Confessions of a Molly Mormon: A Review

Confessions of a Molly Mormon: Trading Perfectionism for Peace, Fear for Faith, Judging for Joy (Orem, UT: Summit View Publishing, 2013)

By Elona K. Shelley

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Listen to a week-long Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast airing on January 29 through February 2, 2018 reviewing this book: Part 1  Part 2    Part 3   Part 4   Part 5

While I was reading a book titled Confessions of a Molly Mormon that I came across at a Deseret Industry thrift store in Utah in late 2017, I must admit that I was confused. This independently published book by Latter-day Saint Elona K. Shelley was sold at several Utah Costco stores where Shelley signed copies of the book. (Mine is signed, see the picture at the bottom.) In this book, she sincerely means to encourage LDS women who have perfectionist tendencies. However, her hope of trading “perfectionism,” “fear,” and “judging” for “peace,” “faith,” and “joy” while remaining active in the LDS religion is a futile proposition for someone who wants to remain loyal to Mormonism.

While I have never been a Latter-day Saint woman (and I never can or will be!), I felt deeply for this woman who desperately seeks peace and an assurance that her salvation is not dependent on her works. Yet I am not convinced that her conclusion is one that her church leaders or scriptures give her permission to have.

The pursuit of perfection

Much of this book is about perfectionism and the author’s admission that she is not able to attain it, even though she grew up in a faithful Mormon upbringing and lifestyle. Her goal throughout life, she writes, was to be a “Molly Mormon,” or the perfect Mormon woman. However, she had so many struggles in life that she never felt adequate in attaining her goal. She writes on page 2,

I was afraid that if other people were aware of my internal struggles, they’d think I wasn’t a good Mormon, so I did my best to hide the truth and press on. I tried to compensate for my shortcomings by devoting excessive amounts of time and effort to Church service, but no matter how much I did, I never felt like I had done enough to measure up to God’s stringent standards.

She also explains on pages 3-4:

…for many stress filled years, Molly (Mormon) had been my obsession. And why wouldn’t she be? She was everything I aspired to. She was organized, efficient, and always in control. Not only was she an attentive and charming wife, she was also the mother of several immaculately groomed, brilliantly creative, and perfectly behaved children. Her home was spotless yet comfortable. She sewed all of her family’s clothing and promptly took care of any mending that needed to be done. Each week she made delicious whole wheat bread, often dropping off a loaf to someone who needed a little extra love or encouragement. She canned hundreds of jars of homegrown fruits and vegetables each summer and generously shared the bounties of her flourishing garden. She served three delicious, carefully balanced meals every day, and of course she made full use of her ample food storage, which she rotated carefully.” (pp. 3-4)

She continues to write at the top of page 4:

Without fail, Molly got up early each morning, studying the scriptures for at least thirty minutes before going out for an invigorating five-mile run. She magnified her church callings, volunteered at her children’s school, worked on family history, and attended the temple every week. She also babysat for her neighbors so they, too, could go to the temple. No matter how much she had to do, she was always calm and pleasant. I could go on listing the virtues of this amazing woman, but I’m sure you already get the picture. Suffice it to say, Molly was absolutely everything I thought I should be.

Yet through life experience, Shelley came to the conclusion that consistently living a “Molly Mormon” life is impossible. Again, never having been a Mormon, let alone never having been a Mormon woman, I can’t speak with authority but rather observational experience. And what I have observed is that Shelley’s experience is nowhere close to unique. In fact, I’d venture to say that more than half of all married Latter-day Saint women would be able to echo the feelings that the author expresses on page 5:

Molly’s coveted level of perfection remained completely out of my grasp. With such a chasm between my reality and my lofty ideals, it’s no wonder I often found myself engaged in a losing battle with depression. For many long and stress filled years, I was unaware of the chokehold the Molly illusion had on my life.

On page 6 she adds,

While my Molly Mormon obsession continued to thrive, the crushing weight of perfectionism left my guilt-ridden spirit struggling for survival.

I don’t think Shelley’s experience is unique. I’ve heard stories like this many times before, especially with LDS women. When MRM associate Sharon Lindbloom was looking over this article, this is what she wrote me:

Something I find really interesting is that this sort of desperation thinking, the rewriting of Mormonism’s demand for perfection, seems to come from women and not from men. Maybe I’ve just missed it, but this really seems to be a thing that women struggle with. They are the ones who need anti-depressants and who need to change Mormonism’s definitions of perfection and mercy  to be able to live within Mormonism. I wonder why men don’t struggle with this as much?

Granted, Sharon has no statistics to support her assertion, but we do have facts that many Latter-day Saints suffer with depression. For example, this is one reason why I think Utah is famous for its residents imbibing in more anti-depressant drugs, per capita, than anywhere else in the nation. So, no, Shelley’s struggle is not uncommon, especially here in Utah.

Where does this perfectionistic attitude originate?

Why do so many LDS women have the Molly Mormon syndrome? Could it be the church’s leadership and scriptures? Shelley even admits on page 5 that she certainly picked up her tendency when she was a girl when she was taught by the local leaders.

Some of my earliest memories include being taught that strict obedience to all of God’s commandments would bring me happiness, shield me from temptation, and get me into the celestial kingdom after I died so I could live with Jesus and Heavenly Father forever. This devotion to obedience seemed to be the central focus of the people I most trusted, so I firmly set my course to follow every commandment to the letter. The praise I received for knowing and doing what I was “supposed to do” felt wonderful. It really did make me feel happy, so keeping that praise rolling in became my urgent desire. I began trying to hide or to somehow compensate for anything that might jeopardize my happiness, my worthiness of praise.

Where did her local leaders get this idea? Could it be from the general authorities of the LDS Church? Here is another incident she reports:

One Sunday afternoon, after yet another lesson in Relief Society about the importance of scripture study, I turned to my husband and flatly declared, “I’m never going to make it to the celestial kingdom. I might as well give up and accept it right now, so my life doesn’t have to be so miserable and stressful. I’m always trying to change, but I can’t make myself do everything I’m supposed to. There is absolutely no way I’m ever going to make it.” Familiar with my roller-coaster emotions, my husband calmly asked, “How can you be so sure that you’re not going to make it?” Then I stated what had become incredibly obvious to me over the years. “I’m never going to make it, because no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot force myself to read the scriptures for thirty minutes every day.” My husband looked at me in amusement and then thoughtfully replied, “Show me where it says in the scriptures—or anywhere else, for that matter—that you can’t get into the celestial kingdom if you haven’t read the scriptures for thirty minutes a day.” His challenge momentarily interrupted my ranting, because when I stopped to think about it, I knew the scriptures didn’t spell out scripture study in exactly those terms. But still I forged on. “Well, all of the General Authorities say it’s important to read the scriptures for thirty minutes a day, and I simply cannot do it. Even when I do pretty well for a while, I always mess up again. There’s absolutely no way I’m ever going to make it.” (pp. 25-26)

Did LDS leaders say the scriptures have to be read for half an hour a day? I don’t know of any who have used this number. However, 30 minutes has been used as a benchmark in several Mormon publications. For example, Barbara Stockwell started an article titled “It takes only 30 minutes a day” this way as printed in the July 1982 Ensign magazine:

A few weeks ago I read an article about the importance of studying scriptures, so I set my alarm for thirty minutes earlier every day.

This got her thinking and she continued in a very Molly Mormon way:

Then I remembered I should write in my journal every day, so I stayed up a half-hour later each night. Then last week in Relief Society we were admonished to exercise daily to keep our bodies fit, so I got up a little earlier each day to jog. Later in the week, I read a magazine article that promised me beautiful skin in only fifteen minutes a day, and another one said that a half-hour a day of meditation could change my life. A self-help book told me I should spend at least thirty minutes a day visualizing my desires and repeating positive affirmations. I had to get up earlier to do this.

Still, I was able to squeeze other activities into my already heavily scheduled day. I learned to do the pelvic tilt to relieve my lower back pain while driving to work. And I did my isometric exercises while at my desk. I cut my lunch hour in half in order to read the Ensign. In only half an hour a day I was able to finish it before the next one came … except for the conference issue. For that I had to stay up a little at night and read, after my goal planning was done.

Another woman’s magazine said I could give myself professional nail care in only ten minutes a day. It also suggested that a foot soak after work would do wonders to relieve tiredness. I tried to do that while I was preparing dinner, but I got so relaxed I kept dropping the carrot sticks in the gravy. Dinner would have to be delayed a little, and that would push bedtime back about a half-hour. But it was all worth it; I was becoming a new woman.

I learned in a class on success that the only way to make it in life is to write a “to do” list each night and then review it every morning to set priorities for the day. It only takes a few minutes and saves a lot of time in the long run. And did you know that if you spend only an extra forty-five minutes a day on housework you never have to get bogged down in spring cleaning?

It is marvelous how many things can be done in such a short time, and I would feel negligent if I said I couldn’t find those few minutes. After all, is a few minutes a day for all that improvement too much to ask? I can always set the alarm a little earlier.

But last night as I was setting the alarm after my prayers I realized it was time to get up and jog. Maybe I should make out a new schedule—it will only take a few minutes. …

This story was written three decades ago but, to me, shows the angst of achieving more than is possible as experienced by Shelley. Meanwhile, in an article titled “I Changed my Life in Just 30 Minutes  a Day” in the July 2009 New Era magazine (aimed at youth), Andy Jorgensen wrote,

I changed a portion of my day—just half an hour—and it changed my entire life. I found that President Benson was right; there is something more to the Book of Mormon. I woke in the morning and cheerfully greeted my Heavenly Father in prayer and my family at the breakfast table. I walked the same halls where I had before walked alone. No new friends appeared at my side all of a sudden, but thanks to Book of Mormon study, I felt companionship. The presence of ancient prophets and heroes and the Son of God that I had felt from scripture study the evening before stayed with me. The Holy Ghost was with me. The power of which President Benson spoke was with me, and I was finding life in greater abundance. I was happy.

Learning obedience from the LDS leadership

Where do these faithful Mormons get the idea that they should attempt to achieve more than they ever thought possible? I believe that the anxiety Shelley and many others have felt can be directly related to the LDS leaders who have made it very clear that full obedience to the laws of the church are required if someone hopes to gain celestial glory. Consider these statements made by the past  presidents of the church in authoritative church manuals and settings such as at General Conference:

Through obedience to those commandments which are set forth in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and by continuance therein, we shall receive immortality, glory, eternal life, and dwell in the presence of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, where we shall truly know them (Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 2013, p. 237).

The greatest message that one in this position could give to the membership of the Church is to keep the commandments of God, for therein lies the safety of the Church and the safety of the individual. Keep the commandments. There could be nothing that I could say that would be a more powerful or important message today (Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 2000, p. 35).

There are … many members of the Church who are lax and careless and who continually procrastinate. They live the gospel casually but not devoutly. They have complied with some requirements but are not valiant. They do no major crime but merely fail to do the things required—things like paying tithing, living the Word of Wisdom, having family prayers, fasting, attending meetings, serving (Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, 2006, p. 8. Ellipsis in original).

In fact, Kimball gave a whole list of “don’ts” on page 25 of his classic The Miracle of Forgiveness, including flattery, boasting, arrogance, pride, foolishness, slothfulness, impatience, lack of understanding, Sabbath breaking, envy, and jealous. But, in case someone might have thought he missed one, he added this:

Let no one rationalize his sins on the excuse that a particular sin of his is not mentioned nor forbidden in scripture.

Here are the teachings of the latest leaders:

Listen to the spiritual promise: “All saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments,… shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” (D&C 89:18, 19; italics added.) Some have thought this promise was contingent on just keeping the provisions of the Word of Wisdom. But you will notice we must walk in obedience to all the commandments. Then we shall receive specific spiritual promises. This means we must obey the law of tithing, keep the Sabbath day holy, keep morally clean and chaste, and obey all other commandments” (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, 2014, p. 164. Italics and ellipsis in original).

The happiness of the Latter-day Saints, the peace of the Latter-day Saints, the progress of the Latter-day Saints, the prosperity of the Latter-day Saints, and the eternal salvation and exaltation of this people lie in walking in obedience to the counsels of … God (Gordon B. Hinckley, “If Ye Be Willing and Obedient,” Ensign, December 1971, p. 125. See also Thomas S. Monson, “Obedience Brings Blessings,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2013, p. 90. Ellipsis in original).

“Don’t put your eternal life at risk. Keep the commandments of God” (Thomas S. Monson, “Preparation Brings Blessings,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2010, p. 66).

In Monson’s last written message to his people before he passed away on January 2, 2018, he was quoted as saying,

Should there be anything amiss in your life, there is open to you a way out. Cease any unrighteousness (Thomas S. Monson, Ensign, January 2018, p. 5).

Current church president Russell M. Nelson wrote,

Obedience to the sacred covenants made in temples qualifies us for eternal life—the greatest gift of God to man (“Prepare for the Blessings of the Temple,” Ensign Special Issue Temples, October 2010, p. 49).

While Shelley might not like some of the things taught by general authorities or explained in the LDS Standard Works, it is not optional material. Instead, leaders have taught that true doctrine is found here. Sixth LDS President Joseph F. Smith said,

It is surprising to hear the multitude of questions that are continuously sent to the Presidency of the Church, and to others of my brethren who are in leading positions, for information upon some of the most simple things that pertain to the Gospel. Hundreds of questions, communications, and letters are sent to us from time to time asking information and instruction on matters that are so plainly written in the revelations of God—contained in the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Bible—it seems that any one who can read should understand (Joseph F. Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, 1998, p. 46).

You are not, whether high or low, to change the doctrines of the Church or to modify them, as they are declared by and in the Standard Works of the Church and by those whose authority it is to declare the mind and will of the Lord to the Church. The Lord has declared that he is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Messages of the First Presidency 6:55).

When any one except the President of the Church undertakes to proclaim that any scripture of the Church has been modified, changed, or abrogated, we may know he is not “moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” unless he is acting under the direct authority and direction of the President (J. Reuben Clark, Teachings of the Living Prophets, 1982, p. 13).

What about the unique Standard Works?

Another place where Mormons get this idea of the need for complete obedience comes from the Standard Works. Shelley gives a strange story on page 23:

When I was young, few people carried their scriptures to church with them. Many families didn’t even have a complete set of scriptures in their homes. My dad kept his black leather Bible and triple combination safely out of reach on an upper shelf in our living room. We weren’t allowed to touch them unless he was sitting next to us on the couch. Though Daddy’s regard for the scriptures was obvious, to my young mind, they were mysterious and intimidating. The language was strange, and the delicate pages were filled with countless rules you had to follow if you wanted to get into the celestial kingdom (p. 23)

Acknowledging the necessity of keeping “countless rules” required for a person who hoped to receive the very best this religion has to offer, Shelley also writes,

Because I continued to view scripture stories and teachings through my distorted lens of fear, I was adeptly wielding the iron rod as a weapon of self-destruction long before I reached adulthood. Each commandment provided me with another opportunity to notice that I was falling pathetically short of perfection. Instead of allowing the words of God to bring heavenly comfort to my earthly existence, I used them to create my own living hell (p. 24).

Consider, however, that her unique LDS scriptures do condemn the Mormon unless she is able to keep the commandments. Consider these references:

God has made it possible for commandments to be kept:

“I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 3:7).

Grace kicks in only once a person has denied herself of all unrighteousness:

“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God” (The Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:32).

Obedience to the commandments is necessary for forgiveness of sins:

“For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven” (D&C 1:31-32).

Unless you keep commandments “continually,” you cannot enter God’s presence:

“Keep my commandments continually, and a crown of righteousness thou shalt receive. And except thou do this, where I am you cannot come. And verily, verily I say unto you, that this is my voice unto all. Amen” (Doctrine and Covenants 25:15-16).

If you belong to the church, you will keep commandments:

“And again, every person who belongeth to this church of Christ, shall observe to keep all the commandments and covenants of the church” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:78).

Blessing comes through obedience:

“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated— And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:21).

Regardless of her personal preference, Shelley has been instructed to hold fast to the LDS leadership and the scriptures. Her dissatisfaction with the LDS program would seem to be more of a personal problem and does not mean that Mormonism no longer teaches these hard teachings.

Failure at keeping the Sabbath

Mormonism is good at making extrabiblical rules. Yet the Bible rejects this philosophy. When it comes to the Sabbath, the author’s Pharisaical past is typical of many Latter-day Saint families. She writes on page 56,

For my parents, Sunday usually meant nice, long afternoon naps while kids played at home or visited friends. Sometimes after their naps, they played backyard baseball with us. It was so much fun that I was pretty sure we were breaking the Sabbath. The same was true of game playing after our evening sacrament meetings. I loved playing Rook, Pit, and Sorry! with our family, but I didn’t mention it in class when we had lessons about keeping the Sabbath day holy, because I was afraid the teacher would think we weren’t honoring the day properly.

Later, when the author was an adult and had her own children, her guilt level never went away, as she explains on page 57:

When our church meetings were over for the day, the craziness didn’t end. It was still the Sabbath, so there were still many rules to be enforced. No friends, no TV, no video games, no recreational cooking, no movies, no secular music, no breathing! Okay, maybe not that last one. But close.

Where did these rules come from? They are made-up rules and can not be supported through anything found in the Bible. But, like everything else, we can point to the LDS leadership (and their interpretation of their scriptures) as the culprits for people feeling guilty for enjoying recreation on this day of the week. Consider what Kimball said that was later cited in two different church manuals:

The Sabbath is a holy day in which to do worthy and holy things. Abstinence from work and recreation is important, but insufficient. The Sabbath calls for constructive thoughts and acts, and if one merely lounges about doing nothing on the Sabbath, he is breaking it. To observe it, one will be on his knees in prayer, preparing lessons, studying the gospel, meditating, visiting the ill and distressed, writing letters to missionaries, taking a nap, reading wholesome material, and attending all the meetings of that day at which he is expected (Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, 2006, p. 170. See also True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, p. 146).

Referring to Kimball’s teaching, a current church manual states,

Our prophets have told us that we should not shop, hunt, fish, attend sports events, or participate in similar activities on that day. President Spencer W. Kimball cautioned, however, that if we merely lounge about doing nothing on the Sabbath, we are not keeping the day holy. The Sabbath calls for constructive thoughts and acts (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 141).

Many Mormons would never be caught shopping in a store on a Sunday, even if it was just to purchase rolls or dessert for dinner. They would never let anyone know that they decided to watch the football game on TV during the Sabbath. Nor would they “lounge around” (resting?) in the afternoon for fear it could be taken by others as a desecration of the Sabbath. What Kimball and other LDS leaders have done is create a bunch of rules and added to the Bible what its authors never intended to say. Jesus had harsh words for the Jewish leaders who attempted to implement rules and regulations beyond what God ever intended. For instance, he said in Matthew 23:13-15:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

When it comes to the Sabbath, Jesus warned against a legalistic mindset, saying in Mark 2:23-27:

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Later, in Mark 7:1-8, Jesus condemned the Jewish leaders for imposing their man-made rules on the people:

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“’This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

This is not the only example of Jesus condemning those who made up their unique interpretation of how the Sabbath ought to be honored. It wasn’t just the Master who was upset with those who were rule-Nazis but so was Paul. Notice how he emphasized belief as what was necessary for being counted righteous in Galatians 3:1-6:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

He went on in verses 10-14:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Enforcing “rules” (or even making them up, as the Pharisees were known to do) is condemned in the Bible. Yet isn’t this what Mormon leaders have done with rules involving the Sabbath, Word of Wisdom, and qualifications for a person to get into a temple?

Understanding the Impossibility of Mormonism’s requirements

Throughout the book, Shelley explains how she was able to move away from her legalistic mindset and better understand what she thinks the Mormon gospel is all about. She writes on pages 6 and 7:

God never intended me to be a Molly Mormon! By divine design, I am a Molly Mortal, who like every other mortal, can joyfully look to a loving Savior for healing and peace. At last I understood. Life isn’t about attaining perfection by completing a comprehensive checklist of noble goals. Life is about knowing and loving God (pp. 6-7).

On page 119, she explains,

In a recent regional conference, one of the speakers made a statement that instantly caught my attention. He said, “Some people believe there is too much busyness going on in the Church. It is possible to go to church year after year and never find the gospel.” That was exactly the tragedy of my life. I was busily—frantically—doing my religion, diligently trying to live the outer gospel. But I found no lasting peace, no joy, no happiness in the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ until I started internalizing its glorious truth by living the inner gospel.”

On the next page, she says,

In my early years, the commandment to “be ye therefore perfect” was a huge stumbling block for me. In my mind, “perfect” meant “flawless.” The commandment stood in complete opposition to the obvious, since no mortal is flawless. Over and over I hear people say, “Nobody’s perfect. There was only one perfect person, and that was Christ.” Being perfect was clearly an absolutely unattainable goal—I was a hundred percent assured of failure—and yet I thought I was supposed to work my tail off trying to reach it (p. 120).

She adds on page 122,

I believe Him when He says, “it is not requisite that a [woman] should run faster than [she] has strength.” In other words, I don’t have to do every good thing that pops into my head. I don’t have to make endless lists so I don’t forget anything. It’s not my job to perfect myself through my works. Perfectionism is beyond my own strength. It is Christ’s wondrous atoning grace that makes it possible for me to rejoice in God’s presence rather than shrink from it. The impossible has been replaced with the doable! I no longer doubt that I will one day have celestial glory, not because I am so good, but because God is so GOOD. He is so merciful. I love Him with all my heart—or at least as the sacrament prayer says, I am willing to” (p. 122).

As I read these passages, I was thinking to myself, “Shelley seems to be getting it.” After all, her religion placed such weighty commands on her, and she fully realized that she was unable to “run faster” than her strength. This is what the Bible teaches. It tells us that we are unable to muster up what is required to reach God. In fact, everyone is a sinner (Rom. 3:23) and the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). This is why it is “good news” that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). It just requires faith in Jesus and nothing more (Rom. 10:9,10).

In fact, no works of any kind are required to become reconciled to God—including baptism, confirmation, attending church, keeping the Sabbath, obeying the Word of Wisdom, or anything else a person might want to add. As Ephesians 2:8-9 explains, we are saved only by grace through faith, and it is not through any good works we think we can accomplish.

What Shelley is Missing

To me, this citation at the end of her book is the climax of how close Shelley is to understanding God’s grace and yet missing the crux of the Gospel by a long shot:

That Molly Mormon urge to rush around, trying to do more than is humanly possible to qualify for the celestial kingdom, no longer haunts my life. Christ has redeemed my soul from the hell I lived in when fear controlled my life. It has been replaced with a glorious sense of peace and joy (p. 123)

I read through this book several times to see if the author could justify her new way of thinking. After all, she remains a Mormon. She apparently still holds to the leaders of the church and their words as authoritative to her life. She hasn’t rejected the unique LDS scriptures that were quoted earlier and which tell her that, if she returns to her sin, all her former sins come will return to her (D&C 82:7).

She wants grace, so badly, and yet I’m not sure how she thinks she “gets” it by remaining in the LDS Church. I mean, consider the Sabbath. As I showed earlier in this review, she doesn’t think the Sabbath should be filled with a bunch of do’s and don’ts. Here is her new perspective on this issue on page 59:

Today I rejoice in the gift of the Sabbath day. When God’s amazing love changed my heart, I was free to embrace the spirit of the Sabbath and relinquish my smothering list of rules. Without the consuming fear of having my family shut out of the celestial kingdom, Sundays changed from my dreaded day to my favorite day.

She began to give her family freedom to do other activities and not be so legalistic about what could or couldn’t be done. She writes on page 61:

Occasionally we talked about what it really means to keep the Sabbath day holy and why certain activities might not be appropriate on Sunday. When given the opportunity to manage themselves, our children generally chose to honor the Sabbath. They sometimes played computer games or watched TV, but they also chose to attend church, watch Church videos, go to firesides with their friends, play board games together, and involve themselves in other good things.

If Shelley is prompted to leave church before the three-hour block of time is over, she has given herself the freedom to do so. When her husband “doze meditates” (falls asleep at church), she is able to sit peacefully through the service. The question is, what does the bishop think?

Shelley wants grace, but how does the church she belongs to accommodate her needs? In fact, 2 Nephi 25:23 says that a person is “saved by grace, after all we can do.” This is  a“strings attached” Gospel. At what point does “after all you can do” kick in? Does this mean a 7% tithe is good enough rather than 10%? That going to a Sunday football game shouldn’t be considered breaking the Sabbath? That drinking coffee only once or twice a week ought to be sufficient for the bishop to give her a temple recommend?

Mormonism has always emphasized rules and regulations. While Shelley has attempted to minimize her upbringing and the way her old leaders’ teaching gave her a guilt complex, this brand of religion is still being dispensed at the local Mormon wards, stake centers, and General Conferences. It hasn’t gone away even though some think a new brand of Mormonism is here. According to Mormonism and the church leadership, a complete surrender to the rules is required if a person hopes to obtain the grace of God. As Moroni 10:32 says,

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

Mormon commentators Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet explain,

Indeed, it is only after a person has so performed a lifetime of works and faithfulness—only after he has come to deny himself of all ungodliness and every worldly lust—that the grace of God, that spiritual increment of power, is efficacious. In the language of Moroni: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ” (Moroni 10:32)” (Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon 1:295).

This grace only comes through obedience to commandments through the keeping of covenants made at sacrament services as well as temple ceremonies, as one church manual explains:

We must do more than just say we believe in Jesus Christ; we must follow him. All people, regardless of their level of righteousness, will be saved from death because of the Resurrection of Christ. However, in order to attain the highest degree of glory in the resurrection, we need to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moroni 10:32). We come unto Christ by having faith in him, repenting of our sins, being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, receiving other saving priesthood ordinances, obeying the commandments, and keeping the covenants we make with our Heavenly Father. How we live does make a difference” (Preparing for Exaltation Teacher’s Manual, p. 39).

To be perfected in Christ, according to Mormonism, is giving up sins, as another church manual puts it:

Have class members find and read Moroni 10:32. According to this verse, what must we do to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him”? (“Deny [ourselves] of all ungodliness, and love God with all [our] might, mind and strength.”) Explain that “deny yourselves of all ungodliness” means “give up your sins.” We must strive to give up our sins and demonstrate that we love God with all our might, mind, and strength. If we do this throughout our lives, then Jesus Christ, through his Atonement, will help us become perfect (Preparing for Exaltation Teacher’s Manual, 1998, p. 123. Brackets in original).

Without the effort on the part of the individual, forgiveness is not readily available in Mormonism. Even when someone as sincere as Shelley thinks she has found peace, faith, and joy, her religion negates these attributes. One cannot make up her own rules and disregard the clear teaching of her leaders and unique scriptures.

Conclusion

In the last paragraph of the book, Shelley writes,

His [God’s] merciful, amazing love is the power that continually enables me to perfect my perfectionism for peace, my fear for faith, and my judging for joy (p. 124).

For the rest of my review let’s consider the words of twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball, whom I have quoted earlier. Regarding “mercy” (mentioned by Shelley), he writes,

Mercy cannot rob justice. The Lord’s program is unchangeable. His laws are immutable. They will not be modified. Your opinions or mine do not make any difference, and do not alter the laws. Many of the world think that eventually the Lord will be merciful and give to them unearned blessings. Mercy cannot rob justice. College professors will not give you a doctorate degree for a few weeks of cursory work in the university, nor can the Lord be merciful at the expense of justice. In this program, which is infinitely greater, we will each receive what we merit. Do not take any chances whatever” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 150).

Notice how he says that “your opinions do not make any difference, and do not alter the laws.” I would assume this would include the opinion of what appears to be a very sincere LDS laywoman. Kimball then wrote the following:

If one neglects his tithing, misses his meetings, breaks the Sabbath, or fails in his prayers and other responsibilities, he is not completely repentant. The Lord knows, as do we, the degree of full and sufficient compliance we make with these fundamental aspects of the law of repentance, which is really God’s law of progress and fulfillment (“The Gospel of Repentance,” Ensign, Oct 1982, p. 5).

As quoted in two different church manuals, Kimball also wrote,

“Repentance must involve an all-out, total surrender to the program of the Lord. That transgressor is not fully repentant who neglects his tithing, misses his meetings, breaks the Sabbath, fails in his family prayers, does not sustain the authorities of the Church, breaks the Word of Wisdom, does not love the Lord nor his fellowmen. A reforming adulterer who drinks or curses is not repentant. The repenting burglar who has sex play is not ready for forgiveness. God cannot forgive unless the transgressor shows a true repentance which spreads to all areas of his life (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 203. See also Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual: Religion 231 and 232, p. 41. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 43).

Meanwhile, in his book The Miracle of Forgiveness, Kimball explains that “the gospel is a program of action—of doing things.” He notes.

Eternal life hangs in the balance awaiting the works of men. This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation through that perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us. . . . Being perfect means to triumph over sin. This is a mandate from the Lord. He is just and wise and kind. He would never require anything from his children which was not for their benefit and which was not attainable. Perfection therefore is an achievable goal (pp. 208-9).

Indeed, he said we must become “supermen” and overcome sin as he writes on page 286:

Said the Lord, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). We are gods in embryo, and the Lord demands perfection of us.

Kimball stressed that forgiveness is not something you can just receive “for the asking” when he wrote:

Your Heavenly Father has promised forgiveness upon total repentance and meeting all the requirements, but that forgiveness is not granted merely for the asking. There must be works—many works—and an all-out, total surrender, with a great humility and “a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (pp. 324-325).

Some Mormons might claim that his teaching was not authoritative. Without trying to be derogatory, I would ask, “Whose book is featured on the second floor of the LDS Church History Museum in downtown Salt Lake City?” A copy of The Miracle of Forgiveness sits under Kimball’s portrait; meanwhile, I have never seen Confessions of a Molly Mormon displayed in any Mormon building or has ever been recommended by a General Authority as Kimball’s book was at least twice in General Conference sessions! For more information on this, click here.

Someone else might minimize the citations above by asking, “Did you read the end of Kimball’s book?” The answer is yes, I’ve read this last chapter more than a dozen times. I don’t see anything there that makes the rest of his writing magically disappear. In fact, Kimball closes the book by saying that the “repentance which merits forgiveness”

is that the former transgressor must have reached a “point of no return” to sin wherein there is not merely a renunciation but also a deep abhorrence of the sin—where the sin becomes most distasteful to him and where the desire or urge to sin is cleared out of his life (p. 355).

Does Shelley have such an attitude as described by the twelfth president? Has she shed the very desire to sin? If she hasn’t cleared her sins out of her life, should she really think that she has the right to possess “peace,” “faith,” and “joy” within the confines of Mormonism? The shortcoming with Shelley’s book is that she really doesn’t provide solid scriptural support (or, for that matter, teachings from her leaders) to justify her perspective.

It is certainly true that freedom is available in Christ. And Shelley seems to be oh-so-close to understanding the Gospel– a great first step is admitting that she is unable to keep her covenants that she makes at every sacrament and temple service. Yet, if she continues to affirm the teachings of her leaders and unique LDS scriptures, it is impossible for her to experience the freedom that grace truly provides, even though she can make herself think that she is doing enough. Ultimately, Mormonism is a tough taskmaster as this religion continues to teach that there is no freedom without complete obedience. This is not the justification by faith alone that is taught in the Bible.

If anything, Shelley’s path has moved her farther away from the core essentials of Mormonism while bringing her closer to an Evangelical Christian perspective of the biblical Gospel. Yet until she fully understands that grace is only available as an unconditional gift, she will not be able to grasp the true meaning of peace, faith, and joy. I pray that, one day, she will be able to complete her journey.


Image to the right: The author signed the copy I read with “Love & joy.”

Check out two blogs by MRM’s Sharon Lindbloom: