Guest post by Sarah Awerkamp, who is currently serving as a missionary for the LDS church in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. She enjoys reading, making people laugh, and exploring the beautiful Alps.
It was the first day of my life that I didn’t believe in God. I’d been an LDS missionary for 6 months, and my once firm faith was gone. I had been living by every ‘guarantee’ for keeping a testimony—I studied the Book of Mormon and prayed every day, bore testimony, approached questions with faith, lived every commandment, and was literally a missionary! Yet for months, my faith had been crumbling.
I’d hung onto it desperately, but I knew it wouldn’t last much longer. So one night, I begged God sincerely for a recognizable answer to my prayer. It went something like, “God, I’ve given 19 years of my life to You and this church, and if You want me to stay, I need an answer. Anything at all, because I can feel the last threads of my testimony snapping right now.” I laid awake for hours, hoping and praying, but I felt nothing. No answer. And just like that, I woke up agnostic.
I stayed in bed for an extra 4 hours that morning, just staring at the ceiling and thinking. I felt terrified and sad, because I wanted God to exist. Every part of my thinking was built around a belief in God, and I could hardly imagine life without Him. My mind was filled with questions: What if death really is the end? Is there no one to make life fair someday? If there isn’t a powerful Being who loves me perfectly, who will I turn to now? I wondered if I should go home, but I didn’t want to because I was loving my mission. I wondered if I should leave the church, but I didn’t want to because it’d break people’s hearts. I wondered what my family and friends would think and if they’d still be proud of me. Everything about my life would change if I left, and that scared me. But I also didn’t want to stay if it wasn’t true. As I debated, I realized one value could stay consistent regardless of my beliefs: love. I chose to stay on my mission, but my goal became simply to help others feel loved, because I could still give them that.
As I wrestled with my beliefs, a few people minimized my concerns. They threw out trivial answers, “proof” that the church “had” to be true, and tried to convince me that I already knew what was true and had simply forgotten. While they meant well, this didn’t help. I knew I’d been inspired from scripture – but also from other books. I knew I’d had spiritual experiences—but had re-labeled them as moments of self-discovery. I knew principles of the gospel made me happy—but thought it was just because religion explains the human experience. Their arguments pushed me farther away.
What helped instead was the many people who simply listened; who told me they loved me and would always be there; who trusted that I wasn’t making my decision lightly; who believed my experience and didn’t blame me for not “trying harder.” These people’s love is what pointed me back to God.
After months of seeking and waiting, God answered my prayer—He is real. I came to know Him through watching good people try to follow Him. I experienced Her in my friendships and as I built unity with others. I heard Them in spiritual experiences from people in various religions and walks of life.
My testimony of many things came back. And my testimony of some things changed. But I believe God wanted me to lose my testimony—all of it. Because what I have now is different, complicated, and constantly changing, but it’s mine. My religious beliefs were once built primarily on what others taught me. I see my faith crisis as the gift of a clean slate – a complete reset on my religious belief. I’ve heard faith reconstruction described as a treasure hunt. I sort through the rubble of my past testimony and pull out beliefs that truly sit right with me. I search for truth in places I had never thought to look.
For example, I still believe God inspires men and women today like in old times, and abandon the idea of infallible prophets. I pick up the truth that our bodies are gifts from God, and I leave the judgemental modesty police on the ground where it belongs. I believe we should share our light, hope, and truth, and no longer believe that my way of seeing God is superior to everyone else’s.
My faith is nuanced and full of personal meaning and life, which were, at times, lacking before I doubted. I still have many questions and doubts. But I’ve learned that a healthy amount of uncertainty pushes me to seek God.
As Liz Wiseman says in her speech, “The Power of Not Knowing,” “I think sometimes our state of not knowing is actually where we come to know God. It is where we discover. . . It is in seeking, not knowing, that we find truth. In that space is where we discover the true glory of God.” Because of this, I will never again say, “I know the church is true” (what does that really mean anyway?) but I can confidently say, “I believe this church is where God wants me to be right now.”
It took a lot to reach that point. As I considered leaving, I wondered where to go. There are many good options outside the church. Maybe I’d join another religion or find an independent spirituality. But as I thought honestly about every organization and religion I admire, I realized that all of them are flawed.
For me, it’s easy to become overly critical. When I found one problem in the church, my focus turned to all the problems, until any bit of good I once saw was consumed by bad. That focus didn’t make me happy. It started turning me into an angry person who was never pleased with anyone’s efforts.
So I promised myself that instead of attacking people (who are mostly good, though influenced by culture), I’d instead attack systems and ideas. Most people in this church are trying to do good, and while they sometimes make a mess of things, I have learned that good can always be found in their actions, intentions, or perspectives. This church needs people who see the good and the bad – who will do more than overlook problems or write the whole thing off as a lost cause, but who will do the messy work to make things better. A few ways I engage in that work are by listening to my LGBTQ+ and black siblings, asking hard questions about gender inequality in missionary work, and speaking up when I hear harmful ideas being perpetuated.
I don’t say this to fault anyone who chooses to leave. Sadly, the church is not a safe place for everybody. There are many real, painful reasons that people leave, at times for the best. And those who leave the church deserve compassion and genuine love, not judgment.
But for me, I’ve realized–this church is good. The people here are good. And it’s not perfect, but I can help it become better. So unless God tells me otherwise, I’m choosing to stay. I’m staying because it’s my family’s church and I love how it connects us. I’m staying because I now feel certain about God’s existence and goodness. I’m staying because this church helps me be better. I’m staying because there’s so much truth here. I’m staying because I feel God wants me to. I’m staying because I want to. And I’m staying with the hope of making this a church where anyone who wants to stay can—a place where all feel safe, welcomed, and wanted.
This post is part of the series, Reconstructing Faith. Find more from this series here.