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Finding faith

The following is the first in a two-part guest post by a private blogger who wishes to remain anonymous. In it she discusses her life-long search for faith and the realities of living in and raising children in what she likes to call a “bi-cultural” family.

I was raised in the southwest, to parents who were and are faithful members of the church. We were orthodox in every way; scripture study every morning, FHE every week, strict Sabbath obedience, etc. My dad was one of two bishops in the town I spent my adolescence. He was known as the ‘mean bishop’ because he followed rules to the letter. We lived in the Bible belt, so everyone went to some kind of church. The morals of the community were conservative. I was one of three LDS kids in my high school.

My parents had both come from lukewarm LDS families. When my parents married, they were determined to raise faithful children, and they did all the right things. I want to make that clear because I think it is easy to cast blame on the parents when a child goes ‘astray.’ The choices I made in my life, I made knowing full well what everyone was thinking and feeling relative to those choices.

For whatever reason, I have always been a skeptic. I have a very vivid memory of being 5 years old, and really wondering whether or not there was a God. Let’s just say childlike faith has never been one of my gifts. My parents were understandably distraught by this and instead of giving room for thoughtful inquiry, tended toward ‘if we don’t talk about it maybe it will go away’.

I was a good child. Being the firstborn, I had that drive to please adults. If I’d been born second, I might have gotten myself into more trouble. I had good friends, was active in my YW group, and graduated from early morning seminary. There were times I thought I had a testimony, but those nagging doubts always crept in.

It is so hard to separate what is your culture and what you really, truly believe. At least it always has been for me. As a teenager, I just figured I would work it out sooner or later, and chose the path of least resistance, going along with it until I was ‘born again’. I went to BYU and that is when I fell apart.

BYU was total culture shock for me. I had the freedom, I suppose, to question things more actively than I had done at home. It is difficult, even now, with many years to analyze it, to describe what was going on. It was a combination of my kicking against the pricks, having a goofy/inept bishop, and going through genuine spiritual searching and questioning, guilt, and a hundred other things.

I remember as a junior thinking I ought to leave BYU because there were more faithful kids throughout the world who deserved my place more than I did. But at the same time I knew if I left, I might leave the church altogether and I wasn’t ready to do that, either. The biggest problems for me were less about ‘is this the true church’ and more about ‘is there a God at all?’ And if there were, was this church His only version of how things were going to be?

One year during my time at BYU, I was called to teach gospel doctrine in my student ward. I remember laughing out loud when the counselor asked me. How could that possibly be an inspired deal? God knew I wasn’t so sure what I believed, and I was going to teach gospel doctrine? Only now can I see that keeping me connected was the best thing for me. This would be a theme throughout my adult life.

At some point, I think during my senior year, I hit a cracking point. I decided if I were going to leave the church I would never feel comfortable because I would always second guess myself. “This is the true church, and just because you don’t believe it doesn’t make it not so” would have plagued me my entire life. So, I decided I could be either be crazy outside the church, or crazy inside it. I chose the “fake it til you make it” route. This is a church of works, and I would try to work myself to eventual faith. (If only I had read Believing Christ at 20 something years old, instead of nigh unto 40….)

After I graduated from BYU, I worked for a company in Provo. I was in singles wards until I went to graduate school at age 25.

When I went away to graduate school, I thought that would be a perfect opportunity to start over. I was going to New Mexico, to my home stake. I hoped I would really know these people and finally have a group of people I could count on for support. Instead, the worst thing happened. I started attending the student ward, and found I was the oldest person in it. I had been previously been friends with these kids’ older siblings. So I went to church and sat by myself, week after week after week. I’d try to engage other people, since I was older and wiser, but I just got tired of feeling lonely.

Essentially all the doubts and fears, feelings of unworthiness and unresolved questions and issues about myself and about the church I had over the years culminated into my becoming less active. My situation was complicated by my social life. I didn’t feel worthy to date LDS men who were firm in their testimonies and, because I was more comfortable, I had more serious relationships with men from other faiths.

During that time, I met up with a friend of a friend who had become an apostate. Having been there himself, he tried to help me work things out because he certainly understood where I was coming from. He even went with me to check out some family wards to see if I could find a place to fit in. But I never did. And so I just stopped attending church. I sort of gave up.

An important part of the story to me is how a person can be raised in an absolutely loving, spiritual home, and sometimes it still isn’t enough for some of us. Sometimes we just have to find our own way. I really think that even if I would have settled down and married one of the missionaries I had dated and was writing and just went down that path after he came home I would have still struggled with my faith. Or if I’d married some other nice RM when I was 21ish. But it would have been even trickier because then I would have already been to the temple, made the covenants, and felt even less free to question. Less able to come to true answers because I’d already committed to living it.

Shortly after I arrived at graduate school, a friend there said, “I know this guy back home. He’s a total freak and you two would hit it off.” I didn’t really think about it in any other terms than as a distraction. David was really witty and was fun to talk to.

We’d been emailing back and forth not too long when he said, “So, you were living in Utah. That must have been total culture shock being around all those Mormons.” My friend hadn’t told him I was LDS (even though I was the first one she’d ever met!). And I wrote him back saying that it was indeed culture shock, that I’d never been in contact with so many LDS people in my life. This was absolutely true.

Eventually I told him I was LDS, but I wanted to give him time to hang himself—to see if he would say something snotty. But he never did. Our friendship grew. We didn’t talk much of faith. He was a lapsed Episcopalian. His grandfather was a minister and his mother had spent several years in Nigeria as a missionary’s daughter. Although he’d previously been an alter boy and played the organ for church, etc., when he was about 14 years old, they moved to a new town, and his mom never felt at home at the new congregation, and the kids didn’t really want to go, so they stopped going.

Much of the time we were “dating,” I was in grad school and he was in another city. It wasn’t until I graduated that he came to visit, and that was the first time we met face to face. It was odd, but we recovered well enough. Between May and the next spring, we traveled back and forth to visit one another. We talked about marriage, and I said to him that I would do it, but only if I could raise Mormon babies. He promised that I could. But I don’t know if he really thought much about it because I was pretty inactive at the time.

Eventually we became engaged. It did not go over well with my parents. My mom flipped out, in her most understated way. I think this was the first time they really understood the magnitude of my spiritual confusion. But, my mom would never do anything to alienate her children, so she tolerated it as best she could. If you compare pictures from my brother’s temple wedding to mine, I can still see the anxiety/grief on their faces.

After we got back from our honeymoon, I went back to Utah because the company I worked for had helped pay for graduate school. I worked there a couple more months before moving to Portland to be with David. I don’t think I went to church at all during those two months. But the first Sunday I was in Portland, I started going. I’ve been active ever since. David went with me that first Sunday and I can remember thinking, “Oh maybe I’ll just drag him with me every week.” But that was not to be.

I don’t know what happened. I guess it was just that I was married now and I needed to go to church because that is what grownups do. I still had the same doubts and struggles I’d always had, but I just felt that if I was going to be serious about being and LDS mom I’d better get used to going on my own. And I tried to put my past behind me. Because we’d never lived in the same city, when I started going to back church it wasn’t noticeable to David, because he’d never seen me go or not go.

During the years before we had children, I taught Relief Society for at least two years. Then I was asked to be the education counselor in the Relief Society presidency. At any point, I could have told the bishop, “You’ve got the wrong lady for the job” but I just couldn’t do it. I decided that if the call wasn’t inspired, it didn’t make any difference, and if it were, God knew me and where I stood, and He wanted me for the job anyway. I have spent most of my active years teaching Relief Society, except for that year teaching Gospel Doctrine. During those years in the presidency, I tried to be faithful. I tried to reconcile things. Once, my bishop asked me why I didn’t take out my endowments, and I brushed him aside with a line about “well, tithing is kind of a tricky thing”, never getting up the nerve to tell him all the doubts that were still in my heart.

I’ve always had this superstitious idea that bishops (stake presidents, etc.) have ESP or some spiritual equivalent. I know it isn’t true, that it is magical thinking, but I feel it is true. And I always waited for someone to ask me what was really going on. No one ever did.

To be continued on Tuesday, June 3

22 thoughts on “Finding faith”

  1. Thank you for your writing talent and courage in sharing so far. Many women in my current ward could have written something similar to your post, and I wonder if (aside from whatever you're intending to share) you might also have any advice on how best to reach out to people in like situations. I look forward to your continuing story.

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  2. You are not alone. Our situations are the same but different. I look forward to hearing the rest of your story. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. I think we're all on one road or another, and we're all learning one way or another. President Faust wrote a wonderful sermon on the topic of testimony back in, oh, I'd say 2003. He talks about doubt and questions and how we all have our own personal journey to travel. It's all part of our own personal learning process. We don't all have to have the same experiences, and we don't all feel the Lord's love in the same way.

    This was interesting to read, and I look forward to reading the rest!

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  4. Oooh a cliffhanger, I love it.

    I too, am skeptical by nature and even though I know the church is true, questioning and being tempted to doubt will always be part of my life. I think its a personality trait, really.

    Since I know the church is true, I keep my doubtful personality in check through self-control. I allow my mind to be very active, questioning, analytical, experimental, etc, but I don't indulge myself in doubt-fests. It drags me down.

    I think we skeptics are a misunderstood lot. Its not okay to say "I struggle with doubt" in Relief Society or Gospel Doctrine. But it is okay to be one of those other personalities that are very certain and less questioning, and less self-examined. I suppose there are reasons for that.

    I love your approach to hanging in there. I think its like love. We know we love our husbands, but if there comes a day when we're not feeling it, we don't proclaim it publicly or divorce. We wait, we work, we believe, and it always comes back. I am intellectually and spiritually "at home" in the church, and though my mind questions everything, I have some answers I will not trade.

    When I feel doubts creep, I know its just my personality. Its just me, being me, the church is still perfectly true.

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  5. I was also raised by parents who did everything by the book, so to speak, but it didn't stop this first-born child from being all kinds of spiritually rebellious.

    I am also eager to read Part 2. Thank you for your candor and for sharing your story–I feel a little less alone than I have in the past.

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  6. I am also eager and curious to read the rest of your story, and appreciate your honesty and openness. This was very interesting to read. I do wish there were more room for us to discuss our questions within our culture.

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  7. I so appreciate your candor. It's always inspiring to me to observe the faithfulness of women who struggle with their faith. I have a dear friend who is very open over the pulpit about her doubts and fears but her very life is a witness to me of her faith. I love her for it.

    Thank you for being willing to share your story.

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  8. I think there are more people than you know who relate to your story. Thank you so much for sharing. Waiting for Part 2…

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  9. "Its not okay to say “I struggle with doubt” in Relief Society or Gospel Doctrine."

    I used to think this, until I said almost that exact thing in Relief Society, and people were universally loving and helpful and kind and understanding. It IS o.k. I firmly believe in the whole "hospital for sinners" idea of church.

    I could really relate to some of the things you wrote. I was a born skeptic too. I can remember clear as day being seven, thinking about baptism and arguing with my mom about how we could REALLY know we had the one true church. "The people in China think they know," (apparently I thought Chinese was a religion) "Catholic people think they know, Jewish people think they know. How can we REALLY know?"

    I don't have the spiritual gift of faith. I have to really work at it, and some days are better than others. I went through years where I was just going through the motions, but the motions themselves were dear to me, and it kept me close to the church.

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  10. I soooo loved and appreciated the honesty in this post. We need much more of it amongst ourselves.
    The other commenters have followed this post up well with the appreciation of understanding and being understood.
    Me too.
    Faith, growth, knowledge and understanding comes in many forms……I think God wants us to question and seek our way of discovering meaning.

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  11. Thanks for this part of your story. I am anxiously awaiting the next. I am also from a "mixed-marriage" I guess. I've never doubted the veracity of the church, gospel, etc. though. It's always interesting to hear from others who are in a similar situation, for whatever reasons brought them to where they are now.

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  12. I really appreciate your honesty. I don't think you should be ashamed to admit at church that you have doubt. I, for one, really admire honesty in a person and would never be judgemental of someone who said that. (Although I'm sure there are lots of people who would freak out if you said that in church.)
    I have known so many people who are in the same boat as you. Some of my friends have chosen to stay in church, some have left it. I guess we all have our issues, and complete faith in the church is a huge one for many people. I really look forward to part two.

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  13. Last weeks relief society lesson began with the statement, "I am, at best, ambivalent about Joseph Smith." It was a wild roller coaster of a lesson, that's for sure. I think there's a place for frank and open discussion (and we certainly had one), but in a church setting, I think it needs to absolutely include hope and at least a mention of the tools we have to find faith. Doubt and concern alone cannot uplift and bring answers. Acknowledging doubts while offering hope seems a course to take to steer clear of a Relief Society lesson rife people jumping on the complaint train. I've seen those kinds of lessons go very badly indeed.

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  14. Justine, finding the fine line between discussion and expression of doubt is something the church struggles with. In other Christian faiths, when that happens, it leads to apostasy and the formation of new churches, right? I cannot remember ever expressing my doubts in any formal meeting. Perhaps if I had, it would have served me better than my silence. The thing that helped me work out my Joseph Smith angst was Rough Stone Rolling.
    Sue, I still think that way. 🙂
    Jke, that is where I'd like to find myself. Most days your perspective describes me now.
    Tonya, I usually feel alone in that while many people say they are doubtful, the still marry in the temple. It seems more okay to question once you've made the covenants than if you haven't. I think on the faith scale, mine is unnaturally low. I couldn't imagine myself going to the temple without a rock solid testimony–whether that is out of superstition, or respect for the sincere beliefs of others, or bit of both.
    Shalissa, I've been thinking about it since yesterday, and I think it comes down to getting to know the person individually, and not making any assumptions. One thing I'd say I don't like is when people who don't know me very well at all ask me if I think he'll ever be interested in the church, do I invite him to activities, etc.? I don't like having to report my missionary efforts to people. Just a couple weeks ago, our ward mission leader changed. I've been in this ward for 6 years. The new WML who has never had one conversation with me heretofore, and probably didn't know my name prior, cornered me on Sunday, wanting to know what the status of things was at my house. I can laugh about it. I know he's just doing his job.
    Thanks for all the comments thus far. And thanks to Dalene. She took probably ten typed pages and edited it down to this installment. She's a saint.

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  15. BYU was a culture shock for me in the worst way too. I spent most of my time at college feeling like BYU was a petri dish of weirdos and I definitely wasn't one of them.

    Faith is a tough question for me because I feel like it's the one thing I'm best at and struggle the most with all at the same time, if that's even possible. It's a constant battle to balance my mind with my heart so I feel you there.

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  16. Doubt is perfectly normal. None of us have perfect belief or faith. If we did, we would be moving mountains. Further, there is nothing that says we have to develop at the same rate. Some people are born with the gift of faith, and others (like me) have to work hard for every speck of faith.

    Based on what you have written above, it seems like you have done most things right. On the scorecard of life, there has been only one person who has done better — Jesus. The rest of us have fallen short of the glory of God.

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  17. Thank you for this post and for your honesty and courage.

    Here are some truths that I have come to understand:

    The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is knowledge.

    There can be no faith without doubt. Doubt is an essential element of faith. Faith is choosing to believe and act in spite of doubt.

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  18. I like a quote by Terry Givens, -something like this: God did not create a world where we could know for certain that he exists. There is opposition in all things and therefore there is doubt about his existence. Without that doubt there could be no true faith.
    I have fought hard for my (little bit of) faith and when I thought I didn't have it I found that I really did have it. I think that the hard fought faith is so much richer and deeper than superficial blind faith.
    I also married a non member. He has since beeen baptised, endowed and we are sealed, but that didn't solve a single thing. He struggles just like I did. And our communication conflicts are all still there. I'm becoming more and more convinced that, member or not, marriages are meant to be hard and make us grow and stretch. Married to a non member, I expected that. What I didn't expect was that his joining would not bring bliss.
    Kudos for this article. Can't wait for more.

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  19. Nicole, I love your comment. I can remember as a teenager so much wanting my patriarchal blessing to say something along the lines of "I know you struggle with faith, but you don't need to because I'm here." It wasn't until several years later I realized that would've only created another set of other problems for me. And really, I try to not worry too much about my husband joining or not (in this life)–I'm doing good just to take care of myself and my babies. I keep wanting to start a blog for all us part-member families to talk about these issues more in depth.

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