I’ve been mulling over these ideas for a number of years and have finally written them down. What do you think?
Several years ago I attended the dedication of the Mount Timpanogos Temple. Being at that time the executive secretary in our ward, I got tickets to sit in the celestial room during that session of the dedication. My wife and I ended up sitting in the third row, maybe six feet away from the podium at which stood the prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley. I will never forget what he said as he rose to speak to all of us. “Your being here at this temple tells me that you are the best people in the world.” He paused and added, “If you were honest in your recommend interviews.”
That statement encapsulates to me one way the church manages to keep its members committed and dedicated. Like a fish hook embedded in the mouth of a cutthroat trout, the church uses two seemingly contradictory premises to keep its members on the line:
1. You are better than “the world.”
2. You are not good enough.
Let’s look at these two beliefs. We’ve all heard people bear their testimonies of how much the church has blessed their lives and made them happier and more successful than they otherwise would have been. “I can’t imagine what my life would be if I didn’t have the church,” they say. And they describe those outside of the church as benighted and unhappy. Here’s Glenn Pace: “Compare the blessings of living the Word of Wisdom to those available to you if you choose to party with those in the great and spacious building. Compare the joy of intelligent humor and wit to drunken, silly, crude, loud laughter. Compare our faithful young women who still have a blush in their cheeks with those who, having long lost their blush, try to persuade you to join them in their loss. Compare lifting people up to putting people down. Compare the ability to receive personal revelation and direction in your life to being tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine. Compare holding the priesthood of God with anything you see going on in that great and spacious building” (Ensign, Nov 1987).
No, we were better than that. We had the truth, and the truth made us free and happy and safe. Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1996, “The greatest safety you have in your lives, my dear young friends, is your membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Cling to the Church and live its principles and I do not hesitate to promise you that your lives will be happy, that your accomplishments will be significant, and that you will have reason to get on your knees and thank the Lord for all He has done for you in giving to you the marvelous and wonderful opportunities that you have” (youth fireside, Vista, California, 23 Mar. 1996).
With such promises behind us, we were told, we could not help to be “a peculiar people,” a shining example to the world of the blessings God had given us. Donald Staheli of the Seventy said, “As you dare to be different, your exemplary conduct will not go unnoticed. Although you will be tried and tested, your faithful adherence to the Lord’s standards will be seen as a beacon in the night to those around you. Have the courage to be different when it is required of you to be true to the standards of the Church. You will be respected for it. And if occasionally you are not respected, you need not worry, because that is not the kind of association you will want or need in your future” (Ensign, Feb. 2009).
So we lived our lives desperately trying to live up to the standards set forth, to truly be examples of the believers so that we could help other people find the happiness we had. And that happiness depended on our church membership. In short, we needed the church to be happy, to be better than the world.
With this belief that we had the truth and that the truth made us happy, we felt a keen need to share our happiness with others. We knew, after all, that those outside our faith could not possibly find the same joy and happiness that we had found in the gospel.
As L. Tom Perry put it, “We are blessed with a great and noble heritage that offers a pathway to truth that veers dramatically from the so-called ways of the world. We need to remind ourselves about the value of our heritage so we do not underestimate its worth. I challenge the many Saints who are hiding in the corners to stand tall and proclaim loudly the treasured teachings of our common heritage, not with a spirit of pride or boasting but with a spirit of confidence and conviction” (Ensign, May 2001).
And we were confident, most of the time. We gladly served missions, invited our friends to church meetings, and looked for “missionary opportunities” in our everday lives. As President Hinckley put it, we conformed, and we thought we found happiness in that conformity. In short, we knew we needed the church to make us happy, to turn us into the “best people in the world.”
But something nagged at us. We knew we had the truth, the gospel that could bring us true joy, but we never quite felt good enough. Even at our most successful moments in life, we always felt like we should have done even more. We felt this way because, coupled with the idea that church membership brings happiness above and beyond what the world can give was the teaching that we could always do better.
Most of us, I would imagine, have been subjected to withering criticism from our church leaders for poor statistical performance or other perceived failures. I’ve written about the excitement I felt at learning that we would be hearing from a General Authority when I was on my mission, the only time during those two years that I would be in the presence of one of the Lord’s representatives. The man who spoke to us literally yelled at us for almost an hour, berating our poor performance, lack of commitment, and general laziness. My companion and I were crushed, but later we convinced ourselves that he was right: it didn’t matter how hard we were working; it wasn’t enough.
And so it is beyond missionary work. Since the days of President Kimball’s call to “lengthen your stride,” we have been told that we need to be better, to do better. The Lord is not satisfied with subpar numbers, and neither should we. Back in 1998, Russell Ballard held up President Hinckley as a model of hard work and dedication: “President Hinckley is doing all that he can do to accelerate the work. He is traveling the world to an unprecedented degree to strengthen and edify the Saints and to urge them upward and onward. … Our President is dynamically out in front, showing the way. The question we must all ask ourselves is, ‘Are we keeping pace with him?’ Each one of us must be prepared to answer that question. I can assure you that it is a subject of considerable discussion among the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. I hope the same is true of every council in every ward and stake in the Church. This is not the time to relax or to coast in our callings. Every council of the Church should be working together on ways to be more effective in preparing our members to be worthy to enjoy all the blessings of the Church and especially the blessings of the temple” (Ensign, Nov 1998).
Of course we all knew that our meager efforts could not compare to those of the prophet; we knew we did not measure up. So we felt guilty and inadequate.
Guilt in LDS terms is almost always spoken of as a positive, motivating emotion that will help us to repent and improve ourselves. In 1983, the Ensign published some guidelines for church members in choosing a mental-health counselor or therapist. One item stands out: “Does he or she feel that appropriate guilt or sorrow for wrongdoing can help someone make positive changes? (A therapist who feels that guilt itself is the problem may focus inappropriately on changing your feelings rather than on helping you change the behavior that causes the guilty feelings.)” (Ensign, Jan 1983). Notice that the idea that “guilt itself is the problem” is rejected out of hand in favor of “therapy” that focuses on repentance. With the idea of “appropriate guilt” in mind, we begin to understand the idea of guilt as a tool in getting church members to lengthen their strides.
It’s not surprising, then, that in Mormonism, repentance isn’t just a turning away from sins as in some other religions, it’s a painful, soul-wrenching experience. Russell Ballard put it this way: “Sin will always, always, result in suffering. It may come sooner, or it may come later, but it will come. The scriptures state that you will ‘stand with shame and awful guilt before the bar of God’ (Jacob 6:9) and that you will experience ‘a lively sense of … guilt, and pain, and anguish.’ (Mosiah 2:38.) A related misconception is that repentance is easy. President Kimball said that ‘one has not begun to repent until he has suffered intensely for his sins. … If a person hasn’t suffered, he hasn’t repented.’ (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, pp. 88, 99.) You need only talk to a person who has truly repented of serious sin to understand that the momentary pleasure of an immoral act is simply not worth the pain that always follows” (Ensign, Nov 1990). For whatever reason, when we’re dealing with the Jesus of Mormonism, His yoke is not particularly easy, and his burden is quite heavy.
We were so busy in the church, and we had so much “potential” to live up to, and yet we never felt good enough. We felt guilty for not putting everything we had into our callings. We felt responsible for everything from the failure of a ward social to an occasional “impure thought.” We were even counseled to assess our part of the blame even when we were victimized by someone else. Richard Scott said, “At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout into bitter fruit” (Ensign, May 1992).
So here we were with this unsolvable conundrum: how can we not be good enough or happy enough when we have the tools to make us both happier and better people?
The answer to both was simple: we needed the church. We needed the church and its teaching and programs to keep us better and happier than the rest of the world. And we needed the church to make us better and happier than we currently were.
It was a kind of carrot-and-stick approach to life, as if we were strapped into a harness with the carrot of happiness and perfection ahead of us, always out of reach, but with the stick of worldliness behind us, threatening to bruise us and damage us.
In the end, we never got to the happiness, and we were left with the guilt and remorse of our failures. And that, ironically, is what kept us in the church.