At less than five years old, I was instructed to stand in front of my primary class and say that I knew the church was true. This experience was repeated for years. Sometimes I wonder if I really knew what I was talking about. I wondered if kids were closer to the veil and had some kind of spiritual gift that helped them know the truth.

But one memory affirms that I did not actually understand what I was asked to testify of. When I was six, my family moved. I remember sitting in primary feeling distraught and confused. My old primary teachers always used to say, “I know that this church is true.” So when we went to a new building (a new church, as I remember understanding it), I was distraught to hear my new primary teacher say, “I know that this church is true.” We were going to a new church, I thought, and both cannot possibly be true.

I told this story at a youth activity once and got a few laughs. It’s always felt like a cute story about a confused kid. But I’ve realized its significance: when I was asked to “bury” my testimony in primary, I was given a script to repeat. I was taught to say what I believed until I finally actually believed it. The church’s claims were my ground truth for years.

As a teenager, I was still conflicted. My friends in seminary would talk about having amazing spiritual experiences. People shared how they felt like God was speaking to them when they read the Book of Mormon. I never had these experiences, but I felt like I had to share them to fit in. So when a seminary teacher asked us to share our experience with the Book of Mormon with a neighbor, I made one up. When I was asked to speak in church, I concluded my talk with a template that I still have saved on an old hard drive:

I know with all my heart that the church is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that he translated the Book of Mormon by the power of God. I know the church is led by a prophet today. I know the scriptures are true. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

It was made clear to me that to be accepted in the church, you had to have a testimony, and you had to repeat it often. I remember hearing the parable of the ten virgins and being chastised in Sunday School because I wouldn’t stand up in testimony meetings. I was told that when Jesus came, I had better have enough testimony (or oil in my extended-metaphorical lamp).

When I was a missionary, I was told to testify regularly. Even if I was doubting something, I must have repeated thousands of times the same testimony over and over. In the MTC, I practiced using tone and inflection to sound sincere when I bore a testimony. I spent hours practicing “Yo se que la iglesia es la unica iglesia verdadera” (I know that the church is the only true church). Throughout my mission, I learned from mission companions and the mission president that changing my voice’s tone made a testimony sound more convincing. I practically mastered the whispery “testimony voice” that so many of us are familiar with.

I prayed several times a day on my mission to feel that the church was true. I prayed for some sort of confirmation that the Book of Mormon was true or that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I occasionally felt peaceful, and I thought that might be good enough. I thought that if so many other people had impactful, significant spiritual experiences and could testify of truth, so could I. I lied through my teeth and it worked. People could not tell I was lying, or they at least never called me out for it. Mission companions would say they felt the spirit when I testified about the church. I am now deeply remorseful that many people were (at least partially) converted and baptized on the basis of my phony testimony.

Eventually, I could not tell what I believed and did not believe anymore. Memorizing and repeating my testimony dozens of times every day for two years eroded at any sense I had of what I really believed. When I got back from my mission, I knew all the right lines to say. I was congratulated for giving an impressive, eloquent talk (which was a translation of a talk I gave in the last week of my mission). Even though it felt gimmicky and repetitious to me, people said they felt the spirit when I shared my testimony in Spanish at the close of the talk.

I realized later that I was still ashamed of this testimony when a coworker recently asked how the church decided where to send missionaries. I switched into missionary mode and started talking about how we believe they receive inspiration from God, and my brain ground to a halt. I didn’t believe a word I was saying. I wrapped up the conversation and changed the topic so I didn’t have to think about it, and I spent the next few weeks thinking about this experience.

Eventually, I was asked to give a talk in sacrament meeting themed “Why I believe”. I started writing the talk by scribbling “What do I believe” on the top of a ledger notebook. I was stumped. I wanted to say I believed the church was true, but I’d never really received a spiritual confirmation of it. So after spending several hours trying to piece together any scraps of testimony I actually had into a talk, I ended up talking about believing that it is valuable to believe in a chance to correct mistakes. I talked about how the Jesus story was useful, and how we should love all of God’s children. I somehow managed to squeeze out a 10-minute talk.

I started seriously researching the church’s truth claims. For the first time in my life, I let myself read “anti-mormon” literature, like the CES Letter and Letter for My Wife. I spent a good deal of time on the Mormon Stories website. Finally, I was starting to read logically consistent arguments. It was terribly unfortunate that these arguments contradicted everything I’d been taught to believe, but they finally worked in my mind.

Over the next few weeks, I read antagonistic work followed by apologist rebuttals (usually from FAIR). The apologist arguments were, in my opinion, incredibly weak and involved a great amount of speculation, while antagonistic work was usually evidence-based and logically sound. I wanted so badly for the church to be true, so I prayed over the course of several days. Eventually, I told God I had no testimony and experienced a lot of abuse from the church, and unless I received a spiritual confirmation the church was true, I was going to leave. I told Him I respected Him and wanted to follow His will, but that He had not yet given me enough information to believe that meant staying in the church.

I felt very little. So I prayed again. “Dear Heavenly Father, should I leave the church?” I asked. I immediately felt more peace and calm than I had ever felt. My mind felt clear. I felt everything church leaders had identified to me as signs of the spirit. I couldn’t believe it. “I’m interpreting this feeling as a sign that I should leave the church,” I confirmed. I still felt what I identified as the spirit, so later that day, I let my wife know I was leaving.

I can now say with more assurance than I ever had as a member of the church that the church is not true. I know with all of my heart that if there is a God, it is not through Russell Nelson or any other rich white man in a suit that He directs His work. I know Joseph Smith was not a prophet. He deceived, abused, and manipulated swaths of innocent people. Above all else, I know that leaving the church has made me happier, healthier, kinder, more hopeful, more generous, more tolerant, more understanding, and overall better than staying possibly could.

I learned in the church that while people can refute facts, they cannot refute spiritual experiences. So I humbly and vulnerably share this in hopes that it might help someone avoid the abuse thousands of church members have survived and continue to experience every day. The church is not true; it is not what it claims to be.