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When We Try to One-Up the Lord's Standards: Culture vs. Commandments

Sometimes in an attempt to prove our faithfulness to the gospel, Mormons create standards that require even more than what the Lord is asking of us. So before we expend too much energy trying to live these "higher" standards, we should ask ourselves, "Are we living the cultural gospel or the Lord's gospel?"

In their new book, Finding Inner Peace: Lessons Learned from Trying too Hard, Brent L. Top and Wendy C. Top share deeply personal experiences about how trying to live the "cultural gospel" took a serious toll on Wendy and the entire family as she suffered a breakdown and battled clinical depression. They write:

As Wendy began to evaluate the cause of her pain and exhaustion, she realized that there are two main standards we often set up for ourselves in the Church—the Lord’s standard and a social standard. One day, she made a list of the Lord’s commandments. In a second column next to each one, she then wrote the more stringent interpretations that had evolved in Mormon culture. Perhaps they had come about in the same way as the well-intended “fences” that had grown around the law of Moses among the scribes and Pharisees. In order to avoid breaking any commandment, they prescribed a set of more particular, more strict observances that would keep them from even coming near to violating the law, and that enabled them to demonstrate a supposedly greater faithfulness than what was required in keeping a particular commandment. In their zealousness, however, they often became obsessed with the letter of these lesser laws while overlooking and offending the spirit of the original law. Worst of all, they set up such performances as the standard of righteousness, judging others unrighteously. A good example was their blasphemous attempt to condemn Jesus Christ for healing a man on the Sabbath (see Luke 6:7).

To a lesser extent, many fall into the trap of fences today. We may be well-meaning in our attempts to be “super-faithful,” but when these higher standards we have created for ourselves—which the Lord doesn’t necessarily require—are used to judge ourselves or others unrighteously, they become stumbling blocks rather than stepping stones.

For example, the first commandment on Wendy’s list was the commandment to “multiply and replenish the earth.” In our society, this seems to be popularly interpreted to mean that every couple should have a big family. A few well-meaning members of the Church (always those who had been blessed with the ability, health, and energy to have and rear many children) had kindly pointing out our deficiency in this area. This cultural expectation—whether merely subtly felt or openly expressed—was dependent to a large degree on where we lived. For example, when we lived on the East Coast of the United States, many people—both Church members and those not of our faith—were amazed that Wendy was able to accomplish so much with so many kids. When we moved back to Utah, our previous large family suddenly became a small family. In this cultural context, we felt like we weren’t measuring up because we had only four children. Wendy believed she really must have more children in order to spiritually measure up to some perceived quantitative standard for mothers in Zion, even though she already felt that she had reached her emotional capacity. We wanted to be faithful, and so we were trying to have another baby at the time Wendy had her breakdown.

Another example she listed was the Word of Wisdom. A few basic health laws are laid out in the revelation recorded in section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, but it seems many are trying to add fences to these. Some have tried to suggest that eating white bread or refined white sugar is a violation of the Word of Wisdom. Others would add chocolate to the list of no-nos. Cola drinks are the most notorious and controversial; while drinking them may not be wise, it has not been defined as a sin. Yet, Wendy had spent years stressed out over a family member’s (not one of her children) tendency to partake of this supposedly forbidden substance. She even spent time nagging him about it, thinking his salvation was in jeopardy and worrying that others might be led astray by his “bad” example. This attitude disrupted the harmony of the home much more than cola drinking did, and surely the greater sin was hers.

We are also commanded to serve and do our duty in the Church—to magnify our callings. In their zealousness, many have interpreted this to mean that we must never turn down any calling or ask to be released from one at any time. This was the standard Wendy felt she must measure up to when she was serving as Primary president and as the tired, stressed-out mother of three children under the age of three. Things were falling apart at home, yet she continually accepted additional assignments, thinking she must be faithful. Worst of all, she kept forgetting our new baby. Her life was so busy and stress-filled that she would forget and leave the baby at the meetinghouse or other places. That’s not all: the baby looked as if she were newly released from a concentration camp because Wendy seldom had time to make sure she drank her entire bottle. When our marriage finally began to suffer under the constant strain, Wendy prayed one night that the Lord would let the bishop know if she should be released because she didn’t dare ask him herself. The next day the bishop told her, “I’ve been feeling lately like I ought to release you.” Mercifully, the Lord didn’t expect her to hold on to the calling at all costs; she only thought He did because others said He did.

As Wendy made her list, she realized that she had fallen into this trap with almost every commandment. She had been practicing “The Gospel According to Popular Interpretation” instead of living the gospel according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately it was her own fault, but she realized that in many ways traditional Mormon society (not the institutional Church itself) may have contributed to her confusion. President Brigham Young remonstrated the Latter-day Saints of his day for an attitude that tended to put improper social pressure on others:

“How I regret the ignorance of this people—how it floods my heart with sorrow to see so many Elders of Israel who wish everybody to come to their standard and be measured by their measure. Every man must be just so long, to fit their iron bedstead or be cut off to the right length: if too short, he must be stretched, to fill the requirement.

“If they see an erring brother or sister, whose course does not comport with their particular ideas of things, they conclude at once that he or she cannot be a Saint, and withdraw their fellowship, concluding that, if they are in the path of truth, others must have precisely their weight and dimensions” (Journal of Discourses, 8:8-9).

Generally speaking, Latter-day Saints are an obedient and sincere people. In our desire to be faithful in all things, however, we may have created a culture that at some times and in some ways can unwittingly put too much emphasis on our outward conformity and in turn creates unrealistic and even false standards of righteousness. While we must of necessity measure some things by discernable behavior, we may see that behavior as the end in itself and forget that it is the means to an end—an inner being molded into the image of Christ. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, we may put a lot of social pressure on each other to manifest openly measurable good works—the more measurable, the better.

Wendy came to see, for instance, that we may unintentionally hold up our own or another’s well-intended behavior as the standard to meet, rather than the Lord’s gentle, steady, and compassionate guidelines and commandments. Wendy could hear (and undoubtedly make) such well-meaning statements as, “We have never missed a family home evening.” “The bishop’s family never watches television on Sunday,” or “The prophet has said we should read the scriptures for at least half an hour each day.” The list could go on. While such pronouncements were meant to commend the faithful and hold them up as examples, they inflicted wounds of discouragement on those (like Wendy, and perhaps many of the rest of us) who were struggling to do their best but who were unable to meet such high standards in that particular area. Such persons might then feel that their efforts were unacceptable.

Worst of all, as Wendy discovered, that specific interpretation of living the commandment may not be what the Lord expects or even wants from every individual. Loving persuasion and encouragement for even the smallest of efforts would be a better approach for motivating one another: “Try to hold regular family home evenings and don’t give up if you miss once in a while.” “Make an effort to keep the Sabbath day holy by following the promptings of the Spirit and doing what works best for your family.” “If you can, read the scriptures for half an hour each day as the prophet has suggested, but if not, read when you are able. Anything is better than nothing!” These would be better ways to encourage the actions that lead to the changed inner and outer being. We should remember the wise adage that goals (or commandments, in this case) are stars to guide us and not sticks with which to beat ourselves.

Church programs can also create rigid expectations if not administered with love, flexibility, and sensitivity. The inspired programs that were intended to lead Wendy to salvation were the very things that sometimes discouraged, overwhelmed, and seemingly condemned her because of their constant requirements. She forgot that people and their needs are more important than programs and their demands. When Wendy suddenly couldn’t do all that was required in the auxiliary activities of the Church, there were some who questioned her faithfulness even though her heart was still as devout as ever, if not more so. They had also misunderstood the whole point of the perfecting programs of the Church.

Finally, as leaders and parents frustrated over statistics or other outward indicators that don't seem to measure up, we may resort to motivation by guilt, repeatedly telling each other we’re not doing enough. Other factors, including the subtle workings and discouragement of Satan, can also create the social pressure we put on ourselves and one another to conform and perform. If we are not constantly mindful, we may make that pressure greater than the steady and loving inducement to simply live the true gospel of Jesus Christ according to the sweet and gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks warned against such a tendency in reference to genealogical work, but we suggest his counsel may be applied more generally: “Members of this church have many individual circumstances—age, health, education, place of residence, family responsibilities, financial circumstances, and many others. If we encourage members in this work without taking these individual circumstances into account, we may do more to impose guilt than to further the work” (“Family History: In Wisdom and Order,” Ensign, June 1989, 6).

We echo the words of President Russell M. Nelson, who said, “My heart goes out to conscientious Saints, who, because of their shortcomings, allow feelings of depression to rob them of happiness in life. We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips!” (“Perfection Pending,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 86).


Read more from the Tops on this topic in Finding Inner Peace: Lessons Learned from Trying Too Hard
The elusive feeling of self-worth and inner peace comes not from what we can do, but from what the Lord can do with us.
Many well-meaning Latter-day Saints live the gospel under very strict, self-imposed guidelines. In truth, we are often unreasonably harsh taskmasters when compared to the gentle, kind, loving and tender ways of the Lord. Learn to partake of the inward stillness that comes only by living the gospel according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.