Those who read my story may well conclude that I have no business posting alongside those who have been subject to the horrors of sexual abuse and assault. My story is perhaps altogether commonplace. I share it because I am convinced that many members of the church of Jesus Christ of latter-day saints have suffered the consequences of similar shaming, and that countless lives have been damaged as a consequence.
Like many others, I first became aware of the word masturbation in an interview with my bishop as I prepared to turn 12 years old. Almost immediately thereafter, I was twice presented the pamphlet “To Young Men Only”; first by my Deacons quorum advisor, then by my father. As a trusting young man desperately wanting to live up to expectations, I uncomfortably accepted the teaching, repeated hundreds of times during my youth, that any type of sexual sin was akin to murder in its seriousness.
I was mortified by the obvious implications when I fell short by touching myself, or by having thoughts that were impure. Based on my understanding of the gravity of these sins, I was left many times to conclude not only that I was unworthy, but that I was deserving of whatever punishment might be mine in eternity. I felt God was fully justified in withholding any blessing, or in exacting any punishment. I went to my Bishop, confessed to touching myself, and pled for help in finding forgiveness.
My Bishop asked for details and I willingly obliged. I was deeply embarrassed, but had been conditioned to understand that anything short of a complete confession was insufficient to receive God’s forgiveness. Through my Bishop I was promised God’s strictly conditional forgiveness — God would forgive me, but if I were to sin again the former sins would return (Doctrine and Covenants 82 verse 7). Despite what felt to me to be tremendous and sincere effort on my part, the former sins did eventually return, and I was again left to wonder why God would tolerate, much less forgive me. My desire to qualify for God’s grace and forgiveness was strong, but based on what I had been taught regarding the seriousness of sexual sin and the reality that God’s spirit would not always strive with man, I accepted that I was broken, and that my brokenness was likely beyond repair.
Despite the loss of self worth associated with such interviews, I went on to serve a mission, and served in countless other positions in the church. This included serving in a bishopric where I, like so many others before and since, was called upon to act as a ‘judge in Israel’. As a member of the bishopric I sat together with others in judgement. I could not then, and certainly cannot now reconcile the tremendous divide between mercy and forgiveness so freely given by the Savior, and so begrudgingly given by His church.
Shame that I felt in connection with very normal sexual thoughts and urges, and a palpable sense of guilt instilled and reinforced through what I was taught both during and outside of worthiness interviews, did not break me, but left me more vulnerable to emotional manipulation. My dear wife, who grew up instilled with the same teachings and subject to both routine worthiness interviews and personal priesthood interviews, experienced a far more profound loss of confidence and self worth. Her story is not mine to tell. I mention it only to draw attention to the very real impact that such intrusive interviews have not only on the individual, but also on those close to them.
Only very recently have I found greater peace following decades of unhealthy concern about my worthiness before God. My heart breaks for friends and family members who never found this peace. My heart breaks all the more with each story I read of those who have suffered unthinkable abuse at the hands of those called to minister to them. Having suffered so little in comparison to others, and yet feeling the reality of the pain I did experience, I cannot overstate the strength of my support for an end to the despicable practice of intrusive interviews of children, youth, and adults with an unnatural and unhealthy fixation on human sexuality.
I have served as a ‘judge in Israel.’ I have seen the folly of good men trying to act in the place of a loving God. Having read the sacred stories of others, I now better understand how the sense of vulnerability that I experienced as a young man can be and has been used to manipulate and abuse innocent children.
I find the concept of worthiness interviews, and of associated church discipline, deeply at odds with the gospel as taught by Jesus Christ. All children of God are of infinite worth. Worthiness interviews undermine this basic premise of infinite, individual worth, and place people’s sense of self-worth unnecessarily at risk.