This post is written to myself in the past, around ten years ago, in the earlier part of my decade long crisis of faith. At the time, I had poured myself into more fully devoted church service hoping that God would resolve my doubts somewhere along the way, but they still always lingered in my mind. I wish I could give my past self some advice and kind words of encouragement that no one I knew then was able to give me. I also hope that perhaps someone in a similar situation might read it and gain some comfort and guidance that will be of value to them. If you are content with your faith, this post is not written to you. I wish you the best, and I hope your faith brings you everything you hope for.
Dear Brian in the past,
I hope that by talking to you from the future, I can spare you years of anguish. I know what you have been thinking about in relation to God, religion, and the Church, and I know you have felt unable to talk to anyone about it. I know you have been quietly suffering. That is a painful, painful thing. I don’t want to scare you, but in my version of your future, it gets a lot worse before it gets any better. But it doesn’t have to.
I want you to slow down for a moment, and take a deep breath. Pay attention to what you are feeling. Your insides have been in turmoil for years. You’ve lost many days worth of sleep. Your neck hurts, your back hurts, your head hurts. You feel uncomfortable all the time, and even when everyone thinks you are fine, you still have a nagging feeling that something is just not right.
I know you’ve been praying harder than you ever have, reading and deeply pondering scripture, and attending the temple often. You’ve gone to church leaders for help, advice, and blessings. You want those things to fix your doubts. The stakes seem so high.
You want to feel safe. You want to know that you are right with God, as is your family. You want to know that you can have the promise of being together with them for eternity. You want forgiveness from your failures and mistakes. You want salvation.
You want so badly to be right- right with God, and right with your own conscience, but you are so unsure of what is true, and you’re buried in fear. You have serious doubts about the religion you were raised in, but the consequences of really questioning it terrify you. You fear causing pain to your mom and dad. You fear your loved ones’ reactions. You fear standing apart from your people. You also fear being deceived. You fear Satan. You fear Hell. You fear God.
Take another deep breath. You are going to be OK. You are a good person- there is nothing wrong with you, and you are not being punished. What you are feeling is normal. Brian, you have been committed to your faith since childhood. You have done your best to do what is right. Now, you don’t know what to believe, and it terrifies you. I want to put your uncertainty into a different context.
Right now, there are people in every faith who have doubts- and many of them feel just like you. They, too, are scared and wonder what to do. How can they know whether they are on the right path? For them and for you, this uncertainty can and should be the beginning of a very important journey- a journey of seeking truth. In our lives, each of us must learn for ourselves what we really believe, independent of our families, culture, or other outside influences. Now it is your time to learn. It is time for you to take responsibility for your own beliefs.
Brian, I’m not going to tell you what to believe, but I am going to ask you a question. What would you do if you were brave? What would you do if you had all the integrity you wished you had? Think about this hard. Ask yourself this: If there were no social consequences- no loved ones to disappoint, no public stands to take, no congregations to leave, what would you do? If you were not scared, what questions would you ask, and what ideas would you explore? What would you do if you felt free? What is in your heart of hearts?
I want you to think about your conscience. Is there any part of your life that feels wrong because you are doing what someone else believes you should do, instead of listening to what your own inner voice is saying is right? Can you hear that inner voice, or has it been drowned out by outside pressures?
Right now, you don’t know what the truth is about God or religion. Your mind goes back and forth- you have some reasons to believe, and some reasons to doubt. You have had many wonderful experiences within your faith, and some that have been seriously destructive. This uncertainty is putting you into a terrible turmoil.
Think about those feelings, but now, instead of feeling trapped, think of what you can do about your situation. Be honest with yourself. Allow yourself to acknowledge your thoughts, questions, and feelings. Then, instead of endless worrying, think: How can I move forward? What can I do to find the truth? What resources exist to help me find answers to my questions? Have other people asked the same questions already? What answers are available? Have I considered all points of view?
If you, in your heart of hearts, feel the need to question and evaluate your faith, that is OK. You need to obey your conscience. If you don’t obey your conscience (here’s where the years of anguish come in), you will live to deeply regret it. I promise you that. To you, and to those who have serious questions about any religion, here is my advice:
Ask the Hard Questions
Ask the hard questions, and look for honest answers. Truth will stand up to inquiry. It is OK to want answers, and to seek truth. God will not punish you. If a Muslim man has questions about his faith, he should seek answers. If a Jehovah’s Witness has come to doubt whether his faith is actually the one true religion, he should try to find out whether it is or not. The same is true for Catholics, Hindus, Mormons, and anyone else. It is by asking hard questions that we come closer to truth.
I remember my first real doubt. I bet you do, too. I felt like my thoughts were evil and dangerous, and I did my best to simply put them out of my mind. I didn’t have an answer, and I was afraid of looking for one. It can be scary to confront those hard questions. I was terrified. I felt that my salvation was on the line, as well as the salvation of my loved ones. I needed to know if my religion was true or not, and I feared that if I got the answer wrong, I would be damned.
I felt a lot like this man, who eventually left the Worldwide Church of God. The WCG claimed to be the only true Christian church. Through a friend, he stumbled upon information that caused him to question some of his deeply held beliefs:
“I was afraid to probe deeper–truly afraid of losing my salvation if I found out too much. My mind would shut down from fear. …it was best to kill any bad thoughts or doubts before they took root. …I struggled with fear–fear that I had allowed Satan to turn my heart and mind against God’s true church. I was warned this would happen and I suffered from feeling that I had allowed myself to gain forbidden knowledge. …I was sure I had fallen into the trap that I had been warned about for years. It tortured me for some time, going back and forth between loyalty and doubt.”
-from article “Why is it Difficult for Exiters to Question Herbert Armstrong?”, posted on Exit and Support Network
Does this sound familiar? Have you felt this way? I do not believe that God will punish a person for honestly, sincerely seeking truth. You are RIGHT to seek truth! You are right to try to find answers to your deepest questions. No person, no church, no teacher, or other authority can determine the truth for you. Deep inside, you need to find the truth for yourself. You need to be at peace with yourself and know you have honestly done your best to do what you believe to be right. If you never try to find that truth, if you simply accept what others around you believe, you may never find that peace.
Whatever your questions are- whatever made you doubt- you can seek out the truth. You can carefully, even prayerfully look at evidences from many sources. You can evaluate them. You can see how people with varying perspectives interpret those evidences. Do their ideas fit the evidence, and do they make sense? You can hear what defenders, critics, and scholars have to say. You can look at all sides of any issue! You can see if what you learn lines up with what you have been taught. You can examine all of this information and see how it sits in your mind and heart. Anytime something is so important, you must do this.
Don’t Bury Your Doubts
Don’t try to bury your questions and doubts. My years of anguish came to me because I was burying my thoughts, my fears, my mind, and my conscience, trying to do what others expected of me. That is not a good way to live. I buried my doubts for years, but still they resurfaced. I eventually needed answers. The longer I waited, the higher the stakes became, and the harder it became to change. Please, don’t wait.
Brian, I don’t care what you end up believing. I just want you to be free to seek truth as you truly, honestly see fit, and to live according to what you find. So much of my suffering came from sitting in fear, unable to move forward. That’s what I want to help you avoid. Who knows- if you start now on your search for truth, you may come to different conclusions than I have. You may learn things that I don’t even know.
It may even be that your search for truth will lead you back to the same faith you are questioning. Others before you have asked similar questions, and some have found answers that have satisfied their doubts. Talk to them. Perhaps you, too, will find satisfying answers to your questions. I have seen that happen, and that’s OK! Or, perhaps your search will lead you in a new direction. That can be much scarier, but that’s OK, too! The most important thing is that you will be honest with yourself. If you are honest with yourself, you will not be filled with agony and regret many years from now because you allowed others to determine what you believe.
Don’t Do It Alone
I have one more very important thing to tell you. One of my biggest regrets is going through my crisis alone. I felt like I couldn’t really talk to anyone, and the sense of isolation I felt ate me alive. I didn’t even feel like I could talk with my immediate family about my doubts for years- if only I had known how loving and kind they would be, even though they did not share my doubts! There are people who care about you. They may be inside or outside your faith. Please find someone to talk to. Don’t be afraid to discuss your feelings with others. Talk to your family. Talk to people who share your beliefs. Talk to people who have different beliefs and different experiences. Find someone with whom you can share your questions, fears, and doubts openly. I felt so alone. I felt like I was the only one who had gone through this. Please, don’t do this to yourself! It is far too heavy of a burden!
In the end, though, only you can be responsible for your beliefs. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks that you should believe, even though many of those people love you. That has no bearing on what is actually true. Each person must seek out truth for themselves, and it is your job to decide how to do that. You need to find out what you really believe, and live according to it. By doing that, you can find peace.
Brian, the truth will stand up to inquiry. You don’t have to be afraid of asking questions. I don’t believe God will punish a person who is honestly seeking truth and trying to do what is right. Do what you need to in order to find peace and answers. Don’t be afraid, and don’t remain paralyzed. Move forward honestly, and you will be all right.
I wish you peace,