Some Thoughts on Discipleship and “Staying Mormon”

[Edit: the original author responded —]

I recently read a blog post that was posted or liked by a few of my Facebook friends: “How to Stay Mormon When You’re Tired of Mormons.” The intended audience of the post is those who wrestle with questions about some of the things that the Church teaches, or with elements of Church culture, but who nonetheless still believe and want to attend — but who feel out of place because of their questions, and their dissenting opinions on some elements of Church teaching and culture.

Today I would like to echo the message of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf in a recent General Conference: all are welcome and wanted, wherever they stand. He explains, “There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty.” He goes on to say:

If you could see into our hearts, you would probably find that you fit in better than you suppose. You might be surprised to find that we have yearnings and struggles and hopes similar to yours. Your background or upbringing might seem different from what you perceive in many Latter-day Saints, but that could be a blessing. Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.

I think that it is vital that we reach out to those who sometimes wonder if they fit in, who struggle some elements of Church teaching, who are irritated by other members or some elements of Church culture. We must ensure that all feel welcome here. We should each examine our own words and behaviors and ensure that we are doing all we can to invite, not to exclude, those who are not as convinced as we are of some of the teachings of the Church and its leaders. We must do all we can to make sure that those who don’t feel they fit in are made to feel wanted and welcome. Because these are brothers and sisters — not strangers or foreigners.

Three Suggestions

I wanted to make three suggestions of my own for “how to stay Mormon when you’re tired of Mormons.” I personally don’t like this title — it assumes that Mormons are tiring, and it implicates anyone who is not on team “doubting” of being somehow part of the problem. It’s divisive. I would prefer the title, “How to Stay Mormon when You Don’t Feel Like You Fit In,” or “How to Stay Mormon when You Aren’t Convinced of Everything the Church Teaches.” Because these titles don’t cast aspersions on fellow members of the Church. But that’s a minor quibble. My major quibble with the post was that there was nary a mention of Christ and the covenants we make with Him. So here goes:

1. Remember that Christ is the cornerstone of our faith. It is Him we are seeking. It is He with whom we walk our daily walk. We are not saved by a set of abstract doctrines, we are saved by Christ. The focus of our meetings isn’t always on Christ, but it should be (none of us are perfect). He is at the head of this Church, not President Thomas S. Monson (who is simply a mortal representative). The Church bears His name. So the first thing to remember is that if you believe in this Church at all, it is because it is His Church. And that right there should motivate our deepest loyalties.

2. Find opportunities to communicate with God. Seek Him out in daily prayer. Prioritize reading and pondering on His word. Find quiet times to converse with Him, and pour out your concerns and your thoughts. Attend the temple and feel the Spirit there. And all of this, do humbly. Our task is not to plead with God to change His Church, the teachings of His servants, or even elements of culture we dislike. You may be right about all of your complaints about Church culture. Our task in prayer, however, is to plead with God to make us into a pure and wholesome people. It is to seek personal transformation.

3. Remember the covenants we have made with God. That’s what it means to be Mormon. It doesn’t mean that we assent to some list of abstract doctrines (even though we may covenant to do just that, for at least a few core teachings). It doesn’t mean that we were born in Utah or participate in some cultural movement. When you cut through the layers of culture, assumptions, and lifestyles associated with “being Mormon,” at the center lies a covenant (entered into by ritual) with God. That is the defining characteristic of being Mormon. We are a people who have promised ourselves to God.

And so when you are “tired of Mormons,” or “don’t feel like you fit in,” or are wondering about certain aspects of Church teaching and culture, and are unsure of what’s essential and what’s not, here’s the best thing to do (in my opinion): remind yourself of what you have covenanted with God to do, and throw yourself into that work. Look outwards. Mourn with those that mourn. Comfort those that need comfort. Work a little extra to give a more generous fast offering. Genuinely and fervently minister to those within your stewardship (be it family, home or visiting teachees, students in a class or youth group, etc.). Stand as a witness of God. Throw yourself into keeping the covenants described in scripture, and all else will fade into the background.

On Expressive Individualism and Discipleship

While pondering these issues, I thought a bit about expressive individualism. It is absolutely true that our personal standing before God matters far, far more than our standing before men — in fact, how others think of us simply doesn’t matter at all. It’s what God thinks of us that matters. It is also absolutely true that personal revelation is at the core of our faith. We should seek a personal relationship with God. And it’s also true that each of our life journeys will be unique — each of our “stone walls” may look a bit different. We all have our own experiences and unique witnesses. I have no quibbles with any of that.

However, expressive individualism is a philosophy that assertions of individuality are a higher virtue than meticulous adherence to moral tradition. It assumes that life involves a conflict between the self and the traditions and expectations of society, and that a flourishing life requires that the self win this conflict and assert complete moral autonomy. In other words, others don’t get to tell us what is right — we get to decide that for ourselves. And we should follow whatever path we feel is right for us, regardless if others may disagree.

On the surface, there’s little to disagree with here. After all, shouldn’t we follow God, even when all the world wants us to go the other direction? Shouldn’t we follow personal revelation, even when all the world tell us our answers are wrong? After all, damn tradition if tradition is man-made and keeps me from serving God and fellow man. However, what’s missing from expressive individualism is humility, a submissiveness that says at all times, “Not my will, but thine be done.” It is this genuine submissiveness to God that is a hallmark of Christian discipleship.

As Latter-day Saints and as Christians, we believe that in a war between self and tradition, if either wins, both lose. There is a third alternative that is not abandoning self in service of tradition, nor shirking tradition in service of the self. That third alternative is to become disciples of Christ. While tradition says “follow the rules,” and while expressive individualism says, “follow your heart,” Christ, in contrast to both, says, “Follow thou me.” Christ cuts through the competing demands of both self and tradition, and invites us to make Him our Master, rather than self or tradition. I like to imagine Him saying, “Follow thou me, and I will make the rules and change your heart.” In the battle between tradition and self, the only victory we should seek is the victory of Christ over both.

I think we sometimes approach religion a little too consumeristically — the questions asked are not, how might I become more Holy, more Pure, more Christlike, but rather, “How is the Church benefitting me?” We find fault with the Church, rightly or wrongly, rather than looking inwards and calling upon God to help us become renewed and better people. The Church is full of blessings and benefits both spiritually and socially — some might say an embarrassment of riches — but those who benefit the most are those who do not jealously eye their pile of benefits, but see and seek opportunities to serve God and others instead.

There are important questions, of course, to be answered. For example, what happens when repeated, ongoing counsel from prophets and apostles conflicts with our own understanding of the world? I think that’s where heart of the difficulty lies — some of us simply don’t believe that certain teachings and counsel from prophets and apostles come from God. (I don’t count myself as one of these — at least on issues where apostles and prophets have spoken unanimously and repeatedly.) This can create a real discord within the hearts and minds of members of the Church (and amongst each other).

The question of individualism vs. discipleship influences how we approach these sorts of questions. The individualist will assume from the outset that such counsel is part of the “traditions of men,” and will treat invitations to follow such counsel with suspicion (unless and until it can be made sensible within their worldview). Thus, they will encourage you to stop thinking about how “Church leaders” might view you, but to focus instead on God. Counsel from prophets and apostles starts to blend into and become indistinguishable from “opinions of others*, which we should ignore and follow our heart instead. To me, this is really an elevation of one’s own wisdom — a stance of pride.

The disciple will acknowledge that counsel from the Lord sometimes does conflict with our own understanding, will seek guidance from God through all venues (prayer, scriptures, the Holy Spirit, modern prophet, temple worship), and strive to be teachable. This does not presume the ultimate answers one way or the other, but it does determine the starting point and attitude with which we approach the questions. The disciple will prayerfully consult scripture and the Holy Spirit as they study the words of prophets — and they will acknowledge that God may indeed call mortal, imperfect men to be stewards of His vineyard, and He may indeed hold us accountable for how we treat their counsel.

Again, I’m not presuming anything one way or another about the ultimate answers, except that the disciple will start from the position that prophets and apostles may be right and seek to be teachable, and the individualist will start from the position that prophets and apostles may be wrong, and use that to rationalize their dissent. (Conversely, the traditionalist will start form the position that prophets and apostles are right, but will not be teachable, nor seek a personal testimony through the Spirit of these things.)

For me, I also like to think of these issues in terms of the Parable of the Faithful Husband: if we think of our relationship with the Church of Christ as a marriage, what is our first reaction when we see flaws in our spouse? Does a loyal spouse gossip about them in the marketplace, or does the loyal spouse humbly seek to serve and love their spouse?

I appreciate that the author of the original post didn’t spend it opining about the faults of the Church, but focusing on what we can do instead. That is a good approach. I just felt that the suggestions given focused way more attention on the self, how we can take care of the self, how we can be true to ourselves, etc., and not enough attention on God and His will. For the most part, I appreciated the post and the thoughts that is prompted — the author clearly wants people to stay in the Church, and clearly believes in the Church. I just felt that there is nothing better that we can do when we feel like we don’t fit in than focus on Christ and the covenants we have made with Him.

17 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Discipleship and “Staying Mormon”

  1. I appreciate the posting, and your approach. Your “minor quibble” about the referenced blog’s title and it’s casting aspersions on active Mormons is, for me, a major quibble (a quibble, by definition, still being small). I wish those who are having “faith crises” could still be kind to their fellow Latter-day Saints. What if, after a crisis is over and one has returned to full and welcome participation, he or she learns that his or her mocking and so forth has damaged the faith of someone else? Innocent collateral damage? Let us all try to be more like Christ, those who are safe in the fold and those who are on the edge and those who are leaving the fold.

  2. As an introvert, I get the “forget about those other people and focus on your own relationship with God” approach. But the trouble is, God asks us to participate in communal worship because He wants us to become a community. We cannot truly love God without being reconciled to our brothers and sisters; so this idea of being “tired of Mormons” is something that needs to be overcome, not indulged and cultivated. That doesn’t mean we have to agree; but it means we have to forgive and love each other; and maybe ask ourselves why we would write about the challenges of “how to stay Mormon when you’re tired of Mormons” but not necessarily about “How to stay a liberal when you’re tired of liberals” or “how to stay an actress when you’re tired of actors” or “how to work in education when you’re tired of educators”.

  3. JimD, great comments. Being “at odds” with, or experiencing animosity or resentment towards, or being irritated by our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ is something to overcome.

  4. LDSP, I like your three points, which have also helped me, particularly the last one. A covenant is a covenant. Its something you keep for the long haul.

    God says in D&C, “every man walketh after a god of his own image…an idol which shall perish.” In a pluralistic democracy, anyone’s personal views are legit, and become their “god.” But most of us still submit ourselves (even unwittingly) to some kind of authority. The wisest among us recognise that our minds are easily deceived, and we seek out authorities to trust upon which have a tradition and a weight greater than our own. The LDS authority is one authority. But science also claims authority, as do the various cultural factions of society. Which “god” presents the truest claim? Which authority has the best fruits? How shall we know which to choose?

    I think most of us choose the “god” which most closely reflects our individual proclivities, and which we see as the most “just” or “good.” Some people feel “called” to this or that, by some kind of internal voice, by their heart. This internal voice is the same whether you become a nun, a Mormon, or even an atheist. For a fanatical atheist, the moral call to science is almost like mission call, combatting the evils of religion, just as any Evangelical feels called to save souls for Jesus.

    The problem for Mormons “tired of Mormons” is that really, their own individuality no longer reflects the LDS culture surrounding them. They are strangers and foreigners among the Saints. Their individual nature is not inclined to proclaiming exclusive truth claims and harping on conformity to the LDS ideal. This is a peculiar problem. Most conservative Mormons have projected their consciousness and subconsciousness very strongly on the LDS ideal, and it feels in every way like the natural way, it feels good, moral, right, universal. But it doesn’t feel that way to Mormons who are “tired of Mormons.”

    For these Mormons, if they are to stay in the church, they must somehow be convinced that the LDS God is THE God, regardless of how arbitrary and absurd his church is, how strait and narrow and conservative it is, and even if the fruits seem bitter. I think the only way to do this is to receive a revelation. When you get a spiritual call, you don’t ask where it goes, even through the valley of the shadow of death, even through a land of strangers and foreigners.

  5. I appreciated the original blog, because I agree that everyone probably feels on the outside sometimes. It’s not a matter of “casting aspersions” on other members, most of the time there is a “they,” members that put people on the outside that don’t fit in their box.
    You give a lot of good Christ centered ideas. I think the problem the other author was addressing isn’t a Gospel issue. It is a social one that sometimes makes it hard to get the spiritual lesson in a church setting that isn’t making a connection with the Holy Ghost easy.

  6. Shannon: “I think the problem the other author was addressing isn’t a Gospel issue. It is a social one that sometimes makes it hard to get the spiritual lesson in a church setting that isn’t making a connection with the Holy Ghost easy.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this at all. If members are alienating others because of cultural or personal differences in opinion or lifestyle, that’s a Gospel problem — they need to repent. If members are feeling alienated because they have rejected some central tenets of the Gospel (such as the law of chastity), that’s also a Gospel problem — they need to repent. There’s no tidy division between Gospel and social problems; whether members are being divisive over non-essential things, or rejecting core Church teaching and counsel, divisions will occur, and in both scenarios, repentance needs to happen. And in all such scenarios, the solution is to turn to Christ.

  7. I feel awkward doing this, but I just have to kind of get it out of the way–I’m the author of the original blog. I was a little nervous to read your response simply because not all of the comments and responses have been kind. But I love love love these thoughts. Thank you so much for sharing them. I’m so grateful for your humility, your kindness and your words. You articulated a lot of thoughts that I actually share, but just wasn’t able to communicate as clearly. Do you mind if I share this response on my own blog?

  8. You said all this so much better than I could have.

    As a sometimes-struggling lifetime member and incurable skeptic, I’ve had to diligently seek for truth, experience doubt, and make leaps of faith too many times to count. There’s never been a time when I thought I fit in completely with my local LDS culture, further complicating things. Yet despite all this, I’ve always been determined not to become an enemy to what is good, and to watch my actions and attitudes carefully.

    There are a few observations that have saved me over and over again, perhaps they’ll be helpful to others.

    First, any critical search will show you that science and philosophy don’t readily arrive at absolutes or any firm (immutable) principles of morality. This is no accident – the paradigms we use in both disciplines don’t often require thinking about “right” and “wrong” as absolute or even existent. Recognizing this, there are those who will tell you they can live their entire lives on a subjective morality. In practice, I’ve never seen anyone who genuinely does live this way, especially when they are dealt an injustice. Why not? Perhaps because we know that subjective morality simply isn’t the final answer, no matter how logical it may seem.

    Second, being LDS is not easy. It never has been. Obtaining a fullness of joy in Christ requires taking up your cross and following Him. But that fullness is also a sure promise, if we believe and act. If you understand this, you know exactly what the church is all about and are as valid a member as any other.

    Third, those that disparage the feelings involved in personal revelation are either much more logically inclined than I am, or else missing out on something extremely critical (probably the latter). Human beings are passionate creatures, and seldom convinced of anything that has no appeal to their emotional side. Just think of how many essential life decisions we make, taking emotion as valid – whom to marry, our careers, the causes we support, how we treat other people, the list goes on. Can decisions based solely on emotion lead us to both right and wrong conclusions? Absolutely. That could be the very reason we’re commanded to study in our minds AND in our hearts, as well as to seek answers through prayer. This is a time investment that every Latter-Day Saint needs to make when they want to put their faith in anything, and clearly requires basing your decisions on far more than the “warm fuzzies”.

    Now, I sincerely hope this next paragraph has few people who need to read it, but here goes. If your inquiries lead you to dissenting views or to those who deny the gospel, at least pay attention to how they deliver their messages. Be fair-minded. Notice that most sources don’t invite you to get on your knees and ask of God, but instead make personal appeals, angry condemnations, and usually can’t be bothered to acknowledge their own fallibility. Be especially wary of those who might gain from riling you up. I would only ask that you go in with your eyes completely open. Think about what these sources might motivate you to do.

    Last of all, think for a moment about our expectations, definitions, and limitations. In fast and testimony meeting, I tend to think we use the word “know” too liberally. Neither testimony nor faith imply a sure knowledge, and yet they are so vital that our religion ceases to be a religion at all without them. With this in mind, I see the greatest virtue in the man or woman who doesn’t deny that they have doubts or questions, but consciously persists in faith and trusts that answers will come. Not all of us can know, but we’re all capable of exercising faith this way. In times of intense questioning, it helps to remember that Christ’s Apostles weren’t always what you’d call “pillars of faith”. Imagine how the Savior felt when He calmed the storm for them, only to hear “what manner of man is this?”

    And yes, with all the faith in my heart I can testify that Jesus Christ is our sure foundation, the goal of all our actions, and the personal Savior of mankind. If you can believe in nothing else, believe in Him. The rest will follow.

  9. “If your inquiries lead you to dissenting views or to those who deny the gospel, at least pay attention to how they deliver their messages. Be fair-minded. Notice that most sources don’t invite you to get on your knees and ask of God, but instead make personal appeals, angry condemnations, and usually can’t be bothered to acknowledge their own fallibility. Be especially wary of those who might gain from riling you up. I would only ask that you go in with your eyes completely open. Think about what these sources might motivate you to do.”

    James, that is very well said. Thanks.

  10. It is good to recognize that within our congregations are microcultures. I used to visit several congregations on Sundays – not because I had a stake calling, but because I liked sampling the different microcultures that become so apparent because of the otherwise homogenous structure and teachings. When you attend two different congregations where the format and lesson are the same, the difference is the difference in the microcultures of the two congregations.

    So the challenge is what to do when the microculture in which you find yourself is not comfortable? It could be as simple as a microculture that values men in a traditional role and women in a supportive role when the individual congregant values women in a dominant role. Or a microculture where “everyone” wears small floral prints and tweeds when the individual congregant likes to wear bold colors and edgy new fashions.

    I personally find that a focus on Christ and His world-saving work helps me overcome the chafing that comes when I clash with the microcultures I interact with, in all the roles I fill in this life.

  11. Jesus used parables which served as metaphors to teach. They are a way of enlightening us as to a truth and at a level we are capable of comprehending. The mention that we are stones in a wall provides an excellent metaphor for understanding where we are in relation to the wall. Some of us may be the foundation on which other stones are placed. We are strong and firm in our testimonies and the reason we are chosen. Those that follow need to be positioned using a spirit level ( Holy Ghost) and sometimes need little adjustments to ensure we are true. A wall that is composed of individual bricks can accommodate imperfections as it is held in it’s place by mortar. The mortar is the gospel in it’s fullness because it has the greater strength to remain steadfast. A wall is a part of a building or structure. It has a purpose. It could be a house, church or even a temple. Such buildings are designed by an architect and are built by master builders, apprentices and labourers. Each has a part to play. The master builder follows the blue print, teaches and instructs because he has mastered his craft. The apprentices learns and follows the instructions of those above until such time as he becomes a master builder. The labourer does most of the hard manual work and is content with the thought that they are making a valuable and significant contribution.
    What we are building is the New Jerusalem and all of us are on the building site. Each of us will capture some vision of this city which in the end will determine our place in it’s construction. My final picture is for you to see the beautiful city in all it’s glory but be mindful of the many bricks that were not selected because they were broken or stones that were unsuitable or the workers who left the job even though we were all called to build Zion.

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