Saturday, July 4, 2015

An Unspoken Struggle: Things As They Really Are

Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old. Jacob 4:13
One of the biggest hurdles in working through our weaknesses is overcoming disabling and destructive thought patterns. Especially when working with those who struggle with sexual related issues, its embarrassing, frustrating and private. Unfortunately, almost all embrace thoughts and emotions they believe are appropriate in these struggles but are actually preventing them from progressing and finding hope and joy in the moment. These thoughts and emotions sway from pessimism to optimism. But neither are helpful in healing, self-mastery, and embracing the atonement.

Optimism can be as dangerous and destructive as pessimism; it can prevent spiritual growth and self-mastery. Optimism and pessimism are two emotional sides of the same coin. There doesn't appear to be any doctrinal basis for optimism in the gospel. The Lord never chastised Job for complaining or needing to be more happy in his trial, or Joseph Smith for complaining there were too many churches. But you might say, Jobs proving and Joseph Smith restoring the Gospel were a part of God's plan. Like Laman and Lemuel, we are rebelling and sinning against God.

I assure you, most, if not all those I see, are no Laman and Lemuel. The moment we sin or transgress, we see ourselves as Laman and Lemuel, and the moment we repent we are Nephi. This is the dichotomy we unfairly place ourselves into and is harmful to our progression. Those who approach sin and self-mastery with optimism and pessimism are slowly losing hope. Our weaknesses don't make us like Laman and Lemuel; our lack of desire to love and trust God and refuse the atonement make us more like Laman and Lemuel. This idea was captured perfectly in a meme I found recently:


I understand this can slide easily into a topic of semantics. You might be recalling talks over the years that you've heard or read encouraging optimism. President Gordon B. Hinckley gave a talk in General Conference in 2001, "Words of the Prophet: The Spirit of Optimism". More recently, T. Jeffrey Wilks of the Marriott School of Management at BYU gave a devotional "Optimism and Joy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ". Both messages are spot on and insightful. I am confident that you can think of many other messages that encourage "optimism". 

However, what I have found is that these talks use the words "optimism" and "positive thinking" interchangeably with hope and happiness. Technically, this is not what optimism means and is not how most interpret its meaning. 

The Webster dictionary defines optimism as "an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome." I believe that this is the definition used by most people and those with whom I have worked. It is the inclination to put the most favorable outcome as opposed to seeing things as they really are. The "positive" approach to life. 

What if Joseph Smith was an optimist? How different do you think his prayer would have been? "Father there are so many churches; it's confusing but thank you for blessing us with so many options to worship thee." He would have missed out on the First Vision experience, lessons of eternity, and the building up of an individual, courageous enough to lead the restored church into a new dispensation.

Where in scripture does it tell us to be optimistic? It doesn't. But rather, the scriptures teach us to see things as they really are, "Wherefore, it [the spirit] speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be;" The scriptures also teach us to take our concerns, even complaints, to the Lord.

In an often misread scripture, Sariah provided an excellent lesson in the need to complain:
"For she had supposed that we had perished in the wilderness; and she also had complained against my father, telling him that he was a visionary man; saying: Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness.
And after this manner of language had my mother complained against my father." 1 Nephi 5:2-3
I have attended many meetings where individuals interpret Sariah's murmuring and complaining as an issue with her faith and use it as a cautionary tale. However, I see Sariah's actions as an example of faith, authenticity, and seeing things as they really are.

Camille Fronk Olsen, professor of ancient scripture, offers additional insight to Sariah's experience;
"I suggest a different explanation. To establish Lehi and his family in a new land where they would inspire and instruct later generations to come unto Christ, God needed more than a father and a son (as successor) to possess a testimony tried in the fire of affliction. God also needed a matriarch, weathered by her own trials of faith and armed with her own unwavering witness, to stand steadfast with her prophet-husband. 
When her sons failed to return, Sariah feared, giving evidence that her present faith, though admirably strong, was not yet strong enough to continue the difficult journey, let alone to establish a God-fearing family in a new land. The content of 1 Nephi 5 is therefore especially significant because it shows how crucial a mother's preparation is to the Lord. God desired not only that the family possess the brass plates for the journey, but also that both the mother and the father have unshakable faith before they continued. 
...Sariah's reunion with her sons was additionally charged with the spiritual witness and stronger faith she received as a result of her trial. At that moment Sariah gained a deeper testimony than she had previously known. Notice the power and assurance in Sariah as she bore witness to her reunited family: "Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them" (1 Nephi 5:8)" Camille Fronk, Desert Epiphany: Sariah and the Women in 1 Nephi
Sariah is a wonderful example of how voicing concern or complaint can strength faith and even be a form of expressing faith.

Consider Joseph Smith's complaint and concern while locked away in Liberty Jail:
"O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? 
How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?" D&C 121: 1-2
What followed was a powerful and calming revelation which would not have occurred if his fears and concerns were glazed over with optimism. Like Sariah's complaining, he expresses faith in a loving Father in Heaven who answers prayers. To some degree, each prayer we offer is a complaint to God and should be. It is important to offer gratitude and recognize His hand in our lives. But it is equally important to see things as they are, recognize our weakness and, well, complain. Complain with hope and faith in the atonement.

Those who struggle with sin, especially sexual issues, often take a pessimistic or optimistic approach to healing. When they give into their weakness, they often shame themselves, which is not sorrow, but guilt and negative self-talk and thinking. For some reason, they feel the ease and power of the atonement are not enough. Also, they fear that if there is not enough self-punishment and shame they will repeat the undesired behavior, a form of scaring themselves out of the behavior. Others, on the other hand, will over-compensate and take on an optimistic or positive thinking approach. The pain, shame, and embarrassment are too much to deal with and feelings that they are not worthy of the atonement are too overwhelming. Therefore, to avoid or cope with that pain, they put on a smile and repeat gospel positive phrases such as, "I know God loves me", "If I fast and pray more, I will overcome this", and "All I need is more faith", or some other form of positive gospel affirmation. These are those whom we sometimes see as dedicated and example saints who seem to never have a negative thought and have all the right answers.

One such client came into session each week and after briefly sharing their status they immediately engaged in gospel positive self-talk. "I know I failed this week because I didn't read 30 mins each day. If I increase my scripture studies, I will not repeat the sin." They are very literally not seeing things as they really are. They jumped immediately into supposed solutions to their failure. They think if they dwell on it too long or "complain" they would be lacking faith in the process. But what they are doing is denying themselves insights specific to their needs and self-mastery. But what eventually happens is that the gospel positive self-talk runs out. Doubt takes over and faith is diminished. No matter how much they pray, read, and do good works, they repeat the undesired behavior. As a result, they question their faith and experience a spiritual fatigue. Many give up after years of repeated visits to their Bishop and prayers of repentance. They begin to no longer believe that the Lord doesn't give temptations and struggles greater then we can bear, or if it were true, it must be they are too sinful to be blessed. 1 Corn 10:13

Hogwash! It's because we glossed over the atonement with pessimism and optimism. It's not always about more prayer or scriptures but rather a need to see things as they really are. Although our struggles are in no way easy, it is easier to focus on more scriptures, more prayer, and more faith. If Sariah or Joseph Smith glossed over with optimism, would they have expressed their hard concerns and complaints? Would they have learned and been prepared to bring forth greater faith and revelation by laying their fears on the altar?

Even with those who have struggled with their sins for 40 years, I have seen almost immediate success when we begin to voice their complaint to the Lord. It's scary to be accepting of your weaknesses and discussing them with the lord. But as Kathryn Kirk as pointed out in her struggles, the gospel is a place of healing, not hiding.

I have even heard many say, "Before I see the Bishop or a therapist, I want to work through this to a certain point." Sometimes, we in the faith put too much emphasis on our own works and not enough on trusting the atonement. You no longer have to be afraid of your struggles, but embrace them and see them as they really are without guilt or shame. Eliminating shame and seeing things as they really are is essential to self-mastery and make your weaknesses strong before the Lord.

When we can stop treating our undesired behaviors with optimism or pessimism and face them with courage, we can bravely lay them on the altar to have our weaknesses made strong. Let's replace the optimism, gospel self-talk and pessimism with hope! I love the words of Pope Francis in making this very same point:
“I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude,” the pope says. “I like to use the word hope instead, according to what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, that I mentioned before. The fathers of the faith kept walking, facing difficulties. And hope does not disappoint, as we read in the Letter to the Romans. Think instead of the first riddle of Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot,’” the pope suggests. 
At that moment I recalled more or less by heart the verses of the riddle of the princess in that opera, to which the solution is hope: “In the gloomy night flies an iridescent ghost./ It rises and opens its wings/ on the infinite black humanity./ The whole world invokes it/ and the whole world implores it./ But the ghost disappears with the dawn/ to be reborn in the heart./ And every night it is born/ and every day it dies!” These are verses that reveal the desire for a hope. Yet here that hope is an iridescent ghost that disappears with the dawn. 
“See,” says Pope Francis, “Christian hope is not a ghost and it does not deceive. It is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.” Pope Francis, A Big Heart Open to God
It is tempting to run from our undesired behaviors, to hide them, or to, in some form of karma, do more good to prevent the bad. Recognize your weaknesses courageously, learn from them, and make them strong.