Just polished off another chapter in the latest "Tennis Shoes" adventure. Thus I can post a new blog. Sorry I can't post as much as I'd like. But I watch the number of "views" here increase every day and I am very pleased. Still, I wish more folks would leave comments or notes. I'm most definitely not the last word on any issue that I may address.
The novel that I am now writing has forced me to deeply ponder the concept of apostacy. In particular, the monumental lapse of faith experienced by Judas Iscariot. There's much to learn by closely reading the four gospels and understanding Judas' local environment that helps us to, at least, understand his actions. Understanding is not acceptance. His actions were unspeakably heinous. But they at least reveal that Judas, son of Simon, was a product of his environment, and more particularly, a product of human weakness that often reveals itself in many different settings of human experience.
Virtually every Latter-day Saint has had personal experience (i.e., witnessing firsthand) the apostacy of someone they respect, love, or care about. Quite often we are profoundly baffled. Sometimes we are angry and defensive. But mostly, we're just tremendously sad. A few of us may have even found ourselves caught up in the web of apostacy and somehow fought our way back to full fellowship in the faith. I'm not sure any lesser word than "fought" can be used here. Phrases like "intensely struggled" or "battled with all our might, mind, and strength" are likely to be more accurate and appropriate.
Every story of apostacy is tragic and depressing. But the most confusing kind of apostacy is always that which is seemingly accompanied by intellectual or theological concerns. I stress the word "seemingly" for good reason, because based on my own personal experience, an individual's lapse in faith resulting from things like Book of Mormon Geography or disagreements with the Church's stance on gay marriage never tells the whole story of an individual's long and slippery descent into apostacy.
I recently asked an older LDS scholar (who now works at BYU) how many times in his long Church experience has he watched someone fall away from the LDS faith strictly based on intellectual or theological reasons.
"Once," he replied. "But even then I think there were mitigating circumstances."
In his experience, whenever an individual seemed to grapple with intellectual matters that brought him or her to the brink of apostacy he was always cynically inclined to say, "So you have some problems with Church theology? All right. But first let's discuss your sins of immorality. Afterwards we'll discuss your concerns intellectually."
In his mind unrepented sins always seemed to preceed intellectual apostacy. I would have to say that this is also my experience. Usually intellectual or theological disillusion is merely the iceburg that an apostate chooses to reveal, whereas their real reason for leaving the Church is oftimes hidden beneath the surface.
Most of us could cite a thousand methods or tactics that the Adversary employs to deceive formerly faithful Church members. But I think virtually every case can be boiled down to two primary causes: misplaced expectation or the downfall of human pride. Misplaced expectation refers to an individual who has certain defined "expectations" about life--generally from their upbringing or culture--and how, inevitably, the Church fails to live up to those expectations. By the downfall of human pride I mean the kind of poisonous pride whereby the Adversary successfully transforms our greatest strengths into our most debilitating weaknesses.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke of this kind of pride when he said:
"The proud can hear only the clamor of the crowd, but a person who, as King Benjamin said, “becometh as a child, submissive, meek, [and] humble” (Mosiah 3:19), can hear and follow the still, small voice by which our Father in Heaven guides his children who are receptive" (Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Liahona, May 1995, pg. 10).
Pride that leads to apostacy is most often seen when a person is offended by another Church member. As a result, the offended soul decides to abandon Church activity altogether. Often the offended person does not abandon their testimony per say--just the responsibilities associated with that testimony. Apostacy due to personal offense remains one of Satan's most effective strategies. You'd think after all the warnings we receive from Church leaders from Primary age onward that we would develop a kind of indestructible shield against this kind of attack. But obviously it still works just fine for the Adversary. So as far as remaining a regular weapon in his arsenal, he seems to think, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Apostacy caused by unfulfilled expectation is closely related to pride, but seems to have its own subtle nuance or twist. It remains integrally connected to a person's inability to separate him or herself from certain long-established tenets about "life"--tenets often ingrained since birth, parroted by the media, and distributed across the entire spectrum of modern culture. Then, when the Gospel appears to come in direct conflict with these "expectations", the Gospel usually loses. An example of one tenet of expectation might be the concept that science is the most reliable means to gain an understanding of human existance. If this expectation is strongly entrenched--and admittedly, all of our formal education since Kindergarten seeks this entrenchment--then some will conclude that even religion must adhere to such standards. Many come to believe that the tenets of religion are to be judged alongside science, and if science appears to disprove some aspect of religion, cultural "expectation" demands that such religious tenets should be abandoned.
Another cultural expectation might be that modern morality, because it just seems so much more tolerant and easier to abide by than "old-fashioned" morality, must be a superior way of life. The foundation of this principal might be more simply stated as: "Tolerance is the ultimate noble attribute." After all, morality today often disguises itself as an issue of choice rather than a matter of right and wrong. The quest to elevate the attribute of "tolerance" as the pinnacle of desirable virtues defines much of the current generation. To the youth of today, anyone who professes constraint or who trumpets views which appear non-inclusive of those whose life choices conflict with traditional values must be labeled "intolerant". Actually, these days they are more often called bigoted or hateful. I'm guessing this view was born out of the racial conflict and prejudice that occupied our culture in the last half of the 20th Century. But now Satan has taken this genuinely just cause (of not judging one another according to our race or color) and tweaked it just a bit to serve very different ends. The objective now is, quite simply, to tolerate sin. As a result, much of the world feels they can intellectually reject the LDS Church on the grounds of its supposed "intolerance" alone. We frequently have to remind our critics that we didn't change--the world changed. Moral, social, and intellectual expectations have been radically redefined in this generation. And so it is often on these grounds that a soul will justify falling, or drifting, into apostacy.
But as I said before, it is rare, and perhaps non-existant, that this kind of apostacy is not accompanied by serious, unrepented sins. Not long ago I had a very dear friend in the arts who fell into this trap. We'd worked together on several of the songs that I composed for the movie Passage to Zarahemla. In such a setting he and I often found time to discuss the Gospel and wax philosophical about life and religion and the arts. I found that his philosophies were very similar to my own when it came to the challenges faced by today's LDS artists, LDS youth, and Latter-day Saints in general. However, a couple years later I found that his spiritual state of mind had altered dramatically. He revealed that he had left the LDS Church and no longer believed in the Book of Mormon or even Jesus Christ. I was astonished, to say the least. What had happened in thost few intervening years since we'd worked so closely together?
In particular I was struck when my friend proclaimed that he had fallen away because of articles that he had read about DNA research suggesting that Native Americans originated in Siberia and Southeast Asia and not in Mesopotamia. It seemed like such a silly reason for apostatizing that I immediately set about trying to pursuade him to a more rational perspective. At that time I wasn't particularly conversant on the science that he was questioning. And quite frankly, I didn't believe I had to be. I'd actually never heard of this particular objection before. Similar intellectual gymnastics against Church theology seemingly come along more often than a soul has time to keep up with. At some point a saint is forced to rely on his testimony--his faith in "things not seen that are true." Nevertheless, because it happens to be a driving hobby of mine to study out these kinds of matters, I've since done so. As a result, I've found this conflict more trivial than most others I've encountered. Much counter-research has been presented by faithful Latter-day Saints that dispell whatever concerns may have existed. A simple internet search can drum up all the arguments, pro or con. Frankly, it just doesn’t matter. And in the case of my friend, it turned out that it didn’t matter at all.
What concerned me more than the issue he claimed had caused his downfall were things he told me, and things that I later learned from other sources, regarding choices he'd made in his personal life and with his family. His choices had clearly been in opposition to Church edicts and God's commandments for many years prior to his apostacy. Even when, for a period, he struggled and repented and fought to overcome his mistakes, he nevertheless drifted back into old patterns of destruction. Suddenly any desire to discuss issues of human migration and DNA became inconsequential. Something far more corrosive was at work here. As I said before, it wasn’t long before my friend confessed that he'd also abandoned his faith in the Savior and the Atonement. Oh, he professed that he still loved the LDS people and had nothing against those who still believed. He just no longer believed it for himself. Later he announced that he was getting divorced and that he might have to file for bankruptcy. If the pattern continues--the same pattern that I’ve seen play out more often than I care to count--he will soon become an outspoken enemy of the Church. That’s just how it seems to go. People with formerly strong testimonies don’t seem to just fall away from this Church. They fall AWAYYYYYYY from the Church--so far away that in time we hardly recognize them anymore.
But there was something else about my experience with this friend that I found interesting. I learned that he was living in opposition to the Church even during those months that we worked together on my project--even as we were philosophizing and expressing mutual positive belief and testimony. From this I concluded that there is sometimes a "grace period" offered by the Spirit wherein a person is given an opportunity to repent--a period wherein their testimony is not utterly stripped away. Despite everything, it remains, for a time, intact and vibrant and strong. During this time the individual still knows full well that they are doing wrong and must make changes. This grace period only seems to end when conscience dies; when guilt is sufficiently suppressed so that this spiritual gift (yes, guilt is a spiritual "gift") can no longer intercede. Only at that point--the point when the Lord is seemingly convinced that no change is forthcoming--does the Voice of the Spirt grow silent within a person's soul. (Though I should clarify, my personal belief is that the Spirit NEVER goes completely silent. For those who will finally open their ears, they find that the Voice is still there, and the Lord's arms ever outstretched to provide a welcoming embrace of love.) I don't know all the ins and outs of this sort of thing. I couldn't tell you how the time table works. I suppose it's different with every soul. But one thing is certain: Heavenly Fatherly is infinitely merciful and patient with all of us. In the end, even if we fall away, I believe we will one day acknowledge that whatever happened in our lives, it happened for our own good and was designed to help us progress as best as possible under the circumstances.
Infinite mercy. Infinite patience. These are attributes of God that never run dry. They are always abundantly available to the sinner, no matter how far they have drifted, with the possible exception of prohibitions expressed in Alma 39:6.
This verse speaks of denying the Holy Ghost. Every now and then I'll hear of some wayward soul who thinks he has committed this kind of unpardonable infraction and thus damned him or herself to Outer Darkness. However, it is entirely doubtful if anyone reading this blog even qualifies to commit such a sin. Such a sin requires such knowledge and light and understanding that few who have ever walked the earth even possess. Therefore very few people in world history could even qualify to commit sin against the Holy Ghost.
Judas Iscariot is a prime example of a man who committed a sin so heinous that some believe he ought to be destined to a state of Perdition. However, a closer look at all the circumstances reveals that he simply does not qualify. Judas is an enigma among the figures of world history. He is the only member of the twelve apostles who was not a Galilean. (This alone might provide a piece of the puzzle behind his disloyalty, but certainly not enough to satisfy most.) To some Christians Judas represents the ultimate antagonist—-the embodiment of evil, alongside Cain and Lucifer. Non-Christians or anti-Christians have, at times, portrayed him as a man misunderstood--a man whose intentions were noble or even heroic. An apocryphal text dating to the Second or Third century, and titled The Gospel of Judas, even claims that Judas was in cahoots with Jesus and committed his betrayal under the Savior’s direct orders. Most scholars conclude that this text was written decades, perhaps centuries, after the conclusion of the Savior's mission, and was motivated by Gnostic theology--an apostate movement which picked up steam toward the end of the First Century.
Looking at the facts surrounding Judas' betrayal, it seems clear that this man was terribly complex and troubled. Such an observation in no way justifies his betrayal, but it does present some interesting queries: How can anyone who basks in the presence of the Lord for three and a half years commit such a despicable act? What was the pivotal moment when Judas began to doubt his Master’s mission? What flaws in Judas’ character allowed Satan to “enter into him” (Luke 22:3, John 13:27)? And finally, what caused him to regret what he had done with such self-loathing that suicide seemed the only alternative?
In my latest "Tennis Shoes" novel I attempt to shed some light on Judas in the best tradition of historical fiction. In the end such speculations only amount to one author’s best efforts to untangle an immensely difficult conundrum. However, one of the advantages of fiction is that it can sometimes reveal motivations and psychology heretofore unconsidered or unexplored. As I said before, Judas was, more than anything, a product of his environment: its political, religious, and eschatological foundations. These factors above all others likely led him to commit the acts that he committed. It seems most compelling to presume that his disenchantment with Jesus was a symptom of the general misunderstanding and impatience felt by nearly all of Judea’s masses. They wanted a king and conqueror, not a spiritual “Savior.” Jews had been programmed all of their lives to look for a Messiah who would rule on earth, not in heaven. Expelling such concepts from one’s psyche and transforming it according to the Lord’s will is often no less challenging today than it was for the Lord’s ancient followers. Only after the Day of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost that occurred on that day did Christ's Apostles and disciples finally begin to understand the breadth and depth of what their Master had done, and the ultimate sacrifice that He had taken upon Himself.
Judas is an example of someone whose entrenched expectations, internal flaws of character, and poisonous pride made him pitiably vulnerable to become the Adversary’s pawn in bringing about the tragic events that led to the Savior's crucifixion. Many of us, after undergoing our own spiritual self-examination, might conclude that in critical ways we are no less vulnerable than Judas. Only though continual repentance and unflagging, daily effort to realign ourselves with God’s will can we insure that the Adversary will not prevail in carefully leading us into similar destructive paths.
From President Joseph F. Smith we learn the following regarding Judas' status as a Son of Perdition:
"Now, if Judas really had known God’s power, and had partaken thereof, and did actually “deny the truth” and “defy” that power, “having denied the Holy Spirit after he had received it,” and also “denied the Only Begotten,” after God had “revealed him” unto him, then there can be no doubt that he “will die the second death.”
"That Judas did partake of all this knowledge—that these great truths had been revealed to him—that he had received the Holy Spirit by the gift of God, and was therefore qualified to commit the unpardonable sin, is not at all clear to me. To my mind it strongly appears that not one of the disciples possessed sufficient light, knowledge nor wisdom, at the time of the crucifixion, for either exaltation or condemnation; for it was afterward that their minds were opened to understand the scriptures, and that they were endowed with power from on high; without which they were only children in knowledge, in comparison to what they afterwards become under the influence of the Spirit (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, pg. 433)."
Rather than pass off Judas Iscariot as God's ultimate antagonist, a man who committed acts we would never dream of committing ourselves, we ought to strive to understand all of the factors that led to his downfall and possibly recognize some of those social, cultural or spiritual flaws and tendencies within ourselves.
Apostacy for a Latter-day Saint is generally not a sudden affliction. I believe it can be unknowingly nurtured for years, usually by allowing some caustic sin to fester inside us. The best advice? Cast off the sin. Repent. And finally, do not underestimate the Adversary.
Remember, Satan doesn't have to see us tossed into Outer Darkness to acheive victory over us. If we have the potential to become a Celestial heir with Jesus Christ and yet we allow Satan to knock us down to a Terrestrial inheritance, he wins.
So let us put on the full armor of God. Let us make right in our lives anything that might be amiss. Only by so doing can we defend ourselves against the Adversary's dark whisperings at that critical moment when our very exhaltation hangs in the balance.
(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger
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