Faith Crisis: It’s all in your head
by Nick Galieti
Over the past few years, the term “faith crisis” has become used as a war cry of those disaffected with the church, as well as those who are engaged in an honest search for answers to challenging questions about their faith. As a result, when someone says they are going through a “faith crisis,” it’s hard to know if that person is saying they hate the church and want to leave, or they still believe the church in spite of some dissonance they may be currently experiencing – or somewhere in between. This wide application of the term can cause one to wonder, what does “faith crisis” really mean, and therefore how are people supposed to respond to someone declaring that they are experiencing one?
“Faith crisis” or experiencing a “crisis of faith” is a loaded designation. Individuals who self-diagnose as experiencing a faith-crisis are in pain, some internal conflict, and it is significant enough to be called a crisis. Upon hearing this designation, some instantly seek to rescue the person in crisis while others will be scared and hesitant to continue the conversation for fear that they will misstep into an uncomfortable conversation or relationship. For both the person in the crisis, and the person associating with that individual and being brought into their drama, just remember, faith crisis is all in your head.
To the person in faith crisis
To the person in faith crisis, remember that what you feel, what you are thinking, is uniquely happening inside your own head/mind. People can’t see this faith crisis externally (unless you tattoo “I am having a faith crisis” on your forehead). Most people don’t know all of the circumstances in your life that lead you to where you are at, including any of the traumas that accompany or lead people to experience a crisis of faith. People are not mind readers, nor should we expect anyone to make assumptions on our personal histories, as doing so will likely lead to offense or misunderstanding.
As you tell people about your faith crisis (which seems to be a sort of rite of passage on a “faith journey”) you will likely interpret another’s response to your declaration. That interpretation may or may not match what they meant or how they feel towards your experience. If possible, do your best to neither be validated or angered by their response. Why? Because it doesn’t matter what other people think of your experience. This is your faith crisis, not theirs. It’s your faith, not theirs.
It’s natural to want to feel supported, or at least loved even though you are thinking and feeling a certain way about faith related things. But beyond that, you shouldn’t need to find people who agree or disagree with you. In the end, it doesn’t matter who agree’s with you or not.
To the person associating with an individual in faith crisis
When someone, a friend, a spouse, a child, a member of your congregation or someone in your stewardship, comes to you and discloses that they feel like they are having a crisis of faith, remember, this is not about you. It is not an attack on you, nor is it your responsibility to fix. It is likely that this person is telling you what is happening or how they are feeling, because they love and trust you, or perhaps feel that you can be of some value in the resolution of the dissonance that they are feeling. Don’t hurry to provide an solution, be in a hurry to listen and understand what they are going through.
Don’t instantly assume that an individual in faith crisis is leaving the church, or that they hate you; which means don’t get defensive. However, it is key to recognize that if they use the term “crisis,” it is still a significant experience. Please don’t dismiss it, regardless of how unsubstantial or made up it may seem. Part of resolving a faith crisis involves allowing or assisting the individual to come to the truth of things on their own. It is possible that you have answers to their problems, but the efficacy of an answer is amplified significantly if the individual is allowed to discover the answers through prayer, study, and trust. Trust that God knows this person and loves them eternally. God knows how to teach them, God knows their heart and their mind. If you want to help, love the individual, but seek to discover how God wants you to help that person (if at all).
Faith is a choice
To both the individual in crisis and the individual associating with them, remember that faith is a choice. In fact, choosing to trust in and follow God is the purpose of agency. No one can take that away, nor can we make that decision for others. Neal L. Anderson spoke to this in the October 2015 General Conference, “How we live our lives increases or diminishes our faith. The future of your faith is not by chance, but by choice.”
Faith is a choice, therefore experiencing faith crisis is not a victim position. Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was as much a victim as a person can claim to be while he was a prisoner in the Nazi prison camps during World War II. If any individual could claim to be a victim, it is the individuals in these camps who committed no crimes, received no trial or due process, but often lost their lives or were cast into servitude. However, here are some of Frankl’s conclusions after going through that harrowing experience:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Whatever has taken place in someone’s life that has brought them to a faith crisis may not have been their choice, but how one responds to any event in life is their choice. For example, some may say, “Well, I have read this thing in church history and now…how can I believe in light of such things? I can’t.” However, others have encountered the same information and come to vastly different conclusions, including the choice to continue faithful. Lehi taught his son, Jacob, “I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.” Faith crisis is a choice because an individual has let their faith be something that can be acted upon, rather than a choice that they can own independently.
It may be difficult to see faith this way, but having a faith crisis is a chosen or learned response. It is not like getting cut. Everyone bleeds when they are cut. Not everyone who experiences what you experience will respond the same way. Therefore a faith crisis is a chosen or learned response on some level. Go ahead and be mad at me, or spend the rest of your time reading this article trying to figure out how I am wrong – that won’t change the facts in this case. Information is just information, experiences are just experiences. It is how we view and respond to information, or our experiences, that we categorize them (in one’s mind) as good or bad, crisis creator or just something else that happened.
Bottom line: No one be will redeemed from a faith crisis if they don’t want to be redeemed.
A common interpretation of this paradigm (my wife loves it when I use that word) that faith is a choice, as is faith crisis, may sound a little like blaming the victim. However, barring some valid medical/psychological/biological diagnosis (such as clinical depression, some forms of anxiety, chemical imbalances, etc.) that takes away one’s ability to fully own their own choices, I suggest trying to increase one’s own awareness of just how much one has control over their own thoughts, emotions, and faith. Because, if a person owns their choices, and their faith, they also possess the key to resolving the dissonance. The mind will become freed from worrying about what other people think, it won’t pre-occupy itself with what is wrong or askew, but will shift to what can be done to bring some peace. If a person can say, “I am feeling what I am feeling and I choose to feel this way,” you can then also say, “And that means when I am ready, I can choose faith, I can choose to find peace.” It may take some time to fully embrace this way of thinking, but it can be extremely empowering. God did not bless us with a mind that can control or passively govern everything that happens in our body, just to have us live at the mercy of what “happens to us.”