When Someone You Love Leaves the Church
I was recently somewhat surprised when a dear longtime friend and associate of mine contacted me with a question. This was someone whom I had, in the past, had many long and inspiring gospel discussions with both in person and via email or electronic messaging. This person grew up in the Church, had served a successful full time mission, and had faithfully served in many varied callings throughout their life. But through the years this person had also had some periods of spiritual wanderings and questions, like many (and in fact, probably most) of us do, but for the most part would be considered a faithful member of the Church.
Now living far away, this person suddenly contacted me one day with the following question, “How can you tell when a prophet is speaking as a prophet or if he is just speaking as a man?”
In itself, this a very profound question… and one which I will not answer in this blog post, but will give my personal thoughts about in a subsequent, Part 2, posting sometime in the future.
What at first seemed to be a simple, but deep question, led into a discussion which lasted for several days and eventually became a way for this dear friend to inform me that they were leaving the Church.
I won’t go into all the length of the discussion or their personal reasons for leaving the faith; people likely have a myriad of different reasons for making such a decision, and my friend’s reasons may be different than those of others. But what I want to focus on is what I experienced personally from this exchange, as well as to share some profound thoughts and enlightening truths from this still-very-dear-friend which I think will be beneficial for all of us.
My first reaction to the news was probably like many of yours would be. I was trying to answer their questions with gospel related answers and my own personal testimony, as if in attempt to cut through the fog I assumed they must be experiencing to make this decision. But as I pondered, prayed and sought guidance over their situation and tried to honestly consider what they might be experiencing, my thoughts began to take a very different direction. I began to consider how I could help them rather than trying to preach to or convince them of “the error of their ways” according to my beliefs and opinions.
What I felt guided towards instead, was to open my heart to the realization, “It is not your responsibility to judge, but to love.” So instead of trying to answer questions, I tried to shift my focus to that of listening. Not in attempt to support their direction or condone their reasons why, but instead to offer support to THEM, the person who I loved and cared about and wanted to have an ongoing relationship with. I tried to offer respect, understanding and love.
But first, let me share a few profound thoughts they shared with me, which will help lead in the remainder of the things we should all probably consider. Here are just a few of the things they shared,
“What's difficult for me as well is that there's no graceful way to leave the church. If I talk to my bishop or stake president, if the church was really in the similitude of Christ, you'd think that they would just say ‘Brother __________, we appreciate your honesty. Most of all we want to thank you for the incredible many years of service that you've given to our church. We thank you for the full two years you spent in _________as a missionary serving the people there. We appreciate all the many callings that you've accepted and how hard you've worked at every one of them. We will always be here for you if you need us, you are still our brother, let us know if you need anything.’ Unfortunately that's not always what happens. Instead everybody jumps to conclusions about sinning, worthiness, apostasy, deception, ignorance, or some other problem that must have caused it. If you leave the church it's because you've been sifted out, you're not worthy, you're too weak to pass the tests or endure to the end, Satan has deceived you, or some other negative assumption. It's also treated as though eternal families are being shattered and ripped apart, which is worse than an actual divorce, and so on. I don't want to be treated or thought of as a threat, unworthy, dangerous, someone not to talk to about religion, somebody to be careful of and stay away from. All of that makes me sad and doesn't need to happen. I'm not diseased because I have different opinions. I'm not dangerous to anybody. I don't want everyone to avoid me or avoid talking about the gospel around me. I'm just the same guy I always have been. I have done a lot of service for the church and within the church for my entire life, I hope everyone just appreciates everything I've done and can see it that way instead.”
He went on to add, “I'm still the happy fun loving good person that will do anything for you if you need me. I'm still doing a lot of good for a lot of people. I still have a hope in God and am learning to really deeply trust in Jesus Christ.”
For those of us within the Church, consider the profound impact and personal nature of what this person shared!
Far too often, and far too quickly, we tend to pass judgement that is NOT ours to render. Now DON’T get me wrong, I am NOT saying we should accept or condone others beliefs or behaviors which are different than our own or which may be contrary to that which God has given. I am also not saying that we can’t share our own thoughts or opinions. Our personal views, beliefs and opinions deserve as much respect as those of others. But what I am cautioning us about is to not pass any form of judgement in which we try to elevate ourselves above others who choose differently than we do. The simple truth is that we are ALL sinners and fall short of the glory of God, whether in the Church or outside of it! Each and every one of us is dependent for salvation upon the merits, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ if we have any hope of returning to our heavenly home.
Please Note – that by saying this I am NOT suggesting that the only reason people leave the church is because of sin! I am simply saying that we are all imperfect and fall short of seeing the BIG PICTURE in its entirety. Each and every one of us suffer from various spiritual maladies and, like wounded soldiers on the battlefield, should be more focused on putting our arms around each other and helping us get to places of safety.
Let’s take a deeper look at that analogy of soldiers on a battlefield for a moment. In an actual army, you will find among its troops those who are Atheists, Catholics, Mormons, Jewish, Baptist… and the list goes on. During the midst of battling a common enemy, their differences of belief aren’t the issue of concern. They are united against a common enemy. The enemy of those troops will try his best to cause division among the ranks, separate them from each other, and perhaps injure and destroy each other through friendly fire and deception. In similar manner, all of us who have different personal religious beliefs are on a common battle field, fighting a common adversary – the devil. He works his hardest to divide us, deceive us, and cause us to fight amongst each other, rather than having us united in our struggle against him.
During battle, soldiers all experience something different. Everyone suffers different kinds of wounds. Some may be shell shocked and hiding in a foxhole in fear. Others may be hit by flying bullets. Some may be maimed by unseen landmines. Others may be questioning the orders of their Generals as to why they are there and what they are fighting for, not understanding the reasons their leaders are employing the strategies and maneuvers they are asking them to perform as they look at the bigger picture of the war. And the list goes on. The truth is none of us comes through unscathed.
But in the midst of all this fighting, those of different beliefs look at each other as Brothers in Arms. They put their differences aside, and often risk their own safety and ignore their own injuries in attempt to help those also injured around them. They are focused on helping each other and defeating the enemy, rather than turning their weapons on each other.
We might also note that just because one soldier may have lost a limb, while another suffers from PTSD from what he has seen, and another struggles with the grief of friends he has lost, they don’t have to experience the same things as the others to still have a common bond. They rally in support of each other’s various experiences with understanding and compassion, not expecting the others to have the same types of experiences and vantage point they have in order to fully understand. As they share their personal experiences, they have respect for what each other has been through and rally in support for one another.
In similar manner, we all have our agency and life’s battles inflict different kinds of experiences and spiritual wounds upon us, which shape us and change us over time into who we become and how we see and comprehend things around us. Each of our experiences is personal and different from others. But rather than letting those differences divide us, we should try harder to view each other with kindness, brotherly compassion and support.
Now getting back to our original discussion. Personally, I do firmly believe that the best way to access that grace and mercy is through the authorized priesthood covenants provided through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But those covenants are hollow and carry no spiritual power towards salvation if we are in violation of the Two Great Commandments to “Love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” And, “…love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Mark 12:30-31)
And, that God we profess to love and serve, and who commands us to love our neighbor also commands us not to judge or condemn others who sin or live differently than we do, but instead, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
Do we truly understand what He is saying here? He is saying, not that we have to go with those who are different than us, or believe the same way they believe, but that we should love them and treat them with kindness and dignity. I would assume the majority of those who choose to leave the Church for various reasons (like my friend) are NOT our enemies. They are simply people trying to find their own way in a very difficult world. And they need our help and love, not judgement. Especially when we really don’t understand what they are going through.
In the end, each of us is imperfect and reaching out towards the Lord in our own personal way, crying, “Lord, I believe” confident that our path is the right one. But being imperfect as every single one of us are, we need to truthfully add, “Please help thou mine unbelief!”
What the gospel is NOT is a pedestal of pride, upon which we can stand and look down upon others who we think are somewhere spiritually beneath us. Rather, what the gospel IS, is a means to access the love and grace of Jesus Christ and help others to do the same in respect and kindness.
If we truly believe in our Lord, then we need to consider that those He despised were the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees. Instead, although He NEVER condoned unrighteous behavior or justified sin of any kind, He spent His life among the sinners, the physically and spiritually sick and afflicted, and those in need of His love and help. He put His arms around them, and invited them with kindness to come and experience instead what His love could offer in regards to healing and hope. Should those of us who profess to follow Him do any differently? After all, we all fall into the category of sick and afflicted and need His grace.
So from my very limited and imperfect personal perspective, may I offer a few thoughts and suggestions as we encounter those who have left or are considering leaving the church for whatever reasons:
1. Don’t judge or be so quick to preach. Take time to truly listen to their concerns (without having to compromise your own standards and beliefs) and offer genuine support and let them know you care and they are important to you.
2. Don’t assume the reasons why they are leaving the Church. (Very rarely will we ever have the full picture or a complete understanding of what they have been and are currently going through and why they are making the decision they are at this time.)
3. Don’t shun or quit talking to them. (These are the moments and times they likely need your friendship, love and support more than ever)
4. Don’t avoid the topics of religion or the Church completely. (The gospel of Jesus Christ is and should still be a very large part and the center of your life, but it shouldn’t dominate every conversation. Simply let the light of truth shine through your life and example.)
5. You don’t need to blame yourself, especially if it is someone very close to you. (People each make their own decisions in life regardless of their circumstances.)
6. Offer support through expressions like, “I am sure you didn’t make this decision on a whim, and I am sure you have legitimate concerns and I trust you are doing what you feel is best for you. You will always have a place here and in my life. Although we may see things differently I still love and respect you.” Etc…. (Note – you should genuinely feel what you are saying in these comments. If not, spend time on your knees pleading with Father until He softens your heart with Charity so you can truly have love and compassion for that individual who He still loves and cares about!)
7. Be careful with the words we use to refer to others who have chosen through their own agency to leave the church. Although the Savior Himself shared the parables of the “lost sheep” and the “prodigal son”, we need to have caution with the terms we use which might be seen as condescending or offensive to those who are choosing differently than we are. In talking to my friend, he mentioned that church members often refer to those who have left the church with terms like: stray, apostate, fallen, falling away, struggling, confused, deceived, and so on. In his own words he said, “Nobody wants to ‘go astray, be confused, or fall off the deep’ end of anything. Who wants to be seen like that in their community, family and friends? Nobody!” Instead, perhaps we just need to both view and refer to others as simply “Brother” and “Sister” and speak in terms of “loving and serving” them, which is far more inclusive and supportive. After all, we, as fallen, wandering and imperfect individuals ourselves have no power to save or redeem anyone, including ourselves. Instead, as we offer kindness and Christ-like support, then both parties get to feel and experience the power of His redeeming love and life-changing grace.
8. Trust in the Lord and His perfect, redeeming and infinite power to save all of us! Far too often we worry and stress about ourselves and others around us. We want to put things on our own timetables and have things happen in the way we think they should go. And while we do need to have compassion and a desire to change and better ourselves and help others, we need to trust in the Lord’s ability to help each of us through our own mortal journey and back to His presence according to His perfect knowledge and timing. He knows, loves and is aware of all of us, including those who have chosen to leave the church.
Although these suggestions are in no way even close to exhaustive, or intended to be so, I hope they will at least begin to get us thinking about how we approach our association with each other, both within and without of the Church and faith.
The gospel is a gospel of love, learning, growth, change and compassion. And it doesn’t have to be compromised to still extend the loving and constant invitation (not from any flawed individual on earth), but from the Lord Himself, to, “Come unto Me.”
He stands with open arms inviting each of us into His divine embrace, no matter where we are currently in our lives. How foolish it would be of us to think we should or could close that embrace to others who don’t currently share the same way of thinking that we do.
Personally, I am grateful to my friend for sharing his personal thoughts and feelings with me, and that he trusted me enough to do so. His viewpoints and comments have broadened my perspective and helped to open my heart to new levels of understanding about the gospel, my membership in the church and what it should mean in my life. And although we have different viewpoints on many things, we still love and respect each other. And because of these new found views and perspectives, I feel myself to be a better and more Christ-like member of the church because of it!