Have you ever had a moment when something switched in your mind in an instant? Most ideas evolve gradually, the line upon line kind of progression, but a couple of times my thinking changed immediately. The first time I remember was when our daughter was a fourteen-year-old. When she was twelve and new to Young Women’s, she was fully onboard with the gospel: she read her scriptures, attended all her meetings, gained medallions and so on. Things changed. By age fourteen the difficulty of adolescence set in and she started to balk about going to mutual. This scared me. I was going through my own mid-life crisis which magnified the seriousness of this minor change in her life. I was afraid that if she stopped going to mutual, she might make serious mistakes, ones that could alter her course permanently. Yes, I was making a mountain out of a molehill, but I couldn’t see clearly. In my desperation I pleaded with my Heavenly Father to right my daughter and prick her heart so that she would know how important church and Young Women’s were. Instead He pricked my heart. I had a comfort flow over me such as I’d never had before. The comfort was powerful and undeniable and it was this. She is just fine the way she is. Do not worry. The feeling changed the way I treated her. I relaxed and my new attitude made all the difference. My worry was eased and the relationship with my daughter was strengthened.
The second change came years later when our daughter was about 19 or 20. On an Easter Sunday afternoon I’d come home after church and was at the stove cooking dinner. Our daughter had been away to a university about two hours from home and had told us that she wouldn’t be able to come home for Easter. So when she opened the front door and peaked inside and said hello, it caught me off guard. When I turned to see her, I knew by what she was wearing that she hadn’t been to church. The look on my face must have registered disappointment because her happy face fell and she said, “Aren’t you excited to see me?”
In an instant, I knew I was wrong, very wrong. I had a moment of teaching. Was it the Holy Spirit who taught me? I don’t know. But what slammed into my mind were these words Shame, shame, shame on you for allowing your values to damage the much more important relationship with your daughter. “Go back out and come in again,” I said. She did. She stepped outside and came in again. “Hello?” This time I ran to the door, shouting her name, hugged her and showed in every way how excited I was to see her. She laughed and said that was better. But what if I hadn’t recovered? What if my daughter wasn’t bold enough, or confident enough to call me on my behavior? I don’t think she knew that what she first saw was disapproval, she may have thought I was indifferent about her visit. Either way, my first reaction was not the right one.
My daughter had skipped church and driven two hours to surprise me on what I had always told her was my favorite holiday. Graciously she allowed me a do-over. As parents we often blow it. Sometimes our words do damage. Sometimes our actions do damage to our precious relationships with family and friends. We don’t always get do-overs with relationships. We never get do-overs with our first reactions.
As the months and years passed we suspected our daughter wasn’t attending church very often. She’d never told us her feelings about it and we really wanted her to be active, find a good Mormon boy to marry and settle down with. We really wanted her to believe! Deep down I knew this wasn’t what she wanted. Deep down I suspected that certain aspects of church doctrine, especially the temple, were things she could never fully embrace. Still hoping though, every once in a while my husband or I would ask her if she had found the local church wherever she happened to be in the world. Finally one day she said, “I know you think the church is important, but it just isn’t important to me. I don’t feel like I need it… right now.”
I think her adding the “right now,” was to soften the blow. We had raised her with certain beliefs and she was rejecting those. When our children reject our values and beliefs, it’s easy to feel like they are rejecting us. Even though we suspected she had rejected the church, until we heard her voice it out-loud we hadn’t wanted to believe it. It still stabbed me in the heart. My husband was sad too. Later when she told me online that she, “no longer believed.” I felt sad. My fears for my world-traveling daughter sometimes bordered on the extreme, but I have kept going back to that moment of clarity on an Easter Sunday. And even further back to the very real comfort when she was fourteen. Since then, we’ve always tried to support our daughter. I believe she feels our approval not only of what she does, but of her. I wholeheartedly approve of my daughter. She is just fine the way she is.
Orson F. Whitney taught Joseph Smith’s doctrine in General Conference in 1929 and this has been reiterated several times since by our leaders, “Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Whether in this life or the life to come…” Comfort for any Mormon parent. What we may perceive as wandering may be a different path, but not necessarily the wrong one. Mark Nepo, a philosopher, said “We grow into truth, one self at a time: questioning, declaring, missing, questioning again. As fruits all are encased until ripe, light comes full term in the dark and truth ripens in the heart. The only way to know the truth is to live through many casings.”
What I have learned as a parent and what I have learned because of my own crisis of faith may benefit others. Here are some things to think about if your son or your daughter, your mother or father, your spouse, your best friend, or someone else important to you tells you that they have deep concerns about the truthfulness of the gospel. First of all, be grateful that your relationship with this person is one of trust. If they didn’t trust you they wouldn’t be able to tell share their innermost fears. Know that the deeper you are committed to the gospel the harder a faith crisis is to admit. Most likely this admission has come very slowly over time. Getting to this point they have exhausted other possibilities. They have tried very hard to believe and they have fallen short. They’ve probably struggled for a long time before reaching out, hoping you will understand. Admitting their truth may be one of the hardest things they have ever done.
What you do when you hear them express their disbelief, especially if it’s your son or daughter is crucial. I know now that I did some things right with our daughter, but I did some things wrong. I wish I’d told my daughter that it’s okay with me. That no matter which way path she’s on, even if it’s not my path, if it brings here peace and joy, then it’s fine. I wish I had asked her if she wanted to talk about it. Instead of doing those two things, I just didn’t say anything. Worse, I may even changed the subject. Doubt is part of the process, but we are afraid of the questions. Later, much later, we’ve talked about it, but at the moment she needed my support the most, I gave her a hand but not a very encouraging one. You can take a lesson from me or you can take a lesson from a friend of mine who has a gay son. When he “came out” to her, she said, “So? You are still my son. I love you.” Now obviously coming out for him was more dramatic than someone who rejects their faith, but there are some similarities. Fear of rejection is paramount. You have only a moment to alleviate those fears. Your loved one will do far better if the first thing that comes from your mouth is your unconditional assurance of your love for them. “So? You are still my daughter, my son, my friend, my spouse… And I love you.”
When someone shares his or her fears and doubts, resist the urge to lecture or bear your testimony—right now. It isn’t helpful when someone is hurting to tell them what you think they should be doing or what you believe. Chances are, especially if you are the parent, that you’ve taught them and they know what you believe already. Telling them at this tipping point that you believe the church is true insinuates that something is wrong with them. We are taught as Mormons to be bold in bearing testimonies. You may think if you don’t bear your testimony of faith to the unbeliever you are failing, but we are also taught to bear testimony only when the spirit is right and if you listen, really listen, this isn’t the right time. Bearing testimony can feel like an assault and judgment. The best thing you can do for them right now is to assure them that all will be well. Don’t miss the opportunity to be kind.
Some people assume that those of us who are doubters are sinning. Resist the urge to ask your loved one what they are doing wrong or if they are reading anti-Mormon literature. Resist the urge to ask them if they are still praying. Resist the urge to ask them if they are reading their scriptures. Chances are they have prayed harder than you have. Ask if they want to talk about their feelings. Then listen with all your heart without interrupting. Please keep the trust they had in you. Don’t talk about them with anyone that they haven’t given you permission to talk to.
It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to even show you are sad. You can say it makes me sad that you are struggling. But try not to infer that your happiness depends upon his or her church activity. If we are the parent of this person it’s very hard, but pinning our happiness on someone else’s church activity isn’t right and it isn’t fair. Now what? Keep being there. Keep the door open—always. Be a friend, a true friend without an agenda. There may come a time when they will want to know what you believe and how you came to believe it. Be patient. Wait until they ask. If they never do, that’s ok as long as your friendship or your love isn’t dependent on that.
Keep talking about the things that are important to them. If it’s school, a job, a relationship, music, art, travel, computers, whatever—ask them about it. Show your approval for all the things that they are doing right and good. There is so much that they might be able to teach you, if you listen. You don’t have to pretend you aren’t concerned about church, but don’t let your concern become the elephant in the room. Do not let the church be a wedge in your relationship. If the relationship is broken, chances to heal the broken spirit are lost. We have all our lives and eternity to figure everything out. Remember that and put things in perspective.