Monday, December 21, 2015

048. The Great Stumbling Block of the Gentiles

We had the pleasure of driving through some beautiful parts of the Eastern United States this Summer. We visited many historical and interesting places, as well as some family and old friends. It was fascinating to observe the layers of history pouring over the landscape....the blend of old quaint farm houses, weathered barns, and stone or brick churches intermixed with modern apartment buildings, shopping strips, and new looking churches. One aspect in particular that really struck me was the sheer number of Christian churches that dotted the land, including many one-off independent churches, even in the smallest of towns. Even though I have no idea how many people actually believe and attend all the churches we passed by, it gave me a sense of hope that there are many people who still believe in Christ.

On the other hand, the sheer number of variations in Christianity embodied by these different denominations made me think of the predicament that Joseph Smith found himself in as he sought for the true church of his day. Those who seek truth can easily relate with Joseph's feelings (from Joseph Smith History 1):
8 During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties ... so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.
9 My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant...
10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
These questions are still incredibly pertinent. These questions have always been pertinent, since the beginning. Thank you Joseph for articulating them! Yes, what is to be done? Who is right? Is everyone wrong? How will you know it? Are these questions still important for us today? For you?

We find ourselves with an advantage that those before us did not possess...although often imperfect and incomplete, we have the perspective of history. We can look back in time, see the patterns, and learn from them. The rise and fall of civilizations, the cycles of history repeating themselves, massive triumphs and massive failures.

Source: Wikipedia "History of Colonialism"
We as Gentiles love to build things up. We love a good project. It's extremely satisfying for us to organize, work hard, and see the fruits of our labors. It's in our nature. There is nothing inherently wrong in this. I believe God wants us to use our talents, abilities, and the materials of this earth to learn, create, enjoy, and bless the lives of others. This disposition has made us very successful by the world's standards. For example, whether right or wrong, look at the prodigious colonization and missionary efforts of the Gentile nations and empires from the late 15th through the early 20th centuries. By 1914, just a handful of small nations had dominated most of the world. Rome accomplished something similar 2,000 years earlier as well as other nations before that.

This inclination of the Gentiles is also observed in the proliferation of innumerable Christian churches and denominations. A difference of opinion of minor doctrine emerges, an offshoot group forms, and soon enough another church is born. Again and again, we see the spark of light ignite in the noble efforts of inspired men and women in their attempts to break free from error, bondage, repression, and start anew. Yet after a time, the purity of their hopes, the zeal of their ideals, and the very things they sought to leave behind rear their ugly heads again, perhaps in new and unexpected forms: the revolutionary that rose up to challenge the status quo can become the vaunted idol of worship and praise...the restored truths that set people apart can become a source of pride or disdain for others...the growth that follows the birth of a new ideal can lead to stifling organization, standardization, and a change in focus that leads away from truth. The original reformers can age and die and their legacy is left to be carried forth by those who may not have paid the price to obtain the light that their predecessors did. There is drift, attempts to incorporate old and foreign traditions, mixed with human folly, ego, and individual desires. The organization grows and expands beyond the bounds originally intended and actually becomes more important than the founding ideals themselves. There are subtle modifications that occur out of convenience, changing times and preferences, as well as individual personalities. The religious tradition becomes ingrained in the community and as a multi-generational majority participates it is harder to individually see the problems and break free.

The Lord showed Nephi this interesting tendency of the Gentiles (us) in our day: 2 Nephi 26
20 And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor.
21 And there are many churches built up which cause envyings, and strifes, and malice.
Whoops. Yes, that is our great stumbling block...that our Gentile industry and ingenuity have led to the formation of many churches. We are "lifted up in the pride of our eyes" because of our spectacular accomplishments. As a church itself grows in complexity, the focus on Christ is obscured and true worship is sacrificed in favor of decorum, rules, and traditions. Such efforts and protocols can distract from the point of having a religion, a faith, or a belief in the first place, which is to come together as a body of like-minded believers, worship the Lord, serve one another, and bear one another's burdens.

Look at what the Book of Mormon says about the formation of a great church (1 Nephi 13):
 6 And it came to pass that I beheld this great and abominable church; and I saw the devil that he was the founder of it. 
26...for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away. 29...because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.
And there it is...gotcha! How ingenious that Satan would prey upon our strength (weakness?) and inspire the foundation and building up of many churches. In so many ways it is the perfect vehicle for the adversary to have power over and bind the individual. Thus, the sad irony is that the impact of a church on the individual is unfortunately the opposite of its intended purpose, especially as the church grows in sophistication, size, and scope. Although there is much good that can come from churches, and I do believe that the Lord works with everyone, when too much power resides in a church or its leaders, and the members become dependent on their leaders, the effects of a church can become anti-Christ, as articulated by the Lord to Nephi earlier:
  • Man's learning and understanding replaces God's;
  • People's hearts are not open to truth;
  • People are deceived into believing the church is taking care of the poor and they don't need to;
  • Church status leads to pride, judgment, and exclusion of others;
  • Time and effort devoted to supporting the organization of a church reduces time and effort spent on the pursuit, acquisition, and living of truth;
  • People's belief that they have to go to a church leader for forgiveness of sins limits their faith in Christ to heal them, slows the repentance process if they are uncomfortable confessing to their leaders, and increases dependence on men;
  • As they rely on their clergy, individuals are weakened by a diminished:
    • Gospel knowledge and understanding of the scriptures;
    • Ability to receive or trust personal revelation;
    • Relationship with Christ as they rely on someone else for advice, answers, repentance, or to do the thinking for them.
But there is hope, much hope! Continuing in 1 Nephi 13:
34 ...after the Gentiles do stumble exceedingly, because of the most plain and precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back by that abominable church, which is the mother of harlots, saith the Lamb—I will be merciful unto the Gentiles in that day, insomuch that I will bring forth unto them, in mine own power, much of my gospel, which shall be plain and precious, saith the Lamb. 
And then in 1 Nephi 14 (this whole chapter is important, in terms of understanding what the Church of the Lamb of God is):
 1 And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day that he shall manifest himself unto them in word, and also in power, in very deed, unto the taking away of their stumbling blocks
 2 And harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God, they shall be numbered among the seed of thy father; yea, they shall be numbered among the house of Israel; and they shall be a blessed people upon the promised land forever; they shall be no more brought down into captivity; 
So, Gentiles, instead of building up churches, which are corruptible and prone to be hijacked by the adversary to lead hearts away from Christ, oppress the poor, and deny the power and miracles of God, let's listen to the words of Christ and build our hope and foundation upon Him, a foundation from which you can never fall (Helaman 5):
12 And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.
Build your faith upon the foundation of Christ and you will not fall (stumble). Concluding with the words of Joseph Smith (JS-H 1):
13 ...I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.
Don't remain in darkness and confusion. Venture to ask God for yourself, with real intent and faith, believing that you'll get an answer. It may not come immediately, so leave your prayer with God and go on your way in faith, humbling yourself before Him, repenting of your sins, and keeping the commandments. He will answer you in His own way, in His own a way that you will uniquely know and understand. He will not leave you in the dark...keep seeking, asking, and knocking relentlessly until you get an answer.

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