By Kelsie Petersen
Every story of leaving Adventism is a little bit different and a little bit the same, it seems. Some of us were led to our point of departure gradually; others of us felt as if we were plucked out and swiftly deposited on the “other side.” One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that we all share a certain pattern. After the gritty work of digging through doctrine, after scouring our Bibles for answers that we had never seen before, and after the stress and pain of facing the lies we had been taught—after that work we discover there is an ongoing process: peeling back the layers.
A popular animated movie from several years ago depicts an ogre trying to explain to his friend that ogres aren’t as awful as they are made out to be; he explains that getting to know an ogre is like peeling back the layers of an onion. I realize this analogy doesn’t fit perfectly, and I am certainly not calling anyone an ogre or an onion, but it did get me thinking about the process many of us go through after the heavy lifting of finding Bible truth and weeding out the Adventist twists that obscured reality. After we finally understand the gospel and joyfully trust Jesus, we discover that we keep having to peel back the layers of our understanding as we discover more and more deeply embedded ways Adventism has colored our thoughts—indeed, our whole worldview.
Often, before the peeling begins in earnest, we may experience a period of freedom, of joyous bliss, even! We bask in what a great and wonderful God we have, One who plucked us from our chains and set us free! In fact, I have seen a few people who seem to stay in this place, removing themselves completely from the whole mess of where they have come from, refusing to think about the ways Adventism shaped them—and who can blame them for wanting this separation from their past?
I’ve heard this “moving on” referred to as being a “former Former Adventist.” If this reaction describes you, the reader, I would like to offer a word of caution. Adventism leaves no one unscathed. Everyone, former Adventist or not, has layers comprising their identities and worldviews, but as a person who has left the Adventist organization, I can say with confidence: you cannot extract Adventism from your layers. I understand that not everyone would wish to be identified as a “Former Adventist”, but I would just like to offer encouragement to those who are in this place of believing that the Adventist past is out of sight and out of mind. There will be layers, and when one discovers confusing ideas or repetitive disruptions occurring, just be willing to consider possible links back to your history in Adventism.
It is then, after the joy of discovering the gospel and settling into one’s new Christian life, that one begins the process of peeling back the onion, of discovering the subtle ways in which Adventism colored everything—and by “everything”, I mean EVERYTHING. Let me provide a few examples from my own experience as well as from some others who were gracious enough to share their experiences with me.
First, if your family relationships were not drastically affected by your initial journey out of the church, you may find yourself re-negotiating those after it becomes apparent that your new life isn’t “just a phase.” Adventism very much cultivates an “us vs. them” mentality, overtly or subtly. Learning to recognize this marginalizing in your “life after” and learning how to function and respond properly when faced with disagreement can be a challenge for some.
Many people who have left Adventism have had to process through the idea of finding the one “true church.” Our years in Adventism taught us that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is THE true remnant church, and it logically followed (in our Adventist brains) that there must be A true church somewhere. Otherwise, if there is no true church at all, Christianity must be false. This misconception often arises first during the initial phases of leaving, but it can come back again and again as we begin to get down to the nitty gritty of picking out the slivers of our Adventist mentality. When this layer is not peeled back properly and processed biblically—especially if one has not truly embraced the gospel and been born again—sadly, many people find themselves falling into agnosticism and atheism.
Somewhat related to the idea of the “true church” is the fact that usually former Adventists have a very difficult time settling into a church family after leaving Adventism because of a deep fear of being deceived again. We think at first that we can’t possibly worship in a church that teaches an eternal hell, an earthly millennium, or that people go to be with the Lord consciously when they die. How do we come to grips with a church that teaches straight from the Bible yet tramples on ideas we thought were the foundation of reality?
We also discover deeper layers that have to be examined when we bump into the social implications of leaving our past. Adventism is a culture and a community. Just think: how many of us are related to half of the province’s or state’s Adventist population by virtue of a couple of marriages in the family? It’s easy to go to just about any church member’s house for a meal and feel right at home simply because of the mutual bond of Adventism. When we leave that “inbred-ness” and after the initial bliss of freedom has passed, some of us struggle to find where and how to fit into our new circles. This social displacement is a genuine hurdle that many people experience.
A friend gave me one example of a layer that she had to peel back that gave me a laugh. When she was an Adventist, there were a few little rebellions that she practiced in an effort to prove to herself that she was not a legalist, such as drinking coffee or doing things on Sabbath that she knew would not be approved. After leaving, it took her some time to admit to herself that she did not, in fact, even like coffee! Her experience highlights our inevitable process of learning who we really are, of discovering what really is part of who God has made us to be, and of trusting Him as we discover both our tastes and His will for us apart from the rules of Adventism. It’s okay NOT to like coffee!
For some, part of peeling back the layers is going through the stages of grief. While there are those who might go through these stages in the initial phase of studying and parting ways with Adventism, many of us really begin processing our losses and changes later. It is possible that we may find ourselves walking through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and (re)acceptance after the initial joy of learning the gospel and leaving the structure that formerly defined us.
Several people have commented to me that they had to get rid of a critical spirit during this time of deeper discovery. While discernment and careful thinking and study are important, it is a common consequence of Adventism to carry a critical, argumentative spirit. Because, as we were taught and believed, Adventism had THE truth, criticizing and scorning those who don’t agree with us became a habit and cloaked us with a certain Adventist arrogance. Breaking free of this habitual mindset can be a thick, tough layer to peel away and requires deeper trust in God and His word to guard our understanding.
Closely related to peeling off the critical spirit is developing the skill of being okay with the possibility of being wrong, of not knowing an answer, or of not being “right” (or the “winner”) in a discussion, especially about spiritual things. I struggled at this point. I avoided digging into eschatological things for a long time because they were so big and complicated and, frankly, scary, while I was in Adventism. At the same time, I felt like it was my duty—a necessity—to know THE answer.
In peeling back this layer, I finally came to the place where I know that I am saved by the grace of Jesus ALONE, and that He is coming back for me one day. I’m okay with not knowing or even trying to figure out anything more specific than that. Since then, I have done a bit more study into these things, and I am not afraid of tackling them when the time comes—and I know that God will lead my study into this subject. As that happens, I may discover exactly what I believe about eschatology, or I may continue to be okay with not knowing all the details. And I’m ok with that open-ended conclusion. Adventism taught us that eschatology contained the essence of “truth”. The Bible teaches that Truth is the Lord Jesus and His death, burial, and resurrection. Now I know the real Truth; eschatology is a secondary issue, and I don’t have to know all the answers.
One other dominating issue that many of us face in an ongoing way is a fear of the future. Adventism put so much emphasis on end-time events and how terrifying they would be that peeling back this layer involves facing deep fear and uncertainty about the future which is highlighted or intensified by world events or even local events and happenings. We find ourselves uncertain and mentally preparing ourselves for the worst, living in fear of what may come our way. It’s important to realize that Adventism taught us to fear, but the gospel teaches us to look at our earthly future in light of our security in Christ. We can remember that we have been bought and paid for, and no terrestrial trial or suffering can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus. Our inheritance in Him is a sure thing. Moreover, as we turn our fear over to Him, He shows us His promises which cannot fail. There is hope, security, and peace in learning that our Father is sovereign, and nothing surprises Him. He, not Satan’s free will, has the last word, and Satan cannot act outside of our triune God’s permission.
Anyone who has left, or is leaving, Adventism can testify that this process is not like simply changing from one Christian denomination to another—far from it. The layers we have to peel back are not only numerous but also quite often painful and complicated. Many people choose to seek Christian counsel or even cult recovery therapy in order to find their way through the disorienting changes. What your layers are, I do not know. Neither do I know how long it will be before you feel rid of the slivers of Adventism that, almost unnoticed, fester just under the surface of your new life before they become so painful they require conscious extraction. But this one thing I do know: you are not alone. When you have been born again, you have the Holy Spirit dwelling IN you. Even after 12 years out of Adventism, I still often need to remind myself that He is in this process. He is very clearly the One who called my husband and me out of Adventism, and because He is good, and because He is sovereign, I can trust Him. I will not pretend that my process has been easy (it has not). In fact, my layer-peeling continues to this day. It has been hard; it has been painful—not in an unrelenting, constant kind of way, but persistently. In fact, sometimes as I recognize another, deeper layer emerging, I feel as if I am starting all over again.
But just as peeling onions can make us cry, peeling pack the layers of our lives that were shaped by Adventism can hurt. Praise to the Lord Jesus, we have a Savior who knows our grief, who knows our pain! He carried that pain to the cross. Isaiah 53:3-4 gives us a moving picture of what He would, and did, suffer
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow.
A God like that is a God we can trust.
Dear friend, wherever you may be in this journey, do not grow weary. You are not alone. If you have trusted Jesus and His finished work, the Holy Spirit dwells within you (Eph. 1:13-14). Jesus lives evermore to intercede for you (Rom. 8:27), and God is FOR you (Rom. 8:31, 32). Those promises alone would be sufficient, but there are also thousands of us cheering you on, praying for you, and weeping with you—thousands of us right there with you, peeling back the next layer.