(Original Post Date: March 13, 2017)
Growing Your Own Sacred Grove
The 1980s were challenging years for me. I began 1980 as a newlywed and began the 1990’s as a mom to four kids. One of my difficulties involved questions of faith. Born and raised in Mormonism, I had always had a rock-solid testimony of the gospel and of the Church. Still, like many young adults, I had questions regarding Church doctrine and LDS culture. My older sister, Janet, was asking similar questions. Janet and I especially struggled with the following issues:
- The doctrine of plural marriage and its practice in 19th century Mormonism
- Women and priesthood authority
- Church administration and priesthood correlation where women’s auxiliaries no longer had autonomy but reported directly to priesthood authorities (correlation had been instituted 20 years earlier).
- The proposed Qual Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution (ERA) for gender equality. (It ultimately failed to pass, but like Proposition 9 regarding same-sex marriage in California, the proposed amendment divided Church members.)
5. Mormon activist Sonja Johnson’s efforts to pass the ERA (she was the founder of “Mormons for ERA”), her subsequent Church excommunication for apostasy (which made national news and interviews around the talk show circuit), along with her book From Housewife to Heretic. She also spoke at the 1980 Democratic Convention.
6. The book Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, Prophet’s Wife, Elect Lady, Polygamy’s Foe written by Mormon historians Linda K. Newell and Valeen Avery. This account gave a troubling and unflattering narrative regarding Joseph Smith, Emma, their marriage, and plural marriage. Back then, this type of information was rare—especially coming from and written by active Church members. Janet and I knew of several women who had read the book, and it had rattled their faith. At that time, I decided not to read the book because it seemed too contentious. Besides, I didn’t want to further undermine my faith. (Years later, I read it and thought, “So what…what’s the big deal?” Early Church leaders and members had human frailties just like the rest of us.)
- The internet would not be invented for nearly 20 years, thus information regarding Church history was very limited and opaque at the time.
My sister and I had grown up on the swells of second-wave feminism. Within LDS culture, many women of our generation had not yet come to value a college education—let alone a career. And there wasn’t much encouragement to attain them. Young LDS women (including my sister and I) married young and were expected to have children soon after. Lots of children. To our eternal gratitude, our dad was a college instructor, so he taught us the value of higher education. My mother also exemplified this principle by earning her college degree when Janet and I were teenagers. Consequently, my sister and I followed in our parents’ footsteps and worked hard to obtain our college degrees (and later graduate degrees) after becoming wives and mothers.
Janet and I in front of the “Joseph and Hyrum Smith” memorial statue at Carthage Jail, Illinois in 2001.
As young mothers, Janet and I were pretty much anomalies in our aspirations. For years we struggled under the pressure to fit into the mainstream “Mormon woman mold.” And 30 years ago, traditional LDS cultural expectations and gender roles were much more defined and embedded than they are now. (Please note: I’m not criticizing these roles or cultural norms as inherently bad or wrong.) The LDS cultural norms of the 1970s and 80s (though evolving) basically looked like this:
- Women were expected to stay home and cultivate joy in homemaking. Women who worked outside the home were often judged by others in their failure “to follow the Prophet.” (When I had one child and worked part-time, a couple of my friends openly criticized me by admonishing me to follow Church counsel. Later, as a mother of four children, I studied longs hours to attain a Master’s degree. Again, some of my friends criticized me for “neglecting” my children while pursuing “selfish desires.” Obviously, not all LDS women cast such harsh judgment toward me and toward each other. Still, cultural expectations to be a stay-at-home mom were exceedingly strong at that time, and many LDS women put tremendous pressure on each other.)
- Postponing children and families was not encouraged. (I waited nearly a year after marriage before getting pregnant. People often asked me when I would “start a family”—again, I felt a lot of pressure.)
- Artificial birth control was also discouraged. Many times discussions in church and among friends centered around quotes from early prophets—especially one from President David O. McKay: “Where husband and wife enjoy health and vigor….it is contrary to the teachings of the Church to artificially curtail or prevent the birth of children. We believe that those who practice birth control will reap disappointment by and by” (Ensign, May 1971). Time and again, I struggled and prayed because of this!
- Gender roles were much more pronounced. Below is an Ensign article published six years before I was married. The article contains advice for husbands and wives. Some specifics for husbands: “Be man enough to change the baby’s diapers…and occasionally bathe the children.” Some specifics for wives: “Prepare good meals for him, especially when he is late for dinner. Take telephone messages for him carefully and see that he gets them. Free the telephone when he needs it.” The rest of the article can be accessed at: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1973/06/for-husbands-and-helpmeets?lang=eng Again, I’m not suggesting that this advice is inherently wrong. My point is to illustrate mainstream LDS cultural expectations during that time.
My husband and I with our firstborn son, Steven, in 1981.
As previously mentioned, Janet and I struggled to fit ourselves into the “ultimate Mormon woman mold.” Neither of us wanted to give birth to congregations of children. (I eventually had four children and Janet had three.) Unlike me, Janet enjoyed (and was more proficient) in baking. We both made sure our homes were clean and orderly, and we were both good cooks. (Although I never enjoyed cooking, I was always in the kitchen because I understood the importance of nutritious meals and family dinnertime.) Neither Janet nor I enjoyed sewing (Janet enjoys needlework), but we had sewn a lot of our own clothes in high school. During my early years of marriage, I often sewed until it was no longer cost-effective. Still, I felt little joy in sewing. Or baking. Or crafting.
The Blessing Day of my third child, Erica, in 1987
As Janet and I grew older, we became more confident in our own judgment and decision-making. And, we learned to rely more on the Spirit for guidance and affirmation—and less on the judgment or advice from others. In other words, we eventually learned to separate Church culture from Church doctrine. We learned to care more about the Lord’s opinion of us than the opinion of others. We have lived our lives as devoted and active members of the Church despite our doubts or fears. One fear, however, plagued us the most: the doctrine of plural marriage. No matter how much Janet and I talked and tried to console each other and ourselves, we couldn’t reconcile what we called “the crazy aunt in the basement” doctrine. (I will revisit this topic later in this post.)
Do you, dear readers, have similar feelings? Do you struggle with your faith? Do you struggle to “fit in?” Do you feel insecure or fearful regarding various aspects of LDS culture, Church policy, or doctrine? Are you rattled by competing voices within and without the Church? Are you troubled by Church history? Do you feel guilty for questioning your faith? Be assured, you are not alone. Even better: our faith in Jesus Christ can supersede any doubt. He is a soft place to fall when we take our doubts and fears to Him.
Living in Faith and Peace
So, how do we get from doubt to faith to peace? And how do we sustain our faith and peace? I humbly offer some of my own thoughts and life experiences:
Pride and Reasoning
The saying, “Pride goeth before the fall,” is so true. Our pride kills our faith. Our society casts aside faith in God while encouraging complete faith in ourselves and our own ability. Our social and political discourse has become increasingly cynical, sneering, and hyper-sensitive in finding and taking offense. Truly, we live in a culture of outrage. Believing themselves to be “sophisticated,” many newspapers, editorialists, political pundits, commentators, professors, and politicians often speak and write with an attitude of arrogance, suspicion, accusation, and negativity. Furthermore, our society embraces reasoning and science while belittling faith and those who live by faith. (Surely, reasoning and science can be compatible with faith and religion.) Indeed, our society personifies Nephi’s ancient prophesy:
Their land is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made. And the mean man boweth not down, and the great man humbleth himself not.(2 Nephi 12: 8-9).
Not surprisingly, this mindset insidiously affects Church members. Offense toward Church leaders and Church doctrine tends to stem from (and further feed) pride and arrogance. Thus, it becomes easy to negatively judge Church leaders and doctrine using society’s toxic lens while undermining our faith. The Apostle Paul described the use of distorted lenses as “looking through a glass darkly.” Surely, there’s no sin in having fears, doubts, and anxiety. However, society’s dark lens need not be our lens.
A couple of years ago, a young, very intelligent, and very educated friend of mine asked incredulously, “I can’t believe that you, Julie, would put your trust in the Prophet and Apostles before your own judgment.” I responded, “That’s not what I said. I put my full faith in Jesus Christ. When I follow Christ in humility, He leads me to righteous conclusions and increases my faith in the Church, its leaders, and its teachings.” As the years pass, I watch as my friend’s faith falters. I fear my friend’s intellectual reasoning will reason herself right out of her faith—and out of the Church. Furthermore, as a college educator, I believe arrogance and pride are the twin blights in and of academia. I’ve encountered many brilliant professors and academics who, because they have acquired a great amount of secular knowledge, have also acquired a great amount of pride and arrogance along with it.
Again, please don’t get me wrong. I don’t fault educated people. I don’t fault people who question their faith, Church leaders, and doctrine. Asking questions is healthy and part of our spiritual growth. However, contention and loss of faith happens when questioning becomes agitating. When agitators use contention, perpetual “sadness,” and anger to persuade and/or to bring about change in Church doctrine and policy or to criticize Church leaders, we should not allow them to chip away at our faith (as they often chip away their own faith). Christ clearly teaches that negative energy and contention drive away the Spirit and “are not of me.” The fruits of the Spirit are not sadness and anger but peace, love, and joy. When we draw close to God and use the Savior as our personal lens, our vision is clarified and purified.
In studying the Book of Mormon, I’ve decided that Laman and Lemuel (from an intellectual standpoint) were often the reasonable ones in Lehi’s family. They had ample reasons to murmur and complain about their circumstances. After all, they had left all of their wealth and position in Jerusalem only to wander for eight years in the desert. Even “worse,” the cause of their circumstances and suffering was based on a dream their father, Lehi, had had one afternoon. From time to time, Laman and Lemuel were forcibly humbled. But as we know, their humility quickly evaporated every single time; their reasoning always obliterated their faith. Conversely, Nephi suffered the same hardship and uncertainty but still had the ability to bear it with grace and patience. Why? Because Nephi exercised faith and humility thereby receiving his own witness from the Spirit. As a reward, the Lord allowed Nephi to see the same vision Lehi had seen. Consequently, the Spirit continually sustained Nephi’s faith and softened his heart. Nephi’s words reflect humility and faith:
We must lay aside our sins, and not hang down our heads, for we are not cast off. Nevertheless, we have been driven out of the land of our inheritance, but we have been led to a better land, for the Lord… Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through his grace that ye are saved2nd Nephi 10: 20-22
Alma taught that faith comes from submission to the word of God. In the Book of Mormon Alma observed the Zoramites and how “they were cast out of the synagogues because of the courseness of their apparel…” (Alma: 32). Alma was hopeful that the Zoramites’ subsequent humility had caused a change of heart in allowing the seeds of faith to grow within them. Elaine Shaw Sorenson in her article, “The Seeds of Faith,” gives us significant insight:
Alma’s lesson has meaning today. Latter-day Saints seem naturally inclined to focus upon their works. This propensity to rely so heavily on works that document obedience seems to be an outgrowth of our present technological, behavioristic society, which places so much emphasis on observable achievement. Increasingly encumbering and complex, family, career, and even Church activities can disperse attentions toward multiple distractions among tasks and programs. Illusionary time and goal management techniques, if not grounded in a basic Christian nature, can further contribute to task-based rituals and repetitions in life. By extending ourselves laterally outward in noisy worldly ways, we risk becoming swallowed up in the proud illusion of progress (Alma 31: 27), when what we need is to extend quietly inward toward humility and upward toward God. As with the apostate Zoramites who lacked the essential humility that leads to faith, the achievements and prosperity that embellish our lives become meaningless trappings of mortality with no eternal significance without faith. Doing home teaching, earning a scout merit badge, or doing other assigned acts of service can become little more than offerings on the Rameumpton (Alma 31: 21) if our hearts are not earnest and our daily nature not Christian.BYU Religious Studies Center.
Genuine humility rather than compelled humility acts as a forcefield against the fiery darts of contentious agitators and self-doubt. Arrogance is the antithesis of humility because it claims a little to no need of Christ, claims to know all the answers and to know what is best for everyone—the Quorum of the Twelves and the Prophet included. Personally, I would much rather put my faith in Christ and the Brethren than in fellow members who claim to know what’s best.
Now, let me return to my experience regarding the doctrine of plural marriage. As I mentioned previously, this doctrine fueled my feelings of resentment, dread, and indignation. For years, I pushed away these feelings and refused to think about polygamy. As my relationship with God grew more personal, I decided to “confront” God about this “reprehensible” doctrine. His response to me was swift and sure. I received a very clear and very strong impression that my questions and concerns would not be answered until I sincerely humbled myself. That meant clearing my mind and heart (at least temporarily) of prideful negativity toward this doctrine. I will admit; it took some mental exertion and sustained effort on my part to get there. General Conference was scheduled that weekend, so I waited until the conclusion of the Sunday session to pray for some answers. Feeling inspired and humbled, I walked back to the car, opened the car door, and sat there in the empty church parking lot. I poured out my heart to God. I did not receive detailed answers. If anything, I came away with more questions than answers after an hour of prayer. Nevertheless, I felt heard and validated by my Heavenly Father. Even more, I felt respected. I felt His love. I felt peace and joy. And that’s all that mattered to me. I drove home with a satisfied and thankful heart.
Whenever doubts or questions inflict my soul, I once again humble myself and take my concerns to God. His counsel, His grace, and His love are infinitely more cathartic and therapeutic than anything or anyone else on Earth. The peace that comes from God and our Savior is able to transcend any doubt, anxiety, fear, or even anger we may have in regard to our Church leaders, fellow members, doctrine, and/or local Church culture.
Becoming Comfortable With Uncertainty
Faith is the antithesis of certainty. I had to learn to feel comfortable with unanswered questions. I have learned to suspend my judgment of anyone or anything before earnestly seeking answers and insight through the Spirit.
Additionally, the best way (for me) to overcome doubt is to water the righteous seeds of faith and nourish them through utilizing the spiritual gifts enumerated in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. Intellectual study of the gospel surely has its own advantages. I spend significant amounts of time in intellectual study. Yet, ultimately, we won’t find lasting answers or peace to our questions using this method. We only find answers and peace by seeking the Savior. While seeking Him, we can ask for ever-increasing faith. Having faith in Christ is specifically listed as a spiritual gift in the scriptures. We can pray for this specific gift to increase our faith and, in turn, increase our peace.
Rabbi Evan Moffic believes uncertainty possesses its own kind of beauty:
Faith is not about answers. We err if we think faith solves our uncertainty. Authentic faith is not about easy answers. Rather, it is about finding the courage and wisdom to live with uncertainty. Faith can help turn uncertainties into blessings. In fact, uncertainty can ultimately sustain and make our faith even stronger. I first recognized this truth during a visit to Venice. The city has magnificent churches. Yet, these churches are built on lagoons. The soil is watery and muddy. How can such shaky ground hold up such extraordinary structures? The tour guide explained the way it works. The churches are built on thousands of wooden poles that move with the tide. Those movements counter-balance one another, keeping the structure high and intact. The very shakiness of the structure keeps it standing. The same is true with faith. The uncertainties we face sustain us. They bring us closer to one another. They bring us closer to God. It is through the uncertainties, the challenges, the crises—what the Psalmist calls the “valley of the shadow”—that we see God is truly with us. Uncertainties also sharpen our vision. They help us refine and grow in faith, separating the wheat from the chaff, the sacred from the mundane. It is not certainty that leads to faith. It is the courage to live with uncertainty. An 18th century rabbi named Nachman of Breslov said, ‘the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important part is not to be afraid.’ In other words, life is uncertain. It resembles a rickety bridge. We walk across it in faith: Faith in our ability to do so, faith that the bridge will hold, and faith that God beckons us from the other side (The Secret of Living With Uncertainty, OnFaith Voices, July 17, 2015).The Secret of Living With Uncertainty, On Faith Voices, July 17, 2015.
I would add that the Church and its leaders may, at times, resemble (in our own minds) a shaky or rickety bridge. As Church members, we too, must walk across it in faith.
Our Faith Will Be Tried
Plan on it. Author Grant Von Harrison’s observations echo my own personal experiences:
From the very beginning the pattern followed by the Lord in granting blessings has been: 1) the Lord allows the person seeking the blessing to be tested and tried and 2) once the person humbles him/herself and proves his/her faith by perseverance and sustained faithfulness, the righteous desires are granted. A period of proving, or a trial of faith, is necessary to see if someone who is seeking a special blessing from the Lord will remain faithful in the face of opposition. If a person understands that his/her faith is going to be tried, it gives him/her a greater resolve to be persistent in times of opposition. It is extremely important that you realize that trials of faith are a necessary part of the sanctification process by which we are purified by the Spirit of God. Opposition plays a very important part in this process, for by overcoming opposition and enduring affliction we are, in a very literal sense, purged and made clean. When you endure opposition by serving the Lord to the utmost of your ability—no matter how limited your ability is—the grace of God is sufficient to intervene in your behalf.Drawing From the Powers of Heaven, p. 49-50.
I will end on this final thought. Surely, Nephi had it all figured out when he said:
For behold, the promises which we have obtained are promises unto us according to the flesh’ wherefore, as it has been shown unto me that many of our children shall perish in the flesh because of unbelief, nevertheless, God will be merciful unto many; and our children shall be restored, that they may come to that which will give them the true knowledge of their Redeemer (2 Nephi 10:2).2 Nephi 10: 2.
Christmas, 2016 with our grandchildren. Since then, an additional granddaughter and grandson have been added to our family.
I can testify that many seeds of my faith have blossomed into a strong belief. And my belief has eventually given way to knowledge. And though my knowledge may not be perfect, it is still knowledge and no longer faith. Faith precedes and sustains!
I will publish Part Two of this post in the next few days.