When I have served as a bishop, I always tried to properly set the stage for temple recommend interviews. Rather than just jumping from pleasantries to interrogation, I asked the question, “How are you getting along with your Heavenly Father?”
The answer among the spiritually conscientious was painfully predictable: “Well, I know He loves me.” <awkward pause> “But I’m not really doing my part. I don’t read the scriptures as much as I should. I don’t pray as much as I should. Sometimes I’m not as nice as I should be.”
Their answers itemized their failings. They perceived their relationship with God to be threatened by those failings. The governing assumption was clear: “If only they were better Saints, they might enjoy a closer connection with Him.”
Abandoning Our Children
We Latter-day Saints pride ourselves on knowing the true nature of God. And yet many of us seem to believe that God insists that our relationship with Him is regularly at risk because of our humanness. If we don’t do well, He will depart from us. If we are not faithful in our scripture reading and prayers, He will no longer sustain a relationship with us.
In the study of parenting, scholars have identified three classes of control mechanisms used with children. One of them is love withdrawal. This approach involves communicating to a child that we really can’t or won’t sustain a relationship with a child who misbehaves.
Imagine a parent who said to a child, “You have not been faithful in brushing your teeth. We have put your things on the curb. You will need to find a new place to live.” Or: “You have not washed the dishes at your scheduled time. The juvenile authorities are on their way to get you.” The message is: “You failed to do what you were supposed to do. I can no longer love you. And I no longer want a relationship with you.”
No loving parent could even imagine delivering that message. We would patiently continue the process of teaching correct principles. Wise parents know that we labor for years to instill right attitudes and actions. Our love for the child and our commitment to a relationship continues even when teeth go unbrushed.
The research on parenting suggests that love withdrawal generates guilt in children and is not very effective in rearing good children. I don’t believe that God uses it. Perhaps we attribute love withdrawal to God because we experienced it as children—or because we can’t imagine someone as gracious as God.
Sometimes we imagine our Heavenly Father being willing to kick us to the curb and withdraw from us the moment we fail to live up to His expectations. And when we imagine this, we are often the ones who begin to withdraw. We are the ones who have fewer and fewer conversations with Him. We may become afraid of Him or distant from Him. As a result, we are the ones who rob ourselves of the power and joy that come from a relationship with Him. To echo President Uchtdorf’s talk in our recent General Conference, we live far beneath our spiritual potential and privileges.
Other Ways of Controlling Behavior
There are two other methods of controlling behavior described by parenting scholars. One is the use of power. We can get children to do what we want by force. As long as we are more powerful and are present. This is a very serious limitation. We will not always be there and we will often not be more powerful. Further, the use of power creates children who behave only when they are forced. They do not develop their own inner standards. They don’t cultivate a conscience. This is not God’s way of parenting.
Fortunately there is a third kind of control technique, called induction. This involves reasoning with children and helping them understand the consequences of their behavior. This kind of parenting is associated with all the favorable outcomes in children. It seems characteristic of a God who call:
God invites: “Come. Let’s talk. There’s nothing about you I can’t fix. Let’s spend time together.” He knows that it is not the lengthy prayers or extensive scripture study that will change us. It is the relationship with Him.
Above all else, Satan wants to disconnect us from relationship with God. He wants to disconnect us from the power and joy that result from that relationship. He knows that, if he can get us to focus on guilt or trivialities, he can cause us to live beneath our spiritual potential.
Satan knows that even fretting about our spiritual failings can block our relationship with God. We may think it is God who chides us about our spiritual irregularities. Yet often it is Satan who grieves us about our failing so that we, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, will hide from the only One who can save us.
Of course life has its demands. We must earn a living, maintain our cars, buy breakfast cereal, and mow the lawn. But the more we allow ourselves to be totally absorbed by guilt or trivialities, the more we inch towards where Satan wants us focused.
Renewing the Conversation
Often, when ward members expressed guilt that their scripture study was not deeper and more regular and that their prayers were not more lengthy and rich, I challenged them. Can you talk to Heavenly Father as you drive to work? Can you talk to Him about your hopes, worries, and dreams? Will you hum a favorite hymn of praise as you run errands during the day? Will you look for His face in the ordinary faces of friends and family members?
We must not reduce the spiritual practices that reveal God’s face into perfunctory and obligatory rituals of worthiness. Rather, we can sustain a conversation with Him even as we watch for His gracious hand and loving Face in our lives. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it beautifully as she described the burning bushes in our lives:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
(Aurora Leigh, book 7, lines 820-23) p.254
So I pose the question to you, dear Meridian reader: “How are you getting along with your Heavenly Father?” Are you rejoicing in His goodness? Do you see His loving and redemptive hands working in lives all around you? At times that you have become distant from Him, do you hide in shame or renew the conversation with Him?
How are you getting along with your Heavenly Father? That is the question that should center all our activity and striving.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her substantial contributions to this article.
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