Mormon Narratives & God’s Grace

Today in Sunday School, we talked about the Pre-Existence and fore-ordination.

At one point, a guy in the class raised his hand and asked, “Okay, so let’s say you’re fore-ordained to do something.  But you fall away from the church, stop believing in God, and totally miss your chance to do it.  Then you come back 10 years later.   What happens to you?”

There were a variety of answers, from “God would find another way to get the job done” to  “you miss out on blessings during that time, but you can still come back to full fellowship,” and so on.

I raised my hand and said, “You know, I think the amazing thing about God is that He’s so big and His grace is so wonderful that He uses our good choices to bless us AND our bad choices to bless us, if we let Him.”

A pretty basic comment, I thought — until I got this response: “Well, we have to qualify that by remembering that, in this instance, we’ve set ourselves back 10 years.”

And I’ll be honest, that frustrated me.  The teacher is a good friend, one I’ve opened up to about my beliefs, and I know he meant to be helpful and kind with his reply.  But if we’d been out of church and in a private setting, I would have responded with this question:

“Why?”

Why do we have to qualify it?

Why is it so terrible to think that God might be able to take something ugly and messy and turn it into something truly wonderful and beautiful — even more wonderful and beautiful than if we’d never fallen?

Why do we have to place limits on God’s grace?

I’ve thought a lot about this lately, wondering why it is that things that seem so basic to me — such as God taking my mess and turning it into something wonderful, no strings attached — is so foreign and even dangerous to others.

And I think I’ve finally stumbled upon a possible answer:

I’m living a different story than they are.

Allow me to explain what I mean by that.

Perhaps the most prevalent Mormon narrative for the purpose of life goes something like this:

Mortality is a test, wherein free agency reigns supreme.  Our use of that agency (a.k.a. “personal worthiness”) directly determines whether we pass or fail.   “Passing” means we become like God and live with Him and our families forever.  “Failing” means we’re separated from them for eternity.  Yes, we’ll mess up — and the Savior is there to make up for what we lack — but in the end, the level of glory we attain is based on how well we’ve obeyed the commandments and applied the atonement in this life.

Obviously that’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s basically accurate.  And when this is the pervading narrative, it’s no wonder folks bristle at the idea that some people might be able to misuse their agency and still end up okay!  After all, faithful Latter-Day Saints work SO HARD to do the right things, that the idea of people “sliding in under the wire” can seem grossly unfair.

On the other hand, my narrative is evolving into something a bit different.

I’m beginning to think of life as less a test, and more a journey of renewal and redemption for individuals, families, and communities.  Inherent in the journey is sin, pain, and sorrow.  But I believe God has given us this journey anyway, because 1)–through the sin and sorrow, He can more fully express His goodness and grace; and 2)–there is something about the journey that is so profoundly raw and meaningful that we can become much more with it than we ever could without it.  The primary lessons we must learn are to love others and rely on Him — and our purpose is use the experiences we have, both good and bad, to bless people’s lives in the here and now.

In this narrative, grace is not merely a tool or a means to an end, but an end in and of itself — perhaps the end of ends — grace for its own sake.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying Mormonism doesn’t support my narrative.  On the contrary, I think my narrative can fit nicely within the framework of what Mormonism has to offer doctrinally (although let’s not lie, the institutional culture can be more than a little stifling).

But I really don’t think it’s the most common narrative.  And I think that makes a tremendous difference in the way people interpret various doctrinal points.

In the end, this distinction has helped me understand why it is that I feel sometimes like I’m living on another planet from my LDS brothers and sisters.

It’s because, on some levels, I am.  🙂

About Katie L

A doubter by nature, a believer by grace.

Posted on January 10, 2010, in Mormonism, Personal, Thoughts on God and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I think it’s probably just the natural part of Mormon theology that rejects the notion that human actions are ultimately futile and irrelevant. Any time you bring up ideas that verge on concluding that the human element is either trivial or pointless, you’re going to get push-back from Mormons.

    That’s how we roll.

  2. I don’t think I’m saying that human actions are ultimately futile and irrelevant. If that’s what it sounded like, I didn’t intend it. I definitely think our choices are important and do a tremendous amount of good (or damage) to ourselves and others.

    What I am saying is that my approach is shifting from one that is focused primarily on doing good stuff in order to “get a good spot” in the afterlife to doing good stuff to help others on their journey. And, for me anyway, that approach has made me less concerned about when and why others come around.

    But I think I see what you’re saying — if, in the end, God ends up doing nice things for us in spite of our lousy choices, it does make our decisions less “powerful”…and in that sense it can be seen as trivializing the human element.

  3. Well, it’s not an either-or thing, certainly.

  4. Thanks Sarah. Glad you like it! And thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  5. Alex T. Valencic

    One of the things that I have often confronted in my life, and especially in my relations to other Latter-day Saints, is the different understanding of the Gospel that “Utah Mormons” have compared to “non-Utah Mormons”. I would be willing to be that I could find far more people who agree with your second narrative than the first here in East Central Illinois than I could in the West.

    The first thing that came to mind when you mentioned God turning messes into something wonderful was Pres. Monson. I’m thinking of all the stories he shares about his childhood and his youth. Every time I hear them, I think, “Wow! If someone who was such a terror as a child can become a prophet, there must be hope for all of us!” After all, we are talking of a man who, as a boy, didn’t want to share his toys with the poor kids down the street, who made his Primary teacher cry because of his unruly behaviour, and frequently ignored the things his dad said, and even went behind his dad’s back to do things he was told not to do. Remember the dogs in the coal shed?)

    Clearly, God knows how to take our mistakes and turn them into something wonderful. And I am fairly certain that is the lesson of the rough stone rolling and the blacksmith analogies.

  6. Katie L — Back when I was l considering joining the Church, I struggled to understand the spin that the Church put on the Fall, seeing it as a good thing (or at least a mostly good thing, certainly necessary) rather than as something bad (as most non-LDS Christians believe) and perhaps even a huge mistake.

    The only way I could get the story to make sense was by adopting something very much like your second narrative. Frankly, I could never buy the idea that the Garden of Eden was a setup of some sort (well, for the snake, maybe, but not for Adam and Eve). In fact, they were supposed to bring sin and misery into the world, because it is only through a world of misery and woe, through the challenges of life and so on that they could ever have any hope of becoming like God. In this narrative, God was able to take even willful disobedience and turn it into something good. The Atonement wasn’t something that God came up with to fix things after humankind blew it, but rather a preordained part of an eternal plan.

    And the same is true for us. As with all allegories, it’s possible to take this one too far, but there is a sense in which we’re supposed to make mistakes, because (for whatever reason) that is how we learn and how we progress, and it is provides the situations in which God is able to show his love and mercy for us and in which we can learn to depend upon the grace that Jesus Christ offers us.

    And I have to vehemently disagree with Seth R. that your narrative suggests that the human element is trivial or pointless. It’s in your second narrative that we truly have free will (agency) and develop it further toward good. As we become more Christlike, we are better able to use our freedom to overcome the evils in the world and to better love one another. I don’t see you teaching cheap grace at all.

  7. Alex T. Valencic

    My wife and I just taught our 10-year-olds in Primary this lesson on the Adam and Eve narrative that Eric discussed. We emphasised that the Fall was not a mistake, but rather a part of God’s plan that allows all of us to learn. We pointed out that when they are in school, they learn a lot more when they try to figure out the answers and make mistakes along the way than if the teacher just tells them the answers.

    It is likewise with God. Sure, He could just tell us all the answers. But He doesn’t want us to just have the information. He wants us to learn it, know it, and be able to use it. Interestingly enough, this is a relatively new thought in the education world. Researchers have found that students learn much more effectively if they are given the chance to make mistakes and discover the principles on their own. I’m glad to know that educators are starting to catch up with God. 😉

  8. I agree that the Mormon interpretation of the Garden story supports my narrative better than traditional Christianity’s.

    What’s ironic is that while the potential is there for a much more forgiving approach as a result of this interpretation, the Church and its members are often far less forgiving and tolerant of mistakes than traditional Christianity.

    In other words, while we’re saying, “The Garden story tells us that God put us here to grow through trial and error,” many Mormons still bristle at the idea that error (read: sin) could ever lead to growth.

    I’m not totally sure why that is, given how clear Mormon scripture is on the idea that growth was originally only made possible through Eve’s sin.

  9. I should add here that I recognize using a phrase like “traditional Christianity” is problematic, as there are plenty of hard-line, legalistic Christians out there too. But I hope you get the gist of what I’m saying, even if I don’t have the perfect words to say it.

  10. “I agree that the Mormon interpretation of the Garden story supports my narrative better than traditional Christianity’s.

    What’s ironic is that while the potential is there for a much more forgiving approach as a result of this interpretation, the Church and its members are often far less forgiving and tolerant of mistakes than traditional Christianity.”

    Great point. I still believe in the LDS doctrine of the fall, and it is ironic that traditional Christians have a better understanding of grace and forgiveness in terms of the Celestial Kingdom.

    Eve tastes the fruit/sin, she says something like “now I know who you are” to Satan, and I think it symbolizes that she had to sin in order to know good from evil.
    That makes my Mormon DH uncomfortable and he takes it too far by assuming my view means we have to commit each sin to know it’s bad. And then he brings up that Christ lived a perfect life. (but since I believe Christ is God it’s a pointless argument to me) I see Eve tasting sin/fruit only to mean that if I had never been placed in a fallen world, I would never know the difference between good or evil. It doesn’t mean I have to murder to know killing is wrong, but it does mean that I had to be tempted and fallen to learn why I should choose the right.

    Most people will say they don’t regret their past mistakes because it’s made them the strong person they are today. I don’t know if I can say THAT because most days I wish I could go back and redo parts of my life. But on the other hand maybe I wouldn’t have learned compassion for others, or the peace of living the commandments, if I hadn’t experienced these trials and challenges here on earth. As a sinner, I am no better than anyone else and that is how I am able to forgive those who hurt me.

  11. lol, that picture at the beginning of this post is great!

  12. I think of Saul of Tarsus becoming Paul, the Apostle “born out of season.” He certainly was messing things up for the early church, yet was changed by Divine manifestation. He had regrets for what he did before, and had afflictions he could not get release from, but still did wonderful things.

  13. The image posted above this article is interesting….. Any time you chose to belong to a religious organization you also choose whether or not to adhere to it’s principles. Wouldn’t it be better if her t-shirt said ” I DON’T…. I’m Mormon.” When we explain to friends of a different faith that we make the choices we do let us not say we do something because we have to but because we want to. This response reflects and represents the truth of the happiness gained when we live by the gospels teachings.

  14. Ashley, thanks for stopping by. I think the t-shirt is a joke — but your point is well-taken. 😉

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