I will preface my comments by letting you know that I am at a place in my spiritual journey where I again feel attending Church can be a meaningful part of my life, and I started going again. That said, I want to let you know that leaving the Church has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. Of course, this is very counterintuitive for most members. It was the best decision I ever made (next to marrying my wife) because I learned more about God's love during this brief time, than I learned in the 25 plus years that preceded it.
The fact is, when I stopped going, it was a very deliberate decision. By this I mean that I deliberated for a good couple years before making that decision, to the detriment of other aspects of my life, especially my career-related studies. The point is that it was (and is) something so important to me that I wanted to be sure I wasn't making a huge mistake. Ultimately, I did not leave because I lacked the commitment or the faith to remain. Instead, I left because I knew that my spirit needed to grow in ways that the environment at Church simply did not encourage or nurture.
I did not leave in shame, because of personal transgression. I did not leave in bitterness, because someone offended me. I did not leave out of pride, because I wished for a more dignified calling. I did not leave because I wanted to drink, smoke, or do drugs, or break the law of chastity, or because I didn't want to pay tithing, or because I am unwilling to serve in callings. No. None of that bothered me during my years of committed service (In retrospect, maybe some of it should have. I certainly don't mean to disparage anyone who has concerns about these things).
I left because I knew it was the right thing for me to do (To be clear, I don't mean to say that it must also be the right thing for everyone else). I left because I could not in good conscience keep going. It was not where the spirit was calling me. I wonder if people in the Church can even conceive that this is possible. The words of Brigham Young come to mind. He said of unconventional members, "do not judge such persons," and reminded, "you do not know the design of the Lord concerning them." I felt this was very true in my case... that in order for me to grow in the way the Lord intended, I needed to withdraw from my usual participation; and withdraw I did. I heard a useful metaphor that might help people understand one possible purpose of leaving. You could say that I needed to leave the beehive so that I could spend more time in the sacred grove.
I spent my time in the grove learning as much as I could about Mormon doctrine, Mormon culture, and Mormon history. And I spent my time taking all of those difficult questions to the Lord in prayer. Joseph Smith's story had always been an inspiration to me, and I take Moroni's challenge seriously. In many instances I determined that the conclusions I made as a more traditionally believing member were just not true. Here I found myself letting go of that reassurance that comes with knowing that millions of people think and believe just like you. As I let go of that institutional security, God grabbed a hold of me and filled me with his infinite love! He has done so again and again, each time I have come to him with anxiety and pain, he has comforted me and let me know "you're okay!" All of these reassurances have given me confidence that I am on the right track, the path that's right for me. My freedom from other religious obligations has allowed this experience of divine love to become the true center of my unconventional Mormon faith.
In many other instances, where I asked tough questions about Mormonism or faith in general, I just didn't know the answer (perhaps I still don't). But my experience of God's love frees me from the need to know all of the answers right now. Recognizing when we are wrong, or when we just don't know, is a very healthy and humbling thing. It involves letting go of the ego's need to have all of the answers and be right all of the time. And when you are humble, you can be more generous in your opinions about others. I faced my past overzealous moments, and even more overzealous and unfavorable thoughts about others, with deep remorse and many tears. I began to imagine, and really empathize with my siblings who left the Church before me. I wished I could go back in time and give them the love and the support they must have needed during those difficult transitions. Like many Mormons, I just didn't know how to do that at the time. I vowed that I would be there next time I knew of someone who was going through such a transition.
I should mention briefly that my wife also left the Church at about the same time. For as long as we had been married, I watched her grow more dissatisfied, unfulfilled, and stressed out. Serving in two presidencies, she was often hurting under the weight of unnecessary burdens. Living in the shadow of the temple, so to speak, she was miserable. Eventually she participated purely out of obligation, little about her experience in Church was personally rewarding or "a blessing" by this time. I recommended she take a break along with me. As we grew more honest with eachother about our feelings about the Church, it was like getting to know eachother all over again. Our love deepened, our friendship drew closer, our marriage grew stronger... outside of the Church. I found out that she had been pretending, to some extent, just to make me happy (because she knew how important Church is to me). And the truly ironic thing is, I had been keeping my uncorrelated thoughts to myself because I didn't want to say anything that would upset her traditional faith. The coming months, and I guess its been a few years now, were truly enlightening and liberating for both of us.
Leaving the Church can be scary, because, after all, for most of our lives we have always been told that our relationship with God depended on our status in the Church. Our first spiritual experiences were probably in the larger context a Church-related activity. So it becomes very difficult for many to imagine having a relationship with God outside of that Church context. I want you to know that it is possible. More than possible, I think it is necessary. I believe that as more of us develop this personal conviction about God's loving character, and the desire to love and care for our fellow human beings (as well as God's nonhuman creations), the Church will be an immensely better place for it.
Some may wonder why I would want to go back to Church if my time away has been such a blessing. It's a fair question. I have wondered that myself many times. I feel drawn to it. I just do. Again, I don't think this is right or necessary for everyone else. My wife is not interested in going back to Church right now, and I don't think her salvation or our eternal companionship is in any way in danger because of it. I have decided to go, because, I guess I feel it is my life's calling to live in both worlds, in a sense. To bridge the gap between traditionally believing and unconventional members, and between Mormons and people of other faiths or no faith. And to encourage in all humans an experience of that transcendent love, and to promote the highest virtues of compassion and empathy for all. Now, I say I feel called to this, I don't say I am doing a great job of it. I don't know that I will ever do anything remarkable to further these ends. But I at least have to do what I can because there is always something in me burning, urging me on. God help us all. I should probably just pick up snowboarding again and forget about all of this... Not bloody likely.
Originally Posted to a Private Facebook Group: March 8, 2014
Additional Readings On A Related Subject:
"Why You Ought to Leave the Church" by Matthew L. Skinner, Huffington Post
"Stop Going to Church: When Good News Actually Looks Like Something" by Jon Huckins, Red Letter Christians