I’ve never understood the concept of the Angry God. I suppose that’s been a function of my religious privilege. Normally, I dislike the word “privilege” because it strikes me as a term progressives wield like a Bowie knife in a bear fight they bring on for the fur alone. But I’ll borrow it here because the term has successfully taken on a meaning that combines arrogance with naiveté. The term suits me because I have been both arrogant and naive in the practice of my faith. After all, my God has loved me: I found Him; I’ve obeyed Him, honored Him, and served Him. [Arrogance.] And I see His love in the blessings He gives me: I have an amazing family, a beautiful home, vehicles to drive, and friends galore. [Naiveté.]
I’ve always understood the Angry God to be vengeful, to be the Guy in the Sky who zapped us for disobedience or withdrew because we wouldn’t listen. But I’ve been disobedient. I’ve ignored both His written word and the promptings of the Holy Ghost, and still He has loved me. I’ve not been zapped. I’ve not had the Spirit abandon me. So the Angry God made no sense to me. This week, however, I’m beginning to understand the Angry God.
Considering the title of this post, some of you may expect me to compare the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the Angry God and to point to Kate Kelly’s excommunication as evidence that sometimes Heavenly Father stomps His foot and says, “Enough is enough!” That’s not where I’m heading. In fact, I have little interest in discussing the excommunication. That’s Sister Kelly’s business, even if the media attention has lent us the sense that we are all somehow connected and involved. Instead, I’d like to use this space to talk about the private figures that have been affected by the excommunication. I’d like to talk about you and me and every other private person who has made a public, semi-public, or private evaluation of the excommunication. After all, it’s because of our reactions that I am beginning to understand the Angry God.
This week a reader commented on my recent post, “On Kate Kelly’s Summons to a Church Court,” suggesting my empathetic feelings for Ordain Women and Kate Kelly indicate I’ve been suckered by someone who is only out for fame and money. The comment ends with, “And for those of you who want to have it both ways, those who want to support OW but in the same sentence make clear that you don’t really support them, those like Sister Downing, be careful. You can’t have it both ways. Either you sustain the leaders or you don’t. It’s not complicated.”
You can read the full comment and my (kinda snarky) reply for yourself, but basically I reaffirmed that life is complicated.
And the only master of life’s complications is God himself. He knows our hearts and He judges us according to that. No one knows Kate Kelly’s heart but Kate Kelly and God. No one knows the heart of Kelly’s local leadership but the men themselves and God. No one knows my heart but me and my God. I can tell you what my heart feels—I can share with you my hopes and my desires—but in the end, what I say are only words hanging in the air or clinging to a screen or a page. You either trust me or you don’t.
I want to be trusted, and so I will trust others. I will trust Kate Kelly when she bears testimony. I will trust that her local leadership is trying to live up to what their hearts understand. I’ll work hard to keep my ego in check and evaluate them according to the standard they’d like to be judged and according to the model Heavenly Father exemplifies. That requires I see, understand, and empathize with others. It requires I judge them against their own hearts and understanding and not against mine. And if I can’t do that (and I can’t with perfection), I’ll work to not pass any judgment at all.The hitch is that we do judge, and our world seems black and white. Our perspective hinges on whatever set of rules we value and discards other sets of rules that build differing perceptions in others. When viewpoints contradict, we wind up in conflict. Still, surely someone must be right and someone must be wrong. That’s how the world works.
But that premise is flawed. Introduce God who judges us in all we do, say, think, and feel, according to our hearts (Sam 16:7). If Kelly’s heart sincerely wants to improve the experience of women in the church, He will judge her according to that. If her bishop’s intent is truly to maintain harmony in the church, He will judge him according to that. We maybe be limited in our capacity to see the complexities of human life, but God is not.
I wonder if it might be spiritually perilous to assume that, because Heavenly Father has given us commandments, He functions according to the same right/wrong paradigm we do. Mormons interpret commandments as both navigational tools and a sort of scientific (as opposed to political) law. Heavenly Father gifts us insight into our mortal struggle through commandments, but He both encapsulates and supersedes all other commandments in the directive to love God and to love one another (Matt. 7:2). This suggests to me that, if in our attempt to adhere to a particular commandment, we find ourselves without love for God or one another, we are not, in reality, following the commandment we think we are. Complexities.
The question then becomes: What is love? According to Moroni, love is charity (Moro. 7:47). According to Paul, we can perform good works (and I submit, follow other commandments) and still lack charity, or love (I Corinthians 13: 3). He also teaches that charity (love) rejoices in truth, not in iniquity (I Cor. 6) and that it hopes all things (I Cor. 7), etc.
But then Paul gives us three curious verses: Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. (I Cor. 13:8-10). Ah, sweet complexity. We see through a glass darkly. These conditions will end and then we will see as God sees. In other words, our perspective is not God’s. Not yet. And so we must strive to overcome our own perspective—to enhance and broaden it, not abandon it.
Right now, so many argue for their side, their perspective. I get that. Heck, in saying “Don’t argue,” I’m arguing my perspective. I’m aware of my own limitation and how far I fall short of what I’m asking us to aim for. Some might deem it hypocrisy on my part, but that’s the point. We are creatures who judge according to the rules we value, and we’ve been warned that the judgments we hand out are the judgments we’ll receive (3 Ne. 14:2).
This may be one of the most divisive periods in the history of the Church, perhaps rivaled only by the schism that occurred after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. Some have cast Sister Kelly as a martyr, but that’s unfair to her and to the Church. We can’t blame this divisiveness on either. We own it. This is our doing. The membership. We are choosing sides, we are arguing, we are exalting our ideas and our egos, we are living a gospel of stratification. If we didn’t choose sides, there’d be nothing dividing us. If we were as loving as we aspire to be, no one would feel marginalized. There’d be no need to form groups that agitate to be heard.
I’m all pie-in-the-sky, unicorns, and rainbows, I know. Like I said, I’m both naïve and arrogant. But I’m trying, trying, trying to understand the goodness in the hearts of others. Of course I understand evil exists. I can see how what I’m proposing could be construed as a backdoor to validating evil. (e.g. If Hitler’s perspective/heart truly believed that creating a master race would serve the greater good, then shouldn’t we be merciful in our judgment of him? Emphatically no!) In this conversation, however, we aren’t talking about evil, but about our people whose intentions are good. I acknowledge complexity in all thought. I’m suggesting a challenging process, and perhaps one fraught with perilous loopholes, but if, by looking for the good in my brothers and sisters, I receive mercy beyond the veil, if it means I become one infinitesimal bit more like my Heavenly Parents, then it’s worth the struggle.
Right now, I feel pretty isolated. Over the past few days, I’ve pulled inside a cave of my feelings, needing time alone with my frustration, sadness, hopelessness, and confusion. To my surprise, this is where I met the Angry God. Because this is where I became angry. Fortunately, He’s in here with me, sharing my frustration and comforting me, explaining to my Spirit that He wants me to work harder, that he wants us to become one.
I used to think we’d become one when we all understood the gospel the same way, but that isn’t it. Heavenly Father has made us subject to our own perspective. Our challenge is to grow beyond that as we become like Him. This life is our training ground. If God is capable of understanding each of our hearts and judging us accordingly, then we must train to do the same. We must work. We must let go of our egos and our need to be right. Let go … and love one another. Once we do, we just might fill the pews.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (I Cor. 13:12)