Although “faith crisis” has become a bit of a buzzword, there’s a real phenomenon beneath the fad: sometimes your expectations and assumptions collide catastrophically with new information.
You have three options when this happens. You can try to pretend nothing has changed, but if the new information is real, this denial won’t last. At best, it’s a delaying tactic. Eventually you will have to either walk away from your former beliefs or rebuild them.
One great example of a faith crisis is Paul. Prior to meeting Jesus, he thought he had it all figured out. Meeting Jesus demolished his old beliefs. He knew he was wrong. But he didn’t know what to believe instead. Not on an intellectual level, at least. According to N. T. Wright’s biography, Paul spent years figuring out how to take the raw material of his old beliefs (especially the Hebrew Bible) and put the pieces back together so they fit his knowledge of the Savior. (This is the third option.)
Nephi is another example of a faith crisis, but the depiction in the text is a lot more subtle. Still, the pieces are there. Start with 1 Ne 2:16:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.1 Nephi 2:16
According to Nephi’s own account, it literally took divine intervention to keep him from rebelling against his father the same way Laman and Lemuel did. That’s evidence of a strong, visceral reaction. Lehi’s vision triggered Nephi’s faith crisis.
More evidence for the crisis comes from Nephi’s reaction to his brothers questions in 1 Nephi 15:4. I think we all remember his exasperation at their hard hearts, but we’re not as quick to remember that he actually cut them a lot of slack in the verse before.
For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought.1 Nephi 15:3
This is a pretty strong reference back to Nephi’s own reaction in 1 Nephi 2:16. He empathizes with his brothers because he went through the same experience. It wasn’t easy for him to believe their dad. It took an act of God. Nephi’s personal struggle (revealed in 1 Nephi 2:16) and his empathy with his brothers’ struggles (from 1 Nephi 15:3) tell the story of a faith crisis happening just off stage. So, what can we learn from Nephi’s faith crisis?
First, spiritual conversion has to happen first. The Lord didn’t start by explaining everything to Nephi in rational terms. He started by softening Nephi’s heart. This has to come first because without a soft heart you can’t have a genuinely open mind.
Second, spiritual conversion isn’t the end. Although this part happened off stage (the same as for Paul) there’s strong evidence that Nephi went through the difficult work of rebuilding an intellectual framework for his conversion. This is evident from the fact that he doesn’t just answer his brothers’ questions, he presents his beliefs with a solid basis in Isaiah.
And I did rehearse unto them the words of Isaiah, who spake concerning the restoration of the Jews, or of the house of Israel; and after they were restored they should no more be confounded, neither should they be scattered again. And it came to pass that I did speak many words unto my brethren, that they were pacified and did humble themselves before the Lord.1 Nephi 15:20
Note that it’s only once Nephi brings Isaiah into the picture that he actually gets through to Laman and Lemuel. This strongly implies that he had a pretty potent intellectual explanation. His new, rebuilt paradigm impressed them so much that–for a time–they were convinced by it. After the Lord softened Nephi’s heart and he believed, he didn’t stop. That was just the start. Next he got to work. (Same as Paul, by the way.)
Third, intellectual conversion without spiritual conversion isn’t enough. It won’t last. Although Laman and Lemuel were initially impressed by Nephi’s Isaiah-based explication, they almost immediately started to regress. This is their response, as soon as Nephi finished teaching in 1 Nephi 15:
And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of speaking to my brethren, behold they said unto me: Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear.1 Nephi 16:1
They aren’t critiquing his intellectual explanation, by the way. They aren’t having second thought about his reliance on Isaiah. Or on anything in his argument. They just… don’t like it. This shows how shallow an exclusively intellectual conversion is. We do need those intellectual explanations. That’s part of the process of learning and growing an putting away childish things, as Paul would say. (I also think that intellectual work can be a form of worship, the mental equivalent of singing hymns.) But if there’s no spiritual conversion first then the intellectual conversion cannot take root.
A faith crisis is not in and of itself a sign that you did something wrong. It’s not the sign that you did something right, necessarily, either. Fundamentally, a faith crisis is just what happens when an incomplete paradigm runs face first into information that it can’t assimilate. It’s not necessarily even about faith, per se. You could easily draw a parallel between this idea of a failed paradigm and Thomas Kuhn’s theory about scientific revolutions. They aren’t identical, of course, because with a faith crisis there’s a lot of additional baggage about identity and community, but they aren’t totally separate either. (It’s not like scientists don’t have identities and communities that are related to their beliefs and theories, albeit generally not as weighty as religious ones might be.)
But if we’re going to defuse some of the anxiety around faith crises and show some more positive ways through them, then I think there’s no better start than to acknowledge that even folks like Nephi and Paul went through them.