I stumbled upon a Facebook post explaining why a woman and her husband were leaving the Church, which was clearly a difficult step for her, but, as I read the post, a question kept recurring. Are we talking about the same gospel? Have we been reading the same scriptures, seeking to understand the same Lord, listening to the same leaders, experiencing the same divine lovingkindness, feeling the same strength when we are weak, and the same comfort when we are stricken?
I ask because what she described as a church she had to leave and a doctrine she had to abandon for her mental health rings to me with a misunderstanding of some core principles, as if she had to carry guilt and shame herself and the whole wounding experience of mortality on her own shoulders instead of turning to the arms of the Savior for relief. She was describing a worldview that seemed absent the atonement. I write because that worldview is just too heavy to carry and that is why the Lord promised “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30).
She wrote that her life journey had given her difficult challenges, and that more and more she found not just that the Church didn’t answer her questions, but that it was the cause of her family’s biggest struggles. She said, “We came to see that we have lived our whole lives in guilt and shame caused by the lens of doctrine through which we saw ourselves as less than the dust of the earth.
“The doctrines of obedience and sacrifice caused us to live in guilt and seeing ourselves as constant sinners because our ‘natural man’ desires were always in conflict with church commandments. We believed that ‘unholy’ emotions, such as pride, anger, irreverence, selfishness, and doubt, were sins requiring repentance and thus should be suppressed…
“Realization gradually dawned. A life filled with shame, guilt, emotion suppression, and cognitive dissonance WILL be a life of anxiety and depression. The former creates the latter…
“Stepping away from the church means seeking ourselves as inherently valuable and good. It means seeing mistakes as essential learning steps. It means full authenticity with ourselves and each other. It means living fearlessly!” For her, stepping away was the way to break down walls of shame and fear.
What I hear here is what so many of us feel sometimes. “The Lord asks too much, and I can never measure up, so I live in shame. Life has wounded me so I live in unrelieved pain. The Lord despises my vulnerabilities. I have to carry my mistakes with me instead of giving them to the Lord. He thinks I’m nothing. To embrace a truth that makes me move beyond myself is to be endlessly put down as not good enough. The gospel is a standing rebuke to my existence. He won’t accept me as I am. I am not valued. My efforts are too paltry to be appreciated by the Divine. The only way to be free is to be free of this God who thinks so poorly of me and wrenches my heart with expectations (and then to add insult to injury, doesn’t always come the very minute I call.) I am exhausted.
This kind of exhaustion, common to mortality and sometimes to our weary hearts, is not a signal that we should escape the Church, or the Lord, who is our comfort, but is an invitation to look again at the flawed thinking that currently fuels our shame-based mindsets in this wounding world.
If ever there were flawed thinking that the Adversary would like to thrust upon us, with his enormous talent for lies, it is about the nature of God. Too many of us, including those who are leaving the Church for “relief”, are like the little boy who described God as somebody who liked to sneak around to catch you in the very act of doing something wrong and add a black mark to your list in a relentless game of “gotcha.” Or perhaps He is a very strict schoolmaster, impossible to please, who delights in watching us squirm in weakness, no doubt feeling his power as we flinch.
Who wouldn’t want to run from such a punitive, judging, angry God, whose demands leave you so ashamed?
I have a friend who, when he was young, concocted an entire grading sheet for himself on how he did in his life every day. Was he honest? Hardworking? On time? Loving? Did he adequately do his duty? Had he prayed? At the end of the day, he judged himself in each area with a letter grade and never gave himself better than a C. He awoke the next day, determined to do better, but the outcome was that he became more and more miserable, believing that he would never add up or please God. You can imagine that this exercise made him a nervous, self-conscious, unhappy wretch, because, of course, it was completely wrong-headed. Not until he relaxed, turned to the Savior to carry him, and stopped that anguishing self-grading and strict self-appraisal could he find peace.
Yet, many of us think that the flawed approach to growth, demonstrated by this then unhappy youth, is exactly what God is doing to us.
Frankly, that was the view of much of religion until the restoration when we learned better. Joseph introduced us to a God who wanted to reveal Himself, to talk to His children, who knew our names, and whose very nature was oriented toward bringing us home to Him. From our beginnings, in a world of light we have forgotten, where we lived with Heavenly Parents, we have been loved and given the opportunity for a gradual transformation, guided by them, to come to ourselves, our truest, deepest self and the potential which is calling out inside of us.
A Talk with a Psychologist
Years ago, I was writing a television series on the family for the Church and we were going to do a show on the struggle so many have with shame and a sense of worthlessness. I consulted with a psychologist for ideas. and he told me something I have never forgotten. He said, we experience ourselves not as a whole, but as bits and pieces. You can tell that is true because you have to admit that you talk to yourself. You argue with yourself. You give yourself things to do while another part of you resists that list.
The psychologist said, “You know what I mean because there is part of you that says, ‘You should do this. You must do that. You are a loser if you don’t do well on that. You never measure up. Your work doesn’t make any difference. You haven’t done enough. You have disappointed me again. Run faster, harder, more frantically because you lack so much.
“It is this noisy critic who constantly has a better idea for you, who brings up your past to discourage and incriminate you. This critic on your shoulder (or better yet, in your head) has all kinds of suggestions for your improvement, which are so demanding you could never quite fill the bill. The critic may remind you that you are unlovable and have never really been loved. The critic may remind you of your failures and your rejections. This critic just never lets you off the hook. Yet, what is worst of all is that the critic claims that its voice is there to bless you and keep you progressing. The voice says, ‘I am only thinking of you.’
“What hurts most of all, when we get right down to it, is we think that this voice is God. After all, doesn’t this critic just want our improvement? Isn’t this voice just demanding a greater level of excellence from us?”
Then the psychologist asked the most important question of the night. “Who is this voice? What is the source of this voice? Who is speaking to you with such regular disdain?”
I remember sitting in my office taking notes as he talked, and a realization was dawning upon me. I, too, had that demanding voice in my head which was never satisfied with who I was. I knew what it meant to think I always had to be competent and see quickly how to do things or I was stupid. He was describing something familiar to me. “Who is this voice? To whom does this voice belong?”
When he asked, I knew the answer. I had just never confronted it before. I answered him. “It is Satan’s voice, pretending to be God.” I could see it so clearly now.
Who wants to make you miserable? Who wants you to believe you are never doing enough? Who wants to make you feel small? Who wants to make you believe your efforts are not worth it? Who wants you to be haunted with shame? Who, in the Garden of Eden, told Adam and Eve to run. Hide.” Not the Father. Not the Son. It is the Adversary. You can tell because he makes you feel bad and then delights in it. Shame is his currency.
Satan is called the accuser in Revelation 12:10, which is an apt name for him. “The accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.” He is your accuser, too. Don’t mistake his voice and call it God’s. It is a travesty to do so. Think of the millions of voices through the centuries raised in a shout of blame toward God, when Satan was the cause of their misery. God does not teach his children with disdain for them as unworthy creatures. That mean voice in your head that induces shame and guilt is not His.
We can have no doubt that Satan seeks to deceive us that he is God because we’ve seen it before. Caught up in the glory of God, Moses is given a magnificent vision, where he was shown “the world and the ends thereof” and “he greatly marveled and wondered.” Then who should come calling but Satan, saying “Son of man, worship me.” He is pretending he is God just as he does with us.
Satan likes to masquerade as God. He likes to start movements in God’s name. He pretends he is the one watching out for you. “Abandon the gospel. You’ll feel so much better,” he advertises. “Trust me,” the untrustworthy says.
Moses was not so easily fooled, and what he says is significant for this very issue of guilt and shame. When he talked with God and was shown this vision of the earth, “and all the children of men which are, and which were created”, Moses confesses, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never supposed.”
To the Facebook writer who is leaving the Church because she doesn’t want to be nothing, this sounds like ammo for her viewpoint. See, Moses feels like nothing! His sense of being valuable and inherently good, so carefully cultivated in Pharoah’s court, has been rocked.
Yet, when Satan comes, Moses is able to stand so unwaveringly strong, because in actuality, he knows who he is as never before: “For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?” He knows his identity because he has seen God.
Thou Art My Son
This is a powerful proclamation that he learned directly from the mouth of God. When Moses was on an “exceedingly high mountain”, God introduced himself in the most expansive terms, “Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end or years; and is not this endless?” This is just a breathtaking introduction that encompasses strength, power, unending glory, and then the Lord makes an even more heart-stopping announcement: “And, behold, thou art my son.” (See Moses 1:3,4).
Moses becomes clear about his inheritance as a son, because a son or daughter can grow to attain their Father’s attributes. He has more in him than he can possibly comprehend. While he feels like “nothing” after his great vision, this is not a negative, self-deprecating thing, but a sense of humility before all he has seen. Humility should not be confused with shame, for the first can help exalt us, while the second corrupts.
What the World Seems to Demand
Now, the world suggests that the only alternative to guilt and shame is to accept yourself as you are and seek to be authentic. Own your emotions. Lean into it. That is the current, trendy teachings of our time. It is a human construct. Whatever I feel is real. I earned this viewpoint. I trust it.
As the writer said, “We believed that ‘unholy’ emotions, such as pride, anger, irreverence, selfishness, and doubt, were sins requiring repentance and thus should be suppressed…” which implies that if you feel it, the authentic thing is to acknowledge your right to negative emotions, even hurtful ones, and express them. The authentic thing is to live your life your way.
Certainly, it is important to accept yourself. The Lord takes it further. He asks us to love ourselves right now, where we are, as we are. He does. Yet, His love demands He shows us more. It is our weaknesses that hurt us, paralyze our growth, pushing at the same immovable boulders in our lives. He knows that what ultimately will hurt us most is stopping where we are, imprisoned by our own weaknesses, limited sight and incapacities, while the divine part of us is yearning to break free.
Authenticity says we all have our own way of being human and we are the architect of our own lives. This also is good—as far as it goes, but authenticity has important limits. It is a human construct.
Authenticity says I am the measure of my own existence. I am the measure of truth. Be true to yourself, the world says. That is also good as far as it goes, but it also has limitations. My self is blinded, inexperienced, stuck in a second of time, looking from the inside of a box. God asks us to be true to something higher than our own small and limited perspective. Be true to God. Be true to that light which proceedeth forth from Him to feel the immensity of space.
We have been called to something better and bigger than our own ideas, which are based in myopia and limitation, and the trends of whenever we happened to be born.
Thank heaven that there is something so much more.
C.S. Lewis said, “The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake OF HUMANITY” and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.”
The same is true if we take all of our impulses, based in our own measure of things, and make that our only reference for life. Our own views and accompanying emotions, without a higher reference to God’s laws, will bite us and hurt us.
The Atonement as Solution
We are not enough where we are. Nobody is. We have been wounded on earth. We do not perceive all things. We can’t because we are mortal and we are just learning. I don’t say this to make us feel unworthy, shamed or guilty. That gap between what we want to be and what we are now, does not of any necessity need to be filled with guilt or shame.
As you come to know the Lord, you begin to see that gap is instead filled with love, patience for the toddlers that we are who cannot walk without stumbling. As Christian scholar Huston Smith said, “The only power that can effect transformation of the order we have described is love…Imagination may fail us here, but logic need not. If we felt loved, not abstractly or in principle but vividly and personally by one who unites all power and perfection, the experience could melt our fear, guilt, and self-concern permanently.”
One night as we were on the Sea of Galilee, my husband, Scot, arose in the middle of the night and the Spirit gave him a message, “I am not mad at you.” Immediately relief flooded through him. He later said, “I didn’t think the Lord was mad at me, so the message and the sense of relief was a surprise.” I have thought since that maybe many of us hold in some unaccessed chamber of our soul a secret worry that God is somehow deeply disappointed in us, that He is mad at us. That is heavy to bear.
Yet, it is He who designed this program of growth where we would see and understand more than we currently are. Rather than feel continually heartsick at our weaknesses, we can remember that the Lord, through His atonement, already paid for them, with love and complete knowledge of who we are—every tendency, every inclination, every surprise fallibility. This allows us to breathe easier and live without shame. I am not perfect, but I am loved.
We should not see ourselves as some fixed identity that we have to continually defend, as if we were static and forever where and who we are right now. We are souls on a journey, and we cannot yet comprehend who we will be. It is illusion to think we could ever make it home on our own excellence. It was always on His merits and mercy that we would travel. All we can give is our wholehearted willingness
Not only do I not know the way back into the Father’s presence, I don’t know the destination with clarity. When we are told “Be ye therefore perfect”, perfect here does not mean flawless. It means whole, the end point of a journey that we are empowered to travel through the atonement of our glorious Savior, with Him as guide.
I always say, we can have anxiety living with its accompanying grief, or we can have atonement living where we breathe deeply and in gratitude. It’s not on me. It never was all on me. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). This is not for some future time, but for the day to day living of right now. To those who are seeking relief, this is true relief.