“It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” – Matthew 4:1-4
I’ve written many times about my dissatisfaction with the high degree of literal-minded acceptance of scripture verses along with declarations of “those in authority” as these things relate to our understanding – our yearning, if you will – to know precisely how to be spiritually.
Many of us have doubted, have questioned and have agonized both publicly and in our intellectual closets over scriptural meanings and the declarative rhetoric masquerading as revealed and inspired utterances by those from whom the membership expects words that proceed from the mouth of god.
Part of that powerful sense of obligation and concern to keep our religious thoughts and attitudes closeted within our cultural faith community is based on a justifiable perception that community friends and family will suffer unduly for our sake. They mustn’t learn of our non-conforming thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that do not harmonize with all the official words that come to us “from the mouth of God”.
I’ve learned that some family members will behave much like those wounded loved ones defended by a lamenting Jacob in his second chapter of the Book Of Mormon. They may feel justified about their resistance to and in some cases downright ostracizing of those who doubt.
7 And also it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God, which thing is pleasing unto God;
8 And it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God, yea, the word which healeth the wounded soul.
9 Wherefore, it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained, because of the strict commandment which I have received from God, to admonish you according to your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of consoling and healing their wounds; and those who have not been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds.
Active loved ones who take for themselves such a wounded role regarding their own disagreement with the doubter’s feelings will in many cases simply hide behind the portrayal of having their tender feelings offended. Others, particularly those self-impressed with a sense of “leadership” or “priesthood” responsibility will in reality act upon that sense; in many cases become staunch defenders of a faith that does not need that kind of defending.
Much of this tendency to circle the wagons is informed by the literal-minded assumptions that put upon those wagon owners unnecessary feelings of worry over matters that are in fact quite trivial in the spiritual scheme of things.
And I mean trivial.
The degree to which believers worry about the orthodoxy and eternal salvation of others reflects assumptions that the very God to whom we pray is anal-retentive in that nit-picking way and does in fact order angels to mark clipboards for every jot and tittle of disobedient non-conformity. If one is willing to assign to God the role of nit-picking micro-managing autocrat who, like a corporate CEO, runs things through a hierarchy of middle managers, one can then function well in a performance-based religious system that worships worthiness based on performance but essentially equally values unworthiness as a marker of who should be condemned and ostracized.
Bill Ellis, the Dean of the St John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Spokane recently spoke to this notion in a sermon and has given me permission to publish the following excerpt:
There are other spheres of life in which the rules are not the means by which inclusion and acceptance are determined; in these spheres acceptance and inclusion are prior to any rules, indeed acceptance and inclusion are the means by which the value and validity of the rules that do arise are tested.
As our daughters were growing up my wife and I had lots of rules for them.You had to take at least one bite of everything at meal time, don’t play in the street, share your toys, go to school, be kind to one another and treat everyone with respect, bedtime is 8:00 on school nights, 9:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. You know because you who are parents had similar rules yourselves.
Never once did we imagine that the rules we developed were ideas that our children had to follow in order to be members of the family. Still less did we believe that these rules were ideas they had to agree to in order to be included within the scope of our love.
We loved, and love these two people to this day regardless of their willingness to believe in or follow those rules. Our love for them preceded every application of those rules.
The purpose of the rules, in other words, was not to provide the means by which our daughters could earn a life with us. The purpose of the rules was to keep them safe and help them grow within that life which was already theirs whether they believed in the rules and followed them or not. I never once said to them, “stay out of the street to play or else you are not a member of this family.”
I often told them to stay out of the street because the street is dangerous and they could get hurt, or worse, if they played there. The point is that our love for and relationship to our daughters had nothing to do with the rules we developed. The rules were not a test, not a means by which we would determine their acceptability as members of the household. That acceptance was unconditional.The purpose of the rules was to help guide and direct them into a path which, over time, would lead them to be able to love as they had been loved, to live for others as they had been lived for.
By no means am I suggesting that we as parents did this perfectly, or even well, because frankly, we didn’t. But that was the goal, the hope, the vision, and it still is. To the extent that our daughters came to see rules not as tests, but as the outgrowth of a certain sort of love and acceptance, a love and acceptance they then began to live into, and be transformed by, it becomes possible to say that they were justified by faith.
To the extent that they saw the rules as the means by which their acceptability to us would be gauged, they struggled to become justified by works.Paul’s insight is that God is more like a parent who loves than an employer who hires. Rules, laws, doctrines, ideas are therefore in no sense a test to determine whether or not we are acceptable to God. We are already loved, already accepted, already part of a promise and therefore already living in a hope.
The question is whether or not we know that, and whether or not we believe it, and whether or not we say “Yes” to that love and that acceptance and so begin to become transformed by it. If we don’t know it, don’t believe, don’t say “yes” to it, then we can’t be transformed by it, and that life and that love won’t change us. But insofar as we do say yes, we will be. As we say “Yes” to that love and begin to be transformed by it, we will gradually come to look more like that love. Eventually we won’t need a rule that tells us to respect others, because having been transformed by God’s love it won’t occur to us to be disrespectful. We won’t need a rule that says don’t abuse others, because it won’t occur to us to abuse others, and so it goes.
Dean Ellis has said what I would have said had I been possessed of his powerful spiritual perception.
I wonder if The Lord reads and considers the Church Handbook relative to human growth and compassion for each other.
The implication when referring to the Handbook for guidance is that the Lord only recognizes Handbook acts and Handbook-defined participation.
Conformity is the last refuge of a society trying to isolate itself from the real world.
Expelling or ostracizing members for not conforming and then declaring that God will endorse such an action is an imaginary fantasy that reduces God to the limited mortal maturity of that isolated society.