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  • Writer's pictureGreg Dunford

Faith Crisis? Or Faith Development?

We are seeing unprecedented numbers of people of all faiths leaving the religion of their childhood. “Faith Crises” are more common than ever. But is this phenomena a reason to panic? Or is there more we need to understand. It seems we have been caught in another devilish dichotomy that claims: when questions of faith arise, we either put them on the shelf and ignore them, or condemn the whole church organization and walk away from it. So then, what is the Divine Third Option?

Faith is part of our spiritual journey that is developed over a lifetime. Just as we grow and develop physically, we also grow and develop spiritually.

While some people may have the gift of faith, it is important to understand that faith is a process. And even for those who have the gift, it is usually developed with time and experience. There are complex theories and books about the stages of faith. There are at least six or seven identifiable stages of development that people go through from infancy (or before) to a transcendent enlightenment and oneness with God. And this journey continues into the eternities.

We have created a simplified version of the stages of faith, or spiritual development called “The Phases of Faith”. While it is more specific to the LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) experience, elements of these 3 Phases of Faith can be applied to any individual seeking to navigate more gracefully through the precarious labyrinth of spiritual development in these last days.

Why did we include The Faith Phases in the Life Mastery program?

Because it is not commonly taught or understood in the LDS culture, and without an understanding of what transitioning through these phases might look and feel like, too many people panic or inadvertently fall away as they attempt to navigate through them. Many people experience what is called a “faith crisis” as they are unknowingly transitioning from Phase 1 to Phase 2 (or James Fowler's stages 3 to 4, as will be explained further). This can be a confusing and heartbreaking experience that some never recover from in this life.

It is also helpful to families and loved ones of individuals experiencing a faith crisis to better understand and support them through their developing faith. The Phases of Faith help us understand how we develop spiritually and grow into our Divine Nature.

And, addiction and affliction can lead to faith crises, so we feel it is important to address, as such crises can affect our overall mental and emotional health.

The fact is that a growing faith is something to be celebrated and supported! But without understanding these stages of development, we may mistakenly fall into confusion ourselves, or condemn others for breaking out of the early stages of the “safe faith” into the more developed levels of “growth faith” that are necessary for maximum growth, enlightenment and connection with God!

It is our observation and belief that the mass exodus from religious organizations (especially that of our young people) is actually a sign of the prophesied generation reserved for these last days. Is it any surprise that this bright and shining generation seeks for more? Or that they so clearly perceive false traditions, or imperfections of leaders? Or detect the stagnation of faith amongst some of their fellow church members as perfunctory, hollow and lacking?

This generation must be celebrated and supported in their eager, if not impetuous, drive toward the Full Light of the gospel. Perhaps we are seeing the transition of an entire church as we move into the quest to live up to our privileges that our prophets have long urged.

It is our hope that as you, our fellow sojourners, understand and embrace the opportunity of faith as a journey—a growing faith, that you will eagerly look forward with hope and anticipation of greater privileges and power in the gospel and your own divine destiny!

In his beautiful and important book “Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis, A Simple Developmental Map”, Thomas Wirthlin McConkie explores the different stages of adult development and how our faith grows as we grow and develop throughout our lives. He says:

“In developmental terms, shifting from one stage to another can feel like full-blown crisis (the death of a previous self), while from another perspective it can be experienced as pure grace (the birth of a new self).”

McConkie, Thomas Wirthlin. Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis: A Simple Developmental Map (Kindle Locations 89-90). Mormon Stages. Kindle Edition.

On his “Mormon Stages” website, Thomas challenges us to understand “faith crisis as part of a natural cycle of spiritual growth, a breaking open to make room for new life and new faith.”

The beauty of knowing (for knowledge is power!) about some of the experiences we may encounter in navigating through these phases is that it can greatly reduce the stress and fear that so many people experience when the faith that has always been so familiar and comfortable begins to shift and seemingly fall away in the process of ushering in a new and more rewarding phase. It may feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you, or like stepping forward, expecting solid ground, but instead dropping off into a seemingly dark abyss.

Pastor and psychotherapist, Rod White, writes of growing through the stages of faith:

“Development can be scary or it can be the beautiful way we deepen our faith...there is a path, even if you can’t really see it right now. You are not alone or odd. There is hope for all of us.”

Rod White, The Stages of Faith: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water, November 5, 2018

One challenge comes from the false idea that faith is a set, solid, unchangeable state of being, and if any variation occurs, there must be something wrong with you or your faith. The fact is, faith is as alive and individual as each unique person. Faith is an expression of the most authentic and real part of you, your divine identity. And, in fact, if faith is not transformative to some degree, it is at risk of dying, or at least not growing.

Some people may be satisfied to stay in the early phases of faith. But if we want to really know God, and access His power to change and heal us, then we must move forward, and nurture and nourish the seed of faith, and expect it to grow and change. Faith, like a garden, bears fruit and transitions through its seasons.

Another challenge to a growing personal faith is the false traditions in our culture that teach us to avoid questioning anything; to blindly accept all that we've been taught throughout our church membership. A careful study of the teachings of Jesus Christ and His prophets tell us otherwise. We are actually taught to study things out for ourselves and ask God directly if they be true (see James 1:5). We can also seek counsel from other trusted sources, ponder and meditate on our questions and concerns. But ultimately our answers must be confirmed to each of us, personally and directly, from God.

Notice the patterns of the prophets throughout scripture—Moses, Nephi, Joseph Smith, for example. They asked questions! Questions open the door to revelation. Most revelation comes as answers to questions. So, of course, the enemy would love to shut that down. He has authored the narrative that questions are dangerous, and when that doesn't work, he sows seeds of doubt in hopes that we will lose confidence in the path of revelation and turn to unenlightened sources.

Destructive Doubt vs. Constructive Doubt

Destructive doubt can be a counterfeit of honest curiosity. We will all have destructive doubts planted in our minds from the adversary, designed to move us further from God's Light. That in itself doesn't make us bad or wrong. It's where we go with those doubts, and what our motives are. For those who are looking for an excuse to denounce the church so as to live a life free of “restrictions”, there is plenty of material to satisfy that motive, albeit empty in the end. Destructive doubt assumes that if we perceive any flaws in the church organization, people, leaders, the gospel plan, or God, etc., that the whole thing might be false.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said:

“Doubt your [destructive] doubts before you doubt your [growing] faith.”

“Come, Join with Us”, 2013 October General Conference. Brackets added.

For those who are sincerely seeking truth, constructive doubt, and honest curiosity, are key. Honest curiosity and constructive doubt include having a hope and faith of finding truth, even in the midst of uncertainty, and a commitment to keeping commandments and covenants whether or not we have all the answers right now.

Be willing to put some things on the shelf, for now. We put ourselves in danger of deception if we try to force an answer. Answers will come eventually, in God's perfect timing. He knows us and our perfect curriculum for personal growth. This necessitates some testing of our faith. The answers we seek may require several pieces of the puzzle for them to make sense to us. And God will not put us in danger of being given truths we are not ready to be accountable to. Surely, there are many reasons for God's timing in answering our prayers. Exercise faith in moments of seeming Heavenly silence. Know God loves you. Answers WILL come, eventually!

“There are many kinds of silences and not all signify absence or vacancy....Those moments are but temporary ebbs before the flow of meaning rushes in to fill the space....God may be speaking in ways we have yet to recognize as speech.”

―Terryl L. Givens, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections On the Quest for Faith

Honest curiosity and constructive doubt are essential to spiritual growth, creating the “ebb” into which answers can flow. They are instrumental in helping us detect false traditions within our church culture or society that may be impeding our spiritual growth and enlightenment. For example, if no one ever expressed any doubts about the ban on black members of African descent from receiving priesthood power and privileges, would President Kimball have taken it up with the Lord at that time? The prophet and many leaders and members of the church had serious doubts about the ban. They questioned it. The persistent questioning led to the First Presidency and Quorum Of The Twelve Apostles seeking revelation, which they received, and consequentially the ban was lifted.

This doesn't mean that every doubt we have will result in discovering a cultural flaw in the church or its doctrine. There is simply much we do not yet understand. We are yet as babes in the gospel and the truths of eternity.

Doctrine and Covenants 50:40:

“Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth.”

Thomas McConkie said:

We must be discerning and seek continual guidance; not all perspectives are equally valid and edifying. But in the spirit of ongoing progression and development, we might start to more closely examine the cultural certainty that is characteristic of an adolescent faith. Paradoxically, faith needs [constructive] doubt in order to grow. [Constructive] Doubt helps to reshape and refine our beliefs, opening us to Transcendent Faith—the Absolute.

McConkie, Thomas Wirthlin. Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis: A Simple Developmental Map (Kindle Locations 496-500). Mormon Stages. Kindle Edition. Brackets added.

Again, it comes down to our motives. We would do well to seek the Lord's purposes and will for us, rather than impose our will and desires upon Him.

As you read through the Phases of Faith, you will likely be able to identify which phase you are currently in. Even though you may become familiar with the Phases of Faith, the process of growing through them may still feel precarious, at times. This is the nature of faith! Faith requires some vulnerability. We crave the comfort of certainty. Faith stretches and pushes us. It is uncomfortable, at times. And that can be a good sign! Faith is the precursor to knowledge. Knowledge will come. Certainty will come. Make friends with discomfort and uncertainty. Learn to lean into it and look to God in those times. Don't base your whole belief system on what you perceive to be the absence of truth or satisfactory answers. Embrace the void, and keep moving forward—in faith!

“There is a type of flower that can bloom only in the desert of doubt. Faith that we elect to profess in the absence of certainty is an offering that is entirely free, unconditioned, and utterly authentic. Such a gesture represents our considered and chosen response to the universe, our assent to what we find beautiful and worthy and deserving of our risk.”

―Terryl L. Givens, The Crucible of Doubt

While not everyone experiences crisis in their growing faith, some people experience some form of grieving as they transition from one phase to another, even while recognizing the beauty and blessings of the new phase. It can be similar to any other rite of passage: adolescence, going away to college, or on a mission, marriage, birth, and death. Life is a culmination of bittersweet experiences. It is part of the personally customized curriculum required for each of us to attain to our divine destinies.

Don't argue with the curriculum!

The Phases of Faith

Note: Our “Phases of Faith” are loosely based on James Fowler's Stages of Faith, consisting of 6 stages:

STAGE 0: Primal Faith.

STAGE 1: Intuitive-Reflective Faith.

STAGE 2: Mythic-Literal Faith.

STAGE 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith.

STAGE 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith.

STAGE 5: Conjunctive Faith

STAGE 6: Universalizing Faith

You can learn more about Fowler's Stages of Faith at:

We have organized these into 3 Phases for simplicity. Each phase highlights the motivating and directing influences of our spiritual development throughout our lives. They are:

1. Others (stages 0-3 in Fowler's Stages of Faith)
2. Self (covers Fowler's stages 4-5)
3. God (covers Fowler's stage 6)

To know which phase best describes your current spiritual interest, we could ask: What motivates my faith and spiritual practices?

Is it based on what others believe? My family, friends, the church, etc? (Phase I. Others)
Am I genuinely seeking to know what I believe, for myself? (Phase II. Self)
Am I most concerned about a real connection and relationship with God, accessing His enabling power, and fulfilling His will and my missions here on earth? (Phase III. God)

Although each phase is distinct, it is not exclusive or separate, but foundational and instructive, one to the next. The phases may be experienced as a continuum, one phase ebbing and flowing into the next, and we can also experience various elements of each, even while not yet complete. It is common for people to dip their foot in to the next phase, and then retreat back into the safety of the current phase. As people gain a wider world view and personal experiences, it can become less comfortable to stay in the old safety, than to venture out into the expansive unknown.

Jill's Story

“As an active member of the church with a strong faith, I became aware of some flaws in church history as a result of some of my own adult children's faith crises. Understanding their perspectives helped me to see some things in a different light. I began to perceive apparent generational gaps and flaws in some of the brethren. This concerned me because I saw how it affected my kids and others in their generation.

At first I was troubled. I had long since given up the notion that church leaders should be perfect. I know they are mortal men and women, and that the gospel of Jesus Christ is perfect, but people are not. But still, I was concerned. I had covenanted to not speak evil of the Lord's anointed, and to do so was not my wish.

I took my troubles to the Lord. I poured out my heart. I resolved not to panic, but be faithful in seeking a resolution to my very real concerns. I received some beautiful impressions. I was told that these are GENERAL authorities who have the responsibility to speak to the general membership. They have to speak to “the least of the saints”, or in other words, the newest and youngest in their spiritual journeys. I was given empathy for how careful the general authorities have to be in everything they say, as it is subject to so much scrutiny. If they said the wrong thing, they could be held accountable for leading members into deception, or giving them principles that they may not yet be ready to be accountable for.

Their job is to preach repentance, lay a foundation of basic gospel principles and provide essential ordinances so that members can use their agency to seek a relationship with the Lord where they can receive their own revelation to unfold the mysteries that can only be revealed directly to us from the Lord. This is not the responsibility of our church leaders. Our prophet President Nelson is teaching us this pattern.

I was so grateful that I knew this pattern of taking my questions and concerns to the Lord, where I received further light and knowledge. Had I not followed this pattern, I felt I could've fallen into a faith crisis. We are living in the prophesied day where even the very elect are being deceived.

I don't always get the full answer, but I get enough to give me peace and a reassurance that God lives and hears and answers me in the ways that are best for me. And as I continue to study, ponder and “converse” with God, my knowledge and faith increase.”

This story is a great example of how we can decide to take troubling questions to the Source, instead of letting them erode our faith. This sister was able to take her doubts, which were based on very real concerns, and use them constructively instead of letting them destroy her faith. Her faith was increased rather than decreased.

She was an active agent as she was a mindful guardian and gatekeeper of her mind. She directed her troubling thoughts, which could've festered into something ugly, and decided to talk to God about it. She shared that the process wasn't instant, and she had to persist in directing her thoughts to the Lord, instead of letting them take the natural course into agitation and destructive doubt. But soon she was given some clarity and peace, the temptation to think ill of church leaders was dispelled, and her faith and relationship with the Lord increased.

3 Phases of Faith

Phase I. Others

(covers stages 0-3 in Fowler's Stages of Faith)

Phase I describes the stages of faith and personal spiritual development from infancy through adolescence. It is largely based on the way we were nurtured, taught and influenced by our parents or early caregivers; our early childhood experiences; the church; our peers and close friends. There becomes a strong desire to fit in with the group—family, peers, church groups, etc. It is typically defined as a simple faith. This phase is mostly defined and motivated by the influence of others. The defining action of Phase I is to follow, an essential, foundational principle upon which to grow our faith.

In Phase I we are not yet fully aware of personal perspectives. We rely on authority to tell us what is true. We don't question authority or doctrine because we assume it to be true, or it may feel disloyal to question it.

Many people never leave Phase I.

Phase II. Self

(covers Fowler's stages 4-5)

The defining action of Phase II is to individuate, or find out what “I” believe as an individual, apart from what my family, peers and church groups believe.

Authority shifts from external influences of Others to internal, or Self. We crave independence, individuality and self-fulfillment.

This often coincides with leaving home, or experiencing a disruption in the safe, familiar routine of our lives, and big changes like moving out and going to college, a mission, entering the workforce, or other separation from family, friends and “life as we know it”.

We may be exposed to a broader view of the world and society. College professors, roommates or companions, etc., introduce different views. Social media and the internet are a huge factor. We start questioning elements of our Phase I faith.

The transition to Phase II presents a tremendous growth opportunity. It is also where some people may experience a faith crisis, especially if they do not understand that faith is meant to grow and develop.

This is the time to fortify our relationship with God more than ever. Implementing critical daily practices to establish and maintain a real, authentic relationship with God is the key. Learning to take our questions and concerns to the Lord can mean the difference between a faith crisis or growth opportunity.

Sheri Dew:

“Are you willing to engage in the wrestle? In an ongoing spiritual wrestle? If we want to grow spiritually, the Lord expects us to ask questions and seek answers.
We live in a sound-bite world where "tweets," "likes," "posts," and "shares" have become the way we keep informed and share ideas. We are accustomed to expecting instant answers. But the most compelling questions in our lives rarely have quick, easy, Google answers. That is because receiving revelation and gaining knowledge, particularly divine knowledge, takes time.
It takes a wrestle...
Are your questions asked with the assumption that there are answers? Are you willing to trust the Lord and give Him the benefit of the doubt?”

―Sheri Dew, Worth the Wrestle

At some point in Phase II some individuals transition (from Fowler's stage 4 to 5) into a realization that they want and need more spiritual power in their lives. This often happens as we realize through life's experiences that we are powerless on our own to overcome addictions and/or afflictions. We find life becoming unmanageable on our own.

If, at this point, we embrace humility, we can really begin to grow. We surrender the need for certainty. We become more aware and accepting of the paradoxes of truth and the diversity and complexity of the world. We find we are living beneath our privileges, and we desire to seek a real connection and relationship with God.

Phase II is generally assumed to cover the ages from young adulthood into mid-life and beyond. But age alone is not the determining factor. Desire and willingness to move through these phases is the overarching factor. We see evidence of many younger people in the prophesied generations of these last days who seem eager to break out of Phase I and seek for more. Could it be because their spirits are seeking to live up to their promised higher privileges? They are drawn like a moth to the light, to seek for more.

This is a vulnerable time in which they need what Fowler refers to as “Sponsorship” which he says is the way a “community provides affirmation, encouragement, guidance and models for a person’s ongoing growth and development” (Fowler, 286-287).

Phase III. God

Phase III (Fowler's stage 6) is defined by a total surrender and submission to God. Becoming One with Him and His purposes. It is Unity with God (At-One-Ment), and returning to our divine origins.

If the defining action of Phase I is to follow others, and Phase II to individuate, Phase III would be to surrender to God, which entails doing whatsoever thing He asks.

It is truly living up to our privileges. It comes with a daily hungering a thirsting after God and His righteousness. It comes because we want to know Him and have paid the price to know Him, by conversing with Him daily, feasting on His words, hearing Him and making a record of the impressions and revelations we receive, consecrating our lives in service to Him. It is becoming a Zion person, one who, like Nephi in Helaman chapter 10, because of his desire and obedience in submitting to God, was trusted with His mighty power, where he could move mountains if needed. It is evidenced as we live to serve others as the Spirit directs.

It is said that this is a rare stage to arrive at. But again, it is a matter of the desires of our hearts and our willingness to submit to God and allow His enabling power to do its mighty work in us! It happens as we simply do the next right thing...and the next, and so on. We know that it is absolutely attainable for anyone who truly desires it! The gospel gives us the framework, the principles and patterns to follow. It also provides the sponsorship of others who have gone through these phases, and can minister to us—from both sides of the veil!

Phase III is connection with God and others, and adherence to our Divine Identity as the children and heirs of Heavenly Parents!

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