Nothing really shocked me during my slow journey out of the Church. I think it’s fair to say that the Church changed some during those years, but if I’m objective, it was my shifting feelings and attitudes that account for most of the drift. In any case, the Church did seem to get more vocal and incessant in pronouncing its least Christlike views, ringing sharply discordant notes that echoed across the widening gap between my values and Church policy. So while it was painful, I could hardly be shocked by a worldview that I once held.
It was that pain that led me to slowly pull back the curtain on Church history. I found many grotesque apparitions there, but again, none of them shocked me. I had been peripherally aware of their forms silhouetted on the curtain for as long as I could remember. The true curtain had always been the one I had drawn between my conscious and subconscious mind.
My faith shifted in almost imperceptible gradations from day to day. Until one day I realized that I didn’t believe it anymore. And while momentous, the realization was not shocking because I had arrived there so gradually.
What did shock me was what happened after I finally did break free: instead of becoming less holy and less joyful, as I would have expected, I discovered the exact opposite effect taking place in my life!
More Holiness Give Me
As an active member, I would have expected a moral decline to take place in those who chose to leave the Church. If not a life of total debauchery, I would have anticipated at least a lowered regard for the importance of doing “the right thing.” That I would be more inclined to take advantage of a neighbor and less inclined to help someone in need. I mean, after all, I was finally off the hook from those pesky temple recommend questions! Surely without that accountability, I wouldn’t feel as much need, for instance, to be “honest in my dealings with my fellowmen.”
What I discovered, however, is that I still want to do the right thing, only now it feels more genuine because I do it without hope for reward or fear of punishment, and I feel the importance of honesty more keenly than ever! (Maybe that has something to do with feeling that I have been deceived myself.) Sure, I guess I now affiliate with groups whose teachings are contrary to the Church (whatever that means), and I no longer wear the garment as instructed (more on that when I get to joy J), but the temple recommend questions that actually relate to the golden rule – I can honestly answer all of those as good or better than before.
Leaving the Church also didn’t make me any more inclined to harm myself or others. While I have experimented with coffee and alcohol, I have been careful not to do anything without first researching the risks and benefits, and then listening closely to my body. Turns out that coffee is invigorating for me and has documented health benefits, but alcohol is unpleasant for me in some settings and can mess up my sleeping patterns. Guess who doesn’t drink alcohol very often? And guess who isn’t even remotely interested in smoking? As for harming others, I was pleased to discover that I still love my wife and children, and I feel as committed to them as ever. No sign yet of a spike in criminal or unethical behavior, but who knows, maybe it’s just slow in coming.
Apart from not becoming the spawn of Satan, I have actually experienced an unexpected spiritual renaissance. During the interview where my temple recommend didn’t get renewed, I told my bishop, “What I’m experiencing right now feels like growth.” And it does! For me to have stayed in the Church, I would have had to put the brakes on that growth. There were fences in my mind that had to come down before I could go where I needed to go on my spiritual journey.
The growth was unexpected because I didn’t even know I had room to grow. Not that I thought I was perfect, but I never realized how much I judged others simply because they weren’t members of the Church. Not a condemning sort of judgement, but a simple nagging feeling that whatever they were, they would be better if they were Mormons. Letting go of that feeling has transformed me from would-be teacher to attentive student. I learn so much more from people nowadays. And that new freedom to accept others means that there is no longer any asterisk on my LGBT ally patch. Because I already let go of my temple recommend, I have nothing to fear when I engage in social activism and advocate for the least among us in a public way. In short, I can finally follow my conscience without someone else’s predetermined answers hedging my way.
Now that I don’t pay tithing for dubious Church expenditures, I am free to spend that significant chunk of my income on causes that are, in fact, charitable. As a result, I am becoming a more charitable person. And I’ve learned something. Spending money doesn’t make a person charitable. Spending time finding out where there is need is what makes a person charitable. I never went through that process when I thought the Church was doing it for me.
I have also come to know that doubt, while uncomfortable, is so much better than certainty. Doubt leaves me open to spiritual insight, and realizing when I am wrong. Certainty left me arrogant and unteachable. I used to talk to God. Now I just listen.
It actually feels like I have been handed another life. The life I get to choose. I still make mistakes, but what I’m choosing isn’t the hedonism of “eat, drink, and be merry” without regard for the happiness of others. What I’m choosing is love. Just pure, unfenced love.
Men are that they Might Have Joy
No, it hasn’t been an uninterrupted scene of rainbows and small fluffy animals. Change is always hard, and a metamorphosis like leaving Mormonism necessitates significant pain. And I’m one of the lucky ones whose wife came along on the journey and whose extended family has been accepting! Also, pain isn’t as bad when it feels like the pain of growth, full of purpose.
Yes, I have to make new meaning in my life, but on the other hand, I get to make new meaning in my life! Since I don’t know what, if anything, awaits me after this life, I feel the call of carpe diem more than ever. I’ve found a new drive to make a difference in the word, and paradoxically, I feel at last that I’m already good enough. No angry or benevolent god to please, just every day as one more day to fill with as much love as I can manage. Just because I can.
I couldn’t have measured the weight of guilt and shame in my life before they were lifted away. I found that guilt, rather than stopping some bad habits, was actually fueling them. And free of guilt, I could finally pay attention in a non-judging way to natural consequences, and this ultimately motivated me to make some important changes.
And there are so many new sources of unexpected joy. I’ve already mentioned coffee. The pleasant aroma as I grind my own beans and the serenity of sitting as I sip a smooth cup and watch dawn come up in my back yard. And the joy of choosing my own underwear! Such a simple pleasure, but so precious to one who has spent almost two decades wearing uncomfortable garments day and night. And the joy of seeing my wife in the adornment of her choosing. Intimacy is so much better without Masonry getting in the way! Yeah, that’s been my favorite change so far.
Much of my newfound joy is a simple result of having more time. More free evenings to spend with my family. The bliss of knowing every Sunday that I don’t have to wrestle small children through another dreaded sacrament meeting! And the joy that comes from choosing activities that really do feed my spirit. Getting outdoors, just being together with my family, or attending non-creedal church services that not only speak to my values, but that actually get my kids excited about going!
I will admit that I look over my shoulder fearing lightning bolts from time to time. Everything I used to believe told me that calamity would come my way if I ever left the Church. So far, however, the following has happened: my wife won a competitive scholarship to pursue the career of her dreams, my children are getting along together better than ever, I got a phone call from my company’s CEO informing me that I had won a prestigious award, and I am in a better situation financially than before.
The truth is, calamity really may strike me. Bad things just happen to people sometimes. But when it does, the bright side will be that I won’t have to wring my hands reconciling it with my life choices or beliefs. It will just be. And that might make it easier to accept.
What does it say about an organization that purports to be the one true path to holiness and joy, when not only did it stop offering those things to me, but where almost immediately after leaving, I received them in abundance?
I’ll tell you what it spells for me: The most shocking indictment that could possibly be levied against the Church! Set aside the bad policies. Set aside the troubling history. If the Church isn’t even making me a better human being, than what else is there?
In light of that quest for personal improvement, the bad policies and troubling history take on a new meaning. They are gifts! Things that you trip and hurt yourself on but finally recognize as fitting the keyhole in a prison you didn’t even know you inhabited. And you may want to share these keys, but the problem is that they look like weapons at first. Maybe the thing to do is just to leave them down on the path. I believe that most people will eventually trip on them if their progress requires it. Maybe that path isn’t for everyone, but for those who have decided to pick up the keys, I hope that you, like me, find greater holiness and joy on the other side!