We are all different. Different physically, mentally, and spiritually. We have different talents, skills, strengths, and weaknesses. These differences are typically celebrated as what makes us unique and wonderful. We are all specially created children of God, each beautiful in our own way. Yes?
Then why do we gravitate towards checklists? Why does Latter-Day Saint culture revolve around steps, procedures, and standardized goals? Honestly, I struggle with this so much. It feels trite and insincere, and well, just not me. I have a hunch I’m not the only one.
Life is hard, and having to make decisions and be responsible for those decisions is a total energy drain. It is so much easier to have a simple checklist to complete each day than to have to decide for ourselves what is best for us in that moment. So we create checklists for everything. Learn this math, in this order. Write this essay, with this format. Create a resume, using this outline. Save for retirement, with this formula. Our whole lives are summed up into neat little lists of average goodness, through which we sacrifice our true and eternal greatness. One giant standardized test, and just like that life is reduced to microevents and statistical sets.
Our culture seems to be made up of checklists on steroids, and it matters because it has turned us into checklist disciples. We have lists for everything, from Faith in God in Primary, to Personal Progress and Scouting, to Ministering Reports (which often ends up not as different from Visiting and Home Teaching as we hoped it would be). We have charts for recording our daily scripture study with each section of scripture laid out for us so we can read the same number of verses every day of the year. We’ve taken away beauty and uniqueness and reduced the gospel to a standard set of rules and lists, and if we fail to meet these goals there will be guilt and shame.
The young man who never finished his Eagle project. The young woman who never achieved Young Womanhood Recognition. The father who has missed Family Home Evening. The mother who missed a day, or two, or ten, of family scripture study. The man who lost his job. The woman who didn’t sign up to make a meal. We would never admit to these things in a church meeting, lest our peers question our devotion to our faith. If we do, it is typically with the notion that we sometimes fall off the path but have found a way to come back. “Faith-promoting” experiences of how we brought ourselves back to the checklist. The bible calls us Pharisees.
Lest you think my critique is aimed squarely at the church’s programs, know that I have found myself constantly delighted at the changes our leadership has made to bring us back to the rock of revelation and the true gospel of Jesus Christ. In some generations, the church has prescribed programs which promoted Pharisaical behavior, for one reason or another, but there have been many recent attempts to appreciate the strength of the rising generation and create programs which allow more personal gospel growth and practice. It takes time to teach personal spiritual responsibility and preparedness, but the message of standing upon personal revelation has been very clear.
No, I’m not worried about the church itself. My concern is with us. I feel great when I’ve checked every box on my list for the day. But when that list includes specific static steps to improve my connection with the divine, I have to ask myself if it is really accomplishing what it is there to do. For me, the answer is always no. Discipleship is almost irritatingly subjective and unpredictable, because each of us learns in different ways, and the best methods for progress may change over time until we find that what worked for us before will no longer work. Our individual path to God can feel like a moving target because we are always learning and growing in one way or another.
One of the longest lines at Disneyland is always Autopia. It’s slow-moving and there is no FastPass. Its lines are probably second only to the Peter Pan ride. But it’s a classic and shouldn’t be missed. As a young child I would get so excited to be able to steer the car, and it never bothered me that I would run into that metal track in the middle of the road so often that the steering wheel would just spin in one direction before spinning uncontrollably in the other. It wasn’t until I rode the ride as an adult that I realized a few new things about Autopia. First, it doesn’t matter how good you are at driving real cars, you will hit that metal track, over-correct, hit the other side of the track, and over-correct again at least once, wondering if the steering wheel is even registering your instructions. Second, it’s physically painful to be in the car when your child is steering, and resisting the urge to grab the wheel is a ride in and of itself.
The path back to Father is Autopia. Describing an individual path to God in any general or standardized way by looking at external characteristics is impossible, just like describing the direction of the track using the movement of the car would be ludicrous. The only way to describe this path is the word “repentance”. Repentance is turning our wills to be in line with God’s will. That’s it. We can only describe the path by describing the direction of the metal track in the middle of the road that we keep bouncing off of. And considering that what we know of God changes over time as we learn more about Him and our own divinity, even that can be difficult to describe. The only way to come close is by staying connected to Him. We must keep our hands on the wheel and pressing the gas, even when it seems like it isn’t doing any good.
Church program checklists do have a purpose, but they are the means to an end, not the end. This is where the Pharisees messed up, and where we mess up too. The gospel is not in the lists and standardization. The gospel is the path back to Father. While this path is as strait and narrow as the metal track in the middle of the Autopian road, our individual wave-like path around it will be completely unique as we strive to master what it is to be like God. What the checklists can do is keep us connected. They can keep us holding onto the steering wheel and pressing the gas. Holding the wheel by itself will not delineate the track underneath, but without it there will be no chance you’ll do anything but bounce around aimlessly. And taking your foot off the gas will certainly halt your progression entirely.
The first step in true discipleship is to get and stay connected to the divine, and therefore our church programs can be the first step in finding the type of connectedness that leads to true repentance. The first step, not the goal. They help expand our horizons and provide opportunities for us to experiment with the way the spirit speaks to us. If the checklist you are using isn’t leading to a deeper connection with God, then it isn’t doing its job. It becomes a distraction. This was my problem. I let the checklists become a distraction. The pressure I felt to complete the checklists actually took me farther away from the connection I desperately wanted to have with Father.
This is where revelation and getting to know one’s self comes in. We need to experiment upon the word and find what works for us. Repent, and learn how to repent better. For some of us, those checklists help us stay focused and serve as reminders to bring ourselves closer to God. They are integral to our repentance and progression. For others, being told to do something takes the specialness out of it and diminishes the value of the experience. Checklists feel stifling and without their heart being fully engaged in whatever they are doing it feels pointless and frustrating. This is me. Let me dive into this a little further, you may find we are more alike than you think.
They call us rebels. We don’t like being told what to do. But this is not because we don’t like doing what is right, we just don’t like being told how to do it. We want to be creative with our righteousness, build the Kingdom of God in our own unique way, seek the spirit in all things, be spontaneous in our discipleship, and follow Christ with a devotion and passion that transcends day-to-day tasks. We don’t like being put in a box, and when we feel like we are we will purposefully push our way out. Unfortunately, the anxiety created by being forced into a box can cause us to panic and try to find any way out even if it leads us away from who we truly are as children of God. We don’t always see clearly in these moments and sometimes wrong choices are made, choices with consequences we have to suffer through.
We rebel, or take opposition to established methods, not because they are necessarily wrong, but simply because we’ve been told they are the only proper methods and we aren’t allowed to experience it for ourselves or tweak it as needed. Sometimes we can clearly see there are other methods, maybe even some which could bring more joy to us or others. No one says, “Start here and see where it takes you.” They just say, “Do this. Don’t do that.” Checklists. Bleh.
Let me be clear, there are eternal truths which we cannot “tweak”. What I’m talking about are all of the little prescribed methods of perceived discipleship which don’t have a necessary place in our eternal progression to Godhood. Like don’t swim on Sundays, not like “Love one another.” It is the little rules which have been defined by our culture and are not principles of the gospel which make up these checklists I find so off-putting. The Pharisee stuff.
We are all rebels in one way or another. It’s in our divine natures. If not, we would not have fought so valiantly for the cause of agency before we came to Earth. Lucifer’s one-way-for-all was a joke, and we knew it. We stood firm in the principles of heaven, as explained to us by our Brother, and understood that agency was the best way to be like Father, even if it meant that sometimes we would feel pain. Living in this world, where Satan rules, to be a true disciple means we must be rebels against the ways of the world, and it means finding our own testimonies beyond the daily to-dos.
This rebellious part of our natures is often frowned upon, probably because if we don’t turn to God we can end up taking ourselves farther from him. Satan will use our natures against us. So it is absolutely imperative that we stay connected to God. And since “rebel” has become such a negative word, let’s call it passionate creativity, for that is really what it is. Satan has tried to discourage this type of passionate discipleship by convincing us that passions are bad. Passions are what lead us to sin. He even has us misusing scripture, like, “Bridle your passions,” as taught by Alma. We use this phrase to teach about chastity and avoiding things that are harmful to us, as if passions only lead us into iniquity.
Let’s look at what Alma really said:
“Use boldness, but not overbearance; and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; see that ye refrain from idleness.”
In this context, passion becomes a positive tool for the work of the Kingdom. Be bold. Use your God-given passion wisely so everything you do will be done in love. Don’t sit around, get to work! Our passions are good, they are exciting, and God wants us to use them. Do be careful. Bridle them so they take you where you want to go. But be passionate!
The gospel of Jesus Christ is dynamic, adventurous, exciting, and forward-thinking. For those who prefer a little more quiet, the gospel is also peaceful and constant. It is fluid, varied, accepting, and perfect. It brings all of humanity into a new fellowship designed to bring us all back to Father. Each individual will bounce around on their own unique path, with Christ’s doctrines and atonement as their guide. Some will use checklists to help keep them connected with the divine, others will use their passionate creativity, and most will use both at one time or another.
Now when I see these checklists, I can glory in all that they do for my brothers and sisters. I see their goodness and usefulness. I hope that we use them as a way to stay connected to God so we can find deeper truths which He has for us. They are not the goal, just a tool. When I start feeling the pressure and my rebellious nature wants to run away from what appears to be chains to bind my creativity, I remember why they were given.
It’s okay to modify those templates as prompted by the spirit. Exactness is found in the keeping of our covenants, remaining true to the gospel of Christ, and enduring in our mission to build the Kingdom of God on Earth, not in following checklists with “exactness” like the Pharisees. When we see others on their bumpy Autopian paths, let us remember that there will be variations, that God loves each of us individually and knows the program that is best for us. Let’s stick to encouraging our brothers and sisters to stay connected with Father. Talk to Him. Listen for Him. Learn of Him. Cast off the chains of the world, whatever that looks like for you, and draw near unto God.
There is room in the church for checklists. There is room in the church for passionately creative rebels. There is room in the church for you. We are all welcome. We are all needed.