From Dis-grace to His Grace

I'm a fan of TV evangelical preacher, Joyce Meyer. Despite our religious differences, we share a strong faith in and love for Jesus Christ. Her candid, unvarnished portrayal of her emotional and spiritual struggles have aided me in transcending my own unhealthy compunctions and fear. Joyce claims that sharing her "secrets" while bearing testimony of Christ's healing grace is empowering. Oh so true! Her willingness to share her experiences has empowered me. I feel such a kinship with her.

During the past two years I've taught "Strengthening Marriage and Family" classes sponsored by LDS Social Services. Using Joyce Meyer as my role model (and with my husband at my side), I've ascribed to this form of love and healing. During the six-week course sessions, church members poured out a love and acceptance toward each other that I had never previously seen nor experienced. As their fear of judgment gradually evaporated, class members began to speak openly about their personal, marital, and family struggles. Consequently, the power of love and mutual support of the group generated workable, positive solutions. To this day, I feel a distinctively loving bond with former class members when I see them at ward and stake meetings.

I also admire the "born again" Christians in their ability to find such joy in the atonement of Jesus Christ. Although they focus on Christ's grace rather than individual works, we Mormons seem so focused on our works, we minimize His grace. Or (if you were like me), we tend to compartmentalize the Atonement as an "afterthought" of our sin. Rather than rejoicing in Christ's willingness and ability to atone for our sins, we beat ourselves mercilessly with guilt-inducing phrases: "How many drops of His blood were shed for me?" or, "Every time we commit a sin, we're adding to Christ's suffering." (How dare we? How could we be so terrible?) My intent is not to minimize Christ's tortuous suffering. However, I don't think He expects us to condemn ourselves for His willingness to atone for our inevitable sins. Colleen G. Harrison, author of He Did Deliver Me from Bondage discusses this subversive, perfectionistic mindset:

A friend and I were once discussing the phenomenon of 'perfectionism' and how prevalent it seemed to be among the LDS communities we had lived in. She recounted to me that she had heard a General Authority say that one of the worst things the Saints can do for each other is to appear perfect--that by refusing to admit our struggles and maintaining instead the appearance of perfection, we sow seeds of discouragement. My friend and I continued to talk of how we had fallen prey to this lie ourselves. We shared stories of the inhumane amount of commitment and pressure we had taken upon ourselves and exercised upon our families. Tender family relationships had been damaged by our private (and sometimes hysterical) efforts to appear as perfect as possible to others, to hide the weaknesses in ourselves and our families. We thought we were failing the Church, and even the Lord Himself, if we didn't always put our "best foot forward" (p. 63). 

We can easily and quickly pound ourselves into a painful, solitary confinement in our quest to "qualify," to fit in, to be accepted, to be found "worthy" and even admired when we ignore the grace of our Savior. Colleen Harrison says she "assumed a spirit of fear--fear of the judgment of others, fear of not setting a good example as a member of the Church. I didn't want anyone to think the Gospel wasn't working, lest they think it wasn't true" (p. 65). Sound familiar? We can also pass this "not good enough" fear onto our kids. You'd think leaving these mindsets behind would be easy. It's not. A whole lot of courage is a prerequisite. According to Sister Harrison:

I faced one of the most terrifying truths I had ever faced. I had to become willing to acknowledge and accept my real self, my "compound" self, my whole self---shortcomings, foolish choices, imperfect behavior, and all. And like King Benjamin, I had to be willing to confess to others that I am only a 'mortal man,...subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind' (Mosiah 2:10-11). To admit weakness is not a sin (p. 66).

So how do we measure a healthy balance between our desires to live righteously and unhealthy perfectionism? As stated in my last post, I spent years prayerfully analyzing and then uncovering my unhealthy mindsets. Dr. David Seamands, in his book, Healing for Damaged Emotions, outlines negative perfectionistic symptoms:

  • Tyranny of the oughts. Its chief characteristic is a constant, overall feeling of never doing well enough or being good enough. This feeling permeates all of life, but especially affects our spiritual lives. The three favorite phrases of the perfectionist are: "could have," "should have," "would have." Always standing on tiptoe, always reaching, stretching, trying, but never quite making it.

  • Self-depreciation. The connection between perfectionism and low self-esteem is obvious. You are never quite good enough, you feel a continuous sense of self-depreciation. [Since] you aren't satisfied, the next step is quite natural: God is never really pleased with you either. He's always saying, "Come on now, you can do better than that!" And you reply, "Of course." So back to the spiritual salt mines you go, with increased efforts to please yourself and an increasingly demanding God who is never satisfied. You always fall short, you are inadequate.

  • Anxiety. This produces a giant umbrella of guilt, anxiety, and condemnation. Like a great cloud, the umbrella hangs over your head. Once in a while it lifts and the sun shines through. But soon you fall off your [spiritual experience] with a sickening thud. Those same dreaded feelings settle in again. The general sense of divine disapproval, and comprehensive condemnation return, nagging and knocking at the back door of your soul.

  •  Legalism. The perfectionist rigidly overemphasizes external do's and don'ts, rules, and regulations. The perfectionist with a fragile conscience, low self-esteem, and automatic guilt is very sensitive to what other people think of him (or her). Since he cannot accept himself, and is quite unsure of God's approval, he needs the approval of others. Every sermon gets to him. The do's and don'ts pile up as more and more [fellow church members] need to be pleased.

  •  Anger. He may not realize it, but deep in his heart a kind of anger is developing. Resentment against the oughts, against [the church], against other [church members], against himself, and...God. Not against God Himself....but against a caricature of a god who is never satisfied.

  • Denial. Too often this anger is not faced but denied. Because anger is considered a sin, it is pushed down. Under the stress and the strain of trying to live with a self that he can't like, a god he can't 'love,' and other people he can't get along with [or please], the strain can become too much.

Obviously, Mormon doctrine calls for our ultimate perfection and the hope of its availability as we progress in the next life. Conversely, unhealthy "perfectionism" is just plain cruel. Dr. Seamands observes:

These perfectionists have been programmed to unrealistic expectations, impossible performance, conditional love, and theology of works. (In my words, an unhealthy emphasis or unbalance on works.) They can't get rid of this pattern overnight. The change requires time, process, understanding, healing....the renewal of the mind that brings transformation" (p. 85).

We all want to be happy. Yet, authentic happiness takes work: The courageous work of self-analysis and behavioral change. In my opinion, the notion and/or image of the "perfect" Mormon woman or the "perfect" Mormon family is simply its own brand of dysfunction. Yes, we're all living in varying degrees of dysfunction and frailty---so let's find a degree of acceptance toward our dysfunctional, frail selves, our frail husbands, our frail kids....and each other!

Here's to achieving a healthy balance between our "dis-grace" and His grace,