Jacob Hess, Ph.D.
Thursday before the recent General Conference, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced policy adjustments in relation to children connected to parents who had chosen to get married to a same-sex partner. In explaining the changes, President Oaks underscored the intent of these adjustments as ensuring “very positive policies” that would help affected families – while encouraging “our members’ efforts to show more understanding, compassion, and love should increase respect and understanding among all people of good will.” He continued, “We want to reduce the hate and contention so common today. We are optimistic that a majority of people—whatever their beliefs and orientations—long for better understanding and less contentious communications. That is surely our desire, and we seek the help of our members and others to attain it.”
If that was their desire, it was not shared by many online – who could not let go of the narrative they had embraced in recent years.
The rhetoric around the first policy update. In the very moment the November policy update in the Church of Jesus Christ was “leaked” by Dr. Jon Dehlin, it also came accompanied by something equally tangible and influential: a story and narrative about the policy.
“This just shows how Latter-day Saint leaders really feel about gay people…and the pain they are willing to cause to even little children!”
By the time “the policy” came to media attention, then, the story had already been framed-up by activist voices online. From day one, that narrative became an unquestioned feature of the policy, thanks to the relentless activism of people frustrated with the policy – drawing attention to how the policy felt from their place of resentment, and deep suspicion.
At the time, I responded to the rhetoric in a piece that was viewed over 100,000 times.
The rhetoric around the second policy update. With the recent policy adjustment, rather than an opportunity to pursue a deeper, different kind of conversation…many have simply been unable to let go of the deep animosity and let the Church live it down – taking this as another opportunity to share with the world impassioned indignant concerns about past harms they insist the Church has perpetrated.
Many online even went so far as taking credit for the policy reversal, due to their activism!
When Peggy Fletcher-Stack asked online people’s reactions, she heard plenty of people insisting the policy had single-handedly broken hearts – and almost nothing about what an impact the rhetoric around the policy had made. So I responded to Peggy like this:
It’s remarkable to me how little willingness there seems to be among so many online to concede even the possibility that thoughtful, good-hearted intent went into the first policy, along with the update and adjustment. Given the crescendo of pressure and activism at the time, the decision to draw clearer boundary lines (related to the context and age at which ordinances were permitted) has always seemed to me a reasonable step (following the precedent with polygamy) for a community seeking to be clear on its organizing teachings and standards. Those principles remain the same, as was affirmed this week.
But as soon as the earlier news broke in 2015, the narrative of “see how much the church hates gay kids!” was so loud and unrelenting that the public meaning of the policy fundamentally changed. To many, it became (and remains) almost incomprehensible that the policy would represent anything other than bigotry. Under those circumstances, it becomes important and urgent to adjust and update the practice to better reflect (and better convey) the true intent of the first. That’s what I see has happened…
So, in other words, the policy had come to do more harm than good – and an update was wise. But why?
To those taking credit after years of channeling resentment online, I hope you would pause to consider another way of thinking about it all – a way I believe is true, and will one day be widely acknowledged as such.
Ancient Jacob’s message to us today. After the passing of his dear older brother, Jacob stood before the people of Nephi with an earnest interest in “consoling and healing” them through the “pleasing word of God; yea, the word which healeth the wounded soul” (Jacob 2).
Even while doing just that, Jacob also admitted feeling “weighed down with much desire and anxiety” for his people’s welfare – to the point that he felt constrained to share other things he acknowledged would likely “enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded.”
In particular, Jacob knew that his cautions about sexual boundaries being crossed among his people would be painful for some listening, which made his deeply-felt obligation to speak personally difficult as well:
Wherefore, it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained, because of the strict commandment which I have received from God, to admonish you…to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of consoling and healing their wounds; and those who have not been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds. (Jacob 2)
I believe the prophets in our day feel a similar pain, especially when teaching about issues they know are sensitive, and deeply personal. But like Jacob of old, they feel “constrained” to speak what God puts on their hearts – recognizing that whatever pain some might feel in their words, they are necessary to address a deeper woundedness beyond and independent of their words.
Wounded America. There are enough wounds to go around in America today – of all kinds, and in all directions. Even more pervasive and life-threatening than physical wounds are those tearing at hearts, and minds – spirits and souls. In particular, lots of people feeling wounded when it comes to questions of sexuality today. The pain is real, often overwhelming, and sometimes even lethal.
So we are right – all of us – to bring attention to how to minister to those hurting and do whatever we can to “heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). That is the ministry of Christ and His followers, as described by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland last year:
Jesus is asking us to be instruments of His grace—to be “ambassadors for Christ” in “the ministry of reconciliation,” as Paul described it to the Corinthians. The Healer of every wound, He who rights every wrong, asks us to labor with Him in the daunting task of peacemaking in a world that won’t find it any other way.
That is how we try to act as followers of Christ. I believe that many people who disagree with the orthodox teachings of faith communities like our own are also seeking to minister with tenderness and compassion. I don’t doubt the earnestness and sincerity of their love – as critics have consistently done with our own.
It’s out of this same love that I also understand many feel compelled to advocate and fight for people they see as not only pained by the teachings of latter-day prophets, but significantly harmed.
Truth sometimes hurts…but this bad? It’s become popular to speak of Jesus as someone who went about mostly trying to make people feel good – aka, “what Jesus cared about more than anything was making sure people felt loved.” The implication often seems to be that if you make someone upset or offended by your words, you must not be following Jesus.
Obviously, this popular sentiment ignores numerous instances where Christ Himself – the Lamb of God – spoke words that were painful, offensive, difficult, and “hard to accept” (John 6:60). It seems clear from the scriptural text that it was not uncommon for those listening to Jesus to feel pained, and even enraged by His message.
But it’s more than this kind of discomfort and pain that critics insist comes from prophetic teaching today. In the broader conversation about sexuality, it’s now become common to hear claims of deep existential harm and even suicidality directly linked to orthodox religious teachings.
It’s hard to imagine a more serious and sobering accusation than this. (Imagine someone accusing you of causing someone’s death by suicide!) And yet, insinuations and explicit claims like this show up all the time online – as if it were a widely-accepted and obvious conclusion – e.g., “Elder ____ just spoke in conference and said gender is eternal. Here is the suicide hotline, friends.”
One friend told me in response, “There is something not just wrong, but appalling, about those kinds of statements.”
I agree. But I don’t believe that those making these comments fully appreciate why many of us see these accusations as so profoundly misguided. One reason for the misunderstanding is how complex the whole question can be. For instance, if God’s truth often can feel legitimately painful, as Jacob himself acknowledged, how are we to differentiate that from the suicide-inducing pain we are now being accused of widely promoting?
It’s not an easy question, and is deserving of heartfelt, humble, patient inquiry across the serious disagreements. To those willing to consider another perspective, I write the following, praying that my words might be received in the spirit I intend them.
Two propositions. I would like to two make two simple propositions, followed by a simple illustration of these claims in actual practice.
First, the way critics talk about and write about the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is fundamentally different than how leaders and active members speak, talk and write – to such an extent that they are simply not the same thing.
Secondly, the influence of the collective writing, teaching and speaking of critics about us, about God, about identity, and about sexuality is far more despair-generating and unsettling than virtually anything people hear from leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now, the illustration – starting with my own best attempt to articulate how our faith community most often speaks, talks and writes about sensitive questions of sexuality:
1. One of the most precious truths of all is this: You are a son or daughter of God – not metaphorically, not poetically…but literally – to the core of your immortal spirit. As such, you are of infinite worth – and have every potential inside to become like our beloved Heavenly Parents.
2. During your experience in this fallen world, you will face more confusions, struggles and challenges than you can possibly imagine – including in the area of sexuality. But you can still find joy and peace as you stay on the covenant path and do your best to follow the counsel of the Lord’s prophets.
3. You don’t have to do this alone! In addition to the loving ministry of the Savior, you have trustworthy family members, friends and leaders – all of whom you can depend on as companions on your journey home.
Putting yourself in the shoes of a member of the Church of Jesus Christ with questions about sexuality (teenager or adult, man or woman), what kinds of emotions are generated for an individual brother or sister as he/she hears these kinds of things in general conference, or church, or seminary/institute?
Now, compare the emotional impact of these teachings with that arising from the following three teachings:
1. Whatever else you used to believe about yourself, you are gay. This is fundamental to your identity as a human being now, and into the eternal future – and more important than other identities you may have previously held to be precious (and which you may have to leave behind if you want to be happy).
2. Because this is who you are, your happiness and well-being are dependent on allowing this internal orientation to dictate major life decisions – even if it takes you away from people, promises and possibilities you previously held to be sacred and eternal. Anyone who suggests otherwise is displaying narrow (“heteronormative”) standards that are certain to be damaging to your future happiness.
3. Those leaders and parents who have taught you differently not only don’t get you…they may not even love you. Although you could still go to Church, you’d be signing up for a life of chronic loneliness, heartache and pain. Let’s be honest: There isn’t really a place for you there.
Now imagine, once again, a teenager or adult, man or woman with questions about sexuality who has been a member of this faith community hearing these messages. Tell me, now: What kinds of emotions do these teachings generate for these brothers and sisters?
From a mental health perspective, some of the darkest, and most toxic emotions are heavy resentment, and despair. Whose teachings and doctrine are incubating these dangerous emotions the most? Prophetic reminders of eternal possibilities – or accusing insistence that there is no place for you there?
Whose teachings are destabilizing faith and removing people from that which used to be precious and meaning-giving?
A perspective largely ignored. Two roads diverge in a yellow wood. And many people with questions about sexuality have chosen the latter path outlined above. Given this, can those, our critics, see how confusing it can be to see people we love following and living out the teachings of critics (coming out, separating themselves from us, pursuing another life), and then when these same individuals feel despair, even to the point of suicidality, to have the finger pointed back at us?
This is the view rarely showing up online – and largely ignored in public discourse today. But I raise it as a perspective worth considering in our conversations about reducing the tragedy of suicide.
Last week, a man who used to be a brother (and still remains a friend) wrote me, “The damage the words of God’s servants have done is inestimable and horrific…there is a tremendous blood debt on the shoulders of the church.”
To this man (and those who believe as he does), I write in response: As you might expect, I see you as having it exactly upside down. Our message is one of redemption, relief from bondage, rebirth, and the sweet joy that comes from the atonement of His beloved son – for everyone…no matter what they feel or face.
This is a message so many of you used to believe, relish and share with others as witnesses yourselves. So, it will not surprise you to hear me argue that it is not from the teachings of the Lord’s prophets that people find crushing despair or heartache – but in a world urging, and pressing them into a betrayal of the same. When all is said and done, this will be widely acknowledged as the gaping source of despair, heartache, angst, suspicion, and endless resentment in those most vulnerable.
If people want redemption, relief, peace in this life – and eternal life in the world to come – that they can find in this church and people. Anyone who tells you otherwise must take responsibility for the profound and personal impact of that persuasion.
Despite your insistence, the peace you and they can find in the covenant path is bottomless and vast – and available for all. If people are hearing anything else, it’s not coming from us. So, let’s be clear about who is cutting people off from that – and who is pleading and working to bring more people to that joy in the world today.
For the many who continue disagreeing sharply with this, I pray the blindness of anger will not cloud your vision forever – and that you may one day see the truth, sooner than later. That’s why I write this! Not to cause additional pain, or enlarge existing wounds….but exactly the reverse.
May that true healing one day come to us all.
I believe we can disagree sharply on lots of important stuff, without insisting on each other’s malevolence, evil, or stupidity. I’ve written for years about ways we can cultivate this in our relationships, and wrote a book with a gay-identifying Christian man called, A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse (Disagreement Practice, Treasonous Friendship & Trustworthy Rivalry in the Face of Irreconcilable Difference).
 Often when describing Latter-day Saint teaching, critics selectively reference obscure, exceptional references in old texts – or a passing comment from a Bishop…in a way that conveys an especially heavy, and harsh (inaccurate!) spirit of our overall message. I would argue that the following more accurately reflects the true and consistent spirit of what we teach.
 Compared to simply how someone feels, this is about how someone believes, thinks and responds to certain feelings (all of which, yes, are clearly choices).
 I do believe this whole conversation touches on the very rawest of nerves in an already deeply sensitive, painful, and personal conversation between the LGBT and religious conservative communities. The intensity of disagreement – and the stakes involved – are stunning. I stand all amazed at the pain and fear and anger involved.