It takes a lot of courage to be honest at church. It takes even more courage when the words you need to say contradict someone in authority. Years ago, I bore a testimony on Fast Sunday that did just that. I emailed my words to a dear friend later that day. I found that email recently and wanted to share this experience because it illustrates the difference between having faith in the gospel and having faith in the church. I hope that this post is useful as a gentle example of why faithful people sometimes struggle with church.
This is what I said over the pulpit at that testimony meeting:
Last month during testimony meeting a few people said how church is a wonderful three hours of spirituality and isn't it great how refreshing it is. And I thought: that's not usually how I experience church. I wish I could experience church that way. More often for me church is physically and emotionally exhausting. One of the more recent examples of this was stake conference. The presiding authority taught that it's not enough to have faith. We need to have exceeding faith. I had never considered that this is something that I should want. It's hard enough to have faith. What would I even do with the extra faith? Then several of the people who were asked to bear their testimony said that they *had* exceeding faith. This made me feel very isolated. It sounded like everyone already had something that I hadn't even thought to want. This really bothered me, but it also caused me to reflect on what words I would use to describe my faith. I have occasionally felt that my faith was sufficient. There's only one verse in the scriptures that talks about sufficient faith, and it's in 3rd Nephi. Christ visited the people in the Americas and was about to leave when he looked around and saw that the multitude did not want him to go. He said that he could see that the people had sufficient faith to be healed. So, he stayed and healed their sick. He prayed with them, and the words were so marvelous that they could not be written. He took each child one by one and blessed them. Christ's joy was so full that he cried. And then he gave them the sacrament. There are wonderful experiences for people who have merely sufficient faith. I have had a few experiences like that. Amen.
I remember being so anxious about saying those words out loud that I had that whole thing memorized. I experienced an awful lot of cognitive dissonance while processing the area authority’s teachings. My conclusions were not what he intended to teach. That stake conference gave me a window to what it may have been like to listen to people worship on the Rameumpton (Alma 31:8-21). It seemed to me like the area authority was asking the congregation to look beyond the mark (Jacob 4:14). What I witnessed was a church leader creating a space where there was in immense amount of social pressure for people to profess a prideful ideal that contradicts values from the Book of Mormon that I treasure.
At the same time, I appreciate that contemplating the whole experience taught me in a powerful and personal way. I was not a lazy learner: I reflected on my experiences. I searched and studied to find knowledge. I felt compelled to share what I learned, and I spent a lot of mental energy figuring out how to communicate what I learned in a manner appropriate to the setting. My actions were internally motivated; no one told me I needed to do the work. This is exactly the kind of deep learning that any teacher would want for their student; this is the kind of learning that God would want for me.
I want to extend grace to that area authority. Maybe his words were what someone else needed to hear and they just landed on me in an unintended way. I want to allow others to grow from mistakes, just like I hope others do for me. Leadership is hard. If my struggles with that stake conference had been an isolated experience, it would not be a big deal. However, I have had numerous such experiences over the years, and I know so many others have as well. I often feel like I have to think about all things church-related upside down and backwards. It’s exhausting. I’m reminded of Cunningham’s Law, which says that “the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.” There are a number of reasons why relying on this “law” to learn is not helpful or edifying, but I find it’s potential to spread lies the most insidious. I don’t think the leader was intentionally “preaching falsehood to know the truth”, but the paradox applies: grappling with a leader’s words I find to be false undermines their authority, yet the grapple spurred by those words can still lead me to God’s goodness.
The talk that the area authority gave set the stage for the individuals asked to bear impromptu testimony afterwards. It is completely predictable that people want to look good in front of others. After a talk about the necessity of exceeding faith, it would have taken noteworthy courage to stand up and say “I’m not sure that my faith is even as big as a mustard seed”. The environment created at that meeting did not invite honesty or openness, so the people who stood up did not embody those qualities. I wish church did more to help me embody traits I value.
I don’t mind if church is occasionally challenging. More often though, I want to be nurtured at church. Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, and (two-hour block notwithstanding) going to church is still generally physically and emotionally exhausting for me. I have a friend who does her best to make her home a soft place to land when her kids come home from school. It seems to be working for her: her teens talk to her openly about all sorts of difficult things. I wish that church was like that more often—a place where it is safe to share our challenges and be supported as we work through them. I believe in a God who will meet us where we are. When we say “I believe; help thou mine unbelief”, God will be there with willing hands, kind words, and big hugs.
Just as I was getting ready to schedule this post, I ran across a poem that fits nicely with everything discussed, so I’m sharing it here too.