Jesus Doesn’t Want Us to Teach the “Ideal”
So many times, when I or others have expressed that a particular way that a message at church has been framed or presented is hurtful or irrelevant to a swath of the congregation, the response is something along the lines of “well, we have to teach the ideal.” So basically, it comes across as a giant “You’re not good enough. Church isn’t for you. Church is for married people with 4.5 smiling blond children. Maybe you should go get married and make some babies and then church will be for you, too.”
There are so many things wrong with this response. The first is that it’s a direct violation of our baptismal covenant to mourn with those who mourn. The second is that in a church that teaches personal revelation and that God has a unique path for each of us, there is no one “ideal”. God might want one person to marry young and have many children. God might want another person to marry young and have no children. And God might want another person to marry older and have fewer children. And another person’s God-ordained life path might be to never marry at all. Each path is the ideal for that person. Acting like there is a single one-size-fits-all drives people away and denies the marvelous glory of God’s creation.
The third thing that’s wrong with this approach is that it’s directly contrary to how Jesus conducted His preaching and teaching during His mortal ministry. Jesus didn’t tell everyone to gather around while he preached a sermon about how the Pharisees, the religious elite, were so great and pleasing to God and how everyone should just go be like the Pharisees. He did the exact opposite. He called out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees – they were obsessed with conformity and details but missed the point of the gospel.
Jesus instead spent His time being friends with those on the margins – the women, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the children, the mentally ill. He left the ninety and nine in search of the one. He preached love and redemption to them and welcomed them into His kingdom. He said that they would have an honored place in his kingdom – that though they were the last on earth, they would be the first in heaven. He gave them all the same invitation: “Come, follow me.” And they did.
We are not members of the church of the 1950s-style middle-class American nuclear family. We are members of the church of Jesus Christ. We should behave and teach accordingly.
How should this look in practice?
The first thing is to center all lessons and talks on the principles taught by Jesus Christ. Jesus is relevant to everyone. And resist the impulse to turn a talk or lesson about “faith” into “how do we help our children develop faith?” or one on “prayer” into “how do we pray for our husbands?”. By covering faith or prayer, those who need to teach it to or pray for others can certainly apply those principles to their lives, but people in other life circumstances can apply it to theirs as well.
The second thing is to remember the command of Jesus to judge not. By asserting that certain marital statuses, careers, numbers of children, places one has served a mission, etc. are ideal or superior to others, we are implicitly judging those who are different as less-than. Only God knows the hearts of the people, and only God knows whether that person is following the path divinely laid out. And even if it turns out that unrighteousness is the reason for someone’s circumstances, the way to help is to love and serve, not to judge and condemn. We should love people back to God, not shame them back to God. God wants a broken heart and a contrite spirit as gifts, but he doesn’t want us to be the ones doing the breaking for others.
The third thing is to embrace the diversity of experiences and circumstances in our wards and stakes. We’re not all cookie-cutter, and everyone has something to bring to the table. Take some time to have a real, honest conversation with someone who is different from you. If you married young, talk to a single sister in her 40s. You’ll find out that being single at 40 is nothing like being single at 20, and you’ll learn something. If you’re from Utah, talk to someone from another part of the country. And if you’re not from Utah, talk with someone who is, and discover that not all Mormons from Utah are “Utah Mormons”.
If we do these things, we’ll be more united as a people and we’ll be closer to building up Zion. Our churches will be places of healing and not places where hurting people go to get hurt even further. Jesus is the only ideal. The rest of us need to get off of our Rameumptom and get back to the business of loving our neighbors as ourselves.