Let’s discuss a sentence so often spoken these days by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about those who are no longer believers or followers of that faith, who no longer attend Sunday meetings, who either temporarily or permanently want to get out of or away from it:
They’ve left the church.
If somebody handed me five bucks for every time I’ve heard that statement, inside and out of Latter-day Saint gatherings, I’d have a stock portfolio worth $100 billion.
And when it’s said, it typically drips with dread and despair and outright pity for those exiting.
At the most recent General Conference, church President Russell Nelson said he “grieves” for those who leave the faith because they feel membership requires too much of them.
That’s one common reason folks look for and find a different way. There are many others.
But “grieve” is an interesting verb.
It’s been my own experience in talking with people who have gone through a faith transition for their own reasons, whatever they are, do not want to be grieved for. They prefer to be respected and left unbothered.
And yet, many inside the church view these transitioners, if that’s a word, in a mournful manner, speaking of them in hushed, doleful tones, as though their faith decisions will lead them to nothing but pain and sorrow.
“Ooh, man, did you hear about Brother and Sister Oglethorpe? They’ve lost their testimonies. They don’t want to come to church anymore. They told the bishop they don’t want to be contacted by anyone from the ward. They don’t want to be anybody’s project. Isn’t it a shame? God bless their souls. Remember them in your prayers. They’ve … left … the … church.”
That’s the way it’s so frequently thought and spoken of in mind, word and tone.
Poor, poor pitiful people.
A couple of things here:
• The first is, if those who remain in the church are true believers, they follow the notion that all humans have agency to choose for themselves the road they take in this life. It’s sanctioned by God on high. It was Satan, so the doctrine goes, who wanted every soul who came to this earth to be compelled to tread the “covenant path.” It was Jesus who supported a different idea: Let them decide for themselves.
• Second, a good number of those who decide to leave are, indeed, happier outside the faith than they were in it. Not all. Some have authentic regrets. Some have none. They say they are now moving without shame or guilt to their own beat toward God, or away from God, and they feel fine about it.
I once stood within earshot of churchgoing members trudging off to meetings, saying of neighbors who were loading up their boat to go enjoy a beautiful Sunday afternoon on a lake, apparently craving and embracing time with their family participating in water sports, something along the lines of: “I feel so sorry for them. There’s no real happiness in such worldly pursuits on the Sabbath.”
They looked pretty darn happy to me.
And just because they were boating on Sunday didn’t mean they didn’t worship and honor God according to the dictates of their own hearts and it didn’t mean God viewed them harshly. It was the church members who were doing that.
There’s real danger in those human-on-human judgments.
It’s no revelation that people, even Latter-day Saints, interpret God’s will for themselves in different ways, some staunchly hang with the church, some casually affiliate, some go through faith transitions — for their own personal reasons.
A friend who was a former stake and mission president, a devout believer who had a son who reached a point of disbelief in his teen years regarding the Latter-day Saint faith, confided that his son had had some negative experiences with members and church doctrines and policies. That combination had turned his faith in another direction.
“If those same things had happened to me,” the father acknowledged, “I’m not sure I would still be an active church member myself.”
Another young married couple, each of whom had grown up in the church within their own families and had been taught the word by their parents, and who were married in a Latter-day Saint temple, no longer participate in the church, no longer live by its principles.
They have joined no other denomination, but they believe in God, they believe in treating those around them with human decency, they believe in being honest and in raising their kids to be honorable individuals.
I talked to the parents of that couple, still firm in the Latter-day Saint faith, and they said they themselves had to go through a transition. They had to rid their minds of the notion that there was something wrong with their grown kids. That’s what was indoctrinated in their hearts as they grew up in the church back in the 1970s, they said, that the only real tragedy in life isn’t sickness, it isn’t death, it isn’t terrestrial calamity. It is disbelief. Leaving the church, to them, was a fate worse than death.
They had to deprogram themselves from such thinking. Not only that, but they also became hesitant to attend church meetings anymore, meetings in which speakers or class members perpetuated the principle that their kids — and others like them who left the fold — were going to be damned or limited in some eternal way. What loving parent wants to subject themselves to such teachings, week after week after week?
Not these parents. Not a lot of parents. Not a lot of people.
They love their kids. They want to go on loving them. And they determined that God’s love for their kids is even more profound and perfect than their own. And yet, those ideas, those fears, those condemnations, are heard — and chase them — still.
Search for happiness
If true happiness is to be found only inside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that’s not what parents and people of all stations are feeling or hoping for when their very-much-alive loved ones and/or friends are being mourned or pitied for picking a different course.
In talking to such individuals, some of whom have overcome their earlier indoctrinations, some of whom haven’t, what they’ve either come to or are hoping and aiming to come to is a more powerful word than “grieve.”
That word is … love.
Love, come what may. Love, whether those around them hold onto the same beliefs or not. Love, without conditions.
That’s what Latter-day Saints should do. That’s what real followers of Christ will do. Nobody has control over anybody else. That’s the way, the doctrine says, God wanted it. That’s the way it’s meant to be. People are meant, then, to find their happiness their own way.
Even if you believe the faith is the “only true church,” that personal process enabling solitary empowerment should be celebrated, not lamented, not judged, not condemned, not pitied.
Russell Nelson has forgotten more about the Almighty and his heaven than I’ve ever known. I believe he is a man of God. But if everyone who isn’t an active Latter-day Saint, everyone who isn’t on that covenant path, is to be grieved, then, by the numbers, God has failed and is continuing to fail.
Believing that, coming to that conclusion, would be the saddest, deepest, most miserable nadir of all. In contrast, living and loving and hoping for the best in others as they bump and skid, learn and grow is a far happier avenue to take toward what everyone wants.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.