The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a vehicle, not a destination. But before we talk more about that vehicle, we need to set the stage and talk more about the destination.
The destination is, of course, the Celestial Kingdom. Living in the presence of God the Father. But what would you say the key to abiding God’s presence in the Celestial Kingdom is? Is it simply believing in Jesus? Is it a completed collection of pure, error-free knowledge about Christ, His nature, and His doctrines? Is it being able to present a completed checklist of ordinances? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that none of those options are totally correct.
The character of God
God can command the seas. He can create planets, and life itself. He is all-powerful. But here’s another question for you: Is God God because he’s powerful? Or is God powerful because he’s God? In other words, is God God because of what He does or because of who He is?
Alma 42 in The Book of Mormon discusses two of God’s defining attributes: Justice and mercy. The entire plan of salvation is built on God’s justice and mercy. And according to Alma 42, if God were to violate the laws of justice and mercy—in other words, if He were to stop being consistently just and merciful—He would “cease to be God.”
Now, it is the goal of each one of us to qualify for the overwhelming blessing of exaltation—becoming like God. many critics of our faith scoff at that doctrine. “Ha! Those Mormons believe they’ll be able to create planets and stuff. How silly.”
But viewing deification through the lens of doing as God does is secondary to becoming like God in the sense of being as God is.
Our goal is to become perfectly just, perfectly merciful, perfectly loving, perfectly righteous, perfectly humble, perfectly perfect. In order to abide the presence of God, we have to incorporate these God-like attributes into our very being as best we can in this life. We must plant those seeds now, and God can help us grow and perfect them in eternity.
What about the ordinances?
But, in order to be exalted, we have to participate in the ordinances, right? Yes! That’s true. But “doing” ordinances is not the end goal, just as the Law of Moses needed to be obeyed but pointed toward the real target, the Law of Christ, which transcended those performances. Indeed, the Law of Moses is often described as a law of “performances and ordinances.” We do receive special gifts and promises through ordinances, but each ordinance is also tied to a covenant. Both the gifts and covenants associated with each ordinance are designed to help us become more like God.
Notice that ordination to the priesthood, for example, does give us the power to act in the name of God (do as God does), but remember Doctrine and Covenants 121:
That theof the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be nor handled only upon the of righteousness.
That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake toour , or to gratify our , our vain ambition, or to exercise control or or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
Clearly the power afforded us through priesthood ordination to act for God is entirely first based upon our ability to be like God. If your character goes unchecked, “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.”
Character precedes power.
The scriptures tell us, ‘In the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.’ Sometimes we may think of ordinances as a checklist—necessary for exaltation; but in truth each unleashes a godly power that helps us become more like Christ. For example:
When we are baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, we are made clean—thus becoming more holy like God. In addition, through the Holy Ghost, our minds may be enlightened and our hearts softened so we can think and feel more like Him.
The Church is the vehicle, not the destination
Alright, we’ve finally made it to the vehicle part. So, our final destination is the presence of God. How do we get there? By developing the attributes of God—becoming more like Him. The purpose of the Church is to help us get there. It provides us essential ordinances connected to those attributes and it gives us opportunities to develop essential attributes.
Now, imagine yourself traveling in this metaphorical vehicle. It’s got lots of moving (and non-moving) parts. More parts than you can count. And not all of them are perfect. Maybe there’s a big fat crack in the windshield. That’s not pretty. Maybe there’s a headlight out. Maybe the A/C isn’t working. That’d be a total bummer. The car might not be pretty, it might be missing a part or ten, but the ultimate question should be: Despite the vehicle’s flaws, is it taking me to the appropriate destination? If the answer is “yes,” then the flaws are of little importance.
The Church has flaws. Maybe Brigham Young said something offensive or doctrinally suspect. Maybe there are policies that we believe need to be changed or updated. Maybe there are questions we don’t have answers for.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting the crack in the windshield to be fixed. We shouldn’t shun or look down upon those who notice the cracks. But it’s also true that a crack in the windshield does not mean the car is broken. Does this article advocate for ignoring the cracks? No. But just like the crack in the windshield of my real-life car, we should focus on the road that lies on the other side of the crack.
Focusing on what matters most
And here’s where things get dangerous: If you spend all of your time focusing on the car’s problems, you’re at risk of taking your eyes off the road. Jacob 4:14 describes the occurrence this way: “Wherefore, because of their , which came by looking beyond the , they must needs fall….”
When we obsess over reconciling every controversial event from Church history, or when we refuse to return to church because of an offensive member, or when we zero in on a policy we disagree with, we forget that the gospel of Jesus Christ transcends that stuff (thankfully). We focus so much on the faults in the car that we forget where the car is trying to take us.
I don’t wish to marginalize the very real concerns some people have about the Church. If you think the vehicle is completely totaled—unfixable and inoperable—that’s different than a crack in the windshield and I don’t envy the turmoil within you. Those of us in the vehicle with you should strive to help you in any way possible. But many complaints about the Church, while still serious and real, are purely cosmetic in nature.
God is totally aware that the vehicle of the Church has some rusty spots. But if it gets you from A to B (which is what it’s designed for), that’s what ultimately matters. It might not be pretty, but it works. Maybe that’s why Christ reminds us in Doctrine and Covenants 10:69,
And now, behold, whosoever is of my church, andof my church to the end, him will I establish upon my , and the of hell shall not prevail against them.
Applied to our vehicle metaphor, it might read thusly,
And now, behold, whosoever is in my car, andof my car to the end, him will I establish upon my , and the of hell shall not prevail against them.
Let us be careful not to confuse the vehicle with the destination, and may God bless us on our journey back to Him.