Over the past few months, there’s an idea I’ve been trying to articulate. It’s the idea of “becoming Real” — that, somehow, embracing “who we really are” is critical to being happy and healthy, and that it is God’s love that facilitates this. I’ve written about it in one form or another here, here, here, and here.
I finally got some clarity on it a week or so ago. During my 12-hour drive to our new city, I listened to portions of a book called Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. Oddly enough, it’s a book about masculinity (why I’m reading it is a long but unrelated story), but there is a section that resonated with me as profoundly universal for both men and women.
The concept is basically this…
In C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, there is imagery that haunts me.
The damned arrive via bus at a meadow on the outskirts of Heaven. They are ghostlike, translucent, fading away. But Heaven is Real — blindingly, agonizingly so. The grass feels like knives. The stream like sharp shards of glass. The flowers are too heavy to lift.
It is unbearable for most of the damned. They return back to hell. They cannot face what is True. And so they are held captive in a prison of their own making.
Jesus said: “The Truth will set you free.” But I don’t believe that the Truth of which He spoke has much at all to do with complex theological systems or abstract authority claims, as we tend to assume in modernity. Instead, the Truth of which he spoke is much simpler…and much more robust.
It is Him.
He is the Way and the Truth and the Life. He is what sets us free.
He allows us to be who we are.
We are human beings made in the image of God. This means that, fundamentally, “who we are” are creatures built to love as He loves (and He is love). In other words, we have the capacity to be so filled with the Love of God that we melt into Him; we become One with Him. This is the essence of the Great Intercessory Prayer of John 17. This is what He meant when He said that Life Eternal is to know God and Christ. He didn’t mean some rudimentary head-knowledge of God’s characteristics. He meant an experiential, Holy Union, the way we know our most cherished loved ones; a relationship between God and us and the people around us.
Yet so often, we choose not to be who we are. We choose to be who we think we should be. We choose to be who we think others want us to be. We put pressure on people around us to do the same. We pile on layers of deceit and shame, anger and judgment, lust and vice, fear and control. We think we’re doing right, but every layer takes us further and further from Truth, from Him, until we’re wasting away like the ghosts in The Great Divorce.
But here is the miracle of it all: we can be who we are just the way we are. We can choose Him this instant, whatever our circumstances, and He will set us free.
What does it look like?
Freedom in Christ means seeing our best qualities without boasting and our worst qualities without shame. It means seeing others’ best qualities without envy and their worst qualities without judgment. It is being able to change and repent without fear or hesitation, because even when we make mistakes, we know our worth. It is forgiving others before they apologize (or if they never do), because even when they make mistakes, we know their worth.
Freedom in Christ means embracing folks who are as flawed and floundering and foolish as we are (though perhaps in different ways) with the same open arms we’ve found in our union with Him. It is letting those around us be free to experience their own transformations in their own way, trusting that God will do as well by them as He has by us. It is knowing that whatever happens, however painful, He will use it for our good, for we are in Him and He in us.
Freedom in Christ means being transformed so that when He appears we shall be like Him. It is knowing Him even as we are known. It is being who we are — who we really, truly are — and knowing it is Enough.
Today, my husband posted a “personalized” Santa Claus video on Facebook that we’d made and sent to our daughter. One of his friends, a staunch atheist, made this comment on the thread: “I’m telling [my son] the truth about Santa, because I don’t want to tell him a lie, besides, if he starts believing cultural mythology, who knows what he might start believing.”
I felt his comment was kind of Grinchy so I fired off a less-than-patient reply — told him that he’d “missed the point.” I immediately recognized that my comment was made in frustration — something I try to avoid, since the Internet is a mean enough place without me joining in — so I quickly deleted my response. He must have seen it anyway, though, because when I logged in again tonight I noticed that he’d added another reply: “Katie, ‘you missed the point’ is an easy thing to say. Please explain what the point is, then I’ll know.”
After some deliberation, I decided I’d answer his question (hopefully with a much gentler spirit than before). This is what I wrote:
I’ve always loved the passage in Jacob 4:13, which explains the primary role of the Spirit: “…The Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are…” (emphasis mine).
The idea of Things As They Really Are is one of the most profound spiritual concepts I’ve ever encountered. It’s about much more than adhering to the “correct” interpretation of abstract theological principles; it’s about embracing all the truth we can, even difficult truth, on our way to a fully actualized life in Christ. As important as good theology is, I believe that on the path of real discipleship, often the most difficult truths we encounter are personal — things we’d rather not face about our communities and families, and especially ourselves. And yet the Spirit exists to show us these truths, to help us strip away layers of deceit and shame, so that we can stand face to face with God, knowing Him even as we are known (see 1 Cor 13:12).
I often think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After they partook of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they discovered their nakedness. Suddenly ashamed, they rushed to make coverings of fig leaves — as if, somehow, the fig leaves would restore their former innocence, or at least hide that they had sinned. But God wasn’t fooled. He called out to them, made them stand before Him, demanded an accounting of what they’d done (as if He didn’t know). Then He cast them away with a curse…and a covering of skins He crafted for them.
There was a time this story made me shudder. I imagined myself standing before God, naked, exposed; and God sending me away, angry with my performance. How is this love? I wondered. I had missed two critical points in the story:
Today, I simply want to affirm that my approach to the gospel can summed up by the 13th Article of Faith:
We believe in being honest, true…
This touched me on multiple levels tonight, as I realized how painful honesty can be.
Sometimes, it means sacrificing my public face in favor of acknowledging a private truth, even when it makes me look bad. At other times, it means standing up for my beliefs, even when my culture or community might reject me or my interpretation. It might require that I relinquish power, authority, or control in order for another person to be free. In almost every instance, it means being willing to let God to shine a light on injustice, cruelty, violence, hatred, bigotry, and intolerance wherever it exists — but especially in my own heart — so that I may see it for what it is, and do what I must to root it out as quickly as possible.
Perhaps the most significant change in my belief life over the past several months is this:
I now take full, personal responsibility for my own beliefs.
That means I believe what I believe because I believe it — because it resonates with my soul, because I perceive that God has led me to a particular insight or truth, because it fills me up and changes me for the better in terms of my ability to love and be loved.
Of course, the flipside of this radical new change is that I no longer believe simply because a person, institution, or book tells me to.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to unlock spiritual truth. This is a challenging matter, because spiritual truth is neither objective nor provable. So how do you define and discover the truths upon which you’ll shape your life…without driving yourself crazy?
Here’s my approach — a work in progress, of course. I guess you could call it Katie’s personal epistemology. 🙂
My family and I are in Salt Lake City right now, visiting relatives. We had a chance to hang out in Temple Square this afternoon. It was absolutely perfect–70 degrees, gentle wind, sun shining, flowers in full bloom. My two-year-old daughter loved the reflecting pool, and squealed with delight when my husband gave her six or seven pennies to toss into the glassy water. I watched her somewhat enviously. To her, the world is as clear as the reflection in that pool: she knows what love is and she knows that she has it–and she doesn’t worry much about the rest.
Something about growing up clouds the vision somehow.
As we made our way around the grounds, we stopped at the visitors centers and took in the exhibits. One stop stood out in my mind as particularly descriptive of my last six months of searching, as though it could all be wrapped up in this single experience. It was a presentation on the promise of eternal families–a message that has historically brought me peace. But today, it was difficult to know how to feel or what to think.
My husband and I are constantly discussing the role of grace in LDS theology and disagree somewhat on how most mainstream Mormons view the issue.
And it made me wonder: what do us Mormons REALLY think of grace?
So I’d like to pose the question to you, my dear readers (all 7 or so of you *grin*): from your perspective, what is the role of grace in our salvation?
Then, if you feel so inclined, I’d also invite you to share…
–What sources in particular have shaped your understanding of this doctrine? (i.e. scriptures, talks, general authorities, Sunday School lessons, seminary/institute teachers, parents, friends, missions, etc.)
–How does your understanding of the doctrine of grace shape how you approach your religious life, and/or how you approach your day-to-day life?
Please note, I’d like this to be a “judgment-free” zone; in other words, there are no right or wrong answers here. I’m just curious to understand how people view the issue and see if I can glean any further understanding on this very important principle from what you have to say.
Thanks in advance!
Here is the long-promised post on the Nature of Truth…
Truth-with-a-capital-“T”–that is, the whole Truth, God’s Truth–is a gigantic concept. It’s bigger than me, and it’s bigger than you. It’s got infinite layers expanding infinitely in an infinite number of directions. Truth is so vast, so all-encompassing, that the human mind will NEVER be able to fully comprehend it–not in its entirety, not in its fullness, not at its purest level.
What’s more, our thoughts are limited by the imprecise nature of human language; therefore, even if it were possible to understand Truth with pinpoint accuracy (and I believe, at this stage of our eternal development anyway, it is NOT), we would still be unable to express it adequately.
In fact, even the Lord Himself spoke in parables, so as to encode “hidden meaning” and profound truths through STORY–because there are some concepts that are simply not expressible in words alone.
Therefore, whenever you hear a teacher espousing truth, you must understand that everything he says is colored by his unique perspective, his prejudices, his experiences, his experiments, and his rationale.* What’s more, these same teachings are then interpreted differently by each of his students and hearers. In other words, your beliefs are filtered not only through the lens of your own biases and experiences, but through the collective lenses of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people’s biases and experiences, as each person passes on some sort of “interpretation” that is then assimilated into the realm of general wisdom.
Can you see why Truth, then, is such an elusive concept?
Thousands of years of human history prove this point. Sit a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, and a Buddhist together in a room and ask them same question about God. You’ll get four different answers. But it doesn’t stop there. Sit four Christians together–an Evangelical, a Mormon, a Quaker, and a Catholic–and ask them the same question about God. You’ll get four different answers. But it doesn’t stop there. Sit four Mormons together in a room, or four Evangelicals, or four Quakers, or four Catholics, and ask them the same question about God. The fact is, you’ll get four different answers. It’s simply the way it works–because that’s what it means to be human.
Here are some additional points about truth I’d like to make…
1)–An Understanding of Truth Comes through the Spirit. So does all this mean truth is not knowable? Well, yes and no. In the sense that we will never be able to comprehend all that God comprehends–at least not in this life–then yes. I feel quite confident saying that “Truth” is not knowable. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t comprehend truths–or snippets of Truth–in mortality.
This understanding comes through the Spirit of God, and my experience has led me to believe that it comes to different people in different ways. To some, it comes as visions. To others, it comes as thoughts, feelings, or impressions. To me, it comes as ideas and an internal sense of clarity and peace. Universally, this experience is associated with “the fruits of the spirit:” or love, joy, peace, longsuffering , gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance.
I believe it is the obligation of each person to seek out this source of wisdom and ask questions and receive answers and make choices based upon their level of understanding.
It also means being tolerant of others who “receive” a different answer than I’ve recieved, which leads me to my next point…
2)–It Is Important to Be Charitable of Others’ Worldview. This can be one of the most confusing concepts of all–one that many Mormons (and all deeply religious people, for that matter) would do well to remember. After all, if I came to one determination of truth that I believe was sent straight from God, how is it possible for another person to have a different understanding?
Many religious people will tell you it’s because the “other” worldview is a lie from the devil himself. (Heck, history is replete with “inspired” men and women murdering each other because they were so confident the “others'” beliefs were sponsored by Satan.)
I reject that philosophy and take a much more nuanced approach…
Because Truth is so vast and so complex, and because we humans are so small and so simple, chances are, we’re all playing with that same mixture of truth and error, trying to sort the wheat from the chaff as best we can.
Fortunately, it’s not mine to judge.
I trust that most people are a lot like me, in that their struggle to make sense of mortality is just as messy and just as complicated as mine–and that God knows the thoughts and intents of each of our hearts, and will deal with us accordingly. Hell, there are lots of people who I’m sure will be more correct than I am when all is said and done. That’s why I’m glad it’s not a race. After all, God saves us individually, and by His grace–not by what we do or don’t know.
Which brings me to my next point…
3)–Knowledge or Understanding Does Not Save You: Christ Does. This is one of the most incredible breakthroughs I’ve ever had in my spiritual life–one that has allowed me to forgive others–and myself–for misunderstandings or teachings that I feel are destructive, abusive, or flawed. The truth is, EVERYONE holds beliefs that are wrong, because we are human beings–and human beings are inherently flawed. Isn’t that the lesson we take from the Garden of Eden?
But fortunately, we’re not saved by our works, or our beliefs, or our doctrine, or our understanding. Instead, we are saved by Christ. He loves us, flaws and all, and through His grace makes us one with Him, whole, perfect, and without blemish. Of course, it’s nothing WE’VE done to attain this level of holiness. Nope, we are 100% reliant on Him to make us this way.
That doesn’t mean we don’t constantly strive to do better and learn more about Him and His Truth, filtering out the error as we go–but it DOES mean we don’t have to panic if we don’t “get it all” right now. We’re saved by grace, NOT by knowledge.
4)–It Keeps You Humble. When you understand everything that you DON’T understand, there comes a sense of humility and teachability into your life. You talk less. You listen more. You ask questions. You become less offended or afraid of differences, because they no longer threaten your worldview.
One of the most profound lessons I’ve ever learned is to become comfortable with these three words: “I don’t know.” Before, they used to terrify me. Now, they open me up to the world and the people in it. When you realize that there’s so much you don’t know–and that even what you DO know is probably incomplete–you are able to glean understanding from everyone you meet and from everything you experience.
Interestingly, it is my experience that the people who more readily admit their lack of understanding are the ones whom God is able to teach more.
All right, so there are my thoughts on the elusive nature of Truth-with-a-capital-T. What do you think? What did I get right? What did I get wrong? I welcome all feedback on this absolutely HUGE concept! 🙂
*With the exception, perhaps, of the teachings of Christ–as He IS the embodiment of all Truth. But even then, His students (us) certainly color and distort what He tells us through the lens of our own flawed understanding.