Yesterday I listened to Neylan McBaine’s interview with the Salt Lake Tribune about the recent temple changes. I have sincerely appreciated McBaine’s work inside the church to address cultural habits and traditions that hurt women and the church as a whole. She is a trailblazer in many ways as we’ve seen a lot of improvement through her “within-the Church’s comfort zone” approach. (There are many people working to improve the Church’s cultural tendencies. McBaine happens to be a YW President who also has a slightly “radical” book called Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact that got published through Deseret Book publishing. I’ve heard stories of Stake and Ward councils reading and implementing many of her suggested changes. McBaine is also CEO of “Better Days 2020“, which is a non-profit initiative to publicly celebrate Utah women’s past contributions and create a better future by and for women.)
In this interview, however, McBaine brings up the concept of stumbling blocks placed in our paths that confound or confuse or challenge us in our faith journeys. I paused when I heard this because there seemed to be an assumption that these stumbling blocks were intentional, part of God’s plan, or from God.
This concept of stumbling blocks is one I am familiar with as a member of the Church and as a reader of LDS and Christian scripture. McBaine seemed to suggest that stumbling blocks, like the inequality between men and women in the temple, could have been from or allowed by God himself, though she acknowledges that she doesn’t really know and that this is confusing for members before and after the changes, e.g. Did that stumbling block lead those before the changes to more faith or less? Will those who enter after the changes not ever question or wrestle and in ways lose opportunities to draw closer to God? Are we hurt or helped by these stumbling blocks?
This concept of stumbling blocks from God tends to be common, even if not dominant, among many members of the Church–and not just ours. I’ve heard this idea that God gives us pain or confusion referenced in other Christian denominations and even Eastern religions. I think it is a belief in this concept that makes many within our Church feel uncomfortable denouncing past temple practices as sexist or past Priesthood and temple bans as racist because, what if this was an intentional stumbling block to test the faith of us Saints? If we denounce that, aren’t we denouncing God’s intended plan? After all, His ways are not our ways.
In my own struggle with understanding the recent temple changes, I have had a hard time saying confidently, “THIS IS WRONG.” Because questions I feel I have inherited from my culture and upbringing are: What if God wanted to test my faith through this uncomfortable time/practice? Perhaps the changes are a sign of new times: a part of the unfolding, the unveiling, the restoration, new revelation, etc., and there is more to come? This is all just line upon line and each step in the process has been from God! Milk before meat, y’all!
After the recent temple changes, however, I didn’t pray and ask about the changes. I didn’t ask, “What do you want me to learn from this?” I wasn’t ready. Because I didn’t know if the temple as it was was exactly from God–I didn’t feel like it was–but if it was, I was afraid of that utilitarian God that I thought I no longer believed in.
So I didn’t ask about it. I avoided the topic like I avoid touchy topics with my husband until I’m ready to confront them. And I took a break last week and this week because there’s only so much to talk about when underlining your polite, surface talk you feel extreme irritability or rage.
After today’s Relief Society lesson on “Divine Discomfort”, however, I felt ready again, begrudgingly as I’ve been lately, to explore the question of stumbling blocks further. I wanted to start with scripture first because I like to differentiate between culture and theology. I don’t even bother with General Conferences or magazines here, but invite anyone to explore there. I’m a believer that Mormon theology and doctrine is much more progressive than our culture (which is a reason why I stay) and so I will still look to scripture and LDS resources for insight, even if they don’t provide all the answers.
I looked up the term in our scriptural canon “Stumble”, “Stumbling block”, and “err” or “error”. I read each reference and the surrounding scriptures for some context. The following are references that shed light on who is responsible for these stumbling blocks–God or otherwise. I’ve listed at the end of my post relevant scriptures if you want to take a look, but for those of you less interested this is my summary:
According to our scriptural cannon, stumbling blocks overwhelmingly refer to the errors, unrighteousness, or wickedness of men. The only three scriptures that seemed to suggest stumbling blocks are directly from God are few, and I feel like I can explain them away:
STUMBLING BLOCKS FROM GOD
- 2 Nephi 4:33 . . . Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way—but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy.
- Isaiah 63:17 O Lord, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear? Return for thy servants’ sake, the tribes of thine inheritance.
What’s interesting about these first two references is that they are questions by men–Nephi and Isaiah–rather than declarations or prophesies. “Please don’t give me these stumbling blocks,” they say because they believe 1) God is responsible for giving them in the first place, and 2) this stumbling block is prohibiting them from obtaining something better God would want for them (peace or inheritance, e.g.). If only God would remove these, then these men could grow closer to God or to what’s good. They believe God is placing these in the way, but that doesn’t mean God actually is.
The third reference is trickier. This scripture suggests God deliberately provided confusion in response to a request for it:
- Jacob 4:14 But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.
It seems that in this particular case, God gave stumbling blocks because “the Jews” deliberately asked for them (and hopefully this just isn’t an anti-semitic text ;). But it is clear even here that God does not want stumbling blocks for them. It seems to be more of a consequence for a refusal to want plain truth. God gave them what they wanted, rather than what He wanted.
In addition to being able to explain away the references in our scripture to God placing stumbling blocks, there are far more scriptures deliberately stating stumbling blocks are from men, usually from pride, wickedness, ignorance, or unrighteousness. For example, in Alma 4:10 it reads: “. . .the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.” And in 2 Nephi 28:12 it reads, “Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted . . . they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.” (See below for a full list of stumbling block/err references). In other scriptures, not only are the stumbling blocks created by men, but the desired end goal, for God, is to have those stumbling blocks removed.
This is big and important and here’s why. To attribute to God the Priesthood and temple ban for black members or the “incorrect” temple ordinance(s) is to reveal a belief in God-sanctioned stumbling blocks. I think I’ve had a confused belief in that before, though I’ve never been able to articulate it until now. I feel now that that belief is wrong because it isn’t supported by scripture and, more importantly, it falsely characterizes God with whom I feel I have a strong, loving, nurturing relationship. And anything that does not reveal God’s true nature will not lead us closer to Him. In fact, to believe God will deliberately confuse you or hurt you or teach you fake, awful things just to test you is to believe in an abusive father. Hurt is different here than challenge. What challenges us in good ways can help us (but I also think nothing evil comes from God because in the New Testament Jesus only heals and provides. But that’s another post.). But hurting us, confusing us, lying to us, making us doubt ourselves or Him are signs of an abusive relationship, not a healthy one. As a mother, I provide consequences and teach my children, but I never lie to them or make them doubt themselves intentionally or doubt me to make them “stronger.” Those who have been in abusive relationships are made to feel weaker, miserable, and less sure of themselves until they learn how to get out of that relationship. The false doctrine of “God’s stumbling blocks” is not supported in scripture, but it also just doesn’t make sense in our personal lives or in our personal experiences with God.
So let’s stop spreading that “false doctrine” if it ever was one. Common answers to the temple changes that reflect a belief that God creates stumbling blocks for us can be like the following:
- “Perhaps God knew we wouldn’t have been ready for these changes so He needed to work line upon line.” [That first line, the first stumbling block, then, would have needed to be from God. But God doesn’t do that. + Another problem: Who wasn’t ready? The racists? The sexists? Because those being affected by these stumbling blocks were ready.]
- “This is the higher law.” [The assumption here is that the previous law was a “lesser,” but still “from God” law, like the Law of Moses.]
- “God’s ways are mysterious.” [This assumes that this is God’s way, and our scriptures teach otherwise.]
- “God has revealed we no longer need to . . .” [Like with the Priesthood and temple ban for black members, the assumption that God ever wanted these stumbling blocks in the first place is a disgrace to God and His character.]
Those of us hurt by the stumbling blocks felt and feel relieved when stumbling blocks are removed. Many have always understood stumbling blocks to be from men. For example, I remember hearing one black member’s conversion story on a podcast and she exclaimed something to the effect of, “Racism is everywhere. Of course it’s here too.”
But others ignorant of or distant enough from that suffering and hopeful that everything may indeed be part of God’s plan need to come to grips with the fact that our own scripture suggests God doesn’t actually work in this way. To suggest otherwise, I think, is to twist His character even if that’s not their intention. I find it easier to appreciate current leaders who help correct false traditions (centuries old even) and move on when I understand with confidence that “God didn’t want this.” I also feel obligated to comfort those hurt by these false traditions when I understand that these traditions were wrong. I also feel responsible for and empowered to discern for myself what is taught or practiced at church with a correct understanding of God and His nature. Those are good things for me to understand, not bad. This understanding should be encouraged, not ignored. Feel free to share other excerpts from scripture or otherwise that have contributed to your own understanding of stumbling blocks/your relationship with God.
The following excerpts suggest stumbling blocks are not from God. I’ve cut down a lot of the references for the sake of length, but you can read each chapter in its entirety because a lot of the context is enlightening. These scriptures also include specific references to the cause (who) and effect of the stumbling blocks. (Some scriptures that reference “err” or “stumble” are used in a different context, so I have left them out of this list.) This is not exhaustive. The concept of stumbling blocks or God deliberately confusing or hurting us (like in the allegory of Job) still exist in our scriptural canon, so feel free to share more of your thoughts on this topic.
STUMBLING BLOCKS ARE NOT FROM GOD
- Alma 4:10 “. . . the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.”
- 1 Nephi 13: 29 “…because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.”
- 2 Nephi 26:20 “And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches. . . 23 For behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you that the Lord God worketh not in darkness.” 24 He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world . . . 28 Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden. . . 33 For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
- Jacob 4:13 …the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls…
- 2 Nephi 28:12 Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted . . . they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.
- 2 Nephi 25: 20 And now, my brethren, I have spoken plainly that ye cannot err.
- Moroni 8:6 And now, my son, I desire that ye should labor diligently, that this gross error should be removed from among you; for, for this intent I have written this epistle. [Moroni explains that the correction of the error of infant baptism was from God.]
- D&C 1:25 And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
- D&C 33:4 And my vineyard has become corrupted every whit; and there is none which doeth good save it be a few; and they err in many instances because of priestcrafts, all having corrupt minds.
- Romans 9: 14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.
- Jeremiah 31: 9 They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
- Isaiah 63:13 “That led them [children of Israel] through the deep, as an horse in the wilderness, that they should not stumble?
The following references don’t reveal the source of the stumbling block, but God seems to not desire the stumbling blocks. God seems to want to take them away and that to do so would be good for His children:
- 1 Nephi 15:1 And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day that he shall manifest himself unto them in word, and also in power, in very deed, unto the taking away of their stumbling blocks—
- 2 And harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God, they shall be numbered among the seed of thy father; yea, they shall be numbered among the house of Israel; and they shall be a blessed people upon the promised land forever; they shall be no more brought down into captivity; and the house of Israel shall no more be confounded.
- Mosiah 7:29 For behold, the Lord hath said: I will not succor my people in the day of their transgression; but I will hedge up their ways that they prosper not [something from God]; and their doings shall be as a stumbling block before them. [from men]
- 33 But if ye will turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart, and put your trust in him, and serve him with all diligence of mind, if ye do this, he will, according to his own will and pleasure, deliver you out of bondage [the desired end goal].