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On Faith and Pain

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 15, 2014

D. (my age) and her mother lived near enough each other that one dropped by the other’s house every few days. They shared a cup of coffee in the kitchen, caught each other up on family news, and generally enjoyed each other’s company for half an hour before going back to the business of the day. It wasn’t about the coffee, of course – they weren’t sampling different beans and writing reviews for anybody – but because they always drank that coffee, it was an important part of their mother-daughter ritual.

Then D. joined the Church; her mother did not. She wasn’t antagonistic, but was especially interested in discussing that part of her daughter’s new life. They still met in their kitchens every few days, with D. drinking something other than coffee, and they still discussed the growing grandchildren, but things were different, at least for D.’s mother. Their ritual had changed, and it seemed like Mormonism hung like an unexplored fog between them, no matter how much they loved each other and how much else they shared. D.’s mother recognized the change, and mourned it, even as she maintained the most loving of relationships with D.

I thought of that last week when Robert Kirby of the Salt Lake Tribune published a column, “How Much Pain Does Your Faith Cause?” which has been getting a moderate amount of love around Facebook over the weekend. I think the shares and comments of approval are probably based on the inference that Kirby is calling for love and tolerance and kum-ba-yah when a family member leaves the Church. That isn’t what he says, though – and I hate hate hate the wrongness of what he does say.

Like so many other believing Latter-day Saints, I have close family members who have formally left the Church, or whose behavior and life choices run counter to Church teachings. In my case, these are nieces/nephews, whom I haven’t seen much over the past 15 years, but whom I loved and played with and celebrated birthdays and Christmas with as they were growing up, for whom I sewed Halloween costumes and bought school supplies and whose crayon drawings I still have in my treasure box. That these are “only” nieces/nephews, and not children/grandchildren, doesn’t lessen the intensity of my feelings for them.

Kirby asks whether faith comforts in moments of genuine pain. Sometimes it does – I honestly believe in the power of the Atonement to make things right that once went wrong.

Then Kirby asks, “Is your religious faith ever a major factor in causing that pain?” To illustrate his question, he supposes that a loved one leaves the faith, whatever it is, does something that puts him “crossways to your core beliefs.” “Does your faith make you feel better about him, or is your belief in your theology a constant source of worry and sorrow for you now?”

Kirby assumes that faith causes the pain and is the source of worry and sorrow. Bulls– er, Baloney.

Faith is not the source of the pain I feel when a baby is born to unwed parents. The baby is beautiful, the baby is wanted, the baby is fully a member of the family. But the father isn’t going to be the one to bless her before a congregation. And marriages are difficult enough when they are sealed by a commitment to eternity; how stable is this new family, and what will that mean for the long-term stability of this child’s life, and my family’s continued relationship to her if the parents drift apart as they drifted together? It’s that that is the source of pain, not my religious faith. If anything, my religious faith tells me that there is a long future ahead in which to make right what began wrong. But for now that cloud of worry – we have you today, little one, but what about tomorrow? – hangs like that fog between D. and her mother. For now, something that could have been right has not yet been made right.

When a niece has her name removed from the rolls of the Church, the pain doesn’t come from my faith telling me that she has made a mistake. It comes from, among other things, knowing that something important is different now. The ties of love have not been severed, but a sealing has been broken. That matters to me. For me to say, “Oh, my faith in sealings is the cause of pain; therefore it is a bad thing” is ludicrous and a lie. The sealing is real. It means something. The more it means, the more its loss hurts. To decide that it shouldn’t hurt, that it shouldn’t matter, is to say that sealings have no value. You can’t have joy when things go right, then pretend that joy never existed after things go wrong. Faith isn’t the source of pain – it’s trespass against that faith that is the source of pain.

Kirby then says, “Maybe you’ve decided to grudgingly accept this ‘lesser’ [loved one] for who he is now out of the goodness of your heart; that if you can’t love him the way your faith mandates, you can at least tolerantly pity him in a Christ-like way.”

This is what I hate the worst of all in this mess of a column that some of my friends applaud so heartily. I love my nieces and nephews, and I don’t know of anything that could break that love. That I have little involvement in their lives now has to do with distance and the busy-ness of young families and the way that their parents have had no need for me in their lives, not to any lack of love on my part for those now-adult children. What contact I do have with them is as adults, in love.

My love for them is most emphatically not “out of the goodness of my heart” and is not the “tolerant pity” posited by Kirby, as if that were the only possible course a woman of faith has open to her. I love them because I’ve always loved them, because they’re family, because we have a shared history and – I pray – a shared future, because they’re wonderful people, because my parents loved them, because they’re doing great things with their children, because they’re smart and funny, and because they’re the only family I will ever have. There’s no self-righteousness and no pity in that love. It exists, and I cherish it, and them. Even pain when they choose paths that I would not choose for them does not lessen that love.

Faith is not the source of pain; it’s a real source of comfort when human behavior works against that faith. The benefits that come to loving relationships through shared faith are real – the pain at their loss is evidence of those benefits, and is proportionate to their reality. Love is real, too, and while it may be strengthened by shared interests, including shared faith, it needn’t disappear, or sour into “tolerant pity,” when interests change or faith is lost. Someone who feels pain when another leaves the faith is not “an idiot,” as Kirby calls us.

I hate Kirby’s column. It is not a call for maintaining loving relationships when a loved one leaves the faith. It is a condemnation of anyone who, for any reason, feels pain when a loved one leaves, no matter the quality of love that is sustained through those changes and choices.



18 Comments »

  1. Thank you.

    Comment by Diana — July 15, 2014 @ 8:12 am

  2. This gives me a new perspective. Thank you.

    Comment by Kris — July 15, 2014 @ 8:34 am

  3. I have heard at least 3 people mention Kirby’s column positively. In my everyday life, I never hear anything about Kirby’s columns. When I read it, I also hated it.

    First, it isn’t funny. Kirby is supposed to be funny. This column is not funny at all. I mention this really to point out that I am not saying anything about Kirby himself, or his faith or love, but just the ideas in this one column.

    Kirby’s article commits several logical fouls. Ardis points out one: Kirby assumes that there is a dichotomy of outcomes, when in reality there is a multiplicity of outcomes. Relationships with family members are so complex.

    Another foul is his straw man argument. He sets up this perfect person who leaves and then condemns any negative feelings about that person. How can anyone think negatively about this enlightened soul, just because they aren’t in the church? But no one is perfect, including those who leave the church; you just wouldn’t know it from Kirby’s column.

    Saying that leaving the church or sinning is not worthy of sorrow is to say that it is not wrong, which implies staying in the church and not sinning is wrong. This mentality is too bound up in Kirby’s column for me to appreciate anything else he says.

    Finally, I feel like I have personally navigated the challenge of loving those who leave pretty well. It isn’t that hard to feel sorry for their decision because it denies them happiness, to have a heartfelt desire that they will come back, and to love them thoroughly, deeply, and unapologetically as they are. The dichotomy Kirby described was foreign to me, but perhaps there are others that benefit from drawing the distinction. Even a broken clock . . .

    Comment by Lonn L — July 15, 2014 @ 8:35 am

  4. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 15, 2014 @ 8:52 am

  5. A much needed and appreciated response, Ardis and Lon. I’ve always been a Kirby fan, but his recent columns dealing with religious subjects have shown his view of religion and faith to be very thin and insubstantial. Which I suppose makes it easy for the social media anti-religionists to latch onto.

    Comment by Matt — July 15, 2014 @ 10:21 am

  6. My score:
    Ardis-1
    Kirby-0

    I very much appreciated your insightful rebuttal and concise thoughts.

    Comment by David R — July 15, 2014 @ 11:20 am

  7. I don’t think I will bother to read the original article. But you make an excellent point, Ardis. We are pained when people we love make choices that we know will inevitably cause them pain. For example, my sister was once married to a man I now refer to as “the man who made me love the letter X.” Did I disapprove of him because draining all of the oil out of your estranged wife’s car so that the engine will seize up on the freeway is against my moral standards? Or because she and my nephew were really lucky they weren’t killed, and what were you thinking, you idiot?”

    I have a friend who does not believe in an afterlife. I have pointed out that it gives me a very unfair advantage. If she is right, she dies, I die, and that’s the end of it. If I’m right, she dies, I die, I find her and say, “I told you so,” and then we hug and then we cry and then we laugh, and it will be great. She is sticking to her beliefs, but hoping I’m right.

    Comment by LauraN — July 15, 2014 @ 11:48 am

  8. This is well-put, Ardis. I also did not like Kirby’s article when I read it. It is false and shallow. Thanks for a thoughtful response that should be printed in the Trib, too.

    Comment by Elaine — July 15, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

  9. Amen, Ardis. I often enjoy Kirby, but he missed the mark widely with this one. Thank you for clearly and cogently describing where he went wrong, and more importantly, what’s actually right.

    You are a rock.

    Comment by lindberg — July 15, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

  10. I have some of the same issues going on in my own family, but the pain I feel is not from my faith; rather the faith gives me hope and helps me deal with the pain my family members choices have caused. Your rebuttal points right to the heart of the matter. Thank you.

    Comment by kevinf — July 15, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

  11. On a less serious note, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld: link. Advance to 5:37.

    Comment by John Mansfield — July 15, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

  12. How about “On faith, hope, and charity…?”

    Because of my faith, I have a hope that anyone could return. And therefore I extend charity to those close to me* who have “fallen.” Unless they are an active danger, in which case I still love them, but take action to protect myself and others.

    I would say that there can be some whose faith and hope are not sufficient to allow them to be charitable towards someone who has “fallen.” Or, rather, they don’t have enough hope to ease the pain they feel. I suppose this type of person is who Kirby was thinking of in his article. But his remedy would seem to say that, rather than increase their hope, they should decrease their faith.

    * I specify that I extend charity to those close to me, because the charity that I extend to those far from me might not be understood as charity, no matter what my intent may be…

    Comment by Meg Stout — July 15, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

  13. Well, shallow is probably inevitable in the number of column-inches he had. And I suspect his target was not people like you, Ardis, who continue to love but quietly grieve the loss of shared spiritual understandings and eternal expectations. There are people who really do withhold love from their family members who make choices they don’t approve of, who behave very differently towards them before and after church membership. The headline was unfortunate because I think what he’s getting at is that it’s wrong to believe that your religion requires you to deliberately inflict pain on others. At least that’s what I hope he was getting at…

    Comment by Kristine — July 15, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

  14. Does everyone understand that Kirby’s wife, who is a returned Mormon missionary has left Mormonism and is active in another Christian Church? He did not write this without understanding the issues.

    Comment by Jeffery Johnson — July 15, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

  15. Based on the reactions…maybe I should read Robert Kirby. Ardis, how many liberal FB friends do you have left?

    Comment by Chris Henrichsen — July 15, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

  16. Oh, I do not read Robert Kirby. His style column is a relic. I am glad some people like it. For me they are mostly a shrug.

    Comment by Chris Henrichsen — July 15, 2014 @ 11:05 pm

  17. My wife Sandra and I have nine kids between the two of us; when we married 28 years ago, all nine were under the age of 14. Of those nine, four served missions, married in the temple, and are active in the Church. The other five all are inactive, with feelings towards the Church ranging from wistfulness to intense dislike.

    We love and adore all our kids, treat them all the same, and trust all of them to the Lord’s good care, since — remembering two of the Savior’s parables — current choices don’t guarantee future results. My faith, far from bringing me pain, brings me comfort and hope and joy. As I wrote some years back, however long or short our lives, God always has enough time to love us home.

    Comment by bfwebster — July 16, 2014 @ 11:34 am

  18. “When a niece has her name removed from the rolls of the Church, the pain doesn’t come from my faith telling me that she has made a mistake. It comes from, among other things, knowing that something important is different now. The ties of love have not been severed, but a sealing has been broken.” These words could have been taken from my mouth, only it is not a niece, but a daughter. Did that change my love for her? NO. In fact, my husband and I just returned from a two-week trip to Vermont, staying with her and her wonderful husband and our sweet granddaughter, and loving every minute being with them.

    I won’t be reading Kirby’s article. No need to get upset from reading it.

    Comment by Maurine — July 19, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

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