Comfort Those That Stand in Need

June 30, 2014 | 20 comments
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2014-06-30 Waters of Mormon

Behold, here are the waters of Mormon and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort… Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord? (Mosiah 18:8-10)

This passage has been on my mind a lot over the past couple of weeks, and I wanted to share some thoughts on what it means to mourn with those who mourn in the context of recent events. I do so acutely aware that due to my skepticism of OW I am something of an outsider. And that’s my first thought: the call bear one another’s burdens is a call to cross the lines of insider and outsider.

After all, if the burden is already ours, then it doesn’t make sense to ask us to share it. We already do. If we’re already mourning, then it doesn’t make sense to ask us to mourn with those who mourn. We already are. Even those who do not feel as personally affected must heed the moral imperative to offer sympathy and comfort. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Think of the example of Jesus Christ outside the tomb of Lazarus. He knew where Lazarus had gone, and He also knew He had the power to bring him back again. What power did death hold over the Savior, that He should mourn the passing of a friend for His own sake? And yet He wept. He mourned with those that mourned.

The drawback is that among those of us who lack Christ’s perfect empathy, we are left in a position where those with little understanding are still under obligation to sincerely try and offer comfort. This can lead to variable outcomes. I hope I can offer a perspective that at least does more good than harm.

2014-06-30 WobbeHübenerSchnibbeA story that seems useful to consider is that of Helmuth Hübener. He was a young man in Germany during World War II who was executed by the SS for spreading allied propaganda. He was also a Mormon, and his branch president–who was an ardent Nazi–excommunicated Hübener. It wasn’t until the war ended years later that Church leaders were able to posthumously reinstate Hübener.

So what was Hübener’s status during those two years? Do we imagine that the branch president’s authority confined this brave young man’s soul within a spiritual prison until the excommunication could be countermanded? I suppose it is possible, but it’s a strict legalism that seems totally foreign to me, akin to worrying that your child will be consigned to a lower kingdom if you miff the wording of the baptismal prayer and no one catches it. It’s particularly strange to see such fierce devotion to superficial legalism from folks who generally tend to emphasize the fallibility of leaders. Shouldn’t that fallibility necessarily come with a corollary that their fallible actions are not the end-all, be-all of salvation?

On the other hand, one of the hallmarks of this mortal probation is that actions have consequences. Perhaps this extends even to leaders wrongfully excommunicating members. In that case we must believe that God is able to rectify those errors. “If the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good,” said the Lord to Joseph Smith. After all, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:7-8)

If the excommunication of any person is carried out in contravention of God’s will we must imagine either that it has no spiritual effect, or that God is ready, willing, and able to provide restitution in His time. If, on the other hand, the excommunication of any person is carried out in accord with God’s will then it is an act of mercy. First, because it affords a person who has gone seriously off the path an opportunity for recognition and repentance. Second, because such a person has already cut themself off from the blessings of membership in the Church, but still stands in condemnation of the covenants that they have violated. In this case, excommunication frees them from obligations they are no longer fulfilling.

2014-06-30 Julian of NorwichThere is no scenario in which someone’s spiritual life is taken out of their hands and out of God’s hands and placed in the hands of another human being instead. An excommunication can never be a spiritual assassination, no matter how great an error may or may not have been committed.

This does not mean that anyone should be unconcerned by an excommunication, of course. Excommunication, right or wrong, is never something to celebrate or take lightly. An excommunicated person is forcibly severed from a social and a cultural heritage that they cherish. Regardless of any other factors, that itself is a painful thing for me to contemplate. My heart goes out to anyone who has to deal with such a trial, and also to family and friends who are affected as well.

I know, relative to the tragedies many have faced, that my life has been lucky and easy and even routine. I hold myself no expert on pain. But, during darker times I have gone through, there’s a phrase that has brought a measure of peace. It’s from a vision of the 14th century Catholic mystic Julian of Norwich. In one of her visions, God told her: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” These aren’t words to dismiss the feelings of those in pain. Just a reminder that there is always hope for a brighter tomorrow.

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

20 Responses to Comfort Those That Stand in Need

  1. JKC on June 30, 2014 at 8:51 am

    I keep hearing the idea repeated that when a person is excommunicated, they are no longer held to the covenants that they made. But is this actually true? It seems very odd to me. From my perspective, a covenant is binding, and while breaking it might result in forfeiting the blessings promised through the covenant, I don’t see how it makes it not binding. And excommunication is just formalizing the result of covenant-breaking, right? I just don’t see how excommunication frees a person from the consequences of covenant-breaking.

  2. Nathaniel Givens on June 30, 2014 at 8:53 am

    JKC-

    I keep hearing the idea repeated that when a person is excommunicated, they are no longer held to the covenants that they made. But is this actually true?

    I don’t have an authoritative source. To me it is the only logical way to understand the practice of rebaptism. Rebaptism implies that a person is not currently under covenant. Why else make the covenant again? In that case, excommunication must necessarily void the covenant.

  3. SilverRain on June 30, 2014 at 9:56 am

    “I just don’t see how excommunication frees a person from the consequences of covenant-breaking.”

    I don’t think it does “free them from the consequences of covenant-breaking.” They are still responsible for the covenants they have broken. Rather, excommunication means two things: that they are not continually held responsible to live up to the covenant after the excommunication, and that they cannot continue their actions under the auspices of the covenant.

    Often, people justify their behavior by claiming that they are still under the covenant (active, believing members,) therefore what they do must be okay. This removes the opportunity for that particular error, protecting the perpetrator and those who would be more likely to believe them because of outward symbols of righteousness.

    As much as some mock the concept, it is an act of tough love in that it says “You are no longer living up to the covenants you have made, therefore you will no longer have the burden or the blessings of those covenants.” It is akin to telling a teenage daughter that, “You have used your cell phone inappropriately, therefore it will be taken away until you demonstrate that you are responsible enough to have it again.”

    While the teenage daughter certainly feels it is a punishment, not an act of love, it is truly far more loving than allowing her to continue sending explicit pictures of herself, buying drugs, and cheating on her tests. You may not be able to stop her from doing any of those things, but at least you can stop her from using your authority/resources to do so. Then, she may gain access to your resources again once she demonstrates the ability to use them responsibly.

    I know that some might be offended by this analogy, but the Church is something like a trust fund in the absence of a deceased parent. Christ isn’t personally with us, but if you are a faithful member of the Church, you believe He has entrusted His authority to the leadership of the Church. If you aren’t a faithful member, you will refuse to acknowledge the authority of the trust with the consequences of not gaining access to any of its resources. If you are, you will acknowledge your faults, repent, and submit yourself to the Savior’s chosen trustees. If the trustees are misusing their authority, they will eventually answer to the Savior themselves. If you truly believe they are misusing their authority, you are of course free to not submit to it, but that choice comes with at least temporary consequences.

  4. Nathaniel Givens on June 30, 2014 at 10:05 am

    SilverRain-

    I don’t think it does “free them from the consequences of covenant-breaking.” They are still responsible for the covenants they have broken. Rather, excommunication means two things: that they are not continually held responsible to live up to the covenant after the excommunication, and that they cannot continue their actions under the auspices of the covenant.

    FWIW, I like your expansion of my statement. I think it’s a good improvement on what I actually wrote.

    I also liked your trust fund analogy quite a lot.

  5. Jax on June 30, 2014 at 11:11 am

    The statement that excommunication frees someone from the responsibility of their covenant just doesn’t sit right with me. I always viewed excommunication as simply a removal of their membership, not their obligation to fulfill their covenants made to God. I also see it fitting into SilverRain’s second item “that they cannot continue their actions under the auspices of the covenant.” If someone goes through the temple gets excommunicated (for Apostasy, or a Felony??) and THEN commits adultery, are we saying they won’t be held spiritually responsible for that because their covenant was broken when they were excommunicated? I tell my kids all the time that smoking doesn’t make non-members bad people, because they haven’t covenanted not to do it – they aren’t breaking a promise. But if an excommunicated person smokes, aren’t they still breaking that covenant? Doesn’t it still have effect even though the church can no longer give punishment for it??

  6. SilverRain on June 30, 2014 at 11:32 am

    Jax, I think the point is that they aren’t responsible to the Church because their covenant was broken. Of course, they’ll still be responsible to the Savior to live up to the light and knowledge they have at the time they sin, just as anyone is. I don’t think anyone will be able to look the Savior in the face and plead legalistically, when that day comes.

    Nathaniel, thanks. I was definitely intending to expand/elaborate on what you said, not argue against it in any way.

  7. SusanS on June 30, 2014 at 11:36 am

    I’m relieved to discover a sense of loss and mourning over the recent events rather than the schadenfreude of “they got what they deserved” mentality from many wagon-circlers I’ve encountered.

  8. JKC on June 30, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    Thanks, Nathaniel and SilverRain, for your thoughts. I’m still not entirely convinced, but I appreciate reading your point of view. The trustees analogy sits well with me, but I don’t think it really answers the question about excommunication meaning freedom from covenant. I think I’m still with Jax in seeing it as more a removal from the community of the church than anything else. (Linguistically, this is a better fit, anyway). I don’t think rebaptism necessarily implies that excommunication frees one from covenant obligations. I see it more as an analogue to the kind of rebaptism that was common in earlier times: a symbol of repentance and, as a restoration of church membership. The fact that an excommunicated person returning does not have to go through the ordinances of the temple again, but simply has the “blessings” of those ordinances “restored” through laying on of hands suggests to me that an excommunicated person is not entirely freed from the covenant or the obligations of the covenant, just from the blessings of the covenant.

    To use the cell phone analogy, the cell phone is not the covenant itself, it is merely one of the blessings of remaining faithful to the covenant. The covenant itself would be something like a solemn promise that the daughter made to not engage in explicit activity. When she breaks that covenant, she of course loses the blessing of the covenant, and it means that she can’t use the cell phone any longer to send explicit texts, but that doesn’t necesarily mean that she is freed from her original promise to not engage in explicit activity, or from the consequences of continuing to break that promise if she does.

    I have no doubt that excommunication can be, and usually is, an act of love, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that excommunication frees the excommunicated person from the consequences of continued covenant-breaking.

  9. SilverRain on June 30, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    JKC, I think we are mostly in alignment. I would say excommunication only frees the person from SOME of the consequences. It gives them space to explore their behavior, and hopefully eventually find the good choices for themselves. It doesn’t mean that their behavior has no consequences whatsoever. Of course it does, among which being continued lack of access to the blessings and lack of trust. It is, in essence, saying “I can’t control what you do, but I can refuse to condone it. When you are ready to live by the rules, you will be able to regain what you lost. Until then, I will not trust you to honor your promises, so the covenant is void.”

  10. Jax on June 30, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    SilverRain, I accept that understanding just fine. But saying “they aren’t responsible to the church” seems redundant to “they have lost their membership.” It’s a small quibble if that is what we mean. I thought by saying “excommunication frees them from obligations they are no longer fulfilling” that it was meant that they would no longer being held accountable by God (with whom they make those covenants)for a covenant breaking activity if it is after excommunication. Isn’t that the mercy Nathaniel was talking about, that they are released and no longer accountable. I’m not sure that is true if that is what he means. If he is simply saying that excommunication releases them responsibility to the church, that’s fine, just seems REALLY obvious and not very blog worthy.

  11. James Olsen on June 30, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Nathaniel, I think you’ve got a great insight on the particular burden that Mosiah 18 places on outsiders when it comes to mourning with those who mourn. Notice, however, that we can take that word “with” very seriously as well. Thus even as an insider, one in mourning, I am obligated to do so not as a hermit but together with my covenant sisters and brothers. I think this is important.

    I’m a huge fan of Romans 8:28 – that all things in this life can work together for our good (the NT parallel to D&C 122). It does not follow, however, that all things are therefore good. And in Mormonism, at least, the very very real ostrocization that takes place – particularly in the wake of a public excommunication – is hugely significant, theologically significant. And this is true whether or not the individual is at fault, or whether the community is itself at fault for shunning. The suffering is real, often unnecessary, the absence of community impacts salvation (of both the individual and the community), and it’s certainly not a good thing – even if, ultimately, God can help us come out stronger/wiser/more righteous on the other side.

  12. SilverRain on June 30, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    I think I see where there may be a difference, here.

    What do you think it means to be a member of the Church? What are the blessings and what are the responsibilities? What does a member owe the Church?

  13. rameumptom on June 30, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    I find it interesting that so many mention the “schadenfreude of “they got what they deserved” mentality from many wagon-circlers I’ve encountered”, and I’ve only seen it once, while seeing Nathaniel’s sentiments being poured out time and again from conservative members. BTW, it is one thing to empathize and mourn with those who mourn. It is quite another thing to support a person in their sins.
    I am saddened by anyone who is excommunicated. However, the concept of supporting a person and celebrating their “victory” in being excommunicated and encouraging the continuance of that attitude and behavior into the future, is not what Alma is teaching here. It is quite the opposite.
    It would be as the friends of Silver Rain’s disobedient child sneaking her a cell phone to use while on restriction.
    In mourning with those who mourn, we need to ensure we are helping them to heal AND turn to God and his servants. We should not be enabling them to continue in a victim or sinful state.

  14. PaulM on June 30, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    To all who have advocated the stance that excommunication does not sever prior covenants with God I would ask how you reconcile the prohibition from participating in the sacrament. How do you explain the fact that family members (children, spouse) also have their membership records modified to show that they are no longer BIC or sealed? Are you also asserting that an excommunicated man still holds the priesthood but is merely prohibited from exercising it? Mostly this sounds like soft-pedaling apologetic non-sense. The fact that a re-baptized individual is not also required to go through the temple to restore their blessing is a modern-day adaptation– a policy of convenience.

    The trustee relationship is not a very apt analogy as the beneficiaries of a trust are provided avenues to rid themselves of trustees who fail to live up to the promise of their trust. The Church provides no such guarantee.

  15. CheckSeven on June 30, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Regarding the state of those mistakenly or wrongfully excommunicated, isn’t it our belief that such a priesthood action is of no eternal effect unless sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise? I.e. a leader wrongfully excommunicating one undeserving of such (e.g. because the leader was a blinded by his pro Nazi cultural baggage), simply has no effect beyond the practical effects in this life. I see it as God’s way of overlaying the imperfect (but at least workable for us mortals) formalism with the infinite justice and knowledge of a member of the Godhead. We get to exercise God’s authority and power but never against his will.

  16. JKC on July 1, 2014 at 7:13 am

    PaulM, I think you may be misunderstanding me. I am not saying that an excommunicated person has the ability to invoke his or her covenants or receive any of the benefits of those covenants. But where we differ is that I don’t think that the act of excommunication is itself what severs those covenants. Rather, it is, in my opinion, the sin that led to the excommunication that severs the covenants, and excommunication just makes it official. But the fact that you have broken your covenant and therefore cannot claim the benefits of that covenant does not, I think, mean that your obligation to keep that covenant vanishes.

    As to your specific question about the sacrament, that’s simple: the book of Moroni is very clear that church leaders are under an obligation to prohibit those who are unworthy from taking the sacrament. If your are unworthy, it does not follow that you are no longer bound by the obligations you took on when you made your covenants. Also, given that non-members are not prohibited from taking the sacrament, the sacrament prohibition actually shows that an excommunicated person is in a different situation from a non-member, which suggests to me that excommunication does not free a person from all the obligations they have. Certainly it revokes the blessings, and in that sense it severs the covenant (though again, I would argue that excommunication does not itself revoke those blessings, it merely makes it official), but I don’t think it’s a “no harm no foul” situation where a person will no longer be held accountable for continuing to make choices contrary to his or her prior covenants.

    As to your question about records, I don’t know if what you are saying is true, about family members’ records being modified to revoke BIC status, but it does not matter because in any event, I think that only shows that the blessings of the covenant are revoked, but it does not show that the person is free to continue to break covenants with impunity.

    As to your question about the priesthood, no, I am not saying that an excommunicated priesthood holder still holds the priesthood. I have heard people make that argument, but I’m not convinced. But the theoretical distinction between “does not hold the priesthood” and “holds the priesthood but is prohibited from exercising it” seems like a distinction without any practical difference to me and I don’t see what it has to do with whether excommunication frees a person from the obligations they assumed.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 1, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    May i suggest that the phrase “mourn with those who mourn” from Mosiah 18 is related to “blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comoforted” from Matthew 5? There is something here that goes beyond recognizing that when we are baptized into the body of Christ’s sons and daughters, we will have empathy for each other in the midst of the losses we all suffer in mortality. I think the unifying understanding is provided by Moses 7:45, when Enoch “cried unto the Lord, saying: When shall the day of the Lord come? When shall the blood of the Righteous be shed, that all THEY THAT MOURN may be sanctified and have eternal life?”

    In other words, “they that mourn” specifically refers to those who look toward the atoning suffering and death of the Savior on our behalf. They will be comforted, and blessed, and sanctified, and given eternal life. Indeed, each time we take the Sacrament, we reaffirm that we are “they that mourn” at the suffering and death of the Savior, and always remember him, so that we may be ready to have the Holy Ghost poured over us and comfort us as we contemplate the great love of Christ for us despite our sins and imperfections.

    By training our souls to have this reciprocal empathy for our Savior, we strengthen our capacity to love the people whom HE loved. When we mourn with them, we will do so the way HE would.

  18. Alison Moore Smith on July 2, 2014 at 12:45 am

    Nathaniel, this was a very poignant piece. Lots of good food for thought. Thank you.

    Raymond Takashi Swenson, as usual, your insights always add depth.

  19. PaulM on July 2, 2014 at 8:36 am

    JKC,

    Your answer that it is the sin that severs the covenant and not the act of excommunication would render the need for excommunication moot. Standard Mormon doctrine on excommunication is that such action is an act of mercy because excommunication severs the covenant and saves the sinner from further condemnation associated with the covenants s/he previously made. Your explanation regarding the sacrament is more of an argument that each act of partaking of the sacrament is in itself a new covenant rather than the “renewal” of existing covenants (which, frankly, I see as closer to the truth which is why the Church allows investigators to participate in communion while prohibiting the sacrament to those who are excommunicated).

    You also state, “…the blessings of the covenant are revoked, but it does not show that the person is free to continue to break covenants with impunity.” The LDS bible dictionary states, “The gospel is so arranged that principles and ordinances are received by covenant placing the recipient under strong obligation and responsibility to honor the commitment.” LDS doctrine clearly links the covenant to the ordinance. When one is excommunicated the result is as if the initial ordinance had never been performed thereby releasing the excommunicated from all obligations related to the ordinance. Excommunication does not in turn grant free license for sin of any kind– it merely redraws the lines for what is defined as sin.

    The priesthood itself is a covenant entered into between the initiate and God. There are certain obligations and responsibilities associated with each of the offices of the priesthood. If one does not hold the priesthood then one no longer is responsible for executing those obligations and responsibilities.

    I see much of the discussion regarding excommunication as a sad hedge on ecclesiastical fallibility.

  20. JKC on July 2, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Paul, you’ve lost me. I just can’t tell what you mean by most of your statements—especially the comment out of left field about ecclesiastical fallibility—and I get the sense that you think I am arguing a point that I am not. I don’t think it’s worth further discussion, except that I will ask one question: if it is “Standard Mormon doctrine” that excommunication “saves the sinner from further condemnation associated with the covenants s/he previously made,” then where in the standard works is such a statement made? Or if not in the standard works, where is it?

    I’m asking sincerely, not argumentatively. If that is the church’s doctrine, then I suppose it’s something I’ll just have to take on faith. My understanding is that it is a sort of ad hoc explanation that members give from time to time, but I’ve never seen it taught that way as church doctrine in the standard works or by modern prophets or apostles. But if I’m wrong, I’m willing to be corrected.

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