Calling You to Do Better Rather than Decimating You

I was sitting in church a few weeks ago and noticing how several of the scriptural texts were about God calling people: Samuel hearing a voice and wondering what it was, Psalm 139 (“Lord, you have searched me out and known me”), and the encounter of Jesus with Nathanael. As I was listening to the sermon, which also touched on these themes, and emphasized God’s call to each one of us, and the need for our community to make space for everyone to become what God is calling her or him to be, a question came to mind which I’ve often pondered: how do you discern between a call or a challenge that pushes you in healthy ways, make you grow, and brings you closer to God—and one that simply beats you down and leaves you broken?

Christian faith sometimes requires hard things. I do think that’s part of the package. Jesus in the New Testament calls his followers to do things that can feel nearly impossible—love your enemies? That’s an insanely optimistic ideal; I mean, I often struggle to act in loving ways to the people closest to me. Nonetheless, I appreciate the ways in which the religious life means regularly being called to do better—to be more honest, kinder, more generous, and so forth. In that sense, I don’t think church should just tell you that you’re okay where you are. I appreciate getting pushed to reflect on my life (this element feels particularly relevant right now as we’re approaching the season of Lent).

At the same time, I find myself getting uneasy when people start complaining about those who just want churches to accept them as they are, or the contemptuous tone I sometimes hear creep into the voices of Latter-day Saints when they talk about other churches which are—in their opinion—too concerned about inclusivity and catering to people, and insufficiently demanding. Because while I support church as a place where you’re called to do better, I think that ideally church should also be a refuge where you feel welcome as the person that you are. I’ve come to think that there’s an important difference between calling you to be the best version of you that you can be, and telling you that you have to be a different person altogether to be acceptable to God (and the community). It opened up a whole new world for me when I started to seriously contemplate the possibility that God didn’t want me to be someone else, but was more interested in what I could contribute as the person I actually am.

Because this was a serious issue for me, for a long long time. I felt like the message I got from church, again and again, was something along the lines of, you are not okay. The person you are is a problem. Part of this had to do with my being single, part of it had to do with my being gay, and part of it just had to do with feeling like I was just a bad fit in so many other ways—in my generally irreverent attitude toward life, in my desire to ask lots of questions and my frequent dissatisfaction with the answers in the manual, even in something like my introverted tendencies. I am not exaggerating when I say that for years, going to church regularly made me suicidal. Given my volatile mental health history, it wouldn’t be fair to put that all on the church, and I don’t want to do that. But the constant message of “you don’t belong here,” which was conveyed in institutional narratives and expectations even when the people in my ward were genuinely welcoming, just beat me down. I didn’t realize what a weight I was carrying until I stepped away. My therapist, who never even hinted at encouraging me in either one direction or the other as I wrestled with the question of whether to leave Mormonism, observed many months after I’d started to find a religious home elsewhere that letting go of the struggle to fit in a place where I didn’t feel like I belonged seemed to have freed up a lot of energy in my life.

So when I read things about how yeah, the LDS church is asking hard things of the LGBT community, for example, but we need to realize that everyone has to make sacrifices, that we all have to change and be born again, that religion isn’t supposed to be comfortable, etc., I flinch. Honestly, I think it’s a misuse of the born again narrative to frame things like that. I spent too many years believing that the Christian requirement that we be fundamentally changed in some way meant that God wanted me to be a different person. And I felt utterly crushed by the sense that I could never, ever live up to what God wanted. Not just because I kept sinning (though that was definitely true), but because I felt like I was in basic way fundamentally broken and wrong and deserving of nothing but rejection. I feel like I’m still in the beginning stages of challenging that story, and of connecting to a God who wants me as a disciple, who wants me to do better—not a God who wants me to become someone else before she or he has any interest in me. But that sense of acceptance is actually far more motivating in getting me to work on improving in places where I’m falling short than was the earlier message that I had to somehow earn a relationship with God, and that God couldn’t accept me as I was.

I was at a Zen meditation group last night, and during the Dharma talk afterward, the leader said he thought that really in the end our responsibility in life is just to figure out what gifts we have, appreciate them, and offer them freely to the universe. That felt quite congruent with my other thoughts on this subject. I am not overly optimistic about human nature; like Reinhold Niebuhr, I’m inclined to believe that the doctrine of original sin is the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. I think humans are pretty messed up, and I’m no exception to this. And yet I hope. I hope because I am coming to believe more and more in a God whose call to us to do better isn’t aimed at beating us down, but rather is an aspect of unfailing divine love and acceptance.

10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. “I hope because I am coming to believe more and more in a God whose call to us to do better isn’t aimed at beating us down, but rather is an aspect of unfailing divine love and acceptance.” Amen, beautiful.

    Life-long Mormon here. I am so beat-down that literally any call for me to “do better” or “do more” is hostile to me. At this point I would rather just go to hell.

  2. Well said. Jesus came to give us abundant life, not to make us feel crappy about ourselves. Hard stuff is still hard (and I’m in the thick of some right now), but it matters a lot that I feel that I’ll be a better person—more myself—because of it. So often it seems, as you say, that we ask people to do hard things that are contrary to who they are. I’m inclined to think that in doing so we are scorning the image of God in them.

  3. I was at a Zen meditation group last night, and during the Dharma talk afterward, the leader said he thought that really in the end our responsibility in life is just to figure out what gifts we have, appreciate them, and offer them freely to the universe.

    I really resonate with this sentiment, and with the balancing act you describe between pushing yourself to improve and just beating yourself up.

    The way I’ve thought about it is something like this: there are a billion and one ways that I could change or improve myself. As long as I am consciously working to improve, can I at least have the freedom to decide what things I will choose to improve? In this way, just because I don’t want to do x doesn’t mean that “anything goes”.

  4. I understand exactly how Lily above feels.

    And I have been writing, then deleting, then trying again for two hours trying to say something besides, me too. But it just hurts too much. So, me too.

  5. I love what you’ve said here. As I’ve been reworking my personal faith in recent months, one thing I’ve been convinced of (and I’ll admit, surprised by) is that God cares a lot more about us being genuine to ourselves than in fitting some sort of mold. Three thumbs up!

  6. “I’ve come to think that there’s an important difference between calling you to be the best version of you that you can be, and telling you that you have to be a different person altogether to be acceptable to God (and the community).”

    Amen. It does me sad to think of what it’s cost you to come to all this wisdom, Lynette. But since you’ve got it, thank you for sharing it.

  7. Lily and Anna, I’m remembering a moment years ago when I was sitting in Relief Society, and the teacher said something along the lines of, “It will be so sad if you get to the next life and God says, I’m sorry, but you only did 85 percent of your visiting teaching, and the cutoff for the Celestial Kingdom was 90 percent.” (I don’t remember the exact percentages she used, but you get the idea.) It struck me as such a bizarre thing to say, and yet it also kind of perfectly encapsulated why I’d decided not to bother trying to get to the Celestial Kingdom. I just felt like I didn’t have it in me.

    My view at the moment is that ideally church would provide a combination of spiritual nourishment, and gently pushing you on occasion. But if the spiritual nourishment isn’t there, and isn’t there pretty substantively, there’s no point in even doing the latter. Because it doesn’t feel encouraging; it feels exhausting. I’m way too familiar with that feeling of being utterly weighed down by all that you are supposed to be doing, and thinking it would be a huge relief to just give up on it all. I think at many points in my life, I wouldn’t even have been able to hear any call to do better, no matter how benignly stated, without flinching. So I guess I’m just trying to say—I hear you.

    Jason, that really does feel like the crucial difference. Life is so brutally hard sometimes, but if you feel like it’s hard in a way that’s worthwhile, it helps.

    Andrew, I like that point. I think for me having some sense of agency is vitally important—there’s a world of difference between deciding, for example, that I’d like to be engaged in serving others more and figuring out how that might look, and being assigned by someone else to do more service.

    Quevivasbien, yes, that’s surprised me too—and encouraged me a lot, to feel like God is actually interested in working with me, and not some generic template of how humans are supposed to be. Glad you’ve had a similar experience!

    Emily U, thanks. I don’t know if I have a ton of wisdom, but I’ve definitely been through some spiritually wrenching times (as I imagine most people have), and if I have anything of value to offer as a result of that, that feels good.

  8. I have been thinking about this, and how recognizing how one feels and stating the problem is only a first step. The more important step is figuring out a solution that works for you. Lynnette found her solution, and I appreciate her staying close enough to Mormonism to share it with us.

    Rather than explaning the hurt, which I must say still *really hurts* when I try to talk about it, I thought with this post I will just share my solution and how I arrived there.

    First off, I had to separate “God” from “church”. In our Mormon culture, we assume that since our church leaders are supposed to speak for God, there is little practice difference between “God” and “speaks for God.” But our church leaders are human and they really can only speak for their own personal experience with God. They see through a glass darkly as do all humans. It is sort of like that old parable of the ten blind men who each approach an elephant and feel where they are and describe their experience with the elephant. My personal experience with God is feeling one leg, compared to whatever it is they are feeling. But what we describe is so totally different, that I simply cannot relate to what they are talking about.

    The second thing I had to do was stop blaming myself or thinking the problem was me. Yeah, I have baggage from childhood that makes me over sensitive to shaming, to perfectionism, to blaming myself. So, after seeking counseling for that getting everything sorted, then becoming active again, and get back into the same pattern of destructive thinking, seek counseling, rinse repeat, rinse repeat, I stepped back and looked. Every time I am active in church it triggers all the baggage from childhood. Perhaps this church is not good for me, and the problem is not me, but that the church is simply harmful to some people. One size does not fit all.

    But, it is really hard to convince yourself that leaving is the right thing when there is a whole lifetime, family heritage, marriage, and identity all invested in the truth claims of the church.

    As Mormons we are taught that while we have the right to personal inspiration, we better make sure that our inspiration matches with that of church leaders, or we are wrong. This comes back to understanding the difference between church leaders and God. My inspiration from God is for me. Yes, I make sure I am not fooling myself to justify sin. But if my personal inspiration disagrees with church leaders, it is just that we are touching different parts of that elephant. You don’t want to trim the elephants toe nails when you are really at his trunk, and you don’t want to throw the saddle up over his tail. God knows where I am, so I need to listen to the one who sees the whole elephant and knows what I am touching. Trust yourself and your inspiration from God. Do what is best for you. This church may be wrong for you, and trust that feeling.

    Understand that the church can be “true” and still be wrong for you. There are two (well, more, but I am only concerned with two) meanings to the word “true” one is like being true to your spouse. That means you act in their best interest and put their needs equal to your own, you stay faithful. The other meaning is that something is factually correct. So, a church that is factually correct but fails your emotional needs, is true in one meaning of the word but not the other. So, it really does not matter if the church is factually correct or not, if it is making me hate myself. I am free to leave a church that is not true to me, just as I would a spouse who is not true to me. God understands that.

    So, for now, I am out of Mormonism. I have not found another spiritual home. Maybe I will at some point and maybe not. For now I am working out what God is like. I can listen to other people as they describe what part of this elephant they are feeling, and by talking to enough people, maybe reading about other religions, and trusting what I feel as more valid than what other people insist they know, maybe I can piece together more of what this elephant thing is.

  9. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Anna. I particularly like your point about what it means for a church to be “true”; I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. And I can very much relate to the ongoing quest to figure out what God is like; even though I’ve landed in a community where I feel spiritually grounded, I’m in some ways less sure of my beliefs than I’ve ever been. Best to you in your continuing explorations.

  10. Yes, yes, a thousand yes-es. I love that this resonates so deeply with me. I also love that I could have written Anna’s comment above (albeit far less eloquently) except for the fact that I have decided to to stay. Different outcomes from a similar realisation, but will each (hopefully) the right decision for the individual – that’s the beautiful truth of taking personal responsibility for our spiritual health. Thanks for such a thoughtful post.


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