A Faith Less Angsty

For most of my life, my religious beliefs have been both deeply meaningful to me, and a source of intense turbulence. I agonized over my relationship to Mormonism for decades, over what it meant to stick with a tradition that did things I so deeply disagreed with but which was such a profound part of my identity, and had played such a foundational role in shaping my spirituality.  I don’t know how many hours I spent writing about those questions, talking endlessly to friends and family about them, even bringing them up in therapy. And because of all that, I think I developed the idea that genuine faith was meant to be difficult, and by “difficult” I meant, something that regularly drove you crazy.

That’s why this year has been so incredibly disorienting. The thing about Episcopal church is—I just like it. It’s a fairly straightforward thing. I don’t feel tormented or conflicted. I don’t walk out of worship services feeling like I’m being ripped apart, like I have conflicting loyalties that will forever be in tension. I feel spiritually nourished, connected to things I care about, dare I even say, happy. I don’t go to church out of any sense of guilt or obligation; I go because I get so much out of it, and missing even a week makes me genuinely sad. It’s not something to be endured, followed by a lot of processing with various people of what crazy things happened that week. It really is that simple for me right now, that I like going. I’m in love with the liturgy, the music is consistently stellar, the sermons are usually substantive and thought-provoking, and the rituals have started to feel familiar in a way that speaks deeply to me. Worship leaves me feeling content, at peace, hopeful, and wanting to be a better person. The worst that ever happens is for it to be mildly boring (and even that is pretty unusual). It never aggravates my depression, or ramps up my suicidality. No lie—it’s consistently one of the high points of the week.

This is all so, so strange. I can’t even tell you.

The thing is, without even realizing it, I’d developed a religious identity centered around angst. And part of me liked that. Part of me even believed that faith that wasn’t completely wrenching maybe wasn’t the real thing, maybe wasn’t worth pursuing. And I liked that image of myself, of the person whose faith was so real, so committed, that I wouldn’t let even the hardest aspects of the church, the things that were so difficult for me, take away my connection to it or my willingness to stick with it. I’d adopted a narrative about there being something extra virtuous about going to church when it’s kind of a brutal experience. I mean, anyone can go to church when it’s easy to do so, when you mostly like it. But it takes someone special, I figured, to keep going when it feels terrible. I don’t know that I ever consciously articulated this point of view to myself, but it was lurking underneath, and definitely influencing my decision to stay.

It’s really thrown me for a loop, then, to be someone who’s going to church because I like it so much. I’ve never been in this position before. And to be honest, I’m a little suspicious. I’ve internalized so many messages over the years about how the things truly worth doing in life are going to be hard, and maybe take everything you’ve got. I find myself wondering: is it really okay to be doing this, to have picked a church just because it’s such a positive thing for me? Or is it cheating somehow? I was telling my therapist the other day about how religion is supposed to be demanding. I brought up that Joseph Smith quote about how a religion that doesn’t require you to sacrifice all things can’t produce sufficient faith for salvation. He had a strikingly different perspective. He thought that life was already going to be hard, that intensely difficult challenges were going to come regardless—and ideally religion would help you get through those rough patches, rather than make things even harder. I can see arguments in favor of both views, and I’m still sorting out what I think. The old saying about how church should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable  seems relevant here.

But right now, I’m exploring the possibility that faith could still be meaningful and worthwhile and genuine without quite so much angst and internal conflict. That there might be a different way of being religious, and that gritting your teeth and continuing to attend services that regularly beat you down isn’t necessarily virtuous, or admirable, or even wise. I was recently trying to explain to the rector of my parish why I find it so unsettling to like church, to feel this good about it. It’s actually a new thing for me to even think about my personal experience of church as something worth taking seriously; I grew up with the idea that that wasn’t supposed to matter, because all that mattered was being in the True Church, even if it was pushing you over the edge of sanity. If you didn’t like church, you were supposed to fix yourself in some way so that you would have a better experience. I think the rector was a little confused by all of this, but he asked me, could you just let yourself enjoy being spiritually nourished for a while, without having to second-guess that or feel guilty about it? For me, that’s not as easy to do as it might sound. But I think it’s a question worth asking.

14 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I’ve been reading ZD for several years, but I don’t think I’ve ever commented before. Today I feel like letting you know how much I enjoy reading about your faith journey and your thoughts and insights that go along with it. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for sharing. I have a hard time thinking I could want any organized religion at this time, but I need to keep open to what you have found.

  3. This is such outstanding news. I’m so happy for you that you’ve found a place where you feel happy, supported and nourished. Though I definitely relate to missing the angst sometimes. (It wasn’t good for me but it was so familiar.). I’m looking for an Episcopal service to attend on Christmas. I’ll be thinking of you! Happy holidays!

  4. I’m so glad you’ve found a place to worship that is nourishing to you. I went to UU services on Sunday and came away with a warm, comforted feeling that is in stark contrast to the angst and confusion I feel most weeks after leaving church. I’m still attending because of family, but I frequently think about what it would be like to be part of a church community that I actually liked.

    I think it’s useful to turn the situation around and imagine: would we ever tell a Catholic who felt tortured by the Catholic church but felt comfortable, nourished, and embraced in the LDS church that she should stay Catholic because being tortured by your faith somehow leads to salvation? Or would we expect someone to convert to a religion in which they consistently feel hopeless, unloved, and confused? We would say that those feelings are the spirit communicating to the person where they can find the most light.

    Wishing you brightness and beauty in your journey.

  5. I don’t want to come across as saying anything that would deny your enjoyment of Episcopal services, but when I read occasional comments like yours in LDS blogs I wonder how much of this kind of relief comes from the actual theology and how much comes from the fact that Episcopal services are performed by professionals instead of DIY by those attending? In other words, I can imagine reading the following on some blog:

    I used to dread eating dinner everyday, the constant hassle of deciding what to eat, going shopping, cooking and cleaning up made it so difficult. I’m much happier now that I eat dinner at restaurants. There is always a wide variety of food to choose from, the chefs are much better cooks than I am, it’s brought to my table and someone cleans up after me when I’m finished! Eating has become meaningful and worthwhile again without so much angst and internal conflict.

  6. KLC, I got kind of a kick out of your analogy. The do it yourself version of food is more difficult, and the done by volunteers compared to professional chefs does provide a lower quality of food. So, that may be an issue for some.

    But I don’t think that the do it yourself /done by volunteers version of church is the problem for me. I think it is more like being allergic to what they are serving. I am reacting in a bad way to what is served in the Mormon church. Most people do not seem bothered by things that bother me. And getting out of all preparation and clean up would not help with what food is being served and how I personally react to it.

  7. I remember the first time coming home from a service not tense and not angry and not needing a nap (and having experienced faith in a new way). What amazing rest and rejuvenation for my soul!

    That was over three years ago. It is still an interesting way to exist.

    I hold onto the good of what I learned . . . and I continue to learn.

  8. I just wanted to be another voice of commentary that I am so happy for you and so privileged to be able to read about it! So much of this resonates with me — in some ways, I think that “one true church” mentality really does prime for that. If it’s the one true church, then it doesn’t matter how it makes you feel; you’ve just got to stick with it. Or so that mentality goes.

    I haven’t experimented with other denominations, so I haven’t experienced that rich sense of joy that you are going through, but I have noticed enough people who find the experience of Mormonism you describe so well here to be completely anathema to their own religious experience. I have noticed enough people who would take it for granted that religion is *supposed* to be supportive and affirming.

  9. Lynette, I have a daughter, a beautiful, loving, and compassionate daughter, that went on a mission and was married in the temple who has had the same types of angst concerning the church for many years. Of course her life course is not identical to yours, but similar in some respects. She finally came to me a few weeks ago to discuss, or rather to explain her views and announce her decisions. Because of her views on equality and patriarchy she has renounced the LDS theology completely, and has taken it a bit further and rejected the God of the Bible, especially the Old testament completely also. The latter is a logical progression based upon her viewpoints.
    This did not come as a surprise to me. I know my daughter pretty well. But facing the actual reality as the words fell from her lips still was heart wrenching to me because of the faith that I still have. And because of that faith I cannot agree with her decisions because of the implications that it has to me for eternity. Yet I know that I must accept it, and I have, without any type of push back against her decisions. I did think it through and sent her a letter detailing why I believe so fervently. I am glad that she has found some measure of peace and hope that she will at some point have a spiritual experience which will renew her faith and give her a different perspective on LDS theology.
    Although I have never met you I have come to really like you as I read your blogs over a period of time. I do hope that you find your measure of peace, but that you will leave the door open to what I feel is the full plan of salvation.
    And I hope that you will find an acceptance of your decisions from those who you love and who love you that also might have the fervent beliefs that I do.


  10. I have come across your blog recently and love it. My husband is still a true believer but for me, I just can’t anymore. Too much ‘stuff’ and baggage going on in the LDS church. Isn’t coming together supposed to be about spiritual uplift? I had it the day our stake president called our ward “dead and dying turkeys” over the pulpit because we hadn’t “improved our numbers in attending sacrament meeting”. Can you believe that?!

    What you are feeling is correct. Keep going to the services where you are loved and cared for. You are discovering what I have discovered. There is no ‘true church’, (as in an actual building where people meet), only the church of God and the church of the Devil. The true church of God has no bounds and is a relationship with God. LDS people are so ‘busy doing’ everything they believe they are supposed to do, that they neglect their relationship with Him.

    God Bless You

  11. Wow, lots of comments! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone.

    HokieKate, thank you!

    SD, I’m so happy to have drawn you out of lurking! And I’m really glad you’ve enjoyed reading about my faith journey. I’ve actually wrestled a lot this year with the question of how much to blog about it, just because this is a Mormon blog, and we’ve always considered our audience to be primarily members of the church (albeit more unorthodox ones). To be honest, I’m still figuring out what this whole thing means for my blogging; it’s not a problem I anticipated having when we started the blog! But I’ve also gotten enough feedback about my writing about my experiences this year that I’ve felt like it was meaningful to share them. And of course, my religious outlook is always going to be deeply influenced by Mormonism; I can’t imagine that changing. Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that I really appreciate your letting me know that you’ve enjoyed following along; that’s actually helpful information for me.

    Happy Hubby, thanks! I do feel like I can understand how some people land in a place where they just feel done with organized religion. To be honest, I’ve actually spent some time trying to figure out why my story didn’t go that direction. But best wishes to you in whatever path you follow! (I always love reading your thoughts at W&T, by the way.)

    Laura, thank you! This really is a happy thing, even with the disorienting aspects. Hope you find a lovely Christmas service!

    Dog Spirit, that’s such a good question. And I think it’s a real challenge for any religion: is it possible to treat conversions to your faith and conversions away from it with the same respect and legitimacy? It’s an understandable temptation, I think, to frame the spiritual experiences of those who join as genuine and important, and those of the ones who leave as them being somehow deceived. Because if all the experiences are legitimate, what does that mean? (That’s where I’ve gotten very interested in articulating a rigorous theology of pluralism.) But I feel like I can honestly say that my decision to trust my spiritual experience around this is actually a very Mormon one, even if it’s not leading me on a traditional path. Thanks so much for the good wishes!

    KLC, it’s an interesting analogy, and it may speak to some people’s experiences, but I don’t feel like it really resonates with mine. The professional clergy piece is a pretty small aspect of this for me. This past year, I attended worship services with nearly fifty different religious groups in my community. It was informative and fascinating and sometimes uplifting and occasionally jarring. But while nearly all of them had professionals running the services, none of them left me feeling like the Episcopal church does. For me, I think it’s a combination of a worship style that really speaks to me (I crazy love the liturgy), a general approach to religion that is very comfortable with ambiguity and mystery, and an inclusive outlook in which barriers aren’t imposed on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. And of course the fact that the people in my local parish have been very welcoming has influenced me as well. So it’s a mix of factors. My concern with the way you’ve framed it is that it runs the risk of dismissing people’s very real challenges with the LDS faith as nothing more than an unwillingness to bother cooking their own food, and that doesn’t seem quite fair.

    Anna, yes, I think you’ve hit on something. For some people, it’s not the preparation of the food; it’s the substance of it.

    Kindra, yes I hear you! It’s a really different way of going to church. I’m still not entirely used to it.

    Andrew, thank you! I agree that exclusivist claims play a significant role in this, which has made me curious about whether other churches which make “only true church” claims find themselves dealing with similar dynamics. I’m thinking back to hawkgrrl’s recent post about why people go to church. If you’re going for salvation, whether or not the weekly services are doing much for you spiritually might feel less important? Your observation that many people would take it for granted that religion is supposed to be supportive and affirming is a striking one—it raises questions for me about why I’ve never conceptualized religion in that way.

    Jason, thank you! I’m looking forward to Christmas Eve as well.

    Glenn, I was touched by the kindness in your comment; thank you. As someone who spent my entire life before this year immersed in Mormonism, I do feel like I can understand the perspective which sees me as turning away from something of eternal value. And my hope is that even if I see the situation somewhat differently, I can still respect and be empathetic toward that point of view. I genuinely wish you and your daughter the best as you both figure out what this means for your relationship; I’m on a similar journey with some people in my life, and hoping that religious differences don’t have to lead to fraught relationships. And one of the things that has meant a great deal to me is the extent to which my devout LDS friends have opted to be supportive. Wishing peace to you and your family this holiday season.

    Jenny, okay, I’m laughing at the “dead and dying turkeys” comments. Um, wow? Best to you in your own spiritual path from here.

  12. I love this, Lynnette! I’m really happy for you that you’ve found a church that’s less stress-provoking for you. I also appreciate your therapist’s take on life being difficult enough without us needing to intentionally bring lots more difficulty on ourselves.

    It makes me sad that Mormonism takes a hard line stance on so many things, and as a result drives many people away. I know that it also retains or gains people who crave certainty and love the us vs. them view of the world, but as someone who prefers a less certain and more inclusive view, I find this to be a net loss.


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