President Thomas S. Monson died today at the age of 90. He was an amazing prophet who strengthened my testimony through his inspiring words and good deeds.
All day, I’ve been thinking about President Monson and what he meant to me. This has also led me to consider why I believe in this religion and how it’s shaped my life.
Growing up Mormon isn’t easy — particularly in the “Bible Belt.”
I grew up being told that I would go to hell because I wasn’t “saved.” I grew up being told that I wasn’t a Christian, even though I believed in Jesus Christ. I grew up having the most uncomfortable American History classes where there was always a section on Mormons that portrayed them as bigamists, polygamists and greedy grifters — pushed out to Utah because they refused to follow the law. I could always tell the teachers that had strong views about Mormonism because they ad-libbed their lessons with plenty of anecdotal evidence about why Mormons were evil. I was often the lone Mormon in the room and I melted under the scrutiny.
When you have a green, fledgling testimony, it’s not easy to sit through that.
It’s also not easy to turn down alcohol time after time after time. It’s not easy to turn down sweet tea. (I mean, I live in the south for Pete’s sake! And, sweat tea is amazing!) It’s not easy to turn down coffee with the response always being… Really? Coffee? But… it’s coffee?! It’s not easy to be modest when all your friends are wearing short shorts and tank tops and it is SO hot in Texas. It’s not easy to clad your tight, slim teenage body in a full-piece swim suit when everyone else is wearing bikinis. Or to pick out your prom dress from a rack of bridesmaids dresses because your mom won’t approve anything remotely revealing.
It’s not easy to answer questions — endless, incessant questions — some innocent, some loaded with prejudice. It’s not easy to stay up at night and wonder those same questions for yourself and come to terms with the things that you just can’t know right now. It’s not easy to accept church policies that you don’t understand or immediately agree with.
In the grand scheme of easy, “socially acceptable” religions, Mormonism wouldn’t even rank on the list.
And, yet I’ve chosen this life. I’ve chosen it for myself and I’ve chosen to raise my children this way, knowing that they will face all of these challenges and more.
There was a time in my life where I didn’t consider myself a Mormon. In fact, it was an embarrassment to me.
During that time, I thought life would be easier and happier without the burden of religion. I lived the way I wanted to live. I did what I wanted to do. I based my choices on what felt right in the moment. I started to delve down intellectual pathways that justified my new ways of thinking. I got very deep into relativism and started to believe that there was no such thing as absolute truth.
Maybe something was true for you, but that didn’t make it true for me.
You can justify almost anything when you believe that way. And, believe me, I did a lot of justification!
Relativism was just a hop, skip and a jump away from atheism. And, I was willing to explore those beliefs – or non-beliefs – as well. It was possible to be a good person, make good choices and not believe that God was real. And, really… where was the scientific evidence of deity? If God wanted us to believe in Him, why did He allow science and technology to usurp and explain so many of His “mysteries?”
I had so many questions about God. In truth, I still do! But, I quickly came to realize that this way of life didn’t work for me.
Not because I felt pressure from those around me to change. I had plenty of love and acceptance. Not because I was too indoctrinated into my Mormon lifestyle, as I had dedicated most of my time to studying other belief systems and have many, many family members and friends who believe differently. Not because I didn’t try out any other religions. I explored many other faiths. Not because it was easier to be Mormon — because, as I already established, that certainly wasn’t the case.
I just wasn’t very happy.
I was living for me, but I wasn’t fulfilled.
In small, indistinguishable increments, I was becoming a person that I didn’t like.
I found that love became a challenge for me. It was hard to even say it.
I found that I was increasingly frustrated with life, increasingly annoyed by people. Maintaining relationships became burdensome. I wanted to withdraw constantly.
I found it hard to forgive, hard to find compassion, hard to feel my feelings.
I found that the exciting things I thought would be so fun, quickly lost their shine. Life felt more dull, more boring, more worthless.
I found it harder to quell my tendencies toward depression and anxiety, harder to cope with challenges.
I found that decisions were more agonizing – the choices between right and wrong became more blurred.
I found that all the other belief systems and philosophies I studied sounded okay, maybe even made sense… but, like an ill-fitting outfit, they just didn’t feel all that great once I tried them on.
I didn’t feel like me.
And, when I really thought about my life and what brought me joy and wholeness and love, what inspired me and uplifted me, what kept me steady and sane — I came back to this church, to this gospel, to this religion.
When I put that yoke on my shoulders, everything else that felt really difficult just didn’t compare with the peace I’d found.
I felt more like myself, more free to express every part of who I truly was. I felt like I had more direction, more purpose and more joy even in the simple, unremarkable parts of life.
I still don’t consider it easy to be a Mormon.
I still struggle to say — it’s true!! — when I’ve spent such a significant portion of my life coming to terms with truth.
I still worry that my choice of religion and my assertion of belief might offend or annoy someone else that believes differently. It’s hard for me to overcome that passivity because I honestly respect all religions and belief systems, so long as they don’t hurt, abuse or demean others.
I still grapple with the demands of time, tithes and dedication required to be a full-time member of this church. There’s times when it’s not fun to serve others. There’s times when I don’t particularly want to love my neighbor.
I still find it a challenge to withhold my desire to compare my life and choices with others in our church, who I consider to be more righteous or worthy than me. Similarly, I still battle the urge to criticize those who I don’t consider to be as righteous or worthy as me.
That’s an ugly thing to say and that’s an ugly way to be. And, I hate the parts of me that slip into judgment or gossip or grudges. But, it’s honest and real.
I can be bitter about the sacrifices that are required of me and I can rebel against the lessons God sends my way. I cling desperately to my vices and stubbornly resist change.
If you’re looking for a perfect Mormon, that’s not me and probably won’t ever be me.
But, if you’re looking for someone who loves this gospel with all her heart, someone who has read the Book of Mormon and found it to be true, someone who feels a brightness growing in her soul whenever she’s sitting at church and listening with her heart, someone who wants desperately to be good, someone who loves the Savior and believes in His atoning sacrifice, someone who tries over and over and over again to be better, someone who prays often and with fervency, someone who battles hard times with faith and hope, someone who’s familiar with failure, someone who’s experimented with this gospel (and others) and found the fruits of it to be sweet and delightful beyond description — then that is me.
I believe this church – this gospel – is true. I believe it is true because that truth means that, as imperfect and wretched as I am, I get a fair shot to be with my Heavenly Father forever. I believe it is true because that truth means that you — even if you don’t believe what I believe — also get the same fair shot. I believe it is true because it teaches me that I am a Child of God, that I matter, that I have something to contribute to the world. I believe it is true because it has taught me to love others, to serve others, to see their worth, as well as my own. I believe it is true because it makes me better, challenges me, stretches my soul, and smooths away the edges of my often willful spirit.
I believe it is true because I believe that God loves his people enough to send us a prophet. I believe this world needs a prophet. And, I believe that God communicates with prophets and apostles in order to lead his people home. I believe Thomas S. Monson was a prophet and that the angels are rejoicing for the honorable life he led. I believe another prophet will take on that mighty mantle and similarly serve in righteousness. And, I believe that when I listen to that prophet’s council, my life will improve in meaningful, measurable ways.
No, it is not easy to believe as I do, to choose what I do — but, it is so unbelievably worth it.
I thank thee, oh God, for a prophet. For this prophet. And, for the beauty he’s added to my life.