It’s Time For Latter-Day Saints to Talk About God
“For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever?”
— Mormon 9:9
“God is love.”
— 1 John 4:16
One of my more unnerving moments in an LDS Sunday School meeting happened during a lesson on Noah’s ark. Throughout the lesson, I’d been reflecting on possible redeeming qualities of the text — what it said about the ancient cultures it sprung from, human nature, etc.
But comment after comment focused on vengeance. “It’s a sign,” these comments went, “that we’d better heed latter-day warnings because God will destroy those who don’t listen.”
When I suggested that we were reading a single ancient culture’s interpretation of a local event and that the story could instead be read as a metaphor about the need for grace in a brutal human existence, I was shot down. “It’s important to remember,” went the response, “that this is the word of God.”
I sat perplexed. This God who flooded the planet and drowned millions of creatures in the process is ostensibly the same God who will one day soon burn billions of nonbelievers alive.
And this God, the thinking goes, is the God of love.
In the history of language, it’s a new word.
When early Roman Catholic missionaries preached to the northern Germanic tribes, they found that these tribes responded most favorably to their message when they replaced their Latin word for deity (Deus) for the word these tribes used — a word similar to Odin or Godin or Gaut that eventually morphed into English as God. It worked, and the word stuck, eclipsing the words that had come before.
It’s a word that the authors of the Old Testament never used. Instead, they wrote about El, the highest of the Canaanite gods, and Yahweh, a warrior god who Israel eventually chose to be their primary (and then exclusive) deity.
After flooding the earth, the people who wrote the Old Testament often believed Yahweh didn’t hold back.
He urged the Israelites to smash the heads of their enemy’s children. He commanded men to throw stones at women who didn’t adhere to his commands. He opened the earth and swallowed heretics whole. He condoned slavery. In short, he reigned like the warrior god he was.
This divine wrath swept through the New Testament as well. Listeners were told they’d be in danger of hellfire if they called someone a fool. They were informed they’d never be forgiven if they denied the Holy Ghost, without clarification about what that meant (causing millions of future followers to worry that they’d unwittingly committed this sin). Thousands of pigs were sent off a cliff, and a fig tree was punished to death. New converts were urged not to let women speak in church, and a husband and wife fell dead immediately after withholding money from the early apostles.
And still the wrath swept. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, girls and women were commanded to marry men several decades older than them as sister wives or face eternal consequences. Those of African descent were considered inherently unworthy of the priesthood and temple blessings. Today, women are still only given ~15% of speaking slots at General Conference, while LGBTQ people are viewed at best as having been “given a trial” in their life and at worst as needing to be quiet about their situation or face metaphorical musket fire.
Some Latter-day Saints might say this is just evidence that God shows tough love—all for our benefit. But if that’s the case, why doesn’t God spread the tough love equally? Why put more of the toughness on foreign enemies, women, people of color, and gays?
Why is it that whenever a religion gains power, it’s the powerful who tend to get the least amount of toughness and the most love from God?
I woke up one night last week from a nightmare.
In the dream, my youngest son refused to go to bed while my oldest son flooded the bathroom. As the water sloshed under the door and through the house, frustration within me mounted, and I lost myself, screaming at them both. The emotional intensity broke my sleep. I woke up.
My mind raced. In the quiet of the night, I worried that the tension in the dream pointed to something real — that it highlighted my failings as a parent and as a person. What if I fail so badly that my kids experience deep-seated trauma and then fall prey to addiction as adults, shooting up heroin in some alleyway? What if they have to wrestle against lifelong chronic depression sparked by my own neuroses? What if, dear God, I can’t handle this life?
Soon I sensed that these doubts would suffocate me if I kept letting them pile up. So I did what I’ve done thousands of times since childhood: I said a prayer. I’m listening. I’m willing to do whatever I need to do, become whatever I need to become.
I felt an openness. A submission. A realization that my racing thoughts — riddled with anxiety and talk of self-loathing — weren’t going to save me. I needed something beyond my conscious mind, and I opened myself to it. Eventually, my internal landscape turned from raging waves to a still pool.
I didn’t receive some grand insight, but I did have the felt sense that if I stayed open like this, if I tuned into this as often as I could, life would work its way with love.
And with that, I fell back into rest.
In our most desperate moments, this is God.
It doesn’t have to do with a warrior deity from the Iron Age that urged his followers to smash the heads of enemy infants. It doesn’t have to do with the terrors of hellfire or women not speaking in church or curses and skin color.
In these moments, we sense that God is love — and, perhaps, that love is God. And we sense that we can open ourselves up to this.
So why cling to all the brutal stories of Yahweh that promote the view that God wants vengeance and musket fire? Why not instead honor these stories as examples of our human ancestors wrestling with their existence, just as we wrestle with ours?
Why not worship what our hearts already know we should worship?