Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Gospel is NOT a Checklist.


Q: I am a convert of 9 years, and in that time, I have noticed something that bothers me. In particular, I've seen this happen to a couple friends, to two of my own cousins, and even my husband.

They grow up totally devout Mormons, learning to go to primary, young men/women's, serve a mission, get married, go to the temple, etc. But then sometimes people hit a snag. The church says "you must do A,B,C,D and then you get to go to heaven.”  But I've seen some people get to "C" and because of something beyond their control, they can't do that thing. (For example, not qualifying to go on a mission for medical reasons)

For example, one person had a hard time finding a wife. He's only 27 and he acts like his life is over because he's not married yet. My cousin didn't go on her mission and the guy she was with left her, and now she's lost like she has no purpose.

It's like they suddenly don't know what to do with themselves. Like their life just ended. Like they had a map of what to do and the map is messed up so they fall into this really sad and really pathetic depression.

Personally, I don't want my kids exposed to that!  I don't want my son to be depressed and feel like a failure because he didn't follow the A,B,C,D plan to a T.  Watching what this stuff is doing to my friends and family is so sad. My cousin literally just sits in her room crying and feeling sorry for herself because she didn't qualify for a mission. AND ITS NOT EVEN HER FAULT! She's even becoming apostate over it!

I'm so close to pulling my kids out of church and just teaching them at home. I don't want my kids mentally screwed up because of this church and the ridiculous pressure and expectations put on these kids.

Am I wrong? Does anyone else see this?

A:  You are not wrong to be concerned and repelled when you see your friends and family suffering from feelings of inadequacy, depression, and guilt at what they perceive to be their failure to adequately live up to gospel requirements.

Your friends are not alone.  Many Mormons who are doing their best to follow God’s commandments can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer weight and number of things they have been asked to do as members of the church. Some, like your friends, may wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and failure when they don’t manage to measure up.

This is unfortunate, because your friends and many others like them don’t need to feel like failures.  They don’t have to feel like they are stuck, or like their life is over when something doesn’t happen the way they think it is supposed to happen.  Your friends are laboring under some misconceptions about how the gospel is meant to be lived, and this wrong thinking is making them miserable for nothing.  From where I’m standing, there are two problems: First, they (and you) seem to be proceeding from the assumption that there is a checklist (A, B, C…) that we have to follow to a tee if we are going to go to heaven.  Second, they also assume that getting into heaven is the whole point.  Also, as you may have noticed, the problem with this checklist mentality is that it almost immediately starts to fall apart when things in life don’t go according to plan.

Serving a mission, marrying in the temple, paying your tithing, and so forth are all important things, but none of these things is the ultimate goal of gospel discipleship.  Accordingly, the church does not teach that you have to follow a rote list of A, B, C, and D to get into heaven.  What the church does teach is simultaneously simpler and also more complex and elegant than that.

The Gospel Isn’t Supposed to Make You Miserable

If trying to live the gospel is making you miserable, then you are doing it wrong!  True principles, commandments, and counsel are designed to set us free, not to lay more burdens on our backs.  As long as you are doing your best to live worthily and to follow the Lord, you should never have feelings of anxiety or depression about the gospel.  The gospel is meant to bring us joy.  That does not mean that we won’t face trials and hardship when we choose to live the gospel, but the principles of the gospel are meant to be sources of comfort and strength during times of trial.  They are certainly NOT supposed to be sources of trials and hardship in and of themselves!

The problem is that every Mormon kid grows up being taught that if they do everything right; if they go to church, and read their scriptures, and pay their tithing, and so on, that everything will work out according to PLAN.  Most Mormon kids have a script or a checklist or a map in their mind that they think their life is supposed to follow.  Mission, Marriage in the temple, children, a responsible church calling, etc.  They also have a schedule in their mind for achieving these things.  Unfortunately, life very seldom goes according to plan, and it very rarely follows a schedule.  Sometimes we are prevented, through no fault of our own, from achieving the things on our checklist.  We may want to serve a mission, however our health might prevent us from serving.  We may work hard to date and find an eternal companion, but temple marriage may not come as quickly as we want it to, if it comes at all.

When things do not happen according to plan or according to schedule, it is easy to become frustrated and to compare ourselves to those around us.  “All of my friends’ lives are going according to plan! What did I do wrong?”  As we become frustrated, it can be easy to grow disillusioned.  “But I did everything I was supposed to! I checked all of the boxes on the checklist!  Why isn’t my life happening the way it is “supposed” to happen?”

Adding to these feelings of frustration and disillusionment is the worry that, if we somehow fail to check all of the boxes on the checklist that we won’t be able to get into heaven.  We worry that if we fail to fulfill some gospel obligation in the here and now, for whatever reason, we may be robbing ourselves of eternal salvation in the hereafter.

The Checklist Church vs. The True Church

The danger in all of this is that when you are in the middle of it all, you may be tempted to look for something or someone to blame.  Usually people start by blaming themselves.  They assume that they must be defective in some way, and that is why things aren’t going according to plan.  Over time, this way of thinking can lead to feelings of depression, and can damage healthy self-worth.  Left un-remedied, this can progress to feelings of anger and resentment.  Many tend to turn their resentment and disillusionment towards the church.  They assume that just because the checklist isn’t working out for them that it must follow that the church as a whole must not be true.

The reason for this confusion is because there is a folk gospel that has arisen in the culture of the members that teaches that you have to do A, B, C,, etc. in order to get into heaven.  Many members have heard this gospel from other members all their lives, and so they assume that this checklist gospel is the gospel that the church teaches.  In fact, this idea has become so embedded in member culture that many members will defend it vociferously if you try to point out that it is false doctrine. This is unfortunate for several reasons, because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does NOT teach that we have to follow a rote checklist to be happy or to be saved.  This is just one case in which there are effectively two churches: the real (true) church as it is taught in the scriptures and by living prophets and priesthood leaders, and the false folk church that is a byproduct of cultural traditions among the members.

For our purposes, let’s call this culturally constructed false folk church “The Checklist Church.”  Despite what the LDS church ACTUALLY teaches, proponents of the Checklist Church would have you believe that you have to do a checklist of A, B, C, and D if you want to get into heaven.  Moreover, they teach that the checklist must be followed perfectly, without room for error or mortal imperfection.  This is because the checklist church effectively teaches that you have to earn your way into heaven through your own works (albeit not in so many words), which means that you can’t mess up even a little, or you will be a failure in this life, and most likely damned in the next.  In other words, in the checklist church, you are expected to achieve perfection in this life, or you cannot be saved.  This places the whole emphasis in the gospel on checking boxes off of the checklist, because you can’t afford to miss even one.  Not only that, but the Checklist Church often imposes a schedule or a deadline for checking off those boxes.  You have to do everything on the list, and you have to do everything in a certain set way, and by a certain time in your life, or you will be branded as a failure.

Those who fail to live up to this impossible standard, even for good reasons, are often ostracized, or at least made to feel unworthy or less righteous than their fellow members.  The Checklist church can be extremely unforgiving.  People who judge a missionary who has returned home early, and who make him/her feel like a sinner or an outcast, are members of the checklist church.  People who treat a man like a menace to society, or a woman like she is an old maid, just because they are unmarried after age 27, are following the precepts of the checklist church.  People who demand that all who pass the sacrament must wear white shirts, and who forbid anyone who dares to wear a different color dress shirt from passing the sacrament (often shaming them by making them go home and change), belong to the checklist church.

Enthusiastic members of the checklist church are like tares that think they are wheat.  If you asked them they would tell you, in all earnestness, that they are doing the Lord’s work.  This could not be further from the truth!  The checklist church is an evil that I would dearly love to root out of the church.  It does not represent the doctrines, practices, beliefs, or teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in fact its teachings generally run counter to the intent of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s look at what the TRUE church actually believes and teaches.

The Gospel is NOT a Checklist

If you think that the gospel is just about making sure that you do A, B, and C so you can get into heaven, then you don’t understand what the gospel is for, or how it works.  If you think the purpose of the gospel is to serve as some catalog of requirements for entry into heaven, then you will find that you have missed the whole point of the gospel.

This way of thinking is at the root of much unnecessary guilt and frustration.  When you view the gospel as a checklist, you tend to see the gospel as double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it is supposed to be your ticket into heaven, but on the other hand, every new piece of counsel, commandment or doctrine that we are given is just one more way to slip up.  This makes each new principle or commandment seem like one more weight, and one more burden to add to your load.

If you think the gospel is just a bunch of boxes to check off, or hoops to jump through, or burdens to carry, you will not recognize gospel principles for what they are.  Gospel principles, and the responsibilities placed upon us to build God’s kingdom, are supposed to be blessings!  They are meant to be opportunities for growth and development, and ultimately for joy!

“When we treat God’s commandments and our part in building His kingdom like something to check off on a to-do list, we miss the heart of discipleship. We miss the growth that comes from joyfully living the commandments of our Father in Heaven.

Walking in the path of discipleship does not need to be a bitter experience. It “is sweet above all that is sweet.” It is not a burden that weighs us down. Discipleship lifts our spirits and lightens our hearts. It inspires us with faith, hope, and charity. It fills our spirits with light in times of darkness, and serenity during times of sorrow. It gives us divine power and lasting joy.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Living The Gospel Joyful,” Ensign, Nov. 2014).

If you treat the gospel like a burden of obligation and responsibility, then no wonder you are miserable.  If you carry the gospel around on your back, with every added responsibility or principle increasing the weight and size of the burden, sooner or later it will become too much for you to handle, and everything will fall apart.  It’s no wonder your friends are feeling overwhelmed!

Perfection Pending

The problem is that many Mormons are under the mistaken impression (one that has arisen out of Mormon folk tradition) that we have to earn our way into heaven. Moreover, many suppose that we have to be perfect in this life in order to be saved.  It’s a terrible burden to expect yourself to be perfect when you are by nature an imperfect being.  The only perfect person who has ever lived was Jesus Christ.  Everybody else is fallible and flawed.

Unfortunately, there are many good Mormons who are doing their utmost to be perfect because they think that perfection in this life is the only way that they will be saved.  This is a pernicious false doctrine and I denounce it with every fiber of my being.  When you feel like you have to be perfect in every instance and all of the time, there is no room for failure.  This is an incredibly harsh and impossible standard to live up to.  Nobody in this life is perfect all of the time, but many Mormons think that they really do have to be perfect, and when they don’t measure up in some way they feel like failures.  Many become filled with feelings of frustration and despair.  There are probably many who feel like they can never measure up, and so they just give up.

“Know that you don’t have to be perfect. We aren’t even expected to achieve perfection in this life, but rather to make steady progress toward it… When we fall short of the mark we feel we’ve blown it, that we’ll never be able to measure up to everything we’re told to do. So, in effect, we give up. This thought pattern is a very clever and successful tool of the adversary. We must keep trying, but we must be able to forgive ourselves when we can’t do it all. We can make do with our present and look forward.” (Norma B. Ashton, “A Unique Melody,” Ensign, Sept. 1989).

Trying and failing at things is a basic part of life.  It’s part of how we learn and grow.  If we were expected to be perfect now, the Lord would not have needed to give us the gift of repentance.

“We are on earth to have joy, and part of that joy is what we create, what we believe, and what we accept. If we accept that we are flawed children of God who are learning as we go, we can accept our imperfections. Expecting immediate perfection would mean denying us the opportunity for growth. We would be denying the gift of repentance and the power of Jesus Christ and His Atonement in our lives.”  (Elizabeth Lloyd Lund, “Finding Peace in Imperfection,” Ensign, Feb. 2017, lds.org)

When we fail--when we make mistakes or commit sins—that is when we most need to turn to the Lord and throw our burdens at his feet!

Matthew 11:28-30  Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

“To the individual who is weak in the heart, fearful in the heart, be patient with yourself. Perfection comes not in this life but in the next life. Don’t demand things that are unreasonable. But demand of yourself improvement. As you let the Lord help you through that, He will make the difference.” (Russell M. Nelson, “Men’s Hearts Shall Fail Them” (video), mormonchannel.org).

When we realize that on our own we are weak, that is when we are most prepared to be taught and helped and comforted by the Lord.  The atonement of Jesus Christ isn’t just for sinners!  When things don’t go according to “plan,” or according to “schedule,” it is time to turn to the Lord.  It is time to stop trying to make our lives fit into a checklist or follow a map of our own making.  It’s time to humble ourselves and surrender to God’s will so we can learn what God’s plan is for our lives.

Surrender to God’s Grace!

Most Mormons are at least aware of the concept of divine grace. Some Mormons even understand that we are saved through Christ’s grace.  However, there seems to be some confusion over exactly how to apply that grace in our everyday lives.

When we make our own checklist (or we try to live up to a checklist someone else has imposed upon us), we tend to fall into the trap of assuming that if we check every box on the list then we must automatically be rewarded with what we want: be it blessings in this life (like a temple marriage), or salvation in the next.

This is attractive to us because it puts the control in our hands (or so it seems).  If the gospel is a checklist, then we are wholly responsible for achieving salvation, and obtaining blessings.  Unfortunately, this also places the blame for failure squarely on our shoulders.  If we fail to achieve some milestone, or we fail to obtain some desired blessing, it is natural to assume that we must be at fault in some way.  For this reason, some members tend to assume that those who, for one reason or another, have failed to conform to the checklist must therefore be wicked or sinful or flawed in some way.  This overly simplistic way of thinking tends to equate outward prosperity with blessedness, and to view this outward “blessedness” as a sign of inward righteousness.  Therefore, those who have not been blessed to be able to serve a mission, or marry in the temple, or hold a responsible calling must be unrighteous or sinful in some way.  Those who think this way are members of “The Checklist Church.”

“The Checklist Church” way of thinking isn’t something new.  It is an ancient affliction, and one that has been thoroughly refuted as far back as antiquity, as in the case of righteous Job, whose friends assumed that his trials and suffering must stem from some sin or unrighteousness on Job’s part.

If you are a faithful and humble seeker of righteousness, who have been prevented from fulfilling some gospel privilege or responsibility, such as serving a mission, or being sealed for time and all eternity in a house of the Lord, that doesn’t make you a sinner.  Just because you didn’t check off some box, or check it off when somebody else expects you to check it off, doesn’t mean that you are a failure, and it certainly shouldn’t keep you from progressing in the gospel.

The problem with the checklist church is that it doesn’t leave room for Jesus Christ to save us through his grace.  In “The Checklist Church” we are expected to do all or most of the saving work ourselves, before we think about turning to Christ.  This is WRONG and wrong-headed.

I have spoken to many members who imagine that grace is that little extra oomph that we need that gets us into heaven once we have done “all that we can do.”  If you ask them how grace works they might say something like, “We are supposed to 90% of the work, and Christ’s grace makes up that last 10% so we can squeeze into heaven!”  Unfortunately, this type of thinking misconstrues the role and the power of the grace and atonement of Jesus Christ.

Most members understand grace in terms of the well-known scripture from 2 Nephi 25 that says:

“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

Unfortunately, I have noticed that members sometimes tend to put too much emphasis on the “all we can do” part, and not enough on the grace part.

“The prophet Nephi made an important contribution to our understanding of God’s grace when he declared, “We labor diligently … to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

However, I wonder if sometimes we misinterpret the phrase “after all we can do.” We must understand that “after” does not equal “because.” We are not saved “because” of all that we can do. Have any of us done all that we can do? Does God wait until we’ve expended every effort before He will intervene in our lives with His saving grace?”

Many people feel discouraged because they constantly fall short. They know firsthand that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” They raise their voices with Nephi in proclaiming, “My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.”

I am certain Nephi knew that the Savior’s grace allows and enables us to overcome sin. This is why Nephi labored so diligently to persuade his children and brethren “to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God.” After all, that is what we can do! And that is our task in mortality! (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” Ensign, May 2015, lds.org).

Grace is not given so we can do most of the saving work, and then let Christ give us a little push over the edge.  He isn't just here to make up a small difference between our own efforts and what God requires, for (as Brad Wilcox put it), “Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference. Grace is not about filling gaps. It is about filling us” (Brad Wilcox, "His Grace Is Sufficient," BYU Devotional, July 12, 2011).

Christ has already paid the whole debt, and He has done all of the saving work, so that He might bring all men to stand in the presence of God.  Now He asks that we come to him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit so that we might be converted and transformed to be made acceptable to God through the grace of Christ and able to enter into God's kingdom and abide there in joy forever.

The Checklist Church teaches us that we can and must earn salvation for ourselves.  If grace is acknowledged at all, it is as a stopgap, or as an extra boost to help us in our own efforts to earn our way into heaven.  However, we do not have the power to earn salvation through our own obedience.  Jesus Christ is the only person who has earned salvation through obedience, and that was because he kept the whole law perfectly.  Unfortunately, the rest of us do not meet that standard.

Romans 3:23  For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

Because we have failed to keep every point of the law, we do not have the power or the wherewithal to earn salvation.

“Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God. Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline. Or thinking that after paying rent for our home, we now hold title to the entire planet earth.”  (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” Ensign, May 2015, lds.org).

“Even if we were to serve God with our whole souls, it is not enough, for we would still be “unprofitable servants.” We cannot earn our way into heaven; the demands of justice stand as a barrier, which we are powerless to overcome on our own.  But all is not lost.  The grace of God is our great and everlasting hope.”  (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” Ensign, May 2015, lds.org).

“There was only one perfect being, the Lord Jesus. If men [and women] had to be perfect and live all of the law strictly, wholly, and completely, there would be only one saved person in eternity. The prophet [Joseph Smith] taught that there are many things to be done, even beyond the grave, in working out our salvation.” (Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly Heresies” (Brigham Young University devotional, June 1, 1980), 6–7, speeches.byu.edu).

The Checklist Church is dangerous because it cuts you off from the blessings of divine grace.  It turns the gospel into a burden because it places the burden of keeping the WHOLE law squarely on your shoulders, and doesn’t allow for any error or imperfection.  Worse still, by cutting you off from the blessings of Christ’s grace, it doesn’t let you share the burden with the Savior.  The Checklist church wants you to think that you have to earn your way into heaven by yourself, by being perfect in this life, but the truth is that you can’t because you aren’t.  You just don’t have that ability.  Fortunately, you are not expected to earn your own way into heaven.

Learning heaven vs. Earning heaven

If we can’t earn our way into heaven by obedience, then why do we have the commandments, and the doctrines and principles (and the ordinances) of the gospel?  If we are saved by Christ’s grace, and not by means of our own efforts, then why make any effort at all?

True disciples of Jesus Christ choose to obey the gospel and follow God’s commandments, not because they think they are earning heaven, but because they are doing everything they can to LEARN heaven (Brad Wilcox, “His Grace Is Sufficient,” BYU Devotional, July 12, 2011)..

“Dear brothers and sisters, living the gospel faithfully is not a burden. It is a joyful rehearsal—a preparation for inheriting the grand glory of the eternities. (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” Ensign, May 2015, lds.org).

When we make the effort to live the gospel, it shouldn’t be just because we think we’re going to get something out of it (like salvation).  The gospel is meant to change and shape us so that we will be more fit for the kingdom when we get there.

"Those who do not learn to value God's way, speak His language, or acquire His tastes are not going to be happy where He is.  His plan is called "the great plan of happiness" (Alma 42:8), and happiness is found not merely by making the grade so we can be advanced from one estate to another.  It is found by gaining an education all along the way.

Scriptures make it clear that we will be judged for our works (see Revelation 20:12; D&C 128:7), but these works are not fruitless attempts to make just the right number of deposits in some heavenly bank account or ticks on a celestial to-do list.  We will be judged by our works because of how those works have shaped us" (Brad Wilcox, The Continuous Conversion, 44).

When we keep the commandments, make covenants, and observe ordinances, we are not merely trying to fill in the boxes on some kind of gospel (or cultural) checklist, rather we (as disciples) are striving to be transformed (or converted) into something that more closely resembles Christ, something which emulates his actions and shares His heavenly attributes, such as the pure love which Christ has (and embodies) for each of us, in order that we might be more suited for life in His kingdom.  This is what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

“The word disciple comes from the Latin [meaning] a learner. A disciple of Christ is one who is learning to be like Christ—learning to think, to feel, and to act [like] he does. To be a true disciple, to fulfill that learning task, is the most demanding regimen known to man. No other discipline compares … in either requirements or rewards. It involves the total transformation of a person from the state of the natural man to that of [a] saint, one who loves the Lord and serves with all of his heart, might, mind, and strength” (Chauncey C. Riddle, “Becoming a Disciple,” Ensign, Sept. 1974, 81).

“The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can live after we die but that we can live more abundantly (see John 10:10). The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can be cleansed and consoled but that we can be transformed (see Romans 8). Scriptures make it clear that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see Alma 40:26), but, brothers and sisters, no unchanged thing will even want to” (Brad Wilcox, “His Grace Is Sufficient,” BYU Devotional, July 12, 2011).

The Gospel Lives in our Heart

"Scriptures do speak of God's future blessings and even the celestial kingdom as rewards we receive or prizes we win..., but as we grow spiritually, these rewards and prizes are no longer seen as motivations preceding our choices but as natural consequences following them.  What we may have done out of desire for reward or fear of punishment, or even out of a sense of guilt or duty, we can learn to do out of a love-filled and grateful heart.

One girl wrote, "When I think about keeping rules and standards as something I have to do to get to heaven or should do as an example to others, I feel empty; but when I think of them as a way of showing appreciation for Christ's atonement, I love them" (Brad Wilcox, The Continuous Conversion, 45).

We choose to live the gospel and follow the commandments, not because we think that it will get us into heaven, and not just because we expect blessings in return for that obedience.  Instead, disciples choose to obey the gospel from the heart, because they are more concerned with what God wants than they are with what they want.  They don’t need the promise of reward or the threat of punishment to motivate them to obey God.  True disciples obey the commandments for three reasons.  First, they obey because they love God and they are grateful for the atoning sacrifice of His son.  Second, they are trying to learn to become like him by acting like He would, in order to develop a godly, or Christ-like, character.  The third reason is because they genuinely desire to please God.  They want what He wants, and they are happiest when He is happy.  They no longer act out of selfish (or natural) desires, but out of a genuine desire to serve God.  They are humble enough to no longer put their own plans and their own timing ahead of God’s will.

Mosiah 3:19  For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

Ideally, a true disciple of Christ will have put off the natural man and become fully converted and transformed by the grace of God.  A true disciple’s character has changed so fundamentally that they naturally want what God wants, and love what God loves.  Disciples strive to humbly submit their will to that of the Father.  For those who have undergone such a mighty change of heart, obedience is simply the natural expression of who and what they are.

For those of us who are not quite there yet, obedience to the commandments is the only way for us to develop the faith that we need to come to Christ so we can eventually be transformed through his grace.

God gives us the gospel, and the principles and commandments associated therewith, so we can forge and develop our character.  As we learn to exercise our faith to obey God in all things, and to choose do what is right (of our own free will), even when doing so is difficult, we will develop strength of character.  Moreover, our character will begin to more closely resemble that of Jesus Christ.

“Faith and character are intimately related. Faith in the power of obedience to the commandments of God will forge strength of character available to you in times of urgent need. Such character is not developed in moments of great challenge or temptation. That is when it is intended to be used. Your exercise of faith in true principles builds character; fortified character expands your capacity to exercise more faith. As a result, your capacity and confidence to conquer the trials of life is enhanced. The more your character is fortified, the more enabled you are to benefit from exercising the power of faith. You will discover how faith and character interact to strengthen one another. Character is woven patiently from threads of applied principle, doctrine, and obedience” (Richard G. Scott, “The Transforming Power of Faith and Character,” Ensign November 2010, 43).

“God uses your faith to mold your character.  Character is the manifestation of what you are becoming.  Strong character results from consistent correct choices.  The bedrock of character is integrity.  The more your character is fortified, the more enabled you are to benefit from exercising the power of faith” (Richard G. Scott, “The Transforming Power of Faith and Character,” Ensign November 2010, 46).

In short, we choose to obey the commandments because it is an important part of the process of becoming.  We are trying to become like Jesus.  We seek to submit our will to that of the Father. We seek to become more fit for the kingdom of God, and as such we seek to forge the character of a true disciple of Christ.

How does this apply to your friends?  The gospel still requires much of those who choose to follow it.  Disciples of Christ must seek to obey God in all things.  Only our reasons have changed.  Now we aren’t worried so much about A, B, or C.  Rather, we are more interested in serving God out of love for Him and a genuine desire to serve Him. The principles that we can learn, and the growth that we can experience, and the strength of character we can develop when we choose to obey God are byproducts and added blessings of obedience.  We still do those things which you referred to in your question as “A, B, C…” but we have better reasons for doing them than just as a way to get into heaven.  We live the gospel because it lives in us.  It is written on our hearts, and in our minds!

“The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a checklist of things to do; rather, it lives in our hearts. The gospel “is not weight; it is wings.” It carries us.” (Jean A. Stevens, “Fear Not; I Am with Thee,” Ensign, May 2014).

Once we have the gospel written on our hearts, we understand that there is no checklist.  We are no longer concerned with checking off boxes so that we can force our lives to adhere to some “plan.”  Now that the gospel lives in us, and we live through the gospel, we understand that the bullet points on the checklist matter less than the transformation that they are supposed to bring about within us.

More than that, when we have the gospel written on our hearts, we can learn to put God’s will, and God’s desires, before our own.  That means that, if God sees fit to make us wait for some desired blessing, we should be humble enough to wait upon the Lord.

“God’s promises are not always fulfilled as quickly as or in the way we might hope; they come according to His timing and in His ways. … The promises of the Lord, if perhaps not always swift, are always certain.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, “Continue in Patience,” Ensign, May 2010, 58).

As your friends grow in the gospel and become converted, they will learn to exercise patience, and they will begin to develop hope.  Over time, and as they learn to trust in the Lord, and in His timing, they should find that their feelings of failure and inadequacy should largely disappear.  One of the great gifts of the gospel comes when we can learn to stop worrying so much about outward performance, and focus instead on becoming inwardly converted.

The Gospel is about “being” and not just “doing”

“How can you become converted? How can you make the gospel of Jesus Christ not just an influence in your life but the controlling influence and, indeed, the very core of what you are? The ancient prophet Jeremiah spoke of the law of God, the gospel, being written in our hearts. He quotes the Lord speaking about us, His people in the latter days: “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Do you want this for yourself? I can tell you how that can happen, but it must be something you want. The gospel cannot be written in your heart unless your heart is open. Without a heartfelt desire, you can participate in sacrament meetings, classes, and Church activities and do the things I will tell you, but it won’t make much difference.” (D. Todd Christofferson, “When Thou Art Converted,” Ensign, May 2004).

The Lord cares just as much about the condition of your heart as he does about your outward performance.  The problem with viewing the gospel as a checklist is that you tend to focus too much on external performance, and not enough on developing a pure heart through personal conversion.  In other words, you tend to focus too much on the “to dos” and not enough on the “to be’s”.

There are many people who have served a mission, attended BYU, been married in the temple, and who hold responsible callings in their ward or stake organizations who nevertheless do not have the atonement of Jesus Christ written on their hearts.  These people may appear to be doing all of the right things.  They are certainly checking off all of the right boxes on the checklist, however they are not accomplishing much in the eternal sense, because they are more concerned with outward appearances than they are with loving and serving the Lord.

Conversely, there are those who, for one reason or another, may have been prevented from serving a mission, or who are single, or who are not able to hold a calling in the church. Nevertheless, some of these people are humble disciples who love God with all their heart, might, mind, and soul.  There are many in the church who would gladly serve a mission if illness or some other affliction had not prevented them from doing so.  There are countless church members who deeply desire to be married to a righteous companion in the house of the Lord, and who are doing everything they can to bring that about, but they have not yet succeeded in finding someone whom they can marry. These people are not failures.  They should not feel like outcasts or sinners because they did not check all of the right boxes on the checklist, at the right time (as determined by others).  Those who do their best to be faithful and obedient, even if they are prevented in some way from checking off all of the boxes on some checklist, are more pleasing to the Lord than those who, with hearts devoid of devotion, manage to hit all the points on the checklist.  Inward conversion matters as much or more than outward performance.

Moroni 7:6-11  For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.  For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.  And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.  Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift.  For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water; wherefore, a man being a servant of the devil cannot follow Christ; and if he follow Christ he cannot be a servant of the devil.

“To be and to do are inseparable. As interdependent doctrines they reinforce and promote each other. Faith inspires one to pray, for example, and prayer in turn strengthens one’s faith.

The Savior often denounced those who did without being—calling them hypocrites: “This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6). To do without to be is hypocrisy, or feigning to be what one is not—a pretender.

Conversely, to be without to do is void, as in “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17; emphasis added). Be without do really isn’t being—it is self-deception, believing oneself to be good merely because one’s intentions are good. Do without be—hypocrisy—portrays a false image to others, while be without do portrays a false image to oneself.” (Lynn G. Robbins, "What Manner of Men and Women Ought Ye to Be?," Ensign, May 2011, 103).

In the gospel it is important to “do.”  It is important to follow the commandments, and to honor our covenants, and so forth, but we can’t truly follow the commandments, or honor our covenants, if we do not also focus on “being.”  There are many things that we are asked or counseled, or commanded to do as members of the church, but these things will not matter much if they aren’t accompanied by sincere conversion and a love of God.  Many of the things that show up on the checklist are important, but it is wrong to make them the goal or the end of discipleship.  To do so misses the point of discipleship.

"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?" (Donald L. Hallstrom, "Converted to His Gospel through His Church", Ensign May 2012).

Approaching the gospel like it is a checklist is attractive because it is easy to measure your life by outward indicators.  How often do I go to church?  Did I serve a mission?  Have I been married in the temple?  However, there are other questions that are more difficult to quantify that are just as important to answer.  For instance, how does one measure faith?  Have I experienced a mighty change in my heart?  Do I truly love God?  Do I truly love others?

To those checklist Mormons who think they have to/can do it all themselves to get into heaven, let me ask the following questions:

How much faith do I have to have to get into heaven?  How many prayers do I have to say?  How many times do I have to go to church in order to be saved?  What calling will get me to heaven the fastest?  How much home teaching do I have to do before I can go to heaven? How many people do I have to baptize to consider myself a good missionary?

These questions don’t have good answers because they miss the whole point.  Keeping the commandments, or following prophetic counsel, or is not about building up enough credit to earn your way into heaven.  There isn’t a point where so many prayers will save you, but one less will leave you consigned to hell.  The gospel is only cumulative in the sense that living the principles and ordinances of the gospel is designed to have a cumulative effect in helping you to build the habits and character of a disciple of Christ.  There is never a point at which you are “done” following God or living the gospel.

“Many of us create to do lists to remind us of things we want to accomplish. But people rarely have to be lists. Why? To do’s are activities or events that can be checked off the list when done. To be, however, is never done. You can’t earn checkmarks with to be’s. I can take my wife out for a lovely evening this Friday, which is a to do. But being a good husband is not an event; it needs to be part of my nature—my character, or who I am.”  (Lynn G. Robbins, "What Manner of Men and Women Ought Ye to Be?," Ensign, May 2011, 103).

The “Why” of Discipleship

Regular church attendance is important.  Serving a mission is important.  Being sealed for time and all eternity in the house of the Lord is important.  However, none of those things matter if they are not accompanied by personal conversion.  If you are not developing the attributes and habits and the character of a disciple of Christ, it doesn’t matter how many boxes you check off, or hoops you jump through, in your life.

“The issue is not going to church; rather, the issue is worshipping and renewing covenants as we attend church. The issue is not going to or through the temple; rather, the issue is having in our hearts the spirit, the covenants, and the ordinances of the Lord’s house. The issue is not going on a mission; rather, the issue is becoming a missionary and serving throughout our entire life with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength. It is possible for a young man to go on a mission and not become a missionary, and this is not what the Lord requires or what the Church needs.” (David A. Bednar, “Becoming a Missionary,” Ensign, Nov. 2005).

If you are unfaithful to your spouse, the mere fact that you were married in the temple does not merit a special dispensation on judgment day.  If you do not love God and your neighbor, it doesn’t matter what church calling you hold.  If you do not have faith in God, why does it matter if you pay your tithing in full?

The gospel is as much about WHY we do things as it is about actually doing those things.
                 
“It concerns me as I see young people in our Church who know all the correct things they should do and do not have a clue as to why. They have a check-list mentality. "Say my prayers morning and night. Read the scriptures." Why do they do these things? "Because I am supposed to. Because the prophet said. Because my mom and dad will jump my case if I don't." May I suggest that each of these activities is related to the doctrine of revelation. We pray every morning in a meaningful way to invite the companionship of the Holy Ghost. At the end of the day we report and give an account of our stewardship in our evening prayer. We express gratitude for the companionship of the Spirit and the direction we received. We also study the scriptures daily to feast upon the words of Christ, to again invite the Spirit, and to receive instruction and direction. These things are related to the doctrine of receiving revelation. But do we do these things without an understanding of what they are linked to doctrinally? Do we understand why? If we do not understand the why, then the power available to us through the doctrine of Christ will not be evident in our lives” (David A. Bednar, "Teach Them to Understand," Ricks College Campus Education Week Devotional, June 4, 1998).

The Checklist Church would have you believe that obeying the commandments is about earning blessings, or getting into heaven, and it isn’t concerned with why.  However, while those things are important, and we certainly want them, these things (in and of themselves) should not be our ultimate motivation for living as disciples of Christ.

"Scriptures do speak of God's future blessings and even the celestial kingdom as rewards we receive or prizes we win..., but as we grow spiritually, these rewards and prizes are no longer seen as motivations preceding our choices but as natural consequences following them.  What we may have done out of desire for reward or fear of punishment, or even out of a sense of guilt or duty, we can learn to do out of a love-filled and grateful heart.

One girl wrote, "When I think about keeping rules and standards as something I have to do to get to heaven or should do as an example to others, I feel empty; but when I think of them as a way of showing appreciation for Christ's atonement, I love them" (Brad Wilcox, The Continuous Conversion, 45).

Your friends are experiencing first-hand the emptiness that comes when you try to do the right thing for the wrong reason.  The feel stuck because they are following a dead-end.  They aren’t bad people, they just need to learn a better (or, more excellent) way.  The gospel isn’t working for them because they are following the wrong gospel, namely a false folk gospel that has been transmitted to them culturally through “the Checklist Church,” and not by any legitimate representative of the true church and the true gospel.

It is a fact that if you or your friends choose to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the false teachings of the checklist church, you will be leaving the wrong church!  You should indeed leave the Checklist Church behind, and become a full and active disciple of Christ, but please do not leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!

When it comes to leaving the checklist church behind, and embracing the teachings of the true church of Jesus Christ, don’t wait!  Learn to do the right thing for the right reasons, embrace a life of discipleship, and you’ll be much happier with your life, and with your experience in the true church.

The good news is that your friends don’t have to be stuck!  They don’t have to feel inadequate!  They shouldn’t feel like failures!  Christ’s grace is available to all who genuinely seek and strive to follow Him in heartfelt obedience to the gospel.  If your friends will take the time to refocus the course of their discipleship, they will find that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will lift and free them. The real gospel will help them to learn patience and have hope, not just in the Lord’s timing, but also with and in themselves. If they are willing to go back to basics, in order to unlearn the false teachings that have made them so miserable, and to learn the simple and sweet truths that will set them free, they will find that the gospel will bring them true joy and happiness in this life, as well as in the world to come!

“Brothers and sisters, if you ever think that the gospel isn’t working so well for you, I invite you to step back, look at your life from a higher plane, and simplify your approach to discipleship. Focus on the basic doctrines, principles, and applications of the gospel. I promise that God will guide and bless you on your path to a fulfilling life, and the gospel will definitely work better for you.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “It Works Wonderfully!” Ensign, Nov. 2015).

I'm not the only one who has written on this subject.  The LDS church's official blog features an article on the same subject that you might find helpful.  It's called “Chucking the Church Checklist.”

1 comment :

  1. I love this post. It's so true, and it needed to be said. I'm lucky enough to live in the mission field where I think there is less of the checklist mentality (about 80% of our ward are converts, so we didn't generally get to serve missions or do half the other checklist things) but I have seen it. It's addressed quite early in Stephen Robinson's book, "Believing Christ", where he talks about his wife having that checklist mentality, and him being able to explain to her that she didn't need to be exhausted from trying to live up to an impossible standard.

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