Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.Attributed to Rumi
I just returned from a five-day rafting expedition on the Yampa River–the last wild tributary of the Colorado river. From 7:30 Wednesday morning to 3:00 Sunday afternoon, no one in our small group of friends, family, and guides had access to phone or internet whatsoever. We saw no motorized vehicles, had no access to electricity, no human-made structures, and saw almost no one else outside our group (permits to the area are extremely limited). On the fourth day, during the last few miles before we reached the confluence between the Yampa and the Green River, we rafted in total silence along mostly-flat water.
It was pure magic. While I worried we’d all suffer from screen-withdrawals (I was in the middle of some big professional transitions, and my kids definitely love their screens) and that my kids wouldn’t be sufficiently entertained in the low-tech environment, we very quickly (and gratefully) adapted to “River Time.” Sitting in wonder as we passed through skyscraper cliffs with geological layers telling us the history of the (more-than-6000-years-old) Earth, skipping stones and making shadow puppets at campsites, admiring fossils and wildflowers in the desert landscape, and just “being” in a way that we’ve never done as a family.
I didn’t think much about God or theology or religion while we were gone–I didn’t think much about anything. Honestly, it was as if we were existing in a different part of our brains than where we live during our regular lives. Instead, I just experienced God and being in relationship with other people and the earth.
Of course, now that I’m back, I’m in my thinking brain again (although trying to carve out space for “River Time” in my daily life). So I’m thinking about how experiencing God is so much more enlightening, and true, than talking about or describing God. As in the quote from above, “Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.”
At the same time, there’s certainly value in talking about God. As limited as language can be, it’s still an incredible gift we humans have to communicate with one another. As I’ve considered and written posts like this, this, this, and this, I’ve become increasingly convinced that our language and theology really, really matters. If we get it wrong–usually because we impose our limited understandings, with all their biases and prejudices and smallness, on God–we can alienate ourselves from God and corrupt our relationships with the earth and other people. When we get it a little more right (never perfect), it can strengthen our relationship with God and help us live in right relationship with the earth and other people.
I’ve described some of these concepts in the posts linked above. I saw one more this morning that struck me as a great example of how significant one mistranslation could be in shaping our entire relationship with God and others. From a footnote in Marcus Borg’s The God We Never Knew (yes, I read ALL of Borg’s footnotes) discussing the way God is often imaged as a monarch who has “mercy” for His subjects:
“This can be seen in a common English usage: first, to be merciful implies a situation of wrongdoing (one is merciful to somebody to whom one has the right to be otherwise); second, it implies a relationship of superior to subordinate. The BIble sometimes uses the term mercy or merciful in this sense, but sometimes the underlying Hebrew and Greek would be better represented in English by compassion or compassionate.”
A concrete example of where “mercy” is used when “compassion” is the better translation is when Jesus teaches, “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” Many scholars believe the more correct translation would be “Be ye therefore compassionate, as your Father also is compassionate.” I don’t know about you, but to me this one-word change makes a huge difference in the way we think about God and our relationship with God and with others. Mercy is something that a person in a some kind of one-up or superior position chooses to exercise for someone “below” them who has done something wrong: one definition for mercy reads, “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” Sure, that is a virtue, and there is nothing wrong with mercy. But compassion to me seems such a broader concept that anyone can have for anyone, and is extended not just in cases of “wrongdoing” (although it could be) but for all kinds of suffering: again, a dictionary definition reads “concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” To me, these paint very different views of God, similar to the distinction that Terryl & Fiona Givens draw between a Christ who saves and a Christ who heals (they prefer heals and argue that it is a more correct understanding of scripture).
- Have you had times when your experience of God has differed from what you’d been taught about God? What did you make of that? Or have you had times when what you were taught about God (for better or worse) impacted the way you were able to experience God?
- Do you think there is a significant difference between imagining a “merciful” God vs. a “compassionate” God? Does that word change matter?
- Are there other word changes that you’ve heard of that have really shifted your perception of God?
Great post and questions. I’m somewhat embarrassed to write this, because it sounds like all of the “spiritual, not religious” rhetoric that can get a bit obnoxious at times, but I think I’m a fan of seeing God in people rather than in a temple or in scripture or in any other institutionally-approved-of place, which is a significant change in perspective since I joined the church 35 years ago. In one sense, it feels pretty logical; I’ve never been a believer in a God of punishments, especially eternal punishments, so I suppose I’ve never really believed in a God of mercy. I don’t really care about God’s mercy. I do the best I can considering the flaws and limitations I carry around with me on a daily basis and if that’s not good enough for God, so be it. So I don’t know that I’d say “God is love”, but I do think the God I believe in cares more about empathy, kindness and compassion than whether I write a check to the church or check the boxes regarding temple worthiness or “ministering” (whatever the hell that actually means).
I think I believe in a God of empathy and compassion simply because I’ve seen a lot of people suffer as a result of a lack of compassion and kindness from others. And kindness, compassion and empathy can be demonstrated by doing concrete, practical things, which is something I now value more than more esoteric stuff. I mean, I don’t want to sound indecorous or disrespectful to believing church members, but when someone is facing serious challenges, I think it’s always better to pitch in practically (when we can) than to “pray” for them or be “mindful” of them or when we put their names on the temple prayer roll. In my experience, prayer doesn’t do a damn thing to improve the material conditions that people live in; it’s the help and work and compassion of others that can actually change things. So I guess I connect with the qualities of God that I believe lead to actually helping people in so-called “real world” ways rather than swimming in esoteric beliefs that may or may not make me feel better personally (“Adam and Eve were real people!”, “The Book of Mormon is historically accurate!”, etc.) but that don’t really end up making any kind of difference in the lives of people I meet. So if I see people as God’s creations or if I see and honor other people’s energy, passion, emotions and needs, that helps me to encounter God by doing something that either helps or allows me to commune with other people I’m not very good at it, but helping others in practical and material ways helps me to feel much closer to God than following the pretty arbitrary (and IMHO, often ridiculous and useless) rules laid out by the church. So maybe I believe in a God of compassion?
Many years ago I watched a television documentary about African wildlife. One segment featured a pride of lions pulling down a large adult zebra and eating it alive. I wondered, and still wonder, who or what is responsible for creating such a world.
I stopped believing in a God of mercy when I worked with child sexual abuse victims. Being a survivor myself I understood the complex and confusing feelings. Most were in family abuse, where even in therapy a normal reaction was protecting their abuser. Often they hated for me to show anger at their abuser, and I understood that having done it myself. Part of them did not want him punished, let alone to have their father or brother spend eternity in some kind of misery or hell.
Of course there were moments when they very much wanted their abuser to rot in hell, but then 10 minutes later they were back to protecting them from any consequences. They loved their abuser and many of them did not want their abuser punished, even by God.
But on the other hand, they didn’t want them getting off Scott free.
What they really wanted was for their abuser to understand their hurt. Nothing in the legal system did that, and nothing in their religious upbringing told them that God just forgiving them would do that. They didn’t want mercy for their abuser. That just felt like mercy robbing justice. They needed healing, but understood that it was up to them and maybe God could help, but it was still their work to do.
They wanted the abuser to learn from the mistake and felt if God really loved the abuser, he also wouldn’t want the abuser to fail to learn from their mistake. Mercy alone felt like they wouldn’t learn a thing.
What they wanted was compassion for their abuser and themselves from God. First of all for God to understand the victim’s hurt enough to help them heal. And second for God to actually sit their abuser down and explain to them how much damage they did.
This was something they just felt unable to do. I know that with my therapist and my father’s therapist sitting right there, I really couldn’t say anything about real feelings. I wasn’t at all willing to let my father that close. Just couldn’t do it. Still couldn’t and my dad died 12 years ago at age 94.
My clients realized that the abuser understanding how much damage was done to their life wouldn’t undo the damage, but only then could they honestly reconcile. It felt reconciliation without any real repentance? And like me, they didn’t think that anything they said or any amount of therapy would accomplish real understanding from the abuser. As their therapist I couldn’t expect them to do something I had been unable to do, yet that is exactly what our church wants them to do, reconcile. And many of them were under church and family pressure to reconcile.
So, call me in a believer in the God of compassion and not the God of mercy.
Anna, I’ve got a comment that builds on yours. It’s personal to me, so it’s fine with me if this doesn’t resonate with you or if you disagree. I don’t want to push anything in such a personal and sensitive area.
I really struggled to forgive my father. I was being pressured to ‘just be more forgiving’ and to see that ‘he was suffering too’ and ‘everyone makes mistakes’ and all the other lines used to pressure abuse victims to shrug and reconcile. I wanted the peace of forgiveness, but I didn’t trust God to do justice. There’s so much talk about God’s mercy that I was afraid that God really would just brush off what my father did: “Aw, you felt awkward when Janey told people what you did? And after you’d been a bishop and in all those stake presidencies too! That counts as repentance. Come on in to the Celestial Kingdom!”
I prayed and asked God what God would do to my father if I genuinely forgave him and turned him over to God’s justice/mercy/compassion/whatever. The answer gradually unfolded over a couple months of scripture study. I’ll try to condense it down.
I was to the point in the healing process where the issue that was causing me the most continuing pain was my father’s callousness about what he’d done to me. He didn’t care about the decades of suffering his actions caused me. If I accepted Christ’s healing, then who would witness against my father?
On Judgment Day, “we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness.” 2 Nephi 9:14. The idea that sinners will know perfectly about everything they did wrong is repeated throughout the Book of Mormon: 2 Nephi 9:33, Alma 11:43, Alma 5:18, Mosiah 2:38. Over and over, the prophets say sinners will have “a perfect knowledge” of their sins on Judgment Day. What is “a perfect knowledge?” It’s the knowledge that Christ gained about our suffering during the Atonement. D&C 19:16-17 quotes Christ as saying, “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent. But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I.” See that last line? THEY MUST SUFFER EVEN AS I. On the cross, Christ suffered everything we go through.
President Joseph F. Smith re-emphasized this in his revelation about death and the resurrection. Christ does NOT pay for the sins of those who knew the Gospel, had a chance to repent in this life, and chose NOT to repent. (Exactly my father’s situation.) D&C 138:59 says, “and after THEY have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean…” Christ doesn’t pay the penalty for people who could have repented but who didn’t.
This is hell – for an unrepentant sinner to live his life from the perspective of those he sinned against. When my father burns in hell, he’s going to spend 40+ years living my life from my point of view, seeing every single thing he did to me and how it affected me for decades. Then he gets to live his 45-year marriage to my mother from my mother’s point of view. Then he can start living through my siblings’ lives from their points of view. One person at a time, my father is going to gain a perfect knowledge of exactly how he sinned.
Once I realized that was my father’s eternal fate, it made forgiving my father much easier. God isn’t going to brush off anything my father did. I don’t have to reconcile with him. In fact, the most compassionate thing I can do for my father is to stop him from sinning against me again, which meant estrangement.
And honestly, this is one of my sole doctrinal connections still to Mormonism. Despite everything else that I no longer believe, I want to believe this. I want my father, at some point in this life or the next, to actually feel a genuine twinge of remorse for what he did to me, to my mother, to all of us.
(Of course this understanding has affected the way I live my own life. When I gain a “perfect knowledge” of how I treated my sons, I want to know that they trusted me, that I treated them with respect, that I apologized when I did wrong, that I set boundaries and taught them good principles, and that I loved them unconditionally.)
//Have you had times when your experience of God has differed from what you’d been taught about God? //
That experience I described in the comment above was different than what I’ve been taught about God. Church talks so much about forgiveness and reconciliation that I really honesty did not think God would do anything to my father. That answer surprised me.
In other areas of my life, I’ve prayed about feeling secondclass because I’m a woman. Never once has God prompted me to ‘just obey the priesthood leader’ or to ignore my own sense of right and wrong. I really do think God believes men and women are equal, and not just in the “our roles are equally important but God wants men to have all the actual authority” way that the Brethren teach.
Sounds like a wonderful trip Elisa. I’m happy for you and your family 🙂 I really like the change from mercy to compassion that some suggest. It rings true to me, along with the other insights you shared. Great post!
Janey, I had that exact same issue. Pressure to forgive, and actual condemnation from my own bishops that I was a worse sinner than my father because I couldn’t forgive. When in reality, I couldn’t heal. Not with the attitude from the church that what he did was no big deal and that I was the bad one for not forgiving. Nobody can heal when everybody around them is pretending they were never injured. I felt like all God was going to do was kind of shrug at my suffering, while extending mercy to my father, forgiving him, and pretending no harm done and then loving him. And it was pretty obvious that the church didn’t love me at all, just blamed me for not being .. whatever. I have no idea why I was supposed to be the bad one and not my father. But the church totally failed to hold him accountable, and so of course that was what I expected out of God too. That was pretty much what I had been taught the role of the atonement was, to forgive the sinner, and forget the sinned against. I didn’t want that kind of God. I had just come from a bad talk with my bishop, and I prayed about the confused feelings, of loving my dad and hating him at the same time.
Then, I can only call it a vision. But I was shown, with picture and feelings, my dad, with the Savior putting his arms around him, and saying, “This is what love is.” And my dad feeling all the love the Savior has for him. Then the Savior saying, “and this is what you did.” And my dad getting all the suffering he had caused his family, all dumped on him at once. Talk about hell. The contrast between that kind of love, and all the pain that he caused was terrible. Yup, like you sad, my dad gets to feel all the pain he caused.
So, I no longer attend church with the God they talk about being someone who loves men, no matter how evil and blames women for being harmed. The God who extends mercy to sinners and turns a blind eye to the people who were sinned against. I don’t need Mormon God. My God is more loving and fair.
@Elisa. Great questions and great post, but all I could think about is when was the last time I had experienced “River Time” ? When had I last experienced that mental place that you described so well where its almost like the noisy part of the the brain is off and that part of the brain that simply lives in the moment but feels connected to something very ancient is the only thing on. For me it usually takes ay least a couple of hours into a backpacking trip or a bike ride on the backroads of Tennessee or snorkeling in the ocean to start to quiet that part of the brain. Honestly most of my paddles on the local river are too short (less than two hours) to submerge into River Time, although I find it a bit easier to quiet the brain on the water.
It just occurred to me that one of the things that has happened since the pandemic started is I haven’t done any 3-5 day wilderness outings like your Yampa trip that let me stay in River Time for really prolonged periods. Your post reminded me how deeply peaceful and refreshing that is and that I desperately need to plan something like your trip soon.
That is the same principle I was taught! I’ve never met anyone else who had a similar experience. It changed my entire concept of God – he isn’t all touchy-feely, and will “err on the side of keeping families together” and lets mercy outweigh justice. The entirety of the wrath of God gets poured out on a person who abuses his authority and hurts someone who should have been able to trust him.
This has affected my thoughts about what sins are actually serious, and what are technical rule infractions. It doesn’t hurt anyone that I quit paying tithing, so that may be a rule infraction but that isn’t actually a sin that God punishes in hell. Taking out a bad mood on my kids is a sin because of the way that affects my kids and our relationship.
I hear you about the difficulty of healing in an environment that doesn’t hold the sinner accountable. Church leaders talk about healing like forgiveness is the biggest part of healing, and it isn’t. The biggest part of forgiveness is learning to trust again, and to learn to feel safe again. The only thing forgiveness fixes is being angry at the perpetrator, and anger is NOT the hugest harm caused. In order to feel safe and to trust a person (or an institution like the Church), the victim needs to see the institution holding the perpetrator accountable. That’s part of rebuilding trust. If an institution won’t do that, the victim knows it isn’t trustworthy. It’s not about forgiveness; it’s about safety and trust.
I feel like this gap in teachings about healing is because the Brethren lack life experience. The Brethren are (mostly) white, well-educated, charismatic, have leadership experience, have good family relationships, and basically are the poster children for white male privilege. They’ve never been in a long-term abusive/bad relationship. The only time the Brethren have had someone act badly towards them, they might have been angry, but they haven’t been afraid or had their trust shattered. So yeah, President Church Leader just needs to forgive and stop being angry. President Church Leader never felt unsafe in a family or at church. President Church Leader never had the institution blame him for the problem. President Church Leader can’t understand the fear that a victim feels, but God understands.
And President Church Leader didn’t spend 90% of his adult years learning normal life skills, learning that sex does not equal love nor does it prove your partner doesn’t love you, learning to trust, fixing their marriage, curing PTSD, struggling not to hate a male God, because if they spent that many years trying to fix their life, they wouldn’t have been emotionally stable enough to claw their way through the ranks of church leaders to the top.
Of course, their lack of experience doesn’t make them bad men, it just proves they are normal, human, fallible, men. It does kinda prove their lack of inspiration, though, when they open their mouths and give the worst advice possible (R. G. Scott)
And Elisa, I really love “river time” and plan on making it part of my regular vocabulary.
I understand. God bless.
“River time,” “me time” etc is critical to maintaining perspective. For me, it is a way stimulate my brain with new challenges. It frequently involves travel, mostly to developing countries, but also hiking in the canyonlands of Utah.
But sometimes it’s best to just under stimulate the senses. Allow for a time to pull things together.