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.

This is Life Eternal, to Know God

As a missionary, I taught a man that had converted to my faith from another church to which he still had strong ties through friends, family, and tradition. These ties made it difficult for him to pursue full activity in his new faith because he felt he was abandoning and even insulting his old one.

One time he asked my companion and me, “You don’t really think Mormons are going to be the only ones in heaven, do you?”

At this point in our conversation, I was starting to get a bit frustrated and I was about to answer, without love and understanding, with an explanation of Priesthood. The Spirit stopped me, however, and I pictured in my mind a group of people with labels glowing on their foreheads. They read, “Baptist,” “Catholic,” “Church of God,” etc. 

The Spirit asked me, What about Father Abraham?

I knew that Abraham would not have “Mormon” on his forehead. It might read “Jew,” but the Abrahamic Covenant is often claimed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and Abraham is certainly in heaven. It wouldn’t matter what label he had, I thought, he performed all he did with proper Priesthood, so Priesthood is the answer, right?

What about C.S. Lewis? The Spirit then asked.

I have no idea what particular label C.S. Lewis went by other than “Mere Christianity,” his faith and understanding of God, however, led me to believe that he would be in heaven. He knew the scriptures so well and had such faith, surely, he would do anything that still needed to be done.

I felt confirmation that yes, baptism and all covenants with proper Priesthood Authority are offered multiple times throughout our lives and in the Spirit World. Thus, it is not the largest determining factor, nor is it any great barrier.

What is the difference, the Spirit asked, between someone willing to accept the covenant and someone who is not?

Then I answered the original question from this man struggling with his faith, “I believe as it says in John 17:3, ’This is Life Eternal, to know thee the One True God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent,’ and I have come to know God better through this Church than I could through any other.” 

This answer, that came through the Spirit, changed the way I view all aspects of our Church. We accept covenants with Him when we know Him and love Him. He blesses us with covenants so we can know Him better. To know God is the purpose of all we have and all we do. It is why He gave us Prophets, Apostles, and Priesthood. It is why we have scriptures, temples, callings, families, even this Earth and our bodies. 

I love my faith because the unique doctrines and practices have helped me such that I can now say I know God. If I ever lose Him, I absolutely know where to find Him again. I have a support system that will help me get to know Him better.

When my husband first started doubting in God and religion, we would talk about some of the things that frustrated and confused him. I remember one particular time, after I explained my view of things, he said, “That’s nice, but that’s not what Mormon’s teach. You’re really not that Mormon.”

I don’t know how else to describe my view, however. I learned it from God by reading the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants—in other words, by participating in and being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. How can what I learned not be “Mormon” enough? 

My husband’s faith crisis did not make sense to me until he told me that he believed that the Mormon God was mean and vindictive, watching and waiting for you to fail so He could punish you. I do not believe that is the God of my faith and it is certainly not the God I worship, but since he told me this right after my own anger at God, it was understandable. When we lose sight of God, confuse His characteristics with those that are in fact foreign to Him, we lose our faith. When we can see God and know Him as He truly is, then we have found our spiritual home.

I told my husband that if he could not find God in this church, then to go look in another. Just don’t give up on God. God is not mean or vindictive. He is kind, patient, and encouraging. If I gain nothing else from my faith after I die, I will still have the confidence and strength that I have learned from God in this life. You’ll know you’ve found God and are getting to know Him when you can conquer your fears and feel surrounded by love and peace even in difficulties.

I absolutely believe that people of other faiths and religions are able to know God, because we are all His children and He abandons no one. He reaches out and speaks to all people regardless of creed. Each church and religion has its own set of tools, its own ways to come to know God personally and meaningfully. 

I know God—His character, attributes, and voice—because I have spent time with Him via the tools and instructions given to me through my church. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because the tools unique to this Church—the Book of Mormon, Temples, etc.—are among my most valuable and favorite tools in my tool box. I also believe God has particularly told me to be in this church and I have promised Him that I will always stay here. 

I hope everyone would be able to say likewise for their own decision on where they find their spiritual home. We all deserve a place filled with people and aids that will help us know God. As my husband and I learn of other religions and the different tools, rituals, and traditions people use to invite the Spirit into their lives, I find so much beauty. 

Ultimately, we are all on the same quest—to know God and have Eternal Life.

Strengthen Your Voice

In 2017, about three years after my frustrations with God were healed, I was listening to a report about a question and answer session held with two apostles of the church. Among the questions submitted to the apostles by the young adults of the Church was this one, “How can I differentiate between the Holy Ghost and my own thoughts and feelings?”

Elder Oaks said in response, “This is a question we wrestle with all of our lives.”

I thought about all the times I had asked myself that same question and all the people that have asked it of me. I could not find the words to accurately describe the difference I feel between my own thoughts and the Spirit. I knew that I still wasn’t perfect at it, nor am I perfect at following a prompting even when I do know it’s from the Spirit. Anything I have been able to pin down and identify as clearly being from God has come through practice. Many attempts, simple trial and error, some successful and some regretful, have taught me to recognize the voice of the Lord.

As I thought of this, I remembered again that prayer for my mother (Will of the Father, Will of the Child, Part II) and how I was at first met with a brick wall. I remembered how stunned I had been to feel that wall and then how it had come down when I expressed my own thoughts and feelings. When I tried to quiet my own desires so I could hear the Spirit, I heard nothing. When I spoke, I could hear. 

There seems to be a broad misconception that because the Lord’s voice is still and small, we must be completely silent. That to submit to the will of the Lord means to erase our own entirely. That to be filled with the Spirit, we must empty ourselves. One of my greatest failings is a tendency towards passivity, when the Lord has taught me boldness and confidence.

The thought struck me that the Spirit testifies of truth; thus, you have to say something for Him to testify about. He brings things to your remembrance; thus, you have to have some thoughts and experiences for Him to work with. He builds you up and strengthens you—He cannot do that if you are working to silence your own voice. He wishes to teach you how to be a Queen, a Priestess. Are you turning yourself into a puppet? 

We are inundated with a hundred voices a day. They tell us where to shop, what to buy, where to find love, what love is and what it feels like, how to earn love and belonging, who to be. The speakers of these voices have been very clever at getting into our subconscious. If they are hidden, and we don’t recognize them for what they are, we don’t even realize they aren’t our own. 

The first step in hearing the Spirit, is finding your own voice. What do you really think of all the messages that are sent to you throughout the day? What do you really want? Why do you want it?

When I prayed for my mother, I was not simply praying for a healing. I spoke of my love for her, I admitted my fears. Since all of these were true, the Spirit came easily and powerfully. I prayed for hope, love, comfort, and strength. I thought that removing my mother’s cancer would satisfy all of these desires, but the Lord showed me how to have exactly what I wanted in a more meaningful and long-lasting way. 

To be united with God in His will, I also needed to know mine with greater clarity. Such unity requires complete honesty, for only truth can be in the presence of God. This means acknowledging your fears, weaknesses, and your own desires but not to be ruled by them. Take them to God and lay them down honestly. 

The Spirit will help you in sorting out the fact from the fiction. He’ll help you see what’s important to you, even when others are trying to get you to see only what’s important to them. He’ll encourage you in your talents, even when they’re different than what others expect of you. He’ll tell you when to let go of a worry because it’s based on a fabrication. He’ll comfort you when you’re scared and stand by you when it’s worth doing anyway. 

The Lord invited us to be united with Him because He loves us, not because He wants to erase us. He wants us to show up and be a part of the conversation. The Lord will help you find your voice, and that is what He will strengthen.

Invisible Fires

Why, 12 years after I accepted my mother’s death and two years after she died, was I angry and blaming God for her illness? I still remembered the glorious way God told me of her death (See “Will of the Father, Will of the Child, Part II). The wonderful part of God’s answer was the certainty of the promise that I would be with her again, but the promise itself is actually extended to everyone. My step-father is also sealed to my mother and will be with her again, but he was healed from his cancer and his time on earth extended. 

Instead of feeling like I had gained something, which is what I thought before, I felt that I had lost. I doubted myself again and wondered if there was something else I could have done. But when I looked back on it, I knew there was nothing else, I had done everything I could. Thus, it was God’s fault.

I also felt that God didn’t really care about my wishes. I wanted my mother healed, He said, “No.” I wanted to get married, He said, “Do this first.” I obeyed and did get married, but then the marriage twisted and became sour. I wanted children, the Lord said, “Later,” and when I fought, I was punished with intense exhaustion, frustration, and depression. I was always the one that had to wait. I was always the one that was wrong, or too impatient, too stupid to know what was really going on.

God’s love suddenly seemed manipulative and His will forceful. Instead of listening to me, He was twisting and pushing to see how long until I would crack. His tests were mean and unfair. 

After going to the temple and feeling His unconditional love (See “Welcome Back, I’ve Missed You”), I knew that He wasn’t insulting me and pushing me down, but I was still confused and hurting.

A few months after my trip to the temple, I was in a Sunday school class. We began with the story in 1 Kings chapter 18 where in Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to a sacrificial show down. He wanted to prove to the people that the idols were powerless and empty, whereas the God of Israel lived and used His power to answer the prayers of His people. When the priests of Baal set up their sacrifice and prayed to their idol for fire, there was no answer. When Elijah prayed over his sacrifice, including buckets of water poured over the fire wood, God sent fire from heaven and completely consumed the sacrifice. The people saw this, fell on their faces, and cried, “The Lord, He is God.”

In chapter 19, Elijah has fled to a cave in Horeb the mount of God. The Lord calls to Elijah and before the cave passes by a mighty wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by a fire, but the Lord was in none of these. After the fire came a still small voice. Only then did Elijah go to the mouth of the cave to hear the Lord.

As we discussed this story, which I had heard many times, I thought, What do you mean, you’re not in the fire? One chapter ago, you literally made a fire to prove your existence and your power. If you’re not in the fire, then why make the fire?

I remembered the few times I tried to share the story of my mother on my mission. I wanted to testify of the mighty change of heart, the incredible miracle that is learning the will of the Lord. My hope was to inspire people to pray to discover His will so they could see the beauty of life through God’s eyes. I never got through the story. I was interrupted by people telling me my mother would be healed if I would stop doubting. 

“You just need to have more faith.” 

“Keep praying, you’re not there yet.” 

I stopped telling it because it was too hurtful to hear people essentially blaming me for my mother’s future death, which I knew would come. It was not their intention to hurt me, they wanted to inspire me to have greater faith by testifying of God’s ability to heal, but they spoke without listening. I became increasingly frustrated with other people’s definition of miracles and their attempts to judge my faith. The complete lack of listening to God and expecting all miracles to be right in front of your face made me so angry, I just stopped talking about miracles all together. I didn’t know how to get people to understand that the greatest miracles are invisible. 

As I remembered this in that Sunday school class, I realized I had two fires before me. The visible fire that was my step-father’s physical healing and the invisible one that was in my heart the night I learned my mother would die. The Lord asked me, “which one is the more powerful fire?” 

I now definitively believe that the most powerful miracle will be the one that happens in your own heart, the one no one else will ever feel or see, except those that truly know your heart. A physical fire is a flash in the pan, it lasts only for a few seconds. If you want to tell me about a miracle, go ahead. I believe God is a God of miracles and He still works among us every day. But tell me how you’ve changed, tell me what you learned from God. Otherwise, there is no power there. Who we become because of what we learn is what lasts for eternity. These are the eternal flames where God can be found.

I also learned that too many people build their perceptions of God’s character backwards. They look around for physical fires and assign their own reasons to those fires and thus begin to sketch the character and motivations of God. Instead, if they sought to know God’s character by listening to His voice, they would know Him and then they would better understand the fire. 

God sent the fire to the sacrifice for Elijah, and people saw the fire, but they did not see God or hear His voice. They were not converted or changed. God sent the wind, the earthquake, and the fire to the mount, but Elijah did not see God or hear His voice in those manifestations. To know God, to learn from Him and of Him, to see His hands, His power, and His love, is to listen.

I was reminded that day, that I knew God because of countless prayers and time spent with Him. One healing did not change Him, I already knew who He was. I remembered my spiritual eyes and started feeling fires again instead of looking for them.

Will of the Father, Will of the Child, Part 2

Through my months of practicing Enos-type prayers (explained in my previous post), I found better ways to study for Organic Chemistry, insights into friendships and other relationships, as well as a constant sense of tranquility. When I felt confident that I knew the voice of the Lord, I decided to pray again for my mother. I went through my usual mental preparations to clear my mind and focus on what I wanted to say and how to listen. Perhaps because I was extra nervous, I also pushed my own desire down so as not to bias what I was feeling. I wanted to know that what I felt was truly from the Spirit and not in anyway a reflection of my own fears or desires. 

I was met with a brick wall.

I became frustrated, desperately angry. By this point, every time, I prayed I would feel the Spirit. Some sort of comfort, peace, love, welcome. Why was He ignoring me when I asked my most important question?

I vented my frustration in prayer. I pleaded for Him to tell me and talk to me. I told Him how afraid I was of my mother’s death. How much I loved her and how much I wanted this knowledge. And that’s when the wall came down.

I saw, in my mind, my mother walk through a veil, passing from this life to the next. There was a group of women waiting for her. They were so excited to see her, everyone hugged and laughed. A few seconds later, I walked through the veil and was met with the same enthusiasm. I understood that this did not mean my mother and I would die a few seconds apart, but that she would die, and I would finish my life without her. When I reunited with her, it would feel as if we had been separated for only seconds.

I realized my greatest fear was to be alone. I was worried about those few seconds; it wasn’t going to feel that short here and now. I begged God to stay with me, to not leave me alone. 

I remembered going to the temple with my mother and step-father when I was 14 and being sealed to them for time and all eternity. The Lord told me that He had always been with me. He knew this was going to come and so He prepared me beforehand to build me up and give me the strength I would need. He had been there for me before the storm, and He certainly wasn’t going to leave me in the middle of it. 

I felt again the promise that when reunited, I would recognize that the separation was very short and then we would be together for all eternity and never separated again. I wanted this promise desperately. The words of my prayer went from, don’t you leave me, don’t you ever leave me, to, don’t let me leave you, don’t let me leave this church.

I saw, in my mind’s eye with my physical eyes closed, Christ sitting in the chair upon which I was kneeling, holding me and stroking my hair as I cried. I felt like I was on fire, my entire body burning. Physical reflexes took over and I jumped back to get out of the flames. I started to drop to the ground to roll and put out the fire, and then realized there was none. 

Years after this event, while training to be a missionary, I read 2Ne 4:21, “He hath filled me with His love, even unto the consuming of my flesh,” and I felt an echo of that fire. God’s love is a fire. 

God’s love is intense enough to consume fears, to sear truth into our very souls. I knew that my mother would die from her cancer, but I was not afraid. The weakness of my flesh, the fear that came from a mortal perspective, was gone—consumed by the flame. I know that I will be with her again. The truth of God’s promises seems to be in my bones. 

When Christ invites us to be one with Him as He is one with the Father, it is not merely poetic. Neither is it a blessing to be enjoyed only after we die. There are ways here and now to be united with God. We can learn directly from Him and He will teach us to see as He sees, to do as He does, and to love as He loves. To truly know and see the will of God, is to love it and accept it as your own. His perspective is beautiful. To change your perspective to match His is life changing. The change that will come to your heart is nothing short of miraculous. 

I knew this. Why did I forget it? The Lord had to remind me of it and help me see it afresh when, years later, I became angry with Him. I thought He was cruel and manipulative for forcing His will upon others without consideration or fairness. I had to be reminded that the miracles, the justice, the mercy, the fairness is in His love. And it is found in unity.

This story is continued in Invisible Fires.

Will of the Father, Will of the Child, Part 1

I prayed constantly for a physical healing for my mother. Many scriptures teach that if you ask in faith you will receive, so I asked. But it never felt right. At first, I thought it was doubt—that I lacked the faith to actually receive the miracle I wanted. I kept praying and trying to increase my faith that God could heal my mother, but my prayers never changed, and I always felt off. Then, I remembered learning about Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He ended His prayer saying, “thy will be done” and my seminary teacher taught us to end our prayers the same way, thus praying with humility and trust in God’s will. I began adding “thy will be done” to the end of my prayers and I felt right. Prayers for my mother brought comfort but I started worrying in a new way.

I prayed constantly for a physical healing for my mother after her cancer diagnosis. I was still young, only 18, and she was the only one that had stayed with me through everything. At that time, the thought of losing her scared me more than anything else ever had before or ever has since.

Many scriptures teach that if you ask in faith you will receive, so I asked. But it never felt right. At first, I thought it was doubt—that I lacked the faith to actually receive the miracle I wanted. I kept praying and trying to increase my faith that God could heal my mother, but my prayers never changed, and I always felt off. Then, I remembered learning about Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He ended His prayer saying, “thy will be done” and my seminary teacher taught us to end our prayers the same way, thus praying with humility and trust in God’s will. I began adding “thy will be done” to the end of my prayers and I felt right. Prayers for my mother brought comfort, but I started worrying in a new way.

If I felt wrong when I prayed for my mother to be healed and right when I prayed for God’s will to be done, was that because it wasn’t God’s will to heal her? Desperate to hold on to hope, I wanted it to be that I simply needed to be more humble. I wanted to submit to God’s will, but I also became obsessed with how to know it. I reasoned that if I knew what His will was, I would have the faith required to receive the miracle He was willing to give or the strength to remain faithful after her death without becoming bitter or depressed. I have always wanted to be in control, and in a situation where I had none, knowing the outcome before hand was the only way I could get some back. 

While I was wondering about how to learn God’s will instead of just praying for it in the abstract, I went to an Institute class and learned about Enos. Even now, decades later, Enos is one of my favorite prophets in the entire Book of Mormon and I consider this Institute lesson a life changing miracle all on its own.

Enos was a prophet that contributed only one chapter to the Book of Mormon, and in that chapter, he prays a mighty prayer all day and all night. While his prayer begins in asking for forgiveness for himself, he extends it to pleading for his friends and then his enemies. He doesn’t simply ask for his enemies to find the gospel in a general way. In the end, he asks for the ending and purpose of the Book of Mormon rather specifically including the destruction of his own people—a rather illogical leap to make on his own. He somehow knew, as God did, what would happen and God’s plan to extend mercy to all his children.

Enos prayed for God’s will as if it was his own. In the Bible Dictionary, under the definition of prayer, there is this descriptor, “Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other.” Throughout the course of the prayer, Enos showed how his spiritual strength grew until he not only felt Christ-like love but also thought in a Godly way. He understood God’s will and wanted it himself. 

After I heard this lesson, I went back to my dorm room and re-read Enos over and over. I wanted to know more of the nuts and bolts. What are the steps, how exactly does one achieve this final outcome in a prayer? Thoughts came to me such that I now say the Spirit taught me how to pray. 

I learned how to slow down such that I could discern my thoughts from spiritual promptings—the difference between my voice and the Lord’s. I no longer rattled off a one sided email, but invited the Lord into a conversation. My prayers changed dramatically and I found, like Enos, that I not only heard the Lord’s voice, felt confident in His love and mercy, felt an increase in my own God-like love for others, but also knew the will of the Lord because it became mine as we worked and talked together. 

This type of praying is difficult and takes a great deal of mental focus. In Michigan, I wanted to pray like this again, but found it too hard with all the pain in my heart. Even now, I’m often too tired and too easily distracted. But when I was in college praying for my mother, I had an intense motivation and my prayers were an incredible source of strength. Learning how to pray in this way and dedicating myself to do so everyday lead to the greatest spiritual experience I have ever had. 

I find myself wondering how to bring this kind of dedication back. Is it through knowing our close connection to God? Is it the desire to hear His voice so regularly? What is it that really holds me back on those nights I’m too tired?  Can I connect my will to God’s even when it’s not as urgent as life and death?

This story is continued in Will of the Father, Will of the Child, part 2

“I will be Enough”

My mother and father divorced when I was still an infant. One night, my mother watched me as I slept in my crib and cried saying to God, “Why did you give her to me? You knew this would happen, so why give me a child now? She deserves a mother and a father, brothers and sisters. I cannot give her those. I am not enough.”

In response, she heard the Spirit say, “I love her more than you ever could, and I will be enough.”

My mother told me that story when I was young, but it didn’t stick with me until she told it again after her cancer diagnosis. I had come home from college for a long weekend to be with her after her first surgery. Her cancer was advanced, stage IV metastatic breast cancer and with each new test, cancer was found in a new place: her lymph nodes, her shoulder, her spine, her hip, and her liver. They did not think she would live long but she wanted to be as aggressive as she could in treatment options to have as much time as possible.

I tried telling her she was enough, she always had been, but she stopped me and said, “No, I have always needed God. He loves you and knows you better than I do, and I have needed Him to tell me what to do many times. He will always take care of you, and He will be enough.”

I left her bedside and wondered how I could trust this promise. Her diagnosis was a difficult blow for me. I often felt she was my only family, my only true confidant. I could not envision a future without her. It wasn’t just a rug pulled out from under me, it was my entire world. Could an amorphous, unknowable, silent God fill such a void?

I thought about why I loved her. She loved me, she took care of me, she listened to me, and she taught me. Could Heavenly Father do all of those same things for me? John says that we love God because He first loved us (1John 4:19). He says that He will care for us as He does the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28-30). He hears our petitions and teaches us the mysteries of heaven.

Next, I thought about how I showed my love to my mother. I talked to her, I listened to her, I did things with her, I did things for her. I realized these are the same things Heavenly Father has asked me to do. All the commandments have this as their purpose. To spend time with God, involve Him in our lives, learn to hear His voice, do His work.

The parallels were there, and I wanted to try and build a close parent-child relationship with God, but the differences were also stark.  I started by reading the scriptures and ran into some problems right away. Some verses were confusing. I didn’t get to know my mother by reading other people’s stories about her, God just felt too far away. He wouldn’t take me out to dinner for my birthday, He was harder to hear than my mother over the phone, I didn’t know His laugh. I did know He could heal.

In the beginning, I prayed constantly for my mother to be healed. If He gave good gifts, and the greatest gift He ever gave me was my mother, then healing her would be an ideal way for Him to keep His promise.

I did not understand the promise at first, but as I turned to God, I learned more of what He could do. The greatest way I have found God is in prayer. He is not unknowable or silent. The next few posts are the story of how I learned the importance of spiritual things, spiritual healings, and what I consider the greatest miracles of all—unity with God. Because, He is enough.

No Self-Hatred Necessary, Welcome Home

God is so smart. I expected lectures and condescension when I got mad at Him and questioned His reasoning. Instead, the Spirit helped me remember my own past experiences. He gave me space and showed a tremendous amount of patience. Looking back on it now, if He had tried to send me a message about why my mother needed to die while my step-father got to be healed, I would not have responded well. 

My anger against God for the death of my mother did not stop my attending church. Rather, I attended with challenge in my heart. I practically dared God to comfort me with cliched platitudes, or to say that His ways were higher than my ways. In my mind, this would prove He didn’t know or care about me personally and that He was purely manipulative. When nothing came, I felt both vindicated and disappointed. Eventually, I came to crave the comfort, even if it was a platitude. I just wanted something.

I decided to go back to the temple. There was no grand sin that made me feel unworthy to be there, but rather the embarrassment of talking badly about someone behind their back, they over hear you, and then you have to go to their house and ask them for a favor. I definitely had my tail between my legs, head hanging in shame. An entire apology with generous amounts of self-flagellation was scripted in my head before I began.

I was worried about going into the Celestial Room—this is the one place I know for sure I will always feel the Spirit and I love how peace washes over me as I walk through the door—but what if it wasn’t peace this time and I met anger instead? I braced myself for a rebuke knowing that I deserved it. 

Before I could sit down and offer my prayer of self-recrimination, I felt the presence of God and His words, “Welcome back, Christen. I’ve missed you.” I felt loved. And that was it.

I sat down and tried to pray but nothing else would come. The words I had formulated beforehand disappeared and could not leave my lips. God, it seems, did not want me to rake myself over the coals. He simply wanted me to sit and relax. He did not try to explain Himself, He just let me feel loved and safe. 

We don’t need huge reasons or grand intricate plans before we accept others, ourselves, or Him. We simply need to feel loved and know that we are safe. He is infinitely patient and understanding. You don’t have to explain it to Him. He already knows what happened, what you were thinking and feeling.

He knew all the nasty things I thought about Him and He knew why. His feelings weren’t hurt, and He wasn’t out for vengeance. He just missed me.

He misses all of us. He will help us understand, show us the things we overlooked, teach us how to move forward. First, we need to let go. Be still, know that He is God, and God is love. 

Sometime after this, again at the temple, I offered an apology without self-hatred, just an acknowledgement of what I didn’t want to do again. As if sitting right beside me, He said, “Yes, we need to work on your conviction, and we will do it.”

I understood that we were a team. He did not abandon me because I was such a useless failure. I still had a purpose, a mission to fulfill, and we would do it together.