I recently read a post on Deborah Mitchell’s great blog Kids Without Religion that discussed god as the enabler in a relationship with an addictive partner. In talking about how a politician named Mark Sanford took his recent win in the polls–despite having been involved in scandal after scandal that should have proven to the public that he was unfit for office–as a sign from god that he had been saved from his repeated sins, she wrote:
How convenient. His god forgives him. Again. And again. Like many folks, Sanford’s an addict and his god, the enabler. That’s the reality. Sanford knows that he’ll be forgiven as many times as he needs it. And God doesn’t even exact a punishment. Instead, he rewards him. “Saves” him, whatever the heck that means. How does Sanford know that he’s been saved? Did God tattoo a stamp on his derriere ‘SAVED!”? Or does he just know he’s saved because he’s won the race and he’s in his happy place? (The answer is the latter.)
She goes on to talk about the importance of taking responsibility for our own actions and not just continuing to harm others, trusting that in the end god will make everything right again. It’s a really great point and a good read as well. What really caught my eye, though, was slightly off-topic from her main points. The idea of finding signs from god in unlikely places kind of intrigued me, and I wanted to discuss that a little bit. As a Mormon, I knew the feeling of looking for god’s approval in signs similar to Sanford’s electoral victory.
So here’s the deal. On the surface, what does winning or losing an election have to do with god’s eternal judgments of you? Nothing. But since believers can’t simply telephone god once a week and ask, “Hey, how do I stand with you right now? Are we good?” they have to find some way of interpreting the uncontrollable events in their lives as signs from god. That’s one of the amazing things about religion. Lacking god’s voice in anything, the faithful insert it into everything.
As a Mormon, I was in awe of people who told me they felt the influence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Most amazing were stories of people who maybe ended up saving a life because they felt a certain whisper–and then took action because of it–and happened upon a situation where they could then intervene. Wow. Right? But even the little things were pretty cool. Finding a parking space, or lost keys, or a great sale on something you’ve been needing and wanting and praying to god to help you find. Only, I very rarely had this type of experience for myself. And the times I did? Well, I wasn’t so sure. Was it the spirit? Was it coincidence? Was it just a fluke? I could never tell if a certain thought or impression I had was just me, or if it was divine. Until after it was over. At that point, the things that turned out well I attributed to god, and the things that were pretty much meaningless I figured were just indigestion or something.
A couple cases in point.
When I was about fifteen years old, I woke up one morning with the distinct impression that it was going to be my last day on earth. (I don’t want to spoil the suspense for you or anything, but the short story is that I lived through that day. I bet you didn’t see that coming.) I remember accepting the idea with tranquility, with assurance that it was god’s plan for me, and that everything was going to be okay, that even though I was going to die, it was only so that I could return to god and be happy with him. I wondered all day how it would happen. Later that afternoon, I was still alive, and my parents told me they were taking us kids out to see our cousins. I buckled up in the car ride, but only out of habit; there was no way to avoid my death. But surprisingly, we arrived without incident. Then, it happened.
My cousin had just gotten his driving license and was rebuilding a sports car with his father’s help. He asked me if I wanted to go for a ride in it. I swallowed and said yes. We took the car out and pretty soon were on lonely stretches of country road pushing 90 miles per hour. I knew it was the end. I knew that this was the moment that god had been preparing me for all day. My cousin was laughing and enjoying himself, and I was sitting next to him with white knuckles just waiting for the moment that another car from a cross street T-boned us. I never said a word to him about driving more safely. This was god’s will, after all, and who was I to try to intervene? Only, nothing. We got back to his house. I went home with my parents. I fell asleep in my own bed. Wondering.
Another time a few years later I was driving home. I had just gotten off the freeway, and was approaching the light at the intersection, which was green. Like an idiot, I pull up to the line and stop. I sit there for a second, realize the light is green, and start to accelerate. Suddenly a car roars through the intersection, blowing through a red light. I’m kind of in a little bit of shock for a few seconds, with my foot on the brake again. And then I continue on my way, but the whole time I’m driving home, I’m wondering at the way the spirit just saved my life by giving me the impression to stop at the green light. Never mind that I hadn’t ever felt a conscious decision to stop, knowing the light was green. Never mind that had I been driving at speed the whole time and gone through the green light, the car that ran the red light would have entered the intersection long after I had already safely passed. I was convinced that the spirit had guided me that day.
So I had a few experiences that I attributed to god’s spirit, and I had a few experiences that I thought maybe should have been god’s spirit and that ended up being nothing. I didn’t feel a really close connection to the spirit. But that connection was a promise of the religion. Once a Mormon is baptized and confirmed, he or she is promised the companionship of the holy spirit. Ah, but there’s a clincher. It’s based upon worthiness. So as a believing member, when I didn’t see the promises being fulfilled, I didn’t doubt the promises, I doubted myself. Even though I tried as best I knew to do what I was told was right, I knew that the only perfect person was Jesus. There had to be something in my life that god was displeased with. I wasn’t worthy.
And then, like Sanford, I found my sign. I was called–by god, no less! (though through his servants, of course)–to be an uppity-muck in his church. Wow. God must think I’m doing okay if he’s trusting me with this calling. My confidence slowly grew. I still wasn’t receiving detectable inspiration from the spirit, but I was fulfilling my calling and trying to serve as best I could. I figured that maybe god’s plan was working because he knew me so well, he knew what I would do, and as long as I prayed and asked him for guidance, the spirit didn’t have to necessarily tell me every last thing I was supposed to do. I could just go with my instincts and trust that god would intervene if he thought I should do something differently.
He never intervened, though, and as the years passed, I kept getting callings of importance in the church. God must approve of me, I thought. He must love me. It was amazing to me that he would take a little nobody like me and put me in charge of little portions of his kingdom here on earth. Me! I had no great skills or insights, and yet god trusted me. Imagine! I felt my love increase for him. And I felt his love increase for me and my family.
Looking back on it now, it kind of sickens me. First, that I felt so guilty for so long. People who claim that religion only provides benefits to believers need to address the issue of undeserved guilt. Next, that I felt some sort of divine approval when in reality I was just a tool, a way for the church to staff its organization without having to pay a cent in salary. Then, that I took god’s apparent approval of my life to feel smug and superior to people who didn’t know the truth or who couldn’t live as righteously as I obviously could, as evidenced by my callings.
I see people pore over their Bibles, find little passages here and there that they somehow feel can apply to their lives, and thank god for being loving enough to give them direction in their lives through a scripture written thousands of years ago. They attribute this amazing wisdom to god and ignore the fact that the real praises, if any are due, should be given to them rather than to god. They are the ones who spent the mental resources and had the ingenuity to find hidden meaning in the drivel of the ancient stories. If you feel you’ve gotten a sign from god, don’t thank god for sending it. Thank yourself for seeing it.
Do you think religion is beneficial? Then for those benefits, praise the true source of it. God isn’t great. People are. For the meaning they put into their lives. For the kindnesses they show others. For the selfless sacrifices they make in service of greater good. Praise god? I don’t think so. Praise those who created him. Humans have the morals they attribute to god. Humans have the wisdom they attribute to god. Humans have the power to bless they attribute to god. Everywhere you look for divinity, you find only humans. Every good you see, it’s humans. Maybe they act because of the idea of god. But they are acting on that idea because it resonates within them, because it is them. That’s the way that I see the divine.
And for those instances in which god is the enabler, in which religion makes life harder for people, in which the moral laws attributed to god are actually the source of contention and discrimination? Yes, that comes from humans, too. But would it be there as strongly if the ugly parts of religion weren’t there to enforce it?