Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Comforting Belief in God

Belief in God is comforting, most of the time. At least it was for me, and through my years of experience in the LDS church, I've observed that to be the case for Mormons in general. First of all, it's not "God", it's "Heavenly Father". It has a much more personal ring to it, and it establishes the comforting relationship of "father". He cares about you. He knows more about you than you know yourself. He has a plan for you. He knows what's best for you. He is always in full control, and he lovingly looks down from heaven upon this seemingly chaotic world and finds nothing out of place. Those are very powerful and comforting thoughts, if you believe them. It doesn't take much more than that to make you feel really warm inside, especially when you're on your knees, pouring out your inner struggles. If you've never had this kind of experience, then just imagine that you're going through a really tough situation, so you find some time alone to kneel at your bed and you let loose all of your frustration to some invisible being that you are 100% convinced is not only listening, but knows all and loves you more than any mortal could. You've been taught your whole life about His loving character, and so it really doesn't take much to feel a sense of being loved while you're there on your knees. It has brought me to tears more than once.

I cannot deny that this is a very nice effect that can come from believing in God as Heavenly Father. No doubt it has helped many get through their struggles. Millions will of course testify to this. So why did I fall off the wagon? Why stop believing?

One of the main Mormon tenets is that God has a plan. For everything. Specifically, God has a plan for your life. You can catch a glimpse of it in your partriarchal blessing, but that ends up being pretty vague. Often in church you hear people talking about how they really wanted something, but God had a different plan. You can see this in some of the comments to this blog post. One commenter named Beanie wrote:
It has become clear in my life that MY plan and The LORDS plan are two very different things. Now, if I only knew fully what the Lord has planned in my life, I could go about doing all that I could to fulfill that plan, and do it with much less stress!
This comment is a good example of how people in the church think about life events. There is a drive to find external meaning and purpose to everything. The label "God's plan" will be slapped onto whatever happens no matter what. It's a win-win scenario for God. If what you want happens, then praise the Lord! He answered your prayers! If what you want doesn't happen, then praise the Lord! He has a different plan for you! It occurred to me when reading this comment that you can substitute "what I wanted" for "MY plan" and "what happened" for "The LORDS plan" and suddenly the hard-won wisdom that comes from years of life experience and deep, penetrating introspection comes forth: sometimes what you want to happen doesn't. The second sentence brings another nugget: life would be easier if we could predict the future, because then we could plan for it.

This kind of thinking, that whatever happened was because God planned it, is not comforting to me. Simply put, bad things happen to good people. With this God-plans-everything philosophy, you have a few ways to reconcile this fact:
  1. The bad things aren't really so bad
  2. The good people aren't really so good
  3. Ignore it
  4. Sure, anything can happen to anyone, but God will help me through the bad things that happen to me
I think most people choose option 1 or 3. Humans underestimate their ability to rebound from a bad experience and be happy again, and so when they do it is easy to say that it wasn't so bad in the first place. Additionally, it's very easy to ignore the awful things that happen to people you don't know. Option 2 is of course ridiculous, but still held by some. Option 4 just brings us right back to the same problem, like recursion. God will help you through the bad stuff? How? By physically helping you? Back to the same question. By spiritually helping you? What does that even mean? Does it mean you will be spared anxiety or depression? Sorry, but no. What exactly is it that God helps you with that he doesn't help nonbelievers with?

Two or three years ago something occurred to me, just as it occurred to one anonymous commenter on Reddit:
That was actually one of the realizations I had that started me down the path of unbelief: that "God's plan" is indistinguishable from NO PLAN, that things just happened the way they would happen whether I prayed or not.
I used to pray for safety on the road. When I got sick I would pray that God would help me heal. In my life I've prayed for a large variety of reasons, and many times the things that I prayed would happen actually came to pass. It was miraculous and wonderful to me. I loved that I could count on God to be there when it really mattered. I felt safe when I prayed for God's protection. I felt confidence when I prayed to God to help me make the right decisions. When I was small, he helped me find things I had lost. He helped me do well in school. So many things in my life had worked out relatively well and I've grown to be a normal, healthy person. I felt I owed it all to the Lord. This kind of thinking was propped up by all my teachers in church. We bless the food so that it will nourish and strengthen us. We fast and pray for people when they're ill. We give priesthood blessings to the sick. There is so much expectation of material blessings in the LDS church, and I was brought up to embrace it.

But it didn't last. Years ago I started wondering about these things. Good, praying people die in car crashes. Is it because they didn't pray for safety? Nonsense. It must have been God's plan. Nothing to worry about. Except that what if God's plan is for me to die in a car accident? Well then it's God's plan and I shouldn't worry about it. But then what good does it do to pray to God and ask him for safety on the road if he's just going to go ahead with his car crashing plan of death anyway? I started to see these things for what they were: little myths that we tell ourselves for the comforting placebo effect. Ahhh, we prayed for safety on the road, doesn't that feel good now? We're safe. We're in God's hands. Much of what is discussed in church is to reinforce this belief that whatever good happened to you was because of God, and if something bad happens then God will help you through it. The randomness of it all is fiercely ignored in favor of the cause and effect theory of righteousness and blessings. It's a strange way to cope with the randomness of life. I myself find it more comforting to face it for what it is. I find no comfort in ignorance and superstition. I have had enough with that.

Your life may not work out the way you want it to, but it's okay because God has a plan for you that may or may not involve a violent and brutal death, disfigurement, a debilitating disease, deep suicidal depression, or permanent brain damage. Don't worry though, because these things shall all be for your experience after you die. Enjoy finding out what's in store for you. Cue evil laughter from God.

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