“Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I was on my mission, my mission president’s wife told us,
“You can’t convert anybody above your own level of belief.”
I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable when she said that, because I was never quite sure how well I believed. Given the way my mission turned out, I guess she was right.
I have always doubted, from the time I was a child. It’s difficult to describe how it feels to grow up in doubt. When other kids were playing in the mud or dressing up dolls, I spent hours asking God to assure me I was right in His eyes.
And then comes the inevitable extension: when doubt evolves into something more. When familiar words and rituals that once brought strength become a source of confusion, even anger. When peace gives way to pressure. When clarity becomes despair–
And you find yourself straddling two worlds that might look different but are really the same: those who know it’s true, and those who know it’s not.
Is there no fellowship for the uncertain?
I’m reading the Gospel of John right now, and I’m struck by the Master’s tenderness toward the outcasts, the unjust, and the downtrodden. And I’ve always loved the story when the man approaches the Savior with his sick daughter and cries out with tears, “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief!”
Christ doesn’t hesitate; He heals the child.
Doubt is a lonely road. But there are moments, even when I’m languishing in utter confusion and near despair, that I feel His presence near me, urging me to look up, reach out, move beyond myself and lift another.
I think one of the most profound implications of grace is the realization that everyone–everyone–is in need of the Savior’s loving kindness. The sinners. The haters. The overconfident. And the doubters, too.
Five years ago, in Pernik, Bulgaria, I sat in our cluttered living room, my head in my hands. It had been a particularly discouraging day. My mind was heavy with confusion and doubts.
“I don’t know if I have ever felt forgiveness from Jesus,” I told my companion. “I don’t think I know what the atonement even means.”
It started a few weeks before my mission began. A desperate struggle, battling guilt and despair over all the sins I had ever committed. I’d always considered myself a good person, righteous, worthy, etc. But now, in the heightened state of spiritual strain only a full-time mission can bring, as I ran the last few years back through my mind over and over again, I realized I had not exactly been a model Mormon.
The ones that hurt worst were the ones I’d done deliberately, almost with glee, sure that God had better things to do than worry about my minor indiscretions. And they were mostly minor. Watching R-rated movies, for example, or kissing boys I barely knew just for the helluvit. Oh yeah. And cursing.
It ate away at me. I plead with God constantly for an experience like Alma the Younger or Enos, who had sweet and undeniable assurances of their worthiness before God. But every time, disparaging thoughts came haunting back…They were different–they weren’t believers–you should have known–Jesus shouldn’t have to bear your load–how dare you even ask?
It lasted all through my mission. It’s probably why I had so few baptisms. I worked so hard my feet developed blisters and my body ached every night, but I taught without testimony. How could I preach the Savior when I hardly knew Him myself?
After I came home, it didn’t get better. If anything, it got worse. Persistent fear. Guilt over every mistake. I was angry at how much more difficult it was to be righteous at home than it had been in the mission field, and I began to resent my mission experience for creating an expectation for a standard I would never be able to achieve again.
Then marriage. And motherhood. Every mounting responsibility brought the looming specter of potential failure. It paralyzed me.
Around this time, Lanny began dialogging with evangelical Christians online. I watched their discussions from a careful distance. They spoke of a concept I had never understood–in fact, a concept I had Bible bashed on my mission–the concept of salvation by grace, not works. It seemed too good to be true. But considering my misery, I gave it a closer look. I spent hours reading books and talks and articles and blogs. I attended lectures by visiting Christian theologians. I felt the tug of mercy.
I began to learn that repentance isn’t a checklist, but a realization of your total dependence on Christ. That you can never be “good enough,” no matter how hard you try, and so you ask God to cleanse you–and He does. That good works can never save you, no matter how good or how plentiful they are. That you serve God because you love Him, because He created you and saved you, not because you’re trying to work your way to heaven.
It was a revolutionary paradigm shift for me. I lightened up. I found joy in living again.
It still disturbs me that I had to learn this from sources outside the Church. In fact, when I compared my newfound understanding with everything I’d learned about salvation from my Mormon upbringing, I almost left the Church entirely. The works-centric vocabulary…the constant injunctions to “be worthy”…and that incomprehensible scripture in 2 Nephi that still gives me heartburn: “After all we can do…”
In the end, I stayed because the Book of Mormon is, at its core, a Christ-centered volume. I stayed because, for all my doubts and confusion, I’ve had spiritual experiences I can’t deny. And I stayed because I hope my sweet grandma is waiting for me on the other side…and I’d sure like to be with her forever.
What’s more, I feel the winds of change in the Church. I know I’m not the only one to have suffered needlessly from an incorrect understanding of the doctrine of grace. I see it preached more openly and freely now than even 5 years ago. Perhaps it’s because now I have ears to hear. Whatever the case, I hope that in some small way I might be able to contribute to a Christ-centered revolution within Mormonism, where He takes His proper place at the core of absolutely everything we do in the Church.
*Please note that when I say “Evangelical Mormon,” I mean I subscribe to a religious philosophy that declares that salvation is through the grace of Christ, not works, and advocate that position within Mormonism. I do NOT support much–if anything–of what the Evangelical movement stands for politically.
An interesting note on KSL.com this week…and two very different sides of the same story. It grabbed my interest because it happened in my mission–a city where I served, in fact. Bourgas, Bulgaria.
(KSL News) Priests from a Bulgarian Orthodox Church along the Black Sea have asked the Bulgarian government to evict all Mormon missionaries. The request follows an incident in the city of Bourgas.
Internet Web sites from the area report that the priests are upset that the missionaries disrupted their worship service.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released this statement: “Contrary to erroneous media reports, two missionaries serving in Burgas, Bulgaria, did nothing to disrupt the services of a local church, and when asked to leave, did so immediately. The missionaries were invited to attend the church service by a member of the congregation.”
Of course, the Bulgarians tell a different story…
From Novinite.com, the Sofia News Agency (forgive the bad translation; it’s Novinite’s, not mine):
Mormons Rush into Orthodox Church in Bulgaria’s Burgas, Interrupt Service
Two mormon preachers rushed Thursday into “Saints Cyril and Methodius” orthodox church in Bulgaria’s coastal city of Burgas to interrupt the morning service, held to mark the Ascension of Jesus.
The missionaries entered the temple and announced in Bulgarian before the people inside they were going to preach.
The young men refused to leave even after priest Zahari asked them to. The scandal lasted for about half an hour before the mormons were taken out of the church almost by force.
“Such an incident happened for the first time and that aggressive behaviour was a precedent,” father Zahari said.
“I have ceased all responsible institutions and will insist on removing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Bulgaria’s creed register as well as extraditing of its missionaries,” he added.
While I’m not naive enough to think our missionaries would ever do such a thing (I *was* there, after all), the Bulgarian version sounds a little fishy. I mean, you never know, you could’ve had a couple of A-type sort of overzealous elders trying to muscle their way into a few baptisms…but I doubt it. Whatever happened, I hope it gets resolved soon!