Book Review: Silent Souls Weeping by Jane Clayson Johnson

Silent Souls Weeping is a wonderful book both for those that have suffered, or are currently suffering, from depression as well as those that haven’t but would like to know how to help. I particularly love her descriptions of the disease and those who suffer. There is much about mental health that is confusing—there are situational, environmental, and individual factors—but, first and foremost, Jane Clayson Johnson emphasizes that it is a disease with a malfunctioning body part just like diabetes or cancer. How and why the brain is triggered into a depression varies according to the individual. Some of us have more of a genetic tendency, and the depression can come out of nowhere. For others, it is prolonged exposure to threatening experiences that has caused a system overload. And, as with so many things, the truth is a bit of both. I have learned that certain situations and environments will lead me into a depression when for others they might not. Those situations are extremely stressful, and would be for anyone, but I seem to shut down and respond in ways that others don’t. For a long time, I thought it meant that I was wrong, I was broken. My favorite part of this book was how Ms. Johnson separated this disease from the identity of the sufferer. I am someone prone to depression who has to monitor and care for my body just like someone who has diabetes. I am not weaker than someone who’s never had a depression.

This book is filled with stories and examples from others that have suffered and the different strategies they have taken. The greatest benefit to someone who is suffering is that they will realize they are not alone. I found some of my strategies described in this book, but there were times when her descriptions and examples gave me pause. I’m grateful that she reiterated how individual each experience is and states that her book is not for self-diagnosis or for self-help. If you are suffering, get help and don’t use every strategy in this book. Only use the ones that seem right at this time. Another strategy might be useful later, but not right now, or it will never be a good strategy for you. There were some I use constantly, some I have used but only under certain conditions. Others I love and rely on heavily, but I understand that others struggle with them, and some that scare me and I don’t know how anyone could possibly do it, but it obviously works for them. 

I hope that someone who has never had a depression and doesn’t understand it could find compassion and clarity from reading this book. Through out her entire book, Ms. Johnson speaks about depression coming with a sense of isolation and its cure is connection. I believe she’s absolutely right and I applaud her articulation of depression as a disease that can be helped by our society as we work together. The stated scope of her book is to “raise the blinds” on depression and ease the stigma. Too often people are too embarrassed to talk about their depression and this only enhances their feelings of isolation. If we could reduce the shame people feel and speak more openly, then we could start to see the disease become less severe and our communities as a whole would be greatly benefited. 

She focuses on the stigma around depression in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in so doing, points out a few things within our culture that contribute to this stigma. We are a society of “do-ers,” she says, we love to serve and be constantly working. We take the Lord’s commandments seriously, including his invitation to be perfect. I wish she would have done more to dispel the misconceptions around these principles, but I understand it was not within the scope of this particular book. I still think we have a lot of work to do to be more inclusive, compassionate, and spiritually intentional in our communities and in doing the work of the Lord.

As a whole, I loved this book and wish that everyone would read it. It has given me a lot of food for thought, both with my own depression but also about how our society deals with it.

My final thought at the end of reading it is that our culture has become stronger than our doctrine. People that are prone to depression are not weaker than others. We do not need a lower standard or a different set of requirements. We need people to listen to us. Someone with diabetes cannot eat the same things that a healthy person could, but a healthy person could do quite well to eat a little more like a diabetic. I don’t have diabetes, but I still shouldn’t eat sugar all day long. Likewise, someone without depression could continue to live as our culture demands but that person would not be as connected to the Spirit or to the doctrine. If we were to listen to those who have had to fight depression and have done so with help from the Spirit and faith in the gospel, we would learn things we would be blind to otherwise. Depression makes us more sensitive to problems that others do not notice, and like canaries in the coal mines, we can be your warning voice that something has gone wrong. Building connections together will help the depressed person and will help the healthy person. We can all be made stronger together. 

Know the Doctrine, Purpose of Commandments: Part 4

Christ said that if any one “will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine” (John 7:17). This is my favorite reason, my purpose, for keeping commandments, because there is a connection between learning and doing. Somethings you can learn theoretically or intellectually through study, but to know the nuances, details, and further implications, you have to do it. See it in action. Black and white becomes blazing technicolor when you live it.

The health code that I’ve mentioned before in parts 2 and 3 of this series is about how to take care of your physical body. While the Lord does promise physical health, He did not title it a health code. He called it a “word of wisdom” and among His promises of health are also promises of “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge” (D&C 89:19).

In Doctrine and Covenants section 130, verses 20-21 read: 

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessings from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.  

But the verses 18-19, immediately preceding those oft quoted verses about obedience, say: 

Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.   

This has made me wonder, what if the blessing is the knowledge? What if each commandment is linked to a doctrine and by living that commandment you are gaining knowledge of that doctrine? 

 I do not think the Lord is merely testing our ability to form habits. Commandments are not arbitrary; they have a purpose. They are expressions of love for each other, for God, and they prepare us to live with Him again. We are ready for the kingdom of God when we can love as He loves, do as he does, and know what He knows.

Commandments are how we bring doctrines to life. We see them in full-scale technicolor reality and thereby learn things we could have never realized without living them.

I have done this, so far, in two ways. First, by learning a doctrine in the scriptures that I wanted to use in my life and then purposefully living the commandment that could best bring it into my life. Second, by living the commandment and openly asking God to teach me how to do it better and why I’m doing it. 

For the first example, when I prayed about my mother’s breast cancer, I wanted to know the will of God, if she would be healed or not. The full story is here and here, but essentially I learned in an Institute lesson that the Father-child relationship we share with God means that when we pray we can be united with Him and our wills aligned as one. My Institute teacher used Enos as an example and I went home and followed that example as best I could. I prayed with greater consistency than ever before and with more purpose and sensitivity. In the end, I learned the doctrine about my connection to God, His love for me, His awareness of me, and His willingness to teach and show me His will such that I would love it and accept it as my own. This doctrine is no longer a story in the scriptures for me—it is my own story and it is a part of my foundation.

Many years after this, my step-father was undergoing a surgery that had him feeling very scared. I was living too far away to go home to help him, but I wanted to help, and I wanted to be there for him however I could. I thought of fasting and the promises of fasting in the scriptures, but, to be honest, I hated fasting. I would often have blood sugar problems that left me feeling faint, and it felt like torture. I simply never understood how torturing myself would please God and earn me blessings. I wanted to fast for my step-father, and I asked Heavenly Father to teach me how to do it correctly and to help me understand why the heck I’m even doing it and how it works. 

As I went through that day, focused on my fast, on my step-father, and the Spirit helping me understand it, I learned about the connection between the physical and the spiritual. The weaknesses that they each have at times but how they can work together to strengthen the other. I learned to love fasting because I loved my spirit and my body in a new way because they were connected in a new way. The doctrine of our temple bodies is not an abstract idea any longer. For me, it is reality and it is another stone in my foundation. 

Commandments as a list of “to-do’s” leaves me overwhelmed. Commandments as a list of “should’s” and “should not’s” leads to a binding perfectionism in which I will inevitably fall short and then berate myself. Commandments as learning tools helps me stay in a growth mindset. I see myself as a growing thing—not a broken one, not a weak one, not a stupid one. If something is too hard, I’m not there yet, but given time and a little more experience, I will be. I can keep learning “line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12) and trust God when He says I do not have to run faster than I am able (D&C 10:4). 

We are all learning something. We learn at different rates, we learn things in a different order. We have various experiences and our lessons will be tailored to us personally. There are somethings that I will never know as well as someone else who has lived another life than me. Learning from one another is yet one more way to keep us united. Sharing with each other the hard things to help them become easy.

The full scripture my mother quoted to me in that hallway when I was 13 reads like this:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30, emphasis added

Life is hard. Learning is hard. But with the right teacher and a good study group, the possibilities are endless.

Blessed with His Presence, Purpose of Commandments: Part 3

Perhaps the most popular scripture on obedience in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes from the Doctrine and Covenants. In section 130, Joseph Smith wrote down some instructions and revelations he had received, including this description of the relationship between laws and blessings: there is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. 

I believe this is true. Our world runs with cause and effect, consequences are linked to actions. And yet, there are often causes we do not recognize as such, consequences we did not predict. As with all scriptures, we must use this one in its proper context and not get too wrapped up in assumptions and traditions. I fear that this scripture has caused a mindset that we can get the blessing we’re looking for by living the right commandment. I have a major problem with this. First, I find that it tends to generate an idea of God that is more akin to a vending machine than a Father and obedience as a way to earn tokens to said machine. Also, it seems to me that you are then only motivated to keep the commandments that have the right pay out. It’s like saying, “If you want to get more money, then pay tithing. If you’re rich and you don’t need financial blessings, don’t bother. That’s not the blessing you’re looking for so you don’t need to keep that one.”

The major fault with this logic is that it doesn’t correspond with the way God promises blessings. In D&C section 59 verse 16, the Lord promises that if you keep the Sabbath Day holy “the fulness of the earth is yours.” That is seriously broad. And for tithing, the Lord promises in Malachi chapter 3 that he “will open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” Just because testimony meetings tend to emphasize financial blessings from tithing doesn’t mean the Lord limits himself that way. You could get anything from heaven—those windows are pretty big. 

Even when it’s spelled out and the commandment and blessing seem to coincide rather well, it’s no guarantee. The Word of Wisdom (a health code I spoke about in my previous post) promises that the keeper of this code “will receive health…shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.” It looks pretty obvious that the Lord is telling you how to take care of your body and if you do it, you will have a strong and healthy body. My mother kept this code and died of breast cancer. I have always kept this code, and I hate running. I get very weary. 

What exactly are we getting here? If I can’t count on getting the blessings I want, why do the commandments matter?

The Lord promises multiple times that if you keep his commandments you will “prosper.” The trick is, that the Lord sometimes has different definitions for words than we do because He sees things from a different perspective. To us, a prosperous individual has a nice house, new cars, maybe a boat, definitely lots of money. But if you think that rich people are more blessed than poor people, you have some reading to do in the New Testament. 

My favorite definition from the Lord for the word “prosper” is in 2nd Nephi chapter 1 verse 20: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence. This sentence creates parallel opposites. You can see the definition of the first through the definition of its opposite. Being cut off from the presence of the Lord is the opposite of prospering, thus to prosper is to have his presence. 

Prospering ultimately means to be successful. The Lord doesn’t measure success through riches because those have no value in the eternities. His goal is to have us with Him, thus we are successful when He is here with us. With His presence, we know how to use our resources to maximum benefit, we grow and develop our talents, we love and receive love.

What do we get when we keep the commandments? The presence of God.

Christ told his disciples, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you.” Now, there have been times when I have read this and thought, wow, that’s a bit manipulative; he’ll only be my friend if I  do whatever he says? But as I reflected on the times when I felt the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness—I know that these are the qualities of a true friend. 

Think of your closest friends. Why are you friends? Do you have a lot in common? Do you enjoy doing the same things and have fun together? I think friendship with Christ works in a very similar way. He has his hobbies and interests—they include learning from his Father, serving others, and spreading joy. The commandments are in many ways descriptions of how he lives his life. Keeping them is how you spend time with your friend. 

He wants to share our interests too—he’s interested in our work, our family, how we’re feeling, if we’re hurt or scared. There are those things that he is not interested in—hurting other people, gossiping, backbiting—and if we’re doing those he just won’t stick around for them. Anytime we want to be with him and do his things, we can. Anytime we want to invite him to an activity we think he might like, we can. 

This is seeking the Spirit. Paying attention to determine whether or not something is bringing you peace and joy. It could be walking in nature, praying, meditating, volunteering in the soup kitchen, connecting with family and friends. When you find those things, you’ve found your commandments. The presence of God will bring innumerable blessings personalized for you because you are His friend. 

Hard or Easy, Purpose of Commandments, part 1

When I was 13, my mother married my stepfather. It was strange in many ways to be moving into his house, to have this other person with his own stuff, his own history, be a part of our family. We were uniting our households by combining our furniture and decorations, sorting through what to keep, what to throw out, what to buy anew. We were also learning from one another in a new way due to our now close quarters.

In the hallway of my stepfather’s house there was a cross-stitch of the Savior’s face next to a quote that read, “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” One day, as we were moving in, I stood there in the hallway pondering that and really feeling that message. I thought, it’s so true. The gospel can be so hard, but it’ll be worth it. Just keep pushing. My mother then came down the hallway saw what I was reading and said, “I’ve always hated that saying. You know Christ never said that. What Christ said was, ‘take my yoke upon you, for behold, my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”

I still feel those two quotes battling it out in my mind from time to time. Something in the gospel will get really hard and I’ll keep pushing and trying, knowing a blessing will come and then I’ll stop and think, wait a minute, this is supposed to be easy. How do I make this easy?

Just like uniting households forced us to reevaluate our furnishings and our daily habits, keeping in mind these two quotes helped me reevaluate the hard things in the gospel. I ask myself why it is that I find it so hard. Am I afraid? Confused? Doing it wrong? Missing something?

While I think this can apply to all aspects of the gospel, I started this process with commandments. As a teenager, I thought it was very hard to keep track of a whole bunch of do’s and don’ts. When I became depressed as a teenager, the commandments that were supposed to help me become better were instead weapons wielded against me. These lists I gave myself, the should’s and should not’s, turned into angry voices telling me how weak I was, how I would never be good enough. Even as an adult, I am susceptible to the perfectionism that comes with trying to live the gospel and it inevitably leads to periods of depression. I feel myself torn between pushing through to keep up with what I’m supposed to do and just abandoning everything altogether. When this happens, I know it’s time to reevaluate. I need to ask myself why I’m doing this hard thing, is there a better way, what would make this easy.

As I look back and think about what has become easy, what I’m still working on, and what I’ve thrown out I find that it centers around connection. The perfectionist and depressed side of me will use perceived failures as a way to sever any connection with the people around me, the Spirit, and my sense of self. Perfectionism makes me afraid to try something with new people because I might fail and embarrass myself. Perfectionism tells me the Spirit won’t come because I have failed. Perfectionism says that I am not right, I am broken. But when I find the Spirit anyway, I know that I’m loved, I’m doing fine, people are kind and forgiving, I’m never alone.

There is truth in the saying, “it takes effort for something to become effortless.” Building connections is not necessarily easy from the get-go. The easiest thing would be to quit entirely. But quitting has only made my depressions worse and then everything gets harder. The work of building and connecting always gets easier with the smallest amount of effort. Using commandments as a way to build connections makes everything easier.

We teach a lot about the purpose of God’s commandments and the benefits of keeping them. I think we need to be careful that we not allow perfectionism to stick in its ugly head. Keeping commandments connected to their true purpose will help us build the other connections we need. Why do you follow commandments? What purpose and goal do you have that helps you do hard things?

Judas and Peter

This last week in church, we studied Acts chapters 1-5 and a large amount of our discussion was focused on Peter who becomes a valiant prophet for Christ in these chapters. As I read about Peter, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about Judas and how both men were in similar situations but reacted very differently.

Back when I was a Freshmen in college, my Institute director told us of one of his impressions about Judas. My teacher thought that Judas didn’t betray Jesus because he no longer believed, but rather because he was so desperate for Jesus to throw out the Romans and establish a literal kingdom for Israel that he tried to force a confrontation.  Until this point, when Jews tried to capture or trap Jesus, he always found a way out. They could not trap him; they could not touch him. Perhaps, Judas thought that if he forced a confrontation between Jesus and the Romans, such that his mortal life was in great peril, Jesus would finally do what Judas had been waiting for—declare himself beyond contestation and lead the oppressed Jews against the Romans. As we know, this plan did not work. Judas’ betrayal did bring about the end of Christ’s earthly mission as he finished the work the Father sent him to do, but it was not the work that Judas wanted.

Judas was not the only one that was confused about what Christ meant when he spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. In Acts 1:6 the apostles, after being with the resurrected Christ for 40 days, asked, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” They still wanted to be delivered from the Romans, to have their own nation, to be a people again.

I think this stuck with me so much this week because I have fought the will of the Lord multiple times. I have even tried to force the Lord to do my will and simply ignored His. He’s all powerful anyway, He doesn’t actually need me, right? I can do what I want to do and still get some blessings. But it’s never worked out the way I wanted it to.

I kept thinking of poor Judas. I think he did love Jesus and believed that Jesus was the Savior they had been waiting for, but he also believed he was right about what the Savior was supposed to do. His conviction was such that he was not content to watch and wait for the Savior to do his own work. Did he think fear held Jesus back? Did he think he was helping? Was he impatient? Was he fed up with being on the run and ridiculed by so many others?

Peter had this same confusion—I think it was common among the Jews at that time to believe their Savior was going to establish a kingdom of Israel and be a king, as his ancestral father David. Yet, Peter watched, waited, and listened. After Christ’s final ascension into heaven, Peter, with the apostles and other disciples, including the women, prayed, and Peter saw that even Judas’ betrayal was a part of the prophecy of Christ’s mission. The darkest and probably the hardest thing Peter had ever had to watch and suffer—the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of his beloved Master—was part of the plan. When he remembered the words that the “Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas,” Peter saw his way forward and began to become the powerhouse prophet we now know him as.

Judas never saw that. I think his devastation at seeing Christ’s crucifixion was crushing to him because he was so focused on his own plan that he wasn’t able to see God’s. I think Judas also loved Christ and seeing Jesus’ death and blaming himself for it caused his collapse. Perhaps he thought he was responsible for destroying the plans of God and that it would never be the same again.

I think this way about Judas because I’ve been in this position. I have refused to do something the Lord wanted because it wasn’t what I wanted. When my plan didn’t really work out, I realized the Lord’s plan would have been much better, but I had ruined it and there was no going back. Now, I certainly don’t want to end my life as Judas did. I’d like to live as Peter did.

The first thing I learn by comparing Judas and Peter is that you are never going to ruin God’s plan. When you fail, sit back and you will find that you’re still a part of it. God is too powerful and smart for us to mess him up.

The trick, I think, is in learning how to see God’s plan. We are all familiar with the scripture from Isaiah 55, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” When I was stuck in anger, at myself and God, this scripture seemed to mock me. In my sorrow, I thought this meant I would never know the thoughts of God, I was too stupid so I might as well stop trying. I thought it meant the Lord didn’t care about my thoughts or desires; they were too insignificant for him to bother with. But, I have seen that this is not true. I think this scripture is more of an invitation for us to express our thoughts and desires to the Lord and then, learn from him. We can’t put our motivations onto God, we have to learn how to share in his. We may be lower now, but it is not God’s intention to leave us that way. He wants us to lift our sights higher.

Peter was able to do this. He stayed with the Lord. Even after he was, I’m sure, devastated after he denied Jesus three times, Peter went back. Even when he was confused, he prayed. I don’t think he saw the full end from the beginning, but he did see the next step and he got started.

Peter and Judas illustrate a battle that has been going on since before the world was. Will we fight or even force the will of the Lord because we want our own plan, or will we look for ourselves in God’s plan and find incredible power?

Unity Against All Odds

Unity can be found where we least expect it and scars removed from wounds that we ignored.

One of the wonderful women I knew in Michigan once spoke about her father and learning what it meant to “honor thy parents” even when you don’t think that parent deserves much honor. We naturally assume that honoring our parents involves obeying them, so what do you do if your father is an alcoholic and you have no respect for him? That was her situation, and so she thought the commandment didn’t fully apply in her case—until she reconciled with her father. If I remember right, he was still an alcoholic at the time of their reconciliation, and she was a woman with children of her own, but with the age of wisdom she was able to see him differently, as a child of God with pain and hurt, who had hurt others, and was still in need of love and honor. She didn’t go into a lot of detail about what exactly she had learned from the Spirit, but she did say repeatedly that she learned how to honor her father.

Her situation was so similar to mine, I began to yearn for what she had learned. I, too, wanted to honor my father. I had always thought of myself as having no father. To me, that commandment was easily applied to my mother, my Heavenly Father, and later my step-father but never to my biological father because he barely existed. 

I have seen pictures of him holding me when I was a baby, but because I don’t remember those times, I say that I met my father once when I was seven years old, spent one day with him, and never saw him again. He took me to an amusement park. I remember being very excited to meet him because I had a picture of him in my room—that was all he was to me, a picture—and he was going to come to life. We rode a lot of rides, he let me pick and choose, he showed me a picture of my half-sister. I wanted a sister more than anything. I asked him if I could keep the picture and meet her one day. He said he would find a way for us to visit him at the same time and get me my own picture, but I couldn’t keep that one because it was his only one. He got mad at me at dinner because he asked me if I liked a present that he had sent to me. I hadn’t realized the present was from him and he was angry at my mom for taking credit for it. I knew my mother would never do something like that, it was more likely that she told me but that I didn’t notice or realize—he was a picture, pictures don’t send presents. I still firmly believe that she told me he sent the present but to my seven-year-old self it was like she was saying it was from Santa Clause. But he was mad, and, being a child, I blamed myself. A magical day that left me feeling a bit empty. I think on some level, even at seven years old, I realized that he could only offer me temporary shiny things. When it was something important, it was withheld, as if he couldn’t quite find it in himself to give it to me. And even at that young of an age, I was very protective of my mother, so he scared me. On another level, I wanted him to keep his promise, I wanted him to keep arranging visits, let me meet my sister, give me more presents and this time I would know they were from him, because now he was real. But as time went on, and nothing else ever came, that part died. 

When I asked my mother, why they divorced she said, “I thought he was an alcoholic, but he disagreed.” That was essentially how she handled the whole situation. If I asked a question, she would answer it honestly with no judgement. She didn’t say he was an alcoholic, only that she thought he was. She didn’t say he was dangerous, only that he disagreed with her. I now don’t think he was ever abusive towards her, but when I was younger, I remained unsure. She wanted me to make up my own mind, but because I didn’t know him that was very hard to do. She also didn’t offer much information, other than “he loved lima beans,” and “his favorite game was backgammon.” She told me later that she didn’t know what to share or when, so she was waiting for me to ask the questions, but I didn’t always know what questions to ask or I started to get old enough to realize the answers were awkward.

At about 14 years old, I wanted to meet him again, but my mom couldn’t find him. She found a phone number for his parents, but they didn’t know where he was either. I asked her about my half-sister. “Did you know that I have a half-sister? Did you ever meet her?”

“Yes, I knew you had a half-sister, but I never met her,” she answered. Her face was turned down towards the kitchen sink and she didn’t look up at me as she washed the dishes. “How did you know you about her?”

“My dad showed me a picture of her that one time he took me to the amusement park. I can’t remember her name, do you know? I also can’t remember if she’s older or younger than me.”

“I don’t remember her name, I’m sorry, but I think she’s right about your same age.” She turned away from the sink and started wiping the kitchen counter. I knew enough not to touch that last comment, though it was confusing.

“I just thought maybe she or her mom would know where he was, but I guess since we don’t know her name…”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know her name.”

There are some questions that are just too hard to ask.

When I was 19, after my mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer and right before she medically retired from the Navy, she tried one more time to use some Naval resources to find my father. She found an address in Bountiful, Utah.

“You should try it,” she said. “It’s a year old, so he might not be there anymore, but it’s still worth a try.” 

She always believed it was important for a child to think well of his/her parents and to know them as much as they could. She would never say anything bad about him, even if that meant not talking about him much, and she wanted me to know him. But by that time, I didn’t want the risk. I was less desperate for the escape he offered. I was already so broken from her diagnosis; I didn’t want to feel anymore hurt. If he was at this address, we would probably have a nice conversation, go out to dinner, and then what? Another shiny thing that left me empty. The potential reward seemed too small when compared to the near certain pain that would follow. I never tried that address.

Another decade later, and I’m in Michigan listening to a story with similarities to mine but with a happy ending. It didn’t matter that this other father didn’t turn into a model parent. I wanted the peace this other daughter found. I pushed it down, thinking it would never happen because I had no idea how to find my father and attempt a reconciliation. Oh well, not that big of a deal anyway, I reasoned. I’ve moved on.

About three years after this, my half-sister found me on Facebook. 

Her private message had my mother’s name and my birthday and asked if I was the right Christen. I was surprised she knew that much about me and I had no idea who she was. When she told me she was my half-sister, I was excited and curious how she knew those details. She had spent more time with our father than I had, though he still was gone for long stretches of time. She was able to find him, however, when he was living in Alaska and went to visit him there. When she realized how sick he was from congestive heart failure, she brought him home to live with her for the last two years of his life. She loved having that time with him. 

I was glad he had her, a bit jealous that she had more time with him and the reconciliation I wanted but was too afraid to have. She connected me with other family members of which there are many, and the more I spoke with her and met some of my aunts and uncles, the more my jealousy grew and the angrier and more hurt I became. The old wounds were reopened, and I found it difficult to actually become a member of this family. My half-sister is two days younger than me, and suddenly my mother’s hesitation made more sense, but I was also mad at her for not being more open and honest with me. She left me in ignorance, and I had to find this out and deal with the repercussions on my own without her wisdom and guidance. I started to hate my father again, all I could see were his mistakes, the things he had denied me, and the consequences my mother and I had to live with. 

I didn’t want to deal with that hurt again. It was easier to close the wound, cover it up, ignore it, and go back to ignorance. I was fine as I was. I had my mother’s family, my step-family, and my in-laws. I didn’t need or want anything else. What was the point of a reconciliation now?

But when my half-sister told me that he had died my first thought was, You could do his work for him. He and his entire family are Catholic and while I do not know the level or commitment of their faith, there is a doctrine in my Church that baptisms and other covenants must be performed by proper Priesthood Authority which is only found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some find this belief offensive, and I’m sorry for that. I too have had to struggle with this requirement when I see so many individuals of other faiths that I consider to be wonderful and faithful and gloriously spiritual. Through my questions and struggles with God, I have come to see incredible beauty in His Priesthood and the Covenants that we can make with Him and they are special to me. I do not think this diminishes the beauty of other people in the eyes of God. He offers wonderful things to all His children. 

The covenants we make with God in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be made by proxy for those that have passed on and they are able to accept or reject the covenant in the Spirit World. Again, some find this offensive and problematic. I understand that point of view, but I hope that you can view this work as an expression of love as it is intended. Similar to how others light candles for the beloved dead or give them offerings. These proxy covenants are offerings of extreme love and they are our way of reaching beyond death to serve others without the barriers of time or mortality. 

If you can see this as a gift of love, perhaps you can then understand my hesitation in actually performing the work. I have no doubt it was the Spirit prompting me to take my father’s name to the temple and give to him the ultimate gift symbolizing my hope and desire for our future reunion. In my pain, anger, and confusion, I simply did not want to do it.

I covered the wound back up and went on with my life until April of 2018 when Elder Renlund gave a talk in General Conference about family history work. He said, “When God directs us to do one thing, He often has many purposes in mind … God, in His infinite capacity, seals and heals individuals and families despite tragedy, loss, and hardship.” As I listened to his talk, I felt keenly the promise that my wound would be completely healed, not just scabbed over, if I would undertake this work. Still, I procrastinated. Six or seven months later, we studied this talk in a Relief Society meeting at church. I felt that the promise of healing was mine for the taking, I just needed to go and claim it. If I wanted to know what my friend in Michigan learned through her reconciliation with her father, I could. If I was jealous of my half-sister, there was no need because I could still have the peace that she did. It was not too late. 

I still didn’t fully want to. I didn’t want to reopen that can of worms when it could just remain shut. I didn’t fully understand what the benefit was, but, trusting that the Lord gives good gifts and keeps his promises, I reached out to my new family members and gathered the information I needed. It took some time, but as I worked on it and thought about what I was doing, my hesitation turned to excitement. 

The wound is open, and it is clean. I am ready to be made whole.

There is no barrier the Lord cannot cross. Death is no obstacle, nor any fracture too wide or deep. The only thing the Lord will not take from us is our agency. We must claim the promise. Trusting Him with our wounds can be hard, especially when they’re still hurting, and we don’t know how long until the relief will come. But hope is powerful too, and we can trust Him that our hope will never be in vain because He will heal us. 

Elder Renlund also quoted Ezekiel 47:8-9 in his address:

The waters (meaning the river coming from the House of God) issue out … and go down into the desert, and go into the [dead] sea … , [and] the waters (meaning the Dead Sea) shall be healed. And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: … for they shall be healed; and everything shall live whither the river cometh.”

The river has come to my heart and my heart lives and is healed. I want the river to reach to my father’s heart and beyond. It is the greatest gift that I can offer him. My forgiveness, my hope that he can be healed as I have been, is how I honor my father. 

It is also how I honor my Heavenly Father. Separations in this life can always be mended. Unity is built across all barriers, and it is never too late to find it.

When Separations Bring Unity and Forgiveness Means Hope

It is important to know that the Lord does not always send us back to the person that has hurt us or that we have hurt. He does not always trust us with each other.

The spiritual experience I had in the temple helping me to love and trust my husband through painful difficulties (here) is one I treasure and count among my most powerful spiritual experiences. I have heard experiences from others that are just as powerful and spiritual yet have told them the opposite, that it was time for their marriage to end. The decision of when and how to seek, carve, and build unity is individual and dependent on those involved. However, even if one aspect or form of unity is at an end, the call to unity remains and separation is never complete nor permanent. 

The Book of Mormon begins with the story of one family. In this family there are three brothers that are spoken of most often. Laman and Lemuel are the eldest, but do not understand their father or the things of God. This causes many rebellions and jealousy of their younger brother, Nephi, who is spiritual.

In the second book of Nephi chapter 5, Nephi says he “[cried] much unto the Lord…because of the anger of [his] brethren” and then the Lord warned him that he “needed to depart from them and flee into the wilderness” (2Ne 5:1,5). When the anger and fighting became intense enough that his brothers sought to take his life, Nephi needed to leave. The Lord told him to separate. This is when the Book of Mormon stops telling the story of only one family and begins to contain the history of two warring nations. 

Even with all the war chapters in the Book of Mormon, it is not about how to hate and beat your enemies. It is about what divides us and what unites us. In the beginning, the Nephites are righteous and the Lamanites wicked, but then there’s all sorts of missionary work and switching roles and turning tables. Nephites that feel the Spirit want their bretheren, the Lamanites, to feel it too, and they serve missions. Then you have incredibly righteous Lamanites that prophecy to increasingly wicked Nephites. When the Savior comes, there are no more -ites, and they are one. God is at the heart of unity.

Just like Nephi, there are times when we must separate. If our lives, be it physical or spiritual, are threatened, we must protect ourselves. When love and trust are not present, it can be more dangerous to stay together than it is to separate. You may end up carving out something that is supposed to be there—your self-esteem, confidence in the Lord, or love for all mankind. To what extent and degree you need to separate is dependent upon your circumstance. 

But unity still lies ahead. 

In the Doctrine and Covenants section 64 verse 9, the Lord says, “he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.” When I read this in my late teens, I thought instantly of someone I struggled to forgive but didn’t see how my sin could be any worse than his. Then I began to realize that I still wanted to prove to other people that I was right, he was wrong, I was better, and he was horrible. I wanted the Atonement for myself, to heal me of my pain and make me stronger, but was denying that same opportunity to my enemy. Could I really act as judge and decide who could or could not access the healing power of the Atonement? To do such would be to usurp the role of Christ whose power the Atonement actually is. That would be a serious blasphemy indeed. 

And yet, I worried. If I forgave, would I be vulnerable to more attacks? At the time, I thought that to forgive meant to ignore the past, pretend it didn’t happen, and I could not do that for fear of repeating it. As I prayed, the Spirit told me that forgiveness is hope. It is to hope that the person that hurt you will utilize the Atonement and follow Christ to have their own pains healed. This hope is safe because the healing power of the Atonement also comes with a change of heart so pronounced as to make one no longer desire to do evil. I did not need to be selfish in any way with the love and healing I had found. Doing so would not keep me any safer than sharing it would. 

 We are called upon to share and serve, to seek for unity through Christ, in different ways. We might be like Nephi, who was not called upon to serve a mission to his brethren after the separation but hoped for some distant future. Or we might be more like the Sons of Mosiah, who did feel a particular call and went personally to the Lamanites and served and loved many people. Other times, we may be preached to by a Samuel the Lamanite. However it comes, the call to forgive, to hope, and seek unity is present. 

We must be aware that one side is never completely in the right or wrong. We need to ask ourselves constantly, is it my turn to serve, or is it my turn to listen? Do I have this one right or am I wrong? A degree of separation can help us answer these questions honestly and with the help of the Spirit. 

I worried that a distinct separation between my husband and I would be necessary because his bitter anger towards the Church was intense during our time in Michigan. However, with an eye of hope towards the future, I saw that all I wanted was for my husband to feel the Spirit as I have and that meant knowing he was loved and trusted completely. He was not alone or abandoned, he was understood.

My husband and I attend different churches, we worship separately. But we still discuss our faith and what we gained from our worship. This bit of separation has helped both of us continue on our journeys, though they be different, together. 

There are times when each of us wishes the other would just close the gap. I wonder what it would take for him to come back to my church and he wonders why I still stay. I worry that he will see my staying as a sort of betrayal. I want him to understand why I stay, but, more importantly, I want him to know that I understand him. I want him to trust me with his fears and know that I will not dismiss them but will still stand with him.

We earn each other’s trust by allowing whatever separation we need while still preparing for unity now knowing it will come.

The call to unity is always worth answering because it is a call of hope and a journey fueled by love. 

Trust Comes Second

I love Hagar. She’s my favorite woman in the Old Testament. It’s not because she did anything particularly amazing, but of all the names that are given to God, hers is my favorite.

She was Sarai’s Egyptian handmaid and bore Ishmael, Abram’s first son. When she fled from Sarai, an Angel of the Lord came to her. She thereafter called God, “Thou God seest me” (Genesis 16:13). I love this name, because what we most fear and what we most want, is to be seen. We want to be seen correctly, for who we really are and that, to be frank, rarely happens.

Hagar was not seen correctly by Sarai or Abram, who seemed to think of her more as a possession, than a human being. She was seen by everyone as a slave, a bondwoman. When she managed to do something that her own mistress could not, she felt this proved she was more than a slave. Can you blame her?

Sarai must have been worried about her inability to conceive. Perhaps, because it was the custom at the time, she feared it meant she had not found favor with God and that He despised her. If this was how Sarai measured God’s love, is it any wonder then, that a woman who had so little love would rejoice to see any evidence of favor?

I completely understand why this would have gone over into bragging. I know what it is to have people treat you as if you are something that you are not. To lie about you and refuse to acknowledge who you really are. I felt like I could do nothing right. They all hated me without knowing me and any attempt to reach out made things worse. The only thing I could do was get good grades at school, so I did that. I put everything I had into school. They started to call me arrogant and any mistake I made was emphasized and laughed over ten times worse as they all jeered and called me stupid.

All you want is for someone to actually see the truth—to see the real you.

It can be difficult to fight off their lies and judgements of you. You can only do it if you can see who you truly are. If you can see yourself the way God sees you.

Hagar feels like my spiritual sister because I see my own pain in her story, and she helped me to my own salvation—to find the God that sees me.

The Lord sent her back to submit to Sarai. This, I have struggled with. Decades after my own pain has passed, I continue to think about my sister Hagar. I think she was sent back because the Lord knew Abram would become Abraham and Sarai would become Sarah. Though they were blinded at this time and followed their culture without considering the view of God, God knew He could trust them.

Whenever I see the word “worthy” in scriptures, I put the word “trust” in front of it. This is to prevent me from equating worthiness with love or importance. God loves all His children, but let’s be honest, a lot of the time, He can’t trust us. Trust comes with time and experience as bonds grow tighter. God needs to rely on us, that we will do what we say when we accept His guidance and revelation.

We also need to rely on each other. To trust that our close friends will not judge us harshly, will take the time to get to know us, will not jump to conclusions, will ask us questions if they don’t understand instead of avoiding us altogether for comfort’s sake.

When the Lord told me my husband was worthy, I think He meant that my husband was worthy of love, but, more than that, He meant that my husband was worthy of my trust and worthy of the time and effort it would take for me to earn his trust as well.

God could see us both. He knew that this change in marriage and family plans had me scared and I was reliving those terrible years of depression, afraid that it would happen all over again. He knew that my husband was facing his own fears. Seeing this, as well as who we could become, God trusted us with each other.

All the difficult questions, the hard conversations were how we built our trust in one another again. Love comes first, trust comes second, and then they feed off of each other and grow together. When both are present, unity can be found.

Love Comes First

In his book, “In Faith and In Doubt,” Dale McGowan emphasizes shared values over shared beliefs, and I understand his point. I share values with many people who have different beliefs, and I share beliefs with people who have different values. I also think people have more values in common than they realize. But, to me, values and beliefs are linked. My beliefs impact my daily life because I live them in my values. When I married, I wanted it to be with someone who shared beliefs and values so we could help each other live those values more fully and grow in our beliefs.

I always thought my spouse was supposed to be the person with whom I had the most in common. The one I could trust above everyone else because he understood me better than anyone else. This understanding, I thought, would come from commonality. 

After his faith crisis, my husband seemed so different and far away. I asked myself, what is the most basic and necessary thing we have to have in common and how much commonality is sufficient for us to continue in a marriage?

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have a unique doctrine concerning the Godhead which differs from the Trinity. The characteristics of God are the same. However, we believe in three separate beings, each with their own unique differences and roles, and yet completely united as to be One God. 

Their differences are necessary for the full and complete Plan of Salvation to be realized. Father, already Exalted and Supreme, had the knowledge and power to conceive and begin the plan. Christ, not yet exalted and universally loved, could show us how to complete the plan and become exalted as He now is. The Holy Ghost, electing to stay as Spirit, is divinely able to be a testifier and comforter by speaking Spirit to spirit with us and live with us as we receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost. 

They each play their own part in their united plan to achieve their shared goal—the salvation and exaltation of God’s children.

I love the lessons of unity to be seen within the Godhead. Christ repeatedly asks that we be one with Him as He is one with the Father. He says if we are not one, we are not His. We cannot be one being when we are separate individuals. How are we to do this?  

We must be united in purpose and fulfill our roles in the Plan of Salvation. We are to embrace differences and use them to complete a whole that we could not do on our own. We are not all capable of performing the same roles. We all make up the body of the Church with our different talents, our different experiences and perspectives. The Godhead works together to complete the work of God. They have joined together on one common goal and have agreed upon the plan that will complete that goal.

What does this mean for finding unity with each other? Specifically, even though my husband and I had many values in common, were we still too different in our goals and our plans? Did we have a unifying purpose?

Growing up, I always felt too different and too alone. Being alone is one of my greatest fears. A bit ironic for someone who is as introverted as I am. I highly value time to myself but hate to be lonely. To lose my husband, my closest companion, made me feel severely lonely. 

I went to the temple by myself, and I felt even lonelier. There is a portion of the temple service that requires you to stand as couples, a man and woman together. Because I didn’t have my husband, I didn’t feel like participating, even though I wanted to. But here’s the thing, if you want to participate, you just stand up. Someone will come and stand with you. You don’t have to be married or even know each other. You just stand together. 

As the prayer was said, I felt the power of the faith of those present. We were all connected by it. Like a gold ribbon that pulsed and shone brighter as each person added their voice in a united prayer of faith, it ran through every person in the room, and then across temples and the world. I felt so connected to my Brothers and Sisters that all loneliness fled and was replaced by incredible love. I thought of the Brother that stood with me and wondered if that would happen in the next life too. If I had to go on alone, would one of my Brothers stand with me and help me when I needed it? Was I to leave my husband and know that doing so would not leave me alone because I would always have my Brothers and Sisters with me?

Suddenly, all the love I felt from all my Spiritual Family shifted and became focused on my husband. The Lord said, “I know it’s hard for you to love your husband right now, so, here, borrow some of my love for him and know that he is worthy.”

The only thing that could possibly be more amazing than feeling how much the Lord loves you is feeling how much the Lord loves someone else. 

I think of all the people who say they have similar goals—to improve our country, to help the poor—and yet, still can’t seem to work together. Sure, they can’t agree on the same plan to achieve those goals, but ultimately that’s because they do not love or respect those who could be their partners. 

When love and respect are present, common goals and an agreed upon plan can be found. These are the foundation for unity. It is hard work to carve away at your assumptions, fears, and pride. It takes a level of honesty that most of us run from. Love provides the fuel for that work. It is the most necessary component. 

My husband and I have many shared goals, though we might not phrase them or define them in the same way. We want our children to feel loved and happy, while learning responsibility, hard work, and generosity. Because we love and respect the other’s needs, we are able to find a plan of action that we both agree on and do our part in that plan. Love must come first. 

Carving Out Assumptions and Getting to Truth

I think of unity with yourself and unity with God as pre-requisites for finding unity with others, but they will never be complete without the third.  You will need other people to see yourself clearly and to help you get closer to God.

 Seeking unity with other people will challenge you. You might feel insulted and dismissed at times, and if you haven’t made a start at seeing your whole self—acknowledging your faults while also looking forward to your incredible potential—you can very easily lose yourself. Our longing for love and belonging can cause us to accept another’s view instead of our own simply for the sake of having a view.

If you do not have a relationship with God—a comfort with and ability to get your own revelations and answers from Him—you will accept another’s without any clarification or confirmation. Doing this will result in a relationship that replaces God, and other people will block your view of Him.

With all the difficulties that come from seeking unity with others and having challenging conversations, there are tremendous benefits. Those closest to us sometimes see us more clearly than we see ourselves, questions we never thought to ask will bring us the answers we always wanted, and to love others is godly.

When my husband first told me of his faith crisis, I was mad at him, then mad at myself, then mad at God, then mad at him again, and the cycle continued. I thought he didn’t actually want answers because he wasn’t listening to mine. His doubts weren’t any different from questions I’d had before and if I found answers, why couldn’t he? Then I thought I wasn’t explaining it right; I wasn’t smart enough or good enough at answering his questions. I doubted my own answers. Then nothing made sense, and if God had given me experiences where I could definitively say, “That was the Spirit,” why wasn’t my husband given those same types of experiences? He has always been in many ways a better “Mormon” than I have ever been, so he deserved to have spiritual experiences just as much if not more than I did. Maybe he was right, and it was all in my head. A psychological interpretation according to the worldview that was taught to me from my youth of things that were otherwise inexplicable or too hard for my brain to process.

I had to take a step back. I needed to think through everything again, for myself, in as honest a way as possible. This meant acknowledging where I was unsure but also where I was indeed certain. It meant taking things back to God and asking for clarifications and confirmations. It meant combing through the past and thinking of what it all meant for the present, and what I wanted for the future.

In some ways, I had to do this for myself, but I was not alone, because my husband and I did this together.

We largely credit the book In Faith and In Doubt by Dale McGowan for helping us through this process. In this book, McGowan outlines the wide spectrum of believers and non-believers and encourages conversations between couples to learn what your partner actually believes instead of relying on stereotypes or official doctrine. He cites studies and surveys but also provides some questions for you to learn more about your partner and yourself.

There is a quiz in the book to help you see how dogmatic you are—religious and non-religious people are capable of dogmatism, which is essentially the belief that you are right and leaving no room for the possibility of contrary evidence. I’m actually more dogmatic than I thought I was, but only on specific statements and I give a lot of room for others to see things differently. I will still think I’m right, but I acknowledge the validity of their view and give them space to find their own way. I would never force my belief on someone else and I would never belittle anyone, as much as I may try to educate and continue in my own way.

My husband specifically remembers the values quiz, which helped us see that while our beliefs are different our values are aligned. He also remembers a story of a Mormon couple in a similar situation that did not turn out well. Their descriptions made him think, “Christen is nothing like this,” and gave him hope that our ending could be different.

I didn’t particularly agree with or like the author’s descriptions of religion, to me they are too cultural in nature, but they did help my husband. Ultimately, it helped both of us move on from fighting over who had the better definition of “Mormonism” and instead try to discover what the other person actually believed. He discovered that he was making several assumptions about what I believed based on his understanding of my religion but stopped trying to define my religion for me. I learned to listen for what he was actually looking for and stopped trying to get him to see things my way. Together, we realized we have a lot of fundamentals in common.

At one point, I prayed and begged Heavenly Father to send a spiritual experience to my husband that he would not be able to deny was the Spirit and could then find a reason to have faith again. I reasoned that because my husband had always done everything that was asked of him and been obedient, he deserved and needed such an experience. In response, the Lord helped me see that we often get things tangled in our minds and in praying about one thing we are in fact praying about several. In other words, we want to know if A is true, but we erroneously assume that A and B are inseparably connected, so even though we are only talking about A, we are inadvertently asking about B as well.

Sometimes this doesn’t cause a problem. Even if B is wrong, the Lord can still confirm the truth of A in order to help us move forward and then correct us later. There are other times, however, when B is so wrong that to even indirectly confirm it would cause us to go down the wrong path. Therefore, God cannot testify of the truth of A because it is too tangled with a falsehood that must be corrected first.

To find truth and move forward, we must untangle our assumptions. Go through and think about one thing at a time and build the connections thoughtfully instead of inadvertently.

I realized that I could not understand the full extent of what my husband was praying and thinking about because I also had my own tangled up assumptions to work through. Working through it together, being sure to listen as the other described their faith goals and beliefs, helped us both realize what assumptions we were making. It’s nearly impossible to see what you’re overlooking by yourself. You need someone else with a fresh perspective to help you.

There are times when it is exhausting to have every little thing turn into a discussion. For example, how and why do we have family prayer? For many in my religion this is a given, too obvious to even warrant thinking about. But I had to think through why I wanted to have family prayers and what benefits I was hoping to gain. We listened to each other as we spoke of our concerns about having or not having family prayer. Together, we had to design a family prayer program where we both felt represented, concerns were met, and maximum benefits achieved. Did we put more thought into our family prayers than I otherwise would have? Yes. Do I get more benefits from family prayer than I ever have before? Absolutely. Our family prayers are fabulous, and I love them.

In the end, my husband’s faith crisis challenged my faith but did not diminish it. All the difficult conversations strengthened my faith. Instead of making assumptions, I learned to look from multiple angles and thus have a clearer and more developed view of the whole.