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.