Working out our Salvation and the Gay Mormon Dilemma
By John D. Gustav-Wrathall
And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led…. After ye have arrived in the promised land, ye shall know that I, the Lord, am God; and that I, the Lord, did deliver you from destruction…. Wherefore, I, Nephi, did strive to keep the commandments of the Lord, and I did exhort my brethren to faithfulness and diligence. (1 Nephi 17: 13-15)
A few years ago, after I had given a talk discussing the dilemmas faced by gay Mormons, a young woman clearly moved by my account of those dilemmas raised her hand and wanted to know what well-meaning people of faith could do to help. In another time and place, and under other circumstances, I might have offered the usual activist’s laundry list: demonstrate and work to raise awareness, talk to friends and family, write letters to leaders, give money to organizations committed to gay rights, vote and encourage others to vote. But under the circumstances that had brought me to the particular place and time in which I had given that talk, I had different advice for her. I told her to be faithful. To live the Gospel of Jesus Christ fully and authentically. To stay active and involved and true to the Church. I encouraged her to keep her heart from bitterness or anger or impatience, and never to become critical of the Church. I told her I certainly never want to hear about individuals leaving the Church in frustration because they feel that the Church is treating me or others in my situation unfairly. If she did feel genuine concern for her lesbian and gay sisters and brothers, I encouraged her simply to keep us in her prayers.
In some ways that advice was as hard for me to give as it may have been for her to receive, because it takes letting go our illusions about what we can control, and because it requires faith in a power that is beyond us, that is constantly working for our good. As I have continued to advocate this kind of “faith-based” approach to gay rights, a frequent criticism I have encountered is that it is too passive.
I acknowledge, there is an element of passivity in it. In the Book of Mormon text quoted above, the words of the Lord that Nephi cites were revealed as an explanation for why Lehi and his family were commanded to make their journey in such an unconventional way. For instance, they were commanded not to light fires, because the Lord would miraculously make their food “sweet” without having to cook it. When Nephi built the ship that would carry him and his family across the great waters, he “did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did [he] build the ship after the manner of men; but [he] did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto [him]” (1 Nephi 18: 2). The notion of sailing on a ship built “not after the manner of men” based on instructions mysteriously received by revelation was sufficiently terrifying to Nephi’s older brothers to spark mutiny. It is understandable in human terms why Laman and Lemuel might be hesitant to set out on the ocean in such a craft. The Lord’s purpose in leading Lehi’s family through the wilderness so unconventionally was so they would know at journey’s end that the Lord was God, and that it was he who had delivered them. I acknowledge that if this is the model of redemption upon which we rely, there is of necessity an aspect of forgoing logic, there is an aspect of cultivating dependency on an unseen power that is unknown and unknowable in terms accessible to common sense. In other words, there is an aspect of this kind of approach that is profoundly passive.
And our common sense rebels against such a passive, “faith-based” approach to our problems. We naturally fear that such faith might be a kind of opiate, blinding us to injustice so long as it is religiously framed or rationalized, encouraging us to trust leaders who don’t have our best interests at heart, lulling us into waiting when we should be fighting. As Karl Marx put it: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”
But faith, while having passive aspects or elements, is not merely passive. Faith is not merely credulous, not merely a surrender of our critical faculties to some unknown higher power. The end of faith is knowledge, to know God as he is, to know him as the ground of our existence and the source of our salvation. Its purpose is not simply to lull us with imaginary hopes, but to bring us into something truer, something more real and human and humane than what the world as presently constituted can offer us.
As anyone knows who has practiced faith, faith places uniquely active demands on us. It requires us to work, struggle and strive toward a world presently unimaginable and unseen but better. The “promised land” of all true religion is not just a physical terrain (though it is also that, because real people occupy real, physical space), but it is also a state of mind and heart and spirit that is described in Mormon theological terms as “Zion,” as that state of human existence in which there is no poverty, pride or inequality, because all God’s children are of one heart and one mind and dwell together in righteousness. This is why the Lord tells Nephi, “inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land,” and why Nephi’s first response to the Lord’s explanation of the nature of their journey is, “Wherefore, I, Nephi, did strive to keep the commandments of the Lord, and I did exhort my brethren to faithfulness and diligence.” Any promised land, no matter how sacred, can become a heaven or a hell depending on the faithfulness of those who inhabit it, so any journey toward a promised land is always more an inward journey toward righteousness and love than it is an outward journey toward some physical place. And any such striving for righteousness and love will have both inward and outward, both passive and active elements. It involves each believer both as a teacher and as a learner, both as a speaker and as a listener, both as a giver and as a receiver. And it requires of us profound humility.
Ultimately, however, I do not believe we have within us the capacity to achieve the kind of righteousness required to dwell in Zion in and of ourselves. With unaided common sense we are certainly capable of appreciating the beauty of Zion. The concept of Zion as a perfect human social order based on equality and peace is the highest goal not just of every religion in the world but of all secular philosophy as well. As a concept it is universally admired. But as a practice it has universally failed. I believe the reason it fails is because the level of sacrifice and personal transcendence required to create a true Zion cannot be achieved through commonsense notions of virtue. There’s too much of self and pride, and too little vision in the unaided human heart.
So I cannot say that I know how we will get to the promised land, but I know that it will not be by conventional means. It will be by miraculous means, by means that, when we finally arrive, we will be compelled to acknowledge, as the Lord tells Nephi, “that I, the Lord, am God; and that I, the Lord, did deliver you from destruction.” And the beginning of such a journey can only begin in relationship with that God. So it requires acts of listening to the Spirit, of trusting what we learn from the Spirit, of patience in the face of incredulity, and of obedience. In other words, faith.
While I do not know how we will ultimately be brought into the promised land we all yearn for, while I believe that will be up to the Lord, I can still tell what I know of my journey toward it. In the summer of 1986 I was suicidal because I accepted uncritically the teachings of Church leaders that homosexual feelings must be the result of some personal sin, and I felt powerless to overcome them. I had had a testimony since the age of eight, and had lived my whole life as obediently and faithfully as I could. I had served an honorable mission for the Church and was a Spencer W. Kimball Scholar at BYU. And I was ready to throw my life away in despair because I could not understand why it was that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I prayed, no matter how faithful and obedient I was, these feelings simply wouldn’t go away. In fact, they seemed to grow stronger.
Thanks be to God, I learned for myself what Nephi learned, namely that the Lord leads us and saves us in unconventional ways, if only we will open our hearts and listen to him. When Nephi’s brothers complained “we cannot understand the words which our father hath spoken,” Nephi replied, “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” And they answered, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15: 7-9). So it was with me. When I stopped making assumptions about the state of my soul, when I stopped arrogating to myself a power that belongs to God alone and stopped judging and condemning myself based on an incorrect and impartial understanding of myself, and exercised at least enough faith to “inquire of the Lord,” and seek understanding about the state of my soul, only then did I learn to praise the Lord that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” that in me his works are “marvellous… and that my soul knoweth right well” (Psalm 139:14).
At one point in my life, I wearied myself and burned myself out trying to defend myself from homophobic attacks and criticisms. I felt the need to justify my existence and my love for my husband by arguing with interpretations of scripture or religious viewpoints that condemned me. But ultimately those efforts fed a kind of hopelessness. When I learned to turn to the Lord, to surrender to him my doubts and fears, and to ask for his help, I found flowing into me the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4: 7). I learned that ultimately, it is impossible to communicate or justify verbally the most important things about who I am, and why the love I share with my husband is important and valuable and a gift of God, and why it has a place in God’s creation and ultimately in God’s eternal kingdom. I understand that God knows the answers to these questions, and simply demands of me trust that his knowing will gradually become our knowing, but only as we walk a bit further in the path of love. I understand that all knowing in this world is partial until we have walked in faith first. So when people speak words that are judgmental and hurtful and false; when people say things or behave in ways that demean me or hurt me; I understand that whatever I might say in my own defense will always be partial; will never capture the fullness of who I am or God’s purposes for me; and to do so is to fail to trust what God has revealed to me in the stillness and silence.
In that stillness, I find an endless reservoir of love to offer back for the misunderstanding and unkindness. In the stillness I find myself beckoned on by the vision of Zion, of a Kingdom of Love in which I, and my husband and our son have a place and role to play. I find the patience to begin to live in that kingdom, even when no one else around me – even my dearly beloved brothers and sisters in the Church – don’t see it yet or understand my place in it. I find the strength to face challenges in my relationship with my husband; to be a guide and an example to our teenage son; to make our home a shelter in the storms of life that all of us have to face, and that few of us can find the strength to face without the love and nurture that only a family can provide. And I find the hope to speak out, to tell my story, to seek out and build community, to make a difference, to be a voice and a presence in a world that might otherwise leave me cynical and hopeless.
All of this begins with being faithful. That faithfulness includes refusing to see the Church, however imperfect its leaders or members, as the source of my problems, but rather the vehicle through which all my highest and deepest hopes and aspirations can be achieved. Sheltering and protecting hope and listening to the Spirit are the most important work we do. All other good works flow from that inward, invisible work. If we have the faith, hope and love that emanate from a dynamic relationship with a living God, we will have the discernment we need to evaluate and engage in other good works, which may include items from the traditional activist’s laundry list: demonstrating and working to raise awareness, talking to friends and family, writing letters to leaders, giving money to good causes, voting and encouraging others to vote. But it will also help us discern when it is time to take a step back and wait, to offer an olive leaf, to listen and simply to pray. We may be led unconventionally. And in the end our salvation will certainly come from unexpected quarters and in ways we never would have believed, to help us know who is its author and to give him the glory he is due.