A 91-year-old friend recently called with an urgent plea for help making sense of the circumstances of her posterity. She listed how many of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren suffered from sexual or drug addictions, rejected the Church after declaring themselves L, G, B, T, or Q, or lost their testimonies for various reasons. She concluded her spiritual census with despair, “Is there any hope?”
I vaguely recall a seminary lesson back in 1974 in which my instructor assured us that if we consistently attended Church services, read our scriptures, and held weekly Family Home Evening our future children would be similarly faithful. I won’t swear that my memory of that lesson is perfect, after all I was 14 years old, it was 6:30am, and I was simultaneously admiring a cute girl in the class. But I know I’m not the only one who emerged from my early Church years with an expectation that my faithfulness was a potent predictor of the percentage of my children who would serve missions, marry in the temple, and enjoy the blessings of the Gospel.
But it’s not working out that way. Of our five living children, only two have a relationship with the Church. And I’m confident that our family is now the norm not the exception. I can’t recall a single conversation in the past year with parents who have reported full Church engagement from a family with three or more children. Recent reports include:
- “All three of our daughters have left the Church.”
- “My son has begun gender transitioning.”
- “My daughter leads a group that helps those overcoming post-Mormon trauma.”
- “My son has cut off contact with us and won’t let us see our grandchildren.”
Parents today regularly reenact Helaman’s post-battle audit of his 2000 stripling sons but with a much different result. After the bloodshed, he hurriedly, “numbered those young men who had fought… fearing lest there were many of them slain.”. You and I are engaged in just as terrible a fight. We are similarly outnumbered. Our enemy is sophisticated and relentless. And yet it’s a rare family that shares Helaman’s joyful report that “not one soul of them [had] fallen.”
With every other parent I cry, “Why? Are we losing the war? And if so, what must we do to stop losing so many?”
An Overdose of False Doctrine
I felt weak and hopeless as I watched one after another of my children find their way out of the Church. But the despair was never deeper than when I rushed to an emergency room after hearing my 24-year old son had overdosed on heroin. I held his hand as he groaned and pleaded incoherently for help. I was not a perfect father, but I had tried! Where was my promise that ‘none would fall?’
I was in no position to learn that evening. My discouragement worsened in subsequent days. Then one quiet afternoon in my office the dam in my soul broke. I dared to voice the dark thoughts that had pooled for a decade behind my confident façade. I poured out my pain and hopelessness to Heavenly Father. I demanded that He explain to me why I should stay engaged in a plan that seemed to work so poorly. It wasn’t until those words came out of my mouth that I realized they had been festering in me. I stared at them as they hung in the air. I heard them echo back at me from the walls of the room.
As I did, I felt as though Father temporarily lifted me above myself. He chided me tenderly, telling me that my misery was of my own making. He reminded me that “despair cometh because of iniquity.”. My iniquity, the Spirit whispered, was my embrace of false doctrine. This correction gave me hope. For the next few minutes, I hovered above my pitiful self as one unexamined belief after another was exposed. I soon saw that my burden was not my children, it was a handful of lies.
When liberated from them, I felt inexpressible peace for the first time in many years. Along with that peace, I had a renewed clarity about what to do next, and an unstoppable determination to do it.
My son survived the overdose, but not without agonizing weeks in the hospital and a permanent handicap. However, I emerged from the episode strengthened as never before.
The false beliefs his crisis helped rid me of included:
- Righteous families don’t have problems
- Bad behavior equals bad children
- This is my problem to solve
Once these deceptions were exposed, I came to see that the world is set up to succeed. The Plan is perfect. The intent of The Plan is that “none might be lost.”. And the Father of The Plan is really good at what He does. My part in The Plan is not to engineer the salvation of my children, it is to help gather Israel. My role is not to be The Savior of my children, it is to stand with The Savior as a savior on Mount Zion.
More on that later. First, to the false doctrine.
False Doctrine #1: Righteous families don’t have problems
Many of us emerged from our growing up years in the Church with a color-brochure picture of a successful family:
- An average of 5.2 children
- All of the boys and at least one of the girls serve a mission
- Most attend BYU. It’s okay if one rebel attends the University of Utah
- One of the boys smokes pot and drinks in 11th grade but cleans up in time for a mission
- All but one marry in the temple (by age 23)
- The other finds late love at age 27.
There’s nothing wrong with the color brochure. The family in this photograph can accomplish the purpose of life as well as those with other stories. The problem with the picture is not what it’s doing for those in it, it’s what it does to those admiring it. It suggests that you and I measure the worthiness of our family by status rather than growth. This has been Satan’s tactic from the Garden of Eden onward. When Adam and Eve are wondering if the fruit had been a good or bad idea, Satan tries to distract them from self-reflection by making them self-conscious about being naked. “There’s nothing a good fig leaf can’t fix!”
By this measure, my 91-year old friend is losing. I’m losing. And most parents in my orbit are at best a wash.
And so are every scripture family we have detailed records of.
Think about it. There isn’t a single Brochure family in the entire standard works. Just take a look at the first half-dozen families we encounter in the Bible. There must be a message in the fact that the scriptures detail nothing but families who deal with:
- Fratricide—Cain murders Abel.
- Apostacy—Lamech organizes the first secret combination.
- Alcoholism—Noah is mocked by his son for his drunken nakedness.
- Infertility—Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Zachariah, and Elizabeth.
- Jealous Rage—Sarah expels Hagar into near death.
- Family conflict—Ishmael and Isaac; Jacob and Esau.
- Fratricide II—Esau has it in for Jacob. Joseph’s brothers plot his murder then fake his death and sell him into slavery.
And on and on. And don’t get me started on The Book of Mormon! Every detailed example of a family story involves betrayal, violence and apostacy (Lehi, Mosiah, Alma, etc.). Does this mean that prophets make terrible parents?
An honest review of family life in the scriptures leaves us with two possible conclusions:
- There are very few successful families in the world.
- Our definition of success is flawed.
If the first conclusion is correct, then at least you are in good company. After you die, you will be in the losers’ club with Adam, Eve, the prophet Samuel, Lehi, Joseph Smith, and me. And if you’re consistent, you’d have to put Heavenly Father and Mother in the same club. If full conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this lifetime is the measure of success, then you do the math on their “success” rate. Out of the 100 billion estimated to have lived on the earth, it’s unlikely any more than one in ten thousand will make the cover of the brochure.
The God I believe in is very, very good at His job. He has a plan that works very, very well. And if that’s true, I should be cautious about judging whether my family is winning or losing based solely on reception of Gospel ordinances and degree of Church participation at this moment or, even in this lifetime.
False Doctrine #2: Bad behavior equals bad children
Is a child who leaves the Church succeeding or failing in life’s purpose? If your sibling enters into a gay marriage, is he declining or advancing spiritually? Is your son’s heroin addiction an unqualified evil?
When those we love make choices that deviate from a straight-line path to exaltation, it’s natural to panic. We fear that their deviation might be irredeemable. But I’ve learned that God’s perfect love, perfect knowledge and remarkable patience mean that those bad choices are often alchemized into miraculous endings.
I have a friend named Dave who spent over twenty years of his life in prison. He became a violent, narcissistic, evil man. As a criminal and drug addict he was relentless, clever and charismatic. But the eye of the Shepherd was on him. That same Shepherd has His eye on every one of us. When Dave was facing a 29-year prison sentence, that Shepherd had a plan. Dave was offered a chance to go to a place that would change his life. Remarkably, a judge agreed that if he stayed at that place for the full two-year commitment, he would be forgiven of his 29-year prison sentence. The time and place were perfect for Dave. Dave not only stayed those two years, he stayed eight. He fell in love with saving lives. Today he is the executive director of a place just like the one that saved his life. He has now helped hundreds of men and women just like he was to become someone they have never met before. Dave is still relentless, clever and charismatic. But those raw qualities have been refined into their godlike versions. His Father in Heaven was able to alchemize the very misery he chose for the first 40 years of his life into credentials he can now use to assist in the salvation of others. He would not be Dave without both the misery and the mercy.
One lesson of the Garden of Eden is that backward is sometimes forward. And I believe it’s a lesson of all existence. Life is a school and pain is a teacher. Much of our modern despair comes from an unfounded desire for a controlled, predictable and pain-free path to glory for those we love. Sins are okay so long as they are small and temporary. But when one or more of our kin stay stuck in stupidity for a decade or more, we lose hope. We make the flawed assumption that we can extrapolate from a decade to eternity. I’m told that while the earth looks scarred with mountains and valleys on its surface, it is, in fact, smoother than a ping pong ball. I believe that what appear to be massive deviations in our spiritual progress will, when seen on an eternal timeline, appear to be almost a perfectly straight line.
Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that we smile at sin. We should never tolerate or enable others’ vices or violence against us. The speed with which people learn is often a function of our willingness to let them experience the full natural consequences of their bad choices. The right response to sin and stupidity is firmness plus faith.
False Doctrine #3: This is my problem to solve
The times I feel most overwhelmed and hopeless are the times I have forgotten my role in The Plan. A creeping shift happens without my awareness when I start feeling that it is my job to save my children, my siblings or my friends. It’s often a well-intended distortion. It’s not arrogance or pride that takes me there, it’s the myopia of focused effort. I’ve got my head down doing my job and forget that mine is a tiny part of a mission that crosses time without end, planets without number and armies of angels.
My role is important. It is sacred. But it is limited. I am not called to save a soul. And it is certainly not my job to get someone to change their behavior. Someone far more qualified has that responsibility. My job is to serve not to solve. I am responsible for diligence not outcomes. And the first signs that I’m pretending to a higher pay grade is feelings of powerlessness and fear.
I’m not alone in my mission creep. Remember Moses’ conversation with God? God tells him: “I have a work for thee, Moses, my son.” It is a big job. It’s an important job. Immediately after getting his assignment, Satan comes at him hard. After some spirited debate with Lucifer, Moses decides to dispatch him. With naïve confidence he demands, “Depart hence, Satan.” His three-word command fails. Moses then, “began to fear exceedingly, and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell.”
I know that bitterness. But it took me years to discover its cause. I used to think that my despair was caused by the next piece of bad news I got about a family member. For example, when a son left BYU and announced he had outgrown his plans to serve a mission. Or when I learned that my first precious grandchild would be the product of a drug-fueled fling. Or when another child was arrested while staggering naked at midnight in a local park. When I heard these things, I didn’t just feel sad. I felt hopeless. I felt fear. And somewhere, Satan laughed.
Before Moses could succeed in his sacred work, he needed to be reminded of his utter dependence on God. He was wise enough to let fear and bitter hopelessness remind him of how The Plan works. Those emotions dissipated instantly when he cried out for help. “Calling upon God, he received strength…” Now Satan begins to cower.
Freed of delusional autonomy, Moses approaches his problem in a profoundly new way. He again “called upon God, saying: In the name of the Only Begotten, depart hence, Satan.” Only seven extra words this time, but a markedly different emotional outcome. In place of bitterness and fear, he was “filled with the Holy Ghost… And calling upon the name of God, he beheld his glory again…”
God leaves no doubt as to the moral lesson of the experience. He declares to Moses that: “[It] is my work and my glory… to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” At the end of this experience, the world hasn’t changed a whit. But Moses has. His assignment is still daunting. There will be many setbacks and much pain ahead. But understanding his role in the Plan, Moses knows how to return to peace.
When free of the false doctrine of ultimate responsibility, we become more not less diligent. Our faith in Him and His Plan give us hope. Faith and hope are essential ingredients in the charity that informs our sacred service.
How We Win
I still have pain and disappointment in my life. But I also have peace. My brochure now has families like mine in it. I see wrong choices as part of a journey. And I have confidence in The Savior as I learn to be a savior. I have “great faith in Christ that I shall meet many souls spotless at his judgment-seat… that many of us, if not all, may be saved in his kingdom.” Why? Because I now understand how we win.
The way we win is Atonement.
We understand the Atonement far too small. At its smallest we think of it as the way to be forgiven of sins. A little more vision suggests it’s the power to become more like God. But these are simply steps on the path to its real purpose. Its real purpose is to make us all one. It is about creating exalting relationships. Its ultimate goal is enduring relationships of exalting love – not just between nuclear families, but across the entire family of Elohim.
The concerns you have for loved ones are your customized crucible to help you become a savior. Your feelings of powerlessness to help a suffering soul are your invitation to be more deeply involved in the Atonement. Here’s how.
Atonement is the scarlet thread that runs through every doctrine of the Church. That’s why the scriptures are filled with synonyms for atonement: oneness, unity, united, order, united order, equal, cleaving, sealing, welding, linking, embracing and gathering. I hear President Nelson calling us to Atonement work when he says, “The gathering of Israel is the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude, nothing else compares in importance, nothing else compares in majesty.”
All the ordinances of the Gospel lead to some form of atonement. Baptism is not just about a promise to God, it is about joining a community that “mourns with those that mourn.” The endowment culminates with unified prayer, an embrace through a veil, then a gathering with loved ones and friends in the most holy place. And the crowning ordinance of all is the sealing of a family to one another and to God, rich with symbols of the vicarious sacrifice involved in exalting relationships.
The Plan was to create a planet full of problems that demand unity for solution. It is problems that bring us together. When you see two people at lunch, talking intently, leaning forward, waving their hands, they’re sharing a problem. At that moment, they are one in heart and if they stick with it, become one in mind. They become unified.
How does this larger understanding of the Atonement help me avoid despair when I fear I’m losing my loved ones? It tells me what I can do when I can’t do anything for my immediate concerns. If I can’t do direct work to help someone I love, I can throw myself into needed work for someone else. If I can’t solve my problem, I can get involved in God’s problem. And there is always something meaningful I can do for Him.
Problems unify. Unity exalts. And the exaltation of some ultimately blesses all. So when you’re feeling hopeless, find problems to solve for those who are ready for help.
The Lord designed this earth such that problems of mortality exist separate from the resources to solve them. Do you ever wonder why this life’s resources are so unfairly divided? Resources are unfairly divided to require us to become one—or perish! God created an earth where some places have food when others are in famine. Some are under attack while others have arms to help. Some are members of the Church while others know nothing of it. Some are sick when others are well. He hides riches in the soil in some areas that are lacking in others. A tornado hits one neighborhood but spares another. Why? So that those who have and those who struggle can learn to be saviors for one another.
Even priesthood is distributed unevenly. Some were born when Melchizedek Priesthood ordinances weren’t available. But that’s okay—because others were born when they were. How will they receive them? We will do them. Why? Because “we without them cannot be made perfect. Neither can they without us be made perfect.” The goal is “that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place…” And the way that happens is through vicarious sacrifice.
So, what do you do when there is nothing you can do to help your child return to Church participation? You get more involved in sharing the Gospel with those whom you can influence. What do you do when your adult child is intent on using drugs despite your every effort? Find a way to help others struggling to recover. Anything you do that advances the larger purpose of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in any way ultimately blesses everyone.
Elder John A. Widstoe taught this principle in relation to vicarious work for the dead: “Whoever seeks to help those on the other side receives help in return in all the affairs of life… Help comes to us from the other side as we give help to those who have passed beyond the veil.” Elder Gerrit W. Gong adds, “Connecting with our ancestors can change our lives in surprising ways… Ties with ancestors increase family closeness, gratitude, miracles. Such ties can bring help from the other side of the veil.”
I know personally that as we labor with an eye toward those on the other side, the veil thins, we enter relationships with them that empower them to take a more active role in our lives and the lives of those we love here. Temple service is an antidote to despair. I have seen miracles happen in the lives of those I was powerless to influence as I have gotten more involved with vicarious work for those I could help. Solving problems for anyone blesses everyone. It is Atonement work.
Captain Moroni’s war was won the moment the Nephites became one; when they became unified. After thirteen grueling and bloody chapters, the war ends within a few verses after we read that: “… thousands did flock unto his standard, and did take up their swords in the defense of their freedom, that they might not come into bondage. And thus, when Moroni had gathered together whatsoever men he could… uniting his forces with those of Pahoran they became exceedingly strong…” 
And so will we when each of us stop fighting our own separate battles and get involved more fully in the larger war. Stop despairing when you can’t cast Satan out on your own. When, like Moses, you turn toward the work of ‘the Only Begotten,’ you will once again ‘behold his glory.’
Stop thinking it is up to you to save someone. Get involved in service to any of His children—wherever you can. As you do so, you will witness miracles in the lives of those closest to you. And you will participate in working miracles in the lives of those who are of greatest concern to some you would otherwise never know.
This is how we win. Battles will continue ebb and flow. But the conclusion of the war is certain. Don’t succumb to the temptation to predict eternal endings by momentary misery. Father’s plan works. He is very good at what He does. Your hope and faith will grow to the degree you fully engage in your proper role in it.
 Alma 56:55
 Alma 56:56
 Moroni 10:22
 John 6:39; 17:12; 18:9
 2 Kings 6:17
 Moses 1:18
 Moses 1:20
 Moses 1:21
 Moses 1:24-25
 Moses 1:39 – italics added
 2 Nephi 33:7,12
 Russel M. Nelson, “Hope of Israel.” Worldwide Youth Devotional, June 3, 2018
 Mosiah 18:8-10
 DC 128:18
 DC 128:18
 Elder John A. Widstoe Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, July 1931, p.104
 Gerrit W. Gong, “We Each Have a Story” April 2022 General Conference
. Alma 62:4-6
PamNovember 10, 2022
Thank you Brother Grenny. I do so much enjoy your perspective in this an other articles you have written. So needed to read this today- it was a "rescue" article in many ways. l'll read it again, then again. And again.
Julie CooperJune 24, 2022
I needed this perspective. I feel lifted. Thank you.