I’ve always been a very active member of the church and have always been very passionate about studying the gospel. While in high school I enjoyed going on missionary “splits” often and was involved in sharing the gospel with many of my friends.
My mission, even though was hard for me, was a highlight of my life and an extraordinary experience. After coming home I went to BYU and had an even better experience teaching in the MTC for two years.
BYU, for me, was more about religious exploration than anything else. For this reason I majored in Philosophy so that I could work for and take as many classes as possible from Terry Warner. His work on self-deception changed my life and framed my spiritual journey more than anything.
After BYU I continued my intense gospel study while in business school and living in Arizona while single in my 20’s. During this time I taught gospel doctrine class for 5 years or so, served on the Stake High Council, and continued to push and expand my gospel understanding. During this time and while I was at BYU I had a series of sacred spiritual experiences that motivated me to seek deeper and ask harder questions about the spiritual possibilities available in this life.
What I experienced during this period was very difficult for me. The gospel that I was being taught at church, and the gospel I was experiencing personally, seemed to grow apart. I found myself less and less interested in church (even though I was always active) and increasingly interested in the things I was learning in scripture and privately.
It should be noted that at this time I wasn’t following anyone else, or reading other books, or persuaded by gospel authors. It was exclusively what I was reading in the scriptures.
In my early 30’s I finally married and around the same time became deeply alarmed about church history that I had always been told was fabrications of anti-Mormons.
So, as with many people, I read a lot of church history, and developed deep anger and cynicism. I felt the fundamental narratives had been untruthful, and I was also discouraged that there were so few people that could address these questions. The church seemed to be an organization driven by collusion group think, unable to address serious questions with everyone reading from the same script.
I had too many spiritual experiences to leave the church, but I also lost all respect and was deeply distrusting of church historians and leadership. I felt the church lacked the institutional humility and transparency that it required of its members, and therefore were losing much of their membership, including me.
The Turn Around
I knew that I couldn’t carry my anger forever, and I also couldn’t be a wet dog shaking my cynicism and bitterness over everyone in Sunday school classes and in groups of family and friends. I had two siblings leave the church during this time and in many ways didn’t blame them. In some ways, I thought they were more honest than me by separating from a church where the cultural practices were far more negative than positive. This put me in a place that I need to either go one way or the other.
At this time I decided to pray about what exactly to do and to act on it. And these prayers gave me two impressions.
The first was to study Joseph Smith. Thoroughly. To know him inside and out. To become completely absorbed in the founding prophet of this dispensation and what exactly he thought.
The second was to clear the table. Take everything I thought I knew – all of my assumptions, knowledge, history – all of my gospel understanding, and clear it off the table. I shelved all of it, to the degree that is possible. And I decided to start studying the gospel for the first time, as if I didn’t know anything.
So this led me to the scriptures and Joseph Smith. I started asking questions like, what is faith? What exactly is repentance? What is a prophet? What is priesthood? And on and on…
And this process was exhilarating. What I learned was that I knew absolutely nothing about the gospel. Nothing. I always arrogantly thought that I knew the gospel inside and out, and that there wasn’t much else to learn. But what I did learn was that I had no idea about anything. It was as if I was discovering a new religion.
And the reason was I was reading the Book of Mormon for the first time. And the Doctrine and Covenants. Really reading it. Not assuming that I already knew what it was talking about, but looking at every word as if I had never come across it.
For example, when I read the first passage of the book I asked new questions. Here is the well known passage:
“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.”
These are the questions that this verse produced:
- What was the learning of Nephi’s Father?
- What does it mean to be highly favored of the Lord?
And most importantly,
3. What are mysteries of God?
And so the Book of Mormon radically changed my spiritual growth. I felt that I was learning a different religion.
As my study continued I found the spirit guiding me to ask questions like,
What does it mean to be born again?
What is a baptism of fire?
What is the Holy Ghost?
What is a prophet?
What is the atonement?
What is an ordinance?
What is priesthood?
What is a temple?
And so on…
And then the Lord introduced me to Andrew Ehat. For those of you who have not heard that name he is a foremost scholar on Joseph Smith in the church, and is the editor of Words of Joseph Smith, the most comprehensive collection of the sermons of Joseph in a singe collection.
Not only did Andrew have a second-to-none understanding of Church history and the doctrine, he also had the spirit and faith of someone that was a servant of the Lord. He was someone I could trust. And I spent hundreds of hours with him getting to know his mind and the mind and heart of Joseph Smith. He was able to help me discover new heights of understanding while being faithful to both the historical record, the correct doctrine, and the Lord’s prophets and apostles.
Because of a renewed discovery of scripture, Andrew and uncovering Joseph, I also discovered the theology and power of the temple for the first time.
The Great Principle of Revelation
Even though I learned, and had re-formulated for me, a completely new understanding of the gospel and the church, there was one primary principle that changed everything. I believe this is the single most important thing a person can do if they want answers and want to navigate their faith crisis.
It is found in this verse:
“And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them” (2 Nephi 9: 42).
If a person wants revelation it is governed on the principle of a broken heart. What a broken heart means in this sense is that a person is willing to let go of any position, pay any price, be open to completely receiving and obeying the truth before the Lord will reveal it to you.
And you have to decide this upfront. It’s the first move.
If you put conditions on the Lord that he has to meet your expectations before you will believe or accept truth, he will withhold from you. If you set up hurdles for him to cross before you will accept him, or you hang conditions on your faith, you will be stuck until you let them go.
If you hold on to a doctrinal view, or a political view, or a social view, as a requirement for God to meet before you will follow him, you will get no where.
For example, if you expect God to affirm your intellectual requirements, or your views on social justice, or your political perspectives – or if God has to be prove to you that he is in the image you have made of him – he will not open up to you.
If he must agree to your views on gay marriage, or feminism, or plural marriage, or infallibility of prophets, or that Brigham Young was a scoundrel, or Bruce McConkie is the final word on truth – in whatever way you have dug in, whatever it is, you will not connect with him in a way that he can endow you with knowledge.
Everything must be on the table.
You cannot put any conditions on God.
This may be the hardest, but most important thing to do. But it is the primary requirement.
What are the conditions that God has to meet before you will accept him? Or will you accept him without qualification, at any sacrifice, and follow the truth no matter the implication?
If you can get to this place then there is hope. There is a path. And he can start to teach you.
If you will submit in prayer, and allow the spirit to soften your heart so that you can let go of your anger, conditions, and expectations, he can prepare your heart to receive answers.
And he can answer every single question you have. Every one. Not only that, he desires to give you the knowledge that you desire, but it cannot come with bounds and conditions.
You must prepare your heart to receive the word of God. And if you come to him holding nothing back he will open up to you. He doesn’t disappoint.
And it will be glorious.
(This is the first of a series of essays on how to navigate a faith crisis. In my faith crisis I learned a new way of understanding and synthesizing history, doctrine, and culture. This series will explore many of these areas and principles.)