Jeff's online journal, ramblings, whatever.

…the hell is Mormonism, anyway? Part 2: Reasons

Part One

Note: I’ve received a lot of comments on part one so far, and while I will eventually address them specifically and individually, first I’d like to continue with this series and see if any points pop up that I can then refer to in any specific answers. Please bear with me!

So in part one I brought up a few questions: How does one believe in a true church when it is full of flaws? And how does an intellectual believe in something so dependent on feelings? I’ll address these more later, but first I’d like to examine the root causes of why people leave the church. I am not here referring to people who have never joined the church for whatever reason, but those who were members, either through conversion or through being raised in the church, but have now decided to leave it. Like I said in my last post, everyone has different reasons for ceasing their activity and/or belief in what the gospel and the church have to offer. But after a lot of thought and consideration, I believe it boils down to two main reasons:

1) It’s easier

Do you guys know what’s easy? Not being a member of the Church! Aw snap! You can do whatever you want on Sunday, you get to keep that 10% of your income instead of giving it up to build more chapels or whatever, you don’t have to worry about that whole dumb Word of Wisdom thing telling you what you can and can’t eat and/or drink, that one guy down the street who thinks Obama is a secret Muslim out to burn the country to the ground can’t tell you how to improve your relationship with God just because some other guy called him to be your bishop, and if you want to watch porn while drinking cheap scotch and swearing loudly, nobody’s gonna care! You arrive at your own morality based on your own experiences! You’re an adult, not some little five-year-old! You can figure this stuff out!

I’m (half-)kidding with those extremes, but a lot of people do leave the Church because it’s simply easier not to have to deal with a lot of crap that gets thrown at active members, whether it be requirements of active membership, outside criticism of the faith, inside judgement from nosy ward members, or personal disagreements with church leaders and/or doctrine. It’s a lot easier to say, for example, that homosexuality is just as valid a lifestyle as heterosexuality (please do not discuss this topic in the comments; I’m not opening that argument here, this is just an example) and therefore the Church’s teachings are false, than it is to do the research to figure out where the leaders are coming from in an eternal perspective. And even if one has done that research and still disagrees, it’s a lot easier to say that the Church leaders are wrong, or misguided, or have a different belief system (and good for them), but in my life I’ll believe what I feel is right, than it is to say that maybe I’m wrong, even though I don’t understand why yet and possibly never will until I die. It’s easier, more rational, and from a purely intellectual standpoint, probably the correct thing to do.

Am I saying that everyone who leaves the Church because it’s hard is somehow a lazy bum or a hedonist? Of course not! Being a Latter-Day Saint is hard work, and I don’t just mean the physical things like going to Church, or tithing, or obeying commandments, praying, scripture study, service projects, home/visiting teaching, fulfilling callings, etc. etc. but a lot of the mental, social, and emotional wringers that people are put through in a lot of Church environments. I mean, where would you rather be: a place where people either look down upon you or (even worse) make you into a project to save the “one lost sheep” just because you happened to wear a slightly shorter skirt, or admit that you like video games, or once said that Ewan McGregor is damn smoking hot (and you’re also a guy)? Or a place where you’ve got a bunch of friends who couldn’t care less what your lifestyle is and accept you for whatever you are? I can tell you this: one of those scenarios is certainly much easier than the other one. But does picking the easier scenario mean that you’re somehow weak, or does it just mean that you’ve got a measure of sanity? Am I a lazy good-for-nothing because I didn’t join the Marines? I don’t think so.

With that said, however, I also think that a lot of people who do leave the church would be willing to put up with all that adversity if they felt it was worthwhile in the end. This leads me to my second reason why I think people leave the Church:

2) Lack of spiritual experiences

Now don’t get me wrong with this: I’m not saying that spiritual experiences are only for Church members, and that everyone who has left the Church has obviously never had one. People outside the Church have spiritual experiences all the time, while a lot of people in the Church never really have. But I think that’s part of the issue here. There have been a lot of people I’ve talked to who said that they’ve done all they can think of to receive that spiritual witness that the Church is true. They’ve read the Book of Mormon. They’ve prayed about it. They’ve been as faithful and obedient as they can: paying their tithes, attending their meetings, serving others, etc. They’ve taken Moroni’s challenge, followed Alma’s counsel to plant the seed, and even pulled an Enos or two. And still, after all is said and done, they never received that strong spiritual witness that most active members point to when they are asked what the basis of their testimony is. Or perhaps they thought they had received a witness but later find out or decide that it was just an emotional response: that their reaction to the Book of Mormon felt the same as their reaction to watching WALL-E or something. Or maybe they’ve received a witness of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ but haven’t received that witness regarding anything specifically related to Mormonism.

Some people, at this point, look to justify why they haven’t received that witness. Perhaps it’s because the Church is for/against something they do or don’t believe in; therefore, it’s not true. Perhaps they find some bit of evidence suggesting that Martin Harris rewrote some weird manuscript and published it as the Book of Mormon; therefore the Church isn’t true. Maybe Apostle X or Bishop Y or Sister Z did something pretty boneheaded and uninspired; therefore, the Church isn’t true. Or maybe the Church isn’t able to answer their question to problem X to their full satisfaction; therefore, it isn’t true. But all of these nitpicks usually don’t bother most strong, active members. For, when you get right to the heart of it, the main difference between those who stay faithful and those who fall away, between those with a strong, unbreakable testimony and those whose testimony gets blown apart given enough adversity, is that the latter group does not have that foundation of the Spirit upon which to build everything else.

Why?

Why is it that some people can kneel down and pray about the Book of Mormon, and receive that witness, while others work for years on it with nothing to show for it? How is it that one person can do everything in their power to be the best and most faithful person they can be in the gospel and not receive that witness, especially when they see that gossipy Relief Society president with little to no regard for the people she’s supposed to serve, go up to the pulpit with tears streaming down her cheeks and proclaiming that she has received a strong spiritual prompting that her now-deceased pet dog is in Heaven and therefore she knows the Church is true with every fiber of her being?

That example may seem a bit extreme (though probably not as much as it should be, sadly), but let me share a personal experience that I’ve struggled with for quite some time. One day on my mission I was on an exchange with another young elder and Elder Proctor, a 70-year-old former vacuum salesman who was…let’s say…eccentric. He had a lot of crazy theories about the gospel and missionary work, and one of those was that “God bunches up the elect,” meaning that, in any particular city, God takes all the people that will accept the gospel and puts them all in the same neighborhood, and all the missionaries have to do is figure out wherever that neighborhood is and then they could baptize everyone all in one fell swoop. Most of the other missionaries (including the mission president) were somewhat skeptical of this approach, but whatever gets the work done, right? So in the city where he served he had divided the city into a grid and had one day spent hours on his knees figuring out where the elect had been bunched in the city, and had come up with map squares 8B, 14B, and the street Tío de Romero, and refused to tract anywhere else in the city since it would be a waste of time not working where the elect had been bunched.

Anyway, on this particular day, before we went out in the afternoon, he had us get down on our knees and pray for a minute to ask the Lord whether we should tract in 8B, 14B, or Tío de Romero. As the prayer went on I didn’t feel any super-strong prompting for any of those three places, but toward the end I thought, 14B? Maybe? Is that my prompting? It’s the best I have! So after the prayer, we all stood up, and Elder Proctor asked me, “So, Elder Parkes, where does the Lord want us to go?”

“14B?”

BZZZZT! Wrong!” Yes, he actually said this. He then asked the other elder, “What about you?”

“8B!”

DING DING DING! Correct! Let’s go!” And we went.

I was a bit nonplussed by this, but I normally would have chalked it up to just another silly thing that Elder Proctor did (he really was quite a character), except for what happened next. The second door we knocked on contained a bunch of out-of-work Bulgarians who didn’t know anybody and were truly humble souls. To make a long story short, all six of them had been baptized within a month and it ended up being Elder Proctor’s biggest success story of his mission. Every testimony meeting since then, Elder Proctor would get up, tears in his eyes, and tell the wonderful story about how the Lord knew they had been waiting to receive the gospel, and how they were going to head back to Bulgaria and spread the word of Christ in a country that didn’t have an LDS presence, and how it was truly a great miracle, and how strong the Spirit was in that room when “the three of us knelt to ask the Lord where to find His sheep, and we all got up and all of us knew where to go — well, two of us did, anyway — and then, with His guidance, we found these wonderful souls…”

I had been doing my best as a missionary. I was praying eight times a day or so (at least), studying my scriptures, doing my best to learn the language, preach the gospel, and serve those around me. True, I was far from perfect, but I was doing the best I could. How is it that I felt absolutely nothing and came up with the wrong answer, when the other two had such a strong witness and it ended up being such a success? Was I really that apostate, even though I had been doing my best? This experience, while such a wonderful spiritual witness for everyone else involved, probably tested my faith more than anything else I had experienced up to that point, including a pretty crappy childhood and teenage years, because it hit at the very core of my testimony: my ability to recognize and follow the Spirit.

So once again, I ask: why? Why is it so hard for some people to receive that spiritual witness despite their best earnest, sincere efforts? How can a person believe “Knock and it shall be opened unto you” when they feel like they’ve been banging on that door forever and nobody’s answered? What’s the missing puzzle piece?

Once again, I have my own thoughts on this which I will eventually share, but I’d first like to hear what you guys think.

Part One

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9 responses

  1. I don’t want to be the guy who hovers over your posts and picks at them, Jeff, because I respect you and what you’re doing. But, as someone who has been through this and who has helped lots and lots of people through it, I want to say this emphatically: For almost all of us, leaving the church is. not. easy.

    October 12, 2012 at 6:43 pm

  2. I know, and I didn’t mean to imply that these two reasons are always (or even often) linked. You were actually one of the people I was thinking of when I wrote the second reason, which I still don’t really have an answer to. I have a *personal* answer to it, but not one that will work for everyone, and I think it’s a real issue. But I do know a lot of people who go inactive because it *is* easy for them, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least point it out. Maybe I should’ve said that “going inactive” is easy, not necessarily leaving the church, especially with the peer pressure present in Utah.

    EDIT: Slight edit made in the main body of the text!

    October 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm

  3. Annelise Murphy

    I concur… leaving the church is anything but easy. Especially when you have no sinful alternative that you are running too and no support system to support you.

    October 12, 2012 at 6:52 pm

  4. Jed

    Jeff, your thoughtful posts deserve a more thoughtful response than I will give, but I will give it anyway, with my apologies.

    An off-the-cuff response to your question as to why some have spiritual experiences and some do not, I believe, is a difference in spiritual gifts that we learn about in the scriptures. In a recent talk I said, “It may be necessary, at times, to lean on the testimony of others. Note that the scriptures do not describe this as a weakness, but rather, as a spiritual gift. Doctrine and Covenants, Section 46 states that ‘To some it is given [the spiritual gift] to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given [the spiritual gift] to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.'” Thus, some may have to rely more on the spiritual experiences of others… and this alone is a spiritual gift.

    I discovered this idea from this blog post: http://geoffsn.blogspot.com/2012/08/russell-hancock-on-testimony-and-church.html I don’t necessarily agree with everything there, but it’s a good read.

    October 12, 2012 at 7:31 pm

  5. To add to my rather long and blunt last comment, I believe patience has a lot to do with receiving spiritual experiences as well. God will speak to us in His own way and in His own time. I like what Jed said about leaning on others. Some may even have to lean on others for their whole mortal lives. Sometimes just the act of believing, without the feelings that we commonly associate with a testimony, is a spiritual experience in and of itself.

    October 12, 2012 at 11:06 pm

  6. Also Jeff, in my own opinion, if you went into the situation not truly believing you would receive and answer (because you didn’t agree that the saints would all be clumped together – which I don’t believe either) there is little chance that you would receive your ‘inspiration’. If I decided to pray, for instance, about which number the roulette wheel would end up on, but I don’t truly believe I will receive an answer, it’s doubtful I will. -my opinion anyway.

    October 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm

  7. Jed

    Stumbled upon this the other day and seemed relevant to the questions you’re asking, Jeff: http://terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Letter-to-a-Doubter.pdf

    As with the last link I left, I will add my disclaimer that I don’t know that I agree with everything there, but there are some gems there, I believe.

    October 20, 2012 at 10:42 pm

  8. Nate von Winder

    Jed beat me to posting the link to Letter to a Doubter. I think it’s excellent and I highly recommend it. The idea he brings up of “misbegotten premises” is particularly important.

    Another excellent and relevant essay by Prof. Givens:
    terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/By-Study-and-Also-by-Faith.pdf

    (disclaimer: I’m good friends with Prof. Givens’s son (we served in Hungary together) and I’ve always been impressed with their family.)

    December 6, 2012 at 3:41 am

  9. Nate von Winder

    Woops better link: http://terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/By-Study-and-Also-by-Faith.pdf

    December 6, 2012 at 3:42 am

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