It’s no secret that norms in American society are shifting, and that they are pretty much following along the path set by European norms, which shifted first. Churches are emptier and younger people are less committed to any guiding philosophy of life or pattern of honorable behavior than older people. More and more Americans qualify to be called “nones” — people with no particular religious affiliation. Here’s one chart from Pew.
If this trend continues, more children will be born to parents with no particular religious belief, and the numbers will tilt away from religious affiliation ever faster. One thing about religious affiliation is that most churches have guiding doctrines, covenants, and ordinances that are meant to guide us through life, give us security and comfort, help us to be good people, and increase our spiritual connection with God. People without religious affiliation but who desire to be spiritual have the fluidity to make up their own doctrine, find their own moral compass, and find spirituality wherever they personally feel it.
The Ordinary God
Another phenomenon is the drift away from belief in the all-powerful, all-knowing God of our fathers. Religion News Service posted online an article about the drift away from the God of might. The article’s introduction cited a 1960’s poll that asked people whether they believed in God. One question posed went like this…“Do you believe in a god who can change the course of events on earth?” One woman answered, “No, just the ordinary one.”
The conclusion of the author was that religion is not disappearing, but it has been becoming much less important, even to the so-called religious among us:
God once was seen as commanding the entire universe and supervising all of its inhabitants — inflicting tragedies, bestowing triumphs, enforcing morality. But now, outside of some lingering loud pockets of orthodoxy, we have witnessed the arrival of a less mighty, increasingly inconsequential version of God.
Along with this diminishing of God in our imaginations has come a diminishing of what God requires of us. Except to radicalized adherents of every religion, God seems to have eased up considerably in the commandments category. Sixty years ago nearly all Evangelical Christians believed that drinking and social dancing are sinful. Now, most do not. Nowadays, only 22 percent of American Jews keep kosher, and only 13 percent avoid handling money on the Sabbath, according to another Pew report. Only about 16 percent attend synagogue on a regular basis.
Recently, MSN Living posted an article called “25 Life Rules that No Longer Apply.” Yeah, eyeglasses are no longer un-sexy; pride is no longer a four-letter word; people no longer retire at 65; people no longer confine themselves to three meals a day; they no longer think tanner is hotter; they are willing to wear white after Labor Day; some are questioning the no-pain-no-gain mantra for exercise; they’ve abandoned the “children should be seen and not heard” ideal, and they no longer believe in sticking with one vocation forever. But the article also claims that the majority of Americans no longer consider pre-marital sex to be sinful; most believe in legalizing marijuana use; and soon a majority will support gay marriage. No one can deny that moral values are changing, becoming more lax and more liberal. One axiom floating around is “the only sin is calling other people sinful.”
My Way or the Highway
Human beings tend to believe that once they make a decision about acceptable behavior they are right, and everyone else is wrong. It’s human nature. But God has a few things to say about that:
All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquities of us all (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 14:6).
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise (Proverbs 12:15).
Yea, they are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand: they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter (Isaiah 56:11).
Behold, thus saith the Lord unto my people—you have many things to do and to repent of; for behold, your sins have come up unto me, and are not pardoned, because you seek to counsel in your own ways (Doctrine and Covenants 56:14).
They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16).
Note that Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants is the introduction to this collection of modern revelation to modern prophets and was written by the Savior Himself. He promises that His wrath will soon pour out upon the wicked without measure, and that He has ordained His servants to preach His gospel and call the world to repentance, that those who repent might not suffer. He promises to rain fire from heaven. Scary, right?
Commandments from God Are True Blessings
What we are seeing is that even those who still believe in God and consider themselves religious have abandoned the idea that much is required of them in order to be called God’s children. People who accept and live according to commandments from God are looked upon as imprisoned, restricted, narrow-minded and unhappy, unable to be fulfilled or live life to the fullest.
Orthodox Jews live according to the Laws of Moses, and guess what? There are 613 of them. While outsiders may see them as restrictive and outdated, much joy is experienced by those who live them, and their lives are enriched as their faith imbues every daily act.
Some of the laws that Mormons (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) live are obvious to friends of other faiths — they don’t smoke, drink, or imbibe coffee or tea. They dress modestly. They teach a law of chastity which forbids sex outside of traditional marriage. They marry for eternity in Mormon temples. Others are not so obvious. In Mormon temples they vow to transfer their attachment to worldly things to a focus upon Godly things, to be willing to consecrate all they have (considering them God’s in the first place) to God. Mostly, this is a frame of mind and orientation of the heart. Most will never be called to consecrate everything they have or to give up their lives to prove their fealty to the Lord, but they do live their daily lives unto the Lord and seek to have “an eye single to His glory.” When that happens, all worldly things, honors, and achievements fade into unimportance by comparison. An amazing thing happens when this is accomplished. Revelations pour forth; learning about God and His ways increases; an eternal perspective is gained; comfort, serenity, and joy increase.
Fact is, the closer you get to Heavenly Father, the more commandments you receive. Many of those are personal, not church-administered, and relate to your own role in building up His kingdom on earth, your choices as to your vocation and service to others, and your family relationships.
And they shall also be crowned with blessings from above, yea, and with commandments not a few, and with revelations in their time—they that are faithful and diligent before me (Doctrine and Covenants 59:4).
This is not a “Works-Based” Gospel
Mormons believe in Christ’s grace. Salvation and exaltation cannot be earned, but keeping God’s commandments with Christ’s help makes us more like Him. We strive to have His image in our countenances as He refines us. Every right choice, every purifying trial endured by turning to Him and calling on His grace, makes us lighter and brighter. We are spiritual beings having an earthly experience, and we seek to use that experience to fine-tune our spirits. We hope someday to be worthy to live in God’s presence because we are like Him in His attributes of mercy and unconditional love.
For I, the Lord, rule in the heavens above, and among the armies of the earth; and in the day when I shall make up my jewels, all men shall know what it is that bespeaketh the power of God (Doctrine and Covenants 60:4).
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent (John 17:3).
But blessed are they who are faithful and endure, whether in life or in death, for they shall inherit eternal life (Doctrine and Covenants 50:5).
And, if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God (Doctrine and Covenants 14:7).
Is it really easier to go our own way and enjoy some sort of undefined spirituality? Is it safer or more comforting to decide what is moral moment by moment depending on our own desires? Is it really more noble to be totally tolerant and accepting of any behavior when there is a God in heaven who has stated unequivocally that judgment is nigh, and it won’t be pretty for the wicked?
Mormons submit that keeping the commandments of the all-powerful, all-mighty, all-knowing God is the way to joy. God is not ordinary, and the way is narrow.
That Said, God is Love
An article called “The First and Great Promise,” by Wallace Goddard is full of quotable paragraphs that demonstrate God’s unconditional love for His children. They reflect the scripture in Moses 1:39 in the Pearl of Great Price, wherein God says, “…this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” God’s whole work is to exalt us, to bring us home into His presence. In the Book of Moses God reveals that He has created worlds without number, and yet He knows every molecule, every thought, and every feeling of every one of us every minute.
“Think of the purest, most all-consuming love you can imagine. Now multiply that love by an infinite amount—that is the measure of God’s love for you. …Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely. . . . He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken” (Dieter F.Uchtdorf, “The Love of God,” Ensign, Nov 2009, 21–24).
“I testify this morning of God’s limitless love for his children, of his unquenchable desire to help us heal our wounds, individually and collectively. . . . God is not dead, and he is not an absentee landlord. God is not uncaring, or capricious, or cantankerous. Above all, he is not some sort of divine referee trying to tag us off third base. The first and great commandment on earth is for us to love God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength because surely the first and great promise in heaven is that he will always love us that way.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘Look to God and Live’,” Ensign, Nov 1993, 13, emphasis added)
“What amazing declarations! Regardless of our earth histories, we all have someone who is crazy about us. Each one of us has Someone—a Father in Heaven—who loves us with His whole heart, might, mind and strength.”  Goddard continues:
How do we gain trust in the love He offers us?
First, we can look for and acknowledge markers of His love: the tender mercies, answered prayers, feelings of comfort or joy, moments when we sense His presence, experiences of guidance and direction, etc. We are wise to record and revisit these revelations.
Then we can make ourselves available to His love. We can study what helps us connect with Him. We can do those things that bring us closer to Him.
As we begin to allow His love to permeate us, we respond by offering our hearts, might, mind, and strength to Him in return.
Even as our resolve to follow Him increases, we will continue to fall short. But rather than see occasions of repentance as humiliating admissions of remarkable stupidity that threaten His ability to continue loving us, we should view them as regular reminders of our dependence on Him.
Our continual need to humble ourselves and repent of failings does not separate us from His love. Rather it is an opportunity to celebrate that His loving redemptiveness is larger than our weakness. Indeed, nothing can “separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
The result of following Goddard’s advice over the years of our life should imbue us with gratitude and increase our trust in deity. We don’t just believe in Christ, we believe Christ. And we learn to love Him. And as Christ has said, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love (John 15:10).