By Gerry Baird
Christ’s parable about leaving the ninety and nine to search for the lost sheep is a beautiful story of love, and a model for the missionary work done by LDS Church members. Absent from this story, however, is the reaction of the other sheep when one of their members chooses to wander.
When the prodigal son decided he wanted to collect his inheritance and strike out on his own, his father allowed him to make that choice. This is because all have their agency. The sheep are not kept in the fold by force. Unfortunately, when members of the Church see someone struggling or leaving, they often react with judgment instead of love. This may be a fear-based response, as if someone else’s choice somehow threatens their own testimony. It may even be couched as love, because no one wants an empty chair in the Celestial Kingdom where a beloved ward or family member ought to be. Yet this too is a fear reaction, especially for parents or church leaders who worry they will be held accountable. We are taught that perfect love casts out fear, but some Church members use fear, guilt and shame as their exclusive tools to reclaim a wayward soul. This “ends justifies the means” mentality is responsible for much carnage and destruction in the work of salvation.
Guilt can motivate people to repent. However, guilt that doesn’t result in immediate behavioral change usually turns to shame, especially when the guilt is from external rather than intrinsic sources. Inviting or encouraging someone to continue attending church meetings is one thing. Reproving or pushing them repeatedly is another. Shame deepens trauma wounds, compounding the problem. Accepting people as they are and letting them speak their truth, even if it sounds toxic or threatening, is the only way to create a safe space for healing. These issues can be volatile and difficult due to rigidly held beliefs and eternal consequences. It’s important to be especially aware of this when engaging in faith-crisis conversations.
The loss of a loved one from fellowship can be deeply painful for a faithful member, but it only adds to the departing member’s trauma when hurtful words are spoken and painful misunderstandings occur. The impact of hurtful words may be increased by the perceived authority of the person speaking them.
We came to Earth to gain experience. That includes every form of learning that occurs in churches, schools, and through making mistakes. A key purpose of life is to develop the ability to use agency wisely. This means wrong choices will be made from time to time. If sinlessness were the most important goal, Lucifer would have been our Savior. Attempts to deprive others of their agency, especially when done with the full force of ecclesiastical authority, only give strength to the enemy. The words of the lesser-known LDS hymn “Know This, That Every Soul Is Free” offer a poignant reminder about the importance of respecting individual agency.
Those experiencing a crisis of faith for any reason may find themselves on the receiving end of chastisement or admonition instead of understanding and love. Scriptural precedents like Nephi preaching hard truths to keep his wayward brothers in line and the Doctrine and Covenants verses that talk about reproving with sharpness followed by an increase of love may be used to justify angry, hurtful and controlling reactions from Church leaders and family members. In the words of King Mosiah, “these things ought not to be.” And yet they happen in LDS families and congregations.
Is there a time and place for chastisement? The answer can only be yes. Christ himself cleansed the temple and spoke plainly to the errant Pharisees. The problem comes when ego and human emotion are louder than the quiet whispers of the Holy Ghost. Christ’s life qualified Him to perfectly discern what was needed in each situation. Someone who can forgive a person driving a nail through His hand can be trusted to determine when anger is an appropriate response, but many who claim to follow Jesus lack the level of enlightened connection He had with God. Misapplied chastisement destroys souls, especially when authority from God is implicitly or explicitly cited. A person claiming to follow the Spirit may actually be responding to baser “natural man” drives. The souls they injure are then blamed for being too easily offended.
Many who have left the Church can attest to the hurtful responses they receive from loved ones. Scripture verses can feel like knives when they are wielded with the intent to shame someone into submission. Church leaders may feel they are doing their religious duty by sternly warning an unrepentant sinner, but these chastisements may not be followed by the requisite “increase of love”. Even when they are, deep wounds can still remain. Overzealous efforts to save and warn can push people away, sometimes permanently. There should be a lot less “shaking off the dust of thy feet” and a lot more “love one another”. Commandments and covenants matter, but when Jesus was asked which commandment was most important, His answer revealed that nothing matters more than love. When we shun or shame any child of God, we stand in need of repentance. I love the compassion the Savior showed the woman taken in adultery. His example of mercy is a model for us all.
In the LDS Church, often due to concerns about speaking ill of the institution or its leaders, ecclesiastical abuse may be quietly endured. Or the mistreated person may report their concerns only to be disbelieved, accused, or told to forgive. The perpetrator may never be held accountable for their actions. Someone struggling with faith in a situation like this doesn’t need a lecture on the blessings they stand to lose. Surely this has already been considered in their decision-making. They need love, understanding, and space to heal. We all do, no matter where we fall on the testimony spectrum.
What is the best way for active members to show Christlike love to someone whose faith is perceived to be failing? First, focus on the beam in your own eye. Yes, it may seem like the other person is making a huge mistake, but that doesn’t justify the casting of stones. Second, look closely at your reasons for wanting someone to make a different choice. Is it fear? Do you feel like a failure or worry some heavenly reward will be denied to you? Is it pride? Do you feel you know what is best for the other person? Third, focus on total acknowledgement of agency and their God-given right to use it as they choose. Fortunately, you have that same agency. You can use it to skip the chastisement and move right to the increase of love, even (and perhaps especially) if you are a parent or Church leader. Inappropriate chastisement could undermine trust, and then you may find you have no influence at all. Your love for someone who is leaving may not result in them choosing to stay, but it will bring greater peace to all involved. Finally, let Christ be the judge. He alone knows the full circumstances. A bishop acting as a judge in Israel must make every effort to understand how hard a faith crisis can be. Facing the impossible choice between the hell of present trauma and the perceived damnation that may accompany walking away creates high levels of cognitive dissonance. It’s as if a part of the soul is dying.
Many make the mistaken assumption that perpetual active Church membership is the highest possible good for everyone in every situation. Exercise is similarly seen as an absolute good, but asking a runner to continue a race after breaking an ankle would be the height of cruelty. Why then do we ask members with soul injuries to get back in the game without a period of recuperation? Religious “exercise” can be therapeutic, or it can be harmful. Adult members are capable of making these decisions for themselves. No one but the Savior Himself knows the real truth about their internal battles. “Suck it up and serve” is the advice too many are given. They may also be told to increase their personal scripture study and prayer efforts, but there are some injustices that can’t be prayed and scriptured away.
The rule of love needs to replace the love of rules in LDS congregations. That includes rules about church attendance and activity. Those struggling with faith traumas and testimony issues, even if they choose to leave, deserve the same love shown to others. When the Savior said, “feed my sheep”, He didn’t add any qualifications about which sheep were and weren’t worth feeding. The commandment, therefore, is to love without exception.
Gerry Baird – Bio
Gerry is a software project manager with an MBA from Utah State University. He is the author of several religious/inspirational books and is currently pursuing a degree in counseling from Grand Canyon University. His passions include piano, kayaking, yoga, meditation, religious studies, and offering a nonjudgmental listening ear to the beautiful people he meets in real life and through social media.