Guest post by Bridget J.
Bridget, who has previously rarely arrived at church on time, now gets there 10 minutes early so she can broadcast sacrament meeting over Zoom.
I didn’t embark on my faith journey on purpose. It never even occurred to me that I needed to go anywhere. I thought I’d already built my spiritual foundation.
As a child, I had absolute trust in my parents and the church. I believed in what some people might name the God of the Missing Car Keys. I prayed with faith to find whatever needed finding. In school, I prayed before I studied so that the Lord could bless me with remembrance during tests. And it worked. God answered my prayers.
I considered the blessed and happy state of those who kept the commandments of God. With sure footing, I grew in love and understanding. I trusted God to take care of any issues I had. All I needed to do was be patient. I was happy. And content. Life was good.
I attributed my happiness to obedience. If there was something I could do to choose the right, I did it. Unwittingly, my faith evolved into worshiping the God of the Box-Checkers. This may be a new term to you but I think you’ll find the concept familiar. King Mosiah taught about it when he said that if you serve others, you’ll be happy.
Ooh, I helped weed a widow’s garden. Check. I also gave an elderly sister a ride home from the church activity. Check. If I don’t lie, steal, murder or commit adultery, I’ll be happy. Got those down, check!
Our contemporary church boxes include behaviors like attending church every Sunday, saying daily prayers, paying tithing and fasting every month. Check, check, check, check! Serve a mission. Check! Marry a returned missionary, get married in the temple, have a quiver full of children. Check, check and double check. Go to the temple, give to the poor, serve in the church, hold family scripture reading every night, and family prayers. So many boxes and so many checks!
I was basically crushing it. All those boxes. I earned an “A” grade in gospel faithfulness and had a front row seat in the Celestial Kingdom.
Only, I wasn’t crushing it. I wasn’t happy. Everything that was supposed to give me happiness left me feeling drained and exhausted. There were times when the disconnect was so great that instead of allowing myself to feel my emotions, I was wondering what I should be feeling. And then I would try to feel that.
Happiness is transactional, right? If I do Great Thing A then I’ll feel Positive Emotion X. Except when I checked off Box A, instead of feeling X, I felt resentful. Instead of exploring my feelings or being curious about what they meant, I swept them up and refused to deal with them.
The first time my husband and I went to marriage counseling, we had two young children. I didn’t know if our marriage would survive. It was rocky for months. We chose to move forward with faith. We chose family. And put on our happy faces and kept moving forward. In the next two years, we added two more children to our family.
One spring, I read an article in the local paper about a few exchange students that needed host families to live with. I felt impressed that we should to host the Slavic student. I initially thought my strong prompting had something to do with my desire to bring the culture of my mission into our home. While this premise was enough to get me to open our home, it wouldn’t be until later that I would discover the real reason.
At the end of August, Jovana came to live with us for the school year. At the time, I was working full time as a mother of four children aged 4, 3, 2 and 1. Plus, I was 8 months pregnant. And working part time my family’s business. Jovana immediately jumped into our family life and routines. She played with the children every day after school and always made sure to do her household chore in addition to her school work. Each evening after reading a few bedtime stories, she hung out for a bit with me and my husband.
About 3 weeks after Jovana came to live with us, our youngest son passed away. Our world stopped. And spun faster. Then tilted on it’s axis. I did not sign up for this wild ride.
Evan died on a Tuesday. We buried him on Saturday. And Monday afternoon, after the last of our visiting family flew home, I gave birth. This new rainbow baby gave me a ray of sunshine and sliver of hope in my darkest hour.
I hold a lot of anger surrounding this period of my life. I checked off all the boxes and my son died. Where was God when my husband gave Evan a healing blessing? Where was God when over 20 people in the ER were working to revive him? Why couldn’t my faith or mother’s love save him?
Jovana held our home together in the ensuing weeks when I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. Her presence and love played a major role into my initial healing and deep grief. We bonded in adversity. I believe she came into our lives when she did as a blessing from God. An answer to future prayers I had yet to ask.
Through grief, my capacity to hold love has increased. Without the intense pain, I wouldn’t have felt the love. My favorite scripture at that time was one where Nephi stated that he doesn’t know the meaning of all things but he knows that God loves his children.
I didn’t understand why Evan died. Nevertheless, I knew God loved me.
A few years later we traveled to the Balkans for Jovana’s sister’s wedding. Her family welcomed us into their home to be a part of their celebrations as if we were one of them.
There was so much love, it left me feeling unsettled. Erroneously, I’ve believed all my life that the strongest families on the planet are found within my own religion. And yet there I was, feeling love and experiencing a connection stronger than any other family I’d ever known.
I don’t want to pretend that Jovana’s family all have rosy lives without challenges. They’re real just like the rest of us. It’s just that the spirit of love and inclusion they showed not only me, as an outsider, but also for their family members touched my soul. There was no judgement over anyone’s choices. They loved each person’s faults as much as their positive traits. They trust each family member to live their best life, even if they make choices that they wouldn’t make themselves. They aren’t checking off boxes for family loyalty. They just love. And I want to be just like them.
A few years ago, my husband left the church. The first Sunday I brought my children to church without him was hard. I wanted to cry. I felt the loss of what I thought we once were to my core. I felt like crying in the chapel every Sunday for months especially when someone would ask me where he was. Over the next several months, half of our children also stopped going.
My husband leaving our shared religion exposed cracks in our marriage that we’d been ignoring for years. It’s hard to address those issues with love and without judgement. We went to marriage counseling again to see if we could break the unhelpful communication cycles we get into.
This is where I’m not sure how well I’m handling my mixed faith family situation. I can say that the pain is gone and I can attend church without tears. As a former box checker, my faith is maturing somewhat. I no longer find peace in my previous black and white thinking. I find rigidity to be overly divisive and contentious. I need to let go and trust that each member of my family is making the best decisions that they can for themselves. We don’t all have to make the same choices to feel love or belonging in our family.
My faith has become more nuanced as I learn to listen to my heart and analyze my beliefs. I’ve dropped the boxes. Even the cultural boxes like thinking that I should wear a dress to church on Sundays. It took a lot of effort to drop that one. My New Year’s Resolution in 2019 was to wear pants to church every week. I calculated that I’ve worn a dress to church approximately 2000 times in my life. Wearing pants for 50 Sundays shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But it was. It was so uncomfortable for me in the beginning. Forget how others may have judged me. I was judging me.
I successfully accomplished my pants goal. Though, it turns out that 2019 was a slippery slope since 2020 brought about Covid and Zoom. Then a lot of us wore pajamas to church. Now that we’re back in person, I allow myself to choose each week whether I want to wear pants or a skirt without pressure from a cultural tradition.
I used to believe in a literal Restoration of the gospel. Now I’m not so sure. At this point in my faith journey, I’m content with not knowing. I don’t think the question really matters. It has nothing to do with how I show up for my family, ward or community. I believe there’s a place for me at church as a doubter and questioner. While my faith has lost its certainty, it’s presently enough for me to associate with the Saints because they’re my people.
These days, I have more questions than answers. What if we’re wrong about faith? There are billions of people on this planet who believe differently than we do. Isn’t it enough to be happy in the strong community that we’ve built on love and inclusion? Do we have to be right, too? What if the Restoration wasn’t about religion? What if it’s about restoring our relationship to the Divine and uncovering the divine within each of us?
What if the childhood faith we once held and lost is what needs restoring? What if the rigorous box checking we learned in our youth eats away at our humanity? Could our judgements of others destroy our ability to trust and love? Is our own self-righteousness getting in the way of our happiness? Do we care more about boxes than the virtues they represent? What if everything we’re looking for can be found in the God of Love?
This post is part of the series, Reconstructing Faith. Find more from this series here.
So many parallels with my lived experience. Interesting to me how so many people are asking the same questions around their faith.
“There was so much love, it left me feeling unsettled.” – so interesting to be told that happiness and love only exist under a long list of obligations, and then to find it outside of that. Thank you for sharing your story!
Thank you for your beautiful, authentic story. I’m so sorry for the loss of your child. That is a journey no parent should ever have to take. Our 1-year-old left us 34 years ago. I had many of the same questions you did. Time and life move on and we were blessed with two wonderful daughters after our son passed, but we still mourn. It’s always there and I’ve come to appreciate grief as a touchstone I can rely on to keep me centered on what’s important. God has blessed us with a amazing world, full of life and color and experiences and, most importantly, love. Love is love — it’s not exclusive to any particular faith, religion, culture or way of life. I found myself turning away from Mormonism and seeking a new path because the focus seemed to always be on obedience (or box-checking). In my view, the oft-repeated claim that obedience is the first law of the gospel is a horrible lie. LOVE is the first and only law of the gospel. Everyday I pray for love — that I can recognize love, that I can give love, that I can receive love, that everything in my life will have its foundation in love. As a lawyer, that can be a hard task. And each day I fail in some way and must try again tomorrow. I don’t know why children are taken from us. Like Paul, I see through a glass, darkly. But I have felt — and continue to feel — God’s love for me and for all of us. Most days that’s enough. No need to check any boxes. No need to aspire to some arbitrary, ever-changing code of conduct or obedience imposed by men who are subject to the same foibles as me. Best wishes on your faith journey. It’s your journey, unique to you. You and God will figure out exactly where you’re supposed to go and it will be better and more satisfying than anything you ever imagined.
I’ve been thinking about your comment for a couple of days. Yes, through the checklists of obedience, I think we miss the big picture. Thanks for putting that so well. Love truly is the first and only law of heaven.
Yes! It’s painful leaving the surety of check boxes. And liberating. There are so many of us waking up spiritually. Love your thought: “What if the Restoration wasn’t about religion? What if it’s about restoring our relationship to the Divine and uncovering the divine within each of us?” Thank you.
That was a beautiful story. And the idea that we have a monopoly on happiness or family unity is utterly laughable. I do think the Church has been helpful within my family, primarily because my Dad was not a model husband and father. And yet my brother is a great dad and great husband, and I married someone who is a good man and a good dad. I think in my specific case it was really helpful to be surrounded by men who were modeling family life well when I didn’t have that model in my home. But the idea that happiness isn’t real happiness unless you have made covenants is just silly. God loves everyone the same, and families can be our greatest blessing regardless of faith or culture.
I’ve long understood that Mormons don’t have a monopoly on happiness…but somehow until I felt like an insider in another family, I thought that our happiness was deeper/better/greater than that of others.
I’m so glad you and your family have been surrounded by great role models. It’s beautiful to be involved in a community like that.
The purpose of religion is to help us connect with the divine. To reconnect and reestablish those bonds with our Father in Heaven and our Savior Jesus Christ. Everything we do in the Church should either lead us to Christ or have us help others as they connect with the divine.
Thank you for your prayers post. It has helped me better understand the love that I should have for family and for all those around me, regardless of their or my circumstances.
This post is so honest and beautiful. Thank you for sharing your journey and where you are today. My faith feels ambiguous and floaty, loosely grounded in a few things but sometimes shifting leaving me feel disorientated and isolated. It brings me much comfort to read the journeys of other women especially when they too have more questions than answers.