Date: January 23, 2014 02:15PM
When I was in my early teens I decided it was time for me to gain my own testimony. I buckled down and started reading my scriptures daily, praying fervently, and making an effort to be more kind, reverent, patient, meek, etc. When I got to the end of the BoM, and knelt down to fulfill my part in Moroni's Promise, the response I got was.... nothing. Not a single thing. I still couldn't look myself in the mirror and say, "I know the church is true." I had a hard time even saying I believed in God, because I just didn't know.
I couldn't bring myself to bear my testimony, because I knew it wasn't true. I knew that "a testimony can be found in the bearing of it", but it just felt so dishonest and wrong. I hated praying in public, too - even just in front of my family members. I would have a mild panic attack every time, because I didn't feel like I was worthy to speak to God on behalf of people who actually knew he existed and had their own relationship with him. I always felt foolish.
Over the next decade or so I fell into a cycle. I would make an effort to finally gain the testimony I so desperately wanted, lunging fully into all-out Molly Mormon mode (starting each cycle with an act designed to get me focused on the gospel, as benign as covering an entire bedroom wall with scriptures and quotes from prophets/apostles I liked, or as insane as transferring across the country to attend a church school). After months of reading my scriptures for hours a day and praying long into the night, I would come away with that big pile of nothing. I would then become severely depressed, because I knew I was *doing* all the things I was supposed to do, and God still wasn't answering my prayers. I thought that must mean that I wasn't *being* what I was supposed to be, that I was so inherently flawed that the Holy Ghost had abandoned me long ago. Between the ages of 14-20 I attempted suicide three times because I felt so absolutely worthless that I thought if I could just die and go to the Telestial Kingdom then at least the self-loathing and guilt would go away.
Here's the thing - during this decade of vicious self-hatred and guilt I never once broke the Word of Wisdom. I never even got so far as a french kiss with a boy. I always dressed modestly. I didn't swear. I paid my tithing. I went years at a time without missing a single day reading my scriptures. I was president of all of my YW groups, president of my seminary class, and on the Institute council. I went to church every week, and to all my activities. I did baptisms for the dead about once a month (although I was wrecked with guilt over obtaining a limited-use recommend when the honest answer to the first question in the interview would have been "I don't know, but I want to"). I wasn't doing a damn thing wrong, even by Mormon standards.
But every time I told someone - a family member, a friend, a church leader - that I was feeling depressed, they told me it was because I wasn't close enough to God. They told me that if I just put a little more effort in to Choosing The Right then I would feel the comfort of the Savior. Their first question when I said how I felt was always, "Well, are you reading your scriptures? Are you saying your prayers?" It was reinforced again and again that the fault was my own. However hard I thought I was working, I should be working harder. "Jesus is knocking on a door without a handle," they'd remind me. "It's up to you to let him in."
Over the course of all this intense studying, I started to fill up items on my shelf. I was only reading scriptures, conference talks or correlated lesson manuals, so I remained blissfully unaware of most of the historical problems (my NOM dad had dropped hints about the changes to the BoM, Mark Hoffman, Adam-God, and a few others, but I hadn't really investigated any of them and didn't worry about them). The things that got to me were mostly logical inconsistencies in God's plan, such as:
- If God could judge us in the pre-Existence, then why did we need to come to Earth to be judged? Not only did he banish 1/3 of us from Heaven before we even had a chance to exercise agency in mortality, but he determined who was "valiant" enough to deserve to be born into the church in the last days?
- Why is the Atonement necessary? If we are responsible for our own sins, as the 2nd AoF says, then aren't we also responsible for our own redemption? I was told that Jesus' fulfilled the need for sacrifices and burnt offerings, but those sacrifices were different. When a person sacrificed a lamb to God, that person was giving up something valuable and precious to show God that they trusted in Him more than they valued their material possessions. But Jesus' death wasn't a sacrifice for ME. He was God's only begotten, not mine. I didn't give anything up. How is that a fulfillment?
- What is the point of the BoM? It says it contains the fulness of the gospel, but then why did we need the D&C and the PoGP? Why was so much effort put into preserving a physical object like the plates for JS to actually dig up and translate, when he could just receive revelation from God?
- What's the point of sealings? Between spouses, sure. That made sense. But why did parents need to be sealed to their children? Why did siblings need to be sealed to each other? If my brother and I weren't sealed, when we got to the CK, would it *matter*? Wouldn't we still know and remember each other and love each other just the same? Same with my parents - a sealing felt like some kind of arbitrary certificate.
- Why is it that in order to develop faith, I have to first have faith? I have to start out with the mustard seed. Where am I supposed to get the mustard seed? There's no genesis for faith. I have to have faith that God exists in order to pray to him to ask him if he exists. The whole cycle made my head hurt.
By the time I entered my early twenties, I had essentially given up on ever gaining a testimony. I had never felt anything like what others described as The Spirit when I was at church or at the temple. I felt it plenty whenever I watched "Rudy" or listened to great music, but I had never felt it at church or while reading my scriptures or praying. It had gotten too hard to be miserable about it, though, so I resigned myself to apathy. I would keep going through the motions, like I was supposed to, but I knew I would never marry in the temple because I didn't feel worthy of receiving my endowment, and therefore I wouldn't go to the CK. No big deal. Took some of the pressure off. For the next couple of years, that's how I coped - just floating along, still doing all the things I was supposed to, but not worrying so much about the lack of spiritual results.
Then Prop 8 happened. I knew - I KNEW - with more conviction then I had EVER known anything related to the church or God, that was TSCC was doing was WRONG. There was no room for debate. It wasn't open to interpretation. It was just WRONG.
All the old feelings of guilt came back. I spent the next few months agonizing over it. I was openly and decidedly OPPOSED to the leaders of the church. While intellectually I knew that was a good thing, it still terrified me. I kept trying to rationalize what was happening. I told myself that it was Monson's fault. He was still a newbie, and he didn't have the knack for PR that Hinckley had. Hinckley would have known better than to air his personal opinions out in a way that made the church look bad. Monson and the apostles were wrong, speaking as men, but the church would eventually evolve and God would make it all work out in the end.
I came to the decision to put Prop 8 on the shelf. I was perfectly willing to forget it ever happened, chalk it up to the mistakes of men, and not let it affect what I thought of the church as a whole - but I knew there was a condition. I could accept that "the church is perfect, even though the leaders aren't", AS LONG AS THE CHURCH WAS PERFECT. I needed to make room for Prop 8 on the shelf. I needed to clear out some of the doubts and questions I'd been harvesting for years.
I needed to try, once again, to gain a testimony.
So I started another cycle. I started to put more effort into my church studies, to engage more in classes, to be more diligent in my prayers.
But a couple of months went by, and I wasn't making any progress. In fact, I was becoming more and more frustrated. I had started writing things in my journal like, "If I don't even *like* church, is it that important to go? Can't I still be obedient and faithful without wasting my time in Relief Society?" and "Am I really so dumb that I can't see all these answers? Everyone else seems to get it - why don't I? What's wrong with me?"
Finally one Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on my bed looking over all the notes I had taken in Sacrament meeting and Sunday School that day (as I did every week - I tried in RS but always ended up doodling). I was writing in my journal yet another idea about how I could *finally* gain a testimony this time when a thought popped into my head. I don't know how it got there, exactly. It was just a simple idea - four tiny words - that changed my life forever.
"I'm a good person."
I had never, EVER thought that about myself before. I was suddenly flooded with warmth. My breath caught in my throat. I let myself think it again. "I'm a good person." The next thought in my head was likewise unexpected, but nevertheless it felt true. "I bet if there's a Heaven, I would get to go. If God is who the Mormon church says he is, I want nothing to do with him."
I immediately grabbed my Bible. I decided right then and there that I was going to shift the direction of my spiritual studies. I was going to learn all about God - who he was, what he wanted from me, how I could know him - and I wanted to start at the beginning. I opened up Genesis, Chapter 1, and started reading.
I made it 27 verses before shutting the book and saying aloud, "This is all bullshit. I don't believe in any of it."
Two minutes. After more than 10 years of torturing myself trying to be better, better, better, all the time, it took less than two minutes for me to abandon religion completely. That tiny spark of self worth - "I'm a good person" - was hot enough and intense enough and bright enough to burn down my entire belief structure, and the thing that rose from the ashes was a new way to look at life. "I'm a good person." That's what my religion is now. To be good. To be nice. To basically not be a dick to people - and especially not to be a dick to myself. To love myself, warts and all, and know that my desire to be kind to others is worth more than any empty promises a God could give me.
For a time, I thought I was all alone. I didn't think other people purposefully left the church the way that I had, because they didn't believe it. I was still stuck in the idea that other people just drifted away because of sin or offense, but that deep down they still believed it was true. It had never occurred to me that there were plenty of reasons not to believe, and that other people were uncovering them every day.
About six months after I stopped considering myself mormon, I happened to stumble across a blog post by an exmo. I devoured it, and followed link after link until I ended up here. I spent the next few months learning new things every day - about Joseph Smith's treasure hunting and polyandry, about the rock in the hat, about the Book of Abraham and horses and tapirs and the temple ceremonies and lies, lies, lies. Everything I read validated my decision that the church wasn't true. I grew angry about the church. I wanted to take everything I was learning and thrust it under my TBM loved one's noses until they read it and understood it and got angry with me.
Eventually the anger faded. Now five years after leaving, I'm finally able to look back on the whole experience and laugh. I share stories with nevermo friends, and love the way their eyes grow wide and their jaws drop as I get further and further into detail. I find myself rolling my eyes at mention of the church rather than clenching my fists. I'm getting there.
I still have hope that my family will follow me out. I still have things I want to say to them. To explain. To forgive. I hope that they see how much happier I am now. But for now, I'm content.
And I'm an exmormon.