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There’s no doubt about it: I’m an unconventional Mormon. I have a tattoo that says “grace” on my upper back. I attend an evangelical Bible study every Friday. I’ve even been known to drink the occasional chai latte, just because I can. Over the past several years I’ve wrestled mightily with my testimony of Mormonism, my commitment to the Restored Gospel. Eventually, I decided to stay…partly because I find deep beauty in many of our distinctly Mormon doctrines — doctrines which I genuinely hope are true — and partly because I feel there is value in loyalty to the faith community in which I was born and raised.
I am generally content with my decision. I no longer question it every day. Still, there are moments when I am discouraged, fearful: perhaps I’m fooling myself. Maybe I’m settling when there is something Bigger and Better beyond Mormonism. Maybe God would lead me elsewhere if I had the faith to follow Him. I know this candid confession might come as a surprise to some who are reading this (to others, it might explain a lot), but I want to share the context from which the next part of my post emerges.
You see, tonight I had an experience that confirmed to me the wisdom of remaining Mormon despite my doubts, that instilled in me a deep gratitude for my Mormon identity, culture, belief, and practice.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mission lately — well, really, my whole Mormon experience — and I’ve decided I’d like to start writing it down. I hope to take little snippets of stories here and there and share them.
This is something I wrote while actually on my mission. It describes a birthday party my companion and I attended for this wonderful old baba (it means grandma, but that’s what they call all the old ladies in Bulgaria). She was the epitome of graciousness, and always seemed to enjoy listening to our lessons — even though, in the end, she couldn’t get baptized because she just refused to marry her live-in boyfriend. (THAT was an awkward conversation. A seventy-year-old woman asking a couple of 22-year-old virgins if she was “living in sin” since they were way too old to have sex anymore. Ha!)
Anyway, her birthday in particular was a delightful day, so I thought I’d share…
Today was our first Sunday in our Moscow (Idaho) ward. The people were so warm, welcoming, and friendly, I felt right at home almost immediately.
I also felt right at home because of what I would call the standard Mormon over-emphasis on works.
I guess it’s alive and well everywhere.
A woman spoke in Sacrament Meeting today. She was beautiful, intelligent–and you could tell deeply committed to the gospel. The topic of her talk?
It was an excellent discourse; well thought out, well spoken. But underneath it all, I saw the old stirrings of perfectionism. I could see myself in her; the person striving desperately to earn salvation, to live up to an impossible standard.
Then in Relief Society, I heard it again: “Satan works to make us women feel so worthless and unworthy,” another sister said. “But it’s so hard. I mean, it’s not like you can just do it once and be saved.”
My heart kind of broke hearing that. I wished I could shout: “But that’s where you’re wrong! You CAN do it once! Once you’ve accepted the Lord Jesus Christ through faith, repentance, baptism, and the laying on of hands, you’ve already done it! You’re ALREADY saved!”
But I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to cause on scene on my first Sunday. 🙂 Not only that, this is a very delicate topic, and if I am to say anything, I want to make sure I’m meeting people where they are so I don’t alienate or offend.
But if I could have spoken up, this is what I’d say:
Because we’ve related the concept of salvation so closely with the concept of an eventual perfection, I believe that many of us Mormons, when asked if we’ve been saved, would say, “No, but I’m working on it.” What I believe we don’t recognize is that we CAN be perfected IN CHRIST NOW–today–just as we are–and, in fact, if we have partaken of the grace of Christ through the covenants and ordinances of the gospel, and have a broken heart and a contrite spirit, we are considered clean and whole and pure and SAVED–perfected–this moment, as we speak.
Does this mean we are perfect in the “objective” sense of the word? Of course not. But it means that because of the relationship we have with our Savior and advocate, we are clean before God–something we could NEVER do on our own, regardless of how well we behave.
The faster we can shift our focus away from what we have to “do” in order to become more like Christ, and start focusing just on Christ and the miracle of His atonement, the faster we’ll find we’re meeting all the “goals” we’ve set for ourselves spiritually. And we’ll acknowledge, in that moment, that it’s not us doing it–but Him changing us; His image being reflected in our countenance, as the scripture says.
And that’s a powerful place to be.
I’m reading The Fountainhead right now, and the following passage struck me. It is the story of the “ideal” man, architect Howard Roark, against the world. Roark is strong, self-controlled, and lives entirely for himself–on his own terms. In this scene, he confronts an old acquaintance, Peter Keating, once considered a great architect by the “world,” but Keating is depicted as merely the shadow of a man, a man who lives entirely for the approval of others, and loses himself along the way. Keating has come to Roark, begging for assistance. It’s a pathetic and moving confrontation.
Anyway, on to the excerpt.
When Keating had gone, Roark leaned against the door, closing his eyes. He was sick with pity.
He had never felt this before–not when Henry Cameron collapsed in the office at his feet, not when he saw Steven Mallory sobbing on a bed before him. Those moments had been clean. But this was pity–this complete awareness of a man without worth or hope, this sense of finality, of the not to be redeemed. There was shame in this feeling–his own shame that he should have to pronounce such judgment upon a man, that he should know an emotion which contained no shred of respect.
This is pity, he thought, and then he lifted his head in wonder. He thought that there must be something terribly wrong with a world in which this monstrous feeling is called a virtue.
I got to thinking. What does it mean for a man to be without worth or hope, not to be redeemed? Is there such a thing? And if pity is truly the act of pronouncing such judgment upon a man, can anyone make that judgment but God? Isn’t pity the most debasing of all human emotions, because, as Roark himself reflects, it is an emotion without even a modicum of respect?
It seems that when we pity someone, we abuse them and us. We abuse them, because we pronounce them worthless. Without that pronouncement, we might regard them with empathy, with apathy, even with antipathy–but at least we leave their basic dignity in tact. But the moment we view them with pity is the moment we decide they have lost the second greatest gift, next to life itself: the power to direct that life, which is the gift that makes us uniquely human. In our mind, they have become a shell of a human being, without power to act, but only to be acted upon, a slave, devoid of liberty or agency.
And we abuse ourselves, because we artificially exalt ourselves as gods. It is only for God to pity, for only He can judge. And the truth, of course, is that we are all worthless, unprofitable servants, falling short of the infinite potential installed in each of us by virtue of our humanity. To be human is to be divine. And because we are not divine, no, not one of us, we deserve nothing but God’s pity, relying solely on His grace to make us what we should be. But how can God love us and pity us at the same time? What is it that He loves?
It’s a great paradox. We are agents endowed with liberty and yet in bondage every day. We are divine and yet fallen, hopelessly lost and incomplete. Perhaps it is our divinity, our individuality, that God so cherishes in us, the spark of potential, of possibility untapped. He alone can tap it–and yet it is in our hands to choose to let Him. Perhaps it is that act of willful submission, the rarest and truest form of individual expression, that makes us creatures not wretched and vile, but worthy of our own humanity.