Fear, Obligation, and Guilt

Shortly after my exit from the church, I came across a book, Emotional Blackmail, by Susan Forward. The book discusses manipulation which is based in fear, obligation and guilt (FOG). As I read, I recognized a parallel with Mormonism. In fact, although Christianity (and religion in general) is based on the principles of love and forgiveness, man has repeatedly twisted it into something that inspires fear, obligation and guilt rather than love and forgiveness. Why is that? Why do the people in our own families attempt to instill fear or use guilt or obligation to motivate our actions? It is to get us to do their will. It is because, when we allow them to, they gain power through manipulation.

Mormonism is a religion founded on shaky ground. Church History involves touchy subjects such as polygamy, false scripture, false prophecy, and contradicting doctrine. What better way to keep members of the church in line than by instilling fear of “anti-Mormon” material, and the obligation to only expose oneself to “church-sanctioned” materials? Mormons are told to avoid associating with “known apostates” and are guilted into believing it is a sin to do so so or to question doctrine. The Mormon church has it’s people tightly reined in by fear, obligation and guilt, and as a result, the church has a following of non-questioning, nearly non-thinking people, who follow church dictates on everything from diet, dress, and daily routine.

It is all about control. The same could be said for other legalistic churches, but I believe that the Mormon church is by far the most controlling, legalistic church in existence, outside of what most would consider cultism. In fact, some would argue that the Mormon church is a cult. Why? Think about it. What kind of organization controls a group of people to the degree that they will follow “God’s chosen” leader without question, conform to every aspect of the organization (dress, diet, finances, rituals, etc), dedicate time, money, and their very lives to the organization, faithfully avoid any writing, publication, even scientific evidence that is not “church sanctioned”?

The amount of control that the LDS church has over its people is mind boggling. Church members are taught to have complete trust in their leaders, because ‘God will never allow the prophet to lead them astray’. Think about what that kind of control could do. If the prophet said tomorrow that polygamy was to be reinstated, faithful Mormons would obey, without question. If he told the people to gather in a certain place or dress a different way, they would do it. If he told the people to drink a cup of red Cool-aid, they would do it. Sound familiar?

The system is designed to instill complete obedience. Members are obligated to do “God’s will”. Questioners experience overwhelming guilt. If they continue to “sin”, they experience the fear of losing God’s favor, the fear of forever dividing an “eternal family”. I now better understand why depression is so rampant among the LDS and why Utah leads the country in depression and why suicide is the leading cause of death among males 15-44 in Utah. I also understand why apostasy is considered such a horrible sin, and why family members respond with so much anger and venom when one of their own questions and/or leaves the church. It is exactly how a cult would react to one of it’s own leaving.

Experiencing a Christian church with basic Christian doctrines, without the control factors (Fear, Obligation and Guilt) present in Mormonism, has been quite enlightening. I’m finally seeing the roots of Christianity and religion in general without all of the man-imposed control factors. I am experiencing a church where people are actually happy to attend. They actually volunteer to do jobs (rather than facing a calling that “should never be turned down”).There is a tangible atmosphere of joy, love, and peace. Ahhh… so this is what Christianity is all about.

Since my exit from Mormonism, I’ve come to know members of other churches, such as the local Foursquare church, where I attend. I asked one acquaintance how she would react if her daughter left her church to go attend another church. She said that it really would be no real big deal. She was astounded that anyone would “freak out” over a family member changing churches. It may not be a big deal to leave a church, but it is a huge deal to leave a cult.

The Quest for Perfection

In my opinion, the Mormon idea of reaching for perfection through works is one of the biggest differences between Mormonism and the rest of the Christian world! Being saved through grace means being saved DESPITE OUR IMPERFECTIONS. Contrarily, Mormon theology states that in addition to the atonement, we can only be saved by our own actions (temple marriage, obeying all commandments, being active in church, baptism, etc). I’ll admit the concept of salvation through faith alone feels foreign to me after Mormonism, but at the same time, it makes sense and feels right. None of us are perfect and never will be. God knows that and loves us anyway. That is why he provided a way for us to be saved DESPITE OUR IMPERFECTIONS.

We not saved by Jesus + works + rituals. We are saved by Jesus alone.

As a teen, the futility of my own imperfection caused me to fall into a deep depression. Instinctively, I pushed away from the church without fully realizing the doctrine of perfection was at the root of my depression. With my inactivity in the church came condemnation from those closest to me. In fact, throughout my life, I have become very familiar with conditional love based on my religious behavior as opposed to the unconditional love that Christ taught and emulated.

This attitude is not right, nor is it the nature of God. I do believe it is not only central to Mormon theology, but also the root of depression among many Mormons, especially LDS women.

I wrote the above after reading the following post on an Internet blog, FLAK (Further Light and Knowledge):

Mormonism’s stress on perfectionism is one of its most damaging aspects. This emphasis comes from the Sermon on the Mount following the “Beatitudes”, when Christ admonishes his listeners to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” The church interprets Christ’s statement as meaning that we, as fallible human beings, must be perfect in everything we do. Based on this interpretation, church members often feel guilty or unworthy because they fail to do their home/visiting teaching, go to the temple, keep a journal, do their genealogy, can food, pray daily, study the scriptures daily, go to all their meetings, pay their tithing, failed to volunteer to do a service project, etc. They may also feel guilty because they may drink caffeinated drinks, wear their hair over their ears, wear garments improperly or not at all, have impure thoughts, etc.

Unfortunately, this interpretation misses the real intent of what Christ was trying to say. In the Beatitudes, Christ taught about loving others. The admonishment to be perfect like God comes immediately after these teachings. Taken in context, Christ was merely exhorting his followers to love others as God does. In fact, the scriptures often define perfection as being the bond or mantel of charity and/or love.

The church takes Christ’s statement even one step further, by teaching that a person cannot enter the presence of God unless they are perfect. As Rabbi Kushner notes in the quote below, this teaching is even more insidious than merely teaching that we should strive for perfection because it implies that we are not worthy of God’s love unless we are perfect:

“[A]lot of misery [can] be traced to this one mistaken notion: we need to be perfect for people to love us and we forfeit that love if we ever fall short of perfection. There are few emotions more capable of leaving us feeling bad about ourselves than the conviction that we don’t deserve to be loved, and few ways more certain to generate that conviction than the idea that every time we do something wrong, we give God and the people closest to us reasons not to love us … I am embarrassed by the use of religion to induce guilt rather than to cure it… ”

The church’s teachings on perfectionism are even more insidious because they assume that God’s love is conditional. In fact, this not an assumption in Mormonism — IT IS DOCTRINE.

According to Apostle Russell M. Nelson, God’s love is conditional and contingent upon obedience to His commandments. Nelson states that,

“While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional.” Thus, according to Nelson, “Understanding that divine love and blessings are not truly ‘unconditional’ can defend us against common fallacies such as these: ‘Since God’s love is unconditional, He will love me regardless …’” See Russell M. Nelson, “Divine Love,” Ensign, Feb 2003, 20.

Considering this in the context of a parent, the Mormon God is emotionally abusive to an extreme. Can you imagine any good parent telling his or her child that :

“You must always please me. You are to obey with exactness each and every request or commandment that I give you, regardless of how difficult it may be for you or how you feel about it. You are to always carry out my will first no matter what else you may be doing or how you may be feeling. You are to always be cheerful when doing what I tell you to do. You cannot complain or question it, even if it seems wrong to you. You are to believe everything that I tell you even if it does not make sense or contradicts the facts or what you observe. If you fail to do any of these things perfectly, I will not love you anymore. I will also severely punish you and you will no longer be worthy of me or being in my presence.”

I can’t imagine a good parent saying this, let alone God.

I love my each of my children regardless of what they do. They may disappoint me, but I still love them and I would never condition our relationship on such an absurd notion as them being “worthy” of me. It does not make any sense.

One of the freeing aspects of no longer believing in Mormonism is that I can be human without trying to be perfect. I no longer feel unnecessary guilt over my mistakes. I can simply acknowledge them, learn from them and move on without having to worry about whether or not I am still worthy of God’s love. I now feel worthy of God’s love simply because I exist. I am free to accept myself as I am and for what I am. I am also free to accept and love others as they are and for what they are without any qualifiers or judgment. I am now free to love others perfectly as Christ taught.

There is no greater gift that I can give myself or others.

For more on this subject, read a review of LDS author, Anthony Sweat’s, book “I’m not perfect, can I still go to heaven?”