Toward a Humble Church

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A decade ago, I sat despondent in Relief Society during a lesson on humility. Law school exams were fast approaching and I felt overwhelmed. An arbitrary system was about to base 100% of my grades on half-day tests. Regardless of my objective mastery of the material, the system was designed to force competition against my smart and talented peers. I would be graded on a strict curve. Those grades would then be aggregated to assign my relative class rank. Without a sufficiently high class rank employers would flick my resume into the recycle bin. My future career was at stake. The legal job market was deep in a recession. I feared failure, and that my student loans would never be repaid.

I sighed and decided to interpret the lesson as a chastisement. I needed to repent and learn humility. I needed to learn “a modest or low view of my own importance.”

It had been selfish for me, a Mormon woman, to even dream of moving to D.C. for law school. I had chosen to mortgage my future family for my own ambition and now I had to pay the price. Within a few weeks I would know, empirically, just how not-great I was, relative to everyone else. Raising my hand, I made a joke-not-joke about how law school was teaching me humility by making me feel worthless.

Thankfully, my Relief Society responded with wisdom. Humility is not about comparing yourself to other people, it’s about comparing yourself to Christ. Even “comparison” is not quite the right word, because of course Christ is perfect and you are not. Humility is the self-honesty to see yourself like Christ sees you, and then extend that clarity of vision to all God’s children. We are all imperfect but beloved children who Christ shepherds towards personal growth.

Christ offers us grace and joy. The Atonement is a gift, not a test. Christ does not grade us on a curve; Christ does not “grade” us at all.

When I switched to praying from that mindset, the world shifted. I felt love. Christ was pleased I was seeking learning out of a desire to serve others. My classmates were not my competitors, they were my friends. The worth of our souls did not depend on our class rank.

* * *

I’ve reflected on this mental shift often over the last decade. Those reflections led me to conclude that the way the world defines humility is just faux pride. Popular humility is actually covetousness. Pride compares yourself to others and concludes you’re better; “humility” compares yourself to others and concludes you’re worse. The error – the sin – is in the comparison itself.

The smugness of the comparisons is what horrifies me most about the Zoramites’ prayers atop the Rameumptom. “Oh Holy God . . . thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee.”

In their pride, the Zoramites cast the poor out of their synagogues and “esteemed their brethren as dross.” Unable to pierce through that arrogance, Alma turns to preach to the oppressed outside. He notes their humility due to their poverty, but then pivots: true humility comes from believing the Word of Christ. What follows is one of the Book of Mormon’s most powerful sermons on faith. (Alma 32).

Christian humility is defined by our faith to experiment upon the Word.  “To seek justice, to love mercy, and walk humbly before our Lord.” (Micah 6:8). To learn “how to serve God’s children gladly with a pure and gentle love.” Humility is setting aside all comparisons to others so that we can love our neighbors like Christ.

* * *

We are not a humble church.

We are not humble because we keep falling into the trap of proving our superiority by comparison. Comparisons rest at the heart of raising ourselves above other Christians, refusing to apologize, and even assessing the worthiness of our fellow saints.

The temptation towards comparison is rooted in our boldest claim: there is only one true Church, and we are it. To establish that premise, we rattle off a litany of every way our sisters and brothers fall short. Other Christians apostasized. Other Christians incorrectly comprehend the Trinity. Other Christians corrupted scripture. Other Christians held councils to decide doctrine by majority vote. Other Christians have professional clergy. Other Christians do not understand eternal families. Other Christians baptize infants, by sprinkling and not by immersion. Other Christians look to the Cross as a symbol instead of to Christ the Risen Lord.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has renewed its emphasis on Jesus Christ in our name and in our symbols. Yet we still hold ourselves apart from the greater communion of Christendom. As one personal but indicative example: In the early days of dating my now-husband, I invited him to a ward activity. I needed a way to quickly signal to my friends that he was not Mormon as a prompt for them to code-switch. So I introduced “my Christian boyfriend, Bradley.” It worked – until we climbed in the car afterwards.

“Carolyn,” Bradley remarked. “You keep insisting that Mormons are Christians. But if that’s the case, why is it that you could so easily succeed in labeling me Christian tonight, as if that were something other?”

President Hinckley famously invited others to “bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.” Inherent in that invitation for us to add to them was the assumption that there was no truth they could add to us – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints already possessed it all. It’s an assumption I’ve seen often. One friend, enrolled in World Religions at BYU, once complained about how the course only examined others’ beliefs for the purpose of isolating their kernels of our restored truths; the rest of their beliefs were dismissed as heresy. The conceit astounded me. Whether kneeling with Catholics, praying with Muslims, or meditating with Buddhists, every interfaith ritual I’ve shared has expanded my love for humanity and my knowledge of God.

I’ve long wished that instead of championing our superiority, we would have the humility to remind our members to seek out words of wisdom from the best books of other faiths. (D&C 88:118). Yes, we have light – I love the Book of Mormon. But so do they. The heavens are open, revelation is ongoing, and “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” (Articles of Faith). No matter the source, “that which is of God is light.” She who receives light and continues in God receives more light, which grows “brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” (D&C 50:24).

What if, instead of listing the ways our sacraments are better than others, we took the Rachel Held Evans Searching for Sunday tactic instead?  What if “one faith, one Lord, one Baptism” (Ephesians 4) was read not to be restrictive, but inclusive?  That whether the Eucharistic is whole or torn, wheat or rice, unleavened or risen, served behind an altar or down a pew, provided on an open table or only to those who are baptized – it doesn’t matter. The bread is still Christ’s sacrifice and Last Supper, so the diversity inherent in expressions of that meal has the power to add to our human understanding about the infinite love of God.

Divine truth does not need to be proven right by comparison. If we live with an eye single to the glory of God, we will seek the light of Christ wherever it is found. That light already shines from every soul. Our humble calling as Christians is not to impose relative judgments of inferiority or superiority on other people. Rather, it is to unite humanity together in rooting out systems of sin and oppression. After all, Christ did not condemn sinners, he condemned the abuse of power.

*Photo by Michelle Tresemer on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Mallory says:

    Great post. I was pondering all week on the idea “what if Alma 31 is directly preaching to me? Or directly to the church as a whole?” And then last night I realized… of course it is, no other religion is studying this book, why would God put this story in there for everyone else except us? Lol/bleh. This was really nicely written.

  2. “The error–the sin–is in the comparison itself….Divine truth does not need to be proven right by comparison.” I think this is really excellently and correctly said, Carolyn; the heart of the evil is the kind of self-focus which turns every relationship into an act of self-centered evaluation: how do I measure against them? Getting away from that is almost impossible, in part because the modern economy of pretty much the entire planet revolves around it in one way or another, but I agree with you that revelations comes entirely on its own terms, entirely within one’s own subjectively, and not as some kind of comparative proof. (As an aside, though, I admit that I don’t think, as a matter of personal ethics, that “concluding you’re worse” is necessarily the wrong way to go about things. I think in general it’s good to assume the strong possibly that you’re wrong, that you’re doing what you’re doing for self-interested or sinful reasons, that you’ve just completely mucked things up, that you’re causing harm to others, in part because, in this fallen world, all of the above are almost certain to be always correct, or I believe. But I agree that setting up that self-deprecation solely by way of comparison probably just makes things even worse than they already are.)

  3. Carolyn says:

    Russell — I agree I don’t think it’s a problem to be introspective and admit that you’re wrong, but I do think that wrongness shouldn’t be about relative ranking against other humans, it should be about learning greater empathy and love through Christ.

  4. Hope E Wiltfong says:

    Thank you. Some lovely observations. In particular, “one faith, one Lord, one baptism” not to be restrictive, but inclusive. Truth is everywhere, but we seem to be so afraid to gather it in and welcome it unless it has the LDS sticker on it already.

  5. “I do think that wrongness shouldn’t be about relative ranking against other humans, it should be about learning greater empathy and love through Christ.” Complete agreement, Carolyn. Again, well said.

  6. This is excellent, Carolyn. It’s unfortunate that our founding story has Jesus saying to Joseph Smith how all the churches of his day are corrupt and wrong. I think other times he told of the First Vision, this was less of a point. Perhaps it would have been better if we had canonized one of those instead.

    I think you’re spot on about the Zoramite comparison. I’m sure there’s a general theory out there somewhere about how radicals and revolutionaries, if they succeed well enough to last, end up embodying the aspects of the establishment that they were revolting against in the first place. This seems like a perfect example of that type of phenomenon.

  7. Ziff: that theory totally exists. I used to have it at my fingertips as a religious studies student a decade ago. Now I forget which sociologist had the best version of it. Weber maybe? It’s part of the routinazation of charisma.

  8. Thanks for the pointer, Carolyn! That phrase–routinization of charisma–totally rings a bell somewhere in the back of my head somewhere. I’m sure that’s what I was remembering.

  9. One reason we look down on other religions is because we’ve been taught that only we have the priesthood, the authority to act in God’s name and execute His ordinances. JS restored all that was lost, right? So even though other churches may be good and contain truth, without that authority they are just pretenders doing good. That sounds harsh but it explains the mentality.

    Don’t we believe that when the 2nd Coming takes place, one of the first stops the Lord makes will be in SLC (or Missouri), not the Vatican or Saudi Arabia? Again, that’s the mentality.

    I used to believe that. I no longer do. But because I once did I understand why we (LDS) make comparisons with other religions and why we look down on them for being partly true while we are entirely true.

  10. My LDS daughter married a Muslim man 2 weeks ago. He’s a great guy, PhD student, and has attended a couple of semesters of institute with my daughter. He attends church (or did before COVID) with my family and it seems the ward and my extended family is soooo anxious for him to convert to Mormonism. I honestly don’t care as long as he treats my daughter well and they are happy.

    My son-in-law has apparently picked up on the ward and family attitude and told me last night how arrogant it is for us to try to convert others to our religion. As if we know the mind and will of God and blatantly disregard the positive, real spiritual experiences of members of other religions. That’s the thing – as a church we *do* think we have exclusive, direct communication w God. After all that’s how we define the role of our 15 prophets.

  11. The church is, regrettably, based on comparison and exceptionalism. “He was a bishop at 27 you know?”, or “ he was a successful heart surgeon” etc. Junior companions; senior companions. It goes on and on at church. The sycophantic idolising of people past and present is a sickening reminder of how dissimilar we are (institutionally and individually) to the man in whose name we purportedly do everything.

  12. Too often, I believe, we conflate the Gospel with the General Handbook of Instructions. Naturally, those outside the Church fail to live up to those standards. That gives us much more to feel superior about. Add in cultural Mormonism and we have a volatile mix.
    [The neighbors drink, mow their lawn on Sunday, play guitars at church, and both have a tattoo. That beam in their eye even makes them think I’m a stuck-up prig. Naturally, I turn my back whenever I see them because I don’t want them thinking I condone their type of behavior.]
    When we try to find common ground we discover that they use the RSV and not the KJV. [Philistines.] They won’t even meet us half way.
    See, it’s not even our fault.

  13. richellejolene says:

    Thanks for posting, Carolyn. “The worth of our souls did not depend on our class rank” got me thinking, though. Of course this is true, but the relative ease (or difficulty) of your life, at least materially/financially, probably does hinge too much on your class rank, and very smart and capable people are filtered out of professions all the time just because of gatekeeping and mostly arbitrary caps on entrance into certain professions. I desperately, desperately wish the Church were a place that felt different than that—a place that offers a meaningful alternative to the myth of meritocracy—but I keep finding, as JimmyD points out, that Mormons are still very hung up on status and various spin-offs of prosperity gospel thinking. Our cult of self-improvement makes it really difficult to stop making the kind of comparisons you’re talking about, and I think these can be dangerous even when we’re comparing ourselves to ourselves (e.g., assuming a previous version of ourselves was better or more pure, hoping our future selves will somehow “qualify” for blessings and support we’re not receiving now, etc).

    We’d do well to remember, as you wrote so beautifully, “The Atonement is a gift, not a test.” Even though I know cerebrally that this is true, I need constant reminders.

  14. One way for the Church to improve its humility would be to de-emphasize its proselytizing efforts and vastly expand service efforts around the world. The Church has the infrastructure and work force readily available to start doing this immediately. Not to mention the financial resources. While this is happening, the leaders would need to put their PR apparatus on hiatus.

  15. Happy Hubby says:

    I enjoyed the post, but when I read the title I immediately thought about one time when I was almost brought to tears as I felt my church WAS humble. It was when I read a press release where the church was apologizing for the racists policies and teachings. It felt so humble and Christ-like to me, similar to what I hear from Richard Rohr and others like him. Then I found out that it was a fake news report not put out by the church at all.

    I know that this hurt many people, but I still can’t get over how proud I was for my church when I first read it.

  16. Billy Possum says:

    “Divine truth does not need to be proven right by comparison . . . . Our humble calling as Christians is not to impose relative judgments of inferiority or superiority on other people. Rather, it is to unite humanity together in rooting out systems of sin and oppression.”

    I could not disagree more. At this time especially, the “talk less, smile more” trope is exactly the wrong medicine (watch the play, you’ll see what I mean). Racism is always wrong, regardless of whether we judge it so or not. But if you actually want the world to become less racist and more equal, you have to make some judgments. Statues and statutes don’t come down, wealth doesn’t get redistributed, police don’t go to prison without judgments. In other words, we can’t “root[] our systems of . . . oppression” without “impos[ing] relative judgments.” You must do – not avoid – the latter to accomplish the former.

    It’s cheap and easy to lay aside moral “superiority” when the issue is as remote and arcane as religious authority. But would you lay aside that same superiority when racism is literally killing someone right in front of you? I hope not. But if you did, you’d have lots of company, which is the problem. There are times and seasons to be humble, just as there are times and seasons to be white-hot with righteous indignation. Which one do you think 2020 is?

  17. Al Baurak says:

    Iyt is so hard to understand years of being taught that the BOM is the most perfect ‘scripture’ in the world, that it came from the very mouth of an unchangeable God and then see the Church cave to the pressure of the carnal world and deny its profound truths. This author is 100% on target that we view everything from our exalted position in the universe as the only true people and judge everyone else by our superiority and then go backsliding into chaotic panic when our holy truth turns against us. so sad. Thanks for the great article.

  18. Geoff-Aus says:

    Teasting

  19. I was with you up until “We are not a humble church.”. I mean if the threshold is all members being perfectly humble, then yes it seems we are not going to reach that in this lifetime, nor will any other mortal person or group of people on earth.

    I can’t fully understand what drives this type of attitude, almost an incessant need to criticize and let out anger towards the church. And sure there is a time and a place to point out how and where we can do better, and I actually agree with several of the points or flaws you point out – but where is the balance? Where is the good?

    Have you considered being compassionate toward our church and its flaws or its members and their flaws in the same way it seems you are willing to be compassionate toward every other faith I’ve heard you speak of? Why not the same compassion toward your own faith? We are an imperfect people no doubt, but I’m really proud of so much goodness and light I find in members wherever I go around the world. And so I have to disagree, within the membership I’ve found some of the most humble people I know on earth, and I see the church and its teachings being very influential in that reality. And I think we can and will continue to improve as we move forward.

  20. Josiah Reckons says:

    This is beautiful, and has given me something to think about, perhaps for the rest of my life. Thank you.

  21. Loved the first half of this; rolled my eyes at the second half. There’s a special irony in calling out the Zoramites for their blatant arrogance and moral superiority complex only to then lambast the Church for all its faux-humility that pales in the crystal-clear, cutting light of your multicultural wokeness.

    As Steve LHJ rightly observes, from whence cometh this constant stream of criticism for the Church? I fully agree we have miles and centuries to go before we approach the City of Enoch. I fully agree that all humans bear the light of Christ within, and that we’d do well to cherish real, honest truth and spirituality wherever we find it. These are fine starting points. Do you not believe that the Church and its membership and its doctrine have something positive to add to the moral landscape as well? If baptismal covenants by proper authority actually, really do bind us closer to God and enable us to more fully feel Divine love and direction, surely that’s something we can champion and shout from the rooftops to all? Despite the obvious imperfections in all of us members? Repeating Steve LHJ’s insightful comment, “Why not the same compassion toward your own faith?”