An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘End of the world fears’

Fear or Love?

A stake president in Sandy, Utah gave an address to conclude his stake conference on February 3 this year that was more blatantly political than any I’ve heard over the pulpit since Ezra Taft Benson’s heyday during the John Birch Society era. DeVisser claimed his remarks were inspired by the Holy Ghost which might motivate some General Conference addresses on how to recognize the source of perceived revelation.

The good stake president’s goal was worthy. He wanted to motivate members of his stake to live closer to Jesus, to spend more time reading the Book of Mormon, praying, examining their own spirituality and repenting, to increase fast offerings, and to get out of debt. He chose a standard Mormon motivator: fear. The pres invoked the usual rhetoric of the wickedness of the last days and quoted warnings from past and present prophets of gloom and doom (Mormons sustain apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators). Besides Benson, he quoted Boyd K. Packer, Neal Maxwell, David A. Bednar, and, oddly enough, Heber C. Kimball, who predicted the Civil War would bring down the U.S. government and usher in the return of the Savior.

My understanding of fear as a motivator is that it has dramatic short term effects, but little long-lasting benefits. Fear stirs the basic emotion of self-preservation, but the horrors of calamity are too unpleasant to dwell on. At its worst, fear motivates hasty, unwise decisions. At best, it forms unrealistic resolutions that will not be carried through.

I believe President DeVisser is a good man who cares about the problems he sees in his stake: violence, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and immorality. I doubt fear will motivate his members to make the changes in their lives that will overcome these problems. These are complex issues for which the government is not necessarily to blame. They are also individual problems in the lives of the people afflicted. Paying more fast offerings, praying, reading the Book of Mormon, and repenting may be part of the solution for some, but others will need professional help.

Unfortunately, DeVisser followed the pattern too often presented as the cure-all by Mormon leaders. Stir up the members with fear talk and give them a checklist of commandments to keep. That approach not only doesn’t help people resolve personal problems, it drives young people away.

As I said, DeVisser’s talk was more blatantly political than any I’ve heard over the pulpit in stake conference, but that kind of rhetoric is common in sacrament meetings and auxiliary classes in wards I’ve attended. I hope the negative fallout from this talk will motivate General Authorities to tone down the fear mongering in their own discourses. For my money, love of God and gratitude for blessings is a far better motivator than fear to encourage Christ-like behavior.

Prilosec and a Burning in the Bosom

Samuel WoolleyTaylor wrote a very funny novel, Heaven Know Why, which features a devout Mormon bishop who expects the Holy Ghost to guide his every decision. The bishop’s less devout wife can only influence him by entering a closet next to his office, putting her face into an empty milk can, and, in her deepest voice, delivering messages from the Holy Ghost.

And I can see why the husband was fooled. If a message is important enough to send via the Holy Ghost, it ought to be sent in an audible voice—not just a burning in the bosom which may be confused with heartburn.

I don’t know how much other Christian faiths emphasize listening to the Holy Spirit, but the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost is a promise Mormons rely on—sometimes with less than desirable results.  

I know I entered parenthood firm in the conviction that I could raise a perfect child, making no mistakes as a parent, so long as I fasted and prayed over every decision. By the time Wort rolled over for the first time, I knew parenthood was more complex than I’d ever imagined, and the Holy Ghost couldn’t possibly keep up with the amount of inspiration I needed to raise even a non-perfect child.

But, old habits die hard. George and I relied on prayer and a strong feeling the Lord was guiding us when he quit a good job in Seattle and we moved to rural Utah. This was during the ‘70s when potential Cold War destruction and the devastation of the Apocalypse loomed large in Mormon consciousness. The tiny community in which we settled was filled with fellow refugees from the evil world beyond the borders of Zion. We took what low-paying jobs we could find and hunkered down with our food storage awaiting the end—which didn’t come. After a few years, we all pulled our heads out of the muck and moved on. I don’t know about our neighbors, but this time George and I didn’t rely on the spirit to guide us. We looked for jobs in the city, found them, and fled.

In a way, relying on the spirit counters the basic LDS doctrine of agency. Growth—spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical—comes through exercise. A God who answers every prayer and guides every decision would be like an over-protective parent—one who raises a clinging, dependent child. And listening for guidance that God has not seen fit to send can lead us to confusing our own feelings of fear or desire with divine inspiration.

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