factory, preparing to get into his car, and his workers have gathered around. One of them, a close friend, brings him a gold ring some of the workers had made for him. On it was inscribed a message from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
This message, at this moment, overwhelms Oskar Schindler. He leans towards his friend and whispers the words that are burning his conscience, “I could have got more out . . . I could have got more.” He begins sputtering about the things he could have done differently–he could have made more money or wasted less of it–and his friend tries to console him without effect. He looks around him at the things he still has–his car, his suit, his Nazi pin–and tallies up what he could have done if he would have sold them. “This car. Why did I keep this car? Ten people right there! Ten people.” He looks at the pin on his lapel and says, “Two people, two people right here.”
Pedaling in my basement, his intense guilt fueled my imagination. What will it be like, I thought, after this life, when all the people I could have helped see me and know I could have helped them – that for one uncomfortable moment I could have given them the greatest truth this world had, but that I balked, and they had suffered?
A Cycle of Guilt
I often wonder how our stories affect us. Our best movies and books usually place extraordinary adventure on ordinary people, showing how the weak overcome the strong, and how the good always win in the end. I wonder if that fuels some of the dissatisfaction we have with our own lives – whether we’d be more content if all our heroes were more normal.
And if regular stories, which we know are fictional, affect us, how much more do stories we believe are true affect how we deal with life? If a boy is reading a story about a righteous man who really believed in God, sacrificed everything for him, and was able to perform miracles, what will the boy think when he is unable to do the same?
A cycle of guilt begins, one which I experienced hundreds of times in the two short years of my mission:
I believed all things were possible, through faith. God had prepared people to accept His gospel, and he promised that amazing miracles could happen if we exercised faith – we were the only ones stopping miracles from happening!
I prayed and set goals based on faith, rather than past accomplishments. I was great at setting goals and planning–a gift from my mother–but these plans relied on a loving God to make up the difference between what I could do and the goals I set. When my companion and I set goals at the beginning of a six-week transfer, we believed that the goals we set were inspired by God. “Eight baptisms, even when we don’t have anyone remotely close right now? Hey, it’s possible.” We didn’t stop there – we’d set smart action plans, things we could do to be in the right place at the right time, to come in contact with a lot of people, to be prepared to be led to the right people, and to more fully “consecrate” ourselves to the work.
I’d work my ass off. At the peak of my mission we bought black running shoes so we could “turbo tract” for an hour every day (something my brother had done – running from door to door instead of walking); one day a week we would leave the apartment in the morning and not come back until night, packing a lunch and walking or biking everywhere so we could meet a lot of people; we’d invite a member to every single appointment; we’d do “inspired tracting;” we’d study specific topics; we’d role-play to practice our teaching skills; we’d wake up on time and do our exercise and eat better and not come in until 9:00 even if it meant tracting in the dark and we wouldn’t think about home and we wouldn’t allow contention and we would make p-day a little short because that was the only time that one person could meet but maybe they were prepared.
Eight baptisms wouldn’t come. Hell, one baptism wouldn’t come.
Then I’d do what every good planner does – analyze the results, learn from my mistakes, and set new goals.
The problem with this cycle is that one key competent was missing – God. The success of all of these plans was based on the existence and intervention of a loving and all-powerful God, the God who had sent me to earth at this specific time for this specific reason, the God who had guided Ammon, who had guided the Nephite missionaries and converted entire cities of Lamanites, the God who could do anything and wanted to save as many people as possible, the one I read about three times a day in the scriptures.
He clearly wasn’t the problem here. He could do it. And that meant the finger could point in only one direction – toward me and my companion.
And there was always something we did in a six-week transfer that we could blame for our failure to accomplish our goals. I never swore, I never masturbated, I never looked at pictures of naked women, I never allowed myself to become really homesick, I never woke up late or came home early or snuck out at night or swam in a pool or anything like that.
Like Schindler, I stood looking at the fruits of my efforts, thinking of the car I could have sold but that I didn’t.
So I’d get up earlier, pray more fervently, knock on more doors, turbo-tract more often, try to burn away feelings of laziness by working harder, harder, harder.
And I never felt like it was enough. I was never enough.
“The Best . . . “
And that’s why I didn’t know what to think when he said it. I hoped it was true, to be sure, but I didn’t see how. Sitting in the chapel at the transfer meeting, looking around at all the other missionaries who were moving to different areas in Illinois, I sized myself up, but I just didn’t see it.
Yeah, I thought, clearly I work harder than him. Him, yeah. That Elder is just really awkward, not that that’s any fault of his own, and I’m glad God has given me the talents I have – it’s Him, not me.
And the next thoughts were never uttered, not even to myself, but were felt nearly every time I was in a meeting with other missionaries. That Elder is a lot better than me.
“You are unworthy.” “You are not good enough.” “You’re not working hard enough.” “You aren’t taking every opportunity you can.” “You don’t have enough urgency.”
“You fall short.”
Those were the fears that punctuated my mission.
They were the obvious conclusions to the results I had been achieving, results that caused my mission president to say the words I didn’t believe on a phone call before transfers, words which didn’t comfort me, but gave me guilt for the temporary pride they gave me, words which made me kick myself for wondering whether he was about to make me an Assistant and then wonder about my motivation and then ask God to not let it happen because I obviously wasn’t ready for it. Words which didn’t stop me from feeling what I always felt, eventually.
Why I Left the Church
If you were to ask me why I left my religion, I would probably say it was the doctrine, and that would be true. I can point out all the logical inconsistencies that slowly frustrated my mind, the moments of feeling betrayed and lied to, and the ways the Church asked me to perpetuate their own half-truths or misrepresentations. But how much do I really understand about the decisions I make each day? I’ve seen so many people do things and then later think of the reason they did it, and I’ve done so myself, so I don’t fully trust the objectivity of our reflections about ourselves – they seem highly prone to change based on our current world view, self-image, and so on.
Of the six or seven people who have listened to all the doctrinal reasons I left the Church, some were affected, and others didn’t seem bothered at all – subjects which tore at my conscience for months were met with flippant shrugs of shoulders as if they weren’t important. I left for doctrinal reasons, but I really have no idea why those doctrines troubled me and don’t trouble others. There was obviously something that prepared me to interact with those doctrines in a different way than I had before – some life experience that made me open.
I think I left the Church to survive. I think the unworthiness I felt in the Church was too much to handle, and my brain, in an effort of self-preservation, started looking for something that worked.
To put it simply – I left the Church because the Church didn’t work for me. In fact, the Church was destroying me.
I mean that quite sincerely.
Slowly, the words of the mid-westerners around me on my mission started to seem more and more right. I started seeing the beauty of their raw acceptance of grace without any caveats. Doctrines I had heard mocked since childhood, without understanding what they meant, now started to become clear as I grappled with defeat and guilt. I saw that when others said, “I am saved and nothing can change that!” they didn’t want an excuse to sin – they were fully admitting that they were always going to fall short of perfection and that there was nothing they could do to change that.
And so I started reading Mormon authors who seemed on the brink of becoming Evangelicals themselves–Robert Millet, Stephen Robinson, and others–and I loved it, for awhile. But eventually, all the unfortunate doctrines of the Church became a burden to keep reinterpreting. I couldn’t go through the temple anymore and believe all the things done inside had to be done for every single person before they could enter the highest degree of heaven–all these rites and ordinances and things we had to do in order to have the full saving grace of God in our lives, and then hundreds of things afterwards to live righteously. The LDS Church just didn’t work within my new worldview of grace.
I became an Evangelical for many other reasons as well, but this was among the most important, and perhaps the fuel for all the others: I connected with their portrayal of Christ as my savior in ways I hadn’t with Mormonism. Theirs was a Savior without caveat, without a footnote of “Do all you can do,” without the “You will be held accountable for those you might have saved,” without the “You’re the only thing holding back miracles from your life.” Their’s was one that accepted that life is difficult and at times unbearable, that we will never be able to be everything we want to be, and that God not only knows it, but that he expects it, and that he loves us and accepts us anyway and gives us good things in spite of our failings.
Of course, I’m now an atheist. I now find my grace and hope in literature, in other human beings, in the knowledge that I’m one of billions who experience many of the same things in this crazy and complex thing we call life, from the first humans to those who will live thousands of years from now, and I feel united by this, and accepted by the common humanity I share.
I still feel guilt and shame. I still feel like I’m not enough, sometimes. Two weeks ago I wrote in my journal about how I’m afraid I’m not going to become what I want to become in life. Sometimes life sucks. That’s just the way it is. Now I feel more human, more connected with others, and more humble when I feel that way. And even though it’s hard, I love it.
Schindler’s List closing scene on Youtube:
It’s risky to say “The real reason I left was ___,” because many LDS people often say that about those of us who leave instead of listening to us tell our own stories. If you’re thinking that, here’s a good article.
If you’d like an excellent, balanced (and somewhat liberal-Mormon) explanation of the grace/works debate between Mormons and Evangelicals, I strongly suggest How Wide the Divide. There are about 45 excellent pages dedicated to it.
I just want to write down some thoughts and feelings I’ve been having.
I’m just a little afraid of what is to come. My greatest desire is to be strong and active in the church and family, to have the spiritually uplifting and challenging opportunity to lead, teach, and help in the kingdom of God.
But I continue to have doubts and sometimes I visualize the future as something different — what if I DID go another route? I’d be a minister, or I’d be trying to “open the mormon’s eyes,” or who knows what. Mostly they’re just funny daydreams similar to when I visualize myself as being in a huge robot suit, throwing chunks of cement at the police cars and running up walls (haha . . . yup, I’m still a kid). But I also want to make sure they’re not more (like real desires of part of me).
Perhaps the Lord is giving these doubts so that I’ll be lifted up to a serious study and really own the doctrine, not just being an average Latter-Day Saint, but having a firm grasp of truth so I can help others. Or perhaps I’m just hurting myself. Or perhaps Mormonism really isn’t true and the Lord is seeking to lead me to a higher path.
Now, when I say that I do so because I feel that to really know I have the truth I have to give each point of view a look at rather than just casting it away because it hurts.
I feel PURE KNOWLEDGE is the only answer. Peace and confidence (the knowledge that I’m on the right path) will only come from that. Just like we’re afraid of the monsters under the bed until we finally look under it or flip on the lights, pure knowledge will cast away unsureity and doubt. I have to confront the stuff. Prayer, fasting, study, and faith.
The problem is . . . when I don’t find that pure knowledge! Or when I find things that would seem to actually go against our claims.
I tell God in my prayers, “I want truth, and I don’t want anything else.”
I catch glimpses of answers but then later those are swept away. …
This painful question has come to my mind for the 1st time in the past little while: What would it take to get me to leave this belief system for another? How many unanswered questions would I need to have before I left my current position of belief? Would I ever?
That’s largely my fault for creating circular arguments:
Attack on Joseph Smith’s character.
look at our doctrines today. Fruits, not roots. History is uncertain.
No evidence of Book of Mormon.
testimony isn’t not based on evidence.
Attack on lack of biblical support for our doctrine today.
It’s in there, just not in your mistaken understanding of it.
Attack on our doctrine by biblical contradictions of it.
It’s just misunderstanding.
Attack on past prophets statements.
Not our doctrine.
Attack on JST.
the JST is just for meaning or interpretation, not literally what was lost.
I seem to always be avoiding the attacks. So I’m hurting myself. The attacks still sit there under my bed, bugging my imagination and mind. I MUST SWEEP THEM OUT by getting light on the subject.
I need revelation and light. I seek peace and assurance, in patience. May God bless me, protect me, lead me, and teach me. May I never be deceived by my enemy or by myself. In Christ’s name, amen.
Not all of you know what I was like when I was Mormon (or now, for that matter). So, rather than explain it with new words now I thought I’d give you the chance to see Elder C for yourself: here’s my homecoming talk, given December 13th, 2007 and previously in Arizona. In it you’ll find some of the spiritual experiences I cherished from my mission, a hint towards my challenge with doubt, and esoteric preaching to my dad (he was in the audience – forced to listen to everything I had to say! I’m not sure if I ever told him these words were indirectly directed at him, but there ya go Dad! You’ll know it when you see the two asterisks**).
“They Overcame by Faith”
Trials come to every human being, no matter where they are at in life. They may come in the form of temptation, persecution, momentary failure, or doubt, but they will come to all people and they will always come. Sometimes we will find ourselves with so much on our shoulders that we will wonder if it’s worth it to keep up the struggle, we will want to go an easier route, or we may want to give up completely.
When faced with such times we have a choice. The choice is simple, but not easy. This single choice will make all the difference in the world and for the eternities to come. The choice is to be overcome by fear or to overcome fear by faith.
When I was in my 3rd area I had the great blessing of finding and teaching a lady named Renee McKnight. We first met Renee when we knocked on her door and she said “I already have a church” and went to slam the door. We were actually just looking for someone else, so we stopped her and asked if Billy was home . . . but it turns out Billy had given us a false address. Renee was smoking, so we asked her if she wanted to quit, she said yes, so we offered to do a little workshop with her to teach her some weird ways to get rid of the craving for cigarettes. So . . . we started. She had smoked for years and had never successfully quit. Each time we helped her decide to quit something would happen and she’d be smoking again in 2 days, or sometimes she’d be able to will it out for a week. It just wasn’t working, even though she had a strong desire to quit smoking. As we worked with her we taught her how she could have strength through faith in Jesus Christ to overcome her addiction. She asked us more and more questions about our church and gained a huge desire to be baptized . . . but just one problem: she couldn’t kick the smoking addiction. She tried 4 or 5 more times, we accumulated more and more in our stockpile of coffee cans and cigarette packs she had surrendered to us . . . but each time she eventually fell. On one of my last visits with her, since I was about to be transferred, something amazing happened. She had given up giving up for a little while so she could get up enough will power for another attempt. While my companion and the member couple who had come with us were encouraging and comforting her, a spiritual impression hit me like a brick. I knew, I felt from the spirit of God, that if she would quit again, right now, she would succeed. I promised her in the name of Jesus Christ that if she would quit right now, she would conquer her habit and she would be baptized.
Imagine yourself as Renee. At this critical moment Renee had a choice. She could focus on everything that was against her – all the failures of the past, all the fear of falling again, all the disappointment in herself, all the seeming impossibility of quitting – or, she could believe God could do what He said He could do. She could be overcome by fear, but she wasn’t. Renee overcame her fear by her faith. Without hesitation she gave us her newly bought cigarette packs, her ash trays, and her coffee maker and coffee cans. She was baptized a month later.
So, what is faith, and why is it so powerful? Joseph Smith said “Faith is the moving cause of all action.” Basically, faith is an expectation which motivates action. I expect the light to turn on when I flip the switch, I need the light, so I get my lazy self off the couch to flip the switch. If I had no expectation of the light turning on (no faith) I’d have no reason to get off the couch. That applies to everything. We work because we expect to get paid. We sleep because we expect to have more energy the next day. Everything we do is done because of faith.
On my mission when I didn’t have faith life stunk. One week especially. I was serving in a little town of 8,000 – Mt. Pleasant Iowa. Each year a big festival happens called “Old Threshers” and tons of people come from all around to look at the old and new farm equipment. So, when this week came I was pumped. Usually there was nobody to talk to on the street and now there were hundreds and thousands! It started on Wednesday . . . and at first it was great, but by the end of the week I had had one of the worst days of my mission. We had talked to about 250 people in 3 days, about 150 of those said “not interested” before we could even say “Hi” and tell who we were, of the rest only about 7 of them let us talk to them for 5 minutes or more, a minister we knew followed us around and passed out anti-Mormon pamphlets, and it seemed like the only people who would give us the time of day were those who are antagonistic toward the church and only gave us the time so they could argue. This had happened at other times on my mission too, but this time I let it get to me. I had a choice, and I chose to look on all the negative rather than the positive. I was done. I had zero faith . . . so I had no motivation. I seriously expected each and every person we talked to to be a jerk, to not be interested, to reject us, to be too busy . . . which isn’t exactly a motivation to try to share my faith. But really, the problem wasn’t the trial around me . . . the problem was that I was overcome by the trial. I acted by fear rather than by faith.
What would have happened if I would have said, “Look, this is lame, but I really believe God wants me to find people to teach, and I believe He’s preparing people and some people really need what I have right now.”? I did that exact thing about a year and a half before. I was serving in Beardstown Illinois, a little town of 6,000. We didn’t have a church in town; we were part of a ward about 40 minutes away. So my companion and I were asked to begin cottage meetings locally in an effort establish an official branch of the church later on. I loved the challenge of it, but it proved to be a lot more difficult than we had thought it would be. We would organize the hour long sacrament meetings, invite all the less-active members and all the people we knew in town, but sometimes it seemed like our efforts were useless. Some Sundays we’d have 10 or 14 people a the meetings, which is exactly what we needed, but most Sundays we’d have about 3 people there, sometimes only 1. At the end of a discouraging day when only one had come to the meeting (even though it seemed like the whole town had promised us they’d come) and when we had just had a bad experience with investigator, a defining experience occurred which taught me personally about the power of faith in God in overcoming trials. We were walking down the street and my companion expressed what we were both thinking; he said, “Man, it’s been a really tough day!” I immediately responded with a statement of faith: “Let the bells of hell ring! Satan can’t do anything as long as we listen to and follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost!” At that moment I felt an impression to turn down the street to the left. We saw an Hispanic couple go into an ally about 20 feet ahead of us, I shouted “Hola!”, we got there attention, ran up to them and told them about the Book of Mormon. They asked us when we could come teach them. Later we found out they had been at the town fair about 2 blocks from where we had met them when she had started feeling bad about being there; they left the fair, and at that moment we had turned left down the street and met them 2 minutes later. We taught them the lessons, and they were married and she was baptized 2 months later. The trial came, we responded with faith rather than fear, and the Lord gave us a miracle.
But even if nothing had happened because of our faith, success has nothing to do with how others react to you and has everything to do with how much effort you give. I learned that in Beardstown as well, with the same companion. After another discouraging day with the cottage meetings, my companion and I were pretty low. We were so frustrated with the people in Beardstown, because they just didn’t seem to want to do anything, or care about the effort to establish a branch, or care about keeping their promises to us. While feeling this way a scripture came to mind and I read it out loud to my companion. This scripture hit me more powerfully than any other scripture has in my life. I knew Nephi went through what I was going through. The time and circumstances were different, but in Nephi’s words were couched a lesson specifically for me. Nephi was a tireless teacher, a loving brother, a concerned father, a dedicated prophet, and he had spent his whole life trying to help others live as God wanted them to. He lamented:
“. . . behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught (they don’t give a junk, they don’t care at all). But I, Nephi, have written what I have written, and I esteem it as of great worth, and especially unto my people. For I pray continually for them by day, and mine eyes water my pillow by night, because of them; and I know that he will hear my cry. And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers; and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal.”
We don’t always accomplish what we want to. Sometimes we try to do something great, with the best of intentions, and it fails miserably. But that’s not what’s important. Whether it’s quitting smoking, teaching the Gospel, starting a Branch, writing the scriptures (Nephi’s trial), giving to the poor, or overcoming the unique temptations each one of us has, success isn’t really in accomplishing everything you imagine. True success is measured by the effort you put into doing what you know is right. Many in Beardstown didn’t seem to care sometimes, but I tried, and the rest is inconsequential.
**Some trials seem to never go away. They’re like a thorn from a cactus that sticks into your finger: no matter how much you try to get it out some part of the thorn seems to stay in you and bug you all day long. Paul had a thorn. While we’re not sure exactly what his personal trial was we are sure that he didn’t like it at all and could never get rid of it completely. He said his personal thorn kept him humble:
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me . . . . For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. – 2 Cor. 12:7-10
Eventually, we will be delivered. Eventually we will overcome. Whether it’s our tendency to gossip, or pride, financial debt, temptations with immorality, addiction to a substance, contention with others, depression, being overweight, or whatever else our thorn may be, we must fix our eyes on Christ and not be overwhelmed. We must push forward with faith and not be overcome. I testify that the trials we have, once overcome, will do more to shape our eternal character than anything else. I had some tough trials before my mission and through overcoming them through Christ I gained faith in Christ and the companionship of the Holy Ghost. True strength. I say with Paul, “. . . when I am weak, then am I strong.” It’s when we need Christ the most that we really find strength in Him. If I wouldn’t have had the trials I’ve had I wouldn’t have the strength I developed by overcoming them, and I wouldn’t have accomplished half as much on my mission. I know that’s true.
I close with some quotes from Winston Churchill given by Elder Holland in a talk entitled “However Long and Hard the Road:”
On May 10, 1940, as the specter of Nazi infamy moved relentlessly toward the English Channel, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was summoned to the post of prime minister of England. He hastily formed a government and on May 13 went before the House of Commons with his maiden speech.
“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask “What is our policy?” I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all our strength that God can give us: . . . That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be.”
Six days later he went on radio to speak to the world at large. “This is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain,” he said. “Behind us gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians—upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.”
That is our task. That is our aim. “No matter how long and hard the road” may be we must have victory. We don’t fight against Nazism today, and our battle probably won’t be fought with rifles and tanks. But we may be assured that the road ahead will be tough – whether death in the family, failure in helping others, or our personal “thorns in the flesh” we will be tested and tried. We must not be overcome. We must overcome through faith in Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
I was told my father was gay when I was 10 years old. My mom wanted to tell me and my brother before spending a few weeks with my dad and his side of the family to make sure we didn’t overhear anyone and be taken off guard. How does a mother explain that to a 10 and 13 year old? I shrugged my shoulders and my brother asked how it could happen to our dad, and my mom did the best she could.
When I was 14 I connected with something in religion. I had gone to church like everyone else until this point, but there was something about deep study of the scriptures that felt so good and invigorating. I had a desire to be obedient, fulfill everything god had sent me here to do, and a hunger for learning new things. I set out to study the Old Testament in depth using one of the church’s manuals; I still remember the moment vividly . . .
Sitting on my couch in the front room of our house on Dover Street, my Bible on the coffee table before me, I read a passage describing the despair of hell. There are times when a concept you’ve heard about your whole life leaves the realm of thought and enters experience; when you don’t just understand something with your head, but feel it on a new level.
The passage described the darkness, depth of agony, and endless despair people in hell will suffer. I went there; in my mind I left the earth and went out into space, into the most lonely place imaginable: no light, no other people, just me left to my thoughts. Left to ponder on the selfish decisions I made in life, and wishing I had acted differently. Wishing someone had reached me before it was too late. When I opened my eyes I was crying, my mind turned towards my dad. My dad . . . not just some stranger I could write off. I didn’t know him very well; my parents were divorced when I was one. But I knew I didn’t want him to suffer for eternity like that, and if there was anything I could do to help him wake up before it was too late I was going to do it.
I latched onto that thought like a drowning man in a squall. I felt a peace, a confidence, that God wasn’t going to let him suffer. I felt a conviction that God loved him and He knew this was going to happen.
That’s why I was born.
Hopefully none of you know the exact date of your conception; most parents wouldn’t be able to tell you even if they wanted to. But I know mine . . . because my parent’s relationship was almost at its end: intimacy wasn’t happening. But one night my mom had a dream: one of the vivid ones left un-muddled by sleep, still very alive when you awaken. In that dream a tall, blonde man came to her and asked, “Will you let me come?” She fought against it because it didn’t make sense, but decided to follow the dream anyways, and when she found out she was pregnant she knew it was a boy without a doubt. I was told this story from a very young age; my mom loved me and wanted me to know how precious I was to her. How important I was to her.
“Why? Why was it important,” I thought, “that I be born to this family?” In the front room of our Kaysville house, at age 14, the reason was made clear. I was to be an instrument in God’s hands to bring my father back to the Gospel. I was promised by God that if I was faithful my father would have another solid chance at returning. Others in the family were to be important in this as well, but this was my mission.
I was sitting across from him at grandparent’s house in their sun room. I was a bold boy of 17 and needed to talk to him alone, so I asked if we could chat for a second. The others in the room left to give us privacy and I went to grab the Book of Mormon I had marked for him. I had fasted and prayed to be guided, but had no clue what to say. I told him I was thinking about him, that we had never talked about why he left and that I’d like to know. He told me he “didn’t want to hurt me,” and he had promised my mother he wouldn’t try to sway us, so he couldn’t go into the specifics. He mentioned that it was not easy, that there was a lot he found in the history of the church that was very troubling, and eventually he didn’t believe it anymore. I bore my testimony and gave him the Book of Mormon I had prepared, and asked him to read what I had marked on his flight home. My brother, Nate, was so proud of me, so proud of how bold I was, and said he was going to talk more openly with Dad again, like he had in the past.
Hot water flowed through my hair and over my face, I looked up, the morning light glowing through the shower’s translucent window, and thought about where I was. “Normal Illinois, the first area of my 2 year mission.” It was finally here, my preordained mission to take the joy of the gospel to many others. It was like waking up in the MTC after my first night of sleep: it was hard to believe. I had planned for this my whole life. Do you ever think about what your loved ones are doing right now? Right at this moment? Whether your girlfriend is looking at the same moon, even though you’re separated by thousands of miles? I thought of my dad, thought “maybe he’s showering right now too.” I felt a loneliness for him: certainly his life must be shallow and non-fulfilling. Surface-level happiness, the kind that comes with the “eat, drink, and be merry” life . . . he probably had that. But true joy like I had . . . he couldn’t have it without Christ.
Elder Minnesota and I were teaching Anneliese, who had been investigating the church for a few months. She was atheist, her husband was Jewish, her children were taught about everything, and she had a deep love of people. During the conversation she became quiet and when asked about it she said she had a serious concern; she had many gay friends, great people who loved each other even more than her straight friends, and she just couldn’t see that it was a bad thing. Elder Minnesota, the senior companion, tried to take the lead but didn’t know what to say. So I opened up, told her about my dad, and immediately started crying uncontrollably. I hate how my mouth turns upside down when I start to cry . . . it makes it impossible to talk like a normal person. This was the first time I told anyone who wasn’t extremely close to me about my dad. It was therapeutic; obviously I needed to talk about it. She asked me, a concerned look on her face, “Why do you think your dad can’t be happy because he’s gay?” That was the first time anyone had asked me that.
I now, for the first time in my life, have a close relationship with my father. The conversation has changed because I no longer have it in the back of my mind that he needs to change. My questions changed from “Why did you leave?” to “What was it like?”
Well, Sarah* and I have officially broken up. Wow, this is going to be tough. I continued to be way depressed on Thursday and Friday, way doubtful, and decided (once again), that IHAD to break it off with Sarah because I could not go on feeling this and I couldn’t just repress my questions or find satisfying answers so I had to just end the relationship. We went to the photographer on Friday, then went back to her parent’s house and did some stuff. I finally got myself to tell her I’m still doubting, or actually, that the doubts had come back and I wasn’t through this. She was really confused, angry, sad, and everything else. We talked more and she gave me the ring back and went upstairs crying. She talked to her parents, Nate (on phone), we texted a bit and she came back down and we talked for a long, long time. We decided I’d try some depression medication — because, like I wrote earlier, I’m POSITIVE I’ve been depressed a lot. I told her, though, that what I wondered is whether that depression CAUSED or AMPLIFIED my doubts, or whether my doubts caused the depression. We both hoped it was the former and that being more emotionally stable would help me be more stable in my testimony as well. Then Saturday was great. We got depression meds – but they don’t kick in for 3 or 4 weeks sometimes** — we had a really fun day together, and went to a Valentine’s party at night. I love and respect her so much. She is truly one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.
Also, I went and talked to Nate. He’s a great brother. He also talked with me and sought for some of my strength with an issue he’s struggling with — that was nice. I gave him a blessing this morning.
So — today, after I gave Nate the blessing, Sarah and I drove down and went to her ward. Sunday School and Sacrament meeting were both on temples —- and I realized I COULD NOT … it WOULD NOT be possible for me to believe that again. So — I set myself firm in my mind, and when we got in her car after church I told her I couldn’t do it, and explained a little bit of why. Wow, that was tough. It was so hard to see her SO DEVASTATED. She was so frustrated, mad, sad, and everything again. She stated “I’m losing you right now and there’s nothing I can do about it!” It was extremely tough, I drove her back to her apartment, she gave me the ring back, we cried a little more and she left.
I am SO SORRY that I did that to her.
This is going to be really hard on both of us, but it’ll probably be even harder on her — because she doesn’t understand why I’ve oscillated SO MUCH and given her so much hope, and in a lot of ways I’ve already suffered through a lot of it because I’ve thought about it so much before.
I called Nate — he’s very understanding and supportive. He made me promise, though, that I’d never give up the search for truth — that if I didn’t find anything through all my efforts that I’d retrace my steps and try this church again.
I called Mom – WOW, there is not a more amazing woman on this planet. She just listened, trusted me, said she knows I’m a truthseeker, that if we believed in Joseph Smith’s story we had to give other people the freedom as well to follow God as they felt he was guiding them, and she understood I HAVE to be honest with myself.*** She did warn me, however, that if I begin to live unworthily she’ll begin to question whether I was being inspired of God or of Satan. She asked to write down WHY for the purpose of UNDERSTANDING — not so I could convince her or she could try to convince me. I agreed. I owe it to her and Nate and Sarah and others. I’m not sure what I’m going to write though — I don’t want to appear bitter or hardened … but I don’t want to appear foolish or deceived or weak either. Maybe the 2nd part is because of pride.
I think I did the right thing, no matter how hard it was and will be.
*Different name . . . I’m hoping that will keep her from killing me when she finds this, lol.
**I never took the depression meds, because I believed my doubts were causing the depression, not the other way around. I was right.
***I didn’t mention the feeling I had when I finally made that tough decision. Simply put, a huge burden was lifted off of me. I felt free, no longer having to put new information through the strain of LDS doctrine to see if I could believe it or not. I could look at politics, evolution, homosexuality, everything in a new light. I was also afraid, because I didn’t want to be deceived.