When I was a young missionary at the MTC, I was bothered by the idea that we were all expected to look the same, act the same, and even memorize the same lessons. At times I felt that the demands of conformity were stifling, as we seemed to be an endless parade of penguins, marching in lockstep.
My admittedly immature and cynical viewpoint faded as I immersed myself in the Lord’s service, and began to learn and grow. Now, more than 30 years later, I have decidedly moved to the opposite end of the conformity spectrum. Now I get it.
When I use the word “conformity,” I can feel people bristle. Relax – it is not a bad word. Nor does it mean that the doors of the Church are not open wide to people of all nations, cultures, political persuasions, personalities, and mindsets. Everyone is welcome.
President Uchtorf even made it a point in 2013 to invite everyone to the Church, saying, “Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need you unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.” (link)
We all have our differences, and the very next year, Elder Oaks spent an entire talk teaching us how to love and live with each other’s differences. (link)
Before we get into the meat of this post, let’s stipulate 2 things:
1) Everyone is unique, and that is OK.
2) We need to love one another, even if we are different.
(Hopefully these two stipulations will keep us on topic now, and in the comment section.)
Everyone who is in the Church, as well as everyone who enters the Church is different. We live in a society that extolls individuality, and great efforts are made to highlight those things that make us unique, or stand out.
But the main point of this post is something that I think we sometimes forget in our worry to embrace the diversity in the Church: As members of the Church, and followers of the Savior, our mission is to become more the same.
What? Yes, we are supposed to become more like each other. Sure, it is fine to be wildly different when we enter the Church, but as we progress, we should gradually become more alike.
Rather than try and explain it myself, I will use three examples from the scriptures to make my point.
1) I’m trying to be like Jesus
We sing the words “I’m trying to be like Jesus” from the moment we can sing, and rightfully so. They are based on one of the Savior’s requests:
“What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Nephi 27:27)
That idea flows through so many of his teachings: “Come follow me,” “Be ye therefore perfect, even as I…” etc.
Here is the logic in favor of conformity: As we all strive to become like Jesus, we – by necessity – grow to become more like each other.
While there might be billions of us that are all different, there is only one Savior, and we have been charged to be like Him, so it is inevitable that we become more alike as we take on more of His defined characteristics. (And that ain’t a bad thing.)
2) There is one path
The Lord has made it quite clear that there are not a lot of different roads to take to get to where he wants us to end up.
“Because straight is the gate, and narrow the way which leadeth unto life, and few be there that find it.” (Matthew 7:14)
As we all merge onto the road that Christ has established for us, we see, once again, that it brings us closer together, until we realize…that we are all traveling on the same road. Not a billion different roads, all hoping for a similar destination, but ONE road. Pedefined, narrow, and only travelled by FEW.
We might come to the Church from all directions, as the diagram illustrates, but part of entering the Kingdom of God on earth requires abandoning the path that we travelled before – or any other path – and marching down the path Christ has for us.
— These two are the easy ones to absorb – we need to be more the same by being like Jesus and traveling the same path, but this next one could be a little harder for us to absorb and apply.
3) Striving for Zion
Christ not only defines Zion as the “pure in heart,” but he also explains what he called the people of the City of Enoch because they reached a rather amazing place: “…they were of one heart and one mind.” (Moses 7:18)
“One heart” implies to me the idea of a unity of gospel, charity, obedience, Christ-like attributes, etc. But the idea of “one mind” opens a whole new conversation. Are you of “one mind” with your fellow saints? I’m not. Could Christ actually be endorsing a giant mind-meld wherein we all start to think the same thoughts? In a way, yes, but not is a Star Trek kinda way.
For example: I have my agency to think that tithing should be 5%. You might think that tithing should be 15%, but we are both wrong, and will one day have to adjust our individual thinking to arrive at the Lord’s correct answer of 10%. (Because there is only one correct answer, and it is whatever the Lord says it is.)
–Important paragraph coming–
I cannot believe for a minute that the Lord wants us to set aside our thoughts and become mindless lemmings, marching to the beat of the Brethren. But I DO believe that he expects us to spend our lives thinking, studying and working towards adapting our thoughts to His thoughts. And again, as we all start to think more like Jesus, we will inevitably start to think more like each other- and the Bretheren. (And that ain’t a bad thing, either)
Conformity of desires, thoughts, and behaviors are all demanded of the Savior. I didn’t get this when I was a new missionary. I believed that somehow conformity somehow threatened my individuality. However, individuality comes to this earth with us, and we all have it. We don’t need to focus on it, or make it our life’s work to show the world how unique we are. Our uniqueness is not what will save and exalt us. In fact, our uniqueness might be the very thing we need to overcome to reach exaltation. It is our conformity to what the Savior requires of us that will save and exalt us.
Neal A. Maxwell dug into this idea much deeper than I ever would imagine. He said,
“So many of us are kept from eventual consecration because we mistakenly think that, somehow, by letting our will be swallowed up in the will of God, we lose our individuality (see Mosiah 15:7). What we are really worried about, of course, is not giving up self, but selfish things—like our roles, our time, our preeminence, and our possessions. No wonder we are instructed by the Savior to lose ourselves. He is only asking us to lose the old self in order to find the new self. It is not a question of one’s losing identity but of finding his true identity! Ironically, so many people already lose themselves anyway in their consuming hobbies and preoccupations but with far, far lesser things.” (link)
And this: “Having our wills increasingly swallowed up by the will of the Father actually means an enhanced individuality, stretched and more capable of receiving “all that God hath” (D&C 84:38).” (Link)
Focusing on our uniqueness, and focusing on setting ourselves apart from the rest of Zion is antithetical to the very concept of Zion, and the Gospel. It should be about looking outward, and striving for a unity of mind and heart.
This is not a quick, easy, and painless process. We bring some stubborn tendencies with us when we enter the Kingdom. Just two weeks ago, Elder Quentin L. Cook discussed the blessings and problems that come with the diversity of cultures in the Church. He made if very plain that there is only one culture that we should strive for.
“While we treasure appropriate cultural diversities, our goal is to be united in the culture, customs, and traditions of the gospel of Jesus Christ in every respect.” (Link)
This cannot happen if we are clinging to our uniqueness, rather than submitting to the Lord’s will. Focusing on ourselves, our pride, or our vain ambitions put us squarely in that large and spacious building. that we dread. (1 Nephi 12:18)
Conformity is not something we have to fight against. It is something we need to embrace. It might take a lifetime, and the changes might be small, but it has to happen. In my experience, my cynical opposition to the “sameness” of the missionary force has given way to a respect, and an understanding of what it truly is: A mass testimony of the willingness to conform, to be obedient, and to follow the Savior. A desire to put aside personal desires and self-definition to be part of something bigger, and better.
Elder Neal A. Mawell put it into simple perspective when he said, “There didn’t seem to be any problem with conformity the day the Red Sea opened.” (link)
Funny? Yes. Thought provoking? Definitely. But if you think about it, it is a bit worrisome. The Church is replete with those who stand opposed to the leaders and the doctrines. Just last Conference we heard that opposition as some declared that they are not of one heart and mind. And it is not just those who vocally stand in opposition that struggle with conformity – we all do.
• We embrace ideas that put us outside the mainstream of the Church and in opposition to the stated Doctrine, and then hunker down, defending our beliefs, rather than work, study, pray and exercise faith to see if we can’t foster a shift in our own thinking.
• We take stances on issues that put us at odds with the Church and the stated Doctrine, and then shout to the world that it is the Church and the Doctrine that must change. Or we do the same thing quietly, and internally.
• We define ourselves in ways to show in what specific way we stand apart from the rest of the Church. I call this “Subdivided Mormonism.” We are a collective of many different kinds of “-ites.” Carving out our own piece of philosophical turf, and mingling it with our religion is not striving to be of “one heart and one mind.”
• We attempt to drive a wedge between Church and Gospel to justify our lack of conformity to parts of the Church culture that we don’t like, rather than look in the mirror to see what we need to do to get on the right path.
• When something is said in General Conference that conflicts with what we are doing, we immediately jump to defend ourselves, rather than ask ourselves how we can change.
Mawell may have been funny in his point about crossing the Red Sea, but the Savior stated the need for conformity ever so bluntly when He said,
“I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one, ye are not mine.”