Talking with someone not long ago, he asked me why, after all this time, I would "suddenly" give up on the church and the gospel in general by distancing myself in almost every way possible. There was more to the conversation, but for now, I'll focus on this question. At the time, I just told him it wasn't nearly as sudden as it must seem. I said it wasn't a casual decision, and I wouldn't call it "giving up" as much as acknowledging I just hadn't believed it for a long time and had lost many reasons to keep attending church or to keep choosing to trust what I'd felt years ago but about which I hadn't felt any real confirmation in the last several years and which had stopped making sense or seeming necessary for positive and productive perspective and living.
There's a flipside question I've gotten from other people, too: why didn't you get your butt out of there way sooner? Maybe some of the following thoughts might articulate some answers to both of these questions.
I have experienced, in the past, nagging questions I couldn't find answers to, and I got frustrated about that. I studied and researched and talked to parents and church teachers, and I got answers that partially satisfied but left me a bit flat. I couldn't make sense of some things, and I didn't know how the church could be true given this or that historical fact or doctrinal twist I'd not been aware of before. The bulk of this took place a couple of years before my mission. Eventually, I realized that I have a limited perspective and knowledge, and if God knows all and wants us to become like him, then one day we may know, and today is surely not that day. Just as I can't explain calculus to a student struggling with algebra, surely I was not ready for all things universal while such a spiritual infant. I placed some questions on the back burner, found satisfactorily temporary responses or coping beliefs regarding others, and carried on with faith in what I had felt and what I did believe. I trusted that one day, even if not until the next life, I might understand some of the seeming unanswerables. The church wasn't perfect, I had learned, nor its leaders, but the gospel was, and the Spirit's whispers were all I needed to keep going, to keep believing, and I found happiness in doing so and focusing on the positive things I did believe while letting go of some more troubling questions. No sense being troubled about things I probably couldn't know anyway and looking for faults with a religion which taught such wonderful doctrines I hadn't seen anywhere else but which, more importantly, had rung true in my heart and mind and brought feelings of peace, joy, longsuffering... Besides, being active in the church and serving and building friendships based on gospel principles brought so much happiness that I wanted to share that with everyone. I needed to spend my time learning and sharing the doctrines which could bring people joy rather than dwelling on the earthly foibles of the institution.
I have experienced, in the past, bitterness and frustration at attending church. I've experienced feeling viscerally repulsed by what was spoken over the pulpit by well-meaning but ignorant or misguided members preaching philosophies of men mingled with scripture and knowing most people were so steeped in traditional culture that they'd never question it, despite the unnecessary strife and misunderstanding it would surely promulgate. I've known what it's like to sit in the congregation and marvel that so many showed extreme insensitivity and lack of understanding towards those with real problems and struggles. The A student lamenting their stressful homework week, the Molly Mormon gnashing her teeth over the fact that she couldn't stay on top of cleaning her already-immaculate house, or the wealthy couple imparting their inspiring story about how they were able to buy a home far beyond their needs and thanking the Lord for blessing them with opulence. In those times, I reminded myself that I may be misjudging their words, that not everyone will or should publicize their biggest problems at the pulpit, that I needed to refrain from judging them just as I'd want them to refrain from judging me, and that the smaller lessons in life are valuable too, that there was beauty in the idea of a God who cared to comfort His children even in the smaller things. I told myself I was feeling understandably frustrated that they seemed so clueless that some people have real problems, but I was partially to blame for shielding them from my own, assuming they wouldn't or didn't care to understand them or offer real support. How could I expect from them what I wasn't willing to do myself? I can't fault the ward for not making me feel free to be open and "real" when I'm not ready or willing to take the lead. I reminded myself that we all have emotional reactions, and feeling angry or frustrated when going to church is no reason to stop going, just as feeling angry or frustrated in a relationship is no reason to walk away from someone. "Stay," I told myself, "and get through this, and see what's on the other side. Don't leave while you're upset."
I have experienced, in the past, extreme difficulty dealing with local church leaders and their personal foibles and communication, to the point that I nearly left a particularly fire-and-brimstone, priestcrafty stake conference. I walked outside, breathed some fresh air, and reminded myself that the people and the doctrines are not the same, that local leaders sometimes do or say things the Lord would not have them do or say, that they may be there for their own personal growth and growth of the members, and that sooner or later, we're all bound to butt heads with our leadership or even catch them in wholly unholy behavior, but that's no reason to sour our relationship with the church as a whole. If God called a biblical prophet who sinned grievously, then surely free will allowed stake presidents to completely screw up in certain ways while in their callings. And if I was feeling so angry that I had to leave, perhaps there was an insecurity or defensiveness on my part which I needed to figure out or learn from, and running away probably wasn't the way to confront and resolve it. Perhaps I was missing something. Perhaps his flaws were magnified beyond all reason by my own pride and personal feelings. I needed to exercise patience. I went back in and tried to listen, but it was extremely difficult. I took a few breaths, reminded myself to be calm, to be open, to humbly and prayerfully open my heart and look past his words to the message the Lord would have me hear. At that prayerful moment, a line from my patriarchal blessing boldly flashed into my mind, a line which had previously always left me scratching my head a bit but which now made complete sense and was perfectly applicable to this very situation. It came with a rush of familiar "spiritual confirmation" I'd not felt for some time. Though I was left with questions around my newly shifted paradigm and its ramifications, that particular issue was resolved, and I was able to relax for the rest of the tediously boring conference confident I had the Lord's sanction to listen, consider the message beyond the imperfect delivery or personal bias of the man, and make my own decision (presumably prayerfully) even if it was not what the stake president would want or thought correct. Problems with priesthood leaders bothered me much less after that.
I have experienced, in the past, a desire to get out from under what some regard as the oppressively controlling church "rules" and culture. Even though there's little or nothing about the church's standards of behavior which conflicts with my own values and desires for my life (possible exception being same-sex partnership), I wanted to know that I was making decisions of my own accord and not to conform to social pressures or to earn the praises of men (priesthood leaders, ward members, and friends and family). But I recognized that there is danger in removing one's self from a stable community of support and accountability, and it wasn't worth trading that stability for some self-serving sense of "freedom" which might be gained by turning away from that and could result in self-destructive patterns. Besides, what did I expect to do? Go start sleeping around and doing drugs and lying and stealing and killing puppies? Or more realistically, try coffee? Date guys? No, I wasn't convinced I even wanted to do those, with or without the church (that's another post).
Unanswerable questions, flawed humanity of leadership, cultural frustrations, and rigid strictures were not enough to convince me to leave the church. Church activity was about commitment, covenants, service, and eternal truth. None of these things mattered if the message, culturally influenced though it may be in some ways, was true. If the gospel was true, if Joseph Smith restored Christ's church, if the Bible and Book of Mormon and other "canonical works" were God's word, then the institutional foibles of a church run by imperfect men were no reason to walk away. Besides, if I was going to walk away, it wasn't going to be in the middle of strong emotional reactions to cultural flaws or while I had a nasty stake president who would then surely dismiss my departure as my own pride keeping my from being humble before my priesthood leaders.
I had wholeheartedly believed in the doctrines of the church and the divine guidance of its "restoration" and revelation. I had had what I regarded as spiritual experiences confirming its truth. I had spent years of my life investing in the church and its ordinances and teachings, and I had made solemn covenants in what I'd regarded as holy places, and I refused to walk away from those on anything resembling a casual basis. I couldn't set that aside as if it were no big deal. It was huge. If those covenants were sacred and binding, going back on them by removing myself from "the kingdom" would be a huge decision. While I recognized I couldn't make decisions based on fear of the mere possibility that they're true based on past confidence, and I didn't respect those people who did things not because they believed them but because they were "fire insurance", I simply didn't see a reason to turn away from what I'd once been so sure of and what could be of utmost eternal significance. No, the obedient status quo was better than a misguided attempt at authenticity.
It took more to finally decide to step away.
It took years of not "feeling" (or only incidentally feeling) the truth of doctrines despite feeling "the spirit" or "resonance" or "comfort" or "familiarity" or "belonging" or whatever I occasionally felt at church meetings. It took questions that weren't just unknowable mysteries but became increasingly valid and applicable to here and now and weren't just a lack of answers but were apparent errors in logic or were contradictions I'd not found resolution for but which did have reasonable explanations outside of LDS doctrine or other religious creed. It took admitting there were crucial problems or cognitive dissonance I'd refused to fully acknowledge and deal with previously, much as I'd refused to acknowledge my homosexuality for so long. They weren't even partial answers satisfactory enough to appeal to reason without any spiritual confirmation to back them up, despite prayers for such. It took gaining perspectives and experiences which challenged my paradigms as well as those of the institutional church and even the core doctrines as I understand them (which I may not understand any better than the next guy, I admit). It took seeing how many doctrines have underlying principles and values and that those principles and values are espoused and embraced in a myriad of ways by innumerable people with apparently similar results in happiness, peace, and hope, with or without the same doctrinal beliefs. It took letting go of fear of choosing "unrighteously" or "incorrectly" and focusing on choosing the best I know how. It took...a lot of things.
It came after years of forcing myself to go to church when I had no friends there and didn't "get anything" from it. It came after years of trying to read scriptures but repeatedly stopping because I couldn't stop seeing holes in history, doctrine, or logic despite praying to get past those things and stay open to truth beyond perceived errors which could be my own limited or tainted understanding, and not reading the scriptures seemed more testimony-building than reading them. It came after years of praying with a vague notion I was speaking to myself in meditation which was helpful but not divine or mystically cosmic, and "feelings" which could be spiritual communication with God but which now seemed more like my own desires and need for comfort, my own effort at resolution. It came after years of reminding myself that going to church isn't just about me "getting something" but giving service, remembering gospel principles and teachings, offering sacrifice of time and energy, standing in holy places, renewing covenants, and attending meetings and activities with those things in mind. It came after years of waiting to see if I could rekindle the old flames of testimony but getting only an occasional flicker, which could usually be explained in ways other than a spiritual communication from God telling me the institutional church was his, and the president of the church was his authoritative mouthpiece for the world. It came after years of wanting to believe but not being able to, and eventually not feeling the need to.
It was time to step back and consider the possibility that though I used to believe it was true, I might have been incorrect. It was time to see what life would be like without it. Could it be worthwhile? Could it be happy? Could there be meaning? Did there even need to be meaning? Is there goodness? How can you define goodness? Surely there would be more questions, different kind, but would they feel as much like mental gymnastics as LDS doctrine had become? Could my spiritual, psychological, and interpersonal experience, as well as observations and logical conundrums, fit any better into a different paradigm, and vice versa? Would logic seem less contorted? It was then that I decided to live as an agnostic man for a while, letting go of the fear of doing so (with its social and religious, and possible but seemingly improbable eternal consequences), and the commitments I'd made to consecrate my life to the kingdom of God, to see if I could find some truth by experiment or juxtaposition, since prayer hadn't been doing the trick.
The funny thing is I still think like a believing Mormon in many ways: for example, perhaps I wasn't receptive to answers to prayer. Perhaps I was hard-hearted, clouded by philosophies of men which attracted my soul away from an eye single to the glory of God. As much as I think homosexuality and loss of testimony have been independent in my life, maybe I focused more on my sad state in life than on the blessings of eternity and thereby disconnected myself from the Spirit and therefore from the source of all faith and spiritual answers. Or perhaps I just needed to learn in a different way, take a path God knew I'd need to take to arrive back where I needed to be, a learning experience more catered to my needs and my way of learning than a simple "yes". Maybe I already knew and just needed to keep keeping the commandments and forgiving human frailty in the church and would eventually be eternally grateful I had when I realized I'd known it all along. Maybe I didn't have answers because I was tutored enough to learn that there is rarely a strict "yes" or "no" and that was why I wasn't getting one. Maybe several years wasn't enough patience for answers of eternal import. But maybe...maybe there was nobody to answer. Maybe I'm taking my life's reins into my own hands (which, yes, is probably prideful if there's a God who wants me to hand the reins to him for my own happiness' sake), learning to live by my own compass, and embarking on a new and rewarding journey.
I don't know. Maybe I'll let you know how it goes.
Disagree with my decisions and perspective if you will, but don't demean or dismiss my experience with such trite words as "sudden" or "giving up". You don't know the half of it.