As disciples of Jesus Christ, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are commanded to “love one another” (John 13:34).
Sadly, many members of the Church who experience same-sex attraction or identify as homosexual report feeling hated or rejected, both by other members and even by the institution itself. To others, this reaction is surprising because Church leaders, local and global, have repeatedly expressed not only the great love God has for all of His children but their own love for those who experience same-sex attractions.
How can we bridge the gap between the divine command to love and the reality many experience at church? We believe much of this disconnect comes from deep-rooted psychological ideas in our modern society that are disharmonious with Christ’s teachings. We have written this article to hopefully explain this disconnect and what we can do about it.
Nephi warned us there will be false prophets in our day that “call evil good, and good evil” (2 Nephi 15:20). Elder Quentin L. Cook has stated that the confounding of spiritual truths with the “philosophies of men” is Satan’s “preferred strategy” for leading the Children of Men astray. Having devoted ourselves for many years to studying philosophy, history, and psychology, we couldn’t agree more.
In particular, we have come to realize that many of the ideas and assumptions that have guided modern psychology and therapy, and which have profoundly shaped our modern world, are deeply at odds with the revealed truths of the gospel. This is especially troubling because we live in an era in which secular psychological ideas have an enormous influence on how we understand ourselves and others.
However, the “therapeutic turn” in our modern society has not only impacted our larger culture, but often also influences can influence how we understand ourselves, the Restored Gospel, and human sexuality.
Carl Rogers and Humanist Psychology
The theories of the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers provide a good example of secular philosophy conflicting with Gospel Truths. Rogers was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. His ideas have influenced thinking in education, business, therapy, sports, medicine, and a host of other areas. He believed that everyone spends most of their lives desperately trying to satisfy the expectations of other people to fulfill a deep-seated need for love.
Rogers argues that we frequently push our own feelings or desires away or deny them in order to make other people happy so they will love and accept us. Unfortunately, doing so only brings misery as we end up “losing touch” with our “real self” and become anxious, depressed, and confused.
For Rogers, the therapist’s role is to express what he called “unconditional positive regard” to relieve the emotional pain that comes from denying our feelings and desires by deferring to the judgments of others. Unconditional positive regard, or as it has become more commonly known, “unconditional love,” involves the therapist suspending all judgments about a client’s feelings, behaviors, or desires and simply accepting the client without conditions or expectations. Rogers stated:
“It is my purpose to understand the way [the client] feels in his own inner world, to accept him as he is, to create an atmosphere of freedom in which he can move in his thinking and feeling and being, in any direction he desires.”
In short, what is most needed for us to come to understand who we really are is for the therapist to create a “safe space” in which we can be free of the arbitrary and self-serving demands of others, and, thereby, fully explore our inner self and discover our true identity – especially where sexuality is concerned. Rodgers believed that our schools, governments, religions and other social institutions should follow suit and withhold all forms of expectations and judgments.
As the therapist accepts the patient unconditionally, the patient follows suit.
The individual learns, Rogers wrote, just “how much of his behavior, even how much of the feeling he experiences, is not real, is not something which flows from the genuine reactions of his organism, but is a façade, a front behind which he has been hiding.”
The implicit assumption is that our depression, anxiety, or other troubles are a result of a lack of self-respect or esteem.
When we accept our own “desires” and “genuine reactions” as our true self, we will find meaningful progress and freedom from psychological troubles.
Rogers’ insights are in many instances practical and wise; living in constant fear of losing the admiration of other people is after all not a pleasant way to live. Then again, neither is fanatical adherence to an overly rigid moral code or committing oneself to a punishing and inflexible ideology. We also can conclude that we should avoid self-loathing or persistent negative thoughts about oneself.
Rodgers’ recipe for happiness is for people to escape these dead-ends by rejecting all external expectations and learning to “live any way they wish.” Our moral compass and the foundation of our identity is found in accepting and following our “authentic” feelings and desires as they are and for what they tell us about ourselves.
One reason for focusing on Rogers’ ideas here is the enormous impact they have had beyond the realm of professional psychology. Rogers’ theories have subtly but powerfully shaped the values and aspirations of modern society, as well as our own religious understandings as members of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Across the globe, many have come to believe that the main purpose of life is to discover one’s true self, love oneself, and live one’s own truth authentically, usually by rejecting the expectations and standards of others, whether they be friends, family, or ecclesiastical leaders. For example, many have come to believe that an individual’s gender is in their psychological makeup not DNA, a dramatic shift from even a few years ago. These philosophies have also fueled the call for the legalization of abortion, legal and social acceptance of non-traditional family units, other alternative lifestyles, and drugs.
Taking the Identity of Christ
However, Rogers’ philosophy seems to be quite at odds with revealed truth and prophetic counsel. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson has stated, “Our Heavenly Father is a God of high expectations.” President Nelson has taught, “While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional.” God and His servants frequently teach that we must repent and live better and “stand a little taller.” Likewise, our ways are not the Lord’s ways (Isa. 55:8-9).
There is perhaps no clearer statement of this truth than what we find in the 3rd chapter of Proverbs, verses 5-6:
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
Elder Hugh B. Brown once famously expressed his deep and abiding gratitude to God for “loving me enough to hurt me” by not giving him something he deeply desired because it did not fit in with the plan the Lord had for him. Indeed, the Lord teaches that in order to find true and lasting peace in this life, and eternal life in the world to come, we must be willing to sacrifice not only all we have but all we are on the altar before Him.
Rogers and likeminded others would say that such teachings are psychologically and emotionally harmful to the individual’s quest to live according to their desires.
Many in our day have taken Rodger’s therapeutic advice to heart, seeking to identify their inner desires and feelings to define who they are, what they are to become, and how they are to live for themselves. When an individual faces powerful desires and attractions prohibited according to God’s laws, however, such a perspective encourages the rejection of those laws and commandments in the pursuit of an individual’s self-defined sense of well-being. This is especially true with those who are tempted by the powerful and complex desires and urges within our sexuality.
Nonetheless, Dr. Rogers does ask a good question: How do we define ourselves in the face of conflict between external expectations and pressures and our inner desires or feelings? The answer to this problem requires that we turn to Christ. The Savior can provide us with the way to navigate the competing demands for individualistic self-actualization and the harsh expectations of society; the true disciple seeks the victory of Christ over both. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
While the secular humanism reflected in the psychological theories of Carl Rogers teaches each of us to “follow your heart,” Christ promises to give us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). Indeed, as the apostle Paul taught:
“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-18)
Similarly, King Benjamin taught,
“He hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name” (Mosiah 5:7).
In this process of conversion and covenant, our old self dies and is reborn in Christ’s image (Romans 6:4). We are, in a very non-Rogerian way, invited to give up the Self through the cleansing power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ by sacrificing what we want and submitting ourselves to the will of God.
The famous Christian author C.S. Lewis taught that Christ’s intention is not to make us mindless robots through this process or submission and reconciliation, but rather co-owners of his vision, perspective, feelings, and desires. “I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” He also taught, “There are no real personalities apart from God. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self.”
Indeed, in what could be seen as a direct rebuttal to the Rogerian notion that the Self and its desires are of utmost importance in life, the Savior taught: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:23-24). It is important to note that we are not advocating a wholesale rejection of modern psychiatric therapy or treatment. We do suggest caution, as Elder Holland has taught that we should seek out mental health professionals as part of our search for emotional stability then, “Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe.”
Reforming Our Identity Through Repentance
Prophetic teaching has been clear regarding same-sex attraction. In a CES devotional in 2014, Elder M. Russell Ballard stated: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that ‘the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them.”
The “complex reality” of the experience of same-sex attraction can be deeply challenging. Some have thought that if they just prayed hard enough, or performed some other acts of sacrifice and self-denial, the Savior would make their unwanted feelings go away so their lives would be easier and less painful. However, as is the case with any problems or temptations in life, resolution seldom comes that way. Sometimes, even despite much “prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21), the “thorn in the flesh” we have been given continues to buffet us. Sometimes we have been chosen to undergo the “furnace of affliction” (1 Ne. 20:10).
Of course, those who subscribe to the Rogerian viewpoint, whether explicitly or implicitly because they have absorbed it unwittingly from the larger secular culture, might say that prohibiting someone from fully embracing and acting on their homosexual desires amounts to an emotionally violent and psychologically damaging act. Some might argue that the sort of obedience and restraint that the Church expects in such matters is not in fact loving or welcoming at all.
For example, for some members who experience same-sex attraction, the Law of Chastity may seem hateful and disapproving because it does not allow for them to fully affirm their “true self” because it places restrictions on how they can identify with their desires.
Unfortunately, when seen in this light, the Restored Church will always fall short in creating the sorts of “safe spaces” secular thinkers like Carl Rogers would approve of. And, Church teachings that require submitting one’s own desires to the commandments of the Lord will always be seen to be hurtful, intolerant, and unjust impositions.
Fortunately, Rogers was wrong about human purpose and perfection. We do not become our best self, the person that God intends us to become, by seeking our identity only in ourselves and our inner, self-affirming feelings. Rather, we must find our eternal identity in our relationship with a loving Heavenly Father, a father who continually invites us to yield to the “enticings of the Holy Spirit” and “becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us], even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mos, 3:19). In the end, as Elder Maxwell taught, what is required of all of us, regardless of our sexual desires, attractions, and temptations is “total surrender, no negotiating; it is yielding with no preconditions.”
Many of us need to repent of our unrighteous judgments and hypocrisy, as well as our selfishness and unwillingness to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mos. 18:9). As we do so, the Savior can more fully direct our steps and soften our hearts, and we can begin to see how His love for us creates the only truly safe space we can know, a space of genuine peace and assurance flowing from His eternal atoning sacrifice for each and all of us.
The Church requires us to work together because we all need to repent and feel Christ’s love for our brothers and sisters in the gospel. As the Savior taught, “be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). If we have felt impatience or frustration with another person, we must humbly repent so that Christ’s atoning sacrifice might work on our hearts that we might be “filled with songs of everlasting joy” (D&C 133:33). We must choose to engage others with divine love, with the pure love of Christ “which never faileth,” rather than with the permissive and self-indulgent “unconditional positive regard” so frequently championed by secular thinkers.
Admittedly, Carl Rogers raised a number of interesting questions and had some helpful insights. However, if we fail to see the limitations of his ideas and allow them (however naively) to take precedence over the revealed truth of the Restored Gospel, we can be led astray. It is vital that members of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ remain firmly grounded in their eternal perspective and allow the Holy Ghost to navigate between the truths of the gospel and the secular half-truths that masquerade as the ultimate solution.
Ultimately, the safest space of all, the space in which we truly find our identity, is in the arms of mercy of the Savior Jesus Christ. Through repentance and covenants, we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Individuals who experience same-sex attraction, or any other challenging temptation or trial for that matter, can find their most authentic self only in and through Christ’s redeeming love.
In the end, if we are willing to submit in all things and in all ways to Christ, even if it means giving over to him our deepest desires and our own self-fashioned identity. He will come to us, heal our hurts, speak peace to our souls, make us anew in His image, and we will at last truly be safe.
This article was written by Edwin E. Gantt, Professor of Psychology and Fellow of the Wheatley Institution, and Spencer F. Yamada, Social Media Manager of The Wheatley Institution.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Church’s resources and beliefs about same-sex attraction, click here.
Aleah is a graduate of Southern Virginia University, where she studied English, Creative Writing, and Dance. She now works full time as a marketing and product manager, writer, and editor. Aleah served a mission in California and loves baking, Lang Leav poetry, Gaynor Minden pointe shoes, and Bollywood movies.