Every Latter-day Saint is familiar with the Book of Mormon scripture, “Adam fell that man might be; and men are that they might have joy.”
I was going to write this morning about why it’s OK to be angry, but I realized that there’s a bigger issue than not having the right to be angry; it’s that we were not really allowed to feel much of anything at all. Yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but our emotions and feelings were always to be held in check.
Some gems from the Ensign illustrate these teachings:
“A young mother once turned to a wise old man for advice. ‘What should I teach my son?’ she asked. The man replied, ‘Teach him to deny himself'” (Bruce and Marie Hafen, “Bridle All Your Passions,” Ensign, Feb. 1994, 14).
“There are absolutely two ways you can control a horse. (We learned a little bit about horses last night.) One is to kill it; one is to bridle it. …
“A horse is stronger than a man, so the man bridles it, thus controlling its power and using that power for good. Passions are stronger than we are, so we bridle them, thus controlling their power and using that power to strengthen a marriage and forge it into eternity. One has to know how to bridle a horse or a passion” (Paul Dunn, “Teach ‘the Why,’ ” Ensign, Nov. 1981, 71).
“One of the last, subtle strongholds of selfishness is the natural feeling that we “own” ourselves. Of course we are free to choose and are personally accountable. Yes, we have individuality. But those who have chosen to “come unto Christ” soon realize that they do not “own” themselves. Instead, they belong to Him. We are to become consecrated along with our gifts, our appointed days, and our very selves. Hence, there is a stark difference between stubbornly “owning” oneself and submissively belonging to God. Clinging to the old self is not a mark of independence, but of indulgence!” (Neal Maxwell, “Put Off the Natural Man, and Come Off Conqueror,” Ensign, Nov. 1990, 14).
And of course many of us are familiar with the symbolism “that desires, appetites, and passions are to be kept within the bounds the Lord has set.”
But this kind of hemmed in experience is not what Joseph Smith taught. He said, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.” The irony of this quote is its context: a letter proposing sexual union with Nancy Rigdon. The commandment in this case that he’s telling her to be faithful to is becoming his “wife” in secret, even from his first wife Emma (and presumably all his other wives).
Joseph seems to have understood happiness in terms of sexual gratification, but I very much doubt that any of the brethren would see it in those terms today. No, there’s a strange effort to contain the range of human emotions in Mormonism. It’s OK, for example, to weepily tell stories of the miraculous in testimony meeting; it’s not OK, though, to have any strong emotional response to a bad decision by church leadership. It’s fine to have companionship with your spouse; it’s not fine to have passion and even lust within that relationship (Spencer Kimball described it as ‘animal’ passion).
From my own experience, I was often at war with myself. My natural man (the enemy of God, natch) was curious about the way other people lived their lives. That part of me liked looking at beautiful bodies, enjoyed “impure” music (Nine Inch Nails was a guilty pleasure), and told bawdy jokes. But the Mormon in me battered my soul because of these failures, decried my weakness, loathed my passions.
One consequence of learning the fraudulent nature of the church is that people get angry, not only at being lied to, but also at being denied the feelings, the passions they always had. And at being made to feel guilty for having them. But the brighter result is that most of us lose that overwrought asceticism and find joy in living a passionate life. This is not to say that we’re living debauched lives of depravity; nope, we’re just admitting who we are and finding joy happiness in that.
Isn’t it wonderful?