This afternoon we have a guest post to enjoy! Thanks Friar for this contribution:

“They are lazy, or they were offended, or they want to sin”—those have long been the typical reasons people leave the Church, according to believing Mormons.[1]  The truth is that some of the real reasons believing Mormons stay in the church include our very own personal versions of “they are lazy, or they are offended, or they want to sin.”  I’ve been totally in, and I’m now more than halfway out, so I know.

            Before I accuse anyone of ignoble motives, I really need to question my own.  I want to be like the disciples who had spent three years with Jesus and learned enough that when He mentioned that one would betray him, each of them asked, “Lord, is it I?”  For each of us, spiritual integrity requires that we question and if necessary accuse ourselves if and before we accuse others.  It wouldn’t be right to accuse others and excuse ourselves.  So here is my question, and maybe yours: Was/am I lazy, offended, or wishing to sin?

            I, for one, was a lazy learner Mormon by design.  I attended, served and stayed in the Church faithfully for several decades and only recently stopped attending.  A major reason I left is that I quit being lazy: I resumed reading and studying Church history and theology.  Years earlier I had purposely quit studying the history.  I worked as an intern for a scholarly journal and my duties included attending Mormon History Association meetings.  At that time—yes, long ago—the book Mormon Enigma by Valeen Tippetts Avery and Linda King Newell had just been published, and my wife and I read chapters to each other before we fell asleep at night.  She and I went down a rabbit hole trying to understand, justify, explain what Joseph did, and we came to the conclusion that either we had to quit thinking about polygamy or leave the church.  So, for many years, when the subject came up, I confessed that I had no testimony of polygamy, “but fortunately, we are not supposed to believe in it, or we would become nutjob fundamentalists and get ex-ed, so it is best not to believe in polygamy.”  About three years ago I found a copy of In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton, resumed the learning I had lazily given up, and with the help of that book and some others on the development of LDS priesthood and the development of both LDS and Christian scripture, I was soon out.  I was able to stay so long because I was a lazy learner too busy with a career, family, and church service to examine the foundations of what I believed.  I have friends who likewise left after their lives settled down enough that they could study diligently.  Until then, we stayed because we were lazy.  We had other reasons for staying of course, but that was one of them.

            Another of the reasons for staying was the delicious and addictive anger of being offended.  During all the years I attended Church, I was surrounded by members who were happily offended.  We were offended at “the world.”  Worldliness includes everything that offends a Mormon: what people drink, what they do in private, and oddly and especially, how they vote.  Above all, we Mormons are offended by people who are not us.  Our tribal loyalty is intense—and bristling.  Our persecution complex has a hair trigger.  Jesus may have taught love for the Other, but Mormon solidarity is too often buttressed by the desire to separate ourselves from the Other, and we can be tempted to exclude, vilify, deport, or merely dream about the apocalyptic destruction of the Other.  By the way, that level of offense is a sin.  Antipathy to my neighbor is not as serious a sin as fraud or violence, but sin it is.  Oh dear—does that mean we want to sin? 

            The desire to sin goes much deeper among true-believing LDS who want to stay in the Church.  The ultimate desire is to become God.  This is a desire that balances good and evil on a razor’s edge.  It could express wanting to be like Jesus in all that I do and say, but it could express a terrifying level of self-aggrandizement.  Here, too, serious self-reflection is necessary.  You may recall that even before Original Sin, wanting to be God was the original sin, Lucifer’s sin, he “who trusted to have equalled the Most High,” as Paradise Lost (following Isaiah) puts it.  Being holier-than-thou and failing to love one’s neighbors in the world are symptoms of spiritual pride.  Pride is the worst in the traditional Christian list of the Seven Deadly Sins, and the deepest and worst spiritual pride would have to be thinking you are or about to be God.  Pride can’t possibly get worse than that.  Being truly Mormon includes lots of sins—various bigotries, racisms, misogynies and various petty vanities—but modern Mormonism built its membership retention on a hope of “exaltation” that encourages any dumb mortal to think he can govern a galaxy.

            So I left.  I quit being lazy, but I too was offended.  I was offended that while God’s Providence led the world toward rights and equity for blacks, women, gays and others, God’s self-named prophets had always opposed that progress.  Yes, I was offended by present Church leaders too, from Dallin Oaks stating that the Church does not apologize (so repentance is only for us little guys?) to my own poor bishop.  I asked him, “After all these months, as my inspired priesthood leader, what is your counsel for me and my family?” and all I got was a blank, panicked stare that dragged on and on. 

            I also want to sin.  My lifestyle has changed since I quit attending church.  I drink coffee.  That’s it.  That’s the sin.  (It helped me give up sugar, so my sin has blessed my life and health.  How’s that for a testimony?)  I’m faithful to my wife, try to be good to my neighbors, busy as hell, happy as an angel.  I have found God, too, I think: it’s easier, because now there isn’t a hierarchy of old men in suits standing in between, just me and the infinite creating and life-giving spirit of all things from the roots to the leaves to the peaks to the stars, impersonal but mind-blowing.  I found peace, and it was good. 

Discussion questions:

  • Does the gospel help or hinder us in seeing our own as well as others’ sins or shortcomings?
  • If we are “in the world but not of the world,” and if “God so loved the world,” can we separate from and yet still love the world?
  • Is there pride in being a member?  Good pride or bad pride? 

[1] David Ostler, Bridges; Ministering to Those Who Question (Greg Kofford Books, 2019), illustrates how common these misperceptions are and also empirically questions them.  For the sake of self-examination, I wish to provisionally play with and reverse them.