I have dear friends who have stepped away from the Church. We are still friends now, some closer than others, but it hit me hard when they told me they were no longer a part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This article highlights some things that have helped me still stay close to them while staying true to what I know. Do you know someone who has chosen to step away from the Church? It can be heartbreaking and confusing, especially if you are very close to them and you are an active LDS member. All hope is not lost. Far from it. Here are five things to never forget if your loved one leaves the Church.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on The Returned Missionary, and has been republished with the author’s permission. Find the original here and don’t miss the comment conversation on this same article at Meridian Magazine.
1. Respect their journey. It’s not that simple.
Sometimes when someone we love goes away, we automatically assume that they are leaving because of sin or laziness or because they have been offended. I would be very careful about slapping on a blanket explanation for why someone has chosen to leave. Give them the benefit of the doubt. I honestly like to believe that every single person is honestly doing the very best that they can with what they know. Truly. Maybe sometimes it is because of the above reasons, but for many it is not. Don’t oversimplify their reason for leaving, especially if you are talking to them about it.
Albert Einstein’s journey was different from Michael Jordan’s journey. But if we judge Einstein’s life by his ability to play basketball or Michael Jordan’s life by his ability to do quantum physics, we will see both of them as failures.
Respect their journey because it is as hard for them as your journey is for you. We are all on a very unique journey in this life. Don’t oversimplify the journey of another. Consider these words from President Dieter F. Uchtdorf:
The search for truth has led millions of people to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, there are some who leave the Church they once loved. One might ask, ‘If the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?‘ Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church. In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves. [1. Come, Join with Us. October 2013 Conference. Italics added.]
2. Don’t condone a choice you don’t support, but show love no matter what.
True friendship doesn’t mean you have to accept the differing practices and beliefs of your friends. You may have to stand up for what you believe in a very bold way. You may choose actions that will naturally cause you to spend less time with your loved one or friend, but if you genuinely love them, you will be blessed and they will never forget your love. Just like you have agency, so do they. You should never try to force anyone to choose something. God doesn’t, and neither should you.
At the same time, your love for them doesn’t need to be expressed by loving their behavior or their expressions of what they now embrace, instead of gospel standards that you embrace. You don’t have to love their lifestyle if it is contrary to the standards you stand up for and live.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has spoken about still loving them while holding to our own values:
While reaching out to and helping back a lamb who has strayed, we also have a profound responsibility to the 99 who didn’t—and to the wishes and will of the Shepherd. There is a sheepfold, and we are all supposed to be in it, to say nothing of the safety and blessings that come to us for being there. My young brothers and sisters, this Church can never “dumb down” its doctrine in response to social goodwill or political expediency or any other reason. It is only the high ground of revealed truth that gives us any footing on which to lift another who may feel troubled or forsaken. Our compassion and our love—fundamental characteristics and requirements of our Christianity—must never be interpreted as compromising the commandments. As the marvelous George MacDonald once said, in such situations ‘we are not bound to say all that we (believe), but we are bound not even to look (like) what we do not (believe).’ [2. From his talk Israel, Israel God is Calling, given in 2012. Italics added.]
Remember that Jesus loved everyone. He dined with publicans and sinners. He touched the untouchable and talked with those who were “worthy of stoning.” He held no grudge when the ones who rejected Him wanted to come back. He didn’t condone that which was contrary to His gospel, but His arms were always open to receive those who came to Him. He is the Lord of the outstretched hand. And even if your loved one never returns, you can keep your hands outstretched with love. You will never regret truly loving someone. Even if you don’t have your membership in the Church in common with them anymore, there are still many things you can find in common that you can still connect on, if you desire to stay close to them.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
3. Doubt doesn’t have to be dangerous.
This event will likely trigger doubts inside of you because you love that person and you naturally consider the thing they have accepted. It’s okay to have doubts. Doubt doesn’t have to be dangerous.
If you have ever had a question about something in the Church, you’re normal. We all have questions, especially you returned missionaries who have faced thousands of questions and doubts from all the people you contacted. Now you don’t have a badge on and it’s not your full-time job to defend it like it was as a missionary. When doubts arise, don’t just ignore them and pretend they aren’t there (fearing that you may go down the wrong path if you acknowledge their existence). Face the doubt, but make sure to remember a few things as you do:
1. Keep the commandments while you figure out the thing you are questioning and do all you can to bring the Spirit into your life. What did you do on your mission when some doubt popped up? You studied the scriptures, prayed, asked your leaders for help, and then wrote down the answers that came. I know too many people who as soon as they start to have doubts, they somehow feel that it justifies doing whatever they want until God shows them the answer. The fastest way to get an answer from God is by doing things that will bring the Spirit, not the other way around. God is the Father of our spirits and that is how He will communicate with us, especially if we have doubts. Don’t forget this. And go read 1 Corinthians 2:9-14. Seeking the Spirit is not ignorance to intellectualism or an admission to naiveté. God is the most intellectual and intelligent being you could ever communicate with and He wants to show you all truth, and He will if you seek Him. I also would recommend a chapter titled “Reason and Revelation” in Dallin H. Oaks’ book called The Lord’s Way. This chapter helped me to see that reason alone, without revelation (or spiritual guidance), is incomplete, just as revelation (and spirituality) without reason is incomplete.
2. Read and ponder The Crucible of Doubt, by Terryl and Fiona Givens. This is probably one of the best resources (in my opinion) for facing real doubts as Latter-day Saints. It not only helped me to resolve a few concerns I had with specific issues, but it also helped give me a new way of seeing. They say in the book: “Questioning is not the problem…After all, the Restoration unfolded because a young man asked questions. The difficulty arises when questions are based on flawed assumptions or incorrect perceptions, which can point us in the wrong direction, misdirect our attention, or constrain the answers we are capable of hearing.” If you are currently in a “spiritual pickle,” and sincerely seeking, you won’t be able to put this book down.
3. Even in the moments where you feel like you don’t believe in God, remember that, even if you don’t believe in Him, He still believes in you. You’ll figure it out, and He will be patiently waiting for you whenever you sincerely reach up to Him again.
Read more about why doubt doesn’t have to be dangerous here and here.
4. Lovingly expect mutual respect for each others’ beliefs.
I have friends and family who no longer associate themselves with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One thing that has helped both of us to maintain a loving relationship is a mutual respect for each others’ beliefs. Like President Uchtdorf said above, we need to respect their God-given agency that allows them to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience. We also have the agency to cultivate our religion the way we choose and to worship God the way we desire to worship. If you feel like you have to jeopardize your personal religion and the relationship that you have with God in order to continue a relationship with this person, choose God first. But I believe in most cases, you don’t have to choose. I believe most of our friends and loved ones will gladly respect our choice to worship and believe the way we desire, especially if we show respect for their choices.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks explains this delicate balance masterfully in a speech he gave on religious liberty at a Utah Valley University:
In this country we have a history of tolerant diversity—not perfect but mostly effective at allowing persons with competing visions to live together in peace. We all want to live together in happiness and harmony. We all want effective ways to resolve differences without anger or contention and with mutual understanding and accommodation.
There are points of disagreement between those who insist on free exercise of religion and those who feel threatened by it. Similar disagreements exist between those who insist on nondiscrimination and those who feel that some of its results threaten their religious liberty. There are no winners in such disagreements. Whatever the outcome in one particular case, other disagreements persist, and we are all losers from the atmosphere of anger and contention. In this circumstance of contending religious rights and civil rights, all parties need to learn to live together in a community of goodwill, patience, and understanding. We need to reawaken the “bonds of affection” that President Matthew Holland showed to be essential to the founding of our nation—“broadly shared ideas of biblical love, artfully refashioned into a guiding public principle.” We need such broadly shared ideals.
To achieve our common goals we must have mutual respect for others whose beliefs, values, and behaviors differ from our own. This does not expect that we will deny or abandon our differences but that we will learn to live with others who do not share them. It will help if we are not led or unduly influenced by the extreme voices that are heard from various contending positions. Extreme voices polarize and create resentment and fear by emphasizing what is nonnegotiable and by suggesting that the desired outcome is to disable the adversary and achieve absolute victory. Such outcomes are rarely attainable and never preferable to living together in mutual understanding and peace. [3. See the full text here. It’s worth the read.]
5. God’s Salvation is More Liberal than You Might Think.
Don’t lose hope. If you are the parent or brother or sister or best friend of someone who decides to leave, there is hope. A lot of hope. I would be very hesitant to let yourself think that they are “never going to make it” if they don’t shape up sometime soon. Heaven forbid they die before choosing to see the light again. Well, actually heaven doesn’t forbid this, and it has happened before. I’m not one to place judgement on someone who has gone astray. But I am one to have absolute faith in the Savior’s incredible ability to save all who desire to be saved, now AND in the afterlife. Consider this reaching statement by Joseph Smith:
Before (the earth) rolled into existence,…(God) contemplated the whole of the events connected with the earth…(God) knew…the depth of iniquity that would be connected with the human family, their weakness and strength,…the situation of all nations and…their destiny,…and (He) has made ample provision (for mankind’s) redemption” [4. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 220. Italics added for emphasis.]
He has made ample provision for the redemption of all mankind. Here is Joseph Smith again:
“Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.” [5. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 257, 240–41.]
I believe in the Jesus who taught the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Some few in this life will labor from the morning until the evening, righteously, diligently and in all uprightness before the Lord. I commend them for this effort and for this great labor, and their labor is not in vain. However, I believe that there will be many, likely a majority, who will be “hired” by the Lord in the eleventh hour. Those who stood all the day long without laboring, until the Lord personally came to them, inviting them to labor for Him.[6. See Matthew 20:6-7 (1-15 is the whole parable).] And they too will receive the same wage as those who labored from the first hour. I believe in a God of mercy who offers those who stood around all day, but who desired to work in the end, the same penny. I believe that precious penny is eternal life and that He will mercifully give it to anyone who desires it, early or late.
For whatever reason, this makes some devout members of the Church uncomfortable. God is perfectly comfortable with an abundance of mercy for the late-comers or the never-comers (in this life), who come unto Him in the eleventh hour.
And we should actually take comfort in the fact that Mormons in mortality don’t have a monopoly on truth or salvation. This is uncomfortable for many members to think about as well, but it’s true. Here are the Terryl and Fiona Givens’ words on this:
A problem related to perceptions of Mormonism’s monopoly on truth is the impression that Mormons claim a monopoly on salvation. It grows increasingly difficult to imagine that a body of a few million, in a world of seven billion, can really be God’s only chosen people and heirs of salvation. That’s because they aren’t. One of the most unfortunate misperceptions about Mormonism is in this tragic irony: Joseph Smith’s view is one of the most generous, liberal, and universalist conceptions of salvation in all Christendom.[7. Emphasis added. PP. 91-92 in the chapter “Mormons and Monopolies: Holy Persons Ye Know Not Of” in The Crucible of Doubt.]
Like Joseph Smith said, for whatever reason, many members of the Church are not ready to believe that God will save those who choose not join the Church in this life or those who join and then step away from the Church. I’m here to say that He can, and He will, if they still desire to be saved. And I don’t say it alone. I stand with prophets and apostles from Joseph Smith to Paul.[8. See 1 Cor. 6:9-11.]
God does not look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, but those who truly desire eternal life, in this life or in the next, will have it. Whether they are Buddhist, Baptist, Bahai, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Agnostic, Muslim, Mormon or formerly Mormon — if they desire eternal life, they will have it. I love the words of Brad Wilcox when talking about the final judgement scene with Christ:
“In the past I had a picture in my mind of what the final judgment would be like, and it went something like this: Jesus standing there with a clipboard and Brad standing on the other side of the room nervously looking at Jesus. Jesus checks His clipboard and says, ‘Oh, shoot, Brad. You missed it by two points.’ Brad begs Jesus, ‘Please, check the essay question one more time! There have to be two points you can squeeze out of that essay.’ That’s how I always saw it…But the older I get, and the more I understand this wonderful plan of redemption, the more I realize that in the final judgment it will not be the unrepentant sinner begging Jesus, “Let me stay.’ No, he will probably be saying, ‘Get me out of here!’
“Knowing Christ’s character, I believe that if anyone is going to be begging (at the final judgement), it would probably be Jesus begging the unrepentant sinner, ‘Please, choose to stay. Please, use my Atonement—not just to be cleansed but to be changed so that you want to stay.'”[9. His Grace is Sufficient.]
Remember that God knows them much better than you ever could. He is not only their judge, but their advocate and has provided ample provision for the personal plan of salvation of everyone who has ever lived. This is the God I believe in and the plan of salvation that every person who leaves the Church deliberately chose to support before coming to earth. Remember these things and trust in God’s promise that everything will work out in the end. Don’t lose hope.
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