By D. Jeff Burton
D. Jeff Burton is the author of For Those Who Wonder and a former member of the Sunstone board of directors.
I exchanged thoughts and experiences with “James” (not his real name) who has a “closet doubter” story similar to many I’ve heard over the years. First, here are his answers to my Borderlands Questionnaire that explain his situation. Our edited and consolidated communications follow.
- How would you describe your upbringing in the Church and your early years?
I was born into the Church and grew up in a town along the Wasatch front. It was your typical Mormon childhood. Most of my friends were in the Church, everyone in my family was active, I went to a lot of church activities, and I committed no major sins in my youth. When I turned nineteen, I went on a mission, returned home, got my education, and started a family with my college sweetheart, Kim. [Not her real name.] We were married in the temple and have had three kids, all now teenagers.
- What is your current status in the Church?
I hold a temple recommend, serve in my high priests group leadership, and go to church almost every Sunday. I’ve been in many ward positions, including bishopric counselor. Our family is active and everybody seems okay with the whole situation. (“Seems” because I wonder if any of my kids are secretly troubled, too. There is a lot of stuff on the Internet.)
I started becoming a skeptic during my university days, but I’ve hidden all my concerns behind a wall. Even Kim knows nothing. But I still pray and seem to get answers, and I find comfort and satisfaction participating in church service activities. So my spiritual life is a mixed bag.
- What issues / events / actions / concerns / historical data caused you to move into the “Borderlands?” (Using the three-stage “egg” model of the Borderlands column.)
At the university, I got talking to a fraternity brother who went to church with me. He was a secret doubter and opened up to me about his issues (Joseph Smith’s first vision, the Pearl of Great Price). I looked into what he was telling me and started down the skeptics’ road myself, becoming concerned about both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. (That made me suspicious about Joseph Smith, too, of course.) Mainly, I have concerns about the truth of scripture. (I’m like Stephen Colbert: I think there is a lot of “truthiness” contained in the scriptures and the stories of their origins.)
My friend seemed to be prospering as a secret doubter so I joined him in our little club behind the wall. I was dating Kim at the time, who seemed to be a true believer, so I didn’t bother her with my new concerns, thinking they would go away after some more study. However, my studies since have made me even less of a believer.
- Why do you stay in the “Borderlands” as opposed to moving on past the Borderlands into inactivity / leaving the Church / moving back into Group 1, etc.?
I’m probably the same as many other Sunstone readers. I quietly stay for my wife and kids, our family tradition, my church callings, our place in our ward, and simply because I enjoy most of my activity in the Church.
- How does this situation affect you (emotionally / spiritually / physically)?
Though I’ve maintained relative peace with all this during the past twenty years, I’ve begun to wonder (since I was released as a bishop’s counselor) if I should be more honest with people. I feel like I’ve been telling fibs, and it has been weighing on me more heavily during the past few months. I just don’t know how to deal with it. I don’t want to upset the apple cart for my wife and kids. The oldest one is approaching the age when she could go on a mission or get married in the temple. I don’t want to mess that up.
- How do you cope with your issues / concerns / status?
So far, okay. I’ve spoken informally to a therapist few times. (He’s actually a man who works in the same building I do, so it isn’t officially “counseling.”) But talking with him has helped, and I’ve found that meditation and prayer help me when I’m feeling down or anxious.
- How well do you cope?
I can tell that something needs to be done. And the sooner the better.
8a. How open and honest are you with others about your situation, or about your Borderland-causing issues?
As I mentioned above, I’ve only been open with my “therapist”—who is not LDS, by the way. Everyone else thinks I’m a TBM, I think.
8b. If you have kept it a secret, please explain why you felt a need to do that.
I’ve kept this secret because of my family and because I don’t want to give up the good things about being Mormon. And frankly, I’m kind of scared about what might happen if I come out from behind my wall.
8c. What would it take for you to be honest and open with others about your situation?
That’s one of the reasons I contacted you. I’m hoping you can offer some suggestions.
- How does your Borderlands experience affect your family / spouse / children /parents / friends / relatives / others?
So far, nothing negative, as far as I can tell. Kim has noticed my silence about church matters lately. She even noted one Sunday that I rarely carry my scriptures to church anymore, and she also noticed that I’m a bit more tense and anxious at times. She might think it’s my work, or my age, or something else. We really haven’t talked much more than that. I’m concerned about our situation.
- Anything else we should know?
I want to find a way into the light of being honest, but in a way that doesn’t hurt my family or cause too much disruption or worry. I need some advice.
Jeff: Thanks, James, for filling in the questionnaire. Your story is difficult (as is typical for someone in the Borderlands), but not impossible. How much have you read of my Borderland’s columns?1
James: I’m fairly new to Sunstone but I’ve read a few of your columns on your website. That reading prompted me to contact you.
Jeff: Okay, I would suggest you read the stories of successful Borderlanders in my more recent columns. You may find some ideas there for being more open with others. My book For Those Who Wonder is also available for free download.
Fortunately it is easier these days to be honest about your doubts than it has been in the past. Apostle Jeffrey Holland said in a recent general conference, “A mixture of doubt and faith is a common condition [among those who] seek after the divine,” and President Dieter Uchtdorf also told doubting and questioning members, “Regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this church.” If people in your family and ward are aware of this official acceptance, you may be able to make room for more openness.
You could discuss some “coming out” ideas with your “therapist,” role-playing various scenarios with him.
Probably the first person you should come out to is your wife. If you can enlist her into your honesty campaign, the two of you can make your continuing skeptic’s journey easier and safer. Here are some suggested approaches:
- Don’t try to tell her the whole story all at once. Start with something like, “I want to talk with you about something important to me. You’ve noticed I’m a little anxious lately and I’m hoping you can understand and help me with what I’m going through. It’s pretty mundane, really. Like many others in the Church, I have some questions and doubts. I’m one of the people Elder Jeffrey Holland was talking about, having a “mixture of doubts and faith.”
It sounds like your main issue is being able to let her and others know what is really going on in your heart instead of hiding behind a wall, so you should work that in as well.
- Reassure her that you’re not planning to disrupt any of the family’s plans, that you do not intend to let anyone else know about your doubts (unless she agrees), and that you won’t try to sway anyone away from their own understandings and beliefs.
- Ask her if she has ever had any unanswered questions about church matters. The likelihood is that she has. If she shares something with you, you can then feel free to share some issue or question and see how it goes. Keep it short and non-threatening.
- If things are going well, tell her you would like to share more of your concerns with her later. Say you’d like to enlist her support in helping you cope and find an outcome that will be safe and useful for all concerned.
- Go slowly. Don’t divulge more than she can absorb at any one time. It may take a few months to “get it all out” and see results.
As you divulge your concerns, it’s usually best to not blame the Church. Say something like, “I’m not accusing the Church of anything. My doubts are something I need to deal with myself.” This will reassure her that she’s going to be helping you and that she won’t have to defend the Church or its members.
- Once you feel you two have become a team, talk about how open and honest you should be with your children, other family members, ward members, etc.
James (later): Thanks for the thoughts. After talking it over with my friend/therapist, I went on a walk with Kim in a local park and we sat down at a picnic table to have a snack. For just a few minutes I told her something akin to what you suggested and then waited for her response. After what seemed like an eternity (actually about ten seconds) she took my hand and said she had wondered what was going on with me and that she was glad it wasn’t cancer, or (half jokingly) another woman. She said she, too, has had some silent questions and issues with the Church but didn’t want to go into them now, except, as an example, that she feels as if the young women in our ward don’t get all the attention the young men do. I then told her I was wondering about the origins of the Bible and Book of Mormon, with no other explanation. We agreed to talk more in a day or two. She was holding my hand as we walked back to the car.
Over the course of a month, we have talked about some of my concerns, and she has told me a few more things that are bothering her. We haven’t tried to find any solutions or answers, but she seems supportive. I think we’re actually closer as a couple now. It really feels like can work together on this. We agreed that we would keep things between us for now. So that’s where things stand. A long way to go, but one major hurdle has been cleared.
Jeff: Wow, that’s a great start! You are fortunate to have a caring and understanding spouse. But steady as she goes. Don’t be in a hurry. Feel your way along. Talk over any ideas for “coming out” with your wife before actually involving others, especially your children.
But talking with your children will come eventually. You might start by asking them, “Is there anything about the Church that’s bothering you?” Be warned, though: that can open floodgates. Be ready, just in case.
James’s and Kim’s story is great but, unfortunately, also quite unusual. (I like to relate the success stories in this column.) Over the years, I have heard countless worrisome comments like, “My wife just doesn’t want to hear any of this.” “It’s too much for her.” “When I tried to talk to my husband, it was a fiasco.” “We have an unwritten agreement that I don’t talk about my issues.” “I’m too afraid to mention anything to her.” “We’re okay as things are.”
If you find yourself in a difficult Borderlands situation, your priorities should probably be: putting family first; using honesty as a tool to bring your family together; getting professional help; and taking your time.