Rough Waters Carry Us Home

We often characterize the gospel as a distinctive source of peace. This is true enough, yet it is equally true that it’s a strange sort of peace we put on offer. Our gospel gives us a peace that is not of this world, to be sure: our scriptures characterize Christ’s peace as filled with strife, trial and sorrow. Matthew’s gospel, thus, gives us Jesus explaining to his followers,

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. (Matthew 10: 34-36)

Jesus, it would seem, gives us the peace which is not peace, but rather grief and strife. In a more vivid voice, a revelation of Joseph Smith’s while in Liberty Jail evokes the suffering and turmoil that seem to be central to the peace of our Lord.

If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; if thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; and if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

Unlike Joseph Smith, I have never been put in prison. I don’t yet have a child, unlike Joseph, whose son Joseph Smith, III, was six years old at the time of the above revelation. Whatever enemies I might have are at the very least less lupine, and perhaps at most altogether less existent, than those Joseph Smith faced in 1839. Even so, my feeble efforts at following Jesus Christ as a Mormon have given me a reasonable sample of the special kind of peace reserved for us in this life. Let me offer two examples.

Some years back, Taryn and I met and fell in love. At that time, Taryn was not a Latter-day Saint. Although she had been raised in the church, she had left and at the time felt no interest in returning. This situation left me with an impossible choice.

I had been taught not to marry outside the temple, or outside the fold. Doing so would appear, would perhaps be, an act of disloyalty to my community, my church, my family, and perhaps at the extreme my God. Yet I loved Taryn deeply and genuinely. Moreover, I felt in my deepest heart that it was right for me to marry her. I believe the voice of God whispered that conviction to my soul in impalpable and overpowering command.

No decision could split the difference, could serve both God and mammon. I stand convinced today that my decision to marry Taryn was right and justified, an expression of loyalty to the one I love most on this earth but also to myself and, I think, to God as He revealed Himself to me. Yet the evident disloyalty to tribe and family in this decision at times felt as if it would rip me in two.

The pain associated with the trial of faith that was my decision to marry outside the fold has receded with time. Indeed, Taryn has even rejoined the church. Yet in a way, the aftermath of such tribulations is infinitely less important than the experience of them. Who would I be had my life and faith not forced me to choose between one family and another, between the norms of the world and the Spirit’s message to me? I cannot know, but I imagine that person would be quite other than what I am.

In more recent years, I’ve faced a very different, if equally wrenching, juncture in my life. You see, I’ve started taking Mormonism seriously. I have been a Latter-day Saint since birth. Yet my concept of our religion and our tradition had been a rather brittle caricature. While I accepted our tradition as divine, I did not examine it. Indeed, in truth, I barely thought about it. In an important sense, my membership in our community was skin deep. Mormonism was engraved on my face and my speech but, perhaps, not my heart, mind, and soul.

A few years ago, through a complex series of events that, at the time, seemed arbitrary but in which I now see God’s hand, this all changed. I began for the first time to seriously examine Mormonism, to think about and learn about our history, our theology, our sacred books, our culture. This has been, for me as for so many others, wrenching and unsettling. When I looked, I did not find what I always assumed had been there. I found no cartoons, and no superheroes. I found much that I did not like, and indeed much that I do not like. I am no longer at rest. I find answers from time to time, sometimes even good ones, but the list of questions is longer and growing faster.

And yet, while I have lost my equilibrium, a miracle has happened. If I am no longer comfortable and at ease with Mormonism, I am instead far more committed to it and far more engaged in it. At times, I find myself awake in the middle of the night considering our faith. The questions and dilemmas that upbraid my mind and unsettle my soul also drive me to work harder in serving others and in building the kingdom. Before my intellectual quest into Mormonism destroyed my equanimity, I think I was a bit of a bloodless Mormon. Today, it might be fair to call me a bloodied one, but I insist on also pointing out that I now bleed Mormonism.

In another document from Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith asked, “How long can rolling waters remain impure?” Does turmoil and hardship indeed purify us? I feel that my experience points me toward the affirmative. If so, then I suppose we ought to give thanks to our Father in Heaven for the gift of the special peace he gives us, the peace that tortures and torments us for our own ultimate exaltation.

In this Christmas season, let me offer my prayer that all of us may have peace, both the kind the Lord gives and, whenever possible, the mundane, happy kind, as well. Whether the waters you sail are as rough and rolling as I have sometimes felt mine to be, or smooth and easy, let us all be guided home to our one safe harbor, where the harbormaster hires no substitutes.

Comments

  1. Interesting thoughts on the perturbing peace that the Lord gives us at times. The wonderful thing is, though, at times we can feel the deep peace which passes all understanding. I’ve had those moments when the Lord has visited my mind like a healing balm. Yet there are also times where I feel a “divine discontent”, to use an Elder Maxwell phrase that I fell in love with once I heard it (like so many of his), towards both my actions and in the actions of those I love. I know that’s somewhat different than what your talking about, but I have had much more problems concerning my actions than over doctrinal, historical, or other problems involved in the faith.

  2. Thank you for this Christmas gift, J. You are an inspiration.

  3. Jay, thanks.

  4. Do you think that at some point we must all become “bloodied”? At some point must we all stop looking at the gospel only skin deep? Is it necessary?

  5. J., you are friend and a brother (I think I said this to Ronan last week, it is true though), and I wept when I read this.

  6. Thanks, J. That is moving, and I appreciate the glimpse into your heart.

    I find it fascinating that we struggle so much with the injunction to follow the voice of the Lord as we understand it when there is obvious opposition in the choices available to us and when the voice of the Lord as we feel/know it to be is in direct opposition to the general counsel to everyone else. I know the limitations of this comparison, but I can’t help comparing J’s struggle to accept what he felt deeply was coming from the Lord (the “command” to marry Taryn) but opposed to the general counsel given to all (marry in the temple) with the one we just finished discussing about Nephi struggling to accept what he felt deeply as coming from the Lord (killing Laban) but opposed to the general counsel given to all (Thou shalt not kill.).

    It intrigues me greatly that I think the general reaction to J will be understanding and compassion and agreement, while the general reaction to Nephi is one of struggle and difficulty – and sometimes disagreement and outright rejection. That is an extremely dangerous and frightening comparison, and I don’t want to threadjack this post and get back into the discussion on the other thread, but it is fascinating nonetheless. Personally, I think the difference is NOT based primarily on our level of faith but rather simply our lack of personal exposure to the extreme situations of Nephi and Abraham. I personally thank God for that difference, as my struggles are hard enough.

    I thank the Lord for what I have learned from my struggles and pain, but I will NEVER pray for “worse” ones just so I will learn more. I don’t want to experience the death of a child or divorce or near starvation; I want to trust that the Lord will give me whatever trials I need – and not one more.

    Again, thanks, J.

  7. Jacob, thanks for your thoughts. I certainly have felt, as well, the surpassing peace you discuss. Amazingly, for me it seems compatible with the terrible turmoils I’ve discussed above.

    Mark and Steve, you’re more than welcome — I’m glad you’ve found some meaning in this.

    Brewhaha, I don’t know. I can’t imagine that everyone needs what I have needed. Surely there are knees that bow more easily than mine.

    Ray, I agree that my situation when deciding to marry Taryn can be analogized to those of Nephi and Abraham. Those stories discomfit me greatly. Yet the experience of an impossible choice in my own life makes the situation, at least, seem more real and more comprehensible.

    J. Stapley, hey, I love you, too, man.

  8. Ugly Mahana says:

    Thank you.

  9. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I miss Taryn’s posts.

  10. Love, love, love it.

  11. Dude — be careful. You’re ruining your rep with these kinds of posts.

    I for one feel deeply enriched by my association with saints like you Jay — maybe because you have been a bit bloodied rather than in spite of it. Merry Christmas bro.

  12. Thanks for a beautiful and heartfelt post.
    My only concern (as someone with his own set of battle scars) is that we be sure to leave space for those whose deeply poignant and potent experience of the Gospel seems to us skin deep. The older I get, the more convinced I become of the rich variety of faith walks and life paths along which God will guide his children. While I could never feel content or in tune with God in a Mormonism I had not studied and struggled over at great length, I am reluctant to suggest that the more intuitively and reflexively experienced Gospel life is less valid than my predominantly cerebral Mormonism.

  13. Jay, spectacular. A post I can relate to, and frankly, one I wish I had wrote. Thank you- deeply, thank you.

  14. SMB – Agreed. There is indeed a “rich variety of faith walks and life paths”. I just hope that on all of these different paths were are able to find an “iron rod” to grab onto and follow until we partake of the fruit.

  15. Ugly Mahana and C. Jones, again, I’m glad you’ve something in this.

    Joanne, Taryn misses blogging, too, and plans a triumphant return.

    Geoff J., what reputation is that, then? Thanks; and Merry Christmas to you, too.

    smb, thanks for your comments. I guess I wouldn’t feel comfortable characterizing less cerebral Mormonism as skin deep in the first place. My Mormonism was skin deep before my intellect engaged, but that reflects my weaknesses more than some kind of general law of spiritual development. But thank you for the reminder that what is true of one life need not be true of another.

  16. I can tell already that this one will be on my mind for a while. Thanks, JNS.

  17. This is stunning and fantastic. It seems to follow from something I have been thinking about lately. I have recently had some of the same experiences you describe here.

    Do you think that at some point we must all become “bloodied”? At some point must we all stop looking at the gospel only skin deep? Is it necessary?

    I think the answer to this is an unqualified “yes.”

    The rest of the quote from Liberty jail is instructive in this regard:

    How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.

    It seems the rolling waters are a necessary precursor to the unstoppable process of God’s education of his people. Is there another way to read this?

  18. The rough waters allusion reminded me of both Lehi and his family and the Jaredites, and how stiff winds were what led them to their promised lands. The Lord warned the Jaredites that ‘mountain waves’ would ‘dash’ upon them (Ether 2:24). Later, the record says:

    “And it came to pass that they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them, and also the great and terrible tempests which were caused by the fierceness of the wind.” (Eth. 6:6)

    The exodus stories bring me peace because I recognize that, as you say, the Lord’s peace isn’t as the world defines it, and it often comes as deliverance from, or sometimes for a time at least understanding of, the purpose of ‘rough waters’ that move us forward.

  19. JNS, thank you for this. We all hunger and thirst after peace, and sometimes get frustrated that the gospel doesn’t always give it to us the way we want it. I often think that if I didn’t care about the gospel, some of the things that trouble me most would no longer be an issue, and I’d have some kind of peace with that. Yet I look at the costs of giving up the gospel in my life, the hope that it brings me, and know that it would be a false peace. My only hope for lasting peace lies at the other end of a long a difficult road.

    Your post brings to mind Helaman 5:12. There is a safe harbor for us all.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Sorry, J., I’m not buying this at all. Marrying Taryn seems to me like a total no-brainer–Mormon, Episcopalian, Moonie, Pagan or whatever…

  21. Four months ago, after I told the missionaries I wanted to be baptized and my family was opposed, they read me those two verses, neither of which I’d seen before. They struck me to the heart – and redoubled my commitment to go forward.

  22. Brilliant.

  23. Excellent. Those verses from D&C 121 are hauntingly beautiful, and they apply so well to the ‘loss of equilibrium’ many of us have found, and wherein we can find more truth.

  24. Firstly, I also want to give you my thanks, J.

    I always felt a strange joy in adversity, but not hearing others talk about it that way, I thought I was just being weird Dave, again. A year after joining the Church, I went on a mission and got my first dollop of baptism by fire: Daily revilement from those who thought I was evil, a mission administration that taught “no matter how wrong your seniors are, they are always right,” and a Catholic mother back home whose wounds over my conversion were still fresh (I used that Matthew 10 scripture on her, too). For a while I didn’t think I was going to make it (gazed longingly at the Trailways bus station), but instead of caving I was tempered and came home a newly converted soul. Recognizing that, the terrible peace has been a dear companion since.

    Thank you, again, for putting it out there.

  25. J,
    This is great stuff.

    This might be too personal a question, but did dilemma #2 have anything to do with furnishing some resolution to dilemma #1? That is, did your more serious, bloodying engagement with the restored gospel have any impact on Taryn’s decision to return to Mormonism?

  26. J,
    Thank you for this. It is beautiful.

  27. Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments. Again, I’m glad you’ve found some value in this.

    Brad, good question. This would all make a much better narrative if my more intense encounter with Mormonism had influenced Taryn’s decision-making. Alas, it just wasn’t so. Taryn rejoined the church about 8 months before I started wresting with the faith. In my subjective experience, the two sequences of events were unrelated. Looking a bit more analytically at my life, I’d say that Taryn’s decision to be Mormon probably contributed to, or provoked, my decision to look into the faith intellectually. Taryn had long known a lot more about Mormon history, etc., than I had, so there might have been a kind of direct influence there. But also it seems reasonable to hypothesize that I might have examined Mormonism more seriously at an earlier point had I not been subconsciously conflicted or restrained by her outsider status.

  28. Just beautiful J.

  29. This was really wonderful. It also reminded me of president Hinckley’s elegent Counsel to not just say Merry Christmas but to ask “What can I do to help.”

  30. JNS, like you and others here, I’ve had my own coming of age with respect to Mormonism in recent years. Even though I have lost my sense of certainty and comfort, I think I am happier now than I was before. In The Music Man, Prof. Harold Hill sings that he prefers a “sadder but wiser” girl. I think I prefer my sadder but wiser view of my faith. For some reason, I find it easier to deal with church doctrine and history (and with life in general) when I realize that everything is messy and imperfect and we are all flawed in various ways.

    They say ignorance is bliss, but I don’t find that true in matters of faith. Ironically, intellectual challenges to my faith have transformed my faith into . . . well, faith.

    In response to Brewhaha (#4), I don’t think that everyone has to go through this kind of wisening, and I am hesitant to needlessly push it on anyone who is comfortable with where they are at. But for me, it was necessary.

  31. Absolutely beautifully written. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my questions in our faith either, yet unwilling to leave it all behind. Thank you for inspiring me.

  32. Jay, this post was particularly moving to me. I too have struggled deeply with Church history, theology and doctrine as I started to take it seriously and look deeper into it a couple years ago. At times, especially in reading Church history, I was so disillusioned and racked with anguish at what I read. I felt lied to, like things had been hidden from me and felt totally and utterly alone. I didn’t feel like anyone understood me or what I was going through. Asking questions was a bad idea as it usually sparked angry feelings on both sides. It was a lonely time in my life.

    All that changed when, by a chance trip to Deseret Industries, I came upon “A Thoughtful Faith” compiled by Philip Barlow. The Bloggernacle, Mormon Stories, Sunstone and Dialogue were also miracles in my life and have been integral to my faith journey. It was so refreshing to me that there were thoughtful, intelligent, reasonable people who had also struggled with the Church, it’s history and theology, who still could retain their faith, though it was a changed faith, and still find beauty and value in Mormonism. The Church, as well as the world I realized, is a lot messier place than I once thought it to be, but it is also a lot richer and intriguing now. It was a real, Matrix/Plato’s Cave experience for me. I still go through occasional periods of doubt, but it has been tempered by a sense of wonder, and a genuine desire to search the scriptures and to dig deeper into the study of Mormonism. I still have many unanswered questions but I have prayed for, and experienced, peace of mind and spirit and am comfortable where I’m at; I’ve even committed to serving a mission. (Mexico Monterrey West-anyone have any links to that mission?)

    I feel like I understand faith so much more, taking this step into the darkness so to speak and committing to the Gospel in very real way in the face of doubts and questions. It has been a hard, tumultuous journey but I wouldn’t go back for the world. As my very good bishop has told me many times: “Better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

    I want to say thanks to the bloggernacle (this is already too long and there’s too many people to name!) for aiding me along, and a very Merry Christmas to everyone.

  33. Andrew,

    That Barlow volume has meant the world to me, as well. Glad you found a copy at the right time.

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