The gospel isn’t a celebration of God’s power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God’s willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren’t. To demand that church leaders, past and present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel’s most basic claim: that God’s grace works through our weakness.
It’s easy to think that things are worse than they used to be. People have thought this for thousands of years. It’s not hard to see why. While today’s troubles are so pressing, we have only pale memories of what was suffered yesterday.
Nephi thought this. In Helaman 7, Nephi has just returned from an unsuccessful mission to his fellow Nephites. . . .
Crushed by the hardness of his people’s hearts, Nephi calls out to God. Then, in a move that is acutely human, he laments living in a day when men are fallen and faithless. The golden age when people were “easy to be entreated, firm to keep the commandments of God, and slow to be led to do iniquity” has long passed and our present world is a mess.
Nephi’s anguish for his people is genuine but his version of Nephite history is strained. Were things really any different for the original Nephi? Were they easier? . . .
Even having safely arrived in the promised land, Lehi’s family is barely settled before Nephi says, “the Lord did warn me, that I, Nephi, should depart from them”—them being half of his own family, some of whom wanted to murder him—“and flee into the wilderness” (2 Nephi 5:5). . . .
There is a kind of false comfort in consoling ourselves with the idea that, while our days are evil, the world once was good. This modest comfort slips easily into excuse or recrimination. On the one hand, we excuse ourselves from giving all that God demanded of previous generations because, unlike our quasi-angelic ancestors, we are mere mortals, distracted and fragile and weak. “Good for them!” we may shout, eagerly cheering their distant greatness as a way of justifying our present stupor. On the other hand, we might use these stories of a golden age as a sword rather than a shield. We might set to work scrupulously indicting ourselves and others for not being quasi-angelic and larger than life (like they were) and punish ourselves for being, instead, the hungry mortals that we are. There are saving and damning differences between lives, but these variations apply to different ways of being cracked and hungry. They aren’t differences in kind.
How God Works Through the Weak
This is both the good news and the bad news. While it is scary to think that God works through weak, partial, and limited mortals like us, the only thing scarier would be thinking that he doesn’t.
This rule applies to our own church history as much as it does to stories from places long ago and far away. It’s a false dilemma to claim that either God works through practically flawless people or God doesn’t work at all. The gospel isn’t a celebration of God’s power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God’s willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren’t. To demand that church leaders, past and present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel’s most basic claim: that God’s grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.
Our church manuals and church histories are sometimes shy about this good news. With good intentions, they worry over your faith. Sometimes they seem too much like that friend of a friend who really just wants you to like them, and so they pretend to like only the same vanilla things they think you do. But God is stronger stuff than this. And the scriptures certainly are as well. If, as the Bible makes clear, God can work through liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and beggars, he can certainly work around (or even through) Joseph Smith’s clandestine practice of polygamy, Brigham Young’s strong-armed experiments in theocracy, or George Albert Smith’s mental illness.
Understanding Mustard Seeds
In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus innocently compared the kingdom of God to “a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it” (Luke 13:19). This is a nice story, but we’ve forgotten about mustard seeds. It would have been plain to Jesus’s audience that this parable was meant to vex them. People have big ideas about what the kingdom of God is supposed to be like, but tiny mustard seeds like Jesus described don’t grow into towering cedars. Generally, they don’t amount to much more than overgrown bushes. More, Jesus’s audience would have known that mustard plants aren’t typically grown in gardens. When growing a garden, you’re more likely to spend your time weeding them out. Rather than being a cash crop, mustard plants are more like stubborn weeds liable to hijack your whole plot. Jesus means this parable as a kind of warning. Don’t expect, Jesus says, the kingdom of God to look like a massive oak tree. Expect it to be more like a weed that, without your quite intending it, overruns your garden and crowds out the stories you’d been hoping to tell.
At some point, God will ask you to sacrifice on his altar not only your stories about your own life but your versions of his stories as well. Your softly lit watercolor felt-board versions of scripture stories and church history must, like all your stories, be abandoned at his feet, and the messy, vibrant, and inconvenient truths that characterize God’s real work with real people will have to take center stage. If they don’t, then how will God’s work in your hungry, messy, and inconvenient life ever do the same?
When God knocks, don’t creep up to the door and look through the peephole to see if he looks like you thought he would. Rush to the door and throw it open.
Read more profound insights from Adam S. Miller in Letters to a Young Mormon.
This book is composed as a series of letters. The letters are meant for a young Mormon who is familiar with Mormon life but green in his or her faith. The author, philosophy professor Adam S. Miller, imagined himself writing these letters to his own children. In doing so, he struggled to say his own piece about what it means to be—as a Mormon—free, ambitious, repentant, faithful, informed, prayerful, selfless, hungry, chaste, and sealed.