You needed to leave two minutes ago. You’ve searched frantically but can’t find your keys ANYWHERE. Seriously, this is getting ridiculous! You are going to be so late for that important event.
Then it occurs to you: you haven’t said a prayer yet. So you pause in your anxious search, breath, and pray. As you do, an idea or an image pops into your head, suggesting were the keys are. Sure enough, there they are!
You mutter a prayer of thanks and head out the door. When the next testimony meeting comes around, you share our gratitude for these small miracles and the confirmation that God hears and answers our prayers.
We Mormons believe in a God of Lost Keys: a God who cares about even the small inconveniences in our lives and is there to help. No request is too small for the God of the Universe.
Except, we also believe in a God of Cancer, who lets people suffer and die for no fault of their own. Sometimes I’ve heard both stories in the same testimony meeting: the miracle of the lost keys and the missing miracle of the family member taken by cancer.
That juxtaposition amplifies the question: If God cares enough to save us from the ‘agony’ of searching for our keys, why doesn’t God save from the true agony of cancer? Why does God let people suffer horrendous deaths that come through no fault of their own or anyone else’s? This isn’t a matter of preserving agency. This is about an area where God could exercise complete control and chooses not to.
That’s where I think our belief in a God of Lost Keys fails us. Because in our effort to reconcile that God with the God of Cancer, we too often judge people. We look for human causes that will answer our questions about God.
When my mom was dying of cancer, someone gave her a book or article they thought would offer consolation. It suggested that cancer is part of a divine plan. Specifically, it suggested that people get cancer because they are too good at offering service and need to learn to accept service instead. Basically, cancer is targeted to humble the proud and weaken the strong. She understandably found this offensive because it suggested that cancer was (depending on how you looked at it) a kind of punishment or reward for a life well-lived. As she wrestled with her own death and the impact it would have on her family (with children ages 11 to 22), she couldn’t fathom that outcome being commensurate with some personal earthly lesson. Frankly, death by cancer is a terrible way to learn any kind of directed spiritual message.
I don’t remember (and perhaps never knew) who gave her that message. I do believe they were trying to be helpful. They were trying to reconcile the God of Lost Keys with the God of Cancer Deaths. In doing so, they found it necessary to judge my mom. Whether their judgment was meant to be kind of cruel, condemning or praising, it was a judgment best left to Our Creator.
Can I suggest a better solution? Let’s lose the God of Lost Keys. He’s not helping us make spiritual sense of our world. A God who answers the tiny requests of Mormons at the drop of a hat would reasonably be answerable for all the natural disasters of the world. God would be on the hook for every death by disease that can’t be traced to human causes. He’d be a God that plays favorites – you get your keys and my mother gets to die, even though (or because?) she was one of the most charitable people I have ever known. It just isn’t logical, even in the logic of Mormonism.
This is not to say that prayer isn’t useful for finding keys. Anything that brings us to set aside our frustration for a moment will help us think more clearly. But let’s stop pinning that on God. He has enough on His plate.
Want to do something to help people whose challenges much are larger than lost keys? Please, please consider helping the Rational Faiths community provide for the nutritional and educational needs of children in need in the Ta Khmau area of Cambodia through the Liahona Children’s Foundation!
Photo Credit: “Keys” by SioW (Creative Commons License)
Very well articulated. It is ironic, isn’t it. I have prayed to find keys, lost contacts, etc and in most every case I was guided to find them. Perhaps it is just taking the time-out and thinking that does the trick. I have a sister with leukemia and she is not getting better. After prayers and fasting, priesthood blessings etc, yes asking to find keys, seems trivial in comparison.
As far as the book your mom received, I think we do make up reasons for our afflictions. They make our mortal brains somehow feel better?? I agree though that it is probably better to leave that up to God. His ways are not our ways. We just have to chuckle at our mortality and the funny things we do to make sense of the insensible. Thanks.
Thanks for sharing your experiences. I agree that laughter is often the best approach to the theological thorniness of our lives.
“I don’t remember (and perhaps never knew) who gave her that message. ”
“I do believe they were trying to be helpful.”
Do you? Do you really?
“They were trying to reconcile the God of Lost Keys with the God of Cancer Deaths.”
Were they? Were they really?
“In doing so, they found it necessary to judge my mom.”
Did they. Did they really?
(This person who you don’t remember and maybe never knew)
“Whether their judgment was meant to be kind of cruel, condemning or praising, it was a judgment best left to Our Creator.”
I struggle to reconcile the irony here.
Fair enough. Though I do think even imperfectly remembered experiences can be helpful in thinking through how we approach our faith.
I was thinking less about your memory and more about your willingness to:
* judge this person you couldn’t remember
* in order to make a point about how in order to avoid mistakenly judging people (or looking like we are)
* as part of our childlike attempts to resolve our understandings of God
* even if it requires us to abandon asking God for help (even though scripture directs us to)
* on arbitrarily small matters such as “lost keys” on the arbitrary scale of “keys-to-cancer”
* even though you admit “As you do, an idea or an image pops into your head, suggesting were the keys are. Sure enough, there they are!”
And then “Can I suggest a better solution? Let’s lose the God of Lost Keys. He’s not helping us make spiritual sense of our world.”
Ouch. He’s helping find keys so that we can get home, or to a baptismal service, or just to increase our faith in him.
It might not meet your aims, but if it meets ours and His, who are you to interfere?
You want people to avoid the juxtaposition of the God that cares enough to save us from the ‘agony’ of searching for our keys, but doesn’t save others from the true agony of cancer, in case that juxtaposition leads imperfect people to judge others — or do things that look like they are judging others.
Don’t be trying to regulate how people approach God, out of fear that one of them will offend a loved one in their imperfect efforts to help.
Can you see the second irony that in it’s form, your guidance can cause as much harm and hurt as what you are trying to prevent?
“A God who answers the tiny requests of Mormons at the drop of a hat would reasonably be answerable for all the natural disasters of the world. God would be on the hook for every death by disease that can’t be traced to human causes.”
You might make argue a case for that one day.
“But let’s stop pinning that on God. He has enough on His plate.”
“We Mormons” believe that a God whose plate is full is not God.
False attribution to God and Satan is all over the place. Not just in mormonism.
The “God of Lost Keys” can be particularly harmful to children and young people. As a child, I heard of others who had the faith to find their lost keys, and yet I couldn’t find my lost baseball in a wheat field, even after I kneeled and prayed. I presumed I just didn’t have enough faith, and obsessed about what was wrong with me. I think many others may suffer in similar ways. Am I reconciling all the ironies here?
I agree. It suggests a promise of how God works that just doesn’t match with reality. I remember on my mission reading this book about how we could basically force miracles through this highly scripted method of exercising faith. I was eager for miracles, so I tried it for a while. There were all these promises you made and ways to specify outcomes and work to do. But after a while it was clear that (a) it wasn’t working and (b) it just added to my anxiety while lowering my self-esteem. It actually got in the way of the success I was looking for. I’ve felt much better after giving up that approach.
Thanks for the post. This is something that catches all of us short at one time or another. Pres. Kimball wrote an extended meditation on the subject, extracted from one of his books as “Tragedy or Destiny?”
Yes, evil is allowed its day and people may choose to be partners with it or enablers of it — but Auschwitz? Independent of intended evil, mortality exacts a toll in pain as well. It’s tough to get your mind around.
While I will continue to read and ponder, for me the most profitable fallback position is to exercise humility and faith in Jesus Christ. Before this world the Savior told us, in essence, “If you follow me, I’ll get you home.” He says he will dry our tears. I believe him.
Thanks for your thoughts. I, too, have thought about the Pres. Kimball talk you mention. And I like his points about the complicated ways that agency shapes our lives. But I wanted to steer here more toward the things that aren’t about agency at all.
I agree that humility and faith (plus a big dose of charity) seem like the surest ways to access Christ’s promises.
Great insights, and I agree with you.
Prayer has never helped me find my lost keys. Asking my wife for help works much better.
It is not only the God of Lost Keys that is a problem sometimes leading to judgment of others. That has also been true of the God of Moroni 10:4-5 as usually ripped from context (Moroni addressed his comments only to the Lamanites — whoever they are)and applied to everyone with a sincere heart, real intent, and faith [not certainty] in Christ. Sorry, but Moroni 10:4 just doesn’t work for some and I decline to judge them insincere or unfaithful because God has not [yet] fulfilled Moroni’s promise if it even applies to them. Why does our culture insist on expanding Moroni’s promise while ignoring D&C 46:11-14?
Yes, we’re too willing to “proof text” even with our own scriptures. These things are always better taken in context. And I love D&C 46:11-14. It’s my dad’s favorite scripture passage. It gives him hope because he counts himself among those who don’t ‘know.’
I think ANYTHING that causes us to turn to God for help, evaluate our faithfulness to GOD, REPENT where we lack, and realize we ALL are here to be tested and learn OBEDIENCE to GOD in this life is a good thing! We don’t have many answers here to test our willingness to live the things we have been taught are true.
I’ve always thought the lost keys had nothing to do with God and everything to do with how our brains work.
I am frantically searching for my keys. I stop, say a prayer, quiet the verbal side of my brain, and listen for an answer. This frees up space for the nonverbal part of my brain to tell me where I left the keys (usually as an idea or picture).
As an artist, this is exactly how all my best creativity works. People who aren’t creative or haven’t studied how the nonverbal brain works, don’t know the trick and thus give credit to God.
Overall, I see it as a positive that the church unwittingly teaches us how to use our nonverbal (and other parts) of the brain by calling it the Holy Ghost. There are downsides of course.
I managed to distil my doctrinal objections to 1 sentence:
The scriptures teach to not judge, not to not pray in case it leads to judging.
Very good thoughts. I have had generally the same thoughts, including in the comments that on my mission that my actions could override another persons free agency to join the church. I could never reconcile that (even though I was an obedient missionary).
The thing that bothers me the most when I think of this is the pain that it causes people. I for decades fell into the trap of, “hmm – not getting my prayers answered, so it must be ME being the problem.” That is fine until it becomes nearly an emotional breakdown where you just keep trying harder and harder and still don’t get prayers answered and soon you feel like, “I am never going to measure up.”
Read the Bible dictionary entry on Prayer. If you don’t get your prayers answered you may actually be praying for the wrong thing.
However Philippians 4:6 suggests that we should pray to God over every little thing; but we should admit that God will choose what to do about it.
Thanks Sam. But I have to say, I have never been able to get an answer on anything I brought up in prayer. Not to, “Should I marry the person I am dating” (I went ahead as I didn’t get a negative response, just nothing), “should I accept this calling that seems like it will pull me away from my family too much?” (accepted it anyway until both my wife and I were in states of depression). On one big problem I have had over the majority of my life I probably did spend the first 5 years “praying for the wrong thing.” But after another 15 years of trying other things to pray about, including “help me just to accept this burden”, I then prayed for another 5 years for just, “help me know what to pray for, because nothing I have prayed for over the last few decades has helped one bit and it actually continues to get worse.” I don’t have that many more years left. I am envious of those that can do things like go to the temple and “feel the spirit”. I feel zilch – every time I have gone (or even a bit freaked out).