I’ve been feeling emotional recently as I’ve thought of Jesus Christ’s role as our Savior and the sacred nature of agency and the evil nature of coercion and force—even if it is to try to get others to “do what is right.” This all goes back to what is going on in my personal life.
When I was growing up, I was always fat and I always wanted to be thin, so I would come up with some diet I was going to follow and inevitably it would get hard or temptation would get too strong and I’d end up eating something that went against the diet. Sometimes it was dessert—like cupcakes… mmmm. Sometimes it was just seconds. And often, my well-meaning parents or siblings would say something like, “Are you sure you want to eat that?” or “Should you be having dessert?” or other times they’d try to tell me what it takes to lose weight—calories in, calories out, blah blah blah.
This went on for much of my older childhood as well as into my teen years until finally I had a breakdown and I set up a boundary. I don’t remember how the exact experience played out or if there was just one, but I think on at least one occasion, I was in tears and I said something like, “Do you think I don’t know how to lose weight? Do you think I don’t know how much to eat? If I’m eating it, it’s because I’m choosing to and I don’t need you to tell me what to do or to make me feel bad about my choices that I have obviously already thought about and decided on, so just BACK OFF from now on.” They did. And eating no longer became a shameful experience in my home. I no longer had to feel embarrassed or like a loser because of what I chose to eat.
Did I lose weight? No. But over the course of the next decade or so, I think I learned how to be okay with my food choices, knowing that they had natural consequences. Instead of feeling shamed by well-meaning family members, I instead would get fatter if I ate things that aren’t the healthiest.
After I finished college and during grad school, I saw a therapist on a regular basis. Among the many things we discussed was the feeling that I was always failing with the spiritual checklist. I didn’t always have a good scripture study or read for long enough and sometimes I wanted to swear and did. I would swear in my therapy sessions and then apologize to my therapist because he had been a bishop and I thought, “Surely, he must find me so offensive.” He said something to me that was really helpful. He said, “If you don’t feel like reading your scriptures, don’t read them; if you feel like swearing, then swear.” It was very liberating for me and so I did stop reading my scriptures everyday. (Before this, for years I had never missed a day.) and I also started swearing when I wanted to swear.
Did I become a potty mouth? No. But I quickly learned that sometimes when I swore, I didn’t feel bad and other times when I swore, I would feel dirty, like my swearing had been gratuitous and vulgar. I learned about the natural consequences of swearing, which was that sometimes a word is a word and sometimes a word is more than a word and the Spirit is offended and withdraws. I learned to distinguish which was which.
And did I stop reading my scriptures altogether? No. But I stopped feeling ashamed and like an unworthy daughter of God on days when I didn’t read. I stopped apologizing to the Lord for being an ugly and evil child. I started focusing more on how I had felt during the day—whether or not I had felt the Spirit, what kind of devotion I had shown to the Lord, and where my heart had been. I learned about the natural consequences of reading the scriptures. I learned how important it was for my Spirit to commune with my Father on a daily basis. Scriptures were not the only way, but they were one of the quickest ways and they were one of the most powerful ways to receive direct guidance from God. I learned to live my life focusing more on using the scriptures to commune and be guided than as a tool with which to whip myself and feel guilty for one more failing.
Did I live happily ever after that? No. I would still have two and a half more really rough years after that, learning about the natural consequences of my choices. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage made me feel lustful, needy, dirty, and dark—estranged from God. Going to church helped me to feel spiritually fed and not going left a void in my life. Gossiping and judging others made me feel unmerciful and harsh and like I was far from God.
It would take a while for me to really understand the choices before me, which ones I wanted to choose and why. I started to understand Heavenly Father better—that he was a merciful and loving father and not a dictator who wanted us to obey. I also started to understand the true purpose of the commandments—that they had natural, very real spiritual consequences and often temporal consequences, that my Father wanted to protect me from, but that he would not force me to avoid.
And I also learned to understand the good Mormon checklist with our list of things to do—that these behaviors were designed to help guide us and turn our hearts to Christ. Just like the law of Moses, there is no life in them and no salvation except through Christ. All life is in Christ, not in the law. The law is there as a guide.
So how does this all fit together? Well, it all goes back to lobsters. I don’t know how many of you have heard that in order to boil a lobster, you actually need to boil two. If you put one lobster in a pot, it will take its long claws and pull itself out and run away, but if you put two in a pot, one lobster will use its long claws to try to pull itself out and the other will use its long claws to pull it back down. They may take turns playing this game, but eventually, they’ll both die.
I love being Mormon. I love the gospel. I love my God. He is so good and so merciful. I love His plan and I love my Savior for recognizing the sacredness of agency and preserving it for us here on earth and then saving us from ourselves.
And sometimes I look around at other Mormons who are struggling and instead of boosting each other up and saying, “Get out of the pot. Go and find God for yourself. Figure out what all of this really means,” so often, we’re like lobsters where we pull each other down and say, “I already know where God is and you need to fall in line because you’ll never find Him that way.” Instead of embracing each other and saying, “I love you and you are good and you are beautiful and you need to learn that for yourself. You need to find God and have Him tell you for yourself,” we try to tell each other how we’re doing it wrong.
I didn’t need my sweet, sweet brothers to tell me that dessert or seconds were only going to make me fatter. I needed them to embrace me and say, “Dani, we love you fat or skinny and it’s okay to eat dessert. When it stops working for you, you’ll stop; and if it never stops working for you, that’s okay too.”
I needed, like our Mother Eve said in the Garden of Eden to our Father Adam, to learn for myself by experience how to choose between good and evil. I needed to be able to experience sorrow and estrangement from God to know that I did not like it. I needed to know how it felt to feel empty and what caused me to feel empty so I would know how to be filled and by what. I needed to choose for myself. Our Heavenly Father prized agency so highly that he allowed a third of his children to be lost because they would not support the agency of mankind.
Agency sometimes hurts. Sometimes people make choices that are scary and painful, but I don’t want to be a lobster or Satan’s helper, guilting or shaming others so much that they make “right” choices in order to be free of guilt and shame. I used to tell my mom when I was younger, “Your will is so strong that I CANNOT make another choice unless I want to choose to openly defy you.”
Our call as disciples of Christ is not to judge; it is to love. I want others to be able to make the choices that lead them closer to God and that free them from guilt, shame, and prescriptive ideas of who and how they should be. I truly believe that if people are left free to make their choices, most will find their way using the light of Christ, the Holy Ghost, the scriptures, their ability to meditate and to reason out for themselves through the Spirit where their path is leading them.
But as long as we as members of the Church choose to be lobsters or Satan’s helpers, others of God’s children will only find shame and guilt as they draw closer to us. They will recognize the shame and guilt as Satan’s tools and they will move away, continuing in their search for God elsewhere.
Agency is sacred and charity—true charity—never faileth.