Weeding out guilt culture from Mormon culture

My mind has been turned recently due to a constellation of reading material and personal interactions to the topic of guilt. Guilt seems to have become a widespread phenomenon within the Church– and particularly in the LDS LGBT community. It seems to be an ever-present burden, and the negative aspects of it have caused some to become disaffected with the Church, or even suicide. This to me is not the true gospel of Jesus Christ, at least correctly implemented, and I attach much of my spiritual growth over the past 5 years or so to a spiritual reorientation around guilt and the repentance process. I wanted to talk through some personal experiences, and some sources that have been springboards off of which I have bounced by ideas.



The apostles recognize the burden of guilt that many in the Church feel. Elder Neil L. Anderson brought up the topic of guilt surrounding the topic of missionary work. When the missionaries come by and ask “is there anyone you know who could benefit from a gospel message?” and you can’t think of a single name, you do tend to feel pretty guilty. He used an analogy to address the limits of guilt as a motivator:

Guilt has an important role as it awakens us to changes we need to make, but there are limits to how far guilt will help us.

Guilt is like a battery in a gasoline-powered car. It can light up the car, start the engine, and power the headlights, but it will not provide the fuel for the long journey ahead. The battery, by itself, is not sufficient. And neither is guilt.

I suggest that you stop feeling guilty about any insufficiency you think you have in sharing the gospel. Rather, pray, like Alma taught, for opportunities “to stand as [a witness] of God at all times and in all things, and in all places … that [others] may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, [and] have eternal life.” This is a much stronger motivation than guilt.

As a missionary, I took this seriously, because I knew that guilt-ing members into giving me referrals wasn’t very effective. Instead, I tried to find ways of helping them feel the spirit of missionary work and sought to help them make sharing the gospel a way of life.

But guilt associated with missionary work, while widespread, is just the tip of the iceberg. It really can’t get you far at all. If your version of living the gospel is avoiding sin by sheer willpower, you will fail. Stephen Covey described the self-defeating cycle of broken resolutions that perhaps rings true to some with their struggle with sin:

Have you ever resolved to break the overeating habit, only to disgustedly renew the resolve every other week? Have you ever resolved to stop procrastinating? … Speaking of habits, what about the circular, self-feeding habit of making resolutions, then later breaking them, then remaking them, only to break them again. We begin to wonder if it’s worth making any more.

Habits have a tremendous gravity pull, more than most realize or would admit. Breaking deeply embedded habitual tendencies, such as procrastination, impatience, criticalness, or living in the excesses of selfishness involve more than a little will power and a few minor changes in our lives. We’re dealing with our basic character structure (what we areinside), and we need to achieve some very basic reorientation, or transformation, of values and motives as well as practices.

Furthermore, we can’t fully overcome these habits and impacted tendencies by ourselves. Our own resolves, our own wills, our own efforts—all this is necessary but is not sufficient. We need the transforming power of the Savior, born of faith in him and his atoning sacrifice.

We sometimes perhaps think that the transforming power of the Atonement simply means granting us more willpower, and therefore, we just aren’t trying hard enough. That hasn’t been how the Atonement has worked in my life. I love this quote from a favorite Seventy of mine, Enzio Busche, that is technically about being under the influence of the Spirit, but I think you could connect that to applying the Atonement:

Under the influence of the fullness of the Spirit fills us with satisfying joy and makes it easy to make necessary adjustments, even in the most difficult of circumstances. This Spirit lets us develop the true potential of our intellectual capabilities and delivers even the motivation to use it… Under the influence of the Spirit, all uncomfortable things— such as hard work, getting up on time, going the extra mile, overcoming homesickness, overcoming flaws of character, and other things requiring sacrifice– are easy. It is clear that under the influence of the Spirit we act in wisdom. We see the complexity of a problem in its simple parts, and we see the possible solutions unfolding in front of our eyes– to our own surprise. In other words, our creativity is developed and multiplied. That which is a burden without it becomes a privilege when we are under the influence of the Holy Ghost.

By seeking the influence of the Spirit every day, we can work towards overcoming sinful habits. It won’t happen all at once, and we shouldn’t let a slip-up make us feel unworthy. We should repent, and repent quickly, and continue on. Just because you slipped doesn’t make your efforts any less worth while. I was thinking of this during my 7-day fast from social media. Admittedly, I did slip up. Without even thinking, I would find myself typing “Facebook” and “Twitter” into my Internet search bar. But if I felt like my efforts were wasted, and I gave up after these slipups, I wouldn’t have experienced that growth that still accompanied the experience.

To return to the topic of guilt, Elder Christofferson touched on it in a talk contrasting the ideas of guilt culture and shame culture:

Sometimes those who raise a warning voice are dismissed as judgmental. Paradoxically, however, those who claim truth is relative and moral standards are a matter of personal preference are often the same ones who most harshly criticize people who don’t accept the current norm of “correct thinking.” One writer referred to this as the “shame culture”:

In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. … [In the shame culture,] moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion. …

“… Everybody is perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, during which everybody feels compelled to go along. …

The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.”

Contrasted to this is “the rock of our Redeemer,” a stable and permanent foundation of justice and virtue. How much better it is to have the unchanging law of God by which we may act to choose our destiny rather than being hostage to the unpredictable rules and wrath of the social media mob. How much better it is to know the truth than to be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” How much better to repent and rise to the gospel standard than to pretend there is no right or wrong and languish in sin and regret.

You can read into it that when he mentions shame culture, he is calling out many liberal tendencies to make what was not acceptable twenty years ago socially acceptable today. But when I read the quote, I easily could see how shame culture can be an element in our own wards and stakes as well: when the primary motive for keeping the commandments is avoiding shame from family or ward members, we have built our own shame culture. Our personal conscience has been replaced by a social conscience.

Isn’t it interesting that the quote Christofferson uses also admits that guilt culture is a poor replacement for shame culture? It defines guilt culture as a system where “you know you are good or bad by how your conscience feels.” In his own personal remarks, Christofferson doesn’t use the term guilt culture, but replaces it with “the rock of our Redeemer” and “the unchanging law of God.” To me, a true Church culture should avoid guilt culture as well. Building on the rock of our Redeemer means that we don’t use fear of punishment now or in the eternities as a primary motivator to live gospel principles. After all, doesn’t D&C 121 say “No power or influence can our ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned?” Wouldn’t God also live by this same principle when communicating and guiding us?

I personally believe that eliminating guilt as a primary motivator in our Church culture is essential. I have been reading a biography of Martin Luther, the famous religious reformed in the 16th century. But before he was a religious reformer, he was a Catholic friar. Craig Harline explains that one of Luther’s first strands of thought that led him to break with the Church was his experience with guilt:

And so when the friars sang Psalm 22 in choir, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Brother Martin really meant it. He suffered from what the professional religious called the “bath of hell,” or overscrupulousness, a sort of occupational hazard for people whose full-time job was to look inside and find sin. To Brother Martin, it was like fishing in a barrel, and so he exasperated his confessors more than most. They tried telling him that the big pile of sins he was always confessing were fake sins, and that next time he should come with some real sins that actually needed forgiving. Still, he found it hard to believe that any sin was small. After all, God was perfect, and the Bible commanded him to be perfect, and the constitution of the Observant Augustinians said that someday he would actually be able to obey every single requirement perfectly. Maybe he still just wasn’t trying hard enough.

Catholic doctrine at the time taught a “operative grace”, the idea that you needed to do a certain amount of works before grace kicked in. Luther rejected that idea, because he could feel he could never do enough. It sounds similar to Nephi’s idea that “it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do.”

Instead of fretting over how much “all we can do” is (for a great discussion of re-interpreting this verse, check out Brad Wilcox’s The Continuous Atonement), we should learn to accept ourselves as we are first. Accept that we have weaknesses, and that we will slip up. Don’t expect perfection on the first try. Aim for 100-pence perfection first. Just like I could accept a few slip-ups in my 7-day social media fast, we can accept that we inevitably will slip up at times in our lives. Acceptance doesn’t mean rationalization. Rationalization seeks to minimize sin or find justification to ignore it completely. Acceptance means accepting the bad parts of you too, that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” God will work with you and not against you as you seek to live the gospel whose central tenet is love.

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