Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why Would Heavenly Father Do That?

This now-infamous question (slightly paraphrased) posed by President Boyd K. Packer at October Conference will, I think, reverberate in the minds of many church members for years to come – and not just with respect to sexual orientation.  I can’t help thinking that Elder Packer may for many members have inadvertently, in a moment of startling but unintended candor, let the genie of existential doubt out of the bottle of complacent certainty, and that it may be impossible for some people to ever get that genie to return to its comfortable but confined space. 

I believe I may be one of those people, for I have had some rather bitter experience of late with this question. 

Scene One:  Our Son

Our oldest son came home unexpectedly almost half-way through his mission, suffering from depression and anxiety.  I was caught unawares and desperately attempted to understand, over the course of the ensuing weeks, what had happened and what was happening to him.  I felt, however, like I was continually trying to play catch up in this game of understanding, and I always seemed to be behind the curve. 

Because I was playing catch-up (and because I was still too attuned to my ingrained Mormon expectations), I didn’t see the next major curve ball:  before I knew what was happening, I was taking my suicidal son to the emergency room.  I will never forget following the ambulance ahead of us on that snowy night as he was transported to a different hospital where he would be admitted to a psychiatric ward.  I will never forget going to visit him during the week he was a patient there, thankful that it was only one week.  And I will never forget asking myself over and over:  Why is this happening?  Why would Heavenly Father do this to my son and to us?

But there were more challenges ahead.  Our son seemed to be improving after being in the hospital; his medication had been changed, and he was thankfully no longer suicidal.  He tried to put together some plans for how he could move forward with his life.  But he met with disappointment after disappointment. 

Finally, a few weeks after coming home from the hospital, he broke down in a fit of anger and despair before melting into paroxysms of sobs. He had been praying for help with his life and had felt good about a job interview; but it had turned into another dead end.  He snapped.  I eventually got him to unlock the door of his room and let me in to talk to him.  Another scene I will never forget:  books thrown off shelves, furniture tossed this way and that, his room a wreck.  He turned to me with an anguished look on his face, eyes red, tears streaming down his cheeks, and shouted, “Why is God doing this to me?  I trusted Him!  I did what I thought He wanted me to do!  And I keep running into brick walls!  I’m never going to trust Him again!” 

Scene Two:  Me and My Wife

My wife and I basically got married because we both felt that this was what Heavenly Father wanted us to do.  I realize how incredibly na├»ve that sounds, to put it charitably. We both had “strong testimonies” and felt that we had received a witness that we were meant to be together, despite the fact that we were very different from each other, had different interests, came from differing family backgrounds, and basically couldn’t let two days pass without getting into an argument.

Because we felt we were supposed to get married, we trusted God to bless us with happiness as we worked away at this “arranged marriage.” But more arguments and adjustments followed the wedding.  I started graduate school and our first child was soon on his way.  We continued to experience problems, and I think it could be said that we were both unhappy, but we felt that we were doing what we were “supposed” to do.  

As the years passed, we continued to proceed on “the path” (i.e., actively following the Church’s prescribed plan of happiness for families) – me working away at my career and in church callings, she bearing additional children and taking care of things at home.  The main thing we had in common by this point was raising our children and staying on “the path” and working on other goals for our family.

This was the situation for much of our marriage:  blindly working away, but (both of us) feeling an underlying sense of unhappiness, disconnection with self, and a growing suspicion that we had badly miscalculated God’s plans for our lives.  These gnawing feelings, however, were kept at bay over the past number of years due to the sense of purpose engendered by the adoption of a couple of children – which (you guessed it) we did because we felt it was something God wanted us to do. 

But once these adoptions were completed, the underlying problems in our marriage rose to the surface, and we were confronted with some inconvenient truths – i.e., the same ones that had been there all along but which we had ignored or pushed away.

Now, we are faced with financial obligations incurred to complete the adoptions; the expected financial blessings did not materialize.  Furthermore, the badly worn covering of faith that we had been stretching for years over the deep fissures and cracks in our relationship finally ripped open, revealing the truth of what lay underneath.

Like my son, I now pose the question:  Why?  Why did we do these things which our minds and our hearts told us were mistakes?  We trusted God with our lives and honestly tried to do what we thought He wanted us to do.  Why would He do this to us?

Scene Three:  Our Daughter

A couple of days ago, I described a heartfelt conversation with my daughter (who is a freshman at college) after discovering that she had asked my wife over Thanksgiving break if I am gay (which my wife had confirmed). 

During the course of my discussions with my daughter that day, we also talked about the Church.  It turns out she is doing a lot of soul-searching.  She has always had what I would term a “strong testimony,” but she also has a strong, independent mind and spirit that has never felt comfortable with the “softball answers” that are common in your average Sunday School class.

At one point in our conversation, she said, “I don’t understand why Heavenly Father would do this to us.  We have always tried to do exactly what He has asked of us – yet look at the situation our family is in!  You always hear that if you keep the commandments and do what God asks you to do, He’ll bless you.  But He hasn’t done that for us.  And I don’t understand that.”

What could I say?  She was echoing my own thoughts.  She knew that the “pat Sunday School answers” (as she put it), would not cut it.  She remarked that people typically would say one or more of the following in response to her question:  God won’t try you beyond your capacity to endure; or, you receive no witness until after the trial of your faith; or, faith precedes the miracle.  But all of these simplistic answers are just so much verbiage thrown at a life that is complex, perplexing and – sometimes – deeply disappointing by people who often never want to honestly discuss the stark realities that lay just beneath the (rigidly) placid surface of Mormon life.

My daughter went on to ask, “What has happened to our family?”  She knew that we had always tried our best to “live the Gospel,” to do what we were “supposed” to do.  We had applied the “formula,” yet the formula hadn’t worked – at least not the way in which it was advertised.  And she didn’t understand that.

So What’s the Point?

So what is the point of these ramblings?  What do I see as the common threads that are woven through the experiences of my son, my daughter and my wife and me (both individually and as a couple), i.e., the lessons I think I have learned?

First, though implicitly encouraged to do so by the Church, don’t surrender authenticity. I don’t believe God requires us to do that.  In fact, I believe He wants us to do just the opposite!  When we surrender who we truly are in order to fit the parameters of another person or an organization or a belief system, from that moment, we begin living a lie.  And the longer we live the lie, the deeper will be the damage, disappointment, resentment and unhappiness that result from living the lie. 

Second, recognize and reject the steady diet of conformity and blind faith to which we modern-day Mormons have, in general, been exposed.  Implicit in much of what the modern Church teaches and does (dating at least to the advent of correlation) is that sameness and uniformity and conformity are all “desirables” that should be embraced.  Deviance from the path is discouraged; differences are often suspect (despite lip service to the contrary); lack of conformity to established standards results in judgment and ostracism; and free-thinking and faith outside the parameters established by the Church are viewed as tantamount to apostasy.  Again, most of this is implicit, woven through the fabric of life as a modern-day Mormon.  It becomes part of our belief system, almost without recognizing it.

Third, recognize and reject another one of the most engrained premises of modern Mormonism, i.e.,  “a relentless habit of ascribing everything in life, no matter how small or detailed, to divine intent, design or intervention.”  (See Rob Donaldson’s post here, which I discuss in my post here.)  Rejection of this premise not only correlates with one of Mormonism’s central tenets, i.e., free agency, but it also places squarely on one’s own shoulders the responsibility of living one’s life, of learning and growing, of seeking and pondering, of choosing and rejecting (a position which one would think would be axiomatic in the LDS universe, considering that a core belief of Mormonism is that we are here on this earth in order to progress toward Godhood).

In pondering the question that is posed in the title of this post, I have realized that, at various points in my life, I have sacrificed authenticity because I was told and believed that I could obtain a “higher” blessing only by doing so.  Secondly, I have bought into concepts of conformity, uniformity and blind faith that have channeled my thinking into certain narrow streams of thought that ultimately proved to be invalid.  And thirdly, perhaps most damaging of all, I bought into the premise that many aspects of my life were subject to “divine intent, design or intervention,” and in so doing, I effectively surrendered responsibility for living an authentic, deliberate life.

So, in the final analysis, I have realized that I have asked the wrong question.  Instead of asking, “Why would Heavenly Father do that?”, I should instead ask, “Why did I do this to myself?”  I pretty much already know the answer(s) to that question.  The next question I should ask would be, “Are you now ready to take responsibility for your own life, to try to live it authentically, and to allow yourself to think, feel and believe outside the box you have lived in for the past 20+ years?”  The answer to this question is a definitive, resounding “YES!”


  1. How you have pinpointed the malaise behind conformity in its many faces, i.e., with the Mormon church, in society, with one's dreams or sexuality, financial hangups etc.

    I honestly, and would like to underline the urgency in which I believe that you should SERIOUSLY look into publishing your narrative and thoughts. You have so much to share and you state it so clearly and with such great insight. It hits the nail on the head and resonates with many across borders, thus breaking down those borders.

    I support you Invictus ... may you always see your Life Quest as one of a Pilgrim ... you will always go far.

  2. The "So What's the Point?" section of this post is right on the money. I don't know when it was, but one day something started to really bother me about the Mormon belief system. I could rant about it for days and I wouldn't have been able to pinpoint it and describe it as well as you have in this post. As Libellule said above, you hit the nail on the head, and it certainly does resonate with me!

  3. Vic, thank you for continuing to share your journey and hard-won insights.

    What you've written today is affirming of my unorthodox testimony that the church itself is also subject to the refiner's fire, and often we (members and cultural Mormons) are blessed as much or more by our questioning than by obedience.

    I agree with Libellule that your work here may have a future in print, and perhaps in an ebook, too.

  4. Another very powerful essay. Wow!

    This post resonated with me. Like a lot of people in situations like you describe, I ended up reevaluating my beliefs. For me resolving the paradox of theodicy meant admitting the existence of natural chaos. In a chaotic system, a small change in initial conditions can have a big effect in the system's outcome. (This is also known as the butterfly effect.) Chaotic systems are unpredictable. The atmospheric dynamics that influence weather, for example, are known to be chaotic. Predicting hurricanes and tornadoes a year in advance isn't feasible for us or, I expect, for a supreme being.

    I take comfort in the randomness of the world. The world isn't out to get me. It isn't my enemy. The forces of evil aren't conspiring against me. Things don't happen "for a reason." Instead, I'm part of a larger whole, and it's up to me to make prudent decisions. The outcomes of my decisions aren't assured. I might get hired for that job, or maybe not. It might even depend on what the person who interviewed me had for breakfast that day. As a result, I do the best I can given the knowledge that I don't control every aspect of the system.

    The randomness and complexity of existence have a kind of inherent beauty. (The Himalayas are majestic because of their roughness and irregularity, not in spite of it.) I am grateful to be here in this beautiful, chaotic existence.

  5. Wouldn't life be more simple if we just had a reset button somewhere? But hey, that's just life, it is complex, crazy, confusing and sometimes even fun and exciting.

    In the LDS culture (not gospel) it is so important to show that all is well and put on a good front no matter how bad our lives may be or how badly we're doing because those who suffer are not following the gospel so we're taught at a very young age what to say, how to act and how to always put on that happy face. I always wondered how could I possibly be going through so much pain and misery yet the rest of my ward were so happy, what was I doing wrong? Turns out we were all on the same boat of life and being humans being challenged, maybe some happiness and misery, yet putting our happy masks every Sunday... interesting concept.

    Making changes and corrections to a lifetime spent in ACT 1 is not the easiest thing and while it will be painful in many aspects it is not impossible but I think it is something extraordinary when we stop asking why would God do that to us and instead ask: What have I done?!?! Way to take the bull by the horns!

  6. Libellule - Thanks as always for your kind words and support!

    Ned - I like what you said, particularly about being blessed for questioning as well as "obedience".

    MoHoHawii - Wow! You've given me a lot more to think about. I may be mistaken, but I see another message between the lines about how theodicy and the butterfly effect applies in very real terms to aspects of my current situation. I appreciate you bringing these concepts to my attention. I also appreciate you sharing your thoughts (some would say "testimony") about finding beauty (and meaning) in randomness. (Libellule - any thoughts on this? :)) Again, thanks for your insightful and challenging yet comforting thoughts.

    Miguel - I always enjoy your comments as well. I particularly liked your phrase "those who suffer are not following the gospel." Such an insidious mode of thinking(!), no doubt inherited from our Calvinist forefathers. But there is no question that this way of thinking is alive and well in the church.

    Thanks, as always, for your support. I'm looking forward to meeting you one of these days!

  7. Apronkid - Also, as always, appreciated your comments. It's helpful to me to get feedback such as yours, because it tells me that I may not be crazy after all, that others had experienced something very similar to what I have experienced.

  8. Let me just add a quick follow up to my previous comment. Accepting that the world is random and unpredictable doesn't make life is meaningless, as is often argued. For me, meaning doesn't come from the outside. Meaning is found within us. For example, if I have a random accident that injures me, I can accept that I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where I find meaning is in my appreciation of the beauty of existence and in my relationships with other people. In other words, it is possible to reject the idea that God micromanages every detail and at the same time find great meaning and richness in life.

    Wanting more than this is greedy and self-centered, IMHO. :- )

  9. I actually just had a conversation (quite a heated one) on this subject just last night with a missionary who had recently gone home from serving in my area. The way you put this makes such a deep sound argument. Mormon culture is to follow the handbooks and Sunday school answers like lemmings right off a cliff if that's "God's will". I feel like I've jumped off the cliff so many times and I'm sick of it. I think that often "promptings" by the Holy Ghost are manufactured based on our own insecurities about what we *must* be doing wrong and so we have a *revelation* that we need to do something else that's illogical and difficult. I completely agree that a more deliberate and reasonable manner of living would be not only more fulfilling to many members, but also more in harmony with the gospel principle of agency and personal responsibility.

    Excellent post!

  10. Thanks for your embellishments, MoHoHawaii.

    Your comments have reminded of a sermon I once heard preached years ago by a Methodist minister whom I thought a lot of. The title of the sermon, as I recall, was "Living Without God Before God." The gist of his thoughts were much along the lines you have expressed, viz., that we should stop worrying about pleasing (and running to)God all the time, like a dutiful (and co-depenndent) child, but instead just get out there and serve people and live good lives. In other words, "men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness." (D&C 58:27)

  11. James - Thank you for your very well articulated comments. Again, reading comments such as yours about your own experiences empowers me as I continue on my pilgrimage: I feel like I'm not alone and I'm not crazy. Instead, I feel - paradoxically enough - spiritually fed. Thanks again, and I'm looking forward to checking out your new blog!

  12. Last night, my wife and I had a discussion. The church recently sent out a memo "encouraging" members to reference on their facebook, twitter and other social networking sites. I was really bothered by the idea that the church was telling me how to advertise to my friends.

    My wife thought I was being a bit harsh and saw it only as something that the church wanted people to possibly consider doing.

    My argument was that if the church is "encouraging" members to do things, then it viewed by all as something we're "supposed" to be doing. Suggestions are understood by many (or most) to be commandments.

    As a result, in my mind it degrades any attempt to live a spiritual or religious life down to a marketing plan.

    This raises no small amount of revulsion on my part. But I think that comes across in my rambling...

    Thanks for your blog, Invictus.

  13. Utahhiker - I hadn't heard about this yet, but it doesn't surprise me. I think you make an excellent point about suggestions turning into commandments (except when the brethren, at the end of priesthood session of conference, encourage civility and obedience to the law while driving).

    Thanks also for your insight about the "marketing plan". As I sit here, your comment has evoked so many thoughts ... I think I'll just have to leave it at that for now.

  14. CentralParkWesternerDecember 8, 2010 at 7:41 PM

    This is a GREAT blog - thank you for your extensive writing, invictus pilgrim. You have inspired me to begin writing myself, something I have bottled up for the five years since I was sitting in a hospital, with my mind shattered into scores of pieces.

  15. CentralParkWesterner - Thank you for your kind words. I wish you well as you begin writing. If you share your thoughts in a blog, please let us know.

  16. To come back to Hawaii's comment: I do think that the key to life is in arriving at a point when one can accept that Life is based on chaos, not order. Man makes order in an attempt to control. I do not in anyway, like Hawaii, that this means that acceptance is ambivalence or passiveness. I value acceptance as a quest of seeing life's horrors and beauties and seeing the "other" as a human being that merits respect, which requires tolerance, which requires understanding.

    I believe that people have tolerance issues, when they are enclosed within rules and measurements, in other words: something does not correspond to the linear path needed, or formula of A+B+C, to ACHIEVE a final result of perfection. This "imperfection", roughness, or deviation bothers and can enrage (look at the wars today). But here again, it is in the bother and the enraging that beauty can be seen if we choose to see it.

    Chaos causes crashes, but it also causes ENCOUNTERS. These encounters surprise, are spontaneous and poetic. They speak to the core of our being. The simple reason that they speak to the core of our being underlines its beauty and importance. I am not familiar with the concepts Hawaii mentions, but can only base this on my own personal beliefs and also concepts I research in modern literature and 'marginal' philosophy.

    As human beings, we are able to feel and think, and chaos enables this. I see chaos like a patchwork or a collage that is constantly changing. It creates an end result yet continues to create because of its creative process. Imagine a jagged, red mosaic piece that sits down next to another curvy and yellow. Each piece is its own identity, and together they with the other pieces create a beautiful ensemble. But, the simple contact of them all being together creates an energy that is imprevisble, that cannot be planned or calculated. This energy will enable each piece to discover the other, but to create a new creative process where they will continue to shift and move ...

    We are trained to want to control that process. Nothing keeps us from being a PART of the dynamic: engaging with the pieces and movements that speak to us. These engagements will change us ... and that is what is magical ... how will it change us? Only for the better because we make a conscious decision to participate or retract and as Hawaii said, to witness the beauty of the process.

    Ok, perhaps too much philosophizing for this morning? I hope that this makes sense!

  17. It seems to me, after reading this post, that the unspoken false premise behind President Packer's question is the premise that your daughter questioned, namely, "that if you keep the commandments and do what God asks you to do, He’ll bless you." Understanding that the blessing involves a guarantee of happiness in this life. It is this false expectation of happiness as a result of following God's will, that leads to loss of faith when people who realize that God hasn't made them happy. I once had a conversation in which a young man asked me if God would take care of him if he lived a moral, prayerful, and faithful life. My answer was, "No." I explained that God does not promise us happiness in this life, but what he promises is much better: eternal joy.

    Of course, living authentically is no more a guarantee of happiness than following the commandments.