Chris Robison is a software architect living in Lehi, UT. He’s married with four children and currently serves as a Sunday School teacher for the 11-14 year-olds. He’s previous served as a Sunday School president, in an elders quorum presidency, as Primary chorister, choir director, and accompanist.

Enter Chris…

What makes a faith crisis so completely different from just cognitive dissonance?  Let’s dig in a little and see what we discover.

The Shmuel Experience

In the popular TV series, The Chosen, we are introduced to a traditional Pharisee named Shmuel. We learn that strict adherence to the law is the framework by which he lives and expects others to live life. To Shmuel, the Law of Moses is THE law of God and there is no other. To step outside that law in any way would be to abandon God himself. Consequently, Shmuel fights relentlessly against false prophecy and blasphemy as that is how he views the work of “rogue preachers,” including Jesus—a danger to himself and those whom God calls “his people.”

However, something changes suddenly at the end of the most recent season. Word reaches Shmuel of a large gathering of people receiving the teachings of Jesus. He quickly gathers other leaders of the Pharisees to travel and “save” the people from the heretical teaching.

Upon their arrival, the crowd is dispersing—the participants full of joy at the transformational teachings of Jesus and the miracle of feeding thousands.

Instead of seeing transformation, the Pharisees see Gentiles mixed with Jews, Jesus promising Gentiles the same blessings as Jews and other “blasphemy.”

As Shmuel’s brethren begin seeking further evidence to convict Jesus, something changes in him—something to the foundation upon which he views the world. It begins to crumble. Shmuel has a chance encounter with Jesus and expresses his distress, who fatefully responds, “You’re losing something.”

Enduring Cognitive Dissonance

Loss, dear friends, is what makes faith crisis different from cognitive dissonance.

If we step back, I believe we could all place ourselves in Shmuel’s shoes. We all have a framework we use to navigate our lives. It is something to which we hold very tightly and have possibly tied our identities,amongst other things. It gives our life expression, purpose and meaning. These frameworks all seem to be built around a set of core principles and values that hold the whole thing up.

In that light, there are things we collide with in the normal vicissitudes of life that just do not fit. Our frameworks provide the decision tree we use to sort through those encounters. We have options such as:

  • Reject it outright
  • Store it away for later examination
  • Adjust the decision tree to make allowances

Under the weight of conflict and tension, our frameworks still mostly function and therefore we still function. When we do adjust to allow for conflicting information, often we are just trying to “make it work” or “hold it in tension” as we can see how this contrary can also be true.

Yet, largely the whole framework stays the same as, I believe, the core principles of that framework remain untouched and unshaken. We live with the patch work of inconsistencies, uncomfortable that they are there and continue onward. Cognitive dissonance is that ugly, sometimes nonsensical patch work, yet still functional framework.

The Expanse of a Faith Crisis

Faith crisis, in my experience, is more expansive and pervasive. Here is an attempt to explain how I think about it. Suppose one day we truly discover that Jesus was never actually resurrected, that it was just a fictional story. The details of how that “truth” is discovered are irrelevant, just assume for the moment it is true. Imagine, now, the effect that has on your personal framework as a Christian and member of the Church.

Suddenly Joseph Smith, living prophets, priesthood, the only true and living church, the Book of Mormon, the New Testament, modern revelation, etc. don’t matter.

All of those things presuppose a resurrected Christ. At this point, there is no adjustment that can be applied to make things continue to work as a foundational element of the framework has just disintegrated. Everything built on top of that core principle comes crashing down.

In the crumbled remains, you are left rudderless and empty. All the things that gave your life expression, purpose and meaning are now gone. You have no idea where to go, as the things you relied on to reveal that are now gone. You are in a wilderness with no map and no next steps.

The Emotions of Faith Journeys

At first, you are surprised or angry that this even happened and try to convince yourself it isn’t real and will pass like a bad dream. But then, you enter this depression as you are forced into this new reality you never remotely thought could be true. You cannot go back as there is nothing to go back to. For me, this is faith crisis, the complete loss of something core that once gave meaning to everything.

The previous example was extreme, but I hope in its extremity, you can see the distinction I am making.

What can a faith crisis look like for a Latter-day Saint? It can start as cognitive dissonance, but then all of a the sudden just change as things start collapsing. Here are some real-world examples.

Follow the Prophet

First, “follow the prophet.” The old adage is “the Catholics believe the Pope is infallible and no one believes it, the Mormons believe the prophet is fallible and no one believes it.”

We sing “Follow the Prophet” from a very early age. We are raised to follow a person we believe is the mouthpiece of God. One oft repeated quip is “a prophet will never lead us astray,” an idea pulled from what we now call the Second Manifesto by Wilford Woodruff.

Over the years, that doctrine has really taken on a life of its own, with probably more packed into it than was originally intended.

As a result, little mistakes can be looked over and explained away as the “revelatory process” but, it can be quite the shock to the system when big mistakes are made that seems to lead us astray.

A recent book published by Deseret Book, Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood by Dan Reeves (also the author behind the gospel topics essay on race and priesthood), highlights an example.

All historical evidence we have points to Brigham Young striking out on his own with the priesthood ban, no revelation. That choice resulted in decades of discrimination.

The priesthood ban and seed of Cain were taught as true doctrine by leaders of the Church. Hopefully you can see how almost a century of unbounded core belief in “the prophet will never lead us astray” can lead to faith crisis when presented with very strong evidence to the contrary.

The Messiness of Polygamy

Second, polygamy. This topic brings with it some very strong emotions, especially for women. I think many would agree with historian Patrick Mason when he says, “it looks a lot like sin to me.”

Polygamy is a major part of our history. Of all the wonderful things revealed through Joseph Smith, this one stands apart as outlandish and appalling to many. Digging into historical records doesn’t seem to make it any clearer. There are more questions than answers. And the thought of the celestial kingdom being potentially made up of this kind of relationship may feel repulsive to our modern sensibilities.

The apologetic explanations over the decades have made it even worse. For example, “there are more women and men saved” or “how else is God supposed to produce trillions of spirit children.” For polygamy, there is no clarity or good explanation. It happened, Joseph Smith claimed revelation concerning its practice, and it’s just uncomfortable.

The Uniqueness of Translating the Book of Mormon

Third, the translation of the Book of Mormon. I grew up being taught that the Book of Mormon was translated exclusively by way of the Urimm and Thummim. Later in my life, I was confronted with people saying he used a seer stone in a hat. That struck me as weird and false at first, but discovered later it was true. There are individuals for whom this is a lynch pin to experiencing faith crisis.

Feeling Their Pain Not Fearing or Fixing

The examples are numerous. Objectively you might be thinking, “Well, if that person would do/think/change _______, they wouldn’t be where they are.” While that MIGHT be true in some instances, the things that shake us are individually different.

Understand that as Latter-day Saints, when someone is going through a faith crisis, it something you cannot fix by offering advice or sending articles from apologists. Both are often unwelcome intrusions.

What they are experiencing is something similar to losing a loved one—that just takes time to work through. We must stop fearing for their standing in the Church. We must stop fearing for their soul and if they will still be saved in the celestial kingdom.

We are not remotely responsible or even able to make that call for them or for ourselves. Our best tool is to live up to our baptismal covenants by mourning with and comforting, for they HAVE lost something that was most dear.

The Stages of Faith Models

To relate my own faith journey, I want to draw from a faith stage model. The first model created to understand faith transformation was developed by James Fowler in the 1981. For a brief introduction to that model in the LDS context, I recommend this Faith Matters episode with Jana Spangler.

Since then, others have been developed such as McLaren’s Four stages in ‘Faith After Doubt” and Halverson’s atonement model. Faith stage models are not perfect, but they serve a few functions.

First, they normalize the experience of faith crisis and faith transformation and provide vocabulary to name and understand it better. This is important for people in the thick of it as our church doesn’t really provide a place nor vocabulary to work through some of these hard issues.

Second, it allows others who aren’t experiencing faith crisis an avenue to understand someone else’s experience that is very different from their own.

McLaren’s Model

I will draw from McClaren’s model as that is the first one I encountered and immediately resonated with. Briefly, McClaren’s model is simplicity, complexity, perplexity, and harmony. A succinct summary of these stages can be found here.


For most of my life I have been in the first stage: simplicity. This is stage of black and white thinking, certainty, and deferral to leaders for truth. I was raised that we were the true church and everyone else is incorrect or lacking in some way. We had a prophet speaking to God, no one else did. It felt awesome to be born on to the right team and ride that wave right into the celestial kingdom. I served a mission, I married in the temple, we had children together, did home teaching, had a calling, went to church regularly—all the boxes were being checked and I was working on enduring to the end.

Right before the pandemic my wife and I were invited to a scripture study group with some neighbors. We accepted. I felt the additional discussion would be wonderful as time in church was too limited and discussions frequently seemed to be lacking in either meaning or depth.

Our gathering focused mostly on reading the scriptures with the intent of trying to better understand by the Spirit the truth God had for us. This was probably the first real time in my life where I realized that there were different perspectives on the restored gospel—some very different perspectives. Some perspectives were out there, yet others were very reasonable and had great scriptural support.

I found this unsettling because it began to shake the carefully correlated church curriculum I was accustomed to. Instead of rejecting these things, it made me want to dig in more, discuss more, find out more. I quickly found that there were not many people who either cared enough or were comfortable enough to dive into these things.


As the pandemic hit and Sunday meetings were cancelled, I was transitioning to the second faith stage: complexity. I was reading all that I could get my hands on. I was reading the Book of Mormon very slowly and carefully to really understand what it said. In this process, I was discovering things in the Book of Mormon that I thought we didn’t seem to believe any more or that we had renegotiated into a completely different meaning.

I was praying to get answers, but none were forthcoming or the ones I was receiving were different from the church-proclaimed outcomes. Looking back I was probably looking for certainty as we promise a lot of that in this church. I was also getting deeper into trying to figure out what I believed and thought about things on my own, independent of someone else telling me what was true—as that is a core tenant of our faith.

The “Mess” of A Faith Expansion

Instead of a generally happy, light-filled path of spiritual inspiration, with answers flowing from heaven–I found a mess. I was in this state wondering if my family was even going to be saved because I found many things in regular Church teachings that just didn’t line up with what our own restoration scriptures said.

Additionally, because of my discoveries, I now felt like I was so far behind spiritually and needed to make up ground. I thought I could do this by dedicating hours per day in the pursuit of it. With church meetings no longer in the picture and our stake shutting down any attempt to meet virtually, I was desperate for answers or discussion. Even if church had been a thing, there was just no place in it, that I could see, that was safe to explore or even ask these hard things.

I found other people and groups that had a similar thirst. However, some groups manipulated historical facts (or made them up) to justify their religious political belief system that was just as rigid a system I was trying to figure out. After one particular group encounter, things essentially just collapsed for me and I entered what I can only describe as a deep physical and spiritual depression.

The Power of “Rescuers”

I felt my faith system and the Church had failed me. In this time of profound darkness, there were people that came to my aid that didn’t know they were my rescuers. My wife was constantly there, not knowing how to help me, but just being there anyway. My mother felt a nudge to take me to lunch, an aunt who took the time to have a long conversation with me about things, a co-worker who was also going through a faith transition, neighbors who knew of what I was going through. I thank God for these people. There were rescuers, in my case, that helped me get back up. However, I knew things would never be the same.

The Loss is Real

Returning to where we started, when I first saw that Chosen episode, I felt like I was seen in my experience. I was, and still am to some degree, losing something. I remember sitting in a temple session watching Adam and Eve being driven out of the garden, unable to return and the weight of what I was going through just hit me and I began to weep. I had lost something and going back to the way I was and the way I believed was no longer an option.


This, I believe, is the third faith stage: perplexity. I was left with the shattered pieces of what was once my faith structure for many things unable to put them back together. The inspiration I once found in church or in general conference was gone as many of the certainties proclaimed no longer worked for me.

I still participate, yet underneath something has changed and church does not seem like the place to really be able to share that change. I tend to question everything right now.

A Lot of Nothing

For me, I have had to become laser-focused on only Jesus and leave everything else as just possibilities, not certainties.

For others, even Jesus has shattered and that is really hard. As I continue my journey, it feels a lot like driving across Kansas—a lot of nothing, yet it is just part of the journey and one that I cannot avoid.

Prayer mostly does not yield clarity, yet every so often little bits come here and there that answer questions I had months before.

Elusive Harmony

That fourth faith stage, harmony, is mostly elusive right now. Yet, the most important thing that sustains me is my fellowship with others who will sit in the car with me during this length of the journey that seems like has no end in sight, offering a listening ear and support.

They know they cannot fix it—redemption and healing are for God to do.

Hopefully one day I will be able to look back and see the redemptive work God performed in my life during this period and then be the support for someone else who will inevitably go through this same kind of experience as well.

But for now, I will keep moving forward, waiting on the Lord to give me what I hope will be the framework upon which He and I can build something lasting.

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