Note: I originally shared this as a PDF document on April 6, 2019.
To Whom It May Concern
My name is Joe Tippetts. Seven years ago, I left the Mormon Church. For two years, I was “inactive”. In January of 2014, I formally resigned. On April 13, 2019, I will be baptized again. This is the story of why I left and why I’m returning.
I’m addressing two audiences:
To my fellow inactive and ex-Mormons. Many of us have been reading the same books, listening to the same podcasts, going to the same events, working through similar stresses to our closest relationships, learning far more church history than we ever knew as members, and redefining our lives based on our consciences rather than direction from the church. You’ve been my friends for the past few years and recent changes don’t change my high opinion of you.
I remember hating the perception that important people in my life would never think I was good unless/until I returned to the church. I never expected to return to the church.
My time outside the church has changed many of the attitudes I had as a Mormon growing up in Utah. Ideas, such as, you have to be Mormon to be good. Or even if you’re good, you’re better as a Mormon. Or, if you leave the church it was because you wanted to sin or were lazy or lacked character.
My enthusiasm about this unexpected change in my life may come across as a judgement on your life. If you’re feeling pain in relationships with your family or otherwise working through the stages of grief common for people who leave Mormonism, you may not want to read this.
If my telling you not to read it makes you really want to read it to see how much of an idiot I am, and you feel angry at what I say and decide to send me a personal message telling me that I’ve been sucked back into the cult, I’ll understand. I’ll listen. And I won’t be offended.
To my (used-to-be and soon-to-be) fellow church members. If you knew a younger me, you were surprised to see I had left the church. I was just getting really good at being a happy, well-adjusted non-Mormon. Hopefully, this story helps you understand why I left and why I am getting re-baptized.
Thank you to the people who reviewed previous versions of this document and provided helpful feedback. Trying to address active Mormons together with ex-Mormons is tricky, but I’m trying to do it with a spirit of sincere respect for everyone’s journey.
God Spoke to Me
I’m returning to the Mormon Church because I believe God spoke to me and told me to.
That’s the reason. Here’s the story.
After work on March 5, 2019, I opened Facebook and recognized the name of the poster. A guy I knew growing up. It perked my interest. This private group is mostly inhabited by people who are questioning or have lost their faith in the Mormon Church. Many, like me, have voluntarily resigned. A few, like this poster, were excommunicated.
The post was long. I was used to seeing these. Often, people going through a “crisis of faith” or a “faith transition” will write long narratives about their difficult personal experience. They’ll describe the frustration of trying to talk with believing family members or leaders who make them feel like they’ve sinned for asking legitimate questions or have no awareness of the issues they’re thinking about.
They feel scared and isolated. After sharing very personal experiences, dozens of group members validate them with likes and encouraging comments.
Scanning through the words, it became apparent that this post was different. This person was preparing to return to the church by getting re-baptized. Full stop.
I don’t remember the rest of the words or the reasons he gave for changing his mind after 10 years away from Mormonism.
What I’m calling “God” instantly filled my whole consciousness. My emotions were heightened with a sensation of bliss. My thoughts were crystal clear. Two messages pressed on my mind:
1. I am God. I am real. And I love you.
2. It’s time to go back to church.
When God Didn’t Speak to Me
When I say I felt God and understood the experience as God, that wasn’t normal for me. I wasn’t seeking him. I didn’t believe in him.
The usual method for finding God, as taught in scriptures, is to seek, knock, or ask. Your heart needs to be open. You need faith, nothing wavering, right? And when nothing happens, you analyze yourself to death because obviously you did it with at least something wavering. Or else it would have worked.
Before I left the church, I had stopped feeling God. I was worthy and checking all the boxes, but the more I wanted to experience God, the more impossible it seemed.
When you’re a missionary [in South America], you don’t tell people it might take God five or ten years to answer their prayers. In Chile, we held up little pictures of Christ being baptized and asked people on their doorsteps if they wanted us to help them get baptized. Within an hour, we were trying to nail down a date. “Would you like to do it this week or next?”
When we hear the sacrament prayer, we aren’t promised that the Spirit might always be with us, but also might go on vacation for a couple of years when we need God most. That we may always have his Spirit to be with us.
It made no sense to me why God had disappeared.
I finally stopped looking, first for a few days at a time, then weeks, then months. I stopped feeling like I needed to obey the rules of a god I no longer believed in. I had to re-evaluate the experiences I had labeled as god. Psychology and sociology offered reasonable answers. I was primed. It was reinforced socially.
I was done with imaginary God. I filed him away next to Superman.
Scriptural stories talk about another way people find God. He finds them. Not because they’re worthy or have desire. He stopped Paul on the road to Damascus. He came to the sons of Mosiah and Alma the younger.
This is what happened to me. I believe it was God and I believe his message to me was clear.
On the evening after this experience with God, I was in shock.
I remembered the theme of many prayers from years before. “God, I’m scared that I’m going to leave you and never come back. My kids won’t go on missions. They won’t care about the temple. Please let me know you’re there. If I can’t believe you’re there, I can’t go on living this way. It’s too stressful to believe in you but have you absent in my life. I can’t fake my belief in you.”
Despite my pleading, I would get no answer. No peace or assurance. Just the feeling of being an idiot for thinking God was real. Or the self-loathing that led to suicidal fantasies, assuming I must be doing something very wrong for God to stay away from me, but I had no idea what it was or how to correct it.
All of this past resentment I had previously felt about God’s absence simply wasn’t there. The old fear I had felt about leading my family in a bad direction wasn’t there.
I just knew that I had felt God again and I had a sense that there was an important reason for my experience. I went to bed, wondering how I would feel the next day. Would this all seem like a bizarre emotional blip?
The Next Day
I got up the next morning and it wasn’t as intense, but it felt like a warm blanket was wrapped around me as if to say, “Joe, I’m gonna walk with you for a little while until you feel sure this isn’t just some kind of mind game. I’m still here. I’m real. I love you. Now do what you need to do.” (This sensation stayed with me for about two weeks.)
I told my wife. She was rather surprised. The wife who stuck with me when I left the church despite some very difficult years. The wife who loved me no matter what.
I told my brother. My fellow black sheep who had also left the church. My safe place when everyone around us felt like judges. The maker of a great Moscow Mule. My Sunday fishing partner. So much more than a brother.
They both expressed support for whatever I felt was right.
When I said there were clear words pressing themselves in my mind, they were more like ideas from which the words formed. But the ideas were bigger than just the words.
For example, how did I interpret God telling me to go back to the Mormon Church? Did this mean that God was telling me that this was the only true church? That’s not what I felt. Did God mean that I should go back to any church? That’s not what I felt either. It was very specific, and the meaning I perceived was that this was the place for me to go.
I was itching to reach out to my bishop and start the process. Enough time had passed for me to feel confident. I didn’t want to ignore what I felt. I sent the text message to my bishop. I think I caught him off guard because his response was a little underwhelming. Something like, “let me check the manual.”
Once that was done, I was curious to see if listening to one of my old critical podcasts would shake me out of this reverie. If I was going to get cold feet, better sooner than later.
I plugged in my earbuds and fired up a classic Mormon Expression episode where John Larsen and his panel clearly demonstrated how impossible it was for Nephi to build a trans-oceanic vessel. He described all the industries that would be needed. The thousands of sheep. The acres of forest. The dry dock. 100 years-worth of man hours. Etc.
As I listened, my reaction was different than in the past. It didn’t evoke a sense of disgust mixed with confirmation of my decision to leave the church. The long list of “facts” that appear to disprove God and religion felt like only part of the story. Part of the evidence one can use to determine truth.
How do I account for treasured memories that are part of my life because of my involvement in the church? The people I loved and who loved me? The opportunities for growth? The instant family each time we moved?
The weight of those factors has become more important. But they’re all still VERY secondary to the personal feeling that God is real, loves me, and pointed me back to this church.
The First Meeting with My Bishop
The first time I met with Bishop Smith, about 10 days after the experience, I felt calm and excited. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for 14 years and we are old friends. But something unexpected happened.
It quickly became apparent that my “knowledge” was minimal. Remember, I felt confident about two things:
· God was real and loved me.
· I should return to the Mormon Church.
The first baptism interview questions are, “Do you believe that God is our Eternal Father? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior and Redeemer of the world?”
I believed in God, but the question immediately jumps to describing God in specific ways. Was God my Father? I didn’t know. And nothing in my experience felt like I was encountering two beings. What could I honestly say about Jesus?
After the meeting, I felt a little bit nervous. I didn’t want to feel like I had to say I believed something that I didn’t believe.
Subsequent Meetings with My Bishop
The second meeting felt similar to the first. I was rather verbose as I tried to translate my feelings into words. I had prayed about the questions but didn’t feel any kind of certainty.
In the past, I had heard people say that “faith is a choice.” At the time, it bothered me. It felt like they were saying, “willful ignorance is a valid choice.” If faith was a choice, I could make up anything and choose to believe it.
But as our conversations progressed, I was seeing this idea of faith, as a choice, in a new light.
The second part of the revelation I received was that I should go back to the Mormon Church. That was clear. I decided that if God was directing me to this church, that it would be fine, even correct, for me to choose to believe in some basic things. To exercise faith in them.
My conscious choice to have faith didn’t feel haphazard. It was linked to what I viewed as a direct experience with God. By the end of the third meeting, I felt confident that I could honestly answer all the baptism interview questions.
Ex-Mormon Me Chimes In
I think it’s appropriate to allow my ex-Mormon self to express a few thoughts. It’s been at the steering wheel for the past seven years. It’s interpreting my experiences from a much different perspective because my words fall short.
This part of me sees the central part of my experience as the most questionable. It says that subjective feelings or epiphanies are a horrible way to learn truth. An unreliable epistemology. It won’t pass a double-blind test.
Former me stands ready with a long list of problems with the church. Contradictions. More complete versions of history. Deceptions.
Like the song in the Book of Mormon musical says, “turn it off, like a light switch.” When I see facts that contradict what I’m feeling, instead of acknowledging reality, I ignore it or put it on a shelf. I’m behaving like a child who believes you can’t see him because he’s covering his eyes.
In the last couple of days, social media has been on fire with strong reactions to the church reversing its 2015 policy on LGBTQ church members and their families. I’ve read the stories of families who were torn apart by this policy. I sense their valid and acute pain.
I shared previous versions of this document with some ex-Mormon family members that I care about. I wanted their opinions because I didn’t want to offend. I didn’t want to tear open old, painful wounds of feeling unaccepted by some because they are no longer in the church.
One honestly asked me if I really thought God would point me to a religion that hurts people so badly? A religion that won’t apologize and can have an “our way or the highway” approach to truth rather than being more accepting of diverse views or being willing to change as scientific advances shed new light on issues like gender and sexual identity.
My experience with God didn’t resolve these issues. I feel like I’m supposed to return to the church, in spite of real problems, not because I believe that problems and contradictions don’t exist.
General Conference, Then and Now
General Conference used to be a wonderful time. I looked forward to it, legal pad and pen ready to learn from the speakers and from the Spirit.
In the years leading up to my departure, I grew to hate General Conference. So many five-step recipes for success. Recipes that hadn’t been working in my life. I was exhausted. Disillusioned. Frustrated.
Today, I watched General Conference for the first time in about seven years. I wasn’t sure how much I would be able to handle, but I turned on the morning session.
I felt pulled in. I felt like most of the speakers had thought about me when they wrote their talks. They addressed questions I still have. But more importantly, I believe the Spirit spoke to me.
Elder Ballard, the same one who I hadn’t appreciated in recent years, spoke to me. The same one that told girls to “put a little lipstick on” to get married.
A favorite podcast of mine took this, and other phrases from recorded talks by general authorities, and turned them into a satirical song. The intent was to make these leaders look like buffoons; out of touch idiots. But today, as I listened, I felt the Spirit in my heart. I felt sorry for the way I had viewed him and his peers.
I don’t think these men are perfect. I’ve spent a lot of years listening intently to critics who have jumped on their words, presented them in the worst light, and positioned their entire reputation around a quote or two that bothered them. I wondered how stupid I would look if people judged me from something I said last year or 25 years ago.
I don’t think prophets are always right, even when they declare that they’re speaking the will of God. An honest look at history shows this.
I see these men as trying to point us to God. God is the real relationship that matters. I may or may not enjoy a personality or a teaching style of a leader. But today, I was reminded that God can speak to me through them.
I can disagree with them. I can hope that they will adjust certain views over time. Until then, I will sustain them. I will listen to them carefully, and, with the help of God, determine which messages I should try to follow.
Today, simply watching them with the intent to learn touched me. I remembered the words of the scripture and the hymn, “Did not our hearts within us burn?”
Do I Know the Church is True?
Yes and No. If you would have asked me 15 years ago what a Mormon should “know” is true, to be worthy, I would have been tricked by the question. I would immediately run off a list like:
- God is our Father in Heaven
- Jesus and His Atonement help us overcome sin and death to return to God and become like him
- Joseph Smith restored the true gospel of Jesus Christ
- The Book of Mormon is true
- President Nelson is God’s prophet on the earth today
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “the only true and living church on the face of the earth.” Or stated more succinctly, I know the church is true.
I would have felt self-assured for knowing all of them were true. And I would have been somewhat wrong in my answer.
At no point in any interview, for any advancement or ordinance or test of worthiness, is a person required to know that something is true.
It’s true that you can feel social pressure to appear to know as a signal of your spiritual maturity. Or you may feel strongly that you do know that something is true, and I can respect your conviction, even if I don’t share it.
For years, I said I knew these things were true. Then I didn’t. It makes me feel sensitive about my use of the words, “I know”. Today, I’m more inclined to leave the door open to my ideas evolving instead of casting them in cement with “I know”.
Maybe saying, “I know I felt something that causes me to want to believe and act on the belief,” is more accurate for me. After I do this for a few years, repeatedly having affirming experiences, I may feel inclined to speak in more certain terms.
The “I know” of previous generations looks different than the “I know” of today. Some grandparents knew that interracial marriage was wrong. It was against nature. It was against the law. It was strongly discouraged by prophets. Today, my Caucasian self quite enjoys my marriage to a woman with Japanese heritage.
While I don’t always understand why the church and its leaders teach and behave in certain ways, I don’t believe that anything about my membership will prevent me from believing and acting in ways that I feel are right. Whether it’s in the way I vote, who I care about, or how I view people who don’t share my life choices.
I know I want to follow the guidance of, what I believe is God, speaking to me. And I know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is where I want to pursue this.
Will God Speak to You Too?
Here, I’ve said God has spoken to me in a way I could understand. Will he do the same for you?
That’s a hard question. The young missionary-me would promise you with the conviction that God would answer your prayers. But now, I think back to the years when I desperately searched for God and couldn’t find him. It was the main reason I stopped believing in God and my church.
Today, none of my children are active Mormons. I led them out of the church. If I want happiness for anyone, it’s my kids. If they ask if God will speak to them, what will I say?
God is Love
First, I will tell them that I believe God is Love. I believe wherever Love is, God is. Love others and you’re putting yourself in a position to be the best you. If the word “God” bothers or hurts you, call it Love and try to let it govern your life.
I will tell them about my experience, both as a younger person who felt connected to God and as a thirty-something who couldn’t find him, no matter how hard I tried. Until he came to me.
If you try to find God and can’t seem to find him, instead of getting all worked up about it and feeling like God and religion are a lie, just set it aside and try to live with goodness. Maybe you’ll wake up one day and feel drawn to God. Maybe you’ll encounter the words of a prophet or an excommunicated Mormon and God will unexpectedly come to you. Maybe nothing will ever happen beyond you following your conscience and having the satisfaction that you’re pursuing goodness.
Look around at the people you know. Those you admire most. Those you trust and want to be like. Follow their lead while maintaining your right to do things in a way that works for you. I’m not implying that they’ll necessarily look or behave like Mormons. Your conscience is a good guide.
If you make choices that don’t make you happy, you can always change directions and choose a new path forward. Don’t be afraid to try things and fail. Be open to unexpected possibilities. Don’t be afraid to act on what feels right, even if it doesn’t make sense. Balance this with other sources of wisdom. And don’t hold on to anger, doubt, and cynicism when you fail a few times. Even when you fail badly.
That’s what I’ll tell my kids.
Only You Can Know
I feel confident that the God of love is pointing me in a specific direction. It feels good to honor it.
Each day that passes, I see myself confronting situations where the recent-me comes into conflict with who I want to be. Recent me has a lot of ready arguments that can make current me look stupid.
There is another kind of voice. I believe it’s real. Facts and logic can easily make it look ridiculous. I have to make time to listen to it. Sometimes it’s in the form of music. It can be listening to men I now regard as prophets. It can be listening to the idea in my head to call a friend.
This voice makes my heart expand. It becomes a fact that I feel clear direction and peace. I feel inspired. I feel like I can picture a future that I want to work hard to bring about.
I feel like Sancho Panza, the sidekick in the play, Man from La Mancha. He sings about his feelings for Don Quixote, the crazy, delusion-filled old man that leads him on adventures.
I like him, I really like him.
Tear out my fingernails one by one, I like him!
I don’t have a very good reason,
Since I’ve been with him,
Cuckoo-nuts have been in season.
But there’s nothing I can do,
Chop me up for onion stew,
Still I’ll yell to the sky
Though I can’t tell you why,
That I like him!
Where will Love lead you? Only you can know. Follow it!