Riding two horses at once. From Flikr user KOKLBR.

Some of the men I correspond with describe feeling torn between what they know (the  gospel) and what they want (a lover/sex with a lover, etc.). They are often quite anguished about these mutually irreconcilable choices that are set before them. Many of these men have had powerful experiences which have convinced them of God’s love for them, and the rightness of living the gospel. At the same time, they are overpowered by their same-sex erotic desires. “It’s just so hard,” they’ll complain, “I just don’t see how I can go on like this!”

Whenever my friends confront me with this dilemma, I often ask them: “Are you trying to ride two horses at once?”

I ask this because, based on when I have felt this way, I almost always have been. It’s hard enough to ride one horse. But two horses is even harder –you’ve got to straddle two very different beasts, and who each want to go in completely different directions. Even the most flexible and strong person will eventually tucker out in such a contest, and maybe break something in the process! The gospel has its own demands, but trying to satisfy those while satisfying those of our carnal man is impossible.

So often what has tired these people out (and myself) is not the rigors of living the gospel, but the exhausting task of trying to be righteous while also indulging–to one degree or another–their homosexual desires. That indulgence can take the form of pornography, fantasizing while masturbating, “cruising” and other forms of flirtation, voyeurism, continuing to associate with former or present lovers, and kissing, petting, and other forms of “making out.”

Intellectually, it’s obvious that success at both of these endeavors is impossible. For as Samuel the Lamanite said:

Ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.” (Hel. 13:38)

We know we can’t have our cake and eat it too, but we’ll still tempt ourselves with that cake. We take long sniffs to capture the aroma, and dream of what it would taste like to eat some. We gaze at it longingly, take it out of the box and look at it from every angle, examine the decorations, stare until we drool. Some of us may rationalize that since the proverb only applies to the cake itself, frosting is OK. So we’ll carefully lick the frosting off the cake, careful not to ingest so much as a crumb of actual cake!

How much easier if we just boxed the cake up and put it away where we could not see it or smell it? To put it far from us so that, in our inevitable moments of hunger, we have time to think and react before we take the irrevocable step of eating a slice? Anybody who’s been on a diet knows how much easier it is to follow a diet when you’re not surrounded by goodies.

Yet this is exactly what some of us do, in the realm of our sexual desires.

We’ll tempt ourselves by walking just up to some predefined line that we’ve established, and look to the other side longingly. We’ll indulge in some furtive frosting-eating, then be left unfulfilled, wanting more. Very often, it’s at those moments that you’ll find yourself complaining about how “hard” it is to live the gospel.

But what becomes obvious if we step back and look at ourselves is that it’s not God who’s making this so hard, we are. God never asked us to serve two masters at once. He tells us to dropour burden and pick up his, not to carry both:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

The ironic part is that we are clinging to something which cannot satisfy, though we hope it will. This form of misplaced faith is a lot like a hungry man who refuses to leave the pastry table in order to be served a much more satisfying and nutritious main course.

I was thinking about all this lately when I was pondering what advice to give a friend of mine who feels so challenged lately. And I have known my moments of challenge too — even lately I have found myself doing this in my own way.

This friend hasn’t broken any major commandments yet, but he’s gone cruising and found another like-minded man who he’s very attracted to, so he’s found himself very strongly pulled in a direction he knows he isn’t supposed to go in. This young man’s potential lover is everything he had hoped for.

Before proceeding, I want to make sure all of you appreciate how my friend’s dilemma can apply to you. I will make you this promise: No matter what you think about yourself, of your looks or your age or your social abilities, if you look long and hard enough, eventually you WILL find a cake you want to eat. It may take a while, but I promise you will find a cake that looks and smells like the one you’ve always dreamed of. As Alma said,

Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men […] to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience. (Alma 29:5; see 3-5)

As I was pondering what to tell my friend, I thought about Lot’s wife. Here is a woman who knew what she was leaving, and why she was leaving it. Sodom was going to be destroyed, and it had not been especially good to her. She had entertained holy men who were imbued with a beautiful spirit that rendered their countenances so attractive even her wicked neighbors noticed that they were something special (see Gen 19:5). She was leaving the mundane for the glorious.

Yet despite all that, despite being saved from sure destruction, despite the promise of a higher and holier life, Lot’s wife felt compelled to look back.

How many of us, after leaving Sodom, look back on it longingly? Perhaps the road ahead becomes hard and steep, or quiet and solitary. Or our view of our final destination becomes obscured. Much as we may enjoy and believe in our journey for most of the time, at times we may nevertheless think back wistfully to what we remember–or willfully misremember–as easy times, where standards are low and acceptance is high. We may catch glimpses of the laughing faces and happy camaraderie, and momentarily or deliberately forget how empty it feels inside. At times like that, if they last too long or happen at the wrong moment, we risk becoming like Lot’s wife.

What are the scriptures trying to teach us by Lot’s wife’s fate? What is significant about a pillar of salt? After all, there are all kinds of punishments that could have awaited her. She could have been struck dumb, or afflicted with some disease like leprosy, or consumed by fire from heaven just as the Cities of the Plain were themselves. And furthermore, what is so wrong with looking back? It’s not as if she returned to Sodom — the scriptures don’t even say she turned around.

There are all kinds of answers to those two questions, but I’ll give one perspective on them. If we ask what are the characteristics of a pillar of salt, I believe the figure suggests two things — first of all, the immobile nature of a pillar — almost like a statue. Salt is a crystal, and crystals solidify and lock in a particular structure. Second, its impermanence. Salt is fragile and ephemeral. It dissolves into nothing in the presence of water, and it quickly disintegrates when exposed to the elements.

I suggest that the act of looking back has the same effect on us, namely that it is both paralyzing and destructive. (See Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s take on Lot’s wife here.)

It is paralyzing because when we are looking back we cannot advance. We cannot progress. With our eyes on the past and on the world, we cannot see and learn what awaits us in Zion. If we cannot or will not see the Godly way, then we can never be convinced of its superiority, and we will never find the wherewithal to endure to the end. And yet the scriptures assure us that the glory of what awaits us far exceeds anything in Sodom:

But as it is written [Isaiah 64:4], Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. (1 Cor 2:9)

“O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.

And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.

And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children.

In righteousness shalt thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear: and from terror; for it shall not come near thee.

…This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD.” (Is. 54:11-14,17, emphasis added)

And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. (Matt 19:29)

Looking back is destructive because the process slowly dissolves our resolve. And looking back, we cannot continue the work of nourishing and growing our spirituality. (See Alma 32.)

Unlike the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, the place we are leaving is not destroyed yet. It still goes on, and if we look back we are rewarded with lurid and appealing views of the partying in our Sodom. Yet the eventual fate of the sinful, hedonistic life is just as sure, and by the strength of our testimonies we know that this world of sin cannot be too long with us. The modern-day Cities of the Plain need no fire and brimstone from heaven to be destroyed. Those who fail to abandon the city will destroy themselves; the city will burn itself out. Whether by addiction, disease, or just a slow hollowing out of a life increasingly bereft of meaning, the wicked punish themselves, as Mormon reminds us. (Mormon 4:5, see also 1 Ne 22:13-14)

Looking back, while understandable, actually makes living the gospel harder, not easier. In a discussion called “Hard or Easy” in the book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes:

The Christian way is different: harder and easier. Christ says, “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked — the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

Both harder and easier than what we are all trying to do. You have noticed, I expect, that Christ Himself sometimes describes the Christian way as very hard, sometimes as very easy… He means both. And one can just see why both are true.

Teachers will tell you that the laziest boy in the class is the one who works hardest in the end… If you give two boys, say, a proposition in geometry to do, the one who is prepared to take trouble will try to understand it. The lazy boy will try to learn it by heart because, for the moment, that needs less effort. But six months later, when they are preparing for an exam, that lazy boy is doing hours and hours of miserable drudgery over things the other boy understands, and positively enjoys, in a few minutes. Laziness means more work in the long run. Or look at it this way. In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

It is like that here. The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self — all your wishes and precautions — to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way — centered on money or pleasure or ambition — and hoping in spite of this to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And this is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do… [see Matt 6:24]

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it… When [Christ] said ‘Be perfect,’ He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder — in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolt to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. (Mere Christianity)

In the Joseph Smith translation of Luke 14:27, Jesus put it more succinctly:

Wherefore, settle this in your hearts, that you will do the things which I have commanded you… And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.(emphasis added)

We know what’s right. But we titillate ourselves with scenes from Sodom. We’re voyeurs on the outskirts of Sodom, peering through the windows, accosting those going and coming though its gates and asking them about their lurid tales and exciting plans. We ourselves are too chary to enter (at least very far, at least right off), but too fascinated to turn away and look toward Zion.

Living the gospel isn’t always easy, and nobody ever said it would be (see Matt 7:13-14). But these half-measures are much harder. This is the answer to the question, therefore, of how to carry on, how to keep on the path when we are ready to give up. More often than not, we have been less than valiant, less than resolute, less than single-minded, on our path toward Zion. The answer is to renounce those compromises and half measures and more resolutely commit ourselves to the cause we know is right, to “settle our hearts” that we will do the things which Christ has commanded us. The only things that will not turn to ash at the end of this world. The things that will save us. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 ADDITIONAL REFERENCES:

“The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light, but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness.” (Luke 11:34, see 33-36)

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” (Matt. 6:19-24)

“And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things. Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and his own way, and according to his own will.” (D&C 88:67-68)

“Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4:25-27)

“And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.” (James 4:7-8)

“Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the LORD. And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14-15)

“But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt. ” (Gen. 19:26)

“Remember Lot’s wife.” (Luke 17:32, see entire chapter)

I am also indebted to a book by Neal A. Maxwell, which has a similar title to this essay.

I also recommend this passage from Jeffrey R. Holland’s However Long and Hard the Road. Though it’s specifically discussing the commitment necessary to marriage, I think it applies to any spiritual commitment we need to make:

Of course some days are going to be more difficult than others, but if you leave the escape hatch in the airplane open because you think even before takeoff you might want to bail out in midflight, then I can promise you it’s going to be a pretty chilly trip less than fifteen minutes after the plane leaves the ground. Close the door, strap on those seat belts, and give it full throttle. That’s the only way to make a marriage fly. (p.110)

I was listening to this song called “Angel” by John Hiatt. It’s about a young woman who somehow gets lost on her journey and loses sight of the good girl she used to be and takes up with a man who sweeps her off her feet, but ends up being bad news. I like the very last stanza, as well as the chorus; I think it’s applicable to what I’m talking about here when I try to suggest that the counterfeit romances of the fleshpots in Egypt don’t end up being all that great:

It is a hurtin’ thing you don’t wanna talk about it
Pain in your heart well it’s takin’ your breath away
You left it in lipstick on the mirror no use talkin’ about it
Love like this just don’t come along every day

CHORUS:

Somebody just stop calling you angel
Somebody just let love get up and go downtown
Somebody just stop calling you angel
Angel wings out in the snow and mascara running down

They called you tookie in high school, you didn’t mind it too much
Kind of nice to have a nickname, kind of like they thought about it
You wish that it stuck with you, didn’t have to trade it in on
Some crazy lover’s pet name, wind up hurtin’ so much

CHORUS

He peeled the skin off of the world and you stopped breathin’
You drew a breath, he sighed, the air was freezin’
Two blood-red hearts pumpin’ hard out in the open
You skinned your knee at kickball
Twenty years ago against all hopin’
Y’all put that hammer down and drove through love’s angel food cake
Tastin’ every spongy layer and lickin’ frosting off the moon
Wild-eyed with excitement but childishly disappointed
Maybe even tasted better when mama let you lick the spoon

CHORUS

Also, this song by Sara Groves, “Painting Pictures of Egypt”

I don’t want to leave here
I don’t want to stay
It feels like pinching to me either way
The places I long for the most
Are the places where I’ve been
They are calling after me like a long lost friend

It’s not about losing faith
It’s not about trust
It’s all about comfortable
When you move so much
The place I was wasn’t perfect
But I had found a way to live
It wasn’t milk or honey
But then neither is this

CHORUS:
I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt
Leaving out what it lacked
The future seems so hard
And I want to go back
But the places that used to fit me
Cannot hold the things I”ve learned
And those roads closed off to me
While my back was turned

The past is so tangible
I know it by heart
Familiar things are never easy to discard
I was dying for some freedom
But now I hesitate to go
Caught between the promise
And the things I know

BRIDGE:
If it comes too quick
I may not recognize it
Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?
If it comes too quick
I may not appreciate it
Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?

Leave a Reply

2 comments

  1. avatar

    Rex

    I think I have a little bit of a tendency to look back. I recognize it as further healing I need to do. It is way too easy to remember the fun parts of living in Sodom and forget how awful it feels.

    When it comes to riding horses, the only time I ever did it, the horse did not want me on his back. He tried knocking me off on a tree.

  2. avatar

    Michael Packham

    Jeff, you have described me to a tee. For a year I held the cake. Oh, I wouldn’t eat it. That would have been wrong, but I licked the frosting, watched others enjoying the treat, and took pleasure in viewing the tempting pastry. In a moment of strength I put the poisonous cake back in the box, but kept the box around for old time’s sake. Then in a time of stress and weakness the craving hit so hard, an unrealistic hunger. I was mentally paralyzed. The box was so close that I opened it and devoured the cake before I could even remember why I’d put it away, before I could say to myself, “This is going to make you sick for a long time.”

    Now I am trying to get better. I’ve put everything far out of reach, and I’m surrounding myself with only the things that nourish. It saddens me to remember friends, family, and even the Spirit telling me to watch out, but I thought I was strong enough, that I could turn away anytime I wanted to. Why was I so proud? Why could I not see the slippery slope as well as others could?

    I would hope that others would not need to crash to the bottom as I did before realizing the need for strict obedience and an eye single to the Lord.