How Do We Use Doctrines the Way the Spirit Does?

In the October 2017 General Conference, Dallin H. Oaks said, “I believe our attitude toward and use of the family proclamation is [a] test for this generation.” This came after a discussion of how the Lord calls His people to “be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). President Oaks included in his discussion the laws that allowed gay marriage in opposition to the statement in the family proclamation that marriage is between a man and a woman.

For many, the talk was a battle line being drawn between the Church’s teachings on eternal marriage and the increasing advocacy for gay marriage and other gay rights found in governments and societies through out the world. This battle has been going on for quite a while, even before Elder Oaks’ talk in 2017, and it has been hurting my heart for decades.

I took these words to the Lord and asked Him what I was supposed to do with this. I love God, I love this Church, I believe in revelation through Prophets and Apostles. And I fiercely love my gay and transgender family members and friends. I do not like battle lines. I do not think it is appropriate or the will of God for me to deny love to any of His children. So, what do I do when others around me insist on waging war?

I got stuck on Elder Oaks’ phrasing, “our use of,” and thought, how does the Spirit use the family proclamation?

I went to a small liberal arts women’s college in southern California. The LGBTQ+ Allies group was the largest student group on campus. Everyone was a member. Joining the group didn’t necessarily mean participating in rallies or events; it was a statement that you would not participate in or allow discrimination against or harassment of LGBTQ+ students. This was the atmosphere of the entire school–all were welcome and all were safe.

Los Angeles was near enough to our school that students would often take trips there on the weekend and big news from LA impacted our campus life. One night, a gay man was attacked after leaving a bar in LA and beaten to death. This news rocked our campus. LGBTQ+ students no longer felt safe leaving campus and the student group rallied around them to make campus a safe and comforting place to ease their fears and sadness.

A day or two later, we heard that the murderers were three young evangelical men who claimed they committed their crime in the name of Christianity. Those three men waited and watched the gay bar all night. If men left in groups or pairs, they did not attack. They didn’t want a fight, they wanted to kill, so they waited for a man to leave alone and then committed their crime.

All of the fear and sadness on campus erupted into rage. I was furious that such a heinous act was associated with my God. To me, this is a blasphemy of epic proportions worthy of all the fires of hell. But my anger turned to fear as I realized that many of my fellow students directed their rage at Christianity and any religion that taught anti-gay sentiment. I defended myself by saying, “Not my God! I do not believe those men were true Christians. They perverted the teachings to do what they wanted.” But still I feared, and I worried, and I questioned.

One Sunday, my friend Nichola shared her experience. Before church, she was eating breakfast in the cafeteria with her friends when this news story came up. They became angry, insulting religions and religious people. Nichola became uncomfortable and wanted to leave. One of her friends turned to her and asked, “What about your church? What do they teach about homosexuality?”

Nichola said she froze. Her brain completely shut down because she didn’t know what to say. And then words started flowing from her mouth. As she recounted this story in Relief Society, she said she didn’t even remember what she said exactly because her brain was in shock, but she knew that it was from the family proclamation. She knew that the Spirit, through her, was basically explaining that we were all a part of God’s family, we all existed before this life and lived with God, our families here are eternal and will be with us when we return to God again. The Spirit taught our eternal identities and the divinity of families.

When Nichola finished, her friends were all staring at her in a stunned silence. One friend said, “That’s actually one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.”

As I remembered this moment and asked, how does the Spirit use the family proclamation? I knew the answer.

When the Spirit teaches the family proclamation, it is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. The Spirit uses gospel truths to comfort, lift, and inspire.

If we use the teachings of Christ to destroy or belittle, we are doing it wrong. We are committing blasphemy if we use the gospel of Christ to destroy instead of build.

I think Elder Oaks was right. Our attitude towards and use of the family proclamation is a test for our generation. Will we learn it and teach it by the Spirit or some other way? Will we love and use that love to call down revelation and guidance? Or will we abandon love and allow fear and confusion to become to anger and hate?

Our battle is not between gays and Christians; it is a continuation of the eternal battle between fear and love.

I know God loves all of His children. I believe that Prophets and Apostles receive revelation from God. And I believe that God will yet reveal many great and important truths. But He will not do that if we do not love, if we are not ready to hear, if we are not using His revelations properly and with His Spirit.

Power IN the Priesthood

A teacher once asked in a Relief Society lesson, “What have you gained from the gospel?” My testimony was not great at the time so I thought I would struggle to find an answer. Instead, the answer confidence came quickly to mind. My favorite blessing in the gospel is the added confidence and power I feel when I have the Spirit.

Perhaps it is because I have often felt powerless and useless that this is what I focus on the most in the gospel. I want to find all the ways to increase my power. This might also be why priesthood has been a difficult gospel topic for me.

 About a year and a half after I returned from my mission, I was in a Sacrament Meeting listening to a man talk about the priesthood. He went over the two branches, the different offices and blessings, all the things I had heard before. He kept using the phrase, “Power of the Priesthood” repeatedly. “By the power of the priesthood, we can do this,” and “with the power of the priesthood, we can do that.” It started to make me mad.

I kept thinking that priesthood power was this separate and special kind of power that I would never have because I would never hold a priesthood key. Did that mean that this man was more powerful than me? Even after all I had done to learn and grow, why was I still unworthy of this other power when any man, even a 12-year-old boy, could have it?

That’s not true, I thought. I know I have power. No one can tell me I don’t have power.

I was thinking of that experience I had in the cemetery as a young missionary. I had felt the darkness and then I had been surrounded by light and I saw myself carrying that light and pushing back the darkness. The Lord had told me then that my light would always be stronger than the darkness, and I had no cause to fear. I knew I had power.

As I remembered this in that Sacrament Meeting, the image of myself in my mind changed slightly. Instead of the light emanating out from me at the center, the light was a column reaching up into heaven. I stood within the base of that column and pulled down light from heaven as fast as I could because I wanted so much of it.

The Spirit whispered, there is Power IN the Priesthood.

I understood, in that moment, that I stood in a conduit that connected me to heaven. The breadth and strength of that conduit determined how much and how fast I could gather light and power from heaven. The conduit was made of priesthood. Each covenant I made, each blessing I received, each calling I accepted and for which I was set apart, added to the walls of my conduit.

Even in only that one event from my mission, I could see the support of the priesthood. I prepared myself by making covenants sealed by the Melchizedek Priesthood. I had been called to a specific Mission by Apostles with priesthood. I was set apart as a missionary by my Stake President with priesthood. I was assigned to a specific area and trainer by my Mission President who had priesthood. That morning, I was given a priesthood blessing of comfort and counsel by my Zone Leader who exercised his priesthood keys. I was surrounded and supported by priesthood. Because of priesthood, I had power. That is the purpose.

Priesthood keys were not given to men so that men could have priesthood power. Priesthood keys were given to the children of god so that the power of God could cover and bless all of God’s children.

There is so much that makes us feel powerless in this world. My favorite part of spirituality, the greatest blessing from my faith, is the development of my personal spiritual power. This is also my hope for all of God’s children. May you find your power.

The Strait and Narrow Path is Not Straight

One of the most famous and talked about sections in the first book of Nephi is Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life along with Nephi’s subsequent vision and explanation of what his father saw. We speak about this vision a lot, and rightly so, as there is so very much to learn from it. This time, however, I noticed a few things that we have been missing or getting wrong.

In every picture or representation of the vision that I have seen, there is a straight path with a straight rod next to it, when the scripture says, “I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood.” The two homophones, straight and strait, have very different definitions and we should really stop confusing the two. We keep thinking of the path as straight, picturing a road that has no curves, bends or even hills. One can very clearly see the end from the beginning. A strait, on the other hand is a difficult situation, such as “dire straits,” or when speaking of a path, one might think of a narrow passage of water, such as the Bering Strait or the Strait of Magellan. The path is tight, constricting, and difficult to navigate. I think the use of the word strait in this vision is purposeful and far more accurate.

The path to the tree of life is not straightforward. We want to think that it is. Make the right covenants, check the right boxes, just be obedient and stop wandering. In 2nd Nephi, chapter 4, Nephi prays and asks God to make his paths straight, and don’t we all want that. A simple path with no surprises and a clear destination. But Nephi saw the vision and he knows the path is strait. The purpose of those covenants is to connect you with the Holy Ghost, the purpose of those commandments is to teach you to receive revelation and seek the Spirit. The Spirit will help you navigate. The scriptures are your map and guide, but your path is still difficult. Your situation will require you to listen to your navigator and follow the bends and turns. You won’t always see the end from the beginning. 

Thinking of the path this way has also helped me to correct my interpretation of the iron rod, which is stated to be the word of God. We talk about it as if that means a list of the commandments we follow, but to me that is the title of revelation. Commandments are contained within revelations, but there is so much more. Perhaps, even more important are the personal commandments and directions we receive through revelation. In order to get through the mists of darkness and stay on a strait path, I have to receive revelation and do what the Spirit tells me to do, which will not necessarily be what the Spirit told Joe, or Bob, or Mary. The scriptures will help me learn how to connect with the Spirit and interpret the promptings and directions, but I still need to be getting my own directions.

I worry for those that think the path is straight and that “hold to the rod” means “just do what I told you to do” because they also then misinterpret the large and spacious building which represents the pride of the world. I’ve heard some people speak of their position on the path with a lot of pride and mocking towards those people in the building, and isn’t that a bit ironic and hypocritical? In the vision, the people in the building are mocking those at the tree. In real life, I’ve seen a lot of people at the tree point their mocking fingers at the building not realizing that they are just as consumed with pride as those they attempt to scorn.

There have definitely been times when I’ve felt pressure from friends to do things that weren’t aligned with my beliefs. I did hold on to that vision of myself at the tree and think, if they mock me, it won’t matter because I’m eating fruit that is more precious than anything they could offer. The allegory is helpful when you’re trying to visualize yourself working towards a desired goal and not falling for discouragement from people that don’t understand what you’re doing. I’ve also learned that my real friends do not mock me even if they hold different beliefs. If I’m truly partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life—the love of God—I won’t mock them either. Let’s be careful not to crush the tree with our own building of pride.

This is easier to do when you remember that you are walking on a strait path you need constant revelation to navigate. You have to stay humble; you have to keep listening, and the invitation for others to join you must always remain open.

Abusive Relationships in the Book of Mormon, Love Him or Leave Him?

Nephi had some really awesome adventures. He was a man of action and he knew how to get stuff done. He got the scriptural records from their murderous cousin, he persuaded another family to join them in the wilderness, he made his own bow after his old one broke, he built a boat and crossed the ocean. It is not hard to understand why he is a favorite hero to many people. I remember wanting to be like Nephi when I was a young child. When I was a teenager, however, I felt like he let me down and betrayed me. He became an impossible standard that I couldn’t live up to, and I started to hate him for it. Mostly because of the way he dealt with his brothers.

Nephi’s brothers were abusive, and we really don’t say that enough. They beat him with a rod, they tied him up and wanted to abandon him to the beasts in the wilderness, they blamed him for their problems, they tied him to the mast of the ship, and in general were truly awful to him. Nephi would somehow escape—an angel would come and chastise Laman and Lemuel, the Lord would give him strength to break his bonds, family or friends would plead for him until Laman and Lemuel relented. And after every single one of these brutalities, Nephi would forgive them.

When I was 15, I was bullied and not in the off-hand way that is used by many nowadays. Before bullying became a buzz word, the only way I had to describe what this boy did was abuse. Mostly verbal, only in a few instances was it physical, but it was enough that I felt scared and I was emotionally and mentally beat up by this boy constantly. I wanted to be like my hero Nephi, I wanted to be saved. There were no angels, I felt no heavenly gift of strength to break the bonds, I didn’t even have friends and family that would stand up for me (except my mother, she was the only one that believed me). I thought maybe, if I tried to forgive more like Nephi, I could be stronger like Nephi. It never worked.

Every time we cover these chapters in Nephi, someone will bring up what a great example of forgiveness Nephi is, and I want to scream and pull my hair. Yes, Nephi’s brothers apologized, and he forgave them, but they didn’t stop. He just kept getting abused. When I was trying to stop the abuse, I felt that Nephi was a traitor telling me that I needed to forgive and keep going back to my abuser and if I couldn’t do it, I was simply too weak. It was my fault that I couldn’t handle the abuse. Maybe I’d be able to handle more abuse if God would send me something like he did Nephi, but then maybe he didn’t because I wasn’t as good as Nephi. And so, I ended up in a cycle of anger and despair at myself, Nephi, and God. For a long time, I refused to forgive because forgiveness left me open to more abuse. I held on to my pain because it was the only protection I seemed to have.

Years later, I started going back to church and reading scriptures again and I skipped through these chapters. Then I read the one where Nephi is told to leave his brothers. I felt the Spirit tell me, it’s ok to leave, to protect yourself. After this, I realized a better way to forgive and that protecting myself wasn’t going against God.

I don’t know why the Lord made Nephi stay with his brothers for so long. Maybe he protected Nephi as much as he did because he needed the family to stay together, and then, once it was feasible for Nephi to leave, the Lord told him to do so. I just wish that we would expand our discussion on forgiveness and recognize that you do not need to keep opening yourself up to abuse that is continual and ongoing.

Nephi is a good example of forgiveness, but not only when he stayed with his brothers. Even when they separated, he prayed for them and taught his people and they later sent missionaries over to the Lamanites. There is forgiveness in that too.

Forgiveness is hope. Hope can be many things and can be held in many different circumstances. You can hope that someone will get help even when you are not able to help them. You can forgive and protect.

Is Nephi Arrogant or Humble? The Underlying Confidence Necessary for Powerful Humility

To be totally honest, Nephi is not my favorite. He and I have a troubled past, but he and I are learning to work through our differences. As arrogant as I think Nephi is, there is one thing he has taught me about the awesomeness of humility. 

Soon after leaving Jerusalem, Lehi tells his sons they have to go back to the city to get the plates of brass (in other words, the scriptures) from a distant family member who is also a bit murderous. Of course, Laman and Lemuel complain and don’t think they can do it because they’re all going to die. Nephi rallies them with the story of the Lord delivering the Jews from Egypt saying, “Therefore, let us go up. Let us be strong like unto Moses…the Lord is able to deliver us even as our fathers and to destroy Laban even as the Egyptians.” There is something really awesome about how Nephi just assumes that the Lord will give him the same aid that He gave to Moses. He doesn’t see himself as less than Moses, too low in standing or worth to the children of God to receive aid. Nephi doesn’t seem to see any big difference between himself and Moses. He knows the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Therefore, if the Lord helped Moses, the Lord will help him too.  

Laman and Lemuel don’t have that attitude. Nephi seems to think that they doubt the power of God, but thinking of myself in this position, I think that they doubt they are deserving of the Lord’s help and thus forget to look for it, let alone ask for it. Later on in the story, after they do succeed in getting the plates and even see an angel, their father has a vision. Laman and Lemuel are confused by it and Nephi asks them if they asked God. Their answer is, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” Perhaps they have tried on previous occasions and have given up, but a part of me wonders if they didn’t ask because they thought they weren’t of the right standing. Maybe they thought their father received visions because he was a visionary man, a prophet, and because they are not prophets, they will not receive visions or revelations. They didn’t try because they didn’t think they were allowed to. 

At first glance, it might seem a bit arrogant that Nephi automatically places himself among prophets of old. Yet, I think this is actually the strength of Nephi’s humility. If we look at what Nephi does with the assumption that he is as deserving as the prophets, we see that he asks for help, a lot. He is constantly asking God what to do and where to go. He then actually does what he is told to do. 

There is something really amazing about his basic belief that the Lord will love him and help him as much as the Lord loves and helps anyone else. It isn’t that he is more deserving than his brothers, it’s that he asks for help a lot more. Nephi didn’t wait to earn a title or position before asking for help from God. He didn’t need anyone’s permission because the opinion of other men meant very little. 

I’ve learned a lot from Nephi in this regard. Even though I am not anyone with huge standing or a prominent calling doesn’t mean that the Lord loves me any less or that the Lord will help me any less. The individual answer will change, the type of help that comes will be specific to my or your situation, but the Lord will always answer the question and give aid. No special title or standing required. 

It is not arrogant to know that the Lord will answer you and help you. That’s just faith. In fact, I think this basic belief and confidence is necessary for true humility and the power that it brings. To ask for the answer and the help, most especially to accept whatever answer and help is given instead of demanding your own desire, that’s incredible humility.  

Revelation, the Cure for Whining

What is the real difference between Nephi and his brothers Laman and Lemuel? We could also ask, what is the difference between someone who is happy in a church and someone who is not. When these stories are taught there is an emphasis on obedience and cheerful work without murmuring. Perhaps I am prone to disobedience and complaining, but I do not find these lessons encouraging for myself. I am too often a Laman. One of the most frequent admonitions I remember from my mother is, “no whining.” But is whining what really makes Laman and Lemuel the epitome of all that is wicked and evil?

After their father, Lehi, was told by the Lord to leave Jerusalem because it was going to be destroyed, he prepared his family to go into the wilderness. The entire family obeyed and went. Laman and Lemuel, the oldest sons, complained and criticized their father. Nephi says they did this because “they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them.” Nephi describes his own reaction to his father’s demands as such:

     And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers. 

1 Ne 2:16

While I don’t know why Nephi feels it important to tell us of his large stature (my best guess is that he’s a teenager), I do love his description of his first recorded revelation. He was young and had a desire to know. I too found it a lot easier to receive revelation when I was younger. My desires to learn and my simple curiosities were just that—simple. Now they are easily clouded with confusion, conflicting desires and thoughts, even my own pride and wish to be right. Nephi is not describing anything grand either. Later, he will receive visions, ministering angels, and huge assignments from the Lord. But here, this first one he tells us about was just a softening, a heartfelt belief. It sounds so small, yet this is what stopped his own murmuring and rebellion.

We don’t know about Laman and Lemuel’s history with personal revelation. Did they have some when they were young and then doubt them when they got older? Did they try but never get an answer? I have experienced both of these and can testify that they do lead to extreme frustration. Revelation is not always simple. As a scientist, I like things that follow a protocol and are repeatable. If it can’t be repeated by another person, then it’s not valid or the interpretation is incorrect. If I can’t repeat an experiment or a procedure, I will keep trying, looking for things I might be doing wrong, blaming myself or my own lack of skill. Until, I’m so sick of blaming myself that I either give up entirely or lash out at the original procedure. It is so easy for me to see myself in Laman and Lemuel.

In my quest to please my mother and stop whining, I have thought about the importance of personal revelation. To me it is the difference between being forced to do something by an outside force and choosing to do something with your own power and your own motivations. It is always worth it to take some time and consider why you do or do not want to do a particular thing or what your goal is from a particular project regardless of the stated goals of other people.

My church has a rich history of revelation from the Lord and we love that history particularly because it declares that the heavens are not closed, and that revelation is possible. I think this knowledge and an ability to receive revelation for oneself are essential for a healthy practice of a living religion. While my church has this belief, it does not mean we are free from blocks to personal revelation. I am a Laman that constantly strives to seek revelation and to be a little more like Nephi. I have found help to do so within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have friends and family who have left the Church and found other traditions and structures to help them find the revelation they seek. They were Lamans like me and they also sought revelation to be more like Nephi. They found that help in other churches and other traditions. I still count them as righteous and highly favored of the Lord.

All of Lehi’s sons were obedient. Nephi did it without complaining because it was his choice and he didn’t feel forced. Obedience is not the key difference, revelation is. I applaud all of my brothers and sisters that are able to find revelation, wherever in the wilderness they may be. Blessed is she that can find joy and stop whining.

Destruction as a Path to Salvation and the Importance of Context

It’s been so long since I’ve posted regularly, mostly because we have been battling a lot of different illnesses at our house this winter. Nothing major, just a lot of viruses and infections, one right after the other. I did a lot of reading (and a lot of Netflix bingeing) but did not have the mental energy and focus to write. I did find a lot of interesting things in my reading, especially as I tried to stay with the Come Follow Me curriculum put out by my church. I really wanted to write down and work out some of my ideas, even though the curriculum is now far past this point in the reading. I hope you’ll understand as I go back to the beginning and try to catch up to the study schedule. 

I usually study and read by topic and so it’s very easy for me to fall into the excuse that I’ve read the Book of Mormon many times before, I’m familiar with the stories and thus do not need to read them from cover to cover. This year, I want to read it straight through and see it again as a whole. Everything has a context and seeing that context is important in arriving at an understanding of the intended message. While I always try to look for the context of each individual verse as I study (for example, who is speaking and to whom), it is just as important to see that story within the full arc of the Book of Mormon and the book itself within the full scriptural cannon and the story of the Restoration. This is essential for the Book of Mormon and that’s obvious from the very beginning.

The first grand vision and revelation in the Book of Mormon is given to Lehi but is written by his son Nephi, who is reportedly young—the youngest of four brothers. Nephi writes that his father was worried for the people of Jerusalem and prayed for them. He saw a pillar of fire, was carried away by the Spirit and saw the heavens open. He was given a book and read about the destruction of Jerusalem. After reading the book, Lehi exclaimed, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!”

I stopped here for a second and wondered, is he including the destruction of Jerusalem in his praise for great and marvelous works? How could someone glory in the destruction of another? I wondered if Lehi might be a bit vindictive in his praise of the Lord, believing that the people of Jerusalem deserved to be destroyed and he deserved to be saved, thus his description of the Lord’s great mercy. This attitude is not all that hard to imagine. I’m sure we’ve all seen it or even felt it from time to time. We feel safe, maybe even jubilant, when we avoid catastrophe. And when we’ve avoided catastrophe because of our own work and choices, we are proud. Bad people should have bad things happen to them, right? Except, aren’t we all bad people at some point? 

Then I remembered that Lehi is not the only prophet to see or to prophecy about the destruction of an entire people. These prophets also praised God for his mercy because they saw the purpose of the destruction and how it fit into a greater plan. As I thought of even my own experience in learning from God that something bad was going to happen, I realized that God doesn’t show such things in isolation. He comforts and teaches. In my experience, God is not vindictive or petty but He does lead people down paths. We have a great deal of choice when it comes to which path we walk, but He also bends the roads and alters the direction to help us reach a favorable destination. I think Lehi and other prophets praised God’s mercy even after learning of destruction because they saw the part it played in their ultimate salvation.

We don’t know the entirety of Lehi’s vision—if he saw God’s full plan for Jerusalem or not. We only have an account written by his young son in a handful of verses. Later in the book it will become obvious that one small account of a vision is never enough to understand the entirety of it and that Nephi himself had a lot to learn about the meaning of mercy. 

I think this particular verse made me stop because I have seen so many examples over the years of people taking one thing and emphasizing it to the point that they forget to balance it with all of the other perspectives, stories, and lessons with in the Book of Mormon. This one verse (and it’s not entirely alone), when misconstrued and context ignored, can easily lead to a puffed up pride that is dangerous and destructive. The truth is, the Jews at Jerusalem were destroyed but then brought back again. Their history is rich and long and the love God has for them runs deep. We must also never forget that Lehi and his immediate family may have avoided destruction, but the nations that came from them did not. Prophecies about the destruction of Nephi’s people began quite quickly, and they were also welcomed with praise by the prophets that foretold them.

While the Book of Mormon does guide readers in how to follow God, it would be a fatal mistake to interpret the destruction in these stories as horrifically final when the Book of Mormon’s very existence stands as a testimony that destruction is never the end. The fact that we continue, that there is more to the story, is the mercy of God.

Moving Past the Form of Godliness to Claim the Power Thereof

My church rotates among our four main books of scriptures every year, and this year’s focus is the Book of Mormon. To begin this year’s study of the Book of Mormon, I started by reading Joseph Smith’s account of what we now call the first vision. I have read his account many times and always find myself reacting to it in a mixture of ways. Sometimes I am awestruck and find the whole thing so amazingly beautiful. Other times I find myself getting oddly jealous that someone else should be given clarity when I seek for it and find so little. This in turn makes me angry and the whole thing becomes simply too fantastical to be believed.

What most notably struck me this time was his description of what the ministers were doing in his community. He says, “The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.”  This religious fervor had devolved into a prideful contest among the ministers. A battle ground had developed, where their desire to be right and to debate took up everything else. 

It was this fighting, a “war of words and tumult of opinions,” as Joseph calls it, that prompted his own religious and spiritual journey to discover who was right. As the ministers fought over right and wrong doctrine and interpretations of doctrine, this is the mindset Joseph started with. One must be right and all the others wrong. There must be an answer, an undeniable truth beneath it all. Yet, because they all used the Bible to support their own theories and various interpretations, Joseph did not feel that the Bible alone would be able to solve his dilemma. He went and asked God and looked for revelation. He received a revelation and reported that the Lord said to him, “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

Being, myself, in a bit of a tumult lately about what to do, how to be faithful in light of various personal struggles and frustrations, I began to wonder more about the actual power of godliness that differs from having merely the form of it. 

It is not that hard to imagine this contest for converts to one’s own faith as it continues in many circles today. There are many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who still maintain this mindset—that missionary work is a war and the prize converts, or that one merely need to be right in the facts in order to have power. But if all of these ministers quoted the Bible, debated the Bible, and cared so much for the word of God yet received only the form and not the power, how important is it to be right?

If facts are only the form, what is the actual power?  

I was once asked what I gain from religion and after a moment I said, “Confidence.” At the end of the day, I believe religion and spirituality should be empowering. I don’t think facts or truth are unimportant, rather I don’t believe they are important in and of themselves. How important is it to have true doctrines? I think it depends on what you do with the doctrines you have, how you live the values you have chosen to believe in. 

Because I believe God’s purpose is to help me get stronger, that is what I see when I look at my doctrines and it’s how I use them. Because I believe God has the same purpose for everyone, I cannot use doctrines to tear down another. To deny them the power of God is to lose it myself. To use anything I consider a revelation to bolster my pride or to tear down another is to use it for the exact opposite of its actual godly purpose. Truth is empowering when it helps you act with the power of God. And God is love. 

An Eye Single to the Glory of God

Once, many years ago, I went to the temple feeling overwhelmed and stretched in too many directions. I prayed, hoping the Lord would sort through it all and tell me my priorities. How was I to balance being a good mother, wife, scientist, home maker, saint,…on and on and on? My hope was that the Lord would take some of those things off my list by telling me they weren’t really that important. My actual answer was, “keep your eye single to the Glory of God.” 

What is the Glory of God? I thought, and I knew instantly that it was us—His children. I thought of all the things God does for us, how He lifts and teaches.

My to-do list started to change from tasks to people. I thought of the people I served, those I loved and sought to help, and what kind of help they actually needed. When I viewed the people, the tasks started to change. 

For example, I hate doing dishes, but I love my children and we need to eat off of clean dishes for several health reasons. This seems like a necessary service to give my family. Yet, when I thought of the service my children needed, it was not clean dishes that came to mind. It was time spent with their mother and learning. If they could cook and clean with me, we would be spending important time together and they could learn and grow.

This all sounds beautiful in theory, and in my head it was exciting. In practice, however, not so much. The tasks were too complicated for them. They worked very slowly. They would rather watch TV. Remember, this impression came to me years ago, and I’m still working on it. 

I keep trying to make chores a team sport and focus more on teaching them and encouraging them instead of having it perfectly cleaned and totally finished. My ultimate goal would be that I don’t do chores by myself—the house is lived in together and cared for together—but I am not there yet. 

What I have kept, though, is that perspective of seeing people over tasks. Time together over appearances. This mental shift did a lot to ease the stress and anxiety I had been feeling and gave me a new approach in how to prioritize and think through my daily tasks. 

As I’ve worked on this, I’ve realized it’s not the tasks I need to let go of, it’s the expectations and the worry about how other people see me. 

I’ve found that I’m not always focused on the people that I want to lift and strengthen because I’m worried about the people watching. There are expectations I have put upon myself, not because they are what I need to do to lift someone, but because they are what I need to do to look good. It’s not that I’m vain—I know I’m not the best. What I want is just to belong. I want people to like me, even if the expense is stretching myself too thin, taking on too many tasks. In fact, I did this just last month.

So, how do I pull myself back? I’ve decided to look for people to lift, not for people to please. I think of my relationships and ask what I can do to lift this person?

A quick side note: it is an incorrect definition of power that says one person can only rise if another falls. When done correctly, power is cumulative. When one rises, we all rise. Lifting another doesn’t mean you offer them your back to step on. People may think they need things, or things done for them, but that’s not necessarily true and it might not be in your ability to give. Just like I needed to focus on people over appearances, I need to be sure I’m offering a true lift from connection and love and not a temporary fix. 

Sometimes, they need a bit of help, but more often than not, they just want someone to listen. Most people just want a little bit of praise and some compliments. Some, like me, want to be involved, and they are the ones I get to ask for help. In return, I get what I really wanted. I belong with these people because we have built a connection and a lasting relationship based on care and understanding. 

Are You a Perfectionist, or Do You Actually Want to be Perfect?

The definition of Perfect is one that often weighs on my mind. I think it is one of those words that is defined by the Lord in one way but used in a different way by our current society. Some speak it with adoration describing something so beautiful and wonderful it is beyond description. For others, it brings fear of overwhelming and unattainable standards. In trying to find a way to enjoy the beauty of perfection without being crushed by it, I’ve started to distinguish Perfectionism from actual Perfection.

I used to be excited about my perfectionism. I enjoyed designing the perfect masterpiece, doing the very best I could, or even performing the perfect experiment using all the proper controls and not forgetting a step so that everything would work just as it was supposed to do. I could focus for hours on what I wanted to accomplish, excited about the final product, and also thrilled when there was a problem to solve for it kept my mind fully engaged on something worthwhile and wonderful. I would get a tremendous rush when I finished something I was proud of, and that got me a good grade, but somehow, as I grew up, all of these things turned into a burden.

I first noticed that I could not be as fully engaged in my projects as I wanted to because there were so many of them. Mother’s with full lives, however, cannot cut out everything. There are so many things to try and do perfectly. I became impatient with myself for not moving faster, doing more, being better. The pictures in my head, my dreams of what I wanted to accomplish, seemed so far away. Problems were no longer exciting puzzles, but more indications that I lacked ability or talent. I couldn’t do anything the way it should be done. Eventually, projects became so daunting that I would abandon them. I was afraid to try.

In Christ’s sermon in Matthew chapter 5 he says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” This seems like a very tall order. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we emphasize that faith without works is dead and we do tend to keep ourselves very busy. However, defining Perfect, or Faith, or Value according to what I could do had become my problem.

President Nelson taught in a 1995 General Conference that the word perfect in this scripture was translated from the Greek word telios meaning complete, finished, fully developed. He continued by saying, “Please note that the word does not imply ‘freedom from error’; it implies ‘achieving a distant objective.’” In 2017, Elder Holland taught us to “strive for steady improvement without obsessing over…’toxic perfectionism.’” We are to look forward to perfection, to be patient and forgiving of shortcomings for we are not yet finished.

While I love these messages, and I do try to be more patient and gentler with myself, I still get frustrated. About a year ago, I looked around and noticed I had not finished anything in a very long time. I had started various projects and worked intermittently on them, but never completed them. And I realized that one of the fears of Perfectionism is that you won’t reach the end unless you do everything right. Where is my hope to come from that I will reach that “distant objective” if I’m stuck and I don’t know what to do?

I started again, determined to finish my goals, even if they still held errors. I simply wanted to finish because I thought these small things would be my progress markers and boost my confident that I could do larger ones. I told myself, Christen, just finish something-even if it’s flawed, it will be done. And I couldn’t. I found that my efforts never met my expectations of what I wanted, and thus held me back from getting any joy from any accomplishment. Were my standards too high? Did I need to lower my dreams, accept less from myself, just so I could finish something that didn’t make me happy anyway? I took a long look at what was actually holding me back. This is when I really started to see the difference between Perfectionism and actual Perfection.

The fear of Perfectionism still held me back because I kept thinking about what other people would say. When I presented my finished product, what would be my grade? Would they see my errors? I realized that I was trying to prove myself, individually, to others who were outside waiting to judge me. Perfectionism is very disconnecting. We are like neighbors throwing things at each other over a fence. I, striving to meet the expectations thrown at me, throw my projects out, only to have them thrown back with criticism or praise, probably a mixture of both. But I am never with my neighbors—we never actually work together. I work by myself and then await the judgement. And they do the same in their own way, in their own yard.

My favorite part of the intercessory prayer, found in John 17:21-23, is when Jesus pleads with the Father, “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us;…that they may be made perfect in one.” As I have thought about all of this, I have come to the conclusion that Perfection and Unity go together hand in hand. I cannot be whole if I allow others to dictate what I should do at the expense of my own yearnings. Neither can I be whole without true compassion, the ability to learn from others such that they can fill the holes left from my own limitations. No one can be truly Perfect alone. The final achievement of this is after this life when we are reunited with God and loved ones in a way that cannot be fully accomplished here. That is our distant objective. Yet, we can find unity here and now and thus have the assurance that we are going the right way.

I’ve approached my projects again with a determination to finish them and do it correctly—not by looking for flaws but by looking for unity. What is the motivation behind this goal? What is the purpose of this project? Am I trying to create something I can hold up to others or am I trying to connect with others?

Unity with myself means that the goal must be mine and mine alone. That is not to say that my goals are selfish or that I’ve completely cut myself off from others. Rather, seeking someone’s praise is very different from seeking to help them or to be their friend. I make an effort to involve others in my goal. Asking for advice, learning from them. While their input changes the appearance of the final product and the methods to achieve it, the end goal is the same. And it’s easier to have patience when you can feel that it is working.

Unity is love, peace, patience, understanding, joy, strength, and friendship. Doesn’t that sound Perfect.