I get it. I was somewhere between less-active and hardly-active for over five years. After struggling through Junior High School and High School, on a two-year mission and then through the college years while trying to manage debilitating anxiety and bouts of depression (I'm a great actor; hardly anyone knew), I know what it is like to have a barrier between my heart and God's. I've yelled at him, called him a horrible father and wondered how he can appear to be so cold and cruel and careless. I have criticized his plans and "rules" and his seeming inability to demonstrate compassion to a child in true need (me), one whose very soul was breaking under the distress of loneliness, mental illness, difficult relationship struggles (social, romantic, etc.), all while trying to change the world, go to the Olympics, write books, make a movie, finish college, find a wife, start a family, run a business or two and so on. Very few in my life know the weights I carried while they were cheering for me on the sidelines.
Those who have never "gone inactive", or had a close loved one do so, really can't grasp a full picture of what that journey is like. For some it is simple, and for others it is a very hard battle. It may start with struggles to "fit in", with doubts, with the offensive actions or words of another, or any of a million different catalysts. Faith can be challenged by divorce, loss, illness, sin, weaknesses, fears and even anger. Whatever the "reason" is, when the flame of faith grows dim (it never goes out) it can be easy to slide away from the church and say, "I'll just worship God in my own way." And while I can name a thousand problems with that mentality (Paul talked about them in Romans 1), I don't want to go there.
I want to go where Jesus would go. I want to "proclaim peace" to anyone who may be struggling in spirit while holding weakly to a dimming testimony. After all, as fun as doctrinal debates or arguments can be (not really), if we are to come together on common ground then peace must be the foundation we build on. As Paul wrote, "...the peace of God,...passeth all understanding..." (Philippians 4:7). So no matter what you believe and no matter what reason you left the Church, when the peace of God, the very peace Jesus offered us (John 14:27) enters in even those most anti, stone-cold heart, the walls of disbelief can quickly crumble. Don't believe me? Ask Alma (father and son), Paul, the Sons of Mosiah, Amulek, Zechariah, Naaman, King Manasseh, or countless other examples from the scriptures and Church history. When the peace of God comes in via the Holy Ghost, conversion or re-conversion begins.
I think so often in the culture, not the doctrine, of the Church we see a less-active member, or an inactive soul, as a project, some rescuing task we need to fulfill so we can check that particular box off our list. Even in our councils we may turn a very complicated life into a "this will work" solution. But even when done with the best of intentions, it takes more than a check-list to bring someone back to the fold. When I started slipping away from the Church no one even noticed. It was so easy to slip through the cracks and go off the radar. It was if no one cared. That's not a problem with the Church as an organization; that was a people-problem. Everyone was so busy with the program, the mission, and frankly their own lives, that they missed the person falling off the Zion-bound wagon.
A friend of mine asked me recently what is to be done. I think as mid-singles we do a pretty amazing job of "taking care of our own" by inviting them to social events, firesides, charity fundraisers, camp-outs, trips, etc. We know how to be a non-threatening friend while trying to shepherd at the same time.
And yet, the number of mid-singles who are inactive or leaving the Church is still concerning; to us, to the Bretheren and to the Lord. So perhaps we can all learn how to better reach out with love through an experience from the life of our Savior, one that I feel while help all of us see how to treat others, especially those who may be struggling right now with their testimonies and their faith, or even those who are "filthy" with sin and suffering from the illness of wickedness.
In Matthew chapter 8 we read that Jesus was approached by a leper who "worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean." (vs. 2). Very few of us can truly understand what that moment meant for the leper. Suffering from Mycobacterium leprae, lepers experience symptoms that start in the skin, but can affect the nervous system as well (that's why some Bible videos portray them with shaking hands). They endure disfigurement of the skin and bones, twisting of the limbs, and curling of the fingers to form a clawed hand. Facial changes include thickening of the outer ear and collapsing of the nose. As if that wasn't bad enough. growths called lepromas may form on the skin (think of the man whose hand Jesus healed in Luke 6:10) and in the respiratory tract, and the optic nerve may deteriorate. Lepers also experience a lessening of their sensitivity to pain.
In New Testament times, the Jews termed any skin ailment as zara'at, which led to a cultural "shunning" of its victims. Beginning in the Old Testament, lepers were viewed as "stricken" by God for some sin they had committed and therefore they were banished from society so that their illness (physical and "spiritual") would not infect others. So when this leper approached Jesus, which by law he was not supposed to do, I can't help but wonder if the disciples moved away in disgust.
Jesus did not.
When this man, a man who had suffered for so long from a terribly debilitating disease, one that had robbed him of his health, his appearance, his standing in society, his ability to provide for himself, even his ability to perhaps feed himself (remember, leprosy ruins the hands), when he worshipped the Master and asked to be clean, the Lord simply responded, "I will; be thou clean." (vs. 3).
I want you to think of a time in your life when you were really struggling with or suffering from something. Maybe it was a real illness (ask me about my recent tooth pain that required a root canal) or perhaps it was more of a battle of the heart due to a divorce, a high stack of bills, a lost job, an inability to have children or simply one lonely Friday night too many. And as you remember that experience, ponder the emotions you had, the feelings you had, and the thoughts you had. How much pain were you in? And in those painful moments, who did you turn to? Was it a good friend? A spouse or significant other? A parent or grandparent or coworkers or even a church leader?
While those sources of support and comfort are crucial in life, I want you to dig deeper. I want you to think of the darkest, most painful experience(s) of your life. When you were in the pit, I mean the very bottom of the rock bottom, when your pride was stripped away, who did you cry out for?
I'm betting God, because just as this leper knew, He will always answer.
Be thou clean. I cannot think of a more uplifting phrase for any wounded soul to hear, including the less-active and even the disaffected. So often those who have fallen away from Church activity have done so because an inner spiritual "disease", a leprosy of the soul if you will, has taken hold and grown over time until they had become desensitized to Gospel truths. As the apostle Paul warned, this condition can lead to unwillingness to "endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears...." (2 Timothy 4:3). In other words, they may reject Gospel truths and instead find someone who preaches what they like (even Christ watched some of his followers do this). And eventually, like lepers, they may no longer recognize themselves nor have the full capability to help themselves (spiritually) and may even feel like an outcast in their own family, their ward, their social circle, etc. That realization may take decades to reach, but eventually it will happen.
But they are not outcasts to the Lord. Even the "worst" sinner in our wards or neighborhoods or "clans", those who may be culturally (but again, not doctrinally) treated as social or spiritual lepers, these people are so treasured by God "that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him (again) should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16). Indeed, I think it would be to these hurting souls that Jesus would go if he were here today (read all of Mathew 18 if you don't believe me).
So, what can we do? First, we can look less on the outward appearance of a person, including their outward actions such as a sin or weakness and instead look at their divine soul and worth, "for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus was not put off by the leper's appearance or condition and we shouldn't shun someone who is struggling spiritually. To emulate Christ we can judge less and love more. That means that we don't see someone's activity-level as some Gordian knot to slice, but rather we look at them as a beloved child of God whose conversion to Christ is the true objective of our efforts to reach out. As President Thomas S. Monson succinctly taught, "Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved."
Second, we can have compassion on our own wounds and fears and sins, those terrible burdens that weigh down our souls. When we are aching so badly inside, we may not be thinking it but our hearts are crying out, "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean! Please, make me clean!" And I promise you he will respond with the same words that he gave to the leper: I will. I don't know when, only He does; but I know that sometimes all we can do is cling to our faith like I do to the inside of my bobsled when we crash. By allowing Christ to heal even our deepest of traumas and messiest of sins, we will become free to serve others and our own conversion will be stronger which will allow us to be brighter lights in the lives of the less-active or inactive.
Third, when you, the inactive or less-active reader or any of us who struggle in moments of crisis, can see Christ for who he really is, as the Master Healer who does not criticize your condition or choices or mistakes and when you can understand that his deepest desire is to lift your heavy loads and comfort your troubled heart and yes, help you answer those big Gospel questions that you are struggling with, then and only then will you be able to find the peace He offers each and every one of us, you included. Can God heal you, even if your testimony is unstable? Will he?
"I will; be thou clean."
May all of us learn this lesson, less-active or weekly-attender. The compassion of Christ is not determined by the status of our temple recommend or even the amount of spiritual "dirt" on our hands. Many blessings are determined by our obedience, but the love of God is not. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, "God doesn’t care nearly as much about where you have been as He does about where you are and, with His help, where you are willing to go."
So...where are you willing to go?