In the wake of General Conference this weekend I found myself doing a bit of “ponderizing” about my choice to continue in my faith. In the course of this meditation I came to understand some of the key reasons that keep me active in my religious persuasion. Of course we all have our individual testimonies, but I wanted to look past those things for a moment. Why do I stay in the church despite the many forces in the world that aught to be pushing me away from it?
It’s no secret that being an active Latter-day Saint is no walk in the park. The requirement of Mormonism is an all-inclusive 10%. That’s 10% of your money, 10% of your time, 10% of your talents and 10% of your life. The only thing that’s not 10% is your dedication to it. That requires 100%.
But is 10% too much? Most active saints know of a family member or friends who has slowly or suddenly drifted away from the church at some point or another. Is it because the church too demanding? Leaving the church isn’t like leaving a book club. If becoming a Mormon is a big lifestyle change, then leaving it as just as big. So why do people decide to leave?
In my experience there are 3 main reasons people leave the church:
1. They can’t reconcile the past.
When people come to find out that the history of the church isn’t as stark white as they thought it was in primary it can really take a toll on their testimony. This breaks down into two common areas:
- Questionable History: Things like the Mountain Meadow Massacre, Joseph Smith’s wives, or early saints leaving the church.
- Controversial Doctrines: Things like polygamy, blacks and the Priesthood and multiple sealings.
2. They can’t reconcile the present.
The church has come a long way but to some they haven’t come far enough. People become at odds with the way the church operates currently, especially in relation to social issues. This also breaks down into two common areas:
- Political ideology: They have a particular political belief like the rights for gays to marry or the rights for women to hold the priesthood that supersedes the churches stance on those issues.
- Unsatisfactory conditions: They have a bad experience with a bishop or a ward and refuse to continue to be a part of any organization that could produce people as seemingly malicious or insensitive as they were.
3. They can’t reconcile the future
They don’t hate the church but they can’t see themselves continuing to live it. Priorities shift and views are altered that inhibit them from continuing forward. This breaks down into two common areas as well:
- Lifestyle conformity: They have a particular lifestyle that they want to live and they decide that it is more important to them to live that life than to live a lifestyle within the church.
- Demand of proof: In a world of instantly accessible data they begin to demand for evidence for things like Nephite DNA, Horses in the Americas or the manuscripts of the Golden Plates in order to stay a Mormon.
Of course these aren’t all of the reasons, but from my experience they cover a vast majority of them. Oftentimes these reasons will stack on top of each other as well. Someone might want a to live a certain lifestyle, so they slowly begin to question church history and eventually demand proof to continue their fellowship. Or maybe they had a bad experience at church which pushes them away from the churches stance and towards their own political beliefs, which makes them question all those controversial doctrines (and really the church as a whole.)
And I understand why. Being a member of the church is like treading water. It requires considerable work to stay afloat. At first it may not be too hard, but then you add in the weight of social pressure, anti-Mormon websites and literature, strange church history, strict commandments, lots of required dedication, and one or two bad experiences at church. Soon enough you can barely keep your head above the water. I can understand why people might want to get out of the pool altogether.
And if that wasn’t enough we live in a world now that is becoming more and more relative and subjective to the individual. Things aren’t as black and white as they once were. It’s not hard for people to ask “Do all all roads lead to the same place?” or “why can’t I interpret for myself what matters most to God?”
Again I ask myself, with all of these issues at hand, why do I stay? There are red flags in church history. There are potentially conflicting church stances with my personal beliefs. There are controversial church doctrines. On top of all that, if I left I could get 10% of my money and time back. Why wouldn’t I leave?
There are a thousand websites that will try and persuade you that the church is a hoax, a fraud and a lie. Not to mention the rest of the world who could tell you that you don’t need the gospel to be happy. But those reasons don’t compel me to follow suit and leave.
These are some of the reasons why I choose to stay:
It’s Supposed To Be Hard
One of my favorite quotes is a very obscure one. It’s by Adlai Stevenson during his 1952 presidential campaign speech. His simple words ring as true now as this they did back then:
“All I say is that nothing is easy, and the best things are the hardest”
Let’s Imagine that there was irrefutable archaeological evidence of the Book of Mormon. Imagine if the Lord had never instituted polygamy and blacks always had the Priesthood. Imagine if the Bible directly referenced Joseph Smith. At that point, how hard would it really be to be a member of the church? Not very hard at all. Do you think that’s what Heavenly Father wants? Look no further than the third chapter of Genesis where He “cursed is the ground for thy sake” and “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” These aren’t condemnations, these are blessings. The Lord understands that we must work for those things which are most important and that we will appreciate the sweet by experiencing the bitter. We know from the words of Abraham that this life is a test:
“And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them”
A test is difficult by nature. If it were not so, it wouldn’t be much of a test. In other words, God knows that we will appreciate the things we have to work for and “the best things are the hardest.”
I stay because I know that living the gospel is intentionally difficult.
Think of an accomplishment that you are very proud of in your life. Your career. Your kids. Your mission. Your marriage. Your service in the Army. It doesn’t matter what it is because they all have the same thing in common. In the midst of all of those things, it is extremely challenging. Ask a woman in the middle of childbirth or a man in the middle of a 10 hour shift of his start up company how much they love what they are doing. Odds are you won’t hear too many positives. But ask that person 5 years after the fact and they will tell you how great the entire process was and how happy they were that they did it. There’s a reason missionaries call it the best two years once they get home and not 6 months into it. The gospel is no different from anything else hard. Challenging in the moment. Worth it in hindsight.
I stay because I know I can find joy in the work.
History is Cloudy, Fruits are Clear
One of the more profound claims in the New Testament is in a letter to the Corinthians.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly…”
Put up a dark coke bottle to your eyes and describe what you see. You can make out vague shapes and a few items, but on the whole most things are unclear. The apostle tells us that this is how we will understand many elements of the gospel. In addition to the Gospel, we will almost always look at our own history through that same dark glass. Imagine right now if your neighbor took a fire hose to a group of black kids trying to enter a school. There would be universal outrage. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine. But 50 years ago, when our parents were kids, this act might have simply been viewed as mildly controversial and justified by many. And while 50 years ago, our parents might have been racist, they couldn’t have imagined actually owning a slave. But do you know who could? Their parents about 50 years before them. The point I’m illustrating is that what we find culturally acceptable or moral in our lifetime might be viewed completely differently 100, 50, 25 or even 10 years ago.
The church often gets an unfair microscope placed on it when their history is examined. Take something like marrying a girl under 18. Right now that’s illegal and universally looked down upon but 200 years ago it was viewed differently. We are slow to give people the benefit of the doubt during that era because we are comparing them to our standards, not theirs.
Historical issues become even more confusing when the historical accounts that we have are from subjective people with their own motivations and agendas. We have the convenience now of an abundant access to information and tools for accurately recording history, but those simply didn’t exist during the era of the restoration of the church. Remember that Joseph Smith lived long enough ago that we don’t even have a picture of him because camera film hadn’t been invented yet. Most of the historical records we have from his life are from letters and diaries, things that can be extremely subjective and misleading. I’m not saying to completely throw it out, but it should be taken with a grain of salt.
I stay a member of the church because even when I discover some parts of church history that I might find peculiar or even wrong, I understand that it was a different world back then. I believe that the fruits of the gospel carry more weight than the potentially distorted, cloudy histories of the church. Look no further than the bounteous life that Mormons statistically live. To me, that is a clear fruit of living the gospel. Does that prove the gospels truthfulness? No, but it’s easier from me to put stock into things I do know as opposed to things I don’t know. Even if Brigham Young said that people lived on the sun, that doesn’t change the fact that watching general conference uplifts me and serving my mission made me a better person.
And I stay because despite a cloudy past, the fruit of the gospel is still good.
My Life is Undeniably Enriched
Most of the decisions we make in this life boils down to three main intrinsic desires: joy, truth, and peace. For example, we educate ourselves to learn truth and to gain wisdom. We get in relationships and start families to find joy and happiness, and we work hard in our careers to afford ourselves some peace and tranquility in our lives. The medium in which we reach these intrinsic destinations is typically by understanding two key aspects about ourselves: our purpose and our identity. Knowing who we are and what we are meant to do propels each of us towards the joy, peace and truth that we desire.
I stay because I believe that the church uniquely provides me with purpose and identity which leads me to those desires.
Since the dawn of our species, we have asked questions like “Where did I come from?” “Why am I here?” and “What happens after death?” To me, the church provides answers to all of these questions, and knowing the path that I tread on gives me real a sense of purpose and a true grasp of identity. And with those things I find myself obtaining those intrinsic desires. I find truth in the scriptures. I find peace in the temple and find joy in serving in the Lord’s vineyard.
I stay because the church provides me with a true sense of fulfillment in my life.
I Don’t Fall Victim to Wordplay and Deception
One of my favorite apologist lectures is from Daniel C. Peterson called “Defending the Faith.” He talks at great length about how anti-Mormons will often use wordplay and deceptive tactics to plant seeds of doubt in people’s minds. He uses a brilliant metaphor to explain this. He describes an item and wants you to guess what it is based off his description. This thing is gnarled, twisted, gives off a deceptive scent, finds its nutrients in the muck; and if you grab it you will likely bleed. What is it? Our minds immediately gravitate towards something malicious, but in reality he is simply describing a red rose. Technically everything he said about the rose is true, but the way in which he said it compels us to assume it’s something sinister.
Anti-Mormon websites love to use this method when describing church doctrines. Making practicing Mormons look silly or confused is their only intention. They’ll say things like “Did you know Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers?” This sentence is intentionally crafted to shock its audience. Now when you stop and explain that of course they are brothers because we are all children of Heavenly Father, all of the sudden it doesn’t sound so weird. But if you don’t look past these crafted word plays, then you’re left with a distorted view of Mormon beliefs.
I stay because I refuse to fall victim to deceptive word plays and distorted truths.
I know that by letting those things into my mind, I create a wedge between myself and the church that slowly festers into doubt. In all reality I know there is a reasonable answer for any claim that might seem to question the church. It’s just easy to get tripped up in little thing.
I stay because I don’t believe there is any real reason to doubt in the first place.
I Follow a Faith-Based Religion
If there was one principle l could stress the most to any doubting saints, it would be how instrumental the concept of faith is to our mortal sojourn. In the 11th chapter of Hebrews, we read about how faith was so integral throughout biblical history. But the verse that stands out the most is the 3rd, where is says,
“Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.”
Now, we already know from the first chapter of John that the worlds were framed by the word of God, but how were they framed ? Through Faith. God had so much faith that through his Word he could frame the world. The Lord gives us more insight in Matthew when he says,
“If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”
What does this tell us about faith? That it is absolutely integral to learn and understand in this life. Is it any coincidence that God always reveals himself through a Prophet instead of just coming down from heaven? A prophet gives us an opportunity to exercise faith. As do scriptures, and commandments and all other ordinances required of us. Faith is the muscle we came here to grow, and it’s the muscle that is so powerful that we can move mountains and frame worlds if we can master it. So when I read of controversial doctrines or questionable events in church history, do I panic? Absolutely not. I understand full well that it is yet another opportunity to break down and rebuild my faith muscles.
I stay because I recognize that the Mormon Church is a faith-based religion.
The Church does not say “Let me prove it to you so you can believe it” but rather “You’ll see the proof when you first have the faith that it’s true without any proof at all.” Or in other words when you have “a hope for things which are not seen, but which are true.”
I stay because I don’t demand the burden of proof from an organization that tells me from the get-go that it has no intention of providing it.
I Know That I Forget
Take a step back and look at some of God’s chosen people throughout the scriptures, and see if you notice a pattern:
- The decedents of Adam are blessed if they obey… they forget their commandments and the world is flooded.
- The Israelite’s are told to follow commandments… they forget their counsel and worship a calf.
- The Jews are promised protection if they obey… they forget their covenants and are overtaken all throughout the Old Testament.
- The Nephites witness Christ and have peace in the land… they forget his teachings and ultimately destroy themselves.
Is it any wonder why Christ says,
“How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
“Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember?”
I mean, the Book of Mormon uses some form of the word ‘remember’ over 200 times. We can see from the scriptures we will invariably forget the Lord at some point. What other reason would Christ institute a weekly Sacrament? So that we wouldn’t forget Him.
I recognize that I forget. I do it all the time. I forget how it felt when I received a confirmation of the Book of Mormon. I forget those powerful moments when I taught with the spirit on my mission. I forget those times when I stood on the podium and bore witness that I knew the church was true.
I stay because the way I feel now does not dictate the way I will feel in the future nor does it change the way I felt in the past.
Daniel C. Peterson makes a point about this concept as well, comparing our beliefs to relationship with a divorced spouse. All too often the divorcee will say things like “I never loved him.” The truth is they were in love, they just forgot what that felt like because they became so distant and that void has been replaced with disdain. It’s what happens when we distance ourselves from the gospel as well. We claim to have “never” believed, when in all reality we have likely just forgotten.
Leadership is Needed and Imperfection is Expected
Let’s now examine some spiritual leaders in the scriptures:
- Adam is told to do not something… he disobeys and is cast out of the garden.
- Moses is told to trust the Lord… he doesn’t and isn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land.
- Samson is mighty if he doesn’t cut his hair… he caves to his passions and lets his hair get cut.
- King David is given power to rule because of his obedience…he abandons it and lies with Bathsheba.
- Solomon is also given power to rule because of his obedience…he still turns away from God.
- Peter witnesses Christ perform miracle after miracle…he still denies him three times.
- Joseph Smith translates the Book of Mormon…he oversteps his boundaries and temporarily loses his power.
We can see that it doesn’t matter if you are a king, a warrior, a prophet, or an apostle; leaders are just as prone to making mistakes as the rest of us. And regardless of those mistakes the gospel will still proceed forward.
I stay because I don’t hold the mistakes of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young any higher than the mistakes of Moses or Paul.
Jesus Christ himself came down to earth, was tried and tested, was given help from an angel, and asked to have his burden removed from him. Only Christ was able to endure through the hardships of mortality and that’s what qualified him to be our savior. We claim the church to be the true church, but we don’t claim in any way that its leaders or its patrons are perfect.
But Christ was perfect and his gospel is perfect. Even though his stewards make mistakes, I stay because they were still called to be His stewards. And we need those stewards. God called prophets all throughout the Old Testament, set up prophets and apostles in the New Testament and continues to call prophets in these latter days. They needed priesthood leadership back then and we definitely need priesthood leadership now. Michael Jordan might have been the best basketball player in the world, but he still needed Phil Jackson to be as great as he was. He needed a leader to push him further than he would normally go. There is a reason that every sports teams has a coach. Coaches provide invaluable guidance, encouragement and motivation to the athletes on the team. In a similar way, we need leaders to push and guide us. Ohio State left to it’s own devices might be a fine team. But Ohio State with Urban Meyer is a great team. God wants us to be great, and so he reveals his word to his servants the prophets and they push us to greatness.
Without leaders I could start my own church and believe whatever I wanted to. That would be very convenient, but it’s not how the Lord operates. “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” was not just a suggestion. God gives us agency to follow our own moral compass but he still expects us to follow the rules he puts in place through the mouths of his Prophets.
Ultimately I believe God would rather me be obedient and loyal to His servants than impose my own beliefs and leave because His will didn’t agree with mine. In fact that’s exactly what Christ says in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Not my will, but thine be done.”
I Know the Church is True
This phrase is one of the most ubiquitous phrases uttered from the pulpit. “I know the church is true.” But what does it really mean? If you were to ask most saints why they stay in the church it would be something to the extent of “I have a testimony of the doctrines, and it’s a great place for my family.” What they are really saying when they say that ‘the church is true’ is that the organization and structure that comprises the church are innately good and that it is a good environment for them and their families.
We know we are naturally selfish creatures and the format of the church forces us to be unselfish. It makes is give up our time, our talents and our money for the betterment of others. It makes us care for the elderly and the youth. It makes us donate our surplus and do charity work. It makes us meditate and improve. What is so significant about these things? These are all things that Christ wants us to do. Just read His beatitudes. So when we say we know that church is true what we are saying is that we feel the church organization is divinely established and it brings us closer to the Lord.
I stay because the church has made me a better man. It has been a safe haven amidst a world of debauchery. It has provided me with relationships, connections, and lifelong friendships. It has given me responsibility and has cultivated within me the higher virtues of courage, humility and much, much more.
I’ve Made Promises
The Mormon Church gives a lot of leeway for your average Joe to make it into heaven, but when it comes to exaltation it demands quite a bit more. We are required to make several lifelong commitments or covenants in the church. These are all voluntary, but they are not to be taken lightly. When we are baptized, we make a covenant to keep a slew of commandments to the best of our ability. When we go through the Temple, we covenant our life to the church. And when we are sealed in the temple we continue that covenant with our spouses for all Eternity. In each of those cases, I didn’t make a promise to the prophet or the Mormon Church. I made a covenant to God. My covenant is my word.
I stay because I am true to my word.
I don’t believe I was pressured to go on a mission or pressured to go through the temple or pressured to get married in the temple. They were all choices I made. To leave the church would be to go back on my word, and at that point what is my word worth? I wasn’t tricked into the church and I don’t think I’m being tricked by staying in the church. I felt that church was such a positive influence in my life that I committed to its lifestyle, committed to proselyte to others of its goodness, committed to consecrate myself to its teachings and committed to spend my life with someone equally committed. I made those commitments off my own accord.
I stay because I said I would. It’s as simple as that.
To What End?
This final question might be the most important question to ask yourself if you are considering leaving the church: To what end?
Is the gospel lifestyle so terrible that leaving would provide some euphoric freedom? Are you willing to sacrifice the strong ties of your spouse, your friends and your family just because you don’t have enough evidence to believe in something? Is it worth giving up all of the great things that most saints testify of every Sunday just to appease your current lifestyle?
I stay because there aren’t enough reason to leave.
I have a great job, an amazing wife, connections all over the world, and a genuinely happy disposition all because of the church. Why would I leave that? Because I can’t understand why polygamy was instituted? Or because I think gay people should be married? Or because I read some damning quote from the internet? No, I can recognize both my lack of understanding and the fact that I might just be wrong about it.
And sure, not everyone has my life, but everyone has the gospel. And the gospel promises that if you submit yourself fully to its precepts that you will find joy and peace therein. I don’t know of any person who is living the gospel to its fullest and does not find fulfillment in it. I’m sure those situations exist, but I don’t see them. What I see more than anything is people who have stopped praying, stopped reading the scriptures, stopped going to the temple, stopped watching conference, stopped meeting with their bishops, stopped serving in their callings and still demanding to feel the warmth and comfort of the gospel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. You reap what you sow in the gospel.
In the End
Ultimately you are going to do what you are going to do. If you find yourself unsatisfied with the church then you will likely leave. There is no getting around that. However I believe that it’s easy to get tripped up on little things that take us down a path of denial.
Being a Mormon isn’t about being convinced that it’s true. It’s about choosing to believe that it is true. Our testimonies our like flowers. Unique and beautiful but requiring attention and nourishment to remain that way. To me, the reasons to leave don’t even come close to the reasons to stay. If I’m honest with myself and look past the shortcomings of others I can clearly see the positive impact the church has made in my life.
And that is why I stay.