Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dancing in the tension: You're doing better than you think you are, and you can do better

I've long been thinking about how often God is found in the tensions we feel in our lives, our doctrine, etc. I wanted to sort through one of those tensions that came across my spiritual and mental space today. This is long and probably rambling, but I'm sorting as I write, so take it all for what it's worth. 


"You worry too much."

These were the kind (and correct) words of a wise and loving person today after Relief Society. It's too hard to try to capture the dynamic of the Relief Society lesson, but if I were to sum up the message we received, it was to not let anxiety drive our actions or thoughts or determinations about our spirituality or about our decisions. The idea was, "Look, if you hold a current temple recommend and you didn't lie to get it and you are trying to be a kind, loving, service-oriented person, then you are doing ok. So stop worrying about this decision or that decision. Live your life. Relax and enjoy the ride a little more."

And boy howdy, is that a message I need. 

I feel like this validates something Elder Bednar taught in General Conference in April.
I have talked with many individuals who question the strength of their personal testimony and underestimate their spiritual capacity because they do not receive frequent, miraculous, or strong impressions. Perhaps as we consider the experiences of Joseph in the Sacred Grove, of Saul on the road to Damascus, and of Alma the Younger, we come to believe something is wrong with or lacking in us if we fall short in our lives of these well-known and spiritually striking examples. If you have had similar thoughts or doubts, please know that you are quite normal. Just keep pressing forward obediently and with faith in the Savior. As you do so, you “cannot go amiss” (D&C 80:3)....
In many of the uncertainties and challenges we encounter in our lives, God requires us to do our best, to act and not be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:26), and to trust in Him. We may not see angels, hear heavenly voices, or receive overwhelming spiritual impressions. We frequently may press forward hoping and praying—but without absolute assurance—that we are acting in accordance with God’s will. But as we honor our covenants and keep the commandments, as we strive ever more consistently to do good and to become better, we can walk with the confidence that God will guide our steps. And we can speak with the assurance that God will inspire our utterances. This is in part the meaning of the scripture that declares, “Then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45).

As you appropriately seek for and apply unto the spirit of revelation, I promise you will “walk in the light of the Lord” (
Isaiah 2:52 Nephi 12:5). Sometimes the spirit of revelation will operate immediately and intensely, other times subtly and gradually, and often so delicately you may not even consciously recognize it. But regardless of the pattern whereby this blessing is received, the light it provides will illuminate and enlarge your soul, enlighten your understanding (see Alma 5:732:28), and direct and protect you and your family. 

This is something I need to keep pondering on. I sense that there is a lot of healing truth there for many of us. I KNOW there is healing power in those words for me.

But I still struggle with a very real tension that I think exists in all of this.

The scripture that was shared in Relief Society to show how merciful God is to us was from Helaman 10. This is where Nephi is given the sealing power, where he is told that God would give him everything he asked for. I think the message was to show how loving and merciful God is. That He's not limiting blessings He will grant us (the comparison was made to the Aladdin model of three wishes only). And I understand that I don't understand the fullness of God's love and mercy. I know that understanding that more is central to me in my personal journey and particular mortal weaknesses I have.

But there's a caveat to that binding promise that, in my view, is the source of the anxiety many of us (or perhaps I should just say I) feel in the first place: God was able to covenant to grant anything Nephi asked for, because he knew that Nephi would not ask for anything contrary to His will. (I also tend to think this was tied to his calling and keys as a prophet, but I could be mistaken about that.) I don't think most of us are at that point where we (or God) have THAT kind of confidence in our ability to KNOW God's will.

Another scripture was Nephi when he was trying to get the plates from Laban. The notion is the idea of line upon line - that Nephi didn't know what the next steps were.

But there again, he DID lean on the Spirit to guide him. And there again, that is where the anxiety comes for me. Sometimes I simply don't know if the Spirit is guiding me or not. So I don't find the comfort I probably should in these scriptures. They just reinforce the very weakness that gives me anxiety in the first place.

I think this is Elder Bednar's point...that we can grow line upon line in developing and growing in that way, and we can take confidence in the mercy that comes of sincerely trying to do our best. But that isn't the same as having confidence in ourselves to know what we need to do in the first place. And sometimes we do hear about that kind of confidence, and it's hard not to think that I have to be at THAT level to not be anxious about my decisions. We hear, for example, about President Monson's unbending loyalty to the promptings of the Spirit. But I think a good majority of us are still trying to figure out what those promptings are. To me, that seems like a key part of why we are learn to recognize how the Spirit works in our lives.

Also, while I know that the voices in my head that go to self-criticism and fear are not from God, that doesn't mean that I'm always going to make the right choices, nor does it mean that I won't have things I need to work on and improve, even if I'm doing better than I think I am.

The title of this post paraphrases something Sister Beck said in a regional conference a while back. She recognized the trap many of us get into when we doubt and criticize ourselves. I'm learning to challenge those voices and recognize that they don't produce good fruits. But then in the same breath, she also invites us to realize how and where we can do better. And I know that is also true!

Sooooo, how I come to peace with this tension is to realize (or remind myself of) something I know the Spirit has taught me in moments of clarity: God's voice is not one that paints me into a corner of hopelessness. I do think that was probably the main message of the lesson. And I extend to remind myself that His invitations to improve and repent come with a feeling of hope. That doesn't mean His invitations will be comfortable or easy or convenient or even wanted. But they won't leave me feeling despair like the critical, anxious voices in my head do.

I don't worry so much about the final judgment kind of effects of my inability to discern the Spirit in my life. That comes from the confidence I have in the Atonement and in the power of covenants and the reality that God really does know our hearts. I feel confidence in the power grace to cover that gap for me.

But I think the anxiety really comes in worrying about the consequences of dumb choices that come of the whole (very messy) learning-by-experience thing. And that's a whole other kind of fear that requires a deep acceptance of the nature of this mortal existence...something else I'm trying to process.

Something I'll likely explore another day. 


  1. Your brain is too big for it's own good :)You are fighting a good fight and asking questions means that you are being diligent about your obedience = awesomeness.

    Sister Dew talked about the gaps between our beliefs and our limited capabilities as mortals in her book No One Can Take Your Place, "As the gap narrows, the very fact that you are dealing with a gap troubles you even more. At the same time, however, the joy of having the Lord insert Himself in between you and the adversary becomes more obvious, more apparent, more joyous."

    Let yourself feel the Lord's intercession for you more often. Turn your back on those feelings of hopelessness (I know them well) and do things to help you feel the spirit very strongly. Retaining your hope is a very worthy goal, don't let your pursuit of righteousness overwhelm it. It isn't about getting it 'right' (even revelation) it's about doing something and learning in the process.

  2. Jen,
    I LOVE this: "Retaining your hope is a very worthy goal, don't let your pursuit of righteousness overwhelm it."

    And you nailed it on the head with the next sentence, too. I know you are right, but it's another thing to let that settle in my heart enough to stick.

    But I'm working on it. ;)