I’ve recently had multiple conversations with friends and family members who have left the church or have had a spouse, children, sibling or close friend do so. I listened carefully to their experiences and wrote/delivered this talk in a Lehi ward on July 8, 2018.
Today I’d like to talk about making and keeping covenants, which must be important, as we hear about it nearly every week at church. A covenant is a type of contract with God, in which he promises to bless us as we keep his commandments.
One of the central themes of the Book of Mormon is the Lord’s covenant relationship with his people. As Father Lehi said in 2 Nephi 1:20, “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.”
What does that mean exactly to be cut off from his presence? Does it mean that we lose the influence of the Holy Ghost? Are we cut off from returning to live with him someday?
Lehi’s dream describes people in various situations — some pressed forward while holding to the rod of iron; some wandered in strange paths, blinded by the mists of darkness, while others were enticed by the great and spacious building.
Today, I’d like to talk about those who have made covenants but then have chosen to walk a different path. We sometimes call them less active members, inactive members, ex-Mormons or former members. In years past, the term “apostate” was often used to describe someone who grew up as a member but has left and is hostile towards the church. Apostate is a pretty negative word — so maybe we should call them “friends who have chosen to walk a different path.”
My great, great grandfather Charles Lambert had an interesting experience with an “apostate” in his Salt Lake City ward. Charles was a stone mason who joined the church in England, emigrated to America and worked on both the Nauvoo and Salt Lake Temples. Later in life he developed arthritis that aggravated a dislocated shoulder, making it impossible for him to raise his arm above his head.
Charles became concerned about a church member named Gallup who was defaming the prophet Joseph Smith years after Joseph’s death. The man was brought before a priesthood council to answer for his apostasy and claimed the Joseph Smith was a drunk and an adulterer and was now in hell.
Charles Lambert, seated on the opposite side of the room, sprang to his feet, leapt over benches and rushed towards him crying out “I will send YOU to hell.” He raised his right arm (which he had not been able to use for months) and was about to strike the man before being restrained. His wife Mary Alice wept with joy when her husband returned home, swinging his arm, now free from pain, above his head.
Now I appreciate my ancestor’s zeal and passion in defending the honor of the Prophet Joseph Smith, but I also think we ought to be very careful how we interact with those who view the church negatively. Instead of antagonizing them, we ought to seek for understanding and peace. So how do we maintain positive relationships with our friends and family who have left the church?
First, let’s not minimize their decision. In my experience, most people who have left the church have only done so after MUCH consideration and deliberation. It is an agonizing and scary experience for many as they make this life-changing decision. Some leave suddenly, but most leave after years of doubt and struggle, and they do so knowing that culturally, they might be shunned or treated as outsiders or as “projects.” While some active members think that leaving the church is an act of weakness or cowardice, it is very scary, difficult decision, a step into the unknown which is not taken lightly by most.
Why do people leave the church? We active members wonder how someone could possibly know the truth and then leave it behind. We try to search for answers because it hurts when someone leaves the family of saints — it’s like a betrayal. I’m sure all of us in this room have experienced this. We want desperately to understand how they could reject not only the teachings of their childhood, but also their family heritage and a big part of their personal identity.
We often inappropriately oversimplify people’s motives:
“Oh, she was offended by something her bishop said. He wasn’t reading and praying daily so he lost his testimony. That family started reading some negative material on the internet and it created doubt. She wanted to drink coffee, alcohol and smoke pot, so she left the church. He wanted to look at pornography without feeling guilty all the time. They’re lazy and got tired of all the things the church asks us to do, so they stopped coming.”
In my discussions with friends who have left, I have determined that the main reasons people leave include three main categories: doubt, discouragement and deception.
Some people feel they haven’t experienced strong spiritual manifestations or answers to prayers. Some are troubled the church’s truth claims regarding the origins of the Book of Mormon, our practice of plural marriage in the second half of the 19th century, our institutionalized racism prior to 1978, the roles of women in leadership, the authoritarian and hierarchical nature of the church, emotionally charged LGBT issues and so forth.
For some people, these issues just create too much cognitive dissonance, especially because people are imperfect and history is messy. Faith is difficult. Believing in something without hard evidence, especially in today’s world, feels like folly. We are afraid we’re going to be deceived.
My friends, over the years, I have read so much about the church — so many things that have strengthened my faith, while other things have shaken me to my core. There are things I just DON’T understand. I have learned that it requires patience and humility to recognize that we don’t have all the answers and that’s okay.
I’m not willing to give up all the good things I get from living the gospel of Jesus Christ because don’t have all the answers or because our leaders are flawed and imperfect. Faith and doubt not only CAN co-exist, they must co-exist. Without doubt, we’d have a perfect knowledge and would no longer need faith. Doubt is not something to be ashamed of; but we also mustn’t allow it to overcome our faith.
As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught: “Hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes. You have more faith than you think you do.”
Some people say to themselves, “I just can’t live up to the ideals of the gospel of Jesus Christ and all that it requires. Maybe I’ll just stop trying. I just can’t do three hours of church on Sunday, along with canning assignments, food storage, family history, scouting advancement, young women personal progress, pack meeting, baptisms for the dead, making casseroles for the family with a new baby, visiting the sick and elderly, writing to the missionaries, doing ministering visits, and attending all the administrative meetings.”
The list goes on and on and it can get overwhelming. Since we so often we fall short of the gospel ideal, we may be tempted to give up. However, once we stop seeing the gospel as an ever-growing “To Do” list and view it instead as a roadmap to becoming more like our Heavenly Father, we can reduce these feelings of discouragement. We can reject the idea of “checking boxes” in order to achieve perfection and replace it with a sincere desire to improve our relationship with the divine.
The adversary is cunning and clever. He often makes things that are good appear evil and things that are evil appear good. The things of the world are very enticing. A few weeks ago our minivan broke down on the way home from a vacation in California, which required us stay overnight in Las Vegas. I decided to go down to the Strip late at night and check out the hotels. I rode on the rollercoaster at New York, New York and checked out the Bellagio fountains. There’s so much glitz in that city, it’s astonishing. All the pleasures of the flesh are advertised unabashedly, and you feel like you’re missing out if you
don’t partake. (I think that the great and spacious building in Lehi’s dream probably looks a lot like the MGM Grand.)
Not seeing clearly see through Satan’s deceptions is a stumbling block for many. Lately, he’s done a particularly good job at making good look evil and evil look good. For example, the church’s long-held support for traditional families and opposition to same-gender marriage is viewed by many as intolerant and hateful toward gays. The November 2015 handbook policy update regarding baptism for children of same-gender couples was seen by many as exclusionary and punitive, especially towards innocent children, when in fact church leaders said it was intended to avoid creating conflict about the church within the homes between same-gender parents and their children.
The church’s stance on the differing roles of men and women is seen by many as sexist and old fashioned. The ordain woman movement, previously led by Kate Kelly, sought to fundamentally change the order and structure of the Church by demanding that women be given the priesthood. Again, church leaders were criticized for not bending to the pressure and maintaining that men and women have unique talents and gifts that are generally associated with their gender.
These are but two examples of the how easy it is to fall into this trap of calling good evil and evil good. No one wants to be seen as intolerant. No one wants to be called a bigot. And yet that’s exactly what the world tries to do when church leaders set and articulate clear standards that reject the notion that “anything goes.”
I know a wonderful couple that have seven children, and over the years, one by one, most have left the church. Naturally, the parents are distraught by these choices and they are constantly asking themselves, what did we do wrong? Could we have kept them in the church if we’d been more consistent with having family night or had prepared better lessons filled with the spirit. They wonder what they could have done differently and they beat themselves up.
In an effort to comfort their parents, the kids in this family each wrote and presented to their parents a statement of their beliefs and an affirmation of the many values their parents had instilled in them. Did this couple fail as parents? Absolutely not! Their children still live many of the values they were taught, and while they no longer do so in an orthodox way, they are still very good people who love, serve and bless those around them.
It’s important to remember that people have their agency and MUST be allowed to exercise it. We teach our children and other family members correct principles and let them govern themselves. And that means that they will sometimes make choices that we wish they didn’t make.
Brothers and sisters, let’s not over simplify their decision to leave or judge them for making what we consider to be incorrect choices. Let’s choose not to be critical of them, but instead give them the benefit of the doubt and not make assumptions about their motives or fret about their worthiness. In short, let’s just love them. If they’re willing to talk about their decision, let’s encourage them to do so without fear that they will plant seeds of doubt in us that could eventually lead to our own disaffection. Let’s be confident in our own choice to stay within the church, but accept their decision to go another way. Nagging them or guilting them will most likely have the opposite effect. If our goal is to encourage them to come back, we should let the light of the gospel shine by living it. But we should also be humble enough to recognize that there are many paths that can lead to peace and happiness. And while ultimately we believe ours is the path to exaltation through the saving ordinances of the gospel, we DO NOT have a monopoly on truth, peace, happiness or even access to the atonement. I have met many wonderful Christians whose devotion to the Savior Jesus Christ is powerful, admirable and worthy of emulation. I have also met many non-Christians who are wonderful people to live the values I am striving to live.
Now, what do we do if our friends or family members are hostile to us for our belief in the gospel and our participation in the church? What if when they’re around us, they continually criticize church leaders, point out flaws in our history, or ridicule our culture, practices and policies. Well, we follow Christ’s example and we turn the other cheek. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand up for ourselves, but I don’t think many minds are changed through a heated argument or exchange, either in person, or more often these days, online. I suggest we respectfully ask them not to try to tear down our faith. Tell them that you will not constantly question their decision to leave and that you expect them to respect your beliefs and not criticize your decision to stay. Open dialogue is crucial.
In a recent TED Talk Dylan Marron said: “Sometimes the most subversive thing you can do with the people you disagree with is to speak with them and not simply at them. Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs; it just means that I’m acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think very differently from me.”
My favorite of the Savior’s parables is the prodigal son. It gives us some great insights into how we should treat those who stray. The father in the parable didn’t want his son to leave, but he allowed him to exercise his agency and even gave him his inheritance early knowing full well that he would waste it and use it sinful activities. But he loved his son and never gave up on him. When the younger son returned, his father welcomed him with open arms. He put a robe on his back, a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet and killed the fatted calf for a feast.
The older brother, who had always been loyal to his father, was jealous. He didn’t rejoice in his brother’s homecoming — he wanted him to fail. He took great pleasure at seeing his brother in destitute circumstances with a kind of “I told you so” attitude.
We can learn from this example. We should welcome our brothers and sisters who stray back to the fold with open arms. But even if they don’t ever come back, we need to show them love and desire their success. Wanting them to fail so we can validate our decision to stay in the church is natural, but it’s extremely short-sighted and un-Christlike. We should desire their happiness and peace, no matter what path they choose. And we should tell them this. I don’t believe it’s healthy for people to constantly give off the vibe that we’re disappointed in them or sad about their choices. Yes, we can be concerned. It’s only natural. But constantly fretting about someone’s eternal salvation may very well drive a wedge between us.
May we be like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, who never stopped loving his wayward son. Our Heavenly Father never stops loving those who stray, so why should we? Let’s find common ground. Let’s disagree amicably. Let’s choose kindness over judgement. As Mother Theresa says, if you judge someone, you won’t have time to love them. Let’s stop wringing our hands over how things will work out in the eternities. We don’t know how everything will play out, but I’m quite confident that a loving father will do all he can to exalt his children.
In conclusion, let me share some words from President Russel M. Nelson’s first talk to the church as its president on January 16, 2018.
“Now, to each member of the Church I say, keep on the covenant path. Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”
“If you have stepped off the path, may I invite you with all the hope in my heart to please come back. Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there is a place for you in this, the Lord’s Church. You and generations yet unborn will be blessed by your actions now to return to the covenant path. Our Father in Heaven cherishes His children, and He wants each of us to return home to Him. This is a grand goal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—to help each of us to come back home.”
May we choose the covenant path ourselves but never stop loving those who do not. In the name of Jesus Christ Amen.