Why They Didn’t Tell You About Their Faith Crisis

I’ve heard from dozens of people who’ve been through a faith crisis who are frustrated with the accusation that they didn’t tell a spouse, a parent, a child, or a church leader about it while they were in the midst of it. Why do they wait for a year or more to tell those who are closest to them — or those who imagine they would have been able to help, if only they’d been early enough to intervene, before the canker had gone too deep? And this makes me alternately sigh and want to scream bloody murder. But I’m going to try to explain some of the reasons that they didn’t tell you that possibly will help you understand.

1. Because they thought it was trivial at first. At first it was just a handful of questions. They were investigating them just fine on their own, like any faithful member would. Reading a book or some scriptures or looking up a talk or two online. No need to bring it up when clearly it hadn’t bothered anyone else.

2. Because they didn’t have the vocabulary to name it by. They don’t know what it is if no one talks about it at church. As they try to figure it out, they go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.

3. Because they thought it would go away in time. We’re often told that if we just hang on, that doubts will resolve themselves. And it happens often enough to us and to others that it’s a reasonable hope, at least for a while. Maybe you’re just depressed and everything looks bad through that lens.

4. Because they thought they needed to fix themselves. This is the result of shaming questions and doubts. People who have them think that the solution is to double down, read more scriptures, study more things online, pray more, fast more, just try harder. It must be their fault, because everyone else makes sense of it, right? Admitting that they’re struggling is tantamount to admitting publicly that they’ve sinned or proven themselves lesser than. No one wants to do that.

5. Because they didn’t want you to interpret their faith crisis as a criticism of you. I’ve seen this in particular with women who go through a faith crisis in patriarchal religions. They are concerned that their husbands will see all their criticisms of patriarchy as personal criticisms of them personally. Divorce is a possibility after a faith crisis. I’ve seen it a lot. But it isn’t a necessity. And it shouldn’t be about rancor or about assigning blame for problems with a faith that was once shared.

6. Because they thought it was safer to stay quiet. From shunning (institutional or simply social) to outright excommunication, it can often seem like the better choice is not to rock the boat. The cost of leaving is high and it’s a lot easier to keep postponing it, sometimes forever.

7. Because you weren’t safe space. You may be hurt to consider this, but it’s likely that your loved one believed that you wouldn’t accept their new worldview. They imagined that you’d think less of them, or worse — that you might judge them, preach to them, or even cut them out of your life in small ways or big ones.

8. Because they didn’t want other people to have to deal with their problems. It’s their faith crisis, not anyone else’s.

9. Because they didn’t want to wreck the family, whether nuclear or extended. For many of those I know within Mormonism, there is a sense of a family legacy. Their ancestors went back to the pioneers and they can’t imagine breaking the hearts of parents and grandparents by saying they don’t believe anymore.

10. Because they’re afraid of not being heard. Let me tell you honestly that it is very difficult to listen to people in faith crisis. They are angry, upset, and can sound irrational to you because they’re emotional. They’ve lost their footing and it may look like they’re throwing everything they once treasured away. If you stick with them through the worst of it, they will usually regain some sense of self and values.

11. Because they think you will accuse them of trying to cover up sinful actions by pointing the finger at the institution rather than at themselves. This can be very complicated, because no one is without sin. Extricating real mistakes from the idea of a faith crisis is almost impossible, but I have no doubt that your family member is afraid you’re going to tell them they just need to repent and everything will be solved.

12. Because they didn’t want to be pressured to come to conclusions that were not their own. They needed space to figure it out for themselves and feared that talking to others would just muzzle their real reactions. This is the first time they’ve really given themselves permission to test out who they really are outside the church.

13. Because they aren’t used to talking about uncomfortable things and it’s easier just not to. This is one that isn’t just about a religious tradition, but perhaps about Americans in general.

(ETA 14. Because the faith crisis triggered a long depression, the results of which were exhaustion and the inability to talk. Also: the inability to care about deeper questions anymore, relationships, or other people in general.)

I hope this is helpful to those on the other side. I’m truly not trying to hurt anyone. I’ve been through a faith crisis, and it’s no fun. It’s confusing and disorienting and often it feels like there are no words. So if you think that finding out a little late (even a couple of years late) is proof of lying or intent to deceive, I think that’s really unfair. Try to be calm and just plain loving. Things may work out better than you think.

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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