I Know … I’m Sorry

The other day, a relative posted their testimony of the LDS gospel to social media, and they used the words, “I know.” I got a bit triggered by this statement because in recent years, those words have come to mean an expression of extreme arrogance. What sounds good and beautiful to the speaker sounds like, “I know I’m right, and you’re wrong,” to me. It sounds like, “no matter what you think you’ve learned, experienced, or discovered in your life, you’re on the wrong path because I know the truth.” It sounds like an impenetrable wall being built up. It sounds like the worst kind of arrogance.

At the same time, I’m going through some difficult times with my wife and our divorce proceedings. I’ve been reading some of the emails we exchanged in the early days of our marriage. In one of the first, I bear my testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wrote, 

“I have a strong testimony of the church and of my savior Jesus Christ. I know the church is true. … I am determined to [stay on] the path that leads to my Heavenly Father. I have felt His love strongly in my life and I know that … His love is unconditional … . I have faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ. I know that He suffered and died so that I can repent and find happiness … .”

I used the same absolute terms as my dear relative. Was I being arrogant? If not, then what is the difference? Why does one feel like arrogance and the other not? I thought about this for a while, and decided to go back to my journals to find more instances of the same. I found the first evidence that I believed the LDS gospel in 1990. As a 12 year old, I wrote, “[The bishop] asked if I believed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I happily responded, ‘I do.’ The best thing about that is, I could honestly say it.”

In the following years, those instances of private testimony multiply greatly. By the time I turned 16, I was absolutely certain that the church was true. Every other page of journal writing talks about spiritual experiences, reading the scriptures, and prayer. I wanted nothing more than to please my Heavenly Father and to return to Him one day. At the age of 17, I wrote the following:

“I went out in the rain and sang into the darkness. I feel the Spirit most readily through music, so often I’ll sing my prayers if I feel no one is within listening distance. This night, I stopped singing, being overcome with the Spirit. I felt His presence so strongly around me like a warm embrace. I made a promise at that time to my Heavenly Father that no matter how difficult things got, I would return to him in the Celestial Kingdom. I promised never to give up. If I fell, I would get up again.”

That promise defined me for the next two decades and is still with me in my thought processes, and my journals attest to that fact. At the same time though, my depression never let up. As a missionary in Hungary, I wrote, 

“I was feeling so depressed.  Sitting on my bed, close to tears, I cried out in my heart, ‘Father, hold me.’ The Spirit was instantly all around me as though he were giving me a hug, and I believe, in a way, that’s what it was.  I know He loves me in spite of me. The tears are still flowing though. Despite my prayers, I’m still me. I’m wishing right now that I had never been. I wish I could just cease to exist, both body and spirit.  God Help me!”

Several months later, I also write,

“Help!!! Sinking, ever sinking, the lights are growing dim.  I almost welcome the enclosing darkness, being nearly smothered in a familiar blanket of depression.  As I’m about to be swallowed up, voices call out and give me further desire to struggle and not surrender to the powers of hell.  O great, merciful God! Hear my voice from the great abyss!”

I have no written record of it, but I remember a particularly bad depression when I was 15 years old. I was seriously contemplating suicide and went to my Heavenly Father in prayer. I believed the church and gospel were true, but I was still not absolutely certain, and I needed an answer. If the church was true, I would keep on living because suicide wouldn’t free me from anything. If the church wasn’t true, then I … I don’t know what I would have done. I remember I didn’t want to think about it. I wish I had written more about this time of my life.

One week before my 16th birthday, I made a list of goals to accomplish. Among them is to “Find out for myself whether or not the church is true.” In one week, I finished reading the latter half of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon to its conclusion. Each day of that week I recorded my progress through these books. 

On my actual birthday, there was a situation with my dad where my birthday gifts were somehow locked in the trunk of the car, and he couldn’t get them out. He wanted me to help him figure out how to open the trunk. I had no clue, and I didn’t really care either. I had other things on my mind. I overheard someone asking my Dad why I seemed unhappy, and my Dad told them that I was disappointed that I might not get my birthday gifts. “If only my problems were that simple,” I wrote. I didn’t care at all for presents. I had more important matters on my mind… Like, would God answer my prayer about the church? I felt that if I could just finish the Book of Mormon that day, there might be some chance to turn my life around. All I actually write though is, “I read in the Book of Mormon until I finished it for the first time in my life.  And minutes after I finished came the call for supper. We had hot dogs.”

Despite not writing it, I remember feeling good about my accomplishment, and I took that good feeling to mean that the book was true. From there on, there was no looking back. I would accept that the church was true, and I would live on. Even though I often felt depressed, I put suicide out of my mind. It wasn’t a viable option anymore. I would just have to endure the pain and live on, though I often cried out to God to please just end my existence altogether.

I wasn’t happy, but I knew the church was true. It had to be. The alternatives just seemed too terrible to imagine. Although part of me wanted to die, another part of me was deeply afraid. I needed the church to be true, and I could not afford to doubt. For the next 20 years, I continued to pray regularly. I had countless spiritual experiences that confirmed my knowledge that the church was true. I was incapable of doubt. … 

And when I said, “I know the church is true,” it wasn’t arrogance; it was survival. 

And so, when I thought again about my relative’s declaration of sure knowledge, I decided that there may be other reasons besides sheer arrogance. I still don’t like certainty of any sort, and especially in religion, but I can see how it may feel necessary at a personal level. And though a person may believe that they are being open-minded, I think there are layers of consciousness or subconsciousness that may disallow doubt in order to preserve well-being. 

I guess I should get to the point now or risk rambling on and on without end. I forgive my family and friends for their certainty. I forgive them for seeming arrogant and closed-minded. I’m sorry for being arrogant myself when I’ve looked down on those expressing certainty in their positions. I’m sorry for thinking I was right and they were wrong. Sometimes, it’s not about right and wrong. These things can go deeper.

“I have a testimony that will never be shaken. I know who I follow. I know my master. As I try and live the way He would want me to, I come to know Him. God isn’t some distant force in the universe somewhere, but He’s my Father, my Heavenly Father, who stands here beside me, teaching me and leading me, holding my hand and He is showing me the way. I love Him.” – November 11, 1997

Conscience and False Gods

The Bible is probably the most influential book of all time. Literally billions of people have been affected by it or by other people that have been affected by the Bible. I constantly see it quoted by people around the world to try and add weight to their various opinions. I do the same thing and for the same reasons. But sometimes I wonder whether we are using the Bible in the right way. Are we sometimes taking God’s name in vain as we claim to know His will based on the Bible? After all, different people on opposite sides of an issue will both use the Bible to support their own beliefs. Sometimes, I also wonder if we haven’t made the Bible into an idol of sorts. Not knowing the actual mind of God, we sometimes elevate the Bible into a position of absolute authority and make questioning its words equal to questioning the mind and will of God.

I like the words of the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, as he struggled with figuring out the truth from the Bible. He said, “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” As a result of that loss of confidence in the Bible, Joseph Smith made the decision to put direct communication from God (prayer) above the Bible and had quite the remarkable experience as a result.

In my life, I’ve also lost confidence in “holy” writ, such as the Bible. I’ve lost confidence in “teachers of religion” and have had to go it alone. I continue to study the Bible and other religious texts because I do believe that much of them are at least somewhat inspired and a source of much wisdom, but I do not accept them as authoritative over my life. Every word, whether inspired at some point or not, was written by another human being just like me. People, even those that are good and wise, make mistakes and are influenced by the culture in which they live. We can call a person a prophet and can listen to their words, but that does not excuse us of our responsibility to decide for ourselves what we accept as right and wrong.

When I was a kid, I loved the words of Solomon the most. He was always my favorite Bible character. I also enjoyed the writings of Jeremiah and Isaiah and read them often. I envied the relationship of David and Jonathan and wished for the same in my life. I loved that Abraham, like Joseph Smith, found his own path, and God, on his own. And of course, I love reading the New Testament, especially the words of Jesus. However, I suspect that many of his words have been changed to fit the needs of those that sought religion as a source of power to more effectively control the people.

Unfortunately, I am no prophet. I study the scriptures and I pray often, but I have never heard the words of God speak audibly in my ear. Despite the faith that I have exercised and my belief that God does answer prayers, I am left to my own devices. Like all humans, I suppose, I have feelings, emotions, thoughts, ideas, and logic. I use what I have to the best of my ability and hope that that will be enough. Can I do any better than my best? When I study and pray and good feelings come into my heart and I feel enlightened by clear and logical ideas and thoughts, I tend to accept these ideas as being probably right. This experience, which comes often, has become my God – because I know no other.

Other people can talk on and on about their beliefs and interpretations of scripture, but why should I accept the words of others when they don’t enlighten my mind? Why should I care about what the Bible says or what any so-called prophet says when it lacks logic or I can’t make sense of it? Of course, that doesn’t mean these teachers of religion are wrong. I’m not saying that the Bible is false or the interpretations of others are wrong. I’m only saying that if God, as I relate to Him, does not agree with the scripture or with the prophet, then I feel no need to change my beliefs to conform to a man or the writings of a man.

If God tells you that some person is a prophet and you should follow them, then I suppose you can be excused in following that person as an expression of your commitment to following God. In my case however, doing the same goes against my conscience and understanding. For me, I believe that following my conscience trumps all other considerations. I feel a built-in need to do what is right, and what is right is what makes sense to both my mind and heart. I listen to prophets and I read their words, but then I weigh what I hear and read against the feelings of my heart and the thoughts in my mind. Am I wrong? Let God be the judge.

I accept the two great commandments that Christ taught to love God and to love others. I believe that the 10 commandments were given to help people know how to express that love to God and others. I don’t believe that commandments are or should be the same for all people in all situations. I suppose you could say I believe in some degree of relativity. A faithful Mormon should probably stay away from smoking or alcoholic beverages. For them, it might be sin because doing so would go against their conscience. For someone outside the church though, who knows? I might encourage someone to live a healthier lifestyle, but whether they do or not is up to them, and doesn’t make them a worse person if they choose not to. We each have our own paths and only God can be the judge for how well we travel the path given to us and us alone. I am not you and you are not me. My path is not your path and yours is not mine.

For me, I have chosen to follow my conscience which probably differs from yours in some ways. My conscience says that I should treat all of humankind, nature, and the Earth, with love and respect. I choose to forgive others for all that they may do because I know that I am just as imperfect, if not more so. If I make judgments about other people, it is for the sake of my personal safety and that of my family. If I see someone coming at me with a knife, I think it’s okay to judge them as being hostile and to take all necessary actions to ensure my family’s well-being. Still, I make no judgment about their standing in the eyes of God. What do I know about their heart and their reasons for their actions? I choose to love my enemies and to forgive them quickly.

I know I’ve talked about homosexuality and gay marriage quite a bit recently in blogs and elsewhere, but I hope this can clarify my position a bit. Every commandment that I accept from the Bible relates to love, but I think that nothing is as black and white as some like to believe. Killing, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, coveting and so on seem to be generally counter-productive to promoting love and peace in this world. Gay marriage however, does not seem to fit into this list very well. I can see lust as being negative and destructive, but not love. One night stands, indiscriminate sex, rape and so forth seem to be the products of lust rather than love. Gay marriage however, can hardly be seen as an expression of lust, and I believe that true love should be supported. As far as the Bible is concerned, it is my hope that the verses which speak against homosexual relations are speaking against lust and its consequences rather than to relationships of true commitment and love between individuals.

But whatever. Believe what you will and I’ll believe what I will. I just hope that you will follow your conscience and whatever relationship you have with God in your own heart before you start quoting scripture and prophets and other “teachers of religion”. Be careful that you are not taking the name of God in vain, the second commandment, or worshiping the Bible or a prophet before God, the first commandment. I love the Bible and the words of prophets past and present as they strengthen my relationship with God, but I cannot allow them to come between me and my God or to take the place of that relationship.