New Book Coming Soon:
A Latter Day Saint Trapped in a Mormon's Body (Sneak Preview Excerpt)
What happens when Mormon culture, church teachings and personal inspiration don't align?
A Latter-Day-Saint Trapped in a Mormon's Body, a new book by James Skeen, explores this increasing phenomenon with candor and fresh insight.
As I stood in the vacant field near my home surrounded by summer darkness I could feel my heart racing. I wanted to shout the words out loud. It was July 1997. I was 33 years old. I wanted a new relationship with my Father in Heaven and my Savior. I wanted their Grace and my gratitude to be the centerpiece of my relationship with them. I wanted to be free of complex definitions of salvation and exaltation and stop wondering if I was enough for God!
Fear and excitement filled my body. I knew what I wanted to say but I also knew that an old world that had served me for so many years was about to pass away. I inhaled deeply and then spoke the words that filled my heart; loud enough that if someone was sitting on their back porch that night they would have heard me, “I am Saved and Exalted through the Grace of Jesus Christ and I will no longer try to earn the love of my Father in Heaven with my works!”
In that very moment I felt a peace I have never felt before. I knew that my relationship with God and my Savior would be forever different. I knew that Christ’s love for me had fulfilled the law. But, I wasn’t sure what was next.
As days passed and my mind replayed the events of that evening, I started to think; if I really am saved and exalted through the Grace of Jesus Christ and I am no longer trying to earn something from God with my obedience, then what is the purpose of my works? I wondered, is it possible to find a new view of grace and works that could enhance the relationship I have with my Father in Heaven, His Son and the Holy Ghost and what would that look like?
To explore this, I will compare two members of the church, their views of Grace and their motives for being obedient.
Member one is named Lamar. Lamar believes that the most important thing he can do is be obedient to the commandments he has been taught at church. Lamar feels that being obedient is a relationship with God. He is particular about how he lives each commandment; he pays a full tithe, he has memorized the entire temple ceremony, he attends church faithfully each week. Outwardly he appears to be on the path to Celestial Glory. But, what is the motive for his actions (Moroni 7: 6, 7)? Lamar feels that it is only after he has done all that he can do, that he can expect Christ’s grace to save him (2 Nephi 25:23). Lamar believes that God has incredible rewards for him but he knows he has to work hard if he is going to qualify for them. Lamar isn’t quite sure what the term, “after all you can do” really means regarding grace, and in the back of Lamar’s mind he often wonders if he has done enough, if he is good enough, if God is happy with him? There is often a feeling of fear about his eternal status but this fear seems to keep him from doing bad things and stay obedient and so he accepts that fear as an important part of his relationship with God.
Now, let’s look at member two. His name is Mark. Mark feels that honest and humble communication is the foundation of his relationship with God. Mark wants his interactions with his Father in Heaven and Savior to be based on gratitude, love and acceptance. Mark believes that he is already saved and exalted through the grace of Jesus Christ and that his acts of obedience are an expression of his gratitude, love and acceptance of that grace. He isn’t trying to earn anything from God with his obedience; God has already given everything to Mark through is Son. Mark knows that his obedience helps him obtain revelation and do God’s will so that he is ready to understand and receive all that God has for him. Mark has come to realize that after all he has done to try to save himself; it is actually God’s grace that will save and exalt him, not his works.
Both Lamar and Mark profess to believe in Christ and His grace for them. The difference is, Mark’s life is frontend loaded with Christ’s grace whereas Lamar’s life is backend loaded with Christ’s grace. Meaning, through faith Mark has accepted the grace of Jesus Christ and now wants his works to be an expression of gratitude for that grace. Lamar accepts Jesus’s grace as well but feels he has to qualify for it through his works of obedience and that grace will be made manifest at the end of his life if he’s done all he can do first.
Let’s look at these two members from another angle. Let’s assume that the good works at the end of Lamar’s life and Mark’s life are the same; Both of them generated 50,000 hours of righteousness while they lived on the earth. Lamar’s works have come mostly from his fear while Mark’s works have come mostly through his gratitude. Both Mark and Lamar have produced equal levels of obedience, but we have to ask the questions, who felt the higher level of joy versus fear in their relationship with God? Who felt more hopeful and who felt more anxious? Who felt more connected and who felt more shame? Who was able to forgive themselves verses feeling the need for self-judgement? Who felt more gratitude for God’s love verses wondering if they were loveable enough? And, who is better prepared to receive all that God has for them verses not knowing if they have done enough?
It feels like we need to ask two questions; does fearing God and worrying about our eternal status actually generate more good works and make a better human being? Or, does having a feeling of thankfulness for all that God has done for us and allowing this feeling to drive our works make a better person? It seems that if we adopt the idea that fearing God, obedience and worrying about our eternal status is the most effective way to get back to heaven, it will be near to impossible to accept God’s grace as a gift and frontend load that grace into our daily lives. We will always be thinking that grace is something that happens tomorrow or on the backside of obedience, but not today.
So, If we do define grace as the thing that saves and exalts us and we frontend load our lives with that grace, does this give us the opportunity to re-define the purpose of obedience? Obedience would no longer be the thing that exalts us but rather the thing that confirms our gratitude towards God and our love for Him.
For years as a Mormon, I’ve heard the complex definitions of salvation and exaltation. Salvation or resurrection was described as a gift from the Savior that has been given to everyone freely but exaltation, returning to live with God, is something we need to earn and qualify for. As a Latter-Day-Saint, this definition has been a struggle for me. It feels like salvation is filled with the Grace of Jesus Christ but exaltation is something that is earned through our own personal works and obedience. Exaltation, as I understood it as a Mormon, seemed to exclude Christ and the grace that is spoken of in the New Testament from the process and it is works, worry and a check list that get me back in to God’s presence.
Is it possible to have a definition of salvation and exaltation that makes the Grace of Jesus Christ the center piece of both concepts? And, is there a new way to understand the purpose of our works in relation to salvation and exaltation?
If Heavenly Father is asking us to perform certain works, whether that is paying our tithing, living the word of wisdom, making covenants at the temple or going to church etc. do we actually believe that these works are the mechanisms that will earn us the right to return to live with our Father in Heaven? Or, are these works an expression of our gratitude for His Son’s grace and the mechanisms that are preparing us to be in God's presence and receive all that He has for us? Do we really feel our works will exalt us? Even if we perform a good work, isn’t that action made possible through God’s grace? He gave us life, He gave us a body, He gave us a world, He gave us the opportunity to do good works, He gave us His Son, He gave us the chance to repent, He has given us all. Are we arrogant enough to assume that if we perform the acts God has requested of us, He will now owe us and in some way He will be in our debt? Is it conceivable that our obedience is somehow greater than the grace that made that obedience possible?
I fear that our earthly understanding of laboring has affected our understanding of what working in God’s Kingdom is really for. On earth we work to earn; we earn a living, we earn a favor, we earn a reward, we earn a promotion. But should payoffs such as these be the motive for working in God’s kingdom? Am I working in God’s Kingdom to accumulate blessings and earn a heavenly promotion? Shouldn’t working in God’s Kingdom be an expression of our gratitude and love towards God, praising Him for all He has given us and not trying to earn something more from Him? Especially since He has already given us His all, He gave us His Son.
Do you remember the first principle you were introduced to after you were baptized? I’m not talking about the principles of faith, repentance, baptism and the Holy Ghost; the principles you were hopefully taught prior to being baptized. I’m talking about the first principle you were introduced to just after you were proclaimed a new member of Christ’s church. It was right in the confirmation prayer, “I proclaim you a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints and say unto you, RECEIVE the Holy Ghost.
The first principle we are introduced to immediately after being proclaimed a member of Jesus’ church is the principle of receiving! God is asking us to receive something beautiful that he has for us. Something He wants to give us. A gift.
The prayer didn’t say, “I say unto you, earn the Holy Ghost” or “go find the Holy Ghost” or “one day you might qualify for the Holy Ghost” it said “receive the Holy Ghost.” And, even though many talks following a baptism attempt to explain the delicate nature of our relationship with the Holy Ghost and how His presence in our lives is fragile and strictly predicated upon righteousness, the truth is, He has been given to us as a gift and we have been asked to receive Him.
Though there are higher level interactions with the Holy Ghost that require us to be on the proper frequency with God, it appears that the most basic and important functions of the Holy Ghost (being a witness of truth and the Comforter) are never taken from us. Even in our darkest moments, the Holy Ghost can show us truth about ourselves, the world and God and be a comfort to us as we make the transition from darkness back to the light. If the Holy Ghost did not perform these essential functions for us in our most rejected moments of life, we would never be able to find our way back to God. The one action that is required of us is to ask God, His Son and His Spirit to be in our life. Even God is bound in this one regard; He must respect our agency until we request Him to be a part of our existence.
As we continue to prepare to receive all that God has for us, we use our works, our love, our righteousness, our humility, our creativity, our obedience, our strength, our might, our hearts and our minds but not to earn something from Him; rather to express our gratitude and acceptance for all that God has given us, is currently giving us and will continue to give us through the Grace of His Son.
From that summer night when I stood in that field to this day, I have stopped trying to earn God’s love; His love is the constant in my life, not the variable. I have stopped trying to qualify for God’s rewards; I have stopped trying to use obedience to save myself. I now know as a Latter-Day-Saint that it is through the grace of Jesus Christ that I am saved and exalted and obedience is my expression of gratitude for that incredible gift.
Remember, we cannot be grateful for that which we have not received.