I’ve recently had a few people contact me on behalf of themselves or family members about struggling in the church. Some of these contacts have been more serious than others, including whether or not to continue being Mormon, or living the endowed Mormon life. I am not one to oversimplify the concerns some members feel because I’ve been there and I’ve emerged and am still emerging in a way that I believe is harder, but more beautiful and rewarding.
As someone who has at times experienced the effortless, adored lifestyle of Mormonism from my youth and even now off and on, and as someone who has literally had to confront my decision to remain in the church, I wanted to share a letter I wrote to a friend a short while ago (with some additions), which hints at why I continue to practice Mormonism full-heartedly. I’ve posted it below.
I am sitting in the temple pondering our conversation. I feel much love for and mindfulness of you.
I have been praying for you this day. Not only because of the trials you have been through but for your path forward. I have wondered why I have felt impressions of you on my mind lately and now I know why after our conversation. I wonder now why I feel so invested in praying and pondering on behalf of you. Perhaps God continues to bless me with his love for his children and perhaps we have been placed in close proximity to help and buoy each other up. I know you have helped and lifted me with your joy and zest and interesting perspective.
While here in the Provo City Temple (after they let me in by looking up my records online because I again lost my temple recommend which I literally just interviewed for last Sunday to replace my previous one I lost—cool), I am sitting in front of a picture of our Savior praying on behalf of us. The picture moves me because I literally begged God for the privilege to attend his holy house today even though I’ve been flippant about the temple in the past, and at times resentful of it, and obviously careless about attending it and even keeping track of my recommend. I say this because I recognize it is a privilege to be blessed by priesthood authority given to men and women in the temple. I really believe that. And even though I struggle with feeling complete peace with the temple and understanding all the ways in which the rituals are taught, today in initiatories, women blessed me in behalf of a deceased sister with eyes to discern between truth and error, right and wrong.
And so now I’m writing you because of that discernment. I am becoming increasingly aware of my need for discernment. My patriarchal blessing says I have been given this gift but to be careful not to abuse it. I have often thought about this: how can I abuse this gift? At times I have thought to abuse it is to call out bad in people and in ways that may focus more on judgment than on love. I felt impressed after reading the words of Elder Bednar (yes, he’s probably not your favorite apostle, but what he says here is enlightening), that discernment is the gift to see the good in those around me. I have really felt that I have been given discerning eyes of light to see good motives and to honor and encourage those motives. Today, though, as I am sitting in the temple, I am again thinking about discernment in the context of initiatories and the instruction not to abuse my gift. These women bless my brain with discernment. Is this to only see the good? No. It is also to see evil and error. Today I feel like I am learning that discernment is to see the two–it is not to only see good and truth, but also evil and error. Both can exist at the same time–in a person, in an argument, in a church experience. Error is an interesting word, don’t you think? It doesn’t imply blame but instead unintentional mistakes. Which is why I wanted to write you.
As I’ve pondered your comments about church or wearing temple garments I’ve contemplated my responses to you. I have a close friend who listens remarkably well. She is introverted and reflective and I adore her feedback because I know it is thoughtful and honest. She often questions my ideas out of her quiet love and wisdom because she loves me and wants me to have joy and also return to God with her. I have thought of the real value of her friendship—I’ve known her since I was 7–and how friends should at times, when moved upon, move beyond echo chambers and compassionately provide questioning in times of serious contemplation about real life choices.
I worry in my flippant responses to you I may not have provided valuable, thoughtful, discerning feedback. I may have been more of an agreeing soundboard vs a thoughtful and reflective friend who acts less on impulse and more on discernment. I am thinking of that now. Here. And I feel troubled. So I want to offer some of my more meditated-upon thoughts and questions in hope that you will value them as I value my old friend from home.
I told you about my experience recently asking—“Is this where you want me, God?” I asked that, and it was an honest, sincere, even scary question, because no part of me wanted to stop practicing or believing Mormonism. Mormonism had been a good experience in the past. But I asked it because I had real issues that challenged my understanding of Mormonism–the role of prophets, scripture, revelation. I still have questions, but God responded to my question telling me that yes, this church is where he wanted me.
That was the beginning revelation, though. Not the end. I have since had incredible experiences that have expanded my mind and my heart because I stayed. Because I chose the wrestle vs the nap. I worry about you and the choice you have right now: do you leave the church with the hope that you come back rejuvenated? AKA do you take a restful nap? Or do you stay awake, groggy, tired, with eyes barely open? What good can come of THAT any of us might ask. Unlike some members, I am not inclined to tell you to stay if it tortures you. I do believe some who do stay in the church are napping already. They’re not seeking and finding light here. In fact, they may be going through the motions, focusing on rules vs developing a relationship to God. Instead, I am inclined to suggest you ask God himself and see what he tells you.
As someone who has chosen to stay awake, again and again (you know me and my probing questions. I’m a curious little daughter), I have felt increase in spirit, power, strength, love and wisdom. I have felt that that increase has been particular to my decision to endure.
I have wrestled in the dark so many times, but each time, more light comes. Stronger, purer, brighter light. I say this because for me, the persevering has brought the blessings I needed and what I believe you and your family want. And so I don’t want to be flippant or lightminded about suggesting you stay because I’d like friends like you at church. Or that we, the body of Christ, need you, so come for us. Even though that’s true, it’s more than that. Real lives, real consequences, real increased light and power—especially during a dark time for you and your spouse and your beautiful boys—are at stake. I believe in personal revelation but I would plead with you to be very prayerful and mindful of that revelation and to have the discernment to know the answer is from our Father. I feel my discernment is stronger when I keep commandments, repent, read my scriptures, and pray. That’s all I have to do and immediately my eyes see better. Which is why I chose to come to the temple today even though I told you I don’t actually like to. I often get bored. So bored. I joke with God that symbolism is not my learning language. I get restless too. Distracted. Angry, even. Why and in this way? And I could be at home doing good things with my family or outside where I feel God distinctly or reading scriptures which I adore. There are other ways I can connect to God, but the promise of discernment is something I want and need in a very confusing and necessarily complicated world. The temple uniquely gives me an increase of that and I need that more than ever now. I believe we all do.
You know Father and Mother see the big picture. I worry about relying on current emotions in our limited paradigm with church or callings or doubts to determine our choices when perhaps there is more good at the end of this particular wrestle. I worry about relying on current feelings (e.g. “I don’t like how I feel or I don’t like these people”) when so much light and knowledge can come by continuing to explore, rather than stopping too soon. Can God still reach us if we choose to leave? Could he still reach us after mistakes? Of course, if we let him and still want him. If you were to leave church or him or whatever just to know for yourself, would God punish you? I don’t know. But do I want my daughter to jump in a pond out of curiosity or rebelliousness and drown for a bit in order for her to learn to listen to and trust me? And what happens if I reach down to save her and she swats at my hand because she’s “got this”? What if because she’s under water she thinks my hand is a snake and opts out for drowning instead? As an earthly mother, I will jump in that pond and save my girl. I don’t care if she kicks me or hits me or bites me or screams at me. But whether or not she chooses to keep following me on the paved path around the pond, whether or not she chooses to jump back in the pond (and how many times?), once we’re out of the water, the choice is hers. What will she choose to do?
I don’t know if or how much God will so much punish us for lightmindedly wandering or even deliberately wandering, but he will grieve and ache because we will lose the potential light we could have received in a very hard time. Light he was waiting to give but couldn’t because we weren’t in earshot or eyesight. Or maybe he was still shouting instructions across the pond and we heard, but we were too far and the instruction was muffled or obscured. Or perhaps we swatted his hand away in the depths of our drowning. Perhaps this relates to discernment. When we’re too far from God, we may still hear him but incorrectly. Or we may think we discern a solid rock, when it is instead sand and we fall. This is why God gives us more than just personal emotions and convictions to follow him. He gives us resources that help us hear and discern him. It is work and it takes growing into. I’ve already mentioned the sources our church teaches about—scriptures, prayer, repentance, obedience, service, temple. Church can be a place in which we practice discerning that voice—what’s really from God, what’s really the spirit amidst our fellow crazy church friends. We’re practicing hearing and learning to listen together.
I say this all somewhat hesitatingly because this all suggests God is here in this church. Some do not believe he is. But what do we make of those that do feel him here? Because I’ve experienced him here–I’ve learned to pray to him, read of him and her (this church gives me more access to scripture and light than anywhere else), practice serving his children in my callings and appointments–so I believe he is. Though I’ve had moments of doubt, despair, turmoil, confusion, resentment at or during my church experience, I’ve also had earth shattering answers to prayer. I’ve had witnesses in the temple. (This coming from someone who even struggles with the temple!) I’ve had light spear my heart and divine revelation pour into my mind. I’ve wept at the grandeur of God’s majestic and simple love. I’ve basked in divine priesthood blessings that have revealed to me what I thought were hidden desires and secrets whispered only to God. This church has taught me of God, and how to find him and her. And it has actually worked. Where would I go to better find God? To become like him and like her? Like in a dating relationship, at times I felt restless with my now husband–believing I was giving more than I got in return (which wasn’t always true), feeling unhappy, upset (which was definitely true). But often, I would ask, where would I go? Who wouldn’t I have these issues with? And who do I want to work on these issues with? Like my now husband, the church for me can be hard, but it can be immensely worth the work. To give up on or be shunned from a potential relationship can leave feelings of bitterness and resentment and understandably. So what can we do?
If the church is not what you think it should be, would you stay if it were? Why or why not? If it could be so much better, how does leaving help you? If you believe in God, what led you to that belief? That God is here in the Mormon church doesn’t mean he isn’t elsewhere. But if your choice is to leave, where will you go to find him and her? If that doesn’t matter to you, that breaks my heart. We all need God. And I believe God needs us. I’m developing a more human perspective of God. A complex and feeling God, with many nuances.
Yes, I’ve had harrowing doubts of inspired leaders, and what feels like tumultuous encounters that confuse the hell out of me, but I cannot deny what has also happened here, at church–the good with the bad. I don’t have to ignore the bad. I can do something about that. But I can’t ignore the good either. Because I’ve stayed and chosen faith over and over–and to do things for my faith–God has blessed me with a more authentic, intimate relationship. And I honestly want that for everyone. I want you and those I love and every child, every divine child of God to hold on and feel the pure love and reality of a God in heaven.
I hope you feel God’s love and I hope you feel my sense of urgency because upon further reflection, I believe you are at a fork in the road and the choice you make matters, just as it did for me those few months ago. I also experienced my mom calling me after listening to my giant “IS THIS ALL A SHAM!?!” moment with divine, motherly, powerful revelation for me. She said, “You are on a precipice. You are a strong spirit. I sense that things are so serious right now and you are making a choice. Make the choice that leads you to God. Nothing else. Not even yourself. God knows who you are and what you can be.” She then went on to tell me how crap happens at church and that local and higher leaders can sometimes be idiots. But choose faith and use your discernment. Actively choose it and use it. And she plead with me because she knew my intentions despite my perspective. I had desires to be faithful even if I didn’t all the way understand how. I am so grateful for that call at a critical time in my life.
In my faith journey, I could have so many times chosen to pursue abandonment over faith. Every time I’ve chosen faith, however, God has blessed me with giant love and insight. Like universally-explosive love and light. I really do love him and feel mercy, kindness, thoughtfulness from him.
I am so proud of my choices to stay. I say choices because it is a repeated choice. I am aware of Satan and how he tries to get me to doubt myself and others. He wants me to abandon what I know for the allure of the unknown or the potential. None of us wants to be deceived. It is natural to not want to stay somewhere that is not true or good. But find out for yourself with patience–again and again if you have to. I really get that faith is a choice more than ever now. It wasn’t a choice before when I was young and church was the only thing I knew and the only obvious solution. But when other options—what seem to be pleasant, fine, work-for-other people options—are on the table, this is a moment of many moments to choose faith. Like in a marriage, that choice has to be deliberate and conscientious. You can have the greatest spouse in the world, and still that choice has to be deliberate and conscientious.
So that’s how I want to end this. I want to say use discernment. Sometimes I’m more discerning than other times based on what I read, do, listen to. In moments of doubt or confusion, I choose to nurture my discernment. I turn to the Book of Mormon. I know it’s so cheesy. And I know you have said you’re more of a music person. I know it’s so basic. But it is a freaking lifesaver for me. It dispels darkness for me. There is a real power I get just by reading it. More light enters my heart and my brain. So much sacrifice has been made in behalf of the Book of Mormon and the temple and the church. I think reason would have me consider why. What good is here?
Perhaps if I had asked God “Are you okay with me leaving?” He might have said yes. I don’t know. Similarly, he could have told that to Eve about staying or leaving in the garden. If she chose to stay, we couldn’t be here. If she chose to eat the fruit, we could come but there would be hard times. God gave her two options and let the consequences follow. He didn’t force her and it wasn’t an easy black and white choice. It required discernment and thoughtfulness and a choice of the greater good with greater potential. I am grateful she chose the choice that challenged her and taught her more about who God was. I think it’s very possible she could have stayed in the garden and learned less about God even if he was there with her. Isn’t that interesting that she could learn more about Mother and Father by living like them rather than just being near them? I believe Mormonism, in its essence, teaches us to live like them.
But I didn’t ask if it’d be okay to leave. Instead I asked, “God, do you want me here? Is this where I can best find you?” God told me yes, and that has made a big difference for me. What matters less to me now is that everything is as it is preached at church or that it meets the expectations or wishes I have for it. But like God with me, I choose compassion and work. This is where I can learn God if I choose to keep awake, eyes open, always blinking toward the light.
I hope you feel inspired in every step of this journey and that you feel particularly the gift of discernment–seeing the good with the bad in every choice you make–during this confusing time.
I love you. Amen.