Is Mormonism Making You a Better Person?

Hiding behind the church rather than taking responsibility.

Sometimes as active members, we are caught up in being the best Mormon we can be, the most observant, ticking all the boxes, perceived well by other ward members.  We can forget that the point is to become a better person by following Christ’s teachings, not just to become a better adherent to a set of religious requirements or a better person as defined by the community.

But shouldn’t this be the same thing?

No, of course not. Every religion includes all sorts of expectations that drive behavior:

  • Tenets or beliefs.  [1] An example in Mormonism would be the Articles of Faith.  Another would be the types of things that usually constitute a “testimony”:  belief in Jesus Christ, feeling the spirit, the Book of Mormon, ongoing revelation, living prophets, the resurrection, the atonement, etc.  One tenet that drives behavior (or justifies it) is the 12th Article of Faith, belief in being subject to governments.
  • Values and principles.  Some examples of this include hard work (aka “the Protestant work ethic”), food storage, donating time and talents to the church, being honest in our dealings.  Sometimes American  values or conservative political values creep in as well, specifically principles around deference to authority, being guardians of tradition or equating wealth with righteousness.
  • Codes or behavioral rules.  These are more codified requirements like the Word of Wisdom or the Temple Recommend questions or things specified in the Church Handbook of Instruction. [2]
  • Rites and ordinances.  These are related to ordinances and include things like how we dress to perform temple rites or to administer the sacrament or hold office in the church (such as missionary or bishop).
  • Cultural norms.  These are simply the behaviors that the majority of members consider normal for Mormons.  Tricky areas include things like what constitutes breaking the Sabbath, what is appropriate attire for church, how and when garments are worn, definitions of terms like prophet or revelation, and what kinds of opinions are welcome at church.

You deserve entitlement.

These categories are not entirely separate.  There are certainly examples of cultural norms that have become codified, such as writing them down in the For the Strength of the Youth pamphlet or even a local action like written guidelines for a youth camping trip, adding questions to the Temple Recommend interview or elaborating on what is written there, or verbally telling someone he must shave regularly to hold a certain office at church.  And of course, you may adhere to these things or you may not; you can be Mormon and not adhere to all of them.  If you do adhere to them, your adherence to them could create positive outcomes or negative ones.  Being a “good Mormon” simply means an emphasis on adhering to these things.

So when is being a good Mormon not going to lead you to being a good person?  Whenever your reasons for adhering are impeding your personal growth or are creating judgmental or excluding attitudes toward others.

Some poor reasons for adhering include: conformity,  insecurity, fear of authority, fear of loss of status, peer pressure, seeking advancement, passive-aggressive compliance, fear of retribution or judgement, or desire to gain praise and approval of humans.  Some good reasons to adhere include:  respect for elders and others in the community, humility, desire to please God, helping others by eliminating unnecessary friction.  Likewise, non-adherence isn’t always a virtue.  It could be motivated by negative qualities like attention seeking, narcissism, peer pressure, pride, selfish motives, creating a personal martyr narrative, self-destructive wishes, anti-social feelings, insecurity, free-rider behaviors, overreacting to personal hurt, retaliation, or complacence.  But non-adherence can also be motivated by virtuous qualities such as improving a broken system, creating more inclusion for others, adding diverse perspectives to strengthen a group, enabling a group to progress, course correction, prompting positive change, fostering growth and global reach, and encouraging spiritual self-reliance, including one’s own.

Even though you can’t be in our “cool” clique, you get to be in your outsider one.

When people for whatever reason are trying to decide whether or not to stay in the church, a good question to consider is whether being active in the church is helping you to be a better person or just a better Mormon.[3]  And the answer to that question lies in our individual motives for behaving the way we do at church and the outcomes our behaviors create for us.  Church, if we are doing it right, should help us to examine our motives and basically to deal with our crap and become better people, closer to achieving our full potential. [4]

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that some of the people whose motives are the most dysfunctional are the least likely to consider leaving or reforming their behavior.  They benefit from their actions in the church, and rather than the church making them a better person, for some it brings out an ugly side that stalls their spiritual growth.  Jesus noticed the same trends in Jews during his day:  those who loved to be seen to fast or give alms, those who counted their steps and harshly punished anyone who was less exacting in their observance; they were very successful within their religion.  As a Rabbi once remarked, “Jesus was a bad Jew,” meaning he was not observant.  He broke the rules and refused to behave in order to be accepted by others including those in authority.

Legalistic loophole seeking

Maybe a few more “bad Mormons” [5] who stay in the church nonetheless would make Mormons realize that rules and social approval don’t always make us better Christians or better people. After all, we all sin; some sins are just easier for our community to notice. Following Jesus’ teachings even when our own culture dislikes what we do and even when authority disapproves is about as Christian as you can get.

This brings me to another thought I often have when people get tied up in knots about what the church does.  It’s just church!  Church is just one part of our life experience.  Family, community, the country we live in, our economic circumstances, the resources we have, and yes, our church, all of these are part of the conditions in which we live on earth.  If life is meant to test our mettle, as we believe in Mormonism, then the conditions aren’t what’s being tested: we are.  Yet, how easy it is to get caught up in the test conditions!    The conditions matter less than our reactions to them because we are the ones being tested.  Are we too loyal to the conditions?  Are we reactive to them?  Do we try to help others succeed?  Do we make it harder for others who struggle in the test, particularly if they struggle in an area we find easy?

If our human existence is a test, then what matters is our intelligence, our character, how resilient we are, our patience, and our attitudes generally.  How are we doing at developing those things?  Is our involvement in church helping us to become more patient, more helpful, more resilient, more intelligent, to have more integrity of character, to take more ownership for our actions?  Or is it driving the opposite behaviors:  divisiveness, focus on our reputation (caring what other test-takers think of us), blaming others for our choices, ostracism of others, and competitive attitudes rather than cooperation?  Only each individual can answer for him/herself.

Discuss.

___________________________________________________

[1] That’s right, people.  Tenets.  Not tenants.

[2] Of course Jesus was a minimalist when it came to codified behavior by reducing the ten commandments down to two.  I admire his editing skills.

[3] In some cases, a person’s way of being Mormon is actually making them a worse person, someone who is less Christlike.

[4] By “crap” I mean the negative psychological motives, like insecurity, entitlement, resentment, passivity, indecision, fear of rejection, cowardliness, approval-seeking, temper, lack of ownership, and so forth that stymie our personal growth, that prevent us from becoming godlike or being like Christ, that halt us from reaching our potential.  These are the life lessons that we will be presented over and over again in our lives until we learn them and our behavior changes.

[5] I’m looking at you, Kirby.

Comments

  1. Artemis says:

    I think for many Mormons, certainly some that I know, being a good Mormon who looks and acts Mormon /is/ being a good person, and that is because they view cultural identity markers (for example, not ever wearing something that could show the garments, even if you aren’t endowed, and not drinking anything that has caffeine) as having inherent moral properties, rather than being a part of building a community.

  2. For me, the answer is a solid, “Yes.”

    I have come to know myself well enough to believe I am a much better person because of my religion – for practical, lifestyle reasons as much as any theological reasons.

    I liked the thoughts in this post and agree with you about the danger of letting things get in the way of the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  3. Stephanie Sunderland says:

    I was a better person. Now, I’m angry, depressed and confused.

  4. This is a great article- I know that introspection is an important part of my life and taking a look at ourselves as an institution/culture is always needed as well.
    I am a convert to the Church because I did not have the relationship with Christ that I wanted.
    A couple of decades later, my change is for the better (spiritually)- not the callings, not the cultural adherence, not the friends that I have made, but because I have made it a focus to TRY to follow Christ the best way that I can.

  5. “Is our involvement in church helping us to become more patient, more helpful, more resilient, more intelligent, to have more integrity of character, to take more ownership for our actions? * * * * Only each individual can answer for him/herself.”

    YES! I’m a convert, too — that decision was the best decision in my life — I’m so very happy to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!

  6. I used to think being Mormon made me a better person, but now I realize how often I let the cultural stuff get in the way of simply loving people because I didn’t know any better. I believed what I was taught in seminary and institute and Sunday school – that how people dressed determined whether they were good people or not; that if someone had served a mission, they were somehow a cut above those who hadn’t; that I should avoid people who didn’t have the same standards because they could drag me down to their level.

    After a number of, for lack of a better term, faith crises, I finally realized how unimportant all of those things were. I began to see that there was good in everyone and that everyone sinned, just in different ways. So now I feel like there’s no one right way to be a better person. I think focusing on the Savior and trying to be like him helps me to be a better person. For some people, being Mormon may help them do that, but it doesn’t usually help me. Too often thinking about all the so-called requirements of being Mormon takes my focus off Christ and just makes me frustrated and upset, even angry.

    I’m not sure what I believe anymore, so I’m still trying to decide whether to stay. There are still a few church teachings that really resonate with me, but there are also many that really bother me. There are other factors for me that make it impossible to just step away right now, but distancing myself from certain aspects of the church and not participating to the extent I used to helps with some of my feelings of frustration. Unfortunately, nothing seems to help me figure out who I can trust to give me good counsel or what I can really believe in. That’s the hardest part. I still want to believe in things, but only if they’re true. I don’t want to waste any more years believing in things that aren’t true and that don’t matter.

  7. Ditto MOQT’S comment above. I love that the church can bring people to Jesus Christ! I’m not sure that the systematic indoctrination of love long members serves that purpose and that makes me both sad for life long members and scared to raise my little ones on the church. :(

  8. The “code” we follow is such an interruption to Christian attributes. Are you going to church because you love Jesus Christ, or is it that you just don’t want someone to come asking why you weren’t there. Some people have an attitude that “it’s better to be sitting on a bank fishing on a Sunday morning thinking about God, than it is to be sitting in church wishing that you were fishing. We “control” each other to protect the rules, when in fact we are acting very unchristian like by judging. No one but you knows you, and only caring people should be allowed to influence us or intrude into our test taking.

  9. The second picture sums up my undergraduate college experience.

  10. “The second picture sums up my undergraduate college experience.”

    I have a friend who’s in his early 20’s, who by choice never served a mission (and is not planning to)–and he’s the EQP in his family ward. I wonder how the stereotypical undergraduate LDS girl would react to that situation…

  11. My experience was that the “Not a Missionary” was an excuse for the guy (in some cases the girl) not being tall, rich, good looking enough, or some other superficial deficiency. Masking rejection with a black/white test for spirituality was more socially acceptable in Mormon YSA culture.
    Outside of dating, I think we still find it easier to apply quick and easy tests for acceptance. That guy’s a Bishop, he must be decent. That woman has a baby and no husband, she must be bad. That hippie is an EQ president – crap, now I don’t know what to think.

  12. Old Geezer says:

    Jesus was not a minimalist, he was an expansionist. His words force the law into our souls. You can get away with a lot with the ten commandments and “codified” rules and practices. The two commandments cuts directly to our intents/motives. The minute we start justifying our acts, we start lying to ourselves. Christ’s teachings are even less flexible than the law of Moses and the practices this post criticizes.

  13. Angela C says:

    Old Geezer – well said!

  14. J. Stapley says:

    I think that it is good to have structures that encourage people to do the right thing even if they don’t want to. Compulsion, probably not, but pressure. Society works better for that. Ideally everyone does the right thing because they are good people and want to. That is a hard threshold to meet.

  15. “Too often thinking about the so-called requirements of being Mormon, takes my focus off Christ. And, just makes me frustrated, upset , even angry.” MOQT i couldn’t agree more. I think that is what I was trying to say. Am I a better person yes. Am I happier, not really. The judgments if I can’t make it to Church, or my calling. Instead of judging, why not just love? I came out of being a JW for years. All they do is judge. I don’t need judgment, that is up to Christ. I and my 7 year old need love.

  16. I think it’s helpful to have markers to guide behavior – I don’t think principles are enough. You can explain how a speeding boat creates waves that rock other boats at their moorings, and how annoying that can be for people, but every popular lake I’ve been to marks inlets with “No Wake” signs, or even “No Wake < 5 mph". There's a reason for that. It sets a baseline for the ignorant and a reminder to the experienced. That doesn't mean an obedient boater is a considerate boater, but most often, a disobedient boater is an inconsiderate boater.

  17. Great article. It reminds me of Elder Ronald Poelman’s 1984 General Conference talk (the uncensored version) where he essentially says that The Church is not “the gospel” and “the gospel” is not The Church. Unfortunately, it is evident that the corporate entity of the church does not want its members thinking that way…

  18. Gary, that same basic message has been repeated at least twice in the last few years of General Conference.

  19. Robert Kirby has written about this too. “It’s a human problem. The difference being that religion is
    supposed to dissuade people from behaving like this. However, for far
    too many believers, it isn’t working as well as they think.”. I can’t find his other quote, but it was something to the effect of noticing the rude behavior within the flock and suggesting that if you’re a religious and a jerk, your religion isn’t working and you should try another one. So true.

  20. I take it footnote 5 is referencing the great Robert Kirby?

    Seriously, though, his articles should be linked on the Archipelago. No one does as good of a job poking fun at Mormon culture as he does.

  21. Angela C says:

    Yes, that’s Robert Kirby I was referencing in footnote 5. He loves the space between being a good Mormon and being a good person and illustrates the difference so well.

  22. Great discussion. I will use this in an upcoming priesthood lesson.

  23. This is a great discussion. I was raised in the kind of Mormon family that keeps church clothes on all day Sunday, never touches caffeine, and is in the temple every week (but a very loving and accepting family too). Then I married a recent convert. He tried doing everything my way, but soon stopped kneeling while praying. And started sunbathing in the backyard after church. I was shell-shocked. In the beginning, I tried to pressure him into doing things the “right” way by tears and expressions of regret. He eventually did stop attending church altogether.

    Then I had a miraculous change of heart, and realized that his heart was “right.” And that I would rather he be genuine than anything else.

    I also realized that the purpose of the church never was to divide families, and I shouldn’t use it as an excuse for contention or division in my family.

    I’m still a “good Mormon.” But I do believe I am a much better person because of Mormonism, because it was Mormonism that brought me to Christ who taught me that love is the highest calling.

  24. N.–doing religion right.

  25. I think the gospel of Jesus Christ helps me become a better person – or at least desire it, even when my actions are poor. The church, to me, is just a means of getting to the gospel. I’m not one to ever bear my testimony that “the church is true” because I don’t believe it is. To me it’s administrative. The gospel is, and that is perfect. The church is adminitration and culture (sometimes, often wacky). It’s a place where I run in to too many people who traipse out the door carrying a folding table to their house and keep it because “I paid for it with my tithing”. I’ve never seen as much stuff stolen anywhere as often as at the church building. Heck, in the last year our scout troop has had 2 flags stolen – who steals a flag? what kind of person steals a flag (or anything else) from a church?

  26. Re “When people for whatever reason are trying to decide whether or not to stay in the church, a good question to consider is whether being active in the church is helping you to be a better person or just a better Mormon.[3]”

    I’m not always a good person. I don’t always like my ward. But whenever I get tempted to toss it all in and stay home, I always come back to the temple and those covenants and promises. As long as my recommend is good, I can still be a jerk and grumble.

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