As a high-schooler and young adult, I took pride in my scrupulous, “legalistic obedience” to Mormon doctrine. Yep, I was really good at “obeying”….and beating myself up.To some degree, my attitude served a purpose: I stayed out of teenage trouble. However, my conscience operated on overdrive fueling my guilt, anxiety, and need for approval. Without realizing it, I worshiped my religious “rules” and other’s opinions of me more than I worshiped God. And I don’t think I’m alone in my Mormon experience. (Surely, this type of insecurity, guilt, and “arrogance” blights every organized religion and/or group. But due to our doctrine of perfection, we Mormons seem especially vulnerable.)
Thankfully, I began to change my inner compass by the time I reached 30. But another 10-12 years would pass before I completely broke free of my distorted thinking. No doubt, my tainted lens hampered my ability to love myself and others. And my disproportionate emphasis on rules crippled my spiritual and emotional growth. Yes, obedience to divine decree through scripture and prophetic counsel is essential. On the other hand, forever fencing core doctrines with our individual interpretive rules and regulations (while judging fellow church members) serves no righteous purpose. Indeed, we can be religious and be unhappy.
Dr. David Seamands, in his book Healing for Damaged Emotions, aptly defines my former predicament:
Perfectionism is a counterfeit for Christian perfection, holiness, sanctification, or the Spirit-filled life. Instead of making us holy persons and integrated personalities—that is, whole persons in Christ—perfectionism leaves us spiritual Pharisees and emotional neurotics” (p. 78).
Yep, that was me alright. The Apostle Paul warned against this pernicious and divisive rule/law orientation: “But there be some that trouble you and would pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6). Additionally, he warned the Galatians against listening “to other voices” or “another gospel” in the public squares. Most importantly, Jesus Christ condemned the hypocritical, self-righteous Pharisees and Saducees—more so than any other sinners. As we know, these rabbis were so focused on religious legalism and ridiculous regulations, they failed to recognize the Messiah. In just three short years of Christ’s ministry, these religious leaders could no longer tolerate Christ’s criticism of their sanctimony and “worship” of Mosaic law. So, they killed Him. And by the same token, this overly legalistic orientation crucifies our spiritual and emotional health.
“Disease” means literally “dis-ease.” As imperfect individuals, we exist in a perpetual state of emotional and spiritual “dis-ease.” What’s more, this “dis-ease” becomes increasingly harmful and insidious because we can see its symptoms in others, but cannot recognize symptoms in ourselves. Thankfully, the atoning power of Jesus Christ heals our “dis-ease.” But in order to heal, I first had to recognize my sickness as a “sickness.” Thus, distinguishing my unhealthy disconnects between spiritual and emotional health and strict adherence to Mormon doctrine was a process—sort of like “separating the wheat from tares.” My careful analysis (and Christ’s healing power) set me free through the following observations of my “dis-ease”:
- Learning to recognize the difference between “perfect obedience” to Jesus Christ and “obedient perfection” to the perceived “letter of the law.” Ultimately, I made the conscious choice to follow Christ rather than kill myself trying to conform to endless “unofficial” rules (intentionally or unintentionally) created by fellow church members.
- My rigid, overemphasis on religious externals triggered an automatic guilt response effectively undermining my spiritual and emotional growth. My insecurity and self-doubt left me too vulnerable to the opinions of fellow Mormons and their various interpretations of Mormon doctrine. Learning to trust my own spiritual and emotional instincts was akin to riding a roller-coaster. I now balance the power of personal revelation with a complementary relationship to Church doctrine.
- Wearing a perpetual “halo” as a means to impress or gain approval from fellow church members created a “yoke of bondage” for me and for those around me. In other words, my “halo effect” had a tendency to foster unnecessary guilt and competitiveness in my relationships—regardless of my intent.
- I feel a real freedom in exposing my imperfections and struggles to the Mormon world. I no longer have to “look” perfect and it’s very liberating. Dr. David Seamands agrees: “Immature and sensitive believers can become neurotic perfectionists who are guilt-ridden, tight-haloed, unhappy, and uncomfortable. They are rigid in their outlook, frigid in their lovelessness, conforming to the approval and disapproval of others. Yet, in a strange paradox, they critically judge, blame, and bind those same others” (p.82).
- As I’ve stated before, Jesus Christ isn’t nearly as judgmentally “mean and scary” as I thought He was. Surely, we’ve all struggled with our “Mosaic issues.” But if we stay stuck in our sickness or “dis-ease,” we miss out in feeling the Savior’s pure love and learning to purely love ourselves and others.
Sadly, too many Mormons lose their faith and/or leave the Church due to this poisonous “dis-ease.” And who can blame them? Whether we contaminate ourselves or others (usually it’s a combination of both) this “dis-ease” can be fatal; we become increasingly demoralized to the point of emotional and spiritual breakdown. Yes, we’re all spiritually sick in varying degrees. To promote our wellness, perhaps we can look upon our beloved Church as a merciful “hospital” for healing the spiritually sick—rather than a type of “showcase” for individual perfectionism. Jesus Christ, the ultimate physician, said “they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matt.9:12). Surely, He’s speaking to all of us!
Here’s to our health,