Sunday, February 5, 2017

The God Who Weeps

The God Who Weeps is a novel about how Mormonism makes sense of life written by a couple of Mormons, Terryl and Fiona Givens. Even as an active member of the LDS faith, I still felt like I learned a lot and it made me think about life differently. I liked how it was about the journey of faith from a different perspective and it made me think about some of the tenants of my belief differently. Still, the fundamental question that it asked with every new principle was the same. What does this mean to me in my life? What's the point? What is the real value of a religion or a set of beliefs if it doesn't cause you to change? I feel like anyone, Mormon or not, could see their lives and their relationships after reading this book in a way that could improve them.

This novel is so powerful because it simply provides a series of evidences that you as the reader can choose to use as you will. Whether or not there is a benevolent deity is based not on the evidence that is presented but what you personally conclude from that evidence. Theology, philosophy, and belief are all perspective. The following chapters were picked to help discuss who we believe our God is and what our relationship is with Him, His plan for us, and if we choose to follow that calling what the outcome will be. In essence, it is what we call within our faith, "The Plan of Salvation."

  1. God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.
  2. We lived as spirit beings in the presence of God before we were born into this mortal life.
  3. Mortality is an ascent, not a fall, and we carry infinite potential into a world of sin and sorrow.
  4. God has the desire and the power to unite and elevate the entire human family in a kingdom in heaven, and, except for the most stubbornly unwilling, that will be our destiny.
  5. Heaven will consist of those relationships that matter most to us now.

His Heart Is Set upon Us
Faith is not the end all in all. Doubt and faith are both required in life so there isn't necessarily progression for the new doubter or the new believer. The improbable nature of the universe or the chemical reaction that is human life or life in general, the way that the human mind works such that we contemplate more than simply our own survival but what is life or why do we exist... How we hunger for more in our lives than what this world can provide are all evidence of something more. The beauty of this paradox is we cannot prove that God exists. So if there is a god, who is He? What is He like?

There are many different ideas of God from all around the world. There are two main points that are expressed in our discussion that are guided by both faith and logic: (1) Not all conceivable gods have claim over us... Or in other words, we can reject some gods not because it is unreasonable to believe in them but because it is unreasonable to worship them. If your deity requires human sacrifice, how long would it take until there is no longer anyone left to worship? (2) If we are inclined to believe a powerful deity does preside over the universe, the assumption that he would be a more perfect embodiment of the morally good that we recognize and seek to emulate is not a fanciful hope or wishful thinking. It is a logical and reasonable inference that God is more rather than less generous and forgiving, who will extend the maximum mercy that He can, and impose the minimum justice He must.

We are never so vulnerable or defenseless against suffering as when we love. The pain felt by a parent when a child wanders away into addiction or the loss felt after the death of a loved one are but two common examples. Try to imagine then what God, Our Father in Heaven, feels being that He is the very embodiment of love. From the words of the prophet Enoch, he describes a vision from when he was taken into heaven and sees Satan's dominion over the earth and God's unanticipated response to a world veiled in darkness:
"The God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and He wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rains upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that you canst weep?"
Enoch goes on to ask this question three times and he isn't asking why do you weep but how are your tears even possible. The answer was the same as we concluded above, which is that God is not exempt from emotion but His pain is as infinite as His love.
"Unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood... and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?"
It is not their wickedness, but their "misery," not their disobedience, but their "suffering," that elicits the God of Heaven's tears.

Whether it was the example of Christ, Ruth, David or Mary, vulnerability is their end objective. Each individual was asked in their own way to place themselves in a situation where they were opening themselves up to the possibility of paramount harm (dishonor, public humiliation, and even death), in order to serve as vehicles of His grace. Vulnerability is both the price of the power to save, and that which saves. When Christ was pressed by the crowds and a woman touches his garments and is healed, He asks who it was. This person did more than touch. She drew from Him healing power as He felt it flow out of Him. What does this mean? Christ's power to heal comes at a cost to Him. Take this the extra mile and begin to ponder the cost of the crucifixion and taking the weight of the sins of the world upon Him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

If vulnerability and pain are the price of love, then joy is its reward. All that exists in our world of meaning must exist in paired opposition. As much as God shares in our suffering, He delights in human happiness. With the mass of senses we have after "being created in His image," we can find ways to appreciate and find joy in the world around us. Some may see food as nourishment for survival but then what is the purpose behind all the flavors we are able to taste? Peacocks with their tail feathers and the changing colors in leaves that allow for the peacock to reproduce and the tree to keep the chlorophyll necessary to survive, these were never meant to please the eye? The fragrance of the rose or the lily which attracts the bees to help them pollinate, was it not designed to appeal to our sense of smell? The scriptures say,
"Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that He hath given all these things unto man."
For He has set His heart upon us. He loves us because we are His children. We are children of God.

Man Was in the Beginning with God
The idea in this chapter are there are two innate desires in all of us (at least to some degree). These are to understand who we are and where we belong. We don't feel like we belong or that we are looking for our home. Some think of this as we looking for something or somewhere but the idea that is presented in this novel is that we are simply trying to remember. The best explanation is that we are trying to figure out who are.

What are we made up of on a molecular level? What is life? When does life begin or when does life end? These are fundamental questions that have no clear answers. There are theories though. The same carbon, iron and oxygen that are the building blocks for our bodies came from nebulas and stars however, this is not the essence of the soul. We may have forgotten for whatever reason any life before this one (if it exists), it may have been on purpose because a life with opposition is about choice and one where it is best if we do not have all the answers because then there would be no choice at all. Also if we truly are children of God, we would be inexpressibly more miserable, if we had retained the memory of our former Glory, and past Actions.

The concept of what kind of children we are is still up for debate. If our souls are part of God's creation, then He could have prevented all sin by creating us with better natures and in more favorable surroundings. The problem is that in our own moral awareness, we sense we are responsible for our own choices because when we do something wrong, we feel guilt. If there was a good analogy to describe guilt, it would be a twisted ankle. The function of guilt is to prevent more pain, not expand it. Its purpose is to hurt enough to stop you from crippling yourself further. If God did not create us then we weren't born or created inherently good or evil. We were born free.

Even if we remove God, we can't remove our past and present circumstances. In our current state, we are the product of forces outside our control that influence our personality, inform our character, and shape our wants and desires. And yet, we know we are free. If we are not shaped by our environment, our inherited form from our parents, or even God, we have always been and always will be in the principle of free will. So if this concept is further extrapolated, we have free will which means we weren't created by God so then if we weren't created, we have always been. If we have an eternal past, it is only reasonable that we will have an eternal future.

Modern day scripture recorded in the Pearl of Great Price describes how before this life our spirits were present in councils where we choose this world and life. We knew that if we choose righteously, this life would be a test if we would choose God again. If they did well, then they would continue to progress and "have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever." There are two keys from this revelation: (1) It suggests that birth into this world represents a step forward in an eternal process of development and growth in an educative and not reparative way. Life is pain and it is not punishment. (2) We choose this world. If we face pain or loss, we chose this life that we are living. It also means that God chose us. We were unembodied eternal intelligences. He looked upon us and in His love chose us, counseled with us, and created this world for us.

We Are That We Might Have Joy
This same idea that life is a blessing and that all things are created for our good is further expanded in this chapter. Many Christian faiths believe that soon after the Creation that there was the Fall and Original Sin. However the logic behind this thought process does not make true sense for then why would God descend to earth only to be punished or take up a fallen state? Would he be still be counted perfect and sinless if he was to inherit the sins of Adam and Eve, the first parents of all mankind? Why would perfection don imperfection? We in the Mormon faith don't believe in Original Sin nor do we look at Fall as a fall but more as an ascent. Pain is not punishment - it is growth. In Revelations it speaks of the councils of heaven and how many of those spirits chose to come down to earth to learn from their experience. We chose a life of pain because we want to grow and become more like God and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Our physical bodies are carnal in nature but that doesn't necessarily mean sinful. It means that our bodies strive to do as nature would intend, to survive and reproduce and live on. Our carnal desires represent those same feelings when we feel hunger or other physical appetites, including physical intimacy. Those feelings are present when we show distrust or question motivation or instruction because again our bodies are designed to fight for their own survival. But if we look to the example again of the Savior, at the end of His life he gains a perfected body. In his mortality He had to struggle with the same appetites or feelings as you and I but he overcame them. He learned and gained knowledge from physical experience. He progressed and grew and his love and charity deepened through hardships that he faced. Pain is again not a sign of punishment as it is progress.

So returning back to the Garden of Eden, many look at Adam and Eve's decision to chose the apple as a sin. They did in fact disobey God's commandments. Still, let us look deeper at the decision itself because it may not have been as simple as right or wrong choices. Is every choice we make in life black and white or is there some grey? The first choice was to stay in Paradise in God's presence forever. The second choice was to eat the fruit that delicious to the taste, beautiful in appearance, and would give them knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve had some level of moral judgment. They were not without some sense of right and wrong but the knowledge this fruit would provide is physical experience. This makes God's final injunction about death more making them aware that the cost of experience can be pain. So why is this important? The decision to partake of the fruit was made out a good place, a desire to become more like God, to progress. This wasn't a mistake in God's planning! Sending Christ as the Savior wasn't a backup plan but part of the choice in helping meet the price of both justice and mercy. We could learn from our mistakes through repentance and the grace that belongs to Christ's sacrifice. This was a choice between two Good decisions, not one right and one wrong. So do we still call this a Fall? Man was cast out of God's presence but it was to experience and grow to become like Him. It was to progress. It was to experience pain and joy.

The purpose of mortality is not to survive. It is to learn and grow. It is learn from our experiences and to master our bodies to control our appetites. We too often believe there is an association between sin and guilt. The pain of guilty is a feeling that we are wrong or inherently unworthy. Those wide generalizations are not true. There is a major difference if we change our perspective to that were we don't feel our pain as guilt but as weakness. We are imperfect creatures. Christ saves us regardless of how far we fall short. Guilt comes from the belief that we owe Him because He is exchanging grace and salvation for our obedience. They do not equate. Salvation is a gift of love. Our obedience if it is to equate needs to also be out of love. It is through gratitude and love and obedience that we are able to accept the place in heaven that Christ provides us through His mercy and grace. Our obedience and righteousness is not to earn our place but to help us grow and develop so that we will find joy there.

None of Them Is Lost
We need to understand that God is on our side. Obedience to Him and His laws bring joy and happiness. He being perfect also designed a perfect plan but this plan was for our benefit, His imperfect children. What does this mean? It means that through the ages when men debated the ratio or amount of people that God would save and bring to heaven in their understand of heaven and hell, they didn't make the connection that God doesn't want to save a chosen few, the naturally gifted, but He desires to save all His children. His plan allows for that to happen but it respects a fundamental law, our agency. We have reasoned that the universe is governed by laws, some that we understand currently and others that will take time but for every action there is a reaction or a natural consequence as it were. John Stuart Mill describes human liberty as the freedom "of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow." From our perspective of an all powerful deity, we may think those consequences look like punishments and rewards, but they were chosen. What we become is built upon a lifetime of small decisions and we can decide to change at any time as well.

When we think about our fundamental natures, who we are becoming, it is our own choices that shape our identities. The consequences of our choices will most often affect others. The part that people feel is unfair is the pain that we suffer regardless of our personal decisions but that is part of life. Again, this kind of pain is growth. Guilt is real too. Guilt comes from choosing to position ourselves in opposition to God - to sin knowingly. Misjudgments or simple errors have the ability to cause pain but that is not the same nor does it have the intensity of guilt. We are choosing to put ourselves in opposition to God or joy and love which by the laws of nature will cause misery. If we look at Dante's Inferno, he describes the different levels of hell as being places that people would go to on their own accord. The damned crossed the river Styx into their torments "eager for their river crossing." A lifetime of choices or the culmination of their true desires is what awaited them. What we worship is what we become.

An example from this chapter recorded the experience of an inmate of a concentration camp that heard a commotion and when he went to investigate found a prison guard mercilessly beating a female prisoner. He whispered, "What can we do for these people?" Another inmate replied, "Show them that love is greater."  In that moment, he realized the other person was focused on the guard, not the victim. They considered the actions of greatest moral gravity to be the ones we originate, not the ones we suffer.

To see our mortality as a test is generally a great analogy but we have to be careful how far we take it. The part we go astray is when we lose sight that again that life is a test to measure progression and advancement. It measures again what we are becoming. When we begin to talk about earning our salvation we begin to think that this life was meant to be a spiritual evaluation instead of a spiritual formation. The only person that we are competing against is ourselves. There is no level of spiritualism where if you pass 50% you make it into in heaven, while others had only scored a 49% so they earned eternal damnation. God offers salvation and His grace to all men to choose for themselves freely. Heaven is a state of being - a blessed and sanctified nature. It is not a place we enter but a culmination of choices that allow us to become celestial beings.

This sanctification and perfecting process is only made possible through the Atonement. It is the willful suffering of someone completely innocent to choose to take upon Himself the price of all mankind's transgressions, sins, sufferings, pain and afflictions of every kind. He was completely alone during the culmination on the cross of Calvary. Although we cannot comprehend how that was done, it still begs the question of why it is accepted as the price paid for those that choose to accept that gift of repentance and forgiveness for themselves? Why does grace work? It is because we do not have a perfect knowledge. We are never given perfect instruction so our accountability is only partial and incomplete. Christ breaks that cycle and we are allowed to move forward and progress. But He broke the cycle in more than one way.

When we consider the fleeting time we are given in mortality and remember the eternal nature of the soul, Christ broke the chains of sin and of death. The time in which mankind can experience this perfecting process is not constrained to mortality but extends beyond death into the life after. We will continue to perfect ourselves and many people will learn of Christ and choose Him not in life but in death however, repenting and choosing a new life in his image will be increasingly more difficult without having the physical experiences to build upon. Again, this perfect plan by our perfect God is made so none will be lost - including the unbaptized infants and non-Christians. It is not that God is excusing them of sin but allowing them to learn, progress, and grow. He loves all men so His perfect plan is not going to default those who have not had the opportunity or the ability or capacity to choose His plan to damnation. This is what is meant in Peter's claim that "the gospel was preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." The gospel of Jesus Christ - faith, repentance, baptism and receiving the Holy Ghost - and its ministry and blessings are extended to both the living and the dead.

Participants in the Divine Nature
The reason that we see that God's love is not limited in any capacity - living, dead, young, old, saint, sinner, etc. - is because we are not limited in our capacity. We were not created in the sense of God making our spirits, otherwise our spirits would not have the ability to do evil but would be inherently good. If we were not created then we must have always been and we always will be. This life or mortality is simply part of our existence that we pass through as part of our progression. But in what way are we to progress? To use a crude analogy from the book, Ender's Game, a leader tells a commander at the end of a battle, "We won! That's all that matters." To which the commander replies, "No. The way we win matters." God loves all His children. He wants us to have what He has and to do so has given us the tools and the example of how to become like Him. It is not His power or His glory that He wants to bestow as much as it is the understanding, knowledge, and attributes that He has obtained through learning and experience. Our mortality is the framework built to allow for that. This is why exaltation could not be given as Lucifer suggested in the pre-mortal council but it had to be experienced through mortality as was God's plan. The lie that is spread is that we can obtain this through "spirituality" and "religion" is unnecessary.

When Mormons describe through scripture heaven or heaven on earth, it is called Zion. It is a utopian-type community where "God is with us." It is not a solitary Zen. It isn't a private enlightenment. It is a place where there are families and groups of people coexisting and working together. This is why God again refers to himself as a Father. Families aren't a creation of society but a divine institution tied with the very fabric of nature. The reason for this is because the type of Christ-like characteristics that we are attempting to foster and nurture and develop are things like mercy, generosity, and self-control. "Kindness only exists when there is someone to whom we show kindness. Patience is only manifest when another calls it forth.... What we may have thought was our private pathway to salvation, was intended all along as a collaborative enterprise, though we often miss the point." We become perfected through lovingly learning to coexist because we have all experienced that many times working together can feel like a fiery furnace - this is intentional.

I myself struggle with this. I find that I hate working with whom I consider to be stupid people. I hate judgmental people. Sounds hypocritical but what I mean is that people fail to see the perfection that lies inside someone's desire or natures regardless of their own shortcomings and imperfections. When Enoch described what he saw and shared in regards to God's love, he was overcome with emotion. He wept over our disobedience and pain and shared in God's joy through our redemption that is only made possible through the Atonement. For a long time, I thought that my Sabbath day worship was only about partaking in the sacrament. It was becoming clean through the renewal of my covenants that I made at baptism and in the temple. The social aspects of the Sabbath were not important - however that is wholly untrue. Exaltation again is done through unity. We repent on an individual basis but we become exalted as a people and as families. We need each other.

In this last chapter, the authors use a particularly vivid metaphor. They describe a young boy who jumping around the yard, pretending to fly around, proclaims that he will eventually live among the stars and walk on the moon. They then contrast that to the rocket scientist that works and studies and learns the necessary laws of physics that will create a rocket ship and ask, who is more likely to achieve the goal? The one that through obedience and action learns and gains the necessary knowledge or the other? Obedience grants one knowledge and so both the knowledge and obedience frees them. It allows the scientist to grow and develop as an individual. People mistake this type of obedience as that of a blind sheep following a shepherd. And yet it is with that same analogy that the Savior describes us and those that drift away. He preached of searching for the One. The analogy of the prodigal son could be used not just to describe each of us but to illustrate what our union may be like once we leave mortality and return to our heavenly home.

The knowledge we gain in this life carries with us into the next. The study of science is a study of the laws of nature and the universe. The refining of Zion is in communities and creates in us the ability to gain the attributes of Christ. A study of Christ and Zion is a process of learning how to love as God does.
"The divine nature of man, and the divine nature of God, are shown to be the same - they are rooted in the will to love, at the price of pain, but in the certainty of joy. Heaven holds out the promise of a belonging that is destined to extend and surpass any that we have ever known in this wounded world."
 The other aspect of this sanctification process, learning to love and become more like God, is that it is a lifetime commitment. It will continue into the eternities. We don't believe or have a relationship with a static God or an unchanging being. It is in that eternal perspective that we are taught to focus. It is like beginning a hike and knowing where you are going and focusing so much on the peak that you forget to enjoy the views along the way.
"What if the possibilities of Zion were already here, and its scattered elements all about us? A child's embrace, a companion's caress, a friend's laughter are its materials. Our capacity to mourn another's pain, like God's tears for his children; our desire to lift us from our sin and sorrow - these are not to pass away when the elements shall melt with fervent heat. They are the stuff and substance of any Zion we build, any heaven we inherit. God is not radically Other, and neither is His heaven."
The problem though is if we always think or focus on the future we can forget to find joy in the journey. God is love and so we must learn what God's love is. We learn through repentance and accepting the Atonement. We learn through obedience. And eventually we learn through seeing others as God sees us. We learn more about God through our interactions with others and ourselves. It is through learning to control our passions and to mourn with those that mourn that we can also find joy in life and find God's love in all our relationships.