By Robert P
There are a number of people who can easily rip apart churches. Those critics view churches as being more interested in political power and control because Our Founding Fathers insisted on the separation of religion and state. Criticism comes when some churches seem dedicated mainly to accumulating wealth for their leaders. Others seem more like social clubs. Religious extremists are positively scary, leading Blaise Pascal to despair: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions” (trans. Pensées). And worst of all, the greatest criticism sees churches filled with hypocrites, people who don’t practice what they preach.
For me, personal growth and development are not easy. Without that support many would have given up on the possibility of major character change. From the Greeks to the present day, literature is full of stories about tragic heroes—victims of circumstance. Their strengths propel them to greatness, but eventually a weakness will destroy them; it is just a matter of time until they find themselves in a situation where that hidden weakness will cause their doom. Many of us may also face a crisis when we may be hit with a character flaw. From this perspective, all alone, we can’t get there from here. We need a higher power to offer us the chance to be born again, and transformed for the better. Churches become hospitals for the soul and support groups for the spiritually stunted.
My enthusiasm for attending church increased when I applied this fundamental biblical test: “Ye shall know them by their fruits” as stated by Jesus (Matthew 7:16). If the church I am attending is making me a more honest, loving, peaceful and virtuous person—bringing out my best self, I am likely on the right track. On the other hand, if I feel increasingly unhappy, mean, proud, troubled, lustful, and/or otherwise damaging to myself and those I care about, I am likely on the wrong track. At any one moment I can deceive myself, but over time, the truth becomes more and more apparent.
Being spiritual without religion is a much harder road. For one thing, how do you overcome spiritual blind-spots? Difficulties notwithstanding, I have met many virtuous non-believers that seem just fine on their own, going their own way. They manage to be fundamentally good without congregational support. I am not one of those people. For me this world can be a scary place, where choices usually have unforeseen consequences, some of which can be positively nasty.
In this scary life, a roadmap would be nice, one that actually works, one which, if sincerely followed, provides some guidance and guardrails. All faiths are inspired in one aspect or another; for me, however, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has provided the guidance I need. I investigated a number of churches before I became a member. This Church made a bold claim—they have a fullness of the gospel, more revealed truth than any other. They disposed of some theology I knew was false, such as the condemnation of unbaptized children and righteous people who never had the opportunity to hear the gospel. They offered a cosmology of unprecedented scope, from a pre-existence through mortality to a preparatory spirit afterlife through the resurrection and kingdoms of glory. They taught of living prophets and ongoing revelation and spiritual gifts.
Through this religion, I have seen other people change and grow into new people as they lived the gospel and accepted the power of Christ’s atonement into their souls. I am a much better, more spiritual person than I would have ever been without it. It works—people change, lives are saved. For those who truly live the gospel, the fruits of the spirit are freely shared—kindness, patience, peace, joy, and perseverance, among others. Since I cannot do this alone, it is a privilege to associate with these people. I need their fellowship, particularly when I feel spiritually drained and weak and confused.
One of the early leaders of the Church, Parley P. Pratt, made an intriguing challenge—be baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and wholeheartedly participate in the Mormon Church for a few months. If you sincerely do these things and do not receive a spiritual confirmation of the power and truth of these gospel principles and priesthood, drop out and dismiss it. And I have stuck around.