The Myth of the Prodigal Mormon

“I would consider myself agnostic,” he smiled a little nervously.

My stomach dropped. I tried not to look disappointed, but I could feel my face falling. This was the last confession you would expect to hear on a first date with a cute boy you met at BYU.

And the last confession you want to hear when after only about an hour of wandering Barnes and Noble, you were convinced enough to want to text your best friend, “That’s it. I’ve found him.” Though I wasn’t looking for a relationship, I had never had such an instant connection with a guy I had just met. And now this revelation made me want to kick down a nearby display of sci-fi bestsellers.

“Oh…interesting…” I said, trying to pick up my fallen face and disappointed tone. Instantly  I began speculating…He’s smart, I thought. Maybe he got a little prideful. Thought he knew more than God…or maybe he had a pornography addiction and decided to give up. Or maybe he just got lazy after a number of sins of omission..stopped reading his scriptures or going to church…

Whatever it was, I wasn’t interested.  So much for soulmates…I guess we’d just have to be friends.

A week later, we were officially dating. In an unexpected turn of events, I realized I had feelings for him and he asked me to pray about our relationship. Rolling my eyes, I agreed, certain that God would tell me not to date him. Instead, I got a very distinct impression to move forward with our relationship.

In the 5 months we dated, I learned a lot about David (name changed) and his beliefs. I learned, for example, that he had been reading his scriptures and praying faithfully, even while his beliefs began to change. That he had no sins that were enticing him away, and that, far from being prideful, he was one of the most sincere people I had met. I knew that he was honestly and diligently seeking truth, and that someday he would find it.

Unfortunately, not everyone saw David the way that I did. As soon as some friends found out that his beliefs were not in line with the LDS mainstream, they started assuming things about his character and morals, warning me to be careful around “guys of the world,” who don’t know how to respect a woman, etc.  What they didn’t know is that David was the most respectful guy I had ever dated (faithful Mormons included). Everyone I knew was now making the same initial judgements I made, and I wanted to shake them, “He is nothing like you think!!” How could I tell him how good and honest and loving he was? How sincerely he was seeking truth? They didn’t seem interested in any information that would contradict their stereotypes.

After dating for about 5 wonderful months, the time came to move on. Though in the end we couldn’t reconcile our different beliefs, and he is still searching for something that he has not yet found in the church, I learned from our relationship a very important lesson about not judging those who “fall away.”

In last April’s General Conference, Rosemary Wixom told a story of a sister who distanced herself from the church. She explained: “I did not separate myself from the Church because of bad behavior, spiritual apathy, looking for an excuse not to live the commandments, or searching for an easy out. I felt I needed the answer to the question ‘What do I really believe?’

As this woman shows, there are as many reasons for “falling away” as there are individuals. But if we diagnose the problem before we understand the person, we will only drive a wedge between us and those we are trying to help.

The only answer? Love. But not the kind of love that throws a rope from a distance to our struggling friend. I’m talking about real Christlike love, that climbs down next to them and shares their pain before suggesting an escape plan (see Moroni 7: 45-48). Think of the Savior. Compared to Him, we are all lost and prideful sinners, our faith barely bright as the flame from a match. But instead of condemning us, He suffered for us so that He could understand, and by understanding, succor.

To David and all those struggling with their faith, I hope we can treat you not with pity, but respect. Not with judgment, but with love. And by all of us loving you, I hope you can feel again of Christ’s perfect love, which is “sweet above all that is sweet and pure above all that is pure.”

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