The gospel revealed to Joseph Smith is a marvellous work and a wonder, a profound movement with the potential to transform mankind. Yet from it’s inception the gospel has been beset by a long series of unsettling distractions. In the beginning, God could have given Joseph Smith revelations directly from His mouth as He had with His Biblical prophets. Instead, God gave him unexpected and implausible encounters with golden plates, a sword and magic breastplate, and visions of Indian angels. When the Book of Mormon was published, its fanciful origins were such a distraction that most people completely overlooked the beautiful and true principles in the book and set about persecuting those who believed it.
Many other distractions were to follow: Zion’s Bank, overheated millennial fervour in Missouri, and worst of all, polygamy. And the list of distractions didn’t end with the Manifesto. The priesthood ban on blacks extended for several excruciating decades even after the Civil Rights era, and the dreary saga with homosexuality continues to this day with no end in sight. The First Presidency has released yet another bold statement against SSM to be read from pulpits in America and Canada this Sunday.
The most perplexing thing about all these distractions is that they seem to originate from God Himself. If God is so interested in helping us build Zion and bring the world His truth, why does He constantly distract us? Why golden plates which are so hard to believe in? Why polygamy? Why the priesthood ban? Why this inordinate ecclesiastical obsession with homosexuality, something that only 2% of the population has, but which has become a catalyst for so many leaving the church? It’s hard to understand a God who reaches out with such intimacy and love on the one hand, but then subjects His church to an endless string of disheartening trials and distractions. “Why,” in the words of President Packer, “would He do such a thing?” Is it God’s fault? Are distractions the work of Satan, or of our own misunderstandings and pride? Here are some possible answers to this problem I’ve pondered over the years:
1. Distractions are trials which refine and strengthen the church. Distractions sometimes provide a catalyst for us to examine our faith and weigh it in the balance. When Jesus preached “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood!” everyone was distracted and left Him except His closest disciples. They weighed their faith against their reason and went with their faith. Though cannibalism was inconsistent with their personal moral code, the disciples still said, “To whom shall we go? Thou has the words of eternal life.”
2. Distractions are not really distractions. This is the apologetic view. These “distractions” are actually the essence of the gospel. When you study polygamy and the lives of those who practiced it, you find evidence that it actually had a positive influence on many. The Priesthood Ban teaches us that the Lord has a time and a season for everything. And gay marriage is a pre-apocalyptic showdown with evil which will help separate the wheat from the tares. For those who generously funded Prop. 8 it was an honest expression of their love for God, not a hateful expression of prejudice. They will be blessed for their sacrifice, just as Saints in all generations have been blessed for their sacrifices. While I personally do not share this view, I can appreciate the faith of those who do and I believe God accepts and nurtures that faith. I have seen it expressed with the Spirit.
3. Distractions come from imperfect men, not God. This is the progressive view, emphasising the fallibility of leaders. Mormon Heretic compellingly argued this view in his post on Abraham as misguided in his sacrifice of Isaac. However I personally find it problematic. If our leaders are honest men called of God, why wouldn’t God stop them from making terrible mistakes like the Priesthood Ban or polygamy? It would be so easy for God to do. In the past, God even sent a talking donkey to prevent the prophet Balam from making a mistake. Yet in a church saturated with angelic visitations and revelations, stopping polygamy never happened. When God fails to do something this obvious, I simply have to give Him the blame.
4. Distractions make the church smaller and more peculiar. This is the tribal view. When Gideon raised an army against the Midianites, God instructed him to send most of his army home after they admitted to being afraid. Later, others were let go based on their drinking style. In the end, only 300 of the original 32,000 remained. Like Gideon’s army, maybe God WANTS our church to be small. The Book of Mormon prophesies that modern church membership will be “few upon the land.” God says in the Bible, “I will stop their eyes and shut their ears that they be not converted.” The church’s teaching on homosexuality is a huge roadblock for homosexuals. But what about the myriad of other roadblocks? Most people feel an intense loyalty for their family religion, a loyalty which automatically disqualifies them from ever being interested in the LDS church. Why do we get hung up on homosexuality but not the fact that billions are rejecting us out of loyalty to their heritage? Loyalty and homosexuality are often unalterable traits, genetic or cultural, and both are incompatible with Mormonism. The gospel is a strait and narrow way that few ever find.
5. Distractions make the church larger. It would be difficult to prove, but perhaps some of these distractions have actually contributed to growth by giving us greater notoriety and interest. I’ve heard a number of converts say they became interested in the church through anti-mormon literature. Conservatives often note that liberal churches lose converts, while hardline churches remain strong. Brigham Young said that every time you kick Mormonism, you kick it up the stairs, not down.
The Distortion of Distraction
I long for relief from these distractions, whether they are positive or not. Yet here I am on this blog, writing about them (it’s all I usually ever write about). At the very least, I hope I am working through them, categorising or otherwise dealing with them for the ultimate purpose of moving beyond them. Something deep within me tells me that there is a place beyond distraction, a place of peace and assurance, even within the church.
I think President Hinkley knew this place well. When asked about the priesthood ban and polygamy he dismissively said “flecks of history!” Regarding LDS obsession with the Second Coming he said, “How do you prepare for the Second Coming? Well, you just do not worry about it.” Regarding gays he said, “Now, we have gays in the church. Good people.” His focus was always on the essence of the gospel. In the bloggernacle, we rarely quote President Hinkley and others who ignore the distractions we are all obsessed with. But by ignoring them, we miss 99% of LDS life: the endearing minutia of weekly meetings, service and discipleship which usually has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. Distractions are distortions.
Emerging from Distraction
Discussions of the Last Days in Sunday School have always been a distraction for me. I get annoyed by the unwarranted pessimism of conservative members and constantly have to bite my tongue. Yet during a recent animated discussion on the signs of the times, a poor, elderly sister said quite unexpectedly:
“I never watch the news on television, I don’t read the paper. I don’t know anything that’s going on in the world. All I worry about is my illness, my children who never come visit me, how I’m going to survive, whether or not I can pay the rent.”
Suddenly everything came into focus for me. Here was a woman who was suffering real “signs of the times:” the signs of her own impending death. Meanwhile, the rest of us were obsessing about realities far removed from our own: SSM, wars and rumours of wars. And me, stewing about the apocalyptic nature of the church, letting conservatives get under my skin. I had been missing a rich life right in front of my nose: a poor woman living a personal apocalypse, a woman who needed help. In the sweet empathy of that moment I realised the truth of Saul Bellow’s statement: “emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss.” To be in the moment, to feel empathy, to connect and understand, to turn away from distraction, above all, to trust:
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. My strength is trust. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
– Hermann Hesse
- Why do you think the church is beset by distractions?
- Do they help or hinder the work?
- How can we emerge from distraction to have a greater focus on the essence of the gospel?