Why go to church

I’ve recently seen several posts, giving various reasons why people found it emotionally difficult to go to church and in some cases had stopped. It’s happened to coincide with a few things in my personal study, so I thought I should touch on the topic. It’s one where – for all the difficulty I have with empathy – I think I’m in some position to understand. I too find church difficult at times. Part of this is simply due to the fact that I find groups difficult anyway (thankfully people in my ward are very understanding about this). On some occasions, however, I do run into the same difficulty that I’ve seen mentioned: namely the emphasis the Church places on the family. I’m a 35 year old never married male, in a Church where one prominent leader taught that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home”*. Nor do I particularly have a litany of successes outside the “home”. So when the topic turns to families, or eternal marriage, or whatever, it’s hard not to feel like some sort of failure. And I know there’s quite a lot of people in different circumstances who experience similar feelings of falling short.

I’ve seen some attempts to regard this as some sort of cultural difficulty, as opposed to a doctrinal matter. Yet I do not believe that can resolve everything. While there are definitely sentiments and so on out there that are the product of culture, culture isn’t exactly something that can be easily or swiftly steered, and certainly isn’t easily amenable to central direction (I can only imagine that governments would love to if they could). Furthermore, this isn’t just an issue of culture: the importance of the family, the covenant of eternal marriage and so on are matters of doctrine, and they’re ones the world needs to hear. At a time when such matters are increasingly depreciated in Western civilisation, the Church would be failing in its divine responsibility were it not to speak frequently on these topics. The Church’s message is true and needed, even if it may cause discomfort in those who’d like those blessings but who have not received them. There’s a dilemma here that reminds me of Jacob 2 and 3, where (as I mention) Jacob is left having to give a message that may cause some distress because other people need to hear it.

And, after all, this is not the only such thing that may cause discomfort in attending church. I’ve mentioned my own personal difficulty around groups of people. Others may feel they don’t fit in, or face some other anxiety about their situation. Many have their crosses to bear, in many cases through no fault of their own. While others can perhaps make these things easier, ultimately some individuals will be faced with choosing between attending church and incurring some discomfort, and choosing not to.

I can understand the latter decision. But I believe it is a mistake, and one perhaps grounded in a misunderstanding of what attending church is supposed to do. From the way that I’ve heard a number of people speak, there seems to be an expectation that attending church is something we do for our sake, so we feel uplifted or edified or so on. With that expectation, it is understandable that people may conclude that if it is not doing that, well, why go?

It is true that one of the purposes of meeting together is to be “instruct[ed] and edif[ied]” (D&C 43:8) and “speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls” (Moroni 6:5). But if that were the only reason, well we’d often fall short. To quote Bruce R. McConkie:

…We come into these congregations, and sometimes a speaker brings a jug of living water that has in it many gallons. And when he pours it out on the congregation, all the members have brought is a single cup and so that’s all they take away. Or maybe they have their hands over the cups, and they don’t get anything to speak of.

On other occasions we have meetings where the speaker comes and all he brings is a little cup of eternal truth, and the members of the congregation come with a large jug, and all they get in their jugs is the little dribble that came from a man who should have known better and who should have prepared himself and talked from the revelations and spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sure, it’s an opportunity to be uplifted and enlightened, and when that happens: great! But the Lord has chosen in his wisdom to staff the place with very imperfect volunteers, and so we don’t always deliver what other people need. We should try harder, of couse. But if we were to assess the Church as if we were some sort of consumer, expecting a service to be delivered, then we are bound to be disappointed.

But that’s not why the Lord has us meet together, certainly not as mere recipients of a service. Setting aside the fact that the Lord also expect us to seek to teach and encourage others also, the scriptures give us a number of other key reasons to worship together.

Firstly, it’s a commandment. If we believe in a God who has given us commandments, we have to take seriously scriptural statements that “the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft” (Alma 6:6), or (as part of a modern decalogue) the commandment “and that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day” (D&C 59:9).

Secondly, as in the verse quoted above, its an opportunity to participate in sacred ordinances, most especially that of the sacrament. Participating in this is likewise a commandment, one we are to “always observe to do” (3 Nephi 18:6-7, 10-12, D&C 20:75), and a major reason for the Church to “meet together oft” (Moroni 6:6).

Thirdly, and encompassing the points mentioned above, we are to gather together not to receive a service, but to worship. The “children of God” were commanded to meet together often to “join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God” (Alma 6:5–6). They “assemble[d] themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually” (Alma 15:17). The church established by Alma at the waters of Mormon had “one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themselves together” (Mosiah 18:25). As the commandment in Section 59 elaborates (v.10):

For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;

None of these other purposes really depend upon what other people do or feel or say. Other people might be insensitive, or unthoughtful, or unsupportive or even judgmental (though I often find people worry about being “judged” by a congregation who are actually far more worried about their own problems). We may not fit in; they may not like us; we may not enjoy it; we may not feel we have gotten the right “experience”; it may be uncomfortable or even painful. But none of that matters.

This is not to detract from the fact that attending church may require much more from some people than it does others. I sympathise with those facing that. I also know the Lord is just and merciful, and I have no doubt that He will recognise that, and judge (and bless) accordingly. But perhaps it will help us if we recognise that going to church is not about what other people do or feel towards us, or even about how we feel and whether we feel good or uplifted. It’s about about obeying and worshipping God, and Him only. Other people are involved because He has commanded us to worship collectively, and as part of our worship He has expectations as to how we treat them and the rest of his children. But whether we enjoy church or not, whether we fit in or not, whether we feel uplifted or not: none of this can stop us from paying our devotions to the Most High. And if we attend and reverently offer our worship, despite our difficulties, then we are doing what the Lord requires of us.

 

* Postscript: Interestingly, it seems that David O. McKay did not coin this particular quote, but was actually quoting a particular author. President Harold B. Lee also offered a paraphrase of this particularly quotation, which may be encouraging for those who are trying but feel like they are meeting little success in family life: “Remember, paraphrasing what President McKay said, “No success will compensate for failure in the home.” Remember also that no home is a failure as long as that home doesn’t give up.” (Emphasis from linked blog).

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On Sustaining the Brethren

The brief discussion here (and the linked ‘letter’) reminded me of several conversations I’ve had in the last few months, in the wake of things like the amendments to the Church handbook of instructions. In particular I’ve been asked, by a friend who has had difficulties reconciling themselves with the policy, whether given certain conditions I’d still put up my hand and sustain the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.

To which the answer would be yes. But any such question, I believe, can help us to understand what we’re truly doing.

When we’re asked to sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers and revelators, we’re not being asked if they’re nice guys. We’re not being asked whether we agree with their talks or their actions. We hypothetically might have disagreements about particular policies or issues (and hopefully we should recognise that while we do not claim infallibility for anyone, that includes ourselves!). But really, that’s not what we’re being asked about. I happen to think C.S. Lewis got an awful lot of things right, but I’m not raising my hand to sustain him as prophet, seer and revelator.

What that question is asking is whether we accept that God has called them to their positions, that they hold His authority in His Church, and that they are entitled and able to receive revelation from God to guide His Church. And that’s something we can only really come to know from God through supernatural experiences of our own.

As it happens I’ve had those experiences. I’ve felt, heard and seen marvellous things, and have continued to experience and see God’s power, including through His priesthood and His Church. I don’t say all this to boast, because I don’t really have much to boast of; I am just fortunate that God is merciful. But having had them, I need to remember them and not ignore them; having had them and the big questions answered, any other issues really just become a matter of details.

So for anyone else who is wondering whether they should sustain the brethren, I really think its important to ask the key questions: not upon what they may think or feel about any particular policy, but on whether they believe and/or know that this is the Lord’s church and that God has called those men as prophets within it. If they’re not sure at present, I’d encourage them to work from what they do know God has revealed to them and to remember what experiences they’ve had. If they’ve written them down at all, reread them. If they haven’t had those experiences yet, then they should seek for them. If they have, I’d encourage them to seek new such experiences from him, because the gospel teaches not that we should work things out for ourselves (how can we?), but that each of us as individuals may approach and get answers from He who is the source of all truth. And what we’re putting our hand up to is really what we believe and/or know He thinks.

Wolves and Sheep

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
(Matthew 7:15)

But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
(John 10:12)

For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.
(Alma 5:59)

And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.
(Alma 5:60)

Pastoral images are used frequently in the Bible, often to describe the relationship between us and Christ, and particularly between Christ and his Church. John 10 and Alma 5 develop this image most fully, to slightly different ends: the principal point of John 10 hinges around the identity of the good shepherd; Alma 5 as to whether we are included with his sheep.

But there is another aspect to these images, as the quotes above illuminate: the existence of wolves.

Wolves are very real.

People can do a lot of damage. And others can be very vulnerable.

Wolves are also a very pertinent topic. I’ve seen in a number of places opposition to the idea that anyone has to deal with them, that some people are wolves at all, or that actions to exclude them – such as excommunication – are at all necessary. This opposition appears to me to be founded on several misconceptions:

The first is the idea that Christ himself would never exclude or judge. This itself is a myth, when it is Christ himself who will be our ultimate judge. I’ve written about this before.

The second is that in the Church the spreading of ideas should carry no consequence.  It is certainly the case that Wolves, human predators, can take a variety of forms. Physical, emotional, sexual or financial predators are all threats, and certainly many of the scriptural warnings above and the injunctions about protecting the flock (whatever flock that is) from wolves apply. Much of what I will say here would also apply. We should always aim to protect the innocent. But the first scripture quoted above has Christ warning particularly against “false prophets”, not these other categories of predators. We are warned in the latter days against “false teachers” and “false doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:12), and need to be vigilant in an age when men “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:50, 2 Nephi 15:20).

Ideas have consequences. They affect what we feel and what we do, and we will be held accountable for them. As the episcopal spirit is asked in C.S Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “Do you really think there are no sins of the intellect?” Alma likewise teaches that in addition to our words and works “our thoughts will also condemn us” (Alma 12:14). And there is a world of difference between someone who is personally wondering and questioning over what is true (something I am sure most must face at some stage) and someone campaigning to replace the teachings of the Church with their own ideas. That’s not questioning: they’ve already settled their own mind. Indeed they’re trying to remake Church doctrine in the image of their own mind. Nor, for that matter, are they making a great stand for openness and free thought when they demand their own precepts should enjoy immunity from criticism, but that they should be free as members of Christ’s church to denigrate its teachings.

They are, as individuals, free to campaign for whatever they wish. But the Church is under no obligation to act as a neutral witness, or act as a host for those who oppose its teachings. And when people teach others that certain sins are not sins, for example, or teach a denial of the resurrection, or teach disbelief in experiences (such as revelations and spiritual gifts) that are necessary for salvation, their teachings can lead others down to hell. Is there to be no accountability for this? Is the Church of God supposed to stand idly by and just watch the deception of the flock? Certain false teachings can lead to eternal damage, and the Church is under no obligation to permit people to use the cloak of Church membership to lead its members astray.

The third misconception is the idea that Christ taught us that we must never judge. It is certainly true that there are certain judgments we must leave to God, and eternal judgments are his prerogative. We are meant to focus upon our own sins, and in my experience we usually have enough to keep us busy. But Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to “judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1) is sorely misunderstood if we believe that means we must never judge (and we are in serious danger if we believe that frees us personally from any accountability). As the next verse shows, the point of the passage is that we will be judged by same standard we extend: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). Christ also teaches us to “judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24), as does the JST of Matthew 7:1-2. Alma likewise teaches that we should “judge righteously” and then “ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again” (Alma 41:14).

This is because some judgment is inevitable in this life. Yes, we must be careful and cautious (for, as I heard a wise Elders Quorum President teach once, we often have the tendency to judge others by their actions but ourselves by our intentions). We must “judge righteously”. But even as individuals it is often necessary for us to judge who we associate with, who we marry and who we trust. We have to judge who we listen to, who we take counsel from, and who we ultimately follow. And many people have responsibilities that go beyond the individual that demand they judge. Parents need to judge in order to look after and protect their children. And Church leaders have a responsibility to judge to protect the flock; indeed Christ teaches above that if one does not, such a shepherd is a mere hireling.

Now there is obviously a need for discernment, wisdom and divine aid in this judgment. Overzealousness can be damaging. It is a terrible mistake if some wandering sheep, or a prodigal son, or even just some poor sheep that’s with the ninety and nine but is confused about a few things is treated as a wolf. It’s also wrong if we as individuals infringe upon the duties and responsibilities of those who have this task. But those in a position of a responsibility have the duty to judge: to both judge who needs especially help (indeed it’s a tragedy if a wandering sheep is judged not to need any help) and to protect the other members of the flock from those who’d prey upon them (in whatever way that might be). This is especially true for those whose calling specifically labels them as a “judge” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:17-18, 64:40, 107:72-74).

The fourth misconception is that such judgments are inherently unloving, and fail to display Christlike love. It is important for us to remember that every human being born on this earth is a child of our Father in Heaven, and he loves them. We are likewise commanded to love all his children (2 Nephi 31:20). Wolves are not born wolves, and it is possible for former wolves to become part of the flock, like Alma the younger and the sons of Mosiah. Furthermore Christ commands us to love even our “enemies”, and pray for those who mistreat us (Matthew 5:44). If someone is acting the part of a wolf – in any of the variety of ways I mention above – that is something to be mourned.

But I believe there is often here a significant misunderstanding of justice and mercy (something I hope to return to in the future) and the role of divine love in each. We sometimes seem to treat justice as something bad and mercy as something good, but this is not the case. Both are divine attributes (Alma 42:15). An unjust God would be a more terrible thing than it seems many can even imagine, punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty. Justice isn’t just about punishing the transgressor, it is also about protecting those transgressed against, and restoring their hurts. Mercy extended to predators without condition is showing merciless cruelty to their prey.

If those who have a duty to care for a flock (a family, a congregation, or whatever), out of a misguided sense of love and compassion, give a wolf the opportunity and license to savage the flock, they are being unloving to the sheep. It’s not even good for the wolf eternally: to take the example of Church discipline, that can prompt repentance and a goal is to save the soul of the transgressor as well as protect the innocent. But it is especially uncharitable to any sheep who have been sacrificed to the idea that mercy can rob justice. If charity and compassion cause the sheep to be left to the mercy of the wolves, then the shepherds have blood on their hands.

That is not the example of the good shepherd. The good shepherd drives out the wolves, and even if necessary destroys them (Alma 5:59) not because he hates wolves, but because he loves his sheep. He “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The good shepherd cares for and is vigilant in protecting his sheep, and those who have some responsibility for his flock likewise have the responsibility to feed, care, heal and protect his sheep.