I had done it again, and somehow she knew. Call it mother’s intuition, inspiration, or just luck, but here she was, knocking on my door, four hours in to one of the most depressing moments of my life.
“Jefferson? Are you there?”
There was no way of hiding it, no way of concealing the tears, not in my voice if I spoke or on my face if I let her in, and I didn’t have the willpower to lie convincingly anyway. There was only one thing I could do so I answered and she came in and sat next to me and told me she had felt she should come talk to me.
From the second floor to the basement, where she rarely came, she had come out of concern for me, not knowing why.
I didn’t want to talk to her about it – looking at pictures of naked women and getting off to them isn’t exactly on the list of “comfortable mother-son conversations” for any teenage kid. All I knew is that I felt as dark and low as I ever had before and she was here because she felt like she should be. Maybe God had sent her to help me through this.
I told her and she hugged me and said words I’m sure were wise but which I don’t remember and I knew she loved me and cared for me and didn’t judge me.
I said I had been trying to stop for so long and I knew it was wrong but I kept doing it anyway and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stop. And then I said the series of words that ripped through her, words that would define the next decade of my life, words which, I didn’t know at the time, had defined much of hers as well.
“I just didn’t want to feel so bad about myself anymore.”
For all the darkest things of this world, guilt is there to add fuel to the fire of our own self-destruction.
In the LDS Church especially.
The Greatest Guilt-Inducing Doctrines in The World
I’d like for us to do an experiment together, you and I, one entirely accomplished in our imaginations. I’d like you to imagine a boy (preferably a nephew, son, or grandson – someone you love) – he will be our test subject. Together, we’re going to place him in a controlled environment where we can manipulate the thoughts, ideals, and dogmas of all the people around him – a Truman Show setting, but for social science instead of entertainment. Look around the earth for potential dogmas to give to the child–there are so many to choose from.
As the boy grows up, tell him he’s extremely special and important: of all the creatures on earth he’s part of the only species with a soul–he’s a human, a child of God–but that his uniqueness and specialness goes far beyond that common human trait; that of all the people who have ever been born, lived, and loved, he was held back to be born at this particular period of time, exactly when he was, so that he could have the truth and take it to others, and so he could help prepare the way for God to come to earth again.
Tell him he is part of a “chosen generation,” chosen because of how valiant and faithful he was eons ago, before God had even created the world. This idea will appeal to any child, given our natural desire to hear good things about ourselves, but we’ll want to confirm it with countless speeches, sacred texts, and emotion-filled statements by those he trusts. Have the adults, those who are in the usual place of respect in any society, tell the boy that he and his peers are better than they were as kids, that this is evidence that God is coming soon and that they’re so proud and excited to see the things he does. When those ideas give him that familiar warm feeling of righteous pride, tell him God is speaking to him, confirming the truth of what he heard.
Let’s not stop there. It’s important that this child really believes what we’ve told him about who he is – the rest of his life hinges on it. Have an elder in his society give him a special blessing, and tell the boy that the words the man says come directly from God. Use this moment of trust and openness to tell our boy that he will be a leader, that he will represent God in everything he does, that he will bring many people to baptism and that those people will be grateful forever for what he did, that he will personally participate in the second coming of Jesus Christ and that he must prepare for that event by walking uprightly before the Lord every day of his life . . . .
Evey day of his life.
Teach this boy he can be forgiven when he messes up. Tell him he can become perfect, but not in this life. Also tell him his spiritual power depends on his good choices. Tell him that if he’s slothful in his duties, he will be held accountable for those he might have saved, had he done his duty.
Tell him that miracles are possible, that he can move mountains, baptize many, heal the sick, and whatever else God wills, and that the main thing that holds him back is a lack of faith, righteousness, and from not following the promptings of the spirit.
Give this child people he loves who he especially needs to save – his father, sister, and a few friends will do nicely. Watch how this affects how hard he pushes himself.
Do this and you will have created me.
This is about me
You, dear reader, are already having one of many possible reactions to this article. Some of you are looking for weaknesses, for ways to point out where I’m wrong, and you’ve no doubt already found some. Since you’re also the only people who can do anything about the reasons I felt unworthy, I need to ask you to stop viewing me as an enemy. I come to this article with one intention – to portray what became the largest trial of my young-adult life – an unquenchable feeling of unworthiness in spite of my best efforts. Your experience of LDS doctrine may be different. This was mine.
It would have been a strange scene for others to walk in on – me in a dark basement, alone, pedaling on a stationary bike while watching a movie and crying. I was at the end of Schindler’s List and what I had just seen filled me with fear.
The Alliance had beaten the Nazis and were going to soon arrive in the area where Schindler’s factory was located. Throughout the war, Schindler had, through flattery and bribes to some of the worst people history has known, purchased a Jewish work-force of over 1100 people, saving them from concentration camps and putting them to work creating pots, pans, and faulty ammunition. Now his workers were hours away from being fully liberated, but Schindler himself had to flee or face the risk of being charged as a war criminal.
He’s outside the factory, preparing to get into his car, and his workers have gathered around. One of them, a close friend, brings him a gold ring some of the workers had made for him. On it was inscribed a message from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
This message, at this moment, overwhelms Oskar Schindler. He leans towards his friend and whispers the words that are burning his conscience, “I could have got more out . . . I could have got more.” He begins sputtering about the things he could have done differently–he could have made more money or wasted less of it–and his friend tries to console him without effect. He looks around him at the things he still has–his car, his suit, his Nazi pin–and tallies up what he could have done if he would have sold them. “This car. Why did I keep this car? Ten people right there! Ten people.” He looks at the pin on his lapel and says, “Two people, two people right here.”
Pedaling in my basement, his intense guilt fueled my imagination. What will it be like, I thought, after this life, when all the people I could have helped see me and know I could have helped them – that for one uncomfortable moment I could have given them the greatest truth this world had, but that I balked, and they had suffered?
A Cycle of Guilt
I often wonder how our stories affect us. Our best movies and books usually place extraordinary adventure on ordinary people, showing how the weak overcome the strong, and how the good always win in the end. I wonder if that fuels some of the dissatisfaction we have with our own lives – whether we’d be more content if all our heroes were more normal.
And if regular stories, which we know are fictional, affect us, how much more do stories we believe are true affect how we deal with life? If a boy is reading a story about a righteous man who really believed in God, sacrificed everything for him, and was able to perform miracles, what will the boy think when he is unable to do the same?
A cycle of guilt begins, one which I experienced hundreds of times in the two short years of my mission:
- I believed all things were possible, through faith. God had prepared people to accept His gospel, and he promised that amazing miracles could happen if we exercised faith – we were the only ones stopping miracles from happening!
- I prayed and set goals based on faith, rather than past accomplishments. I was great at setting goals and planning–a gift from my mother–but these plans relied on a loving God to make up the difference between what I could do and the goals I set. When my companion and I set goals at the beginning of a six-week transfer, we believed that the goals we set were inspired by God. “Eight baptisms, even when we don’t have anyone remotely close right now? Hey, it’s possible.” We didn’t stop there – we’d set smart action plans, things we could do to be in the right place at the right time, to come in contact with a lot of people, to be prepared to be led to the right people, and to more fully “consecrate” ourselves to the work.
- I’d work my ass off. At the peak of my mission we bought black running shoes so we could “turbo tract” for an hour every day (something my brother had done – running from door to door instead of walking); one day a week we would leave the apartment in the morning and not come back until night, packing a lunch and walking or biking everywhere so we could meet a lot of people; we’d invite a member to every single appointment; we’d do “inspired tracting;” we’d study specific topics; we’d role-play to practice our teaching skills; we’d wake up on time and do our exercise and eat better and not come in until 9:00 even if it meant tracting in the dark and we wouldn’t think about home and we wouldn’t allow contention and we would make p-day a little short because that was the only time that one person could meet but maybe they were prepared.
- Eight baptisms wouldn’t come. Hell, one baptism wouldn’t come.
- Then I’d do what every good planner does – analyze the results, learn from my mistakes, and set new goals.
The problem with this cycle is that one key competent was missing – God. The success of all of these plans was based on the existence and intervention of a loving and all-powerful God, the God who had sent me to earth at this specific time for this specific reason, the God who had guided Ammon, who had guided the Nephite missionaries and converted entire cities of Lamanites, the God who could do anything and wanted to save as many people as possible, the one I read about three times a day in the scriptures.
He clearly wasn’t the problem here. He could do it. And that meant the finger could point in only one direction – toward me and my companion.
And there was always something we did in a six-week transfer that we could blame for our failure to accomplish our goals. I never swore, I never masturbated, I never looked at pictures of naked women, I never allowed myself to become really homesick, I never woke up late or came home early or snuck out at night or swam in a pool or anything like that.
Like Schindler, I stood looking at the fruits of my efforts, thinking of the car I could have sold but that I didn’t.
So I’d get up earlier, pray more fervently, knock on more doors, turbo-tract more often, try to burn away feelings of laziness by working harder, harder, harder.
And I never felt like it was enough. I was never enough.
“The Best . . . “
And that’s why I didn’t know what to think when he said it. I hoped it was true, to be sure, but I didn’t see how. Sitting in the chapel at the transfer meeting, looking around at all the other missionaries who were moving to different areas in Illinois, I sized myself up, but I just didn’t see it.
Yeah, I thought, clearly I work harder than him. Him, yeah. That Elder is just really awkward, not that that’s any fault of his own, and I’m glad God has given me the talents I have – it’s Him, not me.
And the next thoughts were never uttered, not even to myself, but were felt nearly every time I was in a meeting with other missionaries. That Elder is a lot better than me.
“You are unworthy.” “You are not good enough.” “You’re not working hard enough.” “You aren’t taking every opportunity you can.” “You don’t have enough urgency.”
“You fall short.”
Those were the fears that punctuated my mission.
They were the obvious conclusions to the results I had been achieving, results that caused my mission president to say the words I didn’t believe on a phone call before transfers, words which didn’t comfort me, but gave me guilt for the temporary pride they gave me, words which made me kick myself for wondering whether he was about to make me an Assistant and then wonder about my motivation and then ask God to not let it happen because I obviously wasn’t ready for it. Words which didn’t stop me from feeling what I always felt, eventually.
Why I Left the Church
If you were to ask me why I left my religion, I would probably say it was the doctrine, and that would be true. I can point out all the logical inconsistencies that slowly frustrated my mind, the moments of feeling betrayed and lied to, and the ways the Church asked me to perpetuate their own half-truths or misrepresentations. But how much do I really understand about the decisions I make each day? I’ve seen so many people do things and then later think of the reason they did it, and I’ve done so myself, so I don’t fully trust the objectivity of our reflections about ourselves – they seem highly prone to change based on our current world view, self-image, and so on.
Of the six or seven people who have listened to all the doctrinal reasons I left the Church, some were affected, and others didn’t seem bothered at all – subjects which tore at my conscience for months were met with flippant shrugs of shoulders as if they weren’t important. I left for doctrinal reasons, but I really have no idea why those doctrines troubled me and don’t trouble others. There was obviously something that prepared me to interact with those doctrines in a different way than I had before – some life experience that made me open.
I think I left the Church to survive. I think the unworthiness I felt in the Church was too much to handle, and my brain, in an effort of self-preservation, started looking for something that worked.
To put it simply – I left the Church because the Church didn’t work for me. In fact, the Church was destroying me.
I mean that quite sincerely.
Slowly, the words of the mid-westerners around me on my mission started to seem more and more right. I started seeing the beauty of their raw acceptance of grace without any caveats. Doctrines I had heard mocked since childhood, without understanding what they meant, now started to become clear as I grappled with defeat and guilt. I saw that when others said, “I am saved and nothing can change that!” they didn’t want an excuse to sin – they were fully admitting that they were always going to fall short of perfection and that there was nothing they could do to change that.
And so I started reading Mormon authors who seemed on the brink of becoming Evangelicals themselves–Robert Millet, Stephen Robinson, and others–and I loved it, for awhile. But eventually, all the unfortunate doctrines of the Church became a burden to keep reinterpreting. I couldn’t go through the temple anymore and believe all the things done inside had to be done for every single person before they could enter the highest degree of heaven–all these rites and ordinances and things we had to do in order to have the full saving grace of God in our lives, and then hundreds of things afterwards to live righteously. The LDS Church just didn’t work within my new worldview of grace.
I became an Evangelical for many other reasons as well, but this was among the most important, and perhaps the fuel for all the others: I connected with their portrayal of Christ as my savior in ways I hadn’t with Mormonism. Theirs was a Savior without caveat, without a footnote of “Do all you can do,” without the “You will be held accountable for those you might have saved,” without the “You’re the only thing holding back miracles from your life.” Their’s was one that accepted that life is difficult and at times unbearable, that we will never be able to be everything we want to be, and that God not only knows it, but that he expects it, and that he loves us and accepts us anyway and gives us good things in spite of our failings.
Of course, I’m now an atheist. I now find my grace and hope in literature, in other human beings, in the knowledge that I’m one of billions who experience many of the same things in this crazy and complex thing we call life, from the first humans to those who will live thousands of years from now, and I feel united by this, and accepted by the common humanity I share.
I still feel guilt and shame. I still feel like I’m not enough, sometimes. Two weeks ago I wrote in my journal about how I’m afraid I’m not going to become what I want to become in life. Sometimes life sucks. That’s just the way it is. Now I feel more human, more connected with others, and more humble when I feel that way. And even though it’s hard, I love it.
- Schindler’s List closing scene on Youtube:
- It’s risky to say “The real reason I left was ___,” because many LDS people often say that about those of us who leave instead of listening to us tell our own stories. If you’re thinking that, here’s a good article.
- If you’d like an excellent, balanced (and somewhat liberal-Mormon) explanation of the grace/works debate between Mormons and Evangelicals, I strongly suggest How Wide the Divide. There are about 45 excellent pages dedicated to it.