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“Excruciating”…“the worst pain imaginable”…”I couldn’t believe how much it hurt.”
It’s not uncommon to hear language like this from people walking away from activity, life and membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One dear friend of mine wept right in front of me as she described the pain of this recent separation, repeating multiple times during our visit how other new things in her life “don’t take away the pain.”
So, I asked the natural question that arose for me, “in a previous stage of life when you were happy and active in the Church, this kind of deeper internal pain and lack of peace would have been experienced by you as a pretty good indicator that something was off – and that maybe God wasn’t behind the direction you are going, right?”
“Yes, but not anymore,” she and her husband replied – explaining their doubts about an entity called the Holy Spirit that guided people through internal promptings: “We don’t believe that anymore.”
I found this exchange simultaneously fascinating and troubling. Here was a precious family (and dear personal friends) taking momentous steps down a path that felt downright excruciating (at their own admission). Yet rather than seeing this visceral angst as having any deeper import or meaning (as would have jumped off the page at them at an earlier period), they had arrived at a place where they saw literally no larger meaning or caution in the uniquely intense dissonance tightly correlated with their decision to walk away.
Stories we tell about pain. I first became interested in how we make sense of (and narrate) pain when I interviewed people saying conflicting things about depression: “Prozac saved my life” insisted one woman, while another mother told me, “Prozac led to my son’s suicide.”
How could two families with similar experiences (medication for serious depression) arrive at such profoundly different conclusions and interpretations, I wondered? That same core question still fascinates me today about other contested, complex issues. For instance, what leads two people – both experiencing attraction to the same gender – to reach profoundly different conclusions about who they are, what God wants, and the value of the Church of Jesus Christ as a spiritual home?
Although not everyone who walks away from the Church of Jesus Christ feels the acute pain my friends did – clearly many do, to some degree. What leads two people experiencing this kind of pain to reach such profoundly different interpretations of what it means?
Maybe the same thing that influences those grappling with painful mental health or sexuality questions: competing public narratives swirling all around us. Rather than making up our personal stories “whole cloth” (out of thin air), Dr. Julian Rappaport argues that we almost always draw upon other prevailing narratives around us in figuring out how to make sense of something we’re facing.
This impulse takes on a unique urgency when we’re hurting in some way, as exemplified in Arthur Kleinman’s classic “Illness Narratives.” The bottom line is this: wherever suffering or anguish exists, human beings need some way of making sense of it over time (again and again).
That includes the pain of dear ones stepping away from our own faith community. While acknowledging the sensitive nature of the subject matter, I attempt here to bring attention to the rough contours of two competing narratives that exist to make sense of the exquisite pain experienced by many who step away from the Church of Jesus Christ.
1. The pain of social dislocation. One of the most common ways of narrating this pain is to characterize its source as something expected, even predictable – due to the newfound distance with relationships that may have been enjoyed and leaned upon for many years.
More than simply stepping away from a network of relationships, however, disaffiliation often means walking away from a larger way of life – how to raise your children, care for your marriage, spend your weekends (and your Monday and Wednesday evenings, and your Christmas too) – even how to eat, think about sexual intimacy, and entertain yourself. Departing from this community, then, is far more than just missing the next ward party.
It’s understandable, then, that many have focused attention on painful social dislocation as a way to help people make sense of the pain. From this vantage point, the pain of separating oneself from formerly close connections with many you once considered “spiritual brothers and sisters” just hurts – in a way similar to how a divorce or death of a loved one hurts: this is just how it feels to walk away from a community where you’ve had close ties for so long, with so many.[i]
No doubt, some of the pain people experience in stepping away really does have a lot to do with this kind of social dislocation. But should social separation hurt this bad?
2. The pain of something deeper. A second way of making sense of this same exquisite pain doesn’t deny the pain of social bonds dissolving, but argues this isn’t quite sufficient to explain the whole of it. From this vantage point, there is something more that people are turning away from here than mere community connections.
From this vantage point, more than simply walking away from social ties and community connections, those walking away from the Church are also turning away from precious promises connected to so much that matters in the future. For those of us who believe that these sacred promises have real, binding force in this life and the next, it doesn’t surprise us, then, to hear of the excruciating pain. In that hurt and that anguish, we hear the heartache of someone ripping themselves from the protective, life-giving womb of the Kingdom of God on earth.
And yes, that hurts! It just does, intrinsically…a lot.
That’s what we would expect. And that would be the other way of making sense of it all.
While the differences in these contrasting interpretations alone are striking, it’s remarkable how little direct comparison these competing narratives receive.[ii] Although it’s interesting to simply juxtapose them, as I’ve done above – it’s when you play them out over time that fresh insights really start emerging.
‘It gets better.’ Similar to what teens are often told who are considering “coming out,” this is a message departing members hear too: “Even if it hurts bad to take this step at first, don’t worry – eventually things start to get better, and hurt a lot less.”
And this ends up being true for many people, in both cases. If it’s terrifying, scary and painful to “come out” initially (with very different narratives to explain why), eventually an individual settles into a new trajectory, things stabilize, and so, yes, it hurts less. And for someone leaving the Church, even if it hurts initially, things do end up stabilizing eventually and feeling better – even a lot better, according to many people’s accounts.
Subsequently, one of the most common things we hear from those walking away is that they’re “happier than they’ve ever been.” (It’s rare to hear anyone stepping away who doesn’t insist on something like this). Thus, Jana Riess describes a woman named Emily who “can’t deny that she feels profound relief now, because going to church had begun to cause her pain.” She later notes that Emily “says she feels more at peace and closer to God than she did” when actively participating in the Church.
Pretty compelling account, right? How are active members to make sense of something like this?
For one, let’s acknowledge one mistake we often make – namely, to deny happiness that former members report finding and experiencing in their lives. The God we worship leads everyone to find as much happiness as they can – including our brothers and sisters who have turned away from us.
But sincerely acknowledging such happiness doesn’t mean it’s beyond scrutiny. And to question something (as I’m about to do) is not the same as minimizing or denying it.
Your happiness and mine. There’s definitely a lot to talk about when it comes to happiness (in and out of the church) – including many things rarely touched upon. For instance, when someone has arrived at a reactive, pained relationship with the Church and its leaders, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that stepping away from all this would bring some kind of tangible relief.
That’s how it feels to step back from a reactive, painful relationship, right? (Phew!)
Likewise, to cut oneself from commitments and obligations that had come to feel (for different reasons) “stifling” or “controlling” also naturally feels predictably “freeing,” maybe by default. And to come to own (maybe for the first time) a pursuit of truth on a much more personal, individualized level, is also an exciting, even romantic prospect – especially if you felt somehow constrained in that pursuit during your previous experiences within the Church itself.
And let’s be honest, when you put yourself in the shoes of Emily and others who have made the decision to step away, isn’t there a bit of exhilaration that comes with saying “hey, I’m going to do whatever I want this Sunday” or, “now I don’t have so much reason to stay away from coffee (or alcohol or weed or porn) anymore, so…why not try it?”
I’m not suggesting that former members all gravitate to these things (they don’t) – but simply to note that these activities do have their kick![iii] (The first drink of alcohol is famously described in AA as kind of a transcendent moment – with many similar stories about marijuana and porn).
Whatever short-term relief or high might come up initially, I’m arguing here that an accurate picture of what’s happening must look out and pay serious attention to the long-term ripple effects.
Narrating the long-term picture. Whether someone initially experiences pain or relief in stepping away from the Church, a clear view of what’s happening needs to play it forward into the future. Although both active and former members love to claim full vindication in the presumed clarity of these longer-term views, I would argue that the distant view is NOT always so easy to discern and make sense of…especially because of two seemingly contradictory patterns:
1. First, things that bring short-term relief often lead to longer-term difficulties (think drugs, alcohol & the average American diet).
2. At the same time, things that involve short-term challenge can also frequently lead to longer-term payoffs (think vegetables, exercise & hard work).
In my observations of (and interviews with) people who have stepped away from the faith, I’ve noticed how both of these seemingly contradictory trajectories show up in the narratives of many members walking away.
For example, after the nightmare (or honeymoon) of walking away fades, life can still be really hard – even sometimes harder than before they left (pattern #1). That’s something privately acknowledged by some on occasion, but much more rarely spoken about publicly.
And when it comes to the second pattern, I don’t have a hard time believing my friends when they say they’ve gained new insights and profound truth during their time away from the Church. How could they not?! (My own experience studying Buddhist insights or secular psychology has been mind-expanding as well).
Sometimes these fresh insights or growth, however, are held up as some kind of defining evidence that confirms the validity of their chosen path – aka, “how could I be learning so much if this was really such a horrible decision I made?”
Once again, that’s admittedly a good question! Shouldn’t they be fairly consistently miserable if they, in actual fact, have walked away from the Church of Jesus Christ set up in the last days?
Not at all(!!)
Guarding agency ferociously. Let’s say that God is, indeed, communicating very clearly in those initial painful moments of people walking away – trying to convey through internal promptings how dangerous a choice they are making. Would that same God keep up the painful dissonance constantly (incessantly, relentlessly) afterwards?
Not if God intends to continue being God! The God we worship honors agency. If that same unrelenting pain were to continue, no one would walk away from the Church – or be able to freely! Why not? It would hurt so bad that people would be forced to come back.
That’s why the internal pain has to wear off! If the depth of angst were to continue indefinitely, God would, in essence, not be allowing anyone to leave. And, conversely, since the pain does legitimately decrease – people are genuinely free to make that choice.
How else could someone be free – truly free – to walk away from exaltation and celestial glory?
Think about it: If all that language of eternal destiny is not just a super great fable – but, in actual fact, a land of ultimate promise and indescribable joy for His people, then there must also be a legitimate way to opt out. Otherwise, our God who works “without compulsory means” (D&C 121:46) would essentially be bribing, and gaming us into His way of living through undeniably wonderful rewards.
There seems to be “no other way”…except arguably just what we’re experiencing: veil, mortal confusion + real-space-in-which to choose.
If that’s true, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when these our beloved brothers and sisters saying goodbye come to experience some real happiness and sweetness in their lives. That’s how a loving God works with His children: guarding their freedom of choice as absolutely crucial.
Even so, we might still justifiably ask and wonder: how deep does that happiness go? And how long will all this sweetness they highlight to us last?
Even Jesus himself, according to the Book of Mormon, cautioned that alternatives to His path would give their adherents “joy in their works for a season,” with subsequent warning about what comes next.
The witness of a countenance. That’s not just an archaic scriptural warning for me. It’s witness to a reality that I see evidenced in people’s lives and faces all around me.
Speaking to you now, my former brothers and sisters, I often hear you tell me you’re “happier than you’ve ever been before.”
But then I meet you, sometimes years after knowing you in a previous ward. And almost always, the contrast from the person I once knew is striking.
‘Truth comes through the face of the other,’ taught the Jewish-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.[iv] And I’m suggesting (gently), that your faces often tell me a different story than your words.
I gave a talk last year in my rural, ward community of humble loving neighbors, followed by a presentation not long after to a group of grappling or former members of the Church. Compared to the lightness in the air with our local congregation, I was struck by the heaviness in the air with this latter group.
Countenances were laden. Faces were somber. And the pain was palpable.
One dear brother who had previously emanated seemingly unremitting peace and sweetness every time I saw him, now carries with him a permanent angst – even when he smiles. Another who used to express tender love for fellow Saints is now so full of chronic hardness towards his former people, he refuses to even be near most of us, let alone return messages.
Are these the fruits of greater truth and light and knowledge?
I can only speak from what I observe. And clearly, you know your own personal experience better than I. But I don’t see a depth of joy and peace in your new life that compares to what you’ve left behind.
Some of you would surely argue the opposite, insisting that our congregations always felt heavy to you – while your “post-Mormon barbecue” is an absolute joy. And I don’t doubt – I really don’t – that you have found additional light, precious truth and real goodness in your journey since leaving (there really is so much of that out there!)
It’s also true that we don’t (and can’t) know what your own quiet moments are like – or what you feel deep in your heart and soul. Is it peace? Is it the kind of deep, abiding joy that doesn’t go away, even when tragedy strikes? Is it sweetness like you once experienced serving, teaching and growing among your fellow trying-to-be-Saints?
If you insist that the joy in your life today is “better than ever,” why can’t we readily see that in your faces?
Sometimes, we do. But so many other times, we sense a fragility and an underlying ache – always right below the surface.
While compelling voices will continue arguing that any such discernible angst is explainable by social disconnection (and the ongoing trauma of separating oneself from the Church), separating from one’s social group shouldn’t hurt this bad.
There is something deeper going on – something more consequential than not eating funeral potatoes and green jello with as much regularity! If there is truth behind our witness, it is the bread and water of an abundant, eternal life that you are foregoing.
Could that be why this hurts so much? And why other things don’t seem to fully satisfy that hunger or deeply fill that internal hole?
That is my testimony – and heartfelt warning to you, dear, precious, wandering and still-beloved brothers and sisters.
Come back! We need you.
Not for the numbers. But for the joy. And for the deep, palpable peace you can again feel in our midst…and soon! That’s why we’re going to continue doing what we can, while we still have time, to help you see again that you’re not only oh-so-welcome to come home – but you might well be happier once you do!
That’s our prediction – and humble prophesy. Whatever hard conversations we need to have, let’s have them. Whatever hurt feelings and misunderstandings we must transcend, let’s begin. And whatever reconciliation we must find as brothers and sisters once more, let’s do whatever it takes.
Because you are worth it. And the future we can share together deserves everything we’ve got.
Please at least pray about it, once more. And if a sudden flash of peace or sweetness arises when you do, pay attention. Because that feeling means something.
It means Someone wants you home.
[i] Additional trauma is also often attributed to the psychic pain of certain convictions around sin, repentance – and the difficulty of stepping away fully from these kinds of beliefs some consider to be “shame-inducing.” Although that has invoked increasing discussion, the more central public explanations for this pain still largely center around the dissolution of social bonds.
[ii] While yes, each explanation gets plenty of attention within their respective loyalist audiences, there really is little by way of back-and-forth analysis.
[iii] So, also, does that more individualized pursuit of truth and God invoke an excitement – divorced of any institutional constraints. How much more exhilarating to sit at the feet of meditation gurus in India (or Ted Talks), than seeking inner impressions while sitting in a routine, sometimes pedestrian worship service each Sunday!
[iv] See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, (Duquesne University Press, 1969).