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.