Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D.
After my friend Jay attended the LoveLoud festival earlier this fall, he spoke with almost evangelical enthusiasm about the feeling of the moment: “20,000 people shouting love for LGBTQ+ humans….This loud love will continue to grow louder still!…Gives me hope for the future and for the coming generations.”
Hope, Love, Acceptance…sounds like good news to me?!
To many of my dear ones, including Jay and his good wife, this message celebrated at LoveLoud has become an overwhelmingly central message that needs to be shared in all the world.
I’ve been increasingly struck by how differently people of faith understand the “good news” God would have us share with the world – and what precisely is “the Plan of God” reflected in that news. For sure, there is plenty of meaningful overlap and commonality in what different people consider to be God’s message and plan. But what’s stood out to me over recent years are the subtle and substantial ways interpretations diverge – highlighting a profound contrast in understandings and perceptions about what exactly God’s most important message to all the world is.
In order to wrap my head around the interesting contrasts and variations, I’m cataloging below some of the primary differences I’ve observed in “good news” messages being shared. As a way to help open up the dialogue space, my intention here is to “map out” actual disagreements in a way recognizable to both sides.
Each aspect of the message is organized around a key question, drawing together summaries and excerpts in a way that juxtaposes the contrasting views. I do so with an open request to Jay and others with whom I disagree (and love…and trust), for feedback and additional suggestions to refine this list into a fair documentation of actual differences in how Jesus’ gospel and God’s overall plan is being portrayed (aka, I’m open to being off, and interested in improvements; this draft is incomplete and needs more examples to balance it out).
1. The good news about God’s love: What does divine love mean and what does it look like?
One view. God’s love manifests in being accepted and embraced just as we are. One person wrote online, “I testify that you have Heavenly Parents and a Savior who adore you and love you just as you are.”
Important from this view is the emphasis on love extending everywhere, to everyone, no matter what: “I DO know that God the Father and God the Mother love ALL their children.” There is a sense here that the experience of God’s love is the same for everyone.
Another view. God’s love manifests in being met exactly where we are – and then invited to move beyond whatever our current understanding and limitations are. Thus, another person wrote: “I know God loves you no matter what – and he will help you and provide guidance wherever you find yourself.”
This view agrees with the first that God’s love extends everywhere, to everyone. But the “no matter what” clause is not held as strongly, since what we do is understood to matter quite a bit to how (and whether) we experience God’s love. Those holding this view would point to Nephi’s comment about the divine in the Book of Mormon: “And he loveth those who will have him to be their God.” Thus, there is a sense of very different levels of God’s love that can be enjoyed.
2. The good news of who we are: What does the gospel have to say about our identity?
One view. However you find yourself now is exactly the way it should be:
- “God didn’t make mistakes. However you find yourself now, that is God’s design and intent.”
- “I believe I was made the way I am — all parts of me — by my heavenly parents…They did not mess up when I was made to be gay,” said one teen participant at LoveLoud.
From this vantage point, a choice to follow one’s feelings and live them out is proposed as among the truest reflections of the gospel. Thus, one man said:
Mormonism is my home — it is my religion and the religion of my family—and through it I have developed a firm testimony of the Gospel of Christ. It is through Christ’s Gospel that I found the courage to come out, to be honest about who I am as a gay man. A tenet of living the Gospel of Christ is living an authentic life. And because I am now living an authentic life as a follower of Christ, I have an abundance of peace and joy that I never had while I was denying my orientation. For me, living my truth is part of living the gospel—I cannot be a true follower of my Savior and be dishonest about who I am.
This kind of self-acceptance is proposed as central to the essence of spirituality. Thus one woman spoke about a new LGBT resource center as follows, “People get to be who they are, and they’re honored for who they are – and I think that’s the basis of spirituality.”
Another view: However you find yourself now may involve some aspects of the fall. Thus one man said, “The fact God created you does not mean everything you find in yourself is of God. Sometimes we forget that we’re living in a fallen world that affects so many parts of our experience profoundly.”
Among the many ways the world may affect us is a falling away from the person God mean for us to be. This isn’t all bad news, however, since good news exists as well: that the one who created these same human beings is perfect and can make each of us so. He can complete you – and make you the person you need to be. From this vantage point, we are seeking to follow and embrace not simply our view of ourselves – but His.
Rather than seeing self-acceptance as central to spirituality, then, it is an acceptance of God that is foundational. That process of yielding is acknowledged as potentially changing who we are, and sometimes requiring difficult sacrifices.
3. The great personal challenge of the gospel: What is God’s great hope for us?
One view: As illustrated by the prior comments, one of the central tasks in the gospel plan is arriving at a place of accepting who you are fully and completely, and then to provide the same to others. After one man announced online his intent to leave the Church in order to live “true to who he is,” the overwhelming online response affirmed this view of identity. One person said, “I know Paul resigned his membership in living his authenticity.” Others said:
- “You are whole, complete, good and worthy. You are created as God wanted you to be. You have a great life ahead of you.”
- “It’s SO FREEING to just be YOU!”
- “Welcome to yourself Paul. It only gets better from here. We love you.”
- “I lived in the dark and hiding all my life until I finally accepted myself as I really am.”
Another person added, “Now you can be yourself – not someone’s idea of who you should be.” Another woman commented, “Be you — just find that and be yourself, I think that’s an important message to get across.”
All these comments illustrate the same central belief in the central and welcome importance of coming to “accept yourself.”Anyone that would raise questions about whether your feelings are true, correct and authentic to you is seen as the real challenge. Thus there is a lot of attention to shaming messages that reduce “self-love and acceptance,” as well as an active resistance to those who suggest growth and change are necessary for everyone. One person commented, “I do not believe God made LGBT+ people to ‘overcome’ anything.”
Common to this view is a belief that God doesn’t care so much about the details, and, indeed, delights in wide variation in paths. Thus another added: “I also don’t think his intention was for there to be a single cookie cutter type family to be the only Mormons…ugh how boring! I love diversity, and I believe the church needs more of it!”
In this way, there is a wide variation in what God wants. As one person said, “I testify, that there are as many Plans of Salvation as there are Children of God.” Another added, “God has a unique plan for each of us that is calculated to bring us ultimate joy.” Another wrote of coming to see the narrowness of the straight and narrow way, “open[ing] up to see that every single path is individual and can lead to God.”
Another view: From another perspective, the central task in the gospel plan is arriving at a place of accepting His will fully and completely in our lives. From this vantage point, a choice to follow one’s feelings and live them out may end up being dangerous to our eternal possibilities.
But because we all do that – and none of us are able to embrace his will entirely, God has provided a way to escape our self-willed devastation. This is the good news: that we can escape how things are with us (and the suffering that many of us find ourselves in), since Jesus came into the world.
Rather than being alarmed at an invitation to change as shameful and guilt-inducing, this involves re-embracing a philosophy of life-long learning and growth. Inherent in this emphasis is a belief that God does care very much about many details in this plan. In dialogue with my friend Tracy, a marriage equality activist from days past (till they trounced the opposition), she said to me, “Jacob, your people just need to broaden how you think about the right path forward.”
I smiled at her and said, “Tracy, that’s exactly the thing Jesus warned us against doing – ‘Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat’” (Matthew 7:13).
From this vantage point, while God can tailor many aspects of the plan – to a remarkable precision – ultimately everyone is asked to pursue and embrace the same kind of ultimate steps – aka ordinances, covenants, etc.
4. The gospel ask in relation to others: How does God want us to act toward those around us?
One view. What God asks of us in relation to others is learning to accept and embrace others exactly as they are. This is likely what Reynolds the organizer of Love Loud, meant when he said the concert was about “changing the hearts of people.”
What kind of change? This kind of change: a “mighty change” that entails loving, including and accepting everyone more. From this perspective, that is the ultimate change to be sought.
One person said, “I’m grateful my mom …taught me to be unconditionally loving and open minded and to judge that ye be not judged.”
This form of love is proposed as being perhaps the most important thing, as one mother recounted,”I grew up Mormon – learning that that’s the #1 thing that Christ wants us to do – is to love others. And so I think that when we put that first, all the other problems fall out of the way.”
This is presented as a crucial message that everyone needs to hear – especially members of the Church. As Erika Munson, Mormon Building Bridges co-founder, wrote about the concert, “All the youth in our church NEED to hear a message of love and support for people of all orientations and gender identity.”
Another view: What God asks of us includes loving other people – but in a way that looks very different than being defined in the current conversation. Love might include challenging, inviting and teaching people to reach for something outside of their experience.
From this vantage point, embracing who someone believes themselves to be – and where they currently are – may stop their progress.
From this perspective, a “mighty change” involves coming to love God with all our heart, mind and strength – being willing to give everything and anything up for Him. In that case, loving more loudly won’t ever be the answer…it’s a matter of loving as God would have us. It’s when we put that first that all things fall into place, not a love of others around us.
This view assumes that people outside of the Church need to hear the message more than members of the Church.
5. The good news about God’s support: How are we to know the truth about our lives and His will?
One view: God will reveal that to ourselves – and only ourselves. As one person said, “No other human knows what is best for us. We need to stop worrying about what others think about us or our choices, and stop acting as if others know what our plan is.”
Another added, “God has a unique plan for each of us that is calculated to bring us ultimate joy, that only He knows, and it’s up to us and nobody else to figure out what that is and live it to the best of our ability.”
A third person added, “No one defines it except us… Because that’s our religion. And no one else gets to define it for us.”
Another view: God reveals his will to prophets and others outside, with the possibility that we are way off. One person said, “How am I to be sure that I’m not way off in my own understandings of reality? I’m grateful for prophetic counsel to push back against my own biases and psychological motivations to believe what I want.”
From this perspective, God himself is the one to define truth (including through inspired servants). Rather than only a secret to God, these witnesses are in on the secret. The idea that human beings themselves define these things begins to feel like individuals becoming a “law unto themselves” (Romans 2:14).
A different kind of good news. As illustrated above, the contrasts in what is understood as the “good news” are real. In particular, the first message presents a unique view of the gospel: God loves and accepts you exactly as you are. His wonderful invitation is to love and accept yourself exactly as you are. And the most important change we can make is to love others exactly as they are, without any judgment on our part. What is right for that person (and for us) is something we ourselves can know – and we alone, with God’s help.
In this way, the entire gospel becomes a multi-pronged initiative in self-acceptance: (1) God accepts you (no matter what). (2) Accept yourself. (3) Be sure to accept others, etc.
It’s worth pointing out that this narrative is not one most Christians would recognize as His message. For instance:
- Jesus didn’t say we are enough. He said His grace is sufficient.
- Jesus didn’t say he wanted us to find ourselves – or “be yourself.” He said to find Him and be His.
In fairness, however, one of the contentions of LGBT activists is that they are uncovering and promoting the true gospel – and true meaning of Jesus’ words. So who is right?
Either way, the stakes are high, given the clear warnings in scripture at those teaching what Paul called an “other gospel.” He elaborated, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel. [But there isn’t another ‘good news.’] But there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”
On two different occasions, Jesus also warned the Nephites of those who declare “more or less” than the simple (but challenging) truths he had just taught them: “whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock” (3 Nephi 11: 37-40; see also: 18: 11-13)
Who is teaching the “other gospel” – and who is sharing more (or less) than the true message of Christ? I acknowledge that thoughtful, good-hearted people will answer that question differently. That being said, the seriousness of the disagreement must be acknowledged by all believers.
For instance, seeing similar deviations, Jeremiah warned: “For you will no longer remember the oracle of the LORD, because every man’s own word will become the oracle, and you have perverted the words of the living God, the LORD of hosts, our God.” (23:36). He added, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; They speak a vision of their own imagination, Not from the mouth of the LORD.” (23:16)
 To protect identity, names are either changed or not disclosed.
 (Unlike other people). Implicit in this view is a not-so-subtle critique that those holding other views of God’s love do not believe God loves everyone, everywhere.
 While God would still love those who don’t have Him to be their God, it would be a different kind of love and a different kind of experience in relation to the Divine.
 (Like that other view of identity in the Church). Once again, another implicit critique shows up.
 Galatians 1: 6-8 With the exception of the bracketed part (coming from the World English Bible translation), the rest is King James Version. This is a warning, of course, that has often been directed at Latter-day Saints themselves – by those who judge LDS teaching as a deviation from the gospel.