Originally published May 2016.
I believe that each person on Earth is born with an eternal component. This eternal component, being eternal, is the most real part of each of us. In Abraham 3 (PoG) the prophet Abraham recorded his vision of pre-mortality, a condition existing prior to the creation and population of the Earth. He described the hosts of beings present in his vision as intelligences with the capacity to weigh options, to make choices, to demonstrate faith. God intended for each intelligence to enter the Earth and receive a mortal body in order to prepare for the next stage in eternity. This is who we are. In reality, we are each an eternal being, made up of capacities to think, reason, believe, choose, grow, develop. Our core identity is nothing more than this eternal reality. This comprises a foundational component of LDS Church doctrine as stated in The Family: A Proclamation to the World: “All human beings––male and female––are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny” (Family, first par.).
Mortality provides us with many ideas about identity. Common straw-men I have encountered in conversations about the nature of identity and its modern conceits include dress, physical appearance, education and erudition, economic status, talents, awards, hobbies. I label these straw-men because while they certainly do constitute preposterous substitutes for true identity, to attack this group exclusively is to miss a range of more subtle and pervasive ideas about identity that more completely and thoroughly threaten the realization of one’s true eternal self. Such modern concepts of identity would have a person believe that sexual preference, drug use or alcoholism, or criminality are integral parts of who a person is at his/her core; that s/he has to act on these elements in order “to be true to him/herself.” In reality, these elements are often the result of choices we make and then use to pad ourselves with a self-construct. To grasp at and act on such modern concepts of self as “part of who I am” is to not only ignore one’s true eternal identity, but it is also to deny another fundamental aspect of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the provision to change our hearts and build our true selves through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Identity and the Atonement
The original inspiration for this post came from an Exponent II article entitled, “I Hope you Stay.” I found the author’s heartfelt plea moving and mostly accurate: the LDS Church really does “need you in it.” More accurately still, the Church wants to include everyone. The comments at the bottom of the article are what really drew my attention. These comments read something like, “the Church only wants me if it can force me to be someone I’m not”; “the culture of the Church won’t allow me to be who I am”; “by leaving, I can show the Church that unless it changes, even more people will leave.” (I have paraphrased and generalized comments so as not to infringe on the rights or privacy of the original commentator(s).) I found these sorts of comments troubling if for no other reason than they belied a fundamental misunderstanding of identity and Church doctrine as I have come to understand it. In brief, these problems of understanding include:
1) the commentator’s misunderstanding that the mortal/worldly elements of identity they have padded themselves with are not part of one’s true identity at all;
2) misunderstanding on the part of “the Church”: this obviously refers to individual members who do not grasp the true concept of identity and believe that someone who doesn’t LOOK LIKE a cookie-cutter Mormon doesn’t belong;
3) another commentator’s idea that the Church needs to change ignores the fact that the Church as an organization has been established through revelation. There are certain processes of administration (other than Priesthood offices and keys) that have little to do with doctrine and more to do with efficiency or someone’s career training. But elements of the Church as an institution that are DOCTRINALLY based are not going to change.
Let me continue by quickly resolving points 2 and 3 above. The real change needs to take place in the MEMBERS of the Church: how “the Church” treats individuals boils down to interpersonal communication and individual perception. If everyone began to see themselves and others the way God sees us, things would look different, members would behave differently toward each other; I think a lot more women would be a lot happier with how they are viewed within and treated by “the Church.”
This change mostly involves embracing one’s own true identity and diligently developing the eyes to see other peoples’ true identities. When Elisha prayed that the eyes of his servant would be opened, the servant beheld the army of angels God had sent to protect the prophet (2 Kings 6:15-17, OT). When we pray that our eyes will be opened to see people the way God sees them, we can begin to embrace the reality of WHO WE REALLY ARE and begin to identify and weed out elements of our culturally inculcated identity that have no bearing on our eternal nature or divine destiny.
As an organization, the Church exists to help each of God’s children access the Atonement of Jesus Christ. King Benjamin taught in the Book of Mormon that “there is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ” (Mosiah 5:8, BoM). King Benjamin was speaking specifically to people whose “hearts are changed through faith on his [Jesus Christ’s] name” (v. 7) and they had entered into a covenant with God that they would “be obedient unto the end of [their] lives” (v. 8). The Atonement of Jesus Christ is all about CHANGE. Changing one’s heart at its core but that change of heart is meant to affect other aspects of oneself: desires, thoughts, choices, actions, behavior. Change is most often uncomfortable, especially when a person holds so tightly to his/her worldly identity that the concept of self has become more important than following God’s commandment to “be ye therefore perfect, even as I am” (Matthew 5:48, NT; 3 Nephi 12:48, BoM).
When I wrote earlier that the Church wants to include everyone, I meant it. Everyone needs the Atonement in order to fulfill his or her purpose on Earth and the Church’s mission is to offer the Gospel to everyone. What the Church really looks for in its missionary efforts, though, is people who WANT to be included, who WANT to participate, who WANT to access the Atonement, who WANT to change their hearts, and who WANT to covenant with God.
Changes we are each required to make in order to completely live the Gospel of Jesus Christ will vary in magnitude and difficulty for each individual.
Living the Gospel of Jesus Christ fully requires individual change but it most certainly does not mean we all become cookie-cutter robots. We are truly unique beings––more unique than we try to make ourselves appear when we pad our identity with superficial qualities or mortal “ways of being.” True individuality springs from one’s eternal component. One’s inherent agency (the freedom to make individual choices for ourselves) certainly qualifies a person as a unique individual, capable of independent behavior; but that eternal core also carries one’s most personal identifying marker––the intelligence that has existed forever that has experienced and developed and continues (hopefully) to progress toward its full potential.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches individuals about who they really are and what they have the potential to become. We start out in the world in a particular state (natural and fallen); the Gospel is provided to “remind” us of our original purpose in entering the world; and the Gospel teaches us how to fulfill that purpose. Everything about the state in which we enter the world (sense of identity, physical limitations or disabilities, mental health, propensities to particular character traits or behaviors) are all subject to change. Limitations inherent in our mortal condition are temporary. Identity (in its true sense), personality, character will be permanent elements of our eternal selves and we are meant to take great care with their development.
If we are meant to change during our time on earth, to reach a higher potential through faith and good works, then why would we hold on to worldly/mortal concepts of identity or personality that could put us at risk of losing an eternal inheritance?
Why not be true to your eternal identity? Why not be true to God?