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“On a Disagreeable God”

“On a Disagreeable God” August 11, 2021

 

Utah's oldest temple
The St. George Utah Temple is the oldest temple still in use by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the first built by the Saints in Utah after their exodus from the United States.  (LDS.org)

 

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Another installment of Kyler Rasmussen’s investigation has gone up on the website of the Interpreter Foundation:

 

Estimating the Evidence Episode 6: On a Disagreeable God

 

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This article by Maureen Proctor in Meridian Magazine really resonated with me:

 

“To Those Who Think it is a “Relief” to Leave the Church”

 

I’ve encountered the same claim many times:  People who have left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have explained how liberated they now feel.  The Church had rendered them mentally and emotionally unhealthy, made them feel worthless and guilty, left them ashamed, judged, and condemned; now, though, they can lift their heads up.

 

I’m willing to entertain the possibility that many who say such things are doing so honestly — although I can’t help but note that some of the people who most vocally claim to be happy at their liberation seem, rather, to be embittered and angry or, at least, not noticeably joyous.  And that, in at least two cases of which I know, men who claimed that their marriages had been vastly improved by their departure from the Church were divorced within a couple of years.

 

I think that we need to take such claims seriously, however, and to try to deal with them in a kind and pastoral way.

 

But I think that their response to their membership in the Church rests upon a false understanding of doctrine.  I’ve never fully understood their claim; their experience certainly hasn’t been mine.  Not that I don’t fall short every day of the standards that I believe I should uphold, but because, to me, the Gospel is light and optimism, hope and assurance.  Joy and peace.  I’ve never felt oppressed or condemned.  And I think — surely I hope — that mine is the more common experience:  Many years ago, when I was either a student at Brigham Young University or a very new member of the faculty, the well-known political commentator George Will spent two or three days on campus.  Later, when he wrote about his experience in a column, he commented on how cheery everybody at BYU seemed to be early in the morning and without benefit of coffee.  He actually thought, he said, that the young Latter-day Saints he had observed could perhaps profit from at least a little bit more Angst.  I’ve sometimes had the same reaction.  We may take things just a tad too lightly.  I suspect that we don’t fully appreciate (who can?) the atonement of Christ, or comprehend the gravity of our condition without it.  But I think that I vastly prefer that error to its opposite.

 

When I was in high school, I read the famous 8 July 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by the American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards.  As it was intended to do, it made a deep impression on me — though probably not the impression that it was intended to have.  Here are a couple of passages from it, to let you sense its spirit or, if you’re already aware of it, to refresh your memory:

 

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire … you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours. . . .

The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. . . .

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. . . .

The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and ‘tis nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back. . . .

It would be a wonder, if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time, before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons that now sit here in … this meeting-house in health, and quiet and secure, should be there before to-morrow morning. . . .

The devils watch them … like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back; if God should withdraw his hand by which they are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon their poor souls.

 

My impression was one of revulsion.  This is not the God in whom I believe, not a God whom I could love.  I can understand worshiping him out of terror, but not from affection nor even, truly, from reverence.  He is not the God of the Bible, soundly understood.  He is not the God who revealed himself through the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Restoration.  That God is a kind and benevolent Father, who “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  He isn’t eagerly trying to catch us in sin and error, gleefully seeking to damn us.  Quite the contrary, “God our Saviour . . . will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).  He wants to give us everything that he has and to make us what he is.  “Though your sins be as scarlet,” he says through the prophet Isaiah, “they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

 

But there is another reason why I have a hard time understanding those who claim to have been liberated by their apostasy from the Church, and by what I assume often to be their abandonment of their covenants, and their rejection of the commandments.

 

In my experience, more than a few have indicated that they felt perpetually guilty as members of the Church.  Presumably they hadn’t been sufficiently loving or kind, or hadn’t been fully honest or hadn’t worked hard enough or had been late or angry or had failed in a duty.  But, to me, such obligations don’t merely derive from the Church, such that leaving the Church would free me of them.  I can’t imagine, whether a Latter-day Saint or not, not trying to be loving and kind, or being satisfied with poor work and indiscipline, or feeling no displeasure with myself after letting others down, finding myself making no progress, simply treading water with my life.  I don’t want to be that way.  And I don’t want to live in a society of such people.  Even if I were out of the Church, I would still be trying (I hope!) to be a good parent, a good and faithful husband, a loyal friend, a productive member of a community, and a welcome resident in a neighborhood.  Liberation from such felt obligations and commitments would, in my view, be a horrible thing.  I shouldn’t feel free to be angry or uncivil or unpleasant.

 

Moreover, although it can obviously be taken to debilitating extremes, guilt or remorse can be a good thing.  We should feel guilty when we’re unkind, when we’re disloyal, when we cheat or steal or renege on promises.  We should feel shame when we publicly misbehave.  Not to feel such guilt would be to be a sociopath.

 

In this regard, guilt is like pain.  It’s an indicator that something is wrong.  There are people who don’t feel pain.  Does that sound wonderful?  Well, consider:  Such a person could be leaning against a stove with his hand on a hot burner and be entirely unaware of the problem until he smelled burning flesh.  (There have, apparently, been such cases.)  Such a person would walk on a twisted ankle, doing further and perhaps irreparable damage to it, and be unaware of a stomach pain that should take him as soon as possible to the emergency room.  Seen in this way, both pain and guilt can be helpful indicators for navigating mortal life.  To be without them would put us far out to sea.

 

Posted from St. George, Utah

 

 

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