If I had to summarise the main message behind this year’s Women’s session it would be:
‘Keeping families together is the solution to persevering under persecution’.
According to Cheryl Esplin (2nd Counselor of the Primary General Presidency) the way Mormons react under pressure is a lot like a fizzy drink. During this address, we are shown two pictures: one of a soda can open and overflowing with bubbles whilst the other is an unopened, flat can lying lifeless on the ground. The message is clear: if Mormons are to fight against attacks on their faith they should constantly be filled with the Spirit and to make sure their family life is the best it can be or else they are doomed to be crushed by outside influences.
Although I can see how the illustration was used to create a sense of faith strengthening urgency, it came across to me as if fear was the real, motivating factor behind it: ‘Do this or else the worst is going to happen to you’. In my opinion I don’t think fear should ever be the motive to growing closer to God let alone having a great family life; as 1 John 4:18 teaches us: ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.’ What Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians seems more of an appropriate approach, ‘For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again’ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
When you start to emphasize marriage and families as the centre of God’s plan more than knowing Jesus, humanity’s needs overshadow God’s true purpose for us which is to give glory to Him alone.
To quote Cheryl Esplin:
‘God gave us families to help us become what we want to be, families are workshops on earth’.
The Mormon message comes across as if human happiness is at the centre of the universe rather than doing God’s will which can sometimes over-ride human happiness. While it is true that families are a gift from God and we would like to see our families thrive; having those things is not the complete end goal of life. Contrary to what is taught at this year’s Women’s Session, God’s ultimate plan is not that ‘families are meant to be together forever’ but the real gift is Jesus and to simply enjoy being in His presence forever – married or single (Isaiah 42:8, Isaiah 43:7, Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 7:1, 8, 10:31).
Not everyone in this life will have the opportunity to have a biological family they can call their own but God does adopt us into His own family.
As Ephesians 1:4-6 states,
‘‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.’’
This family God wants to adopt everyone into does not require going through temple sealings or other religious rituals. When Jesus is told by people in the crowd that his family have arrived, his reply is not measured by exclusive ordinances but by those who seek God’s glory above all else:
‘‘While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’
He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’
Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ ’’
No, Jesus is not a means to achieve a happy home life but instead it is important to see He is the one who will come to make His home in us because He is the Life (John 14:23) .
Throughout the Women’s Session all the speakers refer to persecution as the Mormons’ main trial. What can the LDS Church do when facing ‘the people who ridicule and oppose the truth we hold dear’? It is no doubt that statement is referring to the LDS Church’s recently released rebuttal essays on controversial issues such as Joseph Smith’s wives and black people being banned from the priesthood. Cheryl goes on to share the story of Elizabeth Walker in order to give confidence that Mormons of the past faced similar opposition.
Elizabeth is said to have had guests stay at her home calling Joseph Smith
‘a sly fraud who distributed the Book of Mormon to make money’.
She was clearly upset by these accusations but has a dream during the night of seeing the hill of Cumorah where Joseph Smith is claimed to have dug up the golden plates. Elizabeth sees this as a confirmation that Mormonism is true and is a lesson for Modern day Mormons to ‘‘not bury your testimony in the ground.’’
In other words, the way to strengthen your beliefs is to revert to your Mormon testimony. As anyone who is familiar with Mormon teaching will know, this is not a new lesson. The question arises: is reverting to your testimony the best way to combat common objections to your faith? Although I do agree that personal experience of God is important, when we look closely at scripture it is clear feelings and supernatural experiences cannot be the sole benchmark of whether something is true or false. It is important to test every spirit we encounter to see if it is truly from God (Jeremiah 17:9, Proverbs 3:5-6, Proverbs 28:26, 1 John 4:1, 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21).
During his travels, Paul travelled to marketplaces and city centres to debate many people about his encounter with Jesus. In Berea, the people there did not take what Paul said lightly, instead they examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).
The Early Church were used to people attacking their beliefs and engaged with them head on. Peter writes about this in one of his letters: ‘‘But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander’’ (1 Peter 3:14-16).
Mormons are known for their moral uprightness and sincere willingness to share their beliefs but to an increasingly sceptical world this apologetic is not enough. It would be an untrue generalisation to say all Mormons do not know how to defend their faith however it is discouraging to hear Mormon leaders tell people to simply ‘cling on to the truth’ without addressing the real issues. In this case, the accusation that Joseph Smith was not who he claimed to be. Repeating statements that you know in your heart the LDS Church is true is equivalent to a band aid that only covers up the scab that’s underneath.
The real root of the wound needs to be examined and in this case, ignoring people’s objections is not going to make them go away. In conclusion, having happy families and reverting to testimonies is not enough to proclaim the Mormon message. If the LDS Church really want to engage with their ‘anti-Mormon’ opponents and genuine questions from Investigators they will have to start opening up these questions head on just like those soda cans and letting everything no matter how uncomfortable it looks to the outside world bubble up to the surface.