Why I Left the LDS Church and Don’t Feel Bitter or Angry
The following is something I wrote in large part because I know how confusing it can be when someone leaves the church and you don’t know why. I have seen it happen many times in my life and participated in the rumors and speculation that happen afterward. So I wanted you to hear my side of the story. My goal in writing and sharing this is not to disparage the church, but to honestly address issues in a way that might help increase understanding and can possibly help someone on a similar path to mine. For my friends: if you were my friend before, me leaving the church does not decrease my feelings of friendship for you, and while I’m generally not great at keeping in touch, I am always happy to hear from and spend time with old friends (and make new ones).
Also, I try to be as honest as I can in what follows and share how I currently think, including things that disagree with the church’s teachings, so if you would prefer not to read some potentially contentious things, please don’t. I’m a firm believer that everyone should pursue the things they feel positively drawn to and that different things appeal to different people at different times in their lives, so if this topic arouses negative feelings, please don’t read it. I don’t want to be a source of negativity in anyone’s life. That being said, it’s here for everyone, so I invite you to read if you choose to. 😃
P.S. Please forgive any type-os or grammatical errors and look for the meaning behind it (but if any meanings are unclear, by all means, please ask me).
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My parents are “converts” to the church — baptized shortly before I was born. They had no intentions of living the gospel halfway, so I grew up doing everything the church says you should do. I went to church 3 hours every Sunday, went to activities during the week, kept the Sabbath day holy, did Family Home Evening, had daily family prayers, actively attended early morning seminary, did my home teaching, paid my tithing, did full fasts on fast Sundays (no food OR water for 24 hours), etc, etc, etc. Of course I wasn’t perfect, and I was definitely over-zealous in my living of the gospel, but boy did I try hard to do it right. I gave up everything that the church said I shouldn’t have, and I kept at it when times were tough. I served a two-year mission in a foreign country which was extremely emotionally and physically taxing, but I kept going the whole time.
When I returned from my mission, I actively searched for my eternal companion, with her temple-worthiness being the main criterion I was seeking. Although I felt a bit like a failure for not being engaged within 6 months of returning from my mission (the goal I had set for myself based on the instruction of countless leaders who say that our next purpose in life is marriage in the temple), I kept going and eventually found an amazing girl who accepted my proposal of marriage.
We lived a typical LDS newly-wed life: I was going to grad school so I could be the primary breadwinner and she dropped out of college so she could be a stay at home mom. We had our first baby, then our second within 3 years of being married. I went to work and she stayed at home and did a fantastic job of raising the kids. I wanted to be an active, involved parent, so I took less challenging work assignments so I could be sure to be there for my family and make sure I could actively fulfill all the callings and service opportunities that were asked of me by the church. We quickly found that we had little time for anything we enjoyed, and would often spend our date nights getting a sitter then rushing to do a session at the temple then rushing home so we wouldn’t have to pay too much for the sitter (budgets were pretty tight). It was strange that we always seemed to get in arguments either before or after going to the temple, but that was just Satan trying to get us not to do what was important, so we persevered.
Living a life of duty and obligation started to take a major toll on both of us. We both suffered with depression that manifested itself in various ways, but we never, ever dared question whether the church might have something to do with it. We started to revel in the moments when some church-related thing was cancelled and we could relax for a little bit. Stake conference became one of our favorite Sundays (aside from General Conference, of course) because having kids gave us an excuse to go sit in the relief society room and watch it on TV where we could relax, eat some snacks, and enjoy our time. We started going to counseling to try to figure out what was making us so unhappy. One of the things we often tried was redoubling our commitment to the church: going to the temple more often, attending more service activities, and paying a more generous fast offering. But those things, while they sometimes seemed to help (especially the service), did not yield lasting relief.
All along the way, I would occasionally have these crises of faith, where I seriously doubted the “truth” of the church. I had experienced them ever since my mission where I couldn’t feel the truth of the things I was saying about Joseph Smith and the founding of the church. I remember a tearful consultation with one of my teachers in the MTC (missionary training center), where I concluded that I had been ignoring the Spirit in my life for too long, so now I was desensitized to it, but I would eventually feel it if I kept going. One time after I was married, I even felt inspired in the temple to stop going to church, which was super confusing. Of course, I assumed these were just Satan’s temptations, but they were really difficult because they were accompanied with questions in my mind of why I wasn’t worthy enough to feel the Spirit that would confirm to me the truth of everything once and for all. What had I done wrong this time? And there was always something I wasn’t doing well enough… so I tried harder, and most of the time, the feelings of doubt would go away as I filled up my life with things that didn’t give me time to think about them. Plus, “there are a lot of good things about the church”, I would think, and it makes so many people happy, so why worry about my doubts? After all, I should doubt my doubts, before I doubt my faith. And since a testimony is gained in the bearing of it (and by extension, living of it), if I just keep at it, eventually my small, weak sapling of faith will grow into a mighty tree that bears sweet fruit… So I kept at it. (I would later learn that the ideas of continually making public affirmations and investing more and more of your life into something are persuasion techniques that have been very effectively used in all areas of the world, including getting POWs to make public statements betraying their countries, and getting people to pay exorbitant amounts of money for things they don’t want or need).
One day, after I had recently experienced another crisis of faith, I was preparing a lesson for Sunday School, and the lesson said that we should work out the truth in our minds first, then ask God if it’s true. So I decided that I could apply this principle to my testimony, and I started working things out in my mind. My first order of business was to make a list of all the things that made me believe the church was true versus all the things that made me doubt. I was surprised to find the doubting list to be longer and more compelling than the truth list, but that was okay, I reasoned, because my mortal brain can only understand so much, so thoughts can be deceiving. You need to rely on the Spirit which talks more to your heart where you just know something, even if you don’t fully understand it. So I took my exercise with a grain of salt and kept moving forward. One or two Sundays after that, I was in Sacrament meeting (the main weekly meeting, like Mass), and one of the awesome, loving ladies in our ward got up and shared some thoughts that seemed laser focused at me. She was speaking to anyone who was feeling doubts about the truth of the church, and said that she knew the church was true, and anyone who was doubting could know it too, but until they got their own testimony, they could rely on hers. She was so loving and caring and kind, you could just feel the warmth emanating from her, and a large part of me thought that this was the answer I was looking for.
At this same point in time, I was doing a really good job of living all the things I was supposed to live as a member of the church: I was reading my scriptures daily, fulfilling all my callings including Home Teaching (a notoriously difficult one), keeping my thoughts clean, and even writing in my journal regularly. As always, I was not perfect, but I was doing as well or better than I ever had in my life — I was even repenting quickly of the things I was conscious that I did wrong.
Two more weeks went by and I was buoyed up by the idea that I would eventually get the strong testimony I so strongly desired for so long. I kept at my efforts to live the commandments fully. Then I was in Sacrament meeting again, sitting there paying attention to the speaker, and out of the blue the thought popped in my head as clear as day, “What if the church isn’t true?”. “Oh that Satan, always trying to tempt me”, I thought… “But how strange that he’s tempting me so strongly while I’m in Sacrament meeting and doing a good job of living the commandments.” And then I realized that the thought I had was absolutely light, clear, and peaceful, just like the fruits of the Spirit are described in Galatians. So I started to think what that would mean, and my mind immediately started thinking of the good things in the world that are not related to the church that I could seek out and align myself with. Books by CS Lewis and other spiritual people. Self help gurus who actually help people. Quality family service activities. Good entertainment (i.e. movies, cartoons, etc) that was not created by any members of the church but nevertheless uplifts millions of people and is even accepted by church members as something good to watch on Sundays or as part of a lesson. I could seek out and study all of this stuff if I freed up the time I was taking in pursuit of church-related activities.
So I began to take small steps toward following this inspiration to see what kind of fruit it would bear. I took to heart the whole “experiment upon the word” concept from the Book of Mormon and decided that if I tried to follow incorrect inspiration, it would soon become apparent that it was wrong. Plus, Heavenly Father didn’t want me to fall into Satan’s hands, so as long as I kept close to Him in prayer and studying and kept seeking out His inspiration, He wouldn’t let me go astray.
One of the first things I did was stop paying tithing. This was both a large, and simultaneously reversible, step I could take to test the inspiration I had received. The church teaches that paying a full and complete tithe is critical for feeling the Spirit, being worthy of the temple and all the blessings you had received there, and not being burned during the Second Coming of Jesus. Not paying tithing is robbing God. But some people pay it all at the end of the year, so I could always pay it back if needed. So I stopped. And I waited. And I paid very close attention to my feelings and the external indicators of well being in my life. Not only did I not feel a decrease in my spirituality and well being, but if anything, I felt a small increase.
My next step was to talk to the Bishop about my calling. I loved the camaraderie I felt with my class and I absolutely wanted to help them live good lives, but I couldn’t, in good conscience, teach them about how true the church is when I was becoming more convinced that wasn’t the case. I told the bishop about my doubts and he was very understanding and “released” me (i.e. I was no longer a Sunday School teacher). Over the next few months I slowly and cautiously took more baby steps away from the church, all the while paying very close attention to my spiritual state. I even asked multiple people who were close to me, but who hadn’t seen me for a long time, how my countenance was looking and whether they noticed any difference in me? Universally, the answer was no — everything was great.
I had not broken any serious commandments related to alcohol, drugs, sexual infidelity, etc. 4 or 5 months in, and I reached the conclusion that removing my garments was the next step of my experiment. For anyone familiar with the church, this step is incredibly serious and carries with it some of the most grave consequences imaginable, including losing your temple blessings, “being destroyed in the flesh”, and potentially losing your exaltation, which means never seeing your family after death and not making it to the highest level of heaven where you can continue procreating (possibly with multiple wives) and creating your own worlds. All along the way I had been sharing my thoughts and my journey with my wife, and all along the way, she had been understanding and supportive. This step though, was not even a little bit easy for her to swallow. In her experience and everything she had been taught, it amounted to me wanting to throw away our marriage (and most likely cheat on her) and abandon the family all together. She had heard stories of couples that had gotten divorced just for one of them taking off their garments while mowing the lawn, and from all the stories she had heard, having an affair was the most logical thing that followed the step of going out and buying regular underwear. We had long discussions about this and I assured her those were not my intentions, but I did not want to keep conforming to something that I was getting more and more personal evidence was not true. She came through like a trooper and supported my decision. I still remember the incredibly strong feelings of guilt and of needing to hide I had when I went to Costco to buy a pack of boxer-briefs. I kept looking around me to make sure no Mormon friends would see me buying what felt to me like contraband (yes, Mormons can buy regular underwear and I could’ve said I was getting it for playing sports or something, but I knew why I was getting it and I was extremely nervous about getting caught). I made the switch and waited for the lightning to strike (haha, not really, but seriously, this was far and away the most serious thing I had done yet). What did I feel? Great. Not like when I stopped paying tithing and felt possibly a little uplifted. I actually felt happy, light, and free. It occurred to me that it could’ve been some kind of spiritual adrenaline rush, so I kept paying close attention. And I kept feeling great, long after the initial rush of euphoria wore off.
For me, this was the element that took me from cautious experimentation to more certain knowledge that I was on the right path. The whole time, I had been consuming positive, non-LDS books and videos and had been learning a ton that helped me in my life. I didn’t focus on why the church wasn’t true, but how I could live a good life and embrace the good of the church without the unnecessary parts. Now I allowed myself to take some small glimpses into the things some people said about why the church wasn’t true, and I was shocked to learn about some of them. What I discovered was a history of dishonesty, some of it verifiable in the church’s own records. I started to see why the early members of the LDS church were persecuted as Joseph Smith would move his cult (I say that from the perspective of the people at the time) into a new area then start hitting on and trying to marry the teenage daughters of some of the residents there. The whole tarring and feathering incident in the middle of the night? Yeah, that was done by the father of one of the girls he tried to seduce — and I would have wanted to do the exact same thing. Yes, one could say that those are just lies made up by enemies of the church, but there sure were a lot of enemies of the church. You could subscribe to the idea that there are just so many non-members out there who follow the devil and fight against truth and light. Or you could believe what my experience has shown: 1) The vast majority of people are well intentioned and want the best life for themselves and their families, and 2) When multiple groups of people in multiple areas think something is wrong, there might be a reason for it. Even the people who didn’t attack the early Mormons still asked them to leave. Why wouldn’t people want God’s people around? Anyway, I don’t need or want to go into the reasons why it’s not true, but there’s a lot of real evidence out there which, at the very least, makes it not unreasonable to doubt the validity of the church’s claims (for one non-angry source of verifiable information with citations from the church’s own documentation, see “cesletter.org”) .
Again, I shared this stuff with my wife, and over the next couple of months as we both saw the positive fruits of this new path, she took off her garments as well and experienced similar benefits. We made the decision not to baptize our 7 year old daughter when she turned 8. It’s supposed to be their choice when they turn 8, but is it really a choice when you teach them their whole lives that it’s mandatory if they want to be good, be happy, follow the Savior, and be “saved” when they die? (Which the church does not define outright, but vaguely hints that salvation means not going to hell, or at least not missing out on your opportunity for reaching the highest level of heaven — really the only level that means anything because the other levels don’t let you progress or be with your family or be in the presence of god, etc). Then we worked on the incredibly delicate and sensitive task of telling our families, both of which were active LDS at the time. They took it about pretty hard at first, but didn’t disown us. They were still loving, but they couldn’t initially understand how we could’ve strayed so far and wanted to give up the promised blessings available exclusively through activity in the LDS church, not only for ourselves, but potentially thousands of our posterity. However, as with every shocking thing, they got through it and things settled down after a few weeks, and to their credit, they have been very respectful of our decision.
So where are we now? Life continues to be life and provides opposition just like it did when we were in the church. But it’s no longer quite as taxing because it doesn’t cause us to feel personal guilt for being on the wrong path and separating ourselves from the Spirit. We have more fulfillment, a stronger marriage, happier kids, more time to spend together, and more money than we ever had before. Sunday has become one of our favorite days as it’s truly a day of rest, happiness, and togetherness. We have had adventures that we’d previously only dreamed about having (partly because we can afford them better now), including living overseas as a family. We have developed much stronger relationships with our non-member family and friends and discovered that many of them are amazing, inspiring people. We’ve learned that inspiration is available to everyone and has absolutely nothing to do with activity in the church or adherence to its commandments. Some people call it your conscience, the light of Christ, your inner voice, Universal Intelligence, your sixth sense, intuition, your Other Self, or God, but whatever it is, we have learned that you can tap into it and it will help you live a good life and make good choices. We’ve also learned that the “bad” things in life are only bad if you decide they are bad, and that often on the path to follow your dreams, you will encounter opposition that may seem terrible, but is not only necessary, but also incredibly enriching along the way. Although not easy to do, we are training ourselves to feel and express real gratitude for this opposition — not like, “I’m grateful that I’m going through this necessary evil so I can get it over with as fast as possible and get to the good stuff”, but “I’m grateful for this challenge which is part of life, gives me experience, may make me stronger, and will allow me to more fully feel and appreciate the things I like, and may even help me develop the qualities I have to develop to live the life I truly want”.
One of the things I am most grateful for is the diminished role of fear in my life. I used to be seriously afraid of a lot of “bad” things that might happen — I had woken up numerous times in the middle of the night worried that someone was trying to break into the house and would kidnap my kids. I was afraid of the evil that I and my kids would encounter in life and the negative impact it would have on us. And I was afraid I might screw everything up and my eternity would be one of loneliness and regret. Part of the reason I felt this fear so strongly is that the church teaches that sometimes God warns us of impending bad things through negative feelings, which if you study the scriptures, you will realize is absolutely false because: 1) God/the Holy Ghost does not speak to us through negative feelings, and 2) God has not given us the spirit of fear, and 3) and a little more subtly, God guides us toward what we should do rather than just telling us what we shouldn’t do.
It’s my opinion that the LDS Church is not “true” in the way that it claims to be true. There is simply too much evidence, both external and in my own life to accept that this is the one true God’s one true church. However, I still subscribe to the idea in Moroni chapter 7 that “all things which are good cometh of God…” and “every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God”, and I am not so stubborn as to say that no one has ever been inspired to do good because of the church. Nor can I say that there aren’t thousands of other, non-LDS people and organizations out there that haven’t inspired people to do good, etc. There are definitely true reasons to believe in the LDS church and true reasons to not believe in it, so what I can say is that it’s not for me or my family at this time. I could theorize about how God could inspire the formation of a church that claims to be, but isn’t “true”, but instead what I choose to focus on is how I can live the best life possible. My mission in life, aside from personally enjoying it, being happy, and spreading that joy, is to help people learn to listen to their inner voice and have the courage to live the life they want to live. I don’t judge people who have left the church and are angry; angry for feeling deceived, for the pain and guilt they’ve needlessly endured, for the experiences they’ve missed out on, for the abuse some of them have experienced, or for the large amount of money they’ve spent (In the ~4.5 years between getting a real job and no longer paying tithing, I calculated I gave ~$40,000 to the church — a small price to pay for eternal salvation, but an incredibly large sum for something that turns out to not be what it claims to be). But my life is healthier and better when I focus on the positive and what I want to move toward, rather than what I’m moving away from. I don’t think it’s generally healthy to leave the church out of anger. One should leave because it makes it easier to fill one’s life with other good things. One should leave it if one feels inspired in a positive direction, and not because of anger or frustration (not that feelings of anger or frustration mean that you should NOT leave the church, but they are not positive directions to move in). The risk church members are so often warned about of having your life “fall apart” after leaving the church is, in my opinion, not a factor of leaving the church, but of cutting off positive influence and movement in your life. Our environments, including those with whom we associate, have an extremely strong influence on our lives, and if we choose to expose ourselves only to base people and environments, our lives will likely become like those things.
So, if you’re considering leaving the church like I did, please consider seeking out good things to fill your life with. There are plenty of them out there, and they don’t require paying a lot of money or joining another church (of course, churches provide support groups and regular positive messages, so they’re not all bad, but they often require you to also swallow other things that may not be as healthy or as true). I’d recommend checking out “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, “Man’s search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie, and anything by Les Brown, Earl Nightingale, Tony Robbins, Napoleon Hill, and Eckhart Tolle. Those are just some books/authors that resonate with me. Listen to the messages and thoughts that appeal to you and are light and good and peaceful. Follow the traditional wisdom that’s shared across most every religioous and non-religious tradition: love people, don’t hold grudges, develop your talents, spend some time in quiet meditation/stillness/prayer, be true to yourself, and so on. And remember that the spirit of fear is not from God, so any thought or feeling that makes you afraid in a vague “what if something bad (i.e. some unknown thing) happens” kind of way, is probably not coming to you from God (not like the fear you feel from a concrete threat like a dangerous activity or animal or situation that is in front of your face right now) . You might consider ignoring them all together, or at the very least not following them as a guide about what to do. God would most likely inspire you to positively and happily move in a different direction, rather than scare you to NOT move in the direction you were planning. This doesn’t mean you’ll never encounter any unexpected opposition, or that your life will become totally awesome when you leave the church. Even when you do things that you feel inspired to do, you will encounter opposition because it’s a necessary part of life (that’s a subject that requires more space than I have here, but it’s as necessary as oxygen and as unavoidable as gravity — it WILL happen to everyone, and it SHOULD happen to everyone, and it’s up to each of us to decide what meaning we want to assign to it). But when you experience things that make life difficult or seem to derail you from your path and goals, you can remember that it is likely temporary, definitely necessary, and be grateful for it. Feeling and expressing deep gratitude for everything in life (both “good” and “bad” things) is a major influencer of life satisfaction and possibly even attainment of one’s goals. If you choose, you can even think of opposition as “good” because it helps you to grow and live a happier life.
Either way, these are just some of the ways I currently look at life and that help me to feel happy and fulfilled. Whether or not they apply to you or anyone else doesn’t matter; what’s important is that everyone lives the life they choose to live, not worrying about what others think. After all, all my ideas could be totally wrong…