This is a guest post from Ryan who grew up in the Midwest, played the piano a lot, served a mission in France, attended BYU, and became a scientist. Now he lives with his happy little family, and still plays the piano.
In Mormonism, it is commonly understood that your “Eternal Family” is your biological family that you are sealed to in the temple. This understanding helps to produce loving and devoted families, but it also gives rise to great suffering, particularly when family members leave the church. I know a couple who lost a son to death, yet they said the pain of the death was less than watching another son become estranged from the church. As family-related anguish increases in the church, my message is that this type of suffering can be reduced by considering teachings about the Eternal Family that are found in the New Testament.
In the Bible, Jesus doesn’t talk about separate family units in heaven. Rather heaven is to know God, and to be united, or one, with all believers, just as Jesus is one with the Father (John 17). Paul said of the people of the church: “you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.” God has one household, one family. This family transcends the biological family. “While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12: 46-50).
According to Jesus, to be part of God’s family, we must do “the will of the Father.” Sometimes doing God’s will can put us at odds with our biological family members. Early converts to Christianity and Mormonism often faced rejection from their families. I have an ancestor whose parents died in Nauvoo when he was a teenager. He could have gone back to the East to live with his non-LDS extended family in relative comfort, but instead he chose to follow the family of God that was going to Utah. Sometimes there is tension between belonging to your biological family and belonging to the family of God. Jesus said:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).
To follow Jesus is to change, and there are always members of any family who will resist the change. Mormons who are in “faith transitions” often change rapidly and this can lead to social isolation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A faith crisis can be an opportunity to build new relationships in and out of the church. As I experienced my own “faith transition” about eight years ago, I was fortunate to find a Men’s Bible Study group at a local Methodist church. They took me in, showed me love and concern, and helped me to feel valued, appreciated and loved. There I rediscovered the Bible in an environment that was free of the expectations and pressures of LDS culture and teachings. From the men at Bible study, I learned to engage the Bible in ways that are honest, yet believing. Eventually, over several years, they helped to rekindle my faith in God. As I have prayed with them, I have glimpsed the vision of that unity that Jesus prayed that his followers would accomplish. How could this fellowship not be part of the Body of Christ, the kingdom of God, God’s Eternal Family, and, by extension, my own Eternal Family?
I know that other Mormons who have experienced faith crises have been blessed by other “adopted families” both in and out of the church, including the Mormon Stories community. I am grateful for John Dehlin’s efforts to provide isolated Mormons with refuge, comfort, and an adopted family.
To find an adopted family in Christ is profoundly Biblical. When he was on the cross, Jesus created a new family. He didn’t perform a formal temple sealing, he didn’t make a biological family, but he made an adopted family:
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother… When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home (John 19: 25-27).
This may sound heretical to some, but I believe that power that binds God’s Eternal Family together is love, and that this is more important than formal priesthood authority and ordinances (1 Cor 13). The two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors (Matt 22:36-40); love is the key by which to recognize the true disciples of Jesus (John 13:35). John Wesley, a founder of Methodism, said, “The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.”
My prayer is for healing in families that have been broken apart by current debates in the church on topics like gender roles, priesthood authority, church doctrines, and homosexuality. Anyone who can’t find reconciliation with our biological families on these issues can draw strength and courage from God’s Eternal Family, both in and out of the church. If we then bring what we learn back to our families, we may eventually be able to help them heal.