I feel a bit of holy envy as I browse through the Facebook page of an Evangelical friend. Her posts express a joyous love for Jesus and a radiant happiness in her salvation. Every interaction with friends includes a reference to God or prayer. I can’t help but admire the incredible passion of Evangelicals like my friend, even while their dogmatic conservatism frustrates me. I don’t think I’m alone among Mormons in this admiration. How many Mormons find themselves frequently turning to Christian radio to be uplifted by their enormous faith and religious ardor? How many Mormons secretly admit that they often feel a stronger Spirit from Christian radio than LDS Sunday services?
Evangelical Grace: Slaves and Lovers
Evangelicals are obsessed with God, who is as much a Lover as a Father. Christian rock songs are indistinguishable from romantic secular songs. It’s not, ”God loves you,” but rather, “God is in love with you!” When God is in love with you, it’s easy to believe that He is there to walk with you, to be your living water, your true vine. You will frequently hear them say, “God in me guided me to…,” or “God in me moved me to do….” With motivations solely to praise and worship their great Lover, there is no need for eternal progression or “becoming like Him.” Those are self-serving motivations, antagonistic to true disciples of Christ, who are consumed with serving their master and living only for Him. Works are the fruit of love and passion for God.
For Evangelicals, being saved is inseparable from the concept of surrender. One surrenders his life to Jesus as a bride, a lover, a slave. Paul says in the original Greek, “you are bought with a price, you are slaves to Christ.” He loves us as we are and doesn’t expect us to prove anything to Him. Because of His overwhelming love and mercy towards us, we desire to keep His commandments. When we fall short, it doesn’t affect anything, other than that we want to do better, not to prove ourselves, but because we love Him so deeply. We serve others, because God is in them too, and we love God in them.
LDS Grace: Bicycles and Piano Lessons
At first glance, it looks like it would be impossible to adopt Evangelical grace in LDS culture. For us the atonement is more about aspiration than passion. God is a Father who leads by example, who guides His children to become like Him. His love is not romantic but fatherly and it extends towards us as we strive to return to Him. Personal revelation is more distant: not “God within me moved me to do… ” but rather “the Holy Ghost guided me to do this…” Joseph Smith taught that the idea of “God dwelling in you” is a sectarian notion and is false. God is a distant, physical being, who interacts with us through the Holy Ghost. But this hasn’t stopped us from trying to create a more intimate grace/works paradigm. At the forefront of these efforts are Steven Robinson and Brad Wilcox whose views are encapsulated in two parables: the parable of the bicycle, and the parable of the piano lessons.
The Parable of the Bicycle is simple: do your best, Christ fills in the rest. This parable introduces grace by demonstrating that our efforts are never enough but that God generously makes up the deficit. However the parable also preaches that we are saved “after all we can do,” and the terrible fact is that no one ever has done all they can do, leaving us wondering if we will actually be worthy of God’s grace when all is said and done.
Happily, the Parable of the Bicycle also introduces the Evangelical concept of surrender: the little girl surrenders all her pennies. Yet Mormons and Evangelicals understand surrender in somewhat different ways. Evangelicals understand it as a total surrender of ourselves in our imperfect form which is fully accepted by God in its imperfection. Mormons interpret surrender as a sacrifice: a certain set of works that we give to God.
In Brad Wilcox’s parable of the piano teacher, a mother (symbolic of God), pays for her children’s piano lessons. The child practices for years and eventually makes it to Carnegie Hall (the Celestial Kingdom). Brother Wilcox’s parable avoids the problem of “doing our best” by viewing the atonement as an investment: an investment too great for us to pay for on our own, but still contingent upon our works to make it pay off. Unlike Robinson, Wilcox leaves out the surrender element. With piano lessons, it’s OK to make mistakes in our practice as long as we regularly repent and keep trying. Our continual practice combined with the grace of the free piano lessons will save us in the end. Wilcox solves the problem of “after all we can do” by taking some of the perfectionistic pressure off.
However, both of these parables are almost identical from a practical point of view. We continue in our daily walk by ourselves, without any particular intimacy with Christ in our lives. Yes, we feel gratitude for God’s investment in our piano lessons, or for the bicycle we are promised if we endure to the end. But in both parables nothing has changed as far as our daily efforts, which are still completely dependent upon our works. We still can’t experience the Evangelical intimacy of a Lover God, who saves us as we are now, and to whom we surrender to in our imperfection, and who enters our heart Himself, not through an intermediary.
Re-embracing the Trinity, Rethinking Eternal Progression
Perhaps we need a new parable, one that reminds us that we can experience profound intimacy with God in our daily walk, not just as a reward for righteousness, but even in our sinfulness. We already have the Parent/Child metaphor, and our two parables are built around that metaphor. But what about experimenting with the Husband/Wife metaphor? It’s a common Biblical metaphor after all, and it could go further in helping us understand the kind of intimacy that is possible within God’s love.
Re-embracing the Trinity would be another step in this direction. Stephen Robinson makes this argument in How Wide the Divide, a book he co-authored with Evangelical theologian Craig L. Blomberg. For Robinson, the Trinity is a fluid concept. Yes, God, Christ and the Holy Ghost are separate, physical beings, but at the same time, they are One God. This God can dwell in our heart, just as He does with Evangelicals. There need be no physical distance between us and God simply because we believe God is a physical being of flesh and bone.
Additionally, we might rethink our attitude towards eternal progression. Currently, we see the Celestial Kingdom as the “best” place among “good, better, and best” places. But this perspective keeps our focus on an aspirational gospel of striving for rewards. But what if the Celestial Kingdom is not so much the “best” place, but rather the only place where God is. And we only want too be there because we are in love with God. As a medieval Spanish monk wrote:
It is not the heaven that thou hast promised me that moves me to love thee. Nor is it the hell that I so fear that moves me to cease sinning against thee. Thou movest me….Thy love moves me so much, that even if there were no heaven, I would love thee, and even if there were no hell, I would fear thee.
There is already a strong emphasis in our church on “returning to Father in Heaven.” While this is a beautiful doctrine, our return is still contingent upon “proving ourselves” and “becoming worthy” to return to Him and unfortunately, “proving” and “becoming” are not very synonymous with the kind of intimate, unconditional love that the Evangelical God has for His children. Is there a way to incorporate the importance of works without overemphasising “proving” and “becoming?”
I believe that if we love God, really, really love Him, we will naturally become the kind of people who are worthy of His presence. There would be no need to strive. A parable by Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates this concept: The children in a mountain village are taught an ancient legend that one day a great prophet will come to the village. They will recognise the prophet because he will resemble the “face on the mountain” (a giant rock formation on a nearby mountain which resembles a human face). One child in the village becomes obsessed with the prophesy and goes out into the world to try and find the prophet, searching the faces of everyone he sees. After many years without any luck he finally makes his way back to the village. When the villagers see him, they hail him as the great prophet, for his face resembles the face on the mountain. His obsession with the prophesy had transformed him into the prophet himself.
That is the power of obsession. Evangelicals who are obsessed with God will find themselves with Him in the Celestial Kingdom. Their obsession will naturally inspire all the works necessary to be with the God they love for eternity.
Ignoring grace all together…
There are some Mormons who seem immune from this entire theological argument. They seem to have the same passion and love for the gospel that Evangelicals have for Jesus. They are untroubled by their own weaknesses and shortcomings, with no worries for the future, or need to prove themselves. They simple do their duty out of a genuine love and desire to do good. Some of the finest and most beautiful souls you will see in the Mormon church are not the strivers but the ones who are themselves. Those who are comfortable with their personalities, even if they are a bit rough around the edges. In their heart is an integrity, a desire to serve, and a love for the Lord and for His church.
The strivers, those who go to Bro. Wilcox’s office in tears are the ones who really like to study and hear these parables about grace and works. It could be insecurity more than anything else. Some people are more comfortable in their skin than others. Grace is there, but is really just taken for granted, and not really thought deeply about. Maybe that is the ideal.
- Do you envy the passion Evangelicals have for God?
- Are there ways to incorporate more of that passion in the LDS church, or is it out of place?
- Will a deep love for God translate naturally into righteous works, or do we need the incessant focus on obedience?
- What do you make of the Mormons who are immune from this argument, those who seem to love God and the gospel effortlessly, not striving, but doing their duty naturally, and who are comfortable with themselves, even in their imperfections?