Maturing Love and Discipleship

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of people who joined the church right around the time that I did, or shortly afterwards leave the church. Some are people that I taught as a missionary, while others are friends that helped and encouraged me along the way. Some have been prominent in the Mormon blogging community, while others have likely never even seen a Mormon blog. Some have left over controversial topics such as female ordination or gay marriage, while others have taken offense or drifted away for a wide variety of reasons—and really each  person who leaves has a deeply personal reason for doing so.

I’ve reflected a lot lately on the question of why I am still here, while so many friends I know have left.  One of my friends posted a video of a break up song on her blog post announcing her decision to leave the Church, and that got me thinking about the relationship between romance and love, and the decision to join and remain active in the Church.

When people first fall in love, it is filled with frenetic  and passionate romance. It is hard to sleep because you are so excited about your relationship. You can hardly think about anything else. You frustrate your friends, because all you want to do is talk about your beloved. This is a period where you believe that your love can do nothing wrong, and you tend to only see the best things about him or her. It is an exciting time where you see the world through rose tinted glasses.

But anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that these feelings cannot last forever. Eventually, all relationships hit roadblocks. You might learn some facts that make you question the person you thought you loved.  You might feel betrayed or hurt. More frequently,  I think that people just allow those feelings they once had to become routine. Our relationships begin to lose energy and excitement and enter into a rut. We begin going through the motions. We begin to think that we are not appreciated, wanted or needed.

Of course, we can and must continue to have romantic and passionate experiences. You must keep your passion alive. But the kind of head over heels love cannot last. I don’t think our mortal bodies and minds can remain at the same level of raw emotional intensity forever.  If we continue to expect it, we will become discouraged or even despondent without it.

Instead, our love and our relationship must evolve. We must develop a mature devotion to one another. We must learn to see and accept flaws and imperfections. More importantly, we must learn that our relationship is not about us, and that a relationship is more about serving than being served. We must put aside the desire to be constantly happy, entertained, or amused. Put aside childish things and learn to love with a mature love. The scriptural term that I think best defines this love is charity.

So many relationship flounder and eventually die out because individuals fail to make this vital transition from romance to mature love. And I think so many testimonies tend to flounder and die for precisely the same reason.

For every new convert, or newly converted in heart, the early days are likewise frenetic and passionate. You   can’t sleep because you want to read into the night. You can hardly think about anything else. You frustrate your friends, because all you want to talk about is your testimony or the cool thing you learned about from Church history. You believe that the church can do no wrong and you see only the best things about it. It is an exciting time where you see the world through gospel tinted glasses.

But those feelings cannot last forever. Eventually, you hit a road block. Some might find out a fact that challenges their testimony. You might feel betrayed or hurt More frequently, I think that people just allow those same feelings that they once had to become routine. Our scripture study, prayer, and church attendance loses its energy and excitement. We begin going through the motions. We begin to think that we are not appreciated, wanted or needed.

Of course, we can and must continue to have spiritual experiences. You must keep your passion for the gospel alive. But the kind of head over heels love cannot last. I don’t think our mortal bodies and minds can remain at the same level of raw emotional intensity forever. If we continue to expect it, we will become discouraged or even despondent without it.

Instead, our testimonies and our faith must evolve. We must develop a mature devotion towards God and our fellow brothers and sisters. We must learn to see and accept flaws and imperfections. More importantly, we must learn that our membership in the church is not about us, and that it is more about serving than being served. We must put aside the desire to be constantly happy, entertained, or amused. Put aside childish things and learn to love with a mature love. We must develop true charity and become true Disciples of Christ.

We live in a society and culture where romantic love is passionately portrayed, but mature devotion is rarely celebrated. It is no wonder that the divorce rate is high and that broken homes are rampant. We also live in a society and a culture where intense spiritual passion is celebrated, but mature disciple-like devotion is scorned. It is no wonder that we see so many disaffected from religion and wandering . If we are to avoid suffering that same fate, we must learn to transform our immature seed of love into a deeply rooted sapling which will grow and bring forth fruit. With both our relationships and our religious worship it is worth it.


20 thoughts on “Maturing Love and Discipleship

  1. I’m not so concerned about those who leave the Church as those who fall in love with the fact that they’re leaving the Church. When people become infatuated with their flight from God, it takes more for God to bring them back, because the fleeing person is vested in “being right” in having left.

    The Mormon view of a “humanized” Lucifer shows the way pride and willful opposition can turn anyone, even the best and brightest, into an enemy of God.

    A secondary challenge for Mormons who leave Mormonism is that they often leave Christianity and belief altogether, while other Christians who leave their past form of Christian belief are more likely to find a different Christian or faith-based “home.”

    As for friends who post their “break-up” stuff, realize that they are also seeing the happy announcements about missions or baby blessings or other “I am an active and believing Mormon” messages from friends who remain in the faith. Keep these things up. Because just as people fall out of infatuation with the Church, it is possible to fall out of infatuation with having left the Church.

  2. Daniel O, I think this is good advice. News flash: every Church meeting will not always be interesting; every Sacrament talk will not always be stimulating; every trip to the temple will not be uplifting. Sometimes you just go because you feel a need to. But that is life. When you wake up next to your spouse after you have been married for years, sometimes you will feel overwhelming love and sometimes indifference and sometimes even annoyance. Every person who has been married knows what I am talking about.

    One of the points I have been trying to make on this blog for a decade now is that Church meetings are not all about you and your need to be entertained. Sometimes the talk is about the speaker and his or her need to learn how to give a talk. Sometimes the talk is about somebody else who needs to hear a lesson. If we think about the Savior and about others — and put away our petty desire that every meeting be about our own fulfillment — we will have a better attitude.

    In our ward we have been having some success in reactivating people who have left the Church for years. What works best is visiting, friendship and fellowship. When people see that you really care they can set aside the worries of the world and come back to Church.

    One last point, Daniel O: don’t let it get you down that some of your friends have left. Some will come back, others will not. Everybody has his or her own journey. Just try to do the best you can with your circumstances. The good news is that when you do this — trying your best on a daily basis to follow the Savior — you will often feel joy. And when you look back at who you were before you joined the Church you will marvel at your growth and happiness. That has been my experience.

  3. Great post. I believe that the spirit of apostasy is real and takes over people. it’s a dark and encompassing. It takes over your soul and blinds you to the light of God and the gospel. I have felt it before, but fought it like the plague and kicked quickly out of my life. It’s like a million minions hovering over you. But prayer, study and the Spirit of the Lord can get you out of there. If you entertain these minions in your house they will stay and never leave and take over it and you become a happy slave without even noticing. Yes, you do fall out of Love with God and His church, but it’s your own fault you allowed these minions to talk your ear off with bad things about your beloved. The worse part is, like every break up, falling out of love and separating (divorcing) leaves very deep lasting wounds and scars, which causes you to not want to even be near your “ex”. With time and when you mature and realized that you shouldn’t have listen to the minions then you may want to be friends again even get back together.

    Joseph said that people leave the church, but they cannot leave it alone, and the reason is because it’s hard to forget and leave true love behind.

  4. Excellent thoughts from all three of you. It is not surprising that the comparison between marriage and our relationship to God is a theme throughout the scriptures.

  5. Thanks for writing this. I have had many friends leave the church, and it just makes me so sad. I hope they all have a change of heart.

    I appreciate Meg’s comment — the people that fall in love with leaving, concern me the most.

  6. As a convert (of now 48 years, joined at age 14, only member in my family to join, ever), and as someone who married his high school sweetheart, found himself (unexpectedly and against my wishes) divorced at age 32, then happily remarried at age 33, I have learned two important lessons:

    — Love is a matter of daily choice.
    — Faith is a matter of daily choice.

    When I married my current wife (in 1986) — who likewise had been through a divorce she neither wanted nor asked for — she had some anxiety over my professions of love. She would ask why I loved her; I would give her one or more reasons; and she’d say, “But what if that changes? Will you still love me?” And then one day it hit me that the only really effective answer I could give was, “I love you because I choose to love you. And I will always choose to love you.” And that comforted her, and has continued to comfort her, in ways that none of my earlier declarations did.

    Not long after that, I realized that the same thing was true about faith. I could talk about the profound nature of the witness I received when investigating the Church — not miraculous (in the regular sense), but a deep-in-my-bones certainty of the reality of the Restoration. I could talk about the many witnesses of the Spirit since then, and the few truly miraculous experiences. I could talk about my lifelong, extensive study of the scriptures, of the Gospel, and of Church history. But that’s not what’s most important.

    What’s important is that on a day-to-day basis, I have faith in God, in the Gospel, and in the Church because I choose to. I believe that’s the ultimate exercise of agency required of us in this life. Contra Protestant criticism of Mormonism, it is not our works, our good deeds and obedience, that save us; it is our daily choice of faith, which itself keeps correcting our course back to repentance, obedience, and love.

    It is popular in some circles to mock the “Doubt your doubts” counsel given in General Conference, but that’s perfectly logical advice if we look at it in another context: marriage. If I spend all my time finding fault with my wife, criticizing her past, and focusing on my doubts as to whether I should have married her, or should stay married to her, how long do you think my marriage will last? Love will, in fact, die, and I will find plenty of reasons to leave her — and by so doing will miss out on a wonderful marriage with her in this life and a truly glorious eternity with her in the next. What’s more, if I carry that same “intellectual honesty” into my next marriage, it will end the same way as well, and so on. (I have, in fact, seen that pattern in some men I have known, who end up marrying three or four times.)

    So it is with our relationship with Christ and His Church. He asks that we have faith, and that we endure to the end in that faith, and gives us the agency to do so. The rest is up to us.

  7. I’ve been fairly lucky that most of my family and friends have stayed faithful. But there have been painful exceptions.

    I’ve tried to discern the reasons as best as I can. Superficially:

    One left because he was gay and unwilling to remain celibate. That doesn’t have any obvious lessons in my own life, since I’m not gay.

    Two left and a third is teetering, because a newfound political ideology came in conflict with their testimonies. There are some very obvious lessons there for me in my own life, starting with there is no salvation in politics.

    Most of the rest just kind of drifted off. I think bfwebster nailed the lesson to be learned from that.

  8. I like Daniel O’s comparison of one’s testimony to romantic love and agree with it to a great degree. Decades ago I came to view my own testimony as similar to filial love. I noticed this in the several years after my mission, i.e. that my love/testimony of the Church was much like my love for my parents. The love was always there and ran deep. However, whether Church or parents, there were times when the emotions of that love were near overflowing and other times that yes, there was love, but it was just an intellectual acknowledgment, with commitment of course.

    I ran across a Scientific American article in June 2015 which may in part explain this shift in my emotions in the decade after my mission. It was entitled “The Amazing Teen Brain” and presented the latest scientific findings as to how the brain matures. To make a long story short I will quote one portion: “The most recent studies indicate…a mismatch between the maturation of networks in the limbic system, which drives emotions and becomes turbo-boosted in puberty, and the maturation of networks in the pre-frontal cortex, which occurs later and promotes sound judgement and the control of impulses. Indeed, we know now that the pre-frontal cortex continues to change prominently until well into a person’s twenties.”

    Could this personal brain maturation be the reason that, around age 25, I could no longer “get into” (for hours) writing poetic verse in regards to romantic love or love and testimony of God? Prose would now have to suffice!

    I have wondered much since reading the article as to how its findings could be incorporated, if at all, into the teaching of teens and twenty-somethings in the Church. The Spirit works on both our minds (intellect?) and our hearts (emotions?) and may do so throughout our lives, but it may be that for the young adult to just past the mission years the emotional aspect of testimony is easiest to address. Not all, but many, young people certainly catch the fire of the Gospel. It is in the mid to late 20’s, when the rational part of the brain catches up at the same time that the reality of life becomes fully exposed, that may be more difficult. That is the part that I wonder about: how do we best address this time of “pre-frontal cortex dominance” to people in their 20’s? I can look at my own life in retrospect and see why things unfolded the way they did, but can we prepare young people ahead of time to better navigate those years? I don’t know. Perhaps these romantic love musings of Daniel O are a way into it. I did write a letter home on my mission describing the conversations my companion and I had about the marriage partners we anticipated upon returning. I received a quite immediate and sharp (surprising!) letter from my Mother back telling me that no such imagined partner existed, and if I thought so it would be better to remain single and, by the way, these…are the realities of marriage and what I need to look for in a partner and what I need to develop in myself to make it through decades of married life. I chafed at that for a couple decades, but by and large, for the last 20-30 years have come to realize how right my Mother was, and how the mature love my Parents had was exactly what I have come to cherish for myself and my wife. How might all this translate into a testimony of God and the Church? Wow, that would be long series of discussions and a difficult one to boot. Terms are so imprecise and thoughts so difficult to put on paper.

    Here is something to illustrate the difficulty of that expression: I think it is possible to keep that intense romantic love alive, but infused into intellect in a much more satisfying way. I think the intensity of emotion is the same, but the emotion is no longer like a bare wire exposed ready to spark anyone who draws near. The wire is now sheathed and conducts even more electricity than before and as such, much more work (fruit?) is accomplished, whether in terms of love for spouse or for God and Church. What do I mean by all this? Well, I kind of know, but I don’t expect anyone else to nor necessarily how to do so in the way that I do.

    One last thing to throw into the mix: what is it like to experience the Spirit? It is necessary, yes, to fully develop love and testimony of God but what is it really like? There are so many ways it is described in scripture as to how the Spirit becomes manifest to our physical being; but I think all of those (whether they mention heart, mind, bosom, taste, remembrance, etc. etc.) are ways of describing what it is “like” but not really what it “is”. I can’t really describe what it is for me anymore…I can start to get at it, but not fully come to it in words. All of this may seem to most to make an unnecessary mystery out of the whole thing. So be it. It’s imprecise, but honest. What did Harold B. Lee mean by describing testimony as like a moonbeam, needing to be recaptured every day of our lives? I think he knew, but had to grasp at the term “moonbeam” to attempt to describe it to physical ears and minds. The way the Spirit interacts with our spirits, something individual, eternal and brought here to grapple with our physical beings for several decades, is something our physical beings struggle to put into words in a physical world.

  9. Thank goodness for deep thinkers. The post, and comments, have been very illuminating and contain great observations.

  10. @KGB “One left because he was gay and unwilling to remain celibate. ”

    Would it be slightly more accurate to say ‘did not want to’ than ‘was unwilling’? – in the sense that (please correct me if I am mistaken) he would not need to *leave* the CJCLDS if he acknolwedged that he *should* remain celibate, and tried but (repeatedly) failed and repented.

    He would, I presume, probably not qualify for a Temple recommendation and not be called to responsible positions etc; but would not be required actuially to leave the church, or be excommunicated; so long as he kept trying, did not challenge the teachings, and did not argue that he had done right.

    Is this right?

  11. Bruce, you may be right. Only the writer knows the exact circumstances. Some M* writers, including myself, have been involved in church discipline. What usually happens (and this applies to both same-sex and opposite-sex situations) is that a person who does not keep the law of chastity is given Church discipline only if the person wants to continue being active in the Church. Most people who break the law of chastity are never brought before Church councils at all: they usually just stop coming to Church on their own. So, it would be correct to describe these people as “unwilling” to remain celibate. There are, however, some cases out there of people who try to remain celibate but occasionally fail and repent. These people are sometimes (and sometimes not) brought before Church councils and may be disfellowshipped or excommunicated. I think the Spirit usually shows members of the Church councils whether the people involved are truly repentant or not.

    Another point: anybody can come to Sacrament meeting and other church meetings. The restrictions have to do with whether a person can hold a calling, say prayers at the meetings, or get a temple recommend.

  12. Regarding the maturation of the pre-frontal cortex, there are plenty of people who have been fired by either romantic love or religious passion well after the years when their pre-frontal cortex should have reached its mature state.

    One of the dangers, however, is when young people commit to dubious life paths (e.g., not pursuing college education) during that volatile time when their pre-frontal cortex is in flux. Once their brains mature, they may “maturely” continue on their dubious path even once the passions that led to stupid have become a thing of the past.

  13. Meg…the limbic system is influential throughout life and in the life of any individual and the push/pull of limbic/prefrontal, emotion/rational will always be there along with all the other brain areas/systems to complicate things. Personally, I have been fired by romantic love & religious passion much more after age 50 than in anytime before. including my young adult years. The article in Scientific American dealt with two exceptionally influential areas of the brain that both begin to mature rapidly at puberty, but at different rates. The maturation and connections between the limbic and prefrontal areas that formed the basis of the study come from serial MRI scans in multiple individuals over time. Previously, such studies could not be done because of radiation/chemical exposure risks.

  14. Bruce,

    He wished to come out of the closet and marry his boyfriend, which he did in fact later do. Call it what you want.

  15. @Geoff B – Thanks for that clarification.

    @KGB – Clearly that is a lot more specific, active and oppositional than I had assumed from “gay and unwilling to remain celibate” – it is an explicit, public act of defiance of the legitimacy of the church and the validity of its teaching.

    There is, I believe, a gulf of difference (the difference between salvation and chosen damnation) between human weakness leading to sins which are repented (again and again perhaps); and an active denial that sin is sin – and the further step of actively promoting sin – and the further step (now mainstream in The West, and enforced) of regarding sin as morally superior to virtue.

    Christianity is about repentance – not reform – which may not be possible, and is impossible completely; but higher standards of successful reform of actual behaviour (above and beyond repentance) are properly required for priests, pastors, leaders etc.

    Almost-all Mormons are, in a sense either actual Priests (men) or held to the same standard as Priests (women) – which I think somewhat accounts for the higher standard of Mormon behaviour among Christians (most of whom are divided into Priests +/- monks/ nuns; and laity of whom is required a lower standard of behaviour.

    Some low church Protestants lack Priests – i.e. deny the legitimacy of Priests – and these are exactly those churches that require a uniformly high standard ‘Priest-like’ of behaviour from their church members). Mormons are I think unique among Christians in regarding the Priesthood as both legitimate and also (almost) universal.

  16. That is the problem with today’s younger generation. They give up too easily Marriage is hard work at times but it is well worth in in my opinion as you get a life long friend and some on to share the ups and down with it is the same with religion or your chosen faith staying strong at time can be hard.

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