Saturday, March 30, 2019

Thine Afflictions Shall Be but a Small Moment

One of my sisters is struggling with a personal matter that has dragged on and on and only seems to become more difficult and more stressful for her.  She recently sent out an email updating the family on how the situation continues to develop.  My dad replied to all to give some words of encouragement.  They were terrible.

But they were words of encouragement, so I'm not going to chime in on the email chain to point out why I think he's wrong.  That wouldn't help my sister. It wouldn't help anyone.  And it would be a generally shitty thing to do.  So this is where I've chosen to articulate my thoughts, in my all-too-frequent excerpt-and-analysis format.

Here's some of what my dad said:
Discouragement is not a loss of faith, as long as those who are discouraged continue to try. The scriptures and church history are full of faithful people (i.e., people full of faith), including prophets, who became discouraged because of obstacles and delays. But, they pushed forward - as you are - in spite of the discouragements. That is even greater faith!
I completely understand how a reassurance that discouragement isn't necessarily a spiritual weakness can be a huge support to someone who holds her faith so dear.  So I like how my dad started.  But then he brings the scriptures and church history into it.  And that's where it starts to unravel, I think.

The scriptures and church history are full of faithful people who became discouraged because of obstacles and delays.  But that doesn't really seem comforting to me.  Because the kind of people he's referring to include Job, Mormon, Joseph Smith, and basically every black member of the church before 1978.  Job suffered immensely and even though God restored his blessings, Job's dead children were not brought back to life.  Mormon was clearly discouraged by his civilization's impending doom and even though he followed God's commandments, his people were eventually eradicated.  Joseph Smith was comforted in Liberty Jail, but God didn't put an end to his legal troubles and instead allowed him—and his brother—to be murdered in a different jail five years later.  And even in the present day, black members of the church haven't gotten an apology for racism, an explanation for racism, or even an acknowledgment that the church was wrong to keep them out of the priesthood and out of the temples for more than a century.

So, congratulations on your greater faith, sister, but keeping your faith in spite of dreadful circumstances in no way guarantees you'll see the outcome you so fervently hope for.

My dad continued:
The key to real faith is that is to be faith in the Savior: confidence and trust that He always loves us, that He knows what is best for us, that we accept His will for us, and that He will always help us - even when we see the waves around us and start to sink - if we keep our focus on Him.
The notion that God "knows what is best for us" seems like it's an approach that shouldn't have been viable since the days when many people's worlds didn't expand beyond the borders of their medieval villages.  This is the information age.  The world is bigger and more connected.  We know so much more about what's happening to people six thousand miles away than we used to.  How can we, as citizens of the 21st-century planet Earth, continue to believe that God knows what is best for children in polygamist compounds in Texas and for starving families in Maduro's Venezuela and for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar?

The argument that God can't intervene all the time because that would violate free agency is something I can swallow.  But if God were to apply the "light touch" rule from Futurama, he'd at least be able to mitigate some of the distress and some of the damage.
I have a corollary to this, however—when you do things wrong, people will be sure you've done nothing at all.  These aren't ambiguous situations where we can look at them and say, "Well...I can see how there could have been some divine intervention here and here and maybe there."  These are straightforward situations in which huge numbers of innocent people—including children under the age of accountability—are being saddled with the kind of suffering no human being should be expected to endure.  If God exists, and if God actually knows what's best for us, he's either really bad at trying to help or he doesn't care about whether we actually get what's best for us.  This is driven home by the reminder that we should accept his will for us—which is kind of a back door in the event God doesn't actually help.  Which means we can completely disregard my dad's insistence that the Savior "will always help us."

I'm not sure if my dad was intending to reference Peter when he mentioned the waves and the sinking or if this was just a general maritime metaphor, but if he was talking about walking on the water, I think that's a misleading story to use.  Because when Peter was slipping under the surface, Jesus "immediately stretched forth his hand, and caught him" (notice the URL still says—Satan sure is tenacious).  And as soon as they returned to the ship, the wind ceased.  Where is Jesus's immediate hand stretching forth into Yemen?  Why hasn't the wind ceased in North Korea?

I'm guessing the answer is that, since those countries don't really have a Mormon presence (sorry—Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints presence), they don't have the faith required to save them from their circumstances.  Which makes no kind of sense.  If you see a starving child, does that child's opinion of you determine whether or not you feed him?

On to the next excerpt from my dad's email:
People without faith can be optimistic - in fact I know people who are optimistic that they can be happy without faith. However, people with faith in the Savior tend to grow in optimism (as their faith continues to grow) that things will always work out as the Savior knows is best for us.
This could be one of those things that just depends on how you'd prefer to approach life.  I'm all for keeping things upbeat, but I have no desire to be optimistic about things that simply aren't going to happen.  If I see some strong evidence that a particular event may swing in my favor, then I'm happy to be optimistic about it even though my desired outcome isn't a certainty.  If I see some strong evidence that a particular event may swing in my disfavor, then I absolutely do not wish to remain optimistic about it.  I'll do what I can to change the outcome, of course, but remaining optimistic out of faith that "things will always work out" just seems like lying to myself and compounding my eventual disappointment when things inevitably do not pan out the way I would like.

Props to my dad for mentioning—perhaps a little too magnanimously—that people without faith can be optimistic.  I have a feeling he included that because he knew I was one of the people he was replying to.  And he may very well be right that those with strong religious convictions tend to achieve higher levels of optimism.  But I just don't see the value in living that way.

As a final note, I didn't really like my dad's overall focus on faith.  My sister shared personal, day-to-day, visceral thoughts about specific situations facing her and my father chose to address it as a matter of faith.  If your daughter is distraught because she just lost her job, is your reaction to start explaining economics and the vicissitudes of the job market to her?  If she tells you she's just lost a friend in a mass shooting, do you give her a lecture on the Second Amendment and strict constructionism and federalism?  Of course not.  Regardless of your beliefs on any issues that may underpin the event that drove your kid to crisis, you understand that she needs an empathetic response.  She needs a hug.  She needs kind words.  She needs someone to listen.  What she doesn't need is a florid bird's-eye-view explanation of intangible concepts that don't have direct contact with her immediate emotional needs.

Maybe this will be helpful to my sister.  I hope it helps her keep her spirits up, at least.  But to me, it sounds like a lot of empty platitudes.  And so often, that's exactly what Mormonism comes down to—empty platitudes, promises that can't be fulfilled, and assurances that aren't guarantees.  I guess I struggle to see how that kind of thing is helpful to anyone.


  1. You are 100% correct. It’s a bunch of empty platitudes. Starving people don’t need prayers. They need food. An injured person doesn’t need a blessing. They need immediate medical attention. They don’t need a “keep your faith, stay in the boat, doubt your doubts” lecture.

    Here’s what I’ve learned from my own experience. Parents of kids with disabilities don’t need a lecture on faith. They need a hug. They need empathy. They don’t need to be told God gave them this child as a trial that he will help them through. They actually need HELP. They need family members and ward members to step up with helping hands. Prayers don’t babysit. They don’t give respite. They don’t help you manage your home that is impossible to stay on top of, because your first priority is this child. My son is in his mid-20’s now, and we truthfully got zero help from our ward. We got no help from my family, though I’m sure we were in their prayers and occasionally in the prayer rolls of the temple. The help we actually got came mostly from my wife’s mom, and we often paid her for it. Thankfully, the state has helped with schooling, job training, paying for respite, etc, because the church teaches its members to pray for you and ask “let me know if there’s anything I can do for you” without any intention of actually helping. (I mean, how can a man or a woman compare to the help God can give? Why should they even try.) Do you know how big of a difference it would have made for us to have someone show up on a Friday night to watch him so we could go out for a couple hours? Maybe someone could’ve offered to take him to do something. Maybe they could’ve simply come to the house to help my wife get caught up with the extra housework neither of us had the energy to do after a long, hard day. I mean, couldn’t nearby siblings, cousins, neighbors, etc. help for even an hour or 2 a month. It would’ve made a huge difference, and it still would. The church doesn’t teach people to show up and say “I’m here to help. What can I do?”

    Whatever it is, your sister needs hugs. She needs helping hands. She doesn’t need a lecture on how God will or will not help her through this. She needs family and ward members to help her, and that help comes not in words but in actions.

    I know she needs you.

    1. The kind of help you were looking for is exactly the kind of thing home teaching and visiting teaching was *supposedly* designed for. I'm a little surprised—but not that surprised—that across more than two decades and who knows how many home and visiting teachers, not one of them said, "I'm here to help. What can I do?" I'm sorry that you've had to go through that. And you're right that Mormonism tends to teach people not to roll up their sleeves, but instead to offer platitudes and to put you on prayer rolls and to provide backhanded pseudo-doctrinal explanations for why they don't need to concern themselves with your family's needs.

      My sister's situation doesn't really have a solution because almost all of this is out of her hands and she just has to wait and fret and see what happens. What she needs is real moral support, which I've never been good at. Hopefully I can do a little better than my dad, though...

    2. It’s so tough to be stuck in a waiting situation with no control. I’m sure you’re better at moral support than you think you are. I’m also sure she’ll appreciate whatever you can do for her.