The Gift of a Religious Faith Crisis

When you first experience a religious faith crisis, it can feel like a terrible nightmare — like your world has literally fallen apart.   It may feel for a time like you are lost, broken, and irreparably damaged.  In a word, a religious faith crisis can feel utterly devastating.

And please don’t misunderstand me.  There are countless deaths that you will likely experience throughout the course of your religious faith crisis.  This can include the death of: 1)  your identity, 2) certain family relationships, 3) close friendships, 4) your relationship with your faith community, 5) your basis for morality, 6) your source for spirituality, 7) the respect that you once enjoyed from believing family, friends, and community members, 8) certainty, 9) your once-cherished beliefs, and world view, and 10) your foundation for meaning and purpose in your life.

So.  Many.  Deaths.   And trust me – each death will need to be mourned, through all the various stages of grief including: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and testing — ultimately leading (hopefully) to acceptance.

So please take your time, and shamelessly mourn each loss.  In fact, lean into the mourning, not away from it, as the only way out of grieving, is through it.

But I have a message of hope for all of you who are experiencing, or will experience a religious faith crisis. One advantage that I have gained over the past 16 years of supporting literally tens of thousands of Mormons through their religious faith crises has been to see how these situations play out over time — after the “deaths,” after the mourning, after the grieving has concluded, and after the pieces of one’s life have been put back together into a new, authentic composition.

And as tragic as a religious faith crisis may feel, and in spite (or perhaps because) of the many deaths that can and will occur – what I can tell you with absolute certainty is that the vast majority (99.9%) of Mormons that I have supported through their religious faith crises have emerged from the experience concluding that their religious faith crisis was in fact not a tragedy — but instead was an incredible series of priceless gifts.  And the gifts of a religious faith crisis can include the following:

Note: This essay is about the move away from religious orthodoxy – whether it takes someone towards more liberal/progressive forms of Mormonism, or out of Mormonism entirely.

  • You may lose your identity for a time, but if you do the work, you have the opportunity to gain an identity of your own construction.  This new identity can be based upon your highest and most mature sense of values, integrity, truth, and authentic conscience.  You have the change to exchange an inherited identity for an identity of your highest, truest, most authentic self.
  • You may lose your extrinsically-based code of morality for a time, and you may even make some serious mistakes along the way.  But from this faith crisis you stand to develop a more mature, intrinsic sense of morality, that is based on your own life-tested sense of right and wrong, and upon your own conscience (which you will come to know, once you allow yourself to listen to it).  In short, you will trade someone else’s sense of morality for what you know for yourself to be right and wrong.  You will not be “obeying” for the benefit of Gods and angels who may be keeping score, nor for an afterlife that may or may not come.  Instead, you will choose to do what is right because you are deeply grounded in an intrinsic sense of authentic morality.
  • You will likely lose friends, but you will learn the painful lesson that some (if not many) of the people you once called friends were never really friends to begin with.  More importantly, as you discover and reach out to others who have also experienced similar losses to you, you stand to gain as a replacement the most deep, rich, and meaningful friendships you could ever have imagined — friendships that are based on authenticity, emotional intimacy, mutual respect, and unconditional love.  You will exchange your superficial friendships for genuine friendships.
  • You may lose your church-based source of spirituality for a time, but you will discover that spirituality can be found everywhere….in nature, in mindfulness and meditation, in art, in music, in cinema and theater, and perhaps most importantly, in authentic human connections.  You will replace corporate, institutionalized spirituality with intrinsic, deeply personal spirituality.
  • You may lose your church/faith community, or feel disconnected from the mainstream, but you stand to gain, if you search for it, a new community of more authentic and genuine relationships based on truth, tolerance, diversity, respect, joy, deep intimacy, and unconditional love.  If you are lucky, you will trade a shallow community for deep community.
  • You may lose respect for many of your church-based role models, prophets, and heroes.  But you will gain role models and heroes of truly historic proportions, such as Mahatma Ghandi, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Brene Brown, Alain de Botton, Carl Sagan…the Suffragettes, the Freedom Riders, etc.
  • You may lose confidence and belief in some or all of the scriptures you once cherished, but you have the opportunity to acquire new scripture from modern (or ancient) authors.  For me, these scriptures include books like A New Earth, East of Eden, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Chosen, The Promise, Out of Control, The Course of Love, etc.
  • You may lose your sense of false certainty – but you will soon realize that certainty and control are always illusions, and are also the sources of much judgment, arrogance, insensitivity, and even violence.  As your certainty fades, you will find that reality (over false certainty) is a much stronger foundation upon which to build a life.  You will exchange a life based on false certainty for a life based on reality.
  • You will likely experience a deep disruption to your marriage (if you are married) – but for many, this disruption either leads to: a) a much deeper, stronger, intimate, and more fulfilling marriage, or to b) new committed relationships that are much more grounded in authentic emotional intimacy and connection.  You will exchange a marriage based on contractual, conditional love for a marriage based on true emotional intimacy and companionship.
  • You could possibly lose a set of resources and community to help you raise your children (if you have children), but you stand to gain much more authentic relationships with your children that are based on mutual respect and deep emotional connection.  And you will eliminate for them (and future generations) a potential source of incredibly toxic control, shame, and guilt.  In short, you will replace the tendency to parent by control, manipulation, and guilt with parenting through deep, authentic connection.
  • You may lose the somewhat superficial anesthetic that orthodox religion provided you regarding death and the afterlife, but you stand to gain an increased value for life in the present moment – life in the now – which is the only concrete thing you ever really had/have.  You will exchange a life possibly wasted on an unknown, unforeseeable future with a life deeply rooted in the present moment.
  • Finally, you will most certainly lose a sense of meaning and purpose in your life – as your life’s purpose (as an orthodox member) was to serve the church, and to earn Celestial glory in the hereafter.  But what you stand to gain from this loss is the opportunity to develop your own sense of meaning and purpose in your life, and to base your remaining years on activities and endeavors that “give back” to humanity in ways that are deeply fulfilling for you.  You exchange a life based on someone else’s constructed sense of meaning and purpose for activities and commitments that you personally choose, that are deeply meaningful and purposeful to you, and to those you care about most.

To conclude, you will certainly lose a great many things in your religious faith transition.  It will be deeply painful, and you will mourn it.  But in the end, you will gain the most important thing you could ever obtain.

You will gain the rest of your life.

Comments 25

  1. This resonated deeply with me. I was a Mormon until the age of 30, when I lost my faith (right in the middle of Sunday School, as I was following along in the Book of Mormon and hit a passage that directly contradicted something I’d read days earlier in the Doctrine & Covenants). This shook me to my core, and almost cost me my marriage. My wife (now deceased) remained a faithful Mormon for years, until she had her own faith crisis when our oldest child came out as transgender, and the local authorities made her feel as if she had to choose between the Church and her child. She chose her child and joined me outside of the Church.

    Yes, there were all of the deaths you described above, and we both had to mourn them. It was easier for her, as I fully supported her and helped her navigate her new path, but she still had her struggles with it.

  2. HOPE! This may be the best piece I have read in regards to faith transition. You captured my feelings and experiences perfectly. Thank you!

    I don’t have words for the pain. So much loss with many deaths to mourn. It really does get better with intentional effort to put one foot in front of the other. Living in the now with true authenticity is very different than when I was TBM…liberating! This life is beautiful 💗

  3. The proverbial two-edged sword. Ripped through my previous life with a viciousness I can’t express…and I AM so grateful to be on the other side of it.
    I wouldn’t trade my freedom from fear to ever return to the cesspool of lies and deceit… and the shame guilt and confusion.
    Thank you

  4. John, thank you for sharing these words of wisdom here. It has been 4 years since I began going through my religious transition out of the LDS faith. Who would’ve ever thought that something I revered and cherished so much, could in turn be the cause of so much pain and anguish? That being said, during the time I was going through the worst of it, I had no idea, how much I was going to grow and stretch, and in a myriad of ways, which I now believe I needed/wanted to on a subconscious level. As I now reflect on back on the beginning of my transition, I wish I would’ve known how to handle/ understand it better, but really how does one do this when taking the risk to walk on uncharted territory? This sentence, “So please take your time, and shamelessly mourn each loss. In fact, lean into the mourning, not away from it, as the only way out of grieving, is through it,” is spot on. And although as I said I wish I would’ve realized that this was an integral and natural part of the healing process, the important thing now is to share it with others who are in the beginnings of their own faith crisis. It is difficult to describe in words, how happy I am now, to be living my life on my own terms, suffice it to say that Love, Truth (standing for it) and Forgiveness, are now the center of it. Thank you again John, for starting the dialogue all those years ago, for being willing to risk everything that you did for Truth’s sake.

  5. Yes, so many things lost and also found. I found you and thank you for being there to help me through it. This piece is wonderful. You’ve put into words what I feel and continue to work through. Thank you John.
    P.S. I’ve processed mostly everything through my faith crisis on my own, some with my supportive husband, my best friend and you (and Mormon stories). I feel a deep need to write my story as a way to get it out, define it and further process it. Any suggestions?

  6. I was so naive in my loss of my religion. I didn’t realize how it was so deeply woven into my every thought and interaction. It’s been two years. I continue to encounter grief in unexpected places. I do not long to go back. But man, this has been much more difficult that I ever anticipated.

  7. You’ve captured the experiences my husband and I are going through- stages of grief regarding so many loses. One day and week at a time, we are rebuilding our lives- as a couple and individually. Each of us has unique parts to grieve. Each one of us goes through the process on our own timeline.

    For me, it’s a process of accepting my own decisions, based on my own understanding. I have never felt disowned by God- quite the opposite, whoever or whatever this force is, I have felt loved and accepted.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom John❤️

  8. The process of individuation (becoming the person I was supposed to be before religion got involved) has been a deeply gratifying aspect of my transition–albeit painful at times. I’ve lost “friends,” but gained Long-lasting friendships with others.

    My life is authentic, and authentically created by me. I feel so free. Thank you, John.

  9. Losing faith is a big deal, but it doesn’t have to be an end to your relationship with the church. More and more members these days are continuing to attend despite a lack of faith because they see the benefits of living clean, moral, disciplined lives and being a part of a community with strong family values. That’s the boat I’m at least, what helped me reach this point after going full atheist was learning about near death experiences (NDE) and realizing the existence of an afterlife.

  10. Wow! Thanks for your insight, John, and your ability to put these things into words. I’ve been out for 12 years, still grieving, still learning and working to understand myself and my life. “You may lose your sense of false certainty – but you will soon realize that certainty and control are always illusions, and are also the sources of much judgment, arrogance, insensitivity…”; this resonated with me. I used to be so “certain”. It’s a whole new life I’m working on, and I’ve never felt such happiness, nor such sadness, and half the time I’m scared. My husband passed away three years ago, and I realize so many things now. We really didn’t know who we were, not really. I was such a “copy” of what I thought I should be. Now I’m learning to be more authentic; it’s hard work. I wish I could say this better, but “Thank you, John” for all the work and effort you do to help people like me.

  11. I read this and the tears start flowing. And i started my journey out 6 plus years ago. Very poignant, moving and right on. Thank you John.

  12. Nicely written! One note: I don’t hold Mother Theresa in large respect after reading Hitchen’s essay, “The Missionary Position”.

  13. Thank you John Dehlin! You continue to support me through my transition. You are kind, thoughtful and generous. You are one of my heroes, you and Wonder Woman. Thanks for your thoughtful guidance.

  14. Very accurate and helpful insights John. As a little girl, I remember sitting in the Salt Lake Tabernacle singing, “We Thank Thee O God For A Prophet” with David O Mckay there. The song went on ” to guide us in these latter days”. My convert parents had survived WW2 in Germany because of the church and immigrated our family to America. The ‘restored gospel’made me feel so secure growing up. Questioning and learning truth was a natural and given in my family and the church at the time. I served a mission in Austria in 69-71 which was very difficult and began alot more questioning and doubt. Things began changing in the church about then. Questioning was no longer encouraged and alot of muzzeling as a member and teacher began. I was loved as a RS teacher, gospel doctrine teacher, and GPrinciples teacher. But then told I could not teach out of anything but the standard works. I mentioned how the GA’s quote Billy Graham and Mother Teresa and told that they are superior to me. Studying church history made me have many doubts. When my husband never got the spiritual witness of Moroni’s promise and Paul Dunn fabricated his spritual stories,he left the church. I prayed so hard as to what to do as our marriage was falling apart. This is when God led us out of the lds church and to new truths in other churches. We found the Holy Spirit among so many non Mormons and God everwhere. It saved our marriage and brought usvthe other gifts you mentioned. “Prove all things and hold fast to that which is good.’ We have kept the good from the lds church, but discarded the bad. Johns podcasts helped us sort things out. Thank you John!

  15. This is an uplifting piece for those who have transitioned or are currently transitioning out of the church. But for those who may not be totally out, or for loved ones who are nowhere near leaving the church this read much differently. Mr. Dehlin’s list of possible blessings that come from a faith crisis come across as assertions about every believer’s world: He or she has a false identity, no true sense of morality, no meaningful relationships, zero appreciation for historical (and contemporary) heroes, contractual or conditional love, more or less a wasted life. For an author who I know values an individual’s particular experiences and stories, these were very large brushstrokes with which he painted the experience of all believing Mormons.

    It is my experience that it is indeed possible, and even “right” I daresay for some, to live their truth within the construct of the church, continually creating their identity, refining their sense of morality, growing in their friendships, book clubbing Braving the Wilderness, striving to be present, etc. People who stay are constantly journeying as individuals. And it’s patronizing to suggest that that really only happens once you shed the shackles of Mormonism, so to speak.

    1. These are great points – and the type of feedback we are wanting from readers. In fact, we had just talked about much of these types of issues earlier today in our weekly meeting… and I will be writing a blog post in the next day or two addressing some of what you cover here. Thank you!!

      1. Also… for what it’s worth John was not writing this purely from the perspective of people who are leaving the church. It’s written from the perspective of faith transition regardless of what one does with church attendance.

    2. Post
      Author

      Sarah – LOVED your feedback on my recent essay! I feel super badly that it felt offensive and invalidating to you (and likely others).

      I tried to improve the text to be more clear, and less offensive to those who remain LDS.

      Honestly, as Natasha suggested in her comment on the blog, this essay is about the move away from religious orthodoxy – whether it takes someone towards more liberal/progressive forms of active Mormonism, or out of Mormonism entirely. In that sense, I would have probably had you in mind for this very essay (if you’ve moved from orthodox Mormonism to more progressive, liberal Mormonism).

      Regadless, I hope the edits make the essay more clear, and less offensive to you and others.

      FWIW, this is tricky business, because so many post-Mormons felt validated by what I wrote, so there must be some truth to it! But at the same time, our hope is to validate and inspire without offending (where possible), which I will work to do a better job at!

      Thanks again for taking the time to write!

      John

      1. Thanks for your response. No need to feel bad at all. The essay didn’t offend me–it was simply concerning to me.

        I am very sensitive to arguments that “sort” people into an US vs. THEM dichotomy. We see it happening throughout our country with a vengeance based on politics, sexuality, or anything really. It’s possible that I imposed a Practicing Mormon vs. Ex-Mormon underpinning in your essay, and if so, I apologize. The essay does feel better thinking about it in terms of moving from religious orthodoxy to something other. And yet, there still is this problem, in my opinion, with suggesting that moving away from religious orthodoxy makes you SO DIFFERENT from “that group” who makes up the most orthodox. I don’t believe we’re all that different.

        Those that go through a faith transition (everyone at some point!) will indeed struggle and feel alone. But maybe we could nonetheless consider, on a human level, just how much we still have in common instead of celebrating just how different and how much better we’ve become.

        This is indeed tricky. I’m all for helping to validate and inspire post-Mormons who are feeling alone, but certainly not at the expense of others (who likely feel alone, too, which is the sad reality…) (Wow, I’m a real downer this morning!)

        I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

  16. I am struggling with this. I live in a small town in a flyover state. I am an elected official in a prominent position. I have had a long long path of leaving. Huge family, deep pioneer roots in our community. I’m the only one. You say that I would find others who agree with me and support me. No one here. Not my wife, not my parents or any of my siblings. Why must it be so damaging to family. What I know now is more convincing to me than my “testimony” at my most committed times, including when I served in the bishopric. I hope you are right John. I hope you are right. But I feel alone in this. I’m the odd man out. I’m the one they look at and say “he must have sinned.” That sucks.

  17. John — I don’t for a second doubt your good faith in drafting this essay, but I must say that it seems to me to reflect an almost unrecognizably narrowed view of Christianity (and Mormonism) as well as a lack of appreciation for the ethical challenges posed by the exclusive humanism that you seem to be proposing here. On the first point, the idea that Christianity somehow jettisons practical reason in favor of the will to believe is simply not true. Sometimes, I realize that we Mormons can be guilty of fideism (taking things solely on faith), but I think that’s a bug, not a feature of the religion, and of course the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition in Catholicism doesn’t understand this to be what it’s up to. As to the point about ethics, the idea that one can and should somehow create one’s own meaning without some external source of the self is debatable at best. I think that one of the greatest contributions of the truly great David Foster Wallace was showing us in real-time how one highly intelligent and earnest individual tried mightily to accomplish this feat and failed tragically. Other, non-theists, have identified this same problem and also come up with rather empty solutions. (See for example, Dreyfus and Kelly’s “All Things Shining” where two distinguished Harvard philosophy professors agree about the problem posed by exclusive humanism but try to solve it (unsuccessfully in my opinion) by advocating that we rediscover the “shining things” in artisanal food and cold brew coffee). More generally, it seems to me that you are suggesting here that a Mormon faith crisis inevitably leads to a life focused solely on human flourishing with no appreciation for the transcendent. The problem is that that is at best only one possibility of a faith crisis — I don’t see why a Mormon faith crisis couldn’t lead to a transition within theism. And what’s more, I also think the jury’s still out on whether exclusive humanism is even the best possibility. (Charles Taylor, one of the greatest living philosophers, doesn’t seem to think so at any rate.) At the very least, your essay seems to ignore all of the philosophical problems associated with such an earth-bound approach to ethics.

  18. I’ve noticed a pattern for some who leave Mormonism; they tend to move to humanism and a dependence on intellect and the scientific model of research for their security and guidance. The discounting of emotions as a source of spiritual information seems quite popular as well. I’ve watched former mission companions make political ideology their new God, with some insistence that others must accept their new views, values, and lifestyles. I’ve also watched more labeling and vicious ad hominem attacks because I don’t agree with changes. Social media has become a stage for all to become experts and spread their brand of religion. I don’t see unconditional love, very honestly; I see too much judging and “fundamental attribution error”.
    Relationships shouldn’t be filtered through ideologies (e.g., agreement with liberal ideology); it’s no better than the conditional regard experienced by some former Mormons. I’m disappointed by some former members who are quick to label and condemn if individuals disagree, for example, with a woman, a minority, or individuals within the LGBT community. I don’t want to talk to these individuals who attack others for disagreeing or complaining about a member of an aforementioned subculture – it’s becoming insane! If my boss is a female, and I don’t like her management style, anything I say might be filtered through the new ideological god (humanism and liberalism) – I’ll be labeled a sexist for saying the same things I’d say about a male boss.I’m old enough to make these observations – it wasn’t this way prior to common use of the Internet. We could disagree without attributing such remarks to demographic variables. I’d love to see this change.
    Oprah did the same thing with people who disagreed with Obama (e.g., policies) – the broad brush of ‘racist’ was applied. Not only are such tactics hurtful, they are not true and can destroy relationships.

    Bottom-line: Whether Mormon or not, seeking to understand those who might be different from former or current views/values is the first step of acceptance.

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