Compassion for the Other: Faith and Doubt among Jehovah’s Witnesses

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Disclaimer- I am not, and I have never been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  My observations are based on my own interactions in person and online with both believing and former Witnesses, as well as my study of official Jehovah’s Witness publications, and written experiences from members and former members.  If you feel that any of this information is incorrect, unfair, or incomplete, please comment on this post. I would love to hear from you!

“Not noticing her at first, I had sat down and began looking at a travel magazine. Then, my wife whispered to me, ‘There’s your mom.’ I looked up, and sure enough, there was my mother seated across from me: huddled in the corner of the room, silent and motionless, her body pulled in as if trying to disappear, her smartphone held in front of her face at such a distance and angle so as to hide as much of her face from my view as possible…”

This story comes from a man who left the Jehovah’s Witness religion.  In his religion, believing members, such as his elderly mother, are required to completely shun those who deliberately leave the faith[1].  This is, of course, devastating to those who are shunned.  As you read the rest of his experience, you will likely feel some of this man’s pain as he tries to show love for his mother, who cannot return his expressions.

But I want you to imagine yourself not his place, but in his mother’s.  In the encounters this man describes, both his love for his mother and her love for him are apparent, even though she cannot speak to him.  Let’s start back at the beginning:

“Six months ago, on a balmy September evening, I went to [my mother’s] house to announce in person our decision to disassociate from the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion…
After a few hours of tearful dialogue, I was satisfied that I had explained our position to her in a way that she would accept it. As I got up to leave however, my mother gave me one last long hug, and then, as if turning off all emotion, stated that it was her wish that we no longer have any communication whatsoever.
…Since that day, I have done my best to respect her wishes, despite the pain and sadness it has caused me. I still worry about her and often drive by the house just to make sure her car has changed positions in the driveway on a regular basis.”

[After several months have passed, the man accidentally finds himself in the same doctor’s office waiting room as his dear mother.]

“I looked up, and sure enough, there was my mother seated across from me: huddled in the corner of the room, silent and motionless…
Being so happy to see her, I instinctively flung myself across the room and landed in the empty seat next to her. She pretended not to notice as she continued playing Solitaire on her smartphone. I threw my arms around her, and whispered in her ear: ‘Hi Momma. I still love you.’ I gave her a squeeze as I hugged her. She stiffened up quite like a statue, and as I drew her in to me, to my horror, all I could feel were bones. She was so thin! My first thought was, ‘My God, they’re killing her!’, and as the anger set in, I started to phase out of reality. I looked at her again, her eyes now clenched shut, her face wincing as if I was hurting her. I felt embarrassed by the immediate thought that the other people in the waiting room who had witnessed the event were probably thinking that I had abused my mother in the past, by the way she was reacting to me. Collecting myself, I loosened my hold on her, and as I did, I whispered again: ‘Ok Momma, I understand. I’m going back to my seat now.’ At that statement, her eyes still closed, she half-nodded in approval, which was the only response I was able to evoke from her during the entire exchange. I returned to my magazine, not really looking at it, trying to process what had just happened. Within a minute or two, she was called back to the examination room, and that was the last we saw of her.”
Source- reddit post from a former Jehovah’s Witness

Were you able to do it?  Could you put yourself in her place?  What do you think this poor woman was feeling as her son tried to embrace her?  Why, despite the obvious anguish it caused her, would she be willing to shun him?  What grief, pain and sorrow must she be feeling, having been required by God to cut off her own son?  Maybe she feels something like Abraham as he went into the wilderness to sacrifice Isaac.

We may be tempted to judge her, but this woman is not a monster.  It can be difficult for us to understand what another person is feeling, especially when that person’s beliefs and experiences are very different from ours.  To really understand her situation, it will be necessary to know some of the teachings and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians.  They believe that their organization is the one and only true religion on the earth, and that obedience to the teachings and authorities of their organization is required for salvation.  All other versions of Christianity have fallen away from the Truth[2]. In fact, Witnesses often refer to their religious organization as “The Truth”[3].  Witnesses often describe the wonderful experiences they have in their faith, and how their faith has helped them to feel the love of God and of his people.  They claim to have a cohesive view of scripture, the gospel, faith, and life[4]. For these believers, being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a sacred experience.  When asked, “What do you love most about being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?”, one person replied,

“[Y]our question has brought tears to my eyes.
…I can’t even BEGIN to explain all in how I feel! My wife and our children are HIS property, they belong to HIM and He has granted me the privilege to experience them and have them within the life that He has blessed me with.  
There are no words to describe how grateful, thankful, honored and HAPPY that I am to be privileged to be called ONE of His Witnesses… no words can truly describe it.
…I look at ALL of you who are of Jehovah’s modern day Christian Witnesses (as well as those who are in association with us in sincerity that are learning about our God) and I see just how incredibly BEAUTIFUL you ALL are. This beauty radiates as a beacon due to the grace of the light of the truth which abounds within you.”

Another responded,

“The joy I receive from following the one and only true God. When I am out in the ministry and find someone who wants to talk about God or even just being out with the friends brings me joy. A joy like I had as a child when I had no worries. Also the hope I have that I will soon see my sweet daughter and work together with her to bring the truth to those resurrected.”

In another post, a Witness stated,

“Being a Jehovah’s Witness gives you an inner peace that ‘no one’ can touch, not Satan nor worldly government or those that persecute us can touch how good we feel about being one of Jehovah’s people”

To these Witnesses, their beliefs are very real and sacred.  They give them hope, meaning, purpose, and identity.  Jehovah’s Witnesses that I have interacted with have likewise been sincere, kind, thoughtful individuals, and they truly believe that they have “the Truth”.  They love their faith, their people, and their God.

Let me tell you how I imagine the poor mother in our story must feel.  If she is at all like the people mentioned above, her beliefs are also real and sacred to her.  I imagine she has likely spent most of her life in God’s service as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps she felt led by God to the Truth, and like so many others, she was changed by it. It gives her meaning, identity, hope, and purpose. It answers her most important questions.  Maybe she has experienced answers to prayers and seen God’s hand in her preaching work. I imagine she feels close to God when she sings hymns and studies scripture with her beloved congregation, and she has felt forgiveness and love as she has repented and done her best to obey Jehovah. She looks forward to the day of the resurrection, when she will see her departed loved ones again- perhaps her husband, her parents, her siblings, or even children.  She hopes with all her might that her family will be with her forever in paradise on Earth. To her, all of these things must feel right and good. To her, they must be evidence of Jehovah’s hand in her life and religion, and they are part of the very core of her identity.

When a person has experienced all of these things, what could possibly cause them to fall away?  But her dear son has rejected the Truth. To her, it must seem that he has rejected his chance for salvation and eternal life.  How could he have done this? Was his heart somehow filled with pride? Did someone offend him? Was he deceived by those who hate Jehovah?  Surely, deep down inside, he must know the Truth! Did he not learn from the same scriptures at the Kingdom Hall? Did he not experience the same joy she had while out doing the preaching work?  What will happen to him? Perhaps she has seen others leave, and has watched them become hateful, bitter, and angry. Perhaps she has seen them fall into drunkenness, addiction, and other vices. Likely, it seems that these leave takers try to tear down the faith of believing Witnesses, just as scripture promises.  Will he, too, attack her faith? Unless he repents and returns, he will soon be like those wicked apostates, and God will destroy him[5]. This must be a terrifying thought.

Perhaps she is wracked with guilt.  Does she feel like a failure, weeping alone at night, wondering what more she should have done to instruct her son in the truth, and keep him on the right path?  Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a boy in the way he should go; Even when he grows old he will not depart from it.” Where did she go wrong?

From my perspective, the key to understanding this mother’s actions is knowing that she really, truly believes that the Jehovah’s Witness religion is true.  Leaving it really is apostasy. It is betraying Jehovah. And leaving Jehovah always leads to destruction. Horrifyingly, because of his pride, her son has allowed himself to be deceived by Satan, and now he has become a spiritual danger to himself and others.  God has required believers not to associate with such persons. How can she possibly obey such a difficult commandment? But she must.

While shunning loved ones seems terrible to outsiders, Witnesses do not see this practice as a punishment.  They teach that shunning may lead sinners to return to the Truth, and thereby gain salvation.  They hope that those who are shunned will feel the loss of their treasured relationships and desire to again be part of Jehovah’s Kingdom.  To believers, it is a loving, life-saving disciplinary measure[6].

In regards to shunning loved ones, an April 2015 Watchtower article states,

“Consider just one example of the good that can come when a family loyally upholds Jehovah’s decree not to associate with disfellowshipped relatives. A young man had been disfellowshipped for over ten years, during which time his father, mother, and four brothers ‘quit mixing in company’ with him. At times, he tried to involve himself in their activities, but to their credit, each member of the family was steadfast in not having any contact with him. After he was reinstated, he said that he always missed the association with his family, especially at night when he was alone. But, he admitted, had the family associated with him even a little, that small dose would have satisfied him. However, because he did not receive even the slightest communication from any of his family, the burning desire to be with them became one motivating factor in his restoring his relationship with Jehovah. Think of that if you are ever tempted to violate God’s command not to associate with your disfellowshipped relatives.”

To a person in this mother’s position, ideas of tolerance must feel hollow.  These are matters of eternal life or death. Tolerating her son’s behavior would be to give him up to destruction.  It would be a disservice to her son, and it would be disobedience to God. It’s not because she is angry that she shuns him, but because she loves him.  She must show him the awful consequences that come from his actions. She loves her son, and is terrified for him. She cannot support his actions.  She can only pray for him, and follow Jehovah’s command to withhold the affection she desperately wishes to give.  She must hope that he will see that his path is the path of sorrow, and return to Jehovah.

I do not believe that this woman is shunning her son out of hatred or intolerance.  She does it because she loves him, and she values his eternal happiness more than the fleeting happiness of this life.  Though it torments her to lose her son’s association for the present, and though it tears her family apart, she really believes that doing so is Jehovah’s will. To her, shunning her son is her only hope of restoring her son to the faith, and of rescuing him from destruction.

For a person like me, having never been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is easy to see the torment caused by shunning and other forms of judgement.  The experiences of former members are heartbreaking.  It can be very tempting to read about the damage done to leave takers and harshly judge the honest believers. It may feel like they use this practice as a cruel means of control, or that they enjoy exercising power over their family and friends.  Maybe this is true for some, but I think for many, they just really, truly believe in their religion, and they want their loved ones to be with them for eternity. Think of the poor, desperate mother in this story. Have compassion on her.  She is not evil. Even though her actions are causing terrible, unnecessary harm to her family, I do believe she is trying to do good. She is doing her very best, from her perspective, to serve and love her son. And she may be suffering just as much.

This will not, of course, be much comfort to her son, or any others who have been shunned.  I don’t have a solution to offer those whose families have been divided in this way.  I feel sadness for those on both sides.  To me, neither the believers or former believers are villains.  We are all just human beings, and we are all trying to do what we believe to be right and best.  The sad truth is that the same sincere beliefs that brings light and hope to many can, in other instances, also cause so much pain and sorrow.   When loved ones disagree on something as deeply felt as religion, they can be caught in a terrible situation.  If your family is divided by differences of belief, I’m sorry. I know your pain is very real.

Readers- While respecting each person’s right to believe what they feel is true, what advice can you give to people on either side of this painful divide?

Further Reading:

Letter from a Jehovah’s Witness mother to her son who has left the faith
DearDavid
-from DaveTrash blog post, “The Letter”
(Or, see this text only version)


Notes:

[1] JW.org- Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Shun Former Members of their Religion?
“We do not automatically disfellowship someone who commits a serious sin. If, however, a baptized Witness makes a practice of breaking the Bible’s moral code and does not repent, he or she will be shunned or disfellowshipped. The Bible clearly states: ‘Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.’”

JW.org- Watchtower Online Library- Association
Those who desire God’s approval… stop ‘associating [literally, mixing themselves up]’ socially with members of the congregation whose way of life has led to official censure of their disorderly conduct.”

JW.org- How to Treat a Disfellowshipped Person
“We do not have spiritual or social fellowship with disfellowshipped ones. The Watchtower of September 15, 1981, page 25, stated: ‘A simple ‘Hello’ to someone can be the first step that develops into a conversation and maybe even a friendship. Would we want to take that first step with a disfellowshipped person?’
Is strict avoidance really necessary? Yes, for several reasons…”

This article also discusses exceptions.  For example, disfellowshipped immediate family members living with active members may continue family relations, with some religious limitations.  Minors must still be taught and cared for. For disfellowshipped persons living away from believing members, however, contact should be kept to a minimum.

Quora.com- Are those who leave Jehovah’s Witnesses and join or promote another religion considered apostates? What is the official teaching? Are there instances when this is not the case?
A discussion between believers and non believers about what constitutes apostasy.  In general, those who deliberately leave the faith are considered apostates and are shunned.

JW Reddit- Ask Jehovah’s Witnesses
Active, believing Jehovah’s Witnesses explain the practice of shunning, and give personal experiences.

 

[2] From official Jehovah’s Witness publications:

JW.org- “Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Believe That They Have the One True Religion?”
“Jesus Christ didn’t agree with the view that there are many religions, many roads, all leading to salvation. Rather, he said: ‘Narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they’ve found that road.”

JW.org- “Seven Dukes, Eight Shepherds- What They Mean for Us Today”
“…[T]he direction that you receive from Jehovah’s organization may seem strange or unusual. But all of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether we agree with them or not, because obeying these instructions will save our lives. If any are putting their trust in the education of this world, material things, or human organizations, they must change their way of thinking now.”

JW.org- “Who is Leading God’s People Today?”
“All of us show respect for our Leader, Jesus, by being obedient and submissive to the men he is using to direct us… As we follow their direction, therefore, we follow our Leader, Jesus. Soon, he will lead us to everlasting life.”

 

[3] Wikipedia- Jehovah’s Witnesses
“Adherents commonly refer to their body of beliefs as ‘The Truth’ and consider themselves to be ‘in the Truth’.”

 

[4] Jehovah’s Witness literature include many stories from people who prayed to be lead by God to the truth, and felt their prayers were answered through Jehovah’s Witnesses. Here are some examples:

JW.org- “Searching in the Cocoa Fields”
Two Witnesses are lead to a couple who had been praying to find the truth.

JW.org- “His Prayer Was Heard”
A young man who was raised as a Witness, after being apart from the organization for some time, prays to know if the his religion is true. He feels God answered his prayer.

JW.org- “Please, Jehovah, Have Your Witnesses Find Me”
A woman prays that Jehovah’s Witnesses will find her and teach her. They find her the same day.

Witnesses also tell of their experiences in public forums.

-Quora.com, answer by Michael DeLuc
“For the first time the Bible started making sense to me. I found that the Bible was in full agreement with itself, and that there was no “mystery” about our Creator. It also taught me WHY there are so many different kinds of religions in the world, and what God thinks about that as well as what He will do about it. As I started to ask more and more questions, I saw that there were answers for them, and the answers were coming from the Bible.”

-Quora.com, answer by Arthur Gomez
“To feel close to our creator Jehovah, to know there is a future beyond what man can offer, to know that we will see loved ones again…..there are too many positive to not be one.”

-Quora.com, answer by Rufus Panjaitan
“It gives me a strong sense that I am part of a worldwide brotherhood… I always have the same feeling when I meet JWs in foreign countries or when they come to my country. I feel the genuine love. …Overall, being a JW gives me a purpose in life and hope for the future.”

 

[5] JW.org- Watchtower Online Library- Apostasy
“Among the varied causes of apostasy set forth in apostolic warnings were: lack of faith (Heb 3:12), lack of endurance in the face of persecution (Heb 10:32-39), abandonment of right moral standards (2Pe 2:15-22), the heeding of the ‘counterfeit words’ of false teachers and ‘misleading inspired utterances’ (2Pe 2:1-3; 1Ti 4:1-3; 2Ti 2:16-19; compare Pr 11:9), and trying ‘to be declared righteous by means of law’ (Ga 5:2-4). While still making profession of faith in God’s Word, apostates may forsake his service by treating lightly the preaching and teaching work that he assigned to followers of Jesus Christ. (Lu 6:46; Mt 24:14; 28:19, 20) They may also claim to serve God but reject his representatives, his visible organization. (Jude 8,11; Nu 16:19-21) Apostates often seek to make others their followers. (Ac 20:30; 2Pe 2:1, 3) Such ones willfully abandoning the Christian congregation thereby become part of the ‘antichrist.’ (1Jo 2:18, 19) As with the apostate Israelites, destruction is likewise foretold for apostates from the Christian congregation.​—2Pe 2:1; Heb 6:4-8

 

[6] JW.org- Why Disfellowshipping is a Loving Provision
“Disfellowshipping protects the clean, Christian congregation. The apostle Paul warned the Corinthians of the danger of allowing willful sinners to remain in their midst… He then counseled them: ‘Remove the wicked person from among yourselves.’—1 Cor. 5:6, 11-13.
…Overlooking willful sins encourages a lax attitude toward divine standards. (Eccl. 8:11) Furthermore, unrepentant sinners could become ‘rocks hidden below water’ and shipwreck the faith of others in the congregation.”

“Disfellowshipping may bring the wrongdoer to his senses… [D]isfellowshipped ones who are no longer members of the Christian congregation—their spiritual family—may come to realize what they have lost. The bitter fruits of their sinful course, together with the memories of happier days when they enjoyed a good relationship with Jehovah and his people, could bring them to their senses.
…To illustrate: Imagine a hiker who succumbs to exhaustion on a cold winter day. He begins to suffer from hypothermia, and he feels drowsy. If he falls asleep in the snow, he will die. While waiting for a rescue party, his companion occasionally slaps him in the face to keep him awake. The slap may sting, but it could well save his life.
…In many cases, disfellowshipping provides the discipline the erring one needs. After some ten years, Julian’s son, mentioned at the outset, cleaned up his life, returned to the congregation, and now serves as an elder. ‘Being disfellowshipped brought me face-to-face with the consequences of my lifestyle,’ he admits. ‘I needed that sort of discipline.’”

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4 thoughts on “Compassion for the Other: Faith and Doubt among Jehovah’s Witnesses

  1. It is totally wrong to say “All other versions of Christianity have fallen away from the Truth”. You might say that about certain denominations in Christendom, but those in Christianity who believe in only One God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and his disciples and not in the trinity did not fall from the Biblical Truth.

    some of them may also have exclusions and shunning form their community but it is not because the others do not shun that they would be wrong denominations or not living according Biblical Truth.

    There are many denominations which do not adhere to the Trinity and want to live according to the commandments of God who think shunning should not be the only hope of restoring a son or daughter to the faith, and of rescuing a person from destruction by the second death.

    I believe one can better try to get someone back on track by giving the right example and by showing agapè or the brotherly love. By excluding some one from the community or by shunning some one it is more likely that person in his solitude shall look for other ways of communication and worship with others and as such shall be an easier pray for Trinitarians and as such shall come to be easier lost for the Most High and His Kingdom, coming to live against the wishes of Jehovah God.

    The person saying “In many cases, disfellowshipping provides the discipline the erring one needs. After some ten years, Julian’s son, …, cleaned up his life, returned to the congregation, and now serves as an elder.” For some being disfellowshipped it may open their eyes and have them come to see how false other religions are. But with the majority we see them leaving the Christian faith and becoming atheists, who often fight a lot against the lovers of God, be them JW, Christadelphians, Abrahamic Faith, Church of God or other non-trinitarian people. On the other hand we also may find people who come to admit they need that sort of discipline which is presented by organisations as the WBTS.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your feedback! I’ve tried my best to be accurate, so I’d love to correct any factual errors. Are you saying that the Jehovah’s Witness organization does NOT teach that all other versions of Christianity have fallen away from the truth? Or, are you just saying that you personally disagree with the idea? If that is not really the official position of the organization, can you please point me to articles or other resources that clearly explain how the Witnesses view other religions?

    As for shunning, I agree that it is highly problematic. My intention was simply to show that even those who engage in this practice may be sincere and have good intentions. I do not support shunning.

    Thanks again!

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  3. Pingback: Russia and evangelisation | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  4. Pingback: Compassion for the Other: Faith and Doubt among Jehovah’s Witnesses – Preach From The Housetops

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