Being an Individual in “the Lord’s Only True Church”

As a serious convert to Mormonism I consumed every bit of information about the beliefs and practices of the LDS Church that I could lay my hands on. I thoroughly believed that I had become a member of God’s only true church on the earth and, after considering the amount of churches there are in the world, this was something that I found amazing. I was actually humbled by this realisation. So I wanted to know everything I could about the Church and understand how my newly-found faith would impact on my life. I was a brand, spanking new “golden” convert, an empty vessel, and I needed filling. Also, feeling somewhat inferior to other church members in my ward, I wanted to attain the same level of gospel knowledge and understanding that they had. I guess I thought that that would somehow cause me to feel less ignorant when I was around them. I wanted to fit in, and increasing in gospel knowledge was a good way of achieving that, I believed. It was very exciting and somewhat daunting all at the same time.

This is what I would later think of as my honeymoon period. It seemed to last for quite a while. I was as happy as I thought I could be. I was serving in callings, got married in the temple and served in more callings. But, somewhere inside me, I knew that my relationship with the Church couldn’t feel new and exciting forever. It had to end sometime. So the monotony of church life finally got the better of me, and I was suddenly in quite a predicament.

I was like everybody else in my ward, entirely consumed by life within the Church. But I didn’t like it. I had no idea that my efforts to harmonise with other members would come with unwanted consequences. It was not at all what I had expected. Though, if I’m honest, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps I thought that it would just feel right, considering I was trying to fit in and be an active part of God’s church.

But it appeared that the Church resembled a huge black hole that swallowed up any and all individual enterprise. I felt utterly oppressed by the “follow the prophet” meme because I resented being bulldozed into capitulation. The immense pressure to conform was suffocating. No one had a voice of their own, but repeated what they’d been told in the correlated lesson materials and at General Conference, or in the Ensign. I found myself pondering, more and more, whether or not God wanted lemmings for followers and, if so, I wasn’t at all comfortable with it. It was very disconcerting, and I began using my testimony of the Church to bolster my allegiance to it. For a time my feelings and thoughts of dissension ceased. But my testimony had gone from being a peaceful confirmation of a divine truth to being an irritant that imposed a combination of rewards and punishments to extort customary church-behaviour from me.

I again immersed myself in church living, but the one-size-fits-all model that the Church provided continued to be hugely problematic. I still found it very difficult to match my attitudes, my beliefs, and my behaviour to group norms. But I was convinced that the Church was true and so I began to constantly berate myself for valuing my individualism more than giving up my whole self for something that just didn’t sit well with my personality. Uncomfortably, I admitted to myself that I needed to follow the President of the Church as he was God’s mouthpiece and be obedient to my local leaders. I concluded that obedience was the key.

So I made a concerted effort to homogenise, telling myself firmly that it was for the greater good. But as soon as I felt my individuality slipping and literally being lost in religion, I would retreat and resist. It seemed that I had issues with fully committing to the Church. I became increasingly annoyed with myself. Looking for a reason to explain my attitude, I became convinced that it was all the devil’s doing, so I sought God’s help through prayer and repented of what I believed was my prideful nature. I thrust myself back into church work, magnifying callings, regularly visiting the temple, researching my family history and so on. It was a very difficult and emotional time for me, but I was committed to getting through it. I wasn’t going to be beaten by a trial of faith.

But, deep down, I did feel like I was being beaten. Well and truly. The frustration that I felt because of my unwillingness to entirely commit to group dynamics soon turned to bouts of depression. I was at a low point. I became moody and short-tempered, which affected my relationship with my wife. For a time, it seemed like we were arguing constantly. Before long I hated myself for what I had become and for what I wasn’t. I couldn’t measure up and be a model Mormon, someone my wife could look up to. I was making her unhappy, and I despised myself for it.

I think she told me at one point that I was being excessively serious about the Church. I gave that a lot of thought, concluding that she was probably correct. But I couldn’t shake the thought that where I’d be in the afterlife and who I would share that with depended on what I did with my church membership in the here and now. That seemed pretty serious to me.

Because I completely believed that the LDS Church was the only church on the face of the earth with which the Lord was “well pleased”, you’d think that that would be enough of a reason to completely give in to Mormonism, sacrificing all and anything that held me back, but no. I honestly didn’t want to give up on what made me unique as a person, namely the totality of qualities and traits that make me who I am, and become identical to other members at church. I sometimes wondered how the truth could possibly set me free when I wasn’t free to be my true self. The Church wanted to expunge me and replace me with a member-clone. I couldn’t help but think that the Church wanted too much of me and thus began the cognitive dissonance that would plague me for the rest of my church life.

I eventually faced up to what I think I knew all along, I truly didn’t want to become another cookie-cutter Mormon. I thought that I would be much the poorer for it, even though I felt that I was going against an important tenet of the Church – becoming one with the Saints. I would often reason with myself and say that I could get by with a semblance of balance, but, in all honesty, I couldn’t. Without the real thing I would forever be conflicted within and faced with choices that I didn’t want to make.

When I think back on my church life, it’s easy for me to see that it consisted of a lot of yo-yoing between blind faith and reason. It was a battle, and reason appeared to be winning. I was certain that I was on the losing side because my “natural man” was unwilling to meet the demands of the Church. Consequently, I had become an enemy to God, and the thought of damnation in the afterlife was very real in my mind. So was the thought of losing my wife. There seemed to be no escaping the tremendous guilt-trip that was always before me.

Despite all of this I stuck with the Church and the dull repetitiousness that characterises the LDS lifestyle. I hadn’t lost my thirst for learning or my awe that I was a member of the True Church. Incredibly, I still believed. My testimony of the truthfulness of the Church wasn’t something I had a problem with. The only thing that had changed since my conversion was my wish to be like my fellow ward members. I just didn’t have it in me to sacrifice my personality for a lemming mentality. I hoped that God would have mercy on me in the hereafter.

My determination to remain an individual was the first rung on the ladder that would eventually lead to my apostasy. It highlighted a part of me that refused to get in step with accepted church standards or norms. It gave emphasis to a lingering niggle in my head that even though I was on the inside of the Church, and appeared to be in every way a member, I felt like an outsider.

Mo’ Bugger