Seeking to understand the gospel after a childhood of religious manipulation, abuse, and abandonment feels like a climb up a hill, in the middle of a mudslide, as pelting rain blinds your vision. The truth is blurred by traumatic memories and the whisper-shout that faith equates being led to the slaughter. Only the power of Jesus Christ can guide us through the devil’s onslaught safely.
The Original Perspective
I used to ask myself, “Tessa, if your soul has previously been dissected and tortured in the name of Christ, isn’t sitting in a pew of any denomination an act of insanity? How much more deranged, then, to sit in the pew of a church whose doctrine caused so much torment? Who cares if it was distorted, look what it did.”
For many years, walking across the threshold of a chapel belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints created an inner battle between the past I know and the future I hoped for. I desperately wanted to want to be there. But, every atom in my body was slamming on brakes, creating burning sparks.
The Constant Fight
On many Sunday mornings, I informed my husband he would be going to church alone. I could not bear to hear more regurgitated teachings about loving others. I would often add, “As long as we think that person looks like an upstanding member of our congregation, we can love them unconditionally and overlook their sins – no matter how heinous. Nevermind the people we condemn in our conversations for their appearance and their substance habits, who would never, as a random example, molest their children. Or, worse, try to protect their fellow good ol’ boys who are doing the molesting by using their status as a church leader to declare their friends repentant and safe and their victims unforgiving and hardhearted.”
With rage ravaging every cell, I would take my place in the passenger seat after buckling the final car seat – a five-point harness that reminded me of being strapped into a trajectory I couldn’t stop.
I went to church every Sunday, despite my morning declarations. My children screaming, “I want to stay with Mom!” cut deep lacerations in my mother-soul.
As tears burst out of my eyes, I plead with God to soften my heart. The effort felt Herculean. How many times had I offered up the same prayer? Why did volcanic rock threaten to suffocate my heart beat faster than I could pull it off?
In the past three years, after a lot of work and help, life has smoothed considerably. I want to go to church and nurture friendships with other members instead of making the Great Escape after the final Amen.
Lying in Wait
But, as predictable as children fighting over a princess cup, another flare of contempt burst on the scene during the last couple of weeks. This month the Church’s Come, Follow Me curriculum focuses on the book of Mosiah found in The Book of Mormon. As I searched the list of study and teaching helps printed at the end of the lesson, I came across the suggestion to act out the familiar King Benjamin scene. (King Benjamin stands on a tower and teaches the gospel to his people, reminding them of their dependence on God).
I nearly threw up and threw the manual across the room. Memories, more like nightmares, made a surprise performance on the stage of my mind.
When I was 12 or so, my parents thought reenacting the King Benjamin address for the youth of our ward was a splendid idea. Nothing inherently wrong with such a suggestion. I imagine many people with an appreciation for theater might think the same thing.
The Metal Tower and the Blue Bathrobe
My father, a welder by trade, decided he ought to play the part of King Benjamin. To do so, he would need a proper tower. Being a resourceful man, he brought home an enormous metal structure made of four great posts – we’re talking posts as nearly as tall as a house – with a flat top and a ladder on the side. This structure was so big he had to, with impressive creativity, haul the monstrosity home from work – some 29 miles. He drove home no faster than a hungry sloth.
The structure found a home in a tall grass field on our 4-acre property. He then created a small village of pseudo tents made from metal posts, plastic, and milk jugs to hold the plastic down. My mother put a poster board reading CTR Lane (CTR = Choose the Right) at the end of our long driveway to ensure people knew where they were going, in case the eyesore on our property was insufficient.
People came. Yes, they did. And my father, in his blue bathrobe, climbed to the top of his tower and read, nay shouted, the words of King Benjamin. If social media were around, the scene would have made for a meme mocking the insanity of today’s public discourse.
The ridiculous dramatization represents a foreboding darkness. At the time of my father’s infamous acting debut, our home was reaching what would be the tripwire of years of anguish ending in irreparable damage. At least irreversible in this life.
Traditionally, If I read the account of King Benjamin, I gave it nothing more than an annoyed gloss over. This time, I told Heavenly Father why I couldn’t study the first few chapters, using my ugly words to release years of bottled contempt.
He did not chastise me, nor pile up the “you-shouldn’t-feel-this-ways.”
Instead, He asked with surprising gentleness and, in my way of speaking, “How many times have you proclaimed the scriptures are true? That men are fallible, but God is not? Certainly, these five chapters are not exempt from containing the glorious truths of the gospel.”
So, I read.
For a few minutes I acted like a furious eight year old being asked to clean their room – huffing, puffing, and arms folded tightly across my chest. As my fit faded into humility, one line gave words to an idea I have been contemplating for a long time – how we view ourselves.
In Mosiah chapter 4, a people humbled by the word of God, “. . . viewed themselves in their own carnal state” (vs.2) Joyfully, because of their faith in Jesus Christ and His power to redeem, they, “. . . received a remission of their sins” (vs.3).
The words, “viewed themselves in their own carnal state” sat at the forefront of my mind as I considered the many lenses with which I have viewed myself. I reflected on many past conversations with people I love, both those with visible demons and those assumed to, ‘have it all.’
While the genesis is different, the wrestle is the same. Crippling feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness suffocate our dreams and ambitions. Worse, many of us have a deeply held belief that God Himself could not love us, His child, backed by an extensive list of anecdotal evidence.
Citing the cruel choices of others or our damaging personal decisions, we determine we have been cast into hell forever. At which point, we reason life cares not a wit whether we live or die.
We ask, “What does my life matter? Miserable is what I am, and misery is all I have. How can I numb this scalding mortal existence?” We view ourselves as unable, incapable, and destitute of resources to recover.
Indeed, Satan cleverly twists the gospel admonition to, “ . . . always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility” (Mosiah 4:11). He wants us to believe that to, “humble yourselves in the depths of humility,” means to keep our heads hung down in shame as we tally our sins on the wall and flog ourselves with a glass-embedded whip: 20 lashes for each infraction.
Jesus Christ, however, is teaching us the magnitude of His power. We cannot ‘do it’ alone or heal ourselves. The softening of my heart came only a few hours at a time because I thought I was charged with peeling off the volcanic rock until my nail beds were raw, and my fingerprints burned off. I told myself, “Tessa, you’re not working hard enough.”
My healing was slow, in part, because I did not acknowledge how powerless I am to heal myself.
To humble ourselves before the Savior is to, “Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9).
You nor I can convince our Older Brother that we are not worth His time or that His pain was in vain. His eternal sacrifice is God’s unchangeable love in action.
Nothing Can Compete with the Power of Jesus Christ
I cannot predict how many memories lie at the back of my mind, waiting for their turn to be heard and healed. Frequently I recall an event without associating any feeling to it. But then, unexpectedly and instantly, I feel like I am reliving the heartache, panic, and helplessness all over again. I want to run, fight, scream, destroy, and sob until my life-force feels nearly ripped out of my body with a glove made of nails.
Nor can I predict the unexpected trials and tragedies ahead.
Whatever comes, I am upheld by the power of Jesus Christ – a power greater than any lying tongue or calloused heart.