The first time The Church let me down, I was just a youth. I had a longstanding difficult relationship that had advanced from “difficult” to abusive. It was severely damaging my happiness and self-esteem; I had recurrent nightmares and fantasies of self-harm, but I was too young to know what to do. So, at different times I tried to explain my situation to my bishop and youth leaders.

Each time, I was dismissed or put off with platitudes and reassurances like “Sometimes people don’t get along when they’re young, but when you get older, I bet it will change.” To be fair to those leaders, in retrospect I can see that I didn’t know how to articulate the reality of my situation, and I’m not sure I gave them what they needed to know to help me. But the point is, I went to leaders in the Church for help and I didn’t get it. In fact, I ended up feeling even more isolated and helpless because my attempts to get help had failed.

In the years since, I have seen other people express similar feeling of frustration and helplessness, and to report that “The Church” let them down in their times of need. They went to leaders or ministers for support or advice that they didn’t receive, and they blamed the institution of the church for the negative feelings they experienced. I can identify with these feelings of frustration, but I want to suggest there is another possible reaction besides blame—and it requires us to understand the true role of the Church in our lives.

Here’s what happened to me:

Demoralized and suffering, I had nowhere else to turn. One night, alone in my room, I offered a sincere prayer of pleading to my Father in Heaven. I remembered a lesson I had had in Young Women about using the scriptures to get answers to prayer, and told the Lord I was going to open my scriptures (this was back in the paper scriptures days) and asked him to help me open them to a passage that would tell me what to do. When, hoping against hope, I opened those pages, I saw that I had turned to a scripture I did not recognize and had never heard of.

It was Doctrine and Covenants 122, the section where the Lord comforts Joseph Smith while he’s being held in tortuous conditions in Liberty Jail. I read these words, and felt the Spirit comfort and admonish me:

And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

I discovered in that moment that the Lord was aware of me, that he knew I was struggling, that he had a plan. I read in those words, and through the gentle touch of the Spirit, a confirmation that my mistreatment was real, in spite of others’ inability to see it, and I wasn’t exaggerating. But also I saw  that it was on His radar and would be turned to my good. I felt, too, that I needn’t wallow in self-pity—there were worse trials than the one I was facing, and I was not so special that I could expect to live a life void of suffering. I knew that the Savior understood my difficulty. In that moment I felt a closeness to Him that I have treasured throughout my life, and that has been an incomparable blessing as I have grown and moved on and experienced other trials. This seeming low point in my life has become the foundation of my testimony and the source of tremendous blessings.

So I ask you—did “The Church” let me down?

I think it is fair to say, that when I turned to people in the Church for help and guidance, they were unable to give me the validation, comfort, and assistance I was seeking.

But that was not their job.

The Church exists to perfect the Saints, preach the gospel, and redeem the dead. In terms of perfecting the Saints, the role of the Church is: to teach the true gospel to those who are willing to hear it, provide a structure for regular gospel learning and teaching, and to organize priesthood power so those who are willing can receive saving ordinances and enter the covenant path. The Restored Church owes us, as its members, to teach us gospel truths and to provide saving ordinances. It does not owe us relationship advice, fun callings, friends, charismatic speakers, interesting lessons, insight into our personal problems, perfect leaders, or freedom from ever being hurt or offended.

If gospel truths are being taught, then no matter what else is or isn’t happening, the Church is doing exactly what it is supposed to: it has not let anyone down.

We have absolutely no reason to believe, as members of the Church, that our fellow Saints or even local leaders will always (or ever!) be prepared with the guidance and support we think we need. Sure, one of the signs of having the true gospel, inspired scriptures, and living prophets, is that the Church and its members do a lot of other really wonderful things:  humanitarian service, educational loans, self-reliance training, addiction recovery, disaster relief, language instruction, local service projects, and so on. A community of people who are trying to live the gospel will generally offer support and help and encouragement and social ties to one another. But none of those things are what the Church is fundamentally for. They are the frequent results of people striving to live the gospel, and they are wonderful, but they are not promised to us when we join with the Church in baptism.

We are not promised that if we join the Church all our social, emotional, and spiritual needs will be met by other members of the Church. All we are promised is that we will be taught true doctrine and have the opportunity to serve others by mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that stand in need of comfort. We are not promised that other members will always mourn with and comfort us.

There is only one place we can expect to turn for perfect guidance, advice, support, love, and comfort. There is only one person who is Perfect at understanding our trials and knowing our needs. That person is not our Seminary teacher, or minister, or Elder’s Quorum president, or Relief Society president, or Sunday School teacher, or bishop, or stake president, or Young Women’s leader, or Fireside speaker. What a terrible burden to place on any of them!

The promise we have in the ancient, everlasting, restored Church of Jesus Christ is that our Heavenly Father loves us, knows us, and is actively helping us grow to be more like Him. We are promised a literal Savior who will suffer for our sins and comfort us in trials. We are promised that we can speak to our Father in prayer through the name of Christ and that He will hear us and answer us. We are promised the companionship of the Holy Spirit, personalized answers to our most pressing life questions, strength and miracles and all the blessings we need to learn and grow. We are promised all these things—companionship, counsel, personal love, direction, and guidance—directly and personally from our Father in Heaven.

We are not promised we will get these things from people in the Church. We might, and sometimes we do! But the Church is merely an organization run by fallen people. We cannot rely on it alone, and we cannot blame it for failing to do things only God himself can do.

In my case, the Church functioned exactly as it should, and my leaders did exactly what they were called and set apart to do. They taught me the gospel of Jesus Christ and how to supplicate Him. They taught me from the scriptures, they taught me that I could pray, they assured me the Lord would answer me. One of those very leaders who wasn’t helpful when I sought counsel from her was also the very one who had told me about opening the scriptures at random to receive spiritual answers!

Is it fair to say she “let me down” when, although she didn’t respond as perhaps a trained counselor would have, she is the one who opened for me the windows of Heaven? Is it fair to feel “let down” by a bishop who had neither the training nor life experience to recognize what I was going through, but who faithfully managed the congregation through which I was baptized and taught the gospel?

The God of the Universe spoke to me, as my leaders had promised He would. There is nothing more important, more validating, and more lasting they could possibly have done than to prepare me for that. The gospel of Jesus Christ saved me in a profound way, and continues to save me to this day. And it only happened because I was given scriptures, and taught to pray, by the Church and the people in it.

“The Church” as a collection of people has let me down a dozen times since then. People will always let us down. We will let them down in return. There’s plenty of sinning and failing and letting down going on in the world and in the people in the Church.

The trick is to remember what the Church is for, and what the Savior and our Father in Heaven are for. The Church is an organization run by fallen people. Its job is to help the Lord perfect the Saints by providing scriptures, living prophets, priesthood ordinances, and instruction in how to live the gospel. In other words, the Church’s job is not to meet all our needs: its job is to turn us toward Him who can meet all our needs.

In the end—no matter the limitations and failings of people in the Church, no matter what we may think is wrong with Church culture or Utah culture, no matter what errors may be found in Sunday School manuals or old paintings of the gold plates—because we are always taught how to turn to the Lord in prayer, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot ever let us down.