Latter-day Saint Faith Crisis

What to Expect

At the beginning of your faith crisis you may feel a great deal of anxiety about the future. Nothing you've learned or experienced so far has prepared you for a challenge like this. You may feel alone and unsure how to find people who will understand what you're thinking and feeling. Rest assured that there are many of us who have been where you are, even if cultural taboos make us difficult to find.

Although every faith transition is unique, there are common elements across many different people's stories. Several are described below. You may experience many of these or only a few, and likely not in the same order.

Although the trials ahead of you may seem discouraging, remember that good things will come as well. Faith transitions aren't bad, they're just hard.

1. A period of sadness and confusion

For many, the church is the foundation of an entire worldview. It provides comforting perspectives on life and death, opportunities to serve and create, an attitude of growth in difficult times, and a strong sense of community. It teaches a way of seeing (and often judging) yourself and other people. It gives purpose and meaning to your daily life. When you begin to doubt and question, all of those things begin to unravel. Even an ordinary day can become an enormous struggle when you're constantly second-guessing what is true and what is important.

Anxiety and depression are common developments during the early stages of a faith transition. Self-reflection and humility will be essential as you continually assess whether your situation has transformed into a mental health crisis. Whether it has or not, don't hesitate to seek the support you need. Reach out to people you trust, visit a licensed therapist you feel comfortable with, and spend time doing things that help you feel calm and joyful.

If you or someone else is at risk, seek professional help right away. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Trust us when we say that what you're feeling is temporary. Over time you will develop spiritual practices and beliefs that are truly and sincerely your own and the sense of being lost at sea will subside. Remember that the church is a source of purpose and meaning, not the only source. You will find peace again, whether it be in or out of the church.

2. Lasting changes in belief and/or practice

At various points during your faith journey you'll likely find your beliefs shifting. A faith transition is, among other things, a process of declaring spiritual independence: you'll feel, maybe for the first time, that you have the freedom to decide what you believe rather than innocently adopting whatever beliefs other people offer you.

In some cases this is truly a relief. Many people feel liberated by the ability to choose more compassionate and inclusive beliefs about LGBTQ people, for example. In other cases it's intimidating; whether God exists at all is a question with important consequences attached to it, one that has been debated for thousands of years.

Over time you'll determine your own answers to these and many other questions, even if your answer is sometimes "I don't know and I'm comfortable with that." Your beliefs are always subject to change but it's unlikely they'll ever go back to exactly what they were before. Your beliefs have changed because you have changed. As the saying goes, you can't put the genie back in the bottle.

Changes in belief may also lead to changes in practice—the way you exercise spirituality in your private life and participate in the church. After a faith transition there may be callings you don't feel comfortable accepting, Sunday School lessons you feel the need to step out of, or ordinances you don't wish to observe or be a part of. Your prayers may change or stop altogether; you may turn to non-scriptural sources for daily study. You may decide to tithe to a different organization or none at all. And those are only a few of countless possibilities. In a church with so many rules, restrictions, and cultural expectations, there's a very wide spectrum between total conformance and complete separation. Finding your place along that spectrum is part of the hard work of faith transitions.

Changes in practice sometimes have necessary but unpleasant effects. If you choose to abstain from temple worship you'll be unable to attend the sealings of family members and friends. It can be awkward to explain to orthodox members why you won't be present at moments that are important to them. You may also suffer from gossip or embarrassment at the hands of your peers and leaders at church. And if you continue attending church you may be called on to pray or share a testimony without advance notice, leading to a moment of deep anxiety as you decide whether to say no and face the disapproval of other members or say yes and try to contribute in a way that feels genuine but may not fit the norm. Awkwardness is inevitable either way. Unfortunately, church culture rarely accepts anything other than complete conformity.

In these situations it will become important to recognize, acknowledge, and work through your own feelings. If you begin to feel suffocated or "held hostage" by a spiritual practice, such as wearing garments or studying the scriptures every day, that may be a sign you need to take a break from said practice—even if others will judge you for it. If you crave the spiritual fulfillment that a certain church function or activity provides, you should pursue it in a way that's comfortable for you even if other members may take it to mean something it doesn't. And when awkwardness and emotional hurt arise, you should allow yourself to feel these things, name them, validate them, and acknowledge them as part of your journey.

3. Fear of judgment

Church members tend to tell unflattering stories about people who doubt or leave. When the tables are turned and you become one of those people, it can be hard to escape the fear that the same stories are being told about you. You may start to feel uncomfortable around other members or develop anxiety about fitting in.

Many are also afraid of being judged by God. In church lessons and media you've heard a constant stream of messages about the importance of staying in the church so as not to be separated from him. Church culture in many areas promotes stories of people who experience catastrophe after leaving the church—losing their job, getting a divorce, even developing a substance abuse habit. This can make you afraid of changing, trying new things, or even just accepting your own thoughts and feelings.

There's no easy way out of this. It is not unreasonable to think that your peers may be judging you for your spiritual and religious choices. And it can be a struggle to find assurance that God approves of you, even when you're confident in the choices you've made. Trials like these are difficult, but they can help you develop greater emotional self-reliance and discover what you truly believe or disbelieve about God.

Finding freedom from judgment begins when you learn to stop judging yourself. Your beliefs about yourself strongly influence your beliefs about God, other people, and the way they feel about you. Part of the process of faith transition is learning to look at your actions with an attitude of grace: you have done your best with the knowledge and circumstances you've been given. Most of us can't justify the idea of a God who would condemn us for doing what we really believed was best. Your beliefs will likely change over time; acting in accordance with your new beliefs is a form of integrity and recognizing it as such will give you strength.

As you tread this path, look for people who will support you and listen to you no matter your relationship to the church. You may find them online, in your extended family, or even at church.

4. Feelings of anger and resentment

Anger is a natural response to the feeling that you have been hurt or had your trust betrayed. Many members become angry when they discover that troubling aspects of church history or doctrine have been glossed over, ignored or denied by church publications and leaders. Others are angry about the secondary status of women in the church. Some have been harmed by church members or teachings—for example, the culture of shame around modesty and sex in many congregations, the perfectionist attitudes of orthodox parents, the lack of accountability for some abusers, or the church's rigid focus on heterosexual, temple-married, traditional families. If you are personally affected by these issues you may well feel that the church needlessly causes pain and loneliness rather than the healing it promises.

Whatever the cause of your anger, it's unlikely to disappear right away. The church is historically slow to change and even slower to apologize. This context can make forgiveness seem difficult or even impossible. Feelings of frustration and resentment may linger for a very long time. Without proper care and attention, these have the ability to damage your relationships with the people you care about.

If anger is part of your journey it's essential that you accept it as a valid, normal reaction. Take time to sit with it, perhaps under the guidance of a trusted friend or therapist. Find safe and healthy ways to tell your story such as writing in a personal journal or talking to like-minded people in social media groups. However, for the sake of your own mental health, don't let anger become an obsession. Be mindful of activities (such as online research or Sunday School attendance) and people (like parents or church leaders) that trigger your anger, and give yourself permission to take time away from them as often as you need to.

Over time you can come to appreciate anger as a healthy and useful emotion. Your anger can be a signal that you need to enforce a personal boundary, take a break, express yourself in a safe way, or make a change to your spiritual habits.

5. Conflict with family, peers, and leaders

Some of us have families that respond with love and acceptance to a change in our beliefs. Unfortunately, many do not. The church teaches that lasting joy and safety can only be found in a home that embraces the church and its teachings with complete, orthodox obedience. This creates a culture of fear and defensiveness whenever that ideal is threatened. You may find yourself being ignored, shut down, attacked, or tearfully accused when you try to honestly discuss your questions and feelings.

In the midst of this turmoil it's all too common for peers and leaders in the church to stage unhelpful interventions. They may call you in for a meeting, send the full-time missionaries to your door, offer you a time-intensive calling, or ask you to make other commitments that would be awkward to turn down.

In order to preserve the relationships you care about most you'll need to establish and defend healthy boundaries with people who may not be used to navigating them. A good place to start is learning to say "No."

"No" is a complete sentence. It does not need explanation or apology. "No" draws the line between commitments you are eager to accept and ones you don't have emotional space for; questions you feel safe discussing and ones that are too raw or personal; the vulnerability you feel another person has earned and the distance you need from them in order to protect your mental health.

The most difficult boundaries to draw will be between you and your spouse, parents, or closest friends. For many of us there is a temptation to withdraw completely, ignoring and hiding from difficult conversations in hopes they will disappear. It's better to approach these situations with as much honesty and bravery as we can muster, asserting ourselves and our feelings in a respectful way. Take the time you need to consider your responses, then be clear, kind, and direct. As you navigate this difficult space, know that your relationships have the potential to grow in a positive way. Good boundaries are the foundation of healthy, loving relationships.

It can be helpful to tell people how to respond to your situation. Your loved ones probably don't know what to say or how to act. They're worried about your spiritual safety and afraid of what your journey means for them. Their anxiety may lead them to say things that are harsh and hurtful. You can reduce this by empathizing with them, reassuring them of your love, and helping them understand the time and effort you've put into your decisions. If you feel that certain behaviors (like bearing testimony or sharing scripture verses) will cause you distress, ask them not to do those things.

For less intimate relationships such as with your church leaders, you may need to be more careful about what you say and what you choose to keep private. Local leaders vary significantly from area to area; while many are kind and understanding toward those whose spirituality differs from theirs, others may try to punish you by abruptly withdrawing callings, church privileges, and temple recommends, and may even go so far as to submit you to church discipline, which can be emotionally and socially devastating. Some leaders can be trusted to keep secrets and others cannot. Until you have judged for yourself what kind of leaders you have, you may find it best to tell them as little as possible about your situation.

6. Awareness of judgmental attitudes

As you confront dissonance between yourself and the church, your perspective begins to change. You may catch yourself in automatic thoughts and actions that you no longer identify with, like subconsciously glancing to see if someone is wearing temple garments, quietly judging someone who's holding a takeout coffee cup, or feeling guilty when someone uses profanity in a TV show you're watching. These moments are brief but sometimes so frequent they can be overwhelming. It's humbling to discover how much time and energy you've spent categorizing and judging other people and yourself.

This is a sign of personal growth. A faith transition is a rare opportunity to step outside yourself, challenge your own assumptions and biases, and see other people more clearly. Although it may take you off balance to discover how much of your social life used to be based on spiritual competition and self-justification, a sense of normalcy can return as you find new and kinder ways to look at others.

7. Long internal debates

Allowing your faith to evolve can feel like stepping off the edge of a cliff. It's a new and frightening experience colored by a culture of intense warnings and cautionary tales within the church. Long-time church members tend to worry that a journey of doubt and exploration will become an uncontrollable fall that ends in personal ruin. To reevaluate your beliefs goes against the ideal of childlike faith that the church has worked to instill in you; it may feel as though it defies your very instincts.

In the context of this much fear and uncertainty it's no wonder that so many church members put an immense amount of effort into convincing themselves that their own concerns are invalid or unworthy of attention. It's not uncommon to have the same internal debate hundreds of times over the course of months or years, holding tightly all along to a phrase, mantra, experience, or philosophy that allows you to hide your doubts and continue life as normal. But with time, you may find that even the most logical philosophy or comforting idea isn't strong enough to hide you from yourself.

Once you acknowledge your doubts and questions rather than trying to stifle them, you can enter a phase of more honest and profound soul-searching. In this phase faith and doubt are held in tension. This gives you the freedom to explore both and hold space for your own thoughts and feelings without judgment. Doubt, faith, or both may win out in the end as you decide what's true to you, but in the meantime you'll have the opportunity to discover yourself in new and compelling ways.

8. Powerful personal growth

A faith transition is a profound journey that can lead to increased awareness, acceptance, and joy. Trials along the way are unavoidable but with time and courage you can overcome them and find equilibrium: a way of being that allows you, your feelings, your loved ones, and the church (to whatever extent you remain involved) to coexist peacefully. It may take a long time to achieve this and not everyone will be at ease with the new you. But as your capacity for self-acceptance grows you'll find the strength to set healthy boundaries, express yourself appropriately, and empathize with others. As much fear and trepidation as you feel now, you'll likely look back someday with gratitude for the experience and the ways it helped you grow. Many people say of their faith transition "I wouldn't wish this on anyone else, but I'm glad it happened."