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Religions as Vehicles for Personal Improvement

July 1, 2012

I don’t get the “divine.” I don’t get the “sacred.” I don’t get “faith.” I don’t know what any of these things mean, and so I can’t test either way whether any of these things play any role in my life. (It’s possible that they are, and I just don’t know how to recognize them…but based on what I think these things refer to, I would be inclined to say: no.)

Even though I don’t think I am actively pursuing any of these things, I still engage with topics that could be considered religious…it’s just for a different reason. I talk about religion because I want to improve myself.

I think that in general, I’m an OK guy. My personality has a lot of rough spots, and I find myself hitting certain interpersonal walls over and over, which leads me to suspect that there are issues that I’m supposed to be working on…but I haven’t gotten it yet. Just a short list of some of these issues:

  • I am argumentative. I play to win. Winning is everything.
  • I can have a short temper. I find that I get over being angry pretty quickly as well, but when I’m angry, I do things I regret…which leads me to the next point.
  • I’m pretty impulsive when it comes to my emotions. Since, on a conceptual basis, I know that I am quick to anger, but also quick to get over the anger, the solution should be simple: just wait out the anger, right? But that’s not how things work…when I’m in the “heat of the moment,” I’m often on “auto-pilot” — and I only realize what I’ve done and said after the fact.

The main thing I’ve found is that many religions seem to do a good deal of talking about these issues…because these are human problems…but I find that some of them are worse than others at actually helping people work through these issues. At least for me, I’ve been pretty ineffective at improving my life on these personality issues through Mormonism.

My continued involvement with Mormonism on the internet is because I recognize the possibility that maybe I just don’t get it, yet. Maybe I’ve missed the point. So, reading Bonnie’s posts at Wheat & Tares, such as hers on The Gospel, the Church, and Conversion, has meaning for me. In this post, she quotes Elder Donald L. Hallstrom’s talk from April’s General Conference:

“Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. Therein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Let me stress: activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient. Activity in the Church is an outward indication of our spiritual desire. If we attend our meetings, hold and fulfill Church responsibilities, and serve others, it is publicly observed.

By contrast, the things of the gospel are usually less visible and more difficult to measure, but they are of greater eternal importance. For example, how much faith do we really have? How repentant are we? How meaningful are the ordinances in our lives? How focused are we on our covenants?

I repeat: we need the gospel and the Church. In fact, the purpose of the Church is to help us live the gospel. We often wonder: How can someone be fully active in the Church as a youth and then not be when they are older? How can an adult who has regularly attended and served stop coming? How can a person who was disappointed by a leader or another member allow that to end their Church participation? Perhaps the reason is they were not sufficiently converted to the gospel—the things of eternity.”

Whenever people in the church talk about “the gospel,” I have to wonder to what specifically they refer — many times, when people mention the gospel, it sounds something more like The Gospel (TM) — a trademarked bundle of goods and services provided exclusively by the church.

In this sense, it absolutely makes sense that “the purpose of the church is to help us live the gospel.”

Nevertheless, it seems that Hallstrom (and Bonnie) are talking about something different when they speak of the gospel…and you know, I think that the broader sense in which people speak of the gospel in terms of people being converted and transformed by it…I think that many of these things are pretty swell.

I guess at the heart of the broader sense of the gospel is the divinity of Jesus Christ and the atonement. Or something like that. I don’t mean to be so dismissive of it, but I don’t get it — I factor these things in as part of the “divine” and “sacred” aspects of “faith” that I don’t get.

What I do find intriguing, however, are the sense that this good news is supposed to be transformative…and I can get on with the transformations that are theoretically supposed to happen. Who can disagree with Ephesians 4?

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Or how about the first part of Colossians 3:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things...

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry…You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew,circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity…

(Yeah, I’m not going to say as much about the rest of Colossians 3, what with the wives submitting to the husbands, and what not.)

What does the church offer me?

I’m on board with getting rid of anger, rage, malice, slander, and even filthy language.

It just seems like these things are a lot more complicated than it sounds…My issue is that Mormonism as a religious institution doesn’t really have a program to help encourage this change in personality. The religious program for Mormonism as a church are things like going to church, magnifying callings, reading scriptures, praying, fasting, and so on.

But how does any of this improve me on being a more charitable person? On being slower to anger, and (even more importantly) being able to let anger pass me by without doing anything regrettable?

My problem with church is that while it talks about charity being long-suffering and meek and not puffed up, and these things, but it doesn’t show me how to be charitable or any of the associated traits.

Bonnie’s post Grasping for Grace continues this sort of theme. She asks, “How does the wounded saint find grace?” and has three suggestions:

Admit you’re hurt. Many of us don’t find solace because we hide our wounds, intending to pull off the image that we think is required of steady saints. All saints get hurt. Everyone does. Nobody knows how to help until we’ll take a deep breath and be willing to be wounded. I’ve spent most of my life being self-sufficient. In my 40s I decided to let others see the cracks in my facade because I had no choice. It was very uncomfortable, but I discovered something I would never have otherwise known. I am loved very deeply by my friends, and I would never have known just how deeply until I let someone help me. Grace was sufficient when I wasn’t.

Give up your expectations. For many of us, the deepest hurts come when life does not unfold along promised trajectories. The expectation is that if we are obedient to the promised law, the promised blessings are ours … and soon. While it does sometimes occur that if you pay your tithing your financial life aligns, it isn’t a temporal promise (and it certainly has nothing to do with your marriage or your peace with doctrine.) While people who have family home evening religiously are promised greater peace in their homes, it doesn’t follow that they’ll have greater peace than other people who don’t have FHE. The promises move us along a spectrum all our own; it has nothing to do with anyone else’s. Grace is sufficient when we aren’t.

Don’t think about the pay. If we could live like Star Trek, I think life would be ideal. The effort and value we bring to our work, whatever that is, would always triumph over the personal gain. I think the workers in the vineyard worked in relative peace because they knew their souls were saved and the circumstances of the day were immaterial. It was only when the pay came into the picture that they became disenchanted. Perhaps it’s a mistake to teach the gospel as a pathway that will bring us temporal happiness. It does, but it’s difficult to navigate people’s infinite expectations of that happiness, and sometimes the happiness it brings is eclipsed by the hoped-for happiness it didn’t. Grace is sufficient when life isn’t.

In order for grace to kick in, we have to acknowledge weakness and falling short. If we want grace, and ultimately any perfection, we start with the fact that we are insufficient. Every day is a gift, and every good thing is a surprise. My life is filled with pleasant surprises, and grace is more apparent when I see where it is instead of looking for it to appear where I want it to. It wasn’t always pleasant surprises. The Star Fleet outlook helped. God feels merciful to me again. The lunch is free, the work is satisfying.

To these, I think: great! But how? It’s all easier said than done. Especially “Give up your expectations” and “Don’t think about the pay.” When someone says, “Don’t think about an elephant,” what’s the first thing you think of?

Synthesizing and Cross-pollinating

I’m guessing that there are two (of several) possibilities likely here. It’s possible that one religious size doesn’t fit all, so I should be trying to look for other religious traditions for ideas on how to meet these personality improvement goals. It’s also possible that I’ve learned Mormonism all wrong, but I’ve learned it wrong in such a way that I can’t see it correctly until I distance myself away from it. Based on both of these possibilities, I have looked at other traditions, philosophies, etc.,

I find that a lot of ex-Mormons look into Buddhism. I think a reason for this (rather than other Christian traditions) is because Buddhism is exotic enough (in contrast to Mormonism) that it provides fresh insights…it may appeal to different personality types than Mormonism does, so it might be just the solution for someone who doesn’t fit in Mormonism.

I haven’t invested so much time in Buddhism, but I have looked at ideas across a number of spectra (especially modern neuroscience research) that seem to work well with some Buddhist concepts. Mormonism is based so much on choice and agency, but from my perspective, choice and agency are overblown. So I read about what consciousness is…what the “ego” is — and how what seems to be the “ego” or my “self” that is consciously controlling everything may actually be a lot more automated than I had previously imagined…in this case, the goal isn’t so much to try to force change the automation, but to stop identifying with the automation. Stop identifying with emotions that arise unconsciously, defensively, or reactively. Stop identifying with hurtful urges to lash out.

Again, this is easier said than done (it’s not like I consciously choose to identify either), but I’m leveraging whatever sense of awareness or choice to slowly get better at short circuiting the automated system.

Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll take everything I’ve learned and it’ll make Mormonism make sense?

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8 Comments
  1. That quote from Wheat and Tares you posted was kind of depressing. I will never cease to be amazed at how good Mormonism is at coming up with logical-sounding reasons why their members are not as happy as they’re supposed to be.

    But I do admire your commitment to an open mind. The “step back and reexamine your perspective” approach is one that I tried when I left the church, only not with as much success.

  2. phanty,

    Which quote did you find depressing specifically — the one from the GA, or the one with the three suggestions for grasping for grace?

    I’m guessing you mean the latter — to which my question would be what’s wrong with these reasons? I mean, these don’t seem to be bad ideas…or even particularly Mormon ideas.

    I’d also be interested in seeing what you mean when you say that you didn’t see “as much success” with the “step back and reexamine your perspective” approach — it seems to me that this approach is always a work in process…you never are “done” with it. It’s only, you can continue practicing it, or decide instead that you will not self-evaluate.

  3. Yes, I meant the three suggestions for Grasping for Grace.

    And I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything really wrong with those statements, especially since there’s only three of them. But they sound so reminiscent of all the other stuff you hear in Mormonism: Oh, you’re not as happy as you thought you were supposed to be? Let me explain why it’s not working how you expected, but it’s all still true. A few of these rationalizations at a time may be fine and totally accurate, but I’ve heard way too many of them. The reaction is too often “you’re looking at this the wrong way” and too rarely “maybe the church isn’t true.”

    The “step back and reexamine” approach should be a process, you’re right. When I left the church I just figured I’d take a few years off from religion and come back with a fresh outlook that would help me more accurately decide what I thought was the truth. But instead I realized I was totally fine with not being religious and any attempts at a fresh outlook were subverted by a lingering resentment for Mormonism. Rather than continue the process, I decided I was fine with how things were, and I decided I didn’t really care. So I stopped reexamining.

    On one hand, I wish I could still attempt to strive for a balanced perspective the way you try to, but on the other hand, I just don’t care. If that makes any sense.

    Wow, you got me babbling.

  4. phanty,

    I guess when it comes to these statements, I don’t view these similarly to other rationalizations given in the church because the problems that the address are not specific church problems (although one certainly can find himself wounded because of something that happened in church). As a result, these are strategies that are helpful in life in general

    It seems to me that while many people look at the various aspects of the church and conclude that the church isn’t true and thus they will leave it behind… This isn’t really a viable way to deal with many problems in life…There are many injustices and issues through life that we can’t escape from, so yes, ultimately in order to maintain happiness (or at least sanity) through these events, we have to change the way that WE look at things.

    Thanks for providing additional information on what you meant by the “reexamine” part… I don’t want to given the wrong impression here… The way I see things, I don’t see myself becoming a fully active, fully tithe-paying member any time soon. On Facebook, someone asked what it would take for people who are disaffected to become active again, and my answer then was simple: it would require some sort of spiritual experience the reaches past all the skepticism and doubt… I don’t anticipate that happening, but I imagine that if God is somewhere, then it is a possibility.

    So I don’t want to position myself as more religious than I am. That being said, I probably wouldn’t say I’m completely non religious either. For me, I recognize that because of Mormonism, I will have a language gap in talking to non religious (and even non Mormon) folks. I find annoying aspects with many secular and atheist communities just the same as I find them with Mormonism, so that is probably why I am in the middle, so to speak.

    I would love to not care, or to feel completely comfortable in one zone or the other though…

    Hehe, don’t worry about babbling.:-)

  5. Rick Smith permalink

    True enough, the teachings of the church pretty much ignore the “how” even when they do discuss charity, etc…. More problematic, the focus of the correlated material is what the church needs–so, part of a lesson each year on charity, but heavy emphasis on missionary work, fulfilling callings, sustaining church leadership, paying tithing, etc.

    That said, is there really any magical phrases or teachings that can lead you to charity? Or to become a better person? And, for better or for worse, a lot of the structure of the church itself does help people to become better–spending an hour a week locked in an 8×8 room with 10 7 year olds will develop patience more effectively than any number of lessons. The service aspects of the church are pretty good at building positive characteristics. Not that you can’t get that elsewhere, but it takes some self-initiative and willpower to pursue on your own.

  6. Rick Smith,

    I think “self-initiative and willpower” are a big part of the issue. People take these things for granted, but it seems to me that these aren’t things that just exist. These are things that you have to work on…you have to grapple with the facts of neurology and psychology.

    I think that things like meditation, mindfulness, etc., would go a LONG way for some of these things…because, at least for me, the issue is coming to the point where I am contemplating what I say and what I do more often, so that I can avoid saying or doing certain things.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Personal Authenticity vs. Social Roleplaying in Religion « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. Fight or Flight in Toxic Religious Environments « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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