Paying the Price: No More Room For Cafeteria Mormonism

Many Latter-day Saints believe that they can just coast into Heaven by going to church on religion-cartoonSundays and reading their scriptures once in a while, perhaps reading a lesson they haven’t prepared in front of a class. The prophets and apostles seem to have had a different perspective. With all the encouragement to share the Gospel in recent years, and with high profile cases of apostasy becoming ever more common, it is increasingly important that we devote ourselves to an actual knowledge of the Gospel. You see, there is a proper order to these things, and they have been laid out for us by the Lord Himself:

“Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men.” (D&C 11:21)

Once we become converted, truly converted, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and see our lives change for the better, we develop an intense desire to share the Gospel with others. We begin to see where they can benefit, and out of loving concern for their spiritual and physical welfare, it becomes important to us. This is the story of how that happened in my own life. It all began in the summer of 1993.

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The streets were crowded, smelly, and everything was unfamiliar. Bob and I had never been to Los Angeles before, and we now found ourselves on the very sidewalks of Hollywood. We had driven three hours from our homes in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in a pick-up truck of uncertain reliability, just looking for something to do. And here we were, glitz and glamour all around us.

We made fast friends with a local punk rocker who went by the name of Shaggy. He told us about a concert that would begin in a few hours, which was precisely what we were seeking, but in the interim could he introduce us to his friends? Why not, we agreed.

Our path took us straight down the Hollywood Walk of Fame, world renowned for its sidewalk of stars pitted with the hand- and foot-prints of some of the most wealthy and famous celebrities. What most people don’t realize though, is that at the end of the Walk of Fame the sidewalk of stars actually turns down a relatively quiet side street. About a half-block down this side street, Shaggy led us into a large run-down building that looked as though it might have once been a hotel or apartment complex of some sort before having been bombed in a manner not unlike Hiroshima. Most of the floorboards were missing, the roof was clearly visible from two or three stories down, and flights of stairs stopped in mid-air. The homeless often refer to places like this as “squats.”

“You live here?” we asked.

“Sometimes,” was Shaggy’s reply.

Shaggy wasn’t his real name, of course. On the streets, people rarely ever use their real names for fear of being discovered. There are a lot of things to be afraid of when you live on the streets, we soon learned. It was not uncommon for local jocks to break into squats, beat up the males, and sexually abuse the females. Some of the other homeless punkers at this location were quite concerned that we were undercover cops looking to infiltrate their group and arrest them.

So, Shaggy and another fellow named Fhat Fhoot led us to another squat that was in a nearby house. We covertly entered the basement through a back window, then climbed onto a washing machine and up through a hole in the ceiling onto the first floor. This building, too, was in disrepair, though nothing like the previous squat.

As we approached the stairwell, a Black man suddenly leapt up from a couch and ran towards me, yelling. He was very tall, very angry, and ready to fight any intruder he didn’t recognize. He may or may not have also been wielding a knife. Luckily, Shaggy and Fhat Fhoot were able to calm him down with the assurance that we were approved guests.

We hung out for a bit, went to the concert, and eventually met several more of Shaggy’s friends. There was Eyeball, with the tall purple mohawk, Irk and his dog Bango, Amy, Grabby, May, Christ, Crust, and a very nice kid who called himself Satan. There was also Scrappy, the ten-year-old kid whose parents didn’t care where he went or what he did, and who often spent days at a time away from home.

I was only in Southern California for the summer, but Bob and I returned to L.A. to visit these new friends as often as possible. Over time we learned that most of them were runaways escaping various forms of abuse, others had been thrown out by their parents. They were forced to avoid homeless shelters so their abusers couldn’t find them, and only being in their teens they were unable to get jobs, so they were forced to eke out a meager existence from begging, stealing, and underage prostitution, and hope that they lived to be adults.

We learned to love every one of them. Their realities were a nightmare that no one should ever experience, and they often turned to alcohol and drugs in an effort to cope. As I was intently preparing for my mission, I constantly remembered that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). Our hearts went out to these kids, but Bob was visiting his parents from out of state and I was only a few short months from leaving on my mission, and also only visiting relatives in the area. If we had owned the homes we were staying in at the time we would have taken them all home with us to live in peace and safety. As it was, the best we could do was to provide physical comforts like blankets and food.

The scriptures also tell us, however, that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man,” (D&C 88:15), so I wrote my testimony in a Book of Mormon and carried it with me, always looking for an opportunity to share it with these youth, whose lives were in the deepest darkness and hopelessness imaginable. Not long before this, I had devoted myself to a deep and prayerful study of The Book of Mormon. The proverbial “two ways” were before me, and I had to know for myself whether the Gospel was true. If it was false, I could stop wasting my Sundays in Church and start doing the things many of my friends were doing. If it was true, though… If it was true, I had to make a lot of changes to be living the way Heavenly Father wanted me to be living.

To make a long story short, I was overwhelmed with a spiritual assurance that it was true, I made the required changes, and my life acquired a sense of meaning. I knew that God loved me, that He cared about what I did, and that He was there to help me–not just me, of course, but anyone who asks, and I could see how this knowledge had the potential to change the lives of my friends. Like Lehi, “as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my [friends] should partake of it also” (1 Nephi 8:12).

At the age of 18 I gained an unshakeable testimony and I wanted to share it with everyone. Unfortunately, not every Church member pays the price for such a revelation. Pres. Spencer W. Kimball once lamented that “[t]here are still many of the Saints who are not reading and pondering the scriptures regularly, and who have little knowledge of the Lord’s instructions to the children of men.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, (2006), Chapter 6: Discovering the Scriptures for Ourselves, 59–68.)

It is not enough to simply believe that the Church is true. We must seek after a deep and meaningful testimony that compels us to follow Christ at all odds. This requires active and dedicated participation on our part, as attested to by Pres. Kimball, elsewhere: “A testimony is a personal revelation—one of the important gifts—and may be enjoyed by every soul who will pay the price… To fail to attain this knowledge is to admit that one has not paid the price. Like academic degrees, it is obtained by intense strivings. That soul who is clean through repentance and the ordinances receives it if he desires and reaches for it, investigates conscientiously, studies, and prays faithfully… Mere passive acceptance of the doctrines will not give the testimony; no casual half-compliance with the program will bring that assurance, but an all-out effort to live his commandments.”

“Many have been baptized and received a testimony, and have “gotten into this straight and narrow path,” yet have failed to take the further required step—to “press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end.” Only the faithful will receive the promised reward, which is eternal life. For one cannot receive eternal life without becoming a “doer of the word” (see James 1:22) and being valiant in obedience to the Lord’s commandments. And one cannot become a “doer of the word” without first becoming a “hearer.” And to become a “hearer” is not simply to stand idly by and wait for chance bits of information; it is to seek out and study and pray and comprehend.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, (2006), Chapter 6: Discovering the Scriptures for Ourselves, 59–78.)

“[I]ntense strivings?” “Being valiant in obedience to the Lord’s commandments?” These strong phrases from one of the Lord’s chosen mouthpieces seem to suggest that every ounce of our energy should be spent in seeking to know God, seeking to become like Christ, and letting go of every speck of world-taint that we possess. It should be what we think about, what we talk about, and what we spend our time trying to achieve.

We are all familiar with the scriptural passage that says, “Where much is given, much is required” (D&C 82:3). Do we actually believe it? Are we willing to pay the price to be given much in the first place? Once we have received it, do we act like the Lord requires anything in return?

“The enduring lesson we learn…” says Elder David A. Bednar, “is the importance of experiencing in our personal lives the blessings of the Atonement of Jesus Christ as a prerequisite to heartfelt and authentic service that stretches far beyond merely “going through the motions.”” “As Enos turned to the Lord “with full purpose of heart” (2 Nephi 31:13), his concern for the welfare of his family, friends, and associates increased simultaneously.”” (Come and See, Elder David A. Bednar, Oct. 2014 Gen. Conf.)

Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his 1943 “Theory of Human Motivation,” proposed that human beings cannot have their higher needs met until their more basic needs have been met. This is a fine theory with many useful applications, but from a spiritual perspective we know it to be false. There are many examples from the scriptures of people whose basic desires for food, shelter, friendship, and acceptance, were not being met, and yet who came to know and serve God with all their hearts. Job, Abinadi, Moses, even the prophet Joseph Smith, are just a few examples of finding, loving, and serving God completely even while being denied many of life’s pleasantries.

So, we know that providing for the physical wants and needs of our brothers and sisters is not a necessary prerequisite for sharing the Gospel with them. But… it is a great place to start.

Once we begin the process of devoting ourselves to the Savior and preparing for His Second Coming, we develop a heartfelt desire, even a yearning, to serve those in need. We look for their temporal needs and try to fill them. As we mature spiritually, however, we begin to recognize that they have spiritual needs, as well, that can only be filled with a proper understanding of, and obedience to, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Lord has repeatedly told us that if we love Him, we will feed His sheep (John 21:16). In an article, entitled “Homosexuality and the Gospel,” author D. Rolling Kearney explains why:

“And again, when they thought of their brethren who had been slain by the Lamanites they were filled with sorrow, and even shed many tears of sorrow… And again, when they thought upon the Lamanites, who were their brethren, of their sinful and polluted state, they were filled with pain and anguish for the welfare of their souls.” (Mosiah 25:9,11)

At this point in the Book of Mormon, many of the Nephites had been killed by the Lamanites. When the Nephites thought about it, they wept for their dead. However, what did they do next? They were “filled with pain and anguish” over the “sinful and polluted state” of the Lamanites. Why? Because they saw them as God does, as eternal beings with eternal destinies, and (here is the key) they knew it was their duty to tell them what was right…

This has been the responsibility and duty of all who receive the Gospel, from the beginning of time down to our own time:

“Behold, I sent you out to testify and warn the people, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.” (D&C 88: 81)

So, what are we warning people about? We are warning them that God is real and that He has given us rules to follow, for which we will each be held accountable. Why are we concerned about what other people are doing with their lives? Because we care about them, and when we truly love people, we do not support them in incorrect behaviors.

“[T]hey were sorry to be the means of sending so many out of this world into an eternal world, unprepared to meet their God.” (Alma 48:23)…

If we do our part, however, and help people see the error of their ways and mend them, then we will rejoice together forever:

“And [Christ] hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance. And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth! Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people. And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!” (D&C 18:12–16)”

This passage tells us that when the Savior sees his brothers and sisters repenting, it brings him “great joy!” But who must repent? “Nevertheless,” says the Lord “there are those among you who have sinned exceedingly; yea, even all of you have sinned” (D&C 82:2). Brothers and Sisters, let us repent and turn ourselves over to godliness, fully and completely. Then, let us seek every opportunity to convince those around us to do the same.

At the end of Summer, Bob and I returned to L.A. to say goodbye to our homeless friends. I had become close friends with one of the girls, who went by the street name Grabby, and had decided that I would give her the Book of Mormon I had written my testimony in. I put it into a small cardboard box with a few things I knew she could use, like candles, matches, and blankets. When we pulled up in front of the squat on Bronson street, we were recognized and several people came out to greet us. I hugged Grabby and told her it was the last time I would be able to visit; I was leaving on my mission soon. I still remember the way she stared at me and backed away, as if she had instead expected to hear me say that I was going to take her away from her living nightmare. I pulled the box out of the truck and tried to give it to her but she ran inside. I never saw her again.

More than twenty years have passed, and I still have concerns and regrets. Buddhists believe that through prayer they can dedicate the merit from their own good deeds to the benefit of others. I would like to think that the Lord heard my prayers in her behalf, and that she is living a peaceful life somewhere. In the end, despite all that I wanted to do for Grabby and the others, there was really nothing I could have done differently. But God knows I tried. Instead, I spent 26 months in the mission field, bringing other people to Christ and watching their lives change in the ways I had hoped to have helped my homeless friends.

I would like to close with one of the most well-known passages from the New Testament, which I hope will spring to life with new meaning:

“Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:35-40).

3 thoughts on “Paying the Price: No More Room For Cafeteria Mormonism”

  1. Steve in Millcreek

    I also know people like Grabby and Eyeball; and I find it difficult to know the best way to speak to them spiritually. The space between where they are and where I want them to be is large, and I frankly feel that the complex parts of the BoM will go over their heads as it did mine the first time I read it. I needed a whole community, (i.e., biological family, LDS ward, and LDS/Christian community) to fit together all pieces of the Gospel and internalize healthy living. The life gaps for many people is large; they do not have healthy support systems. I think my message here is that, well, I ask God to grade on a curve.

  2. Great writing! I served my mission in Los Angeles and went back afterwards to live for a time (in fact, I was living there the summer that the author visited Hollywood). Many wonderful people there, and I learned much through them. I’ll always be grateful for the experiences I gained there.

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