Why your dysfunctional family belongs in the Mormon Church

By: Rebbie Groesbeck // 

I once showed a picture of my brother’s family to a friend at work: happy couple, three beautiful children, adorable outfits, all smiles. The reaction was, “OK, they’re perfect. I guess that’s what all Mormon families are like, huh?”

Homer choking Bart

Homer and Bart enjoying some father-son bonding

From the outside, it might appear that in order to be Mormon, you need to have a “perfect” family. At times even from the inside some of us may feel like that. But the truth is, Mormonism is not about having perfect families. It’s about FAMILIES — who are striving to be a little more perfect.

Don’t believe me? Fine then, I’ll prove it!

As Mormons, we treasure the stories told in the scriptures, and nearly every famous scriptural story centers on families. And like all good Disney movies, the presence of “perfect” family stories is virtually zero. Here is a simpler-than-cliff’s-notes recap on a few of them:

Adam and Eve’s Family:

They start out as companions in paradise. They live in a beautiful place, they have everything they need, they are naked and they have no clue. Then they partake of the fruit from the tree of knowledge and suddenly are launched into a world where pain, sickness, and evil abound. Their lives go from beautifully simple to terribly complicated, and they must navigate through a new world together.

Adam and Eve

Cain & Abel’s Family:

Brothers with serious competitive issues. Abel, the perfect child, gives an offering that is accepted by the Lord, while Cain, the naughty child, gives one that is not. Out of jealousy and greed, Cain kills Abel.

Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel by Dennis Van Alsloot

Moses’ Family:

Born at a time when an insecure Pharaoh had decreed that all newborn Hebrew boys were to be killed. Rather than letting her son die, his mother puts him in a basket and sends him down the Nile, hoping for his survival. As fate would have it, he is found and raised by the very family that should have been the cause of his death.

Moses

A Mother’s Sacrifice by Megan Rieker

Joseph of Egypt’s Family:

More brothers with more competitive issues. Joseph, the youngest and favorite child, with the famed coat of many colors. He was handsome, he was smart, he was a walking work of art!! And because of it, his brothers got jealous and sold him into slavery.

Joseph of Egypt

Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Clearly, these are not perfect families. Yet these are the stories that traditional Christian religions study in order to learn how to navigate the human condition. The Book of Mormon tells the story of a similarly imperfect family.

Lehi and Sariah’s Family:

Lehi and Sariah have four sons: Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam.

The two youngest, Nephi and Sam, are firm in their faith. They obey their parents and they believe in God. But the two older brothers, Laman and Lemuel, struggle with both their belief in God and in obeying parents who are devoted to following Him.

The story begins by showing the immediate clash between siblings with different beliefs, trying to live together. Eventually their beliefs become so at odds that they are completely estranged. Their descendants are forever separated, designated by titles of either “Nephite” or “Lamanite.” The majority of the Book of Mormon is spent detailing the wars between these two family groups. Each group experiences periods of faithfulness and blessing, as well as times of foolish pride and destruction.

In a tiny, tiny nutshell, the Book of Mormon is the story of one imperfect family, and its struggle to find peace.

It is the same struggle faced by Adam and Eve, of Moses, of Cain & Abel, and of Joseph of Egypt

So why have people all over the world, for thousands of years, continually gravitated to stories about people from broken homes? Because these struggles– these awkward family situations and challenges and disagreements — are universally relatable.

In other words, NO ONE has a perfect family.

Somewhere along the line, the image of Mormonism has become perfect, happy families with lots of kids who always get along. And to be sure, having a happy family is something Mormons strive for.

But when you look at the people’s lives we study, from Adam and Eve to the Nephites and Lamanites, you will see the true goal of Mormonism: to help imperfect people from imperfect families become a little better.

All of us are in different places. Some of us have two parents while others have one or none. Some of us depend on our siblings while others are estranged from them. No matter what family situation we are born into, every one of us is part of the human family, and of God’s family.

If I can vouch for any aspect of Mormonism, it’s that when you join the Mormon Church you become part of a family. Since moving away from my biological family, I have realized how amazing it is to have a place to go where people, even though they might be strangers, care about your happiness and well-being. My Mormon family has provided love and support in times when I have desperately needed it.

So whatever your family life is like, you’re welcome to join ours. I can’t say we aren’t a bit dysfunctional at times. But I can say that we will do our very best to make your life a little better.

22 comments

  • I love this post. Even when I show up for church on Sunday, we all have on our best behavior. I think vulnerability and honesty is so important in order for us to learn. If we realize we have imperfections and let go of our desire to be perfect in all things, our lives simplify and growth becomes more clear.

  • False name since I know a lot of people who come to this blog and don’t want to enrage them.

    Here’s the crummy part about the scriptures – all the main players are set up into “hero” and “villain” camps.

    Laman, Lemuel, Cain, Joseph’s brothers – they are evil foils to the people trying to be perfect.

    What type of message does that send to a family where one or more of the members might not believe or participate in the church? Are they supposed to view their disbelieving family members in the same light as Laman, Lemuel or Joseph’s brothers? Or their disbelieving siblings simply a trial for the family in general to survive similar to Lehi, Sariah, Adam and Eve?

    To me the models set forth in the scriptures are divisive – setting clear cut”us” and “them” models that have more potential for harm than good.

    But that’s just my opinion. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong.

    • False name! Haha I love it.

      That is such an interesting comment. I don’t think you’re “wrong” in any sense. The scriptures are written by an author, and it’s pretty tough for any author to be completely unbiased. I mean, who knows if Nephi was really as “large in stature” as he claimed to be :) For me, the “divisive” nature of showing good characters and bad characters is an unfortunate but necessary simplification of a very complicated thing, i.e. PEOPLE’S LIVES. But I don’t think the evil characters are always represented as purely evil–you see Laman and Lemuel struggle through degrees of faith, and you see what happens when they choose to hate their brothers. (I think there is a big difference between family members who have differing religious viewpoints, and family members who choose to hate their family over those different viewpoints.) On the other hand, you see the Nephites, descendants of the perfect “hero” succumb to pride and become even more evil than their “villainous” cousins the Lamanites. Know what I mean?

      I think it’s all much more complicated than the people writing the scriptures had time or means to communicate. But who knows, that is also just my opinion and you are free to tell me I’m wrong :)

      • Well that’s the thing – there’s no realistic model for acceptable behavior in the Book of Mormon. The two camps are constantly oscillating between pious followers of Christ and sin-crazed rapists and cannibals. This is true to either population (and towards the end of the BoM – both populations) – either you follow Christ, or you are a hard-hearted villain.

        Name me one character in the Book of Mormon who is not a follower of Christ, but still is a loving parent, contributes to their community, and tries every day to make good choices. You’ll notice that person simply does not exist in the Mormon cannon.

        And any member of the church has heard a testimony like this on several occasions: “I don’t know where I would be in my life without the Church. I’m pretty sure I’d be out [INSERT EGREGIOUS SIN HERE] if those missionaries hadn’t knocked on my door.”

        Some (not all) members seem to have their two gears in their morality engine – piety, and rampant wanton sinning.

        Say what you will about contemporary Mormons – some (but not all) will quickly disown their disbelieving family members simply for doubting the Church, or choosing not to participate in Church. It’s my observation that because of this false morality dichotomy that the Book of Mormon establishes.

        And if we’re going to blame flaws in the text on the limited resources available to the author – or even on the communication skills of the author – it begs the question, why are we still using that documentation as a guide for something as horribly complex and messy as LIFE. Why not rely more on the words of modern prophets, and glean learnings from the mistakes and lessons of old?

        Would you ever hear someone get up on the stand and say “There is a lot of black and white thinking in the Book of Mormon. We know now that black and white thinking is extremely unhealthy, and can lead to unnecessary division and conflict. Let’s look at some of these stories and see how we can learn from the mistakes of past generations to make our lives better.”

        Let me tell you – if there was a conversation like that happening in church, I’d want to attend. Because a conversation like that feels honest, genuine, and could genuinely improve the spiritual and mental state of us imperfect people.

        But you won’t. Because the heroes of the Book of Mormon are considered perfect. And all other characters who do not fit that mold are considered villains. Regardless of whether or not the Lord is extending his hand to them the whole time – THEY ARE STILL CONSIDERED VILLAINS.

        I’ve lived in the world a pretty long time. And let me tell you – I have yet to encounter many true villains. I’ve met some people operate outside morality and take advantage of the kindness of others (the worst kind of wickedness in my opinion) – but I have yet to encounter the type of hardcore wickedness described in Fourth Nephi.

        I find that the more I get to know people, the less bad they seem. I wish there was more talk like that in the Book of Mormon. Because I think a lesson like that would go a long way in building the Kingdom of God on earth.

        • You really see the BOM as black and white? Hmmm…I don’t see it like that. Maybe I’ve been reading it wrong.
          Not a specific person, but in the book of Jacob, the prophet states the Lamanites are more righteous because “their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands, and their husbands and wives love their children.” Clearly an example of ‘villains’ being good parents, contributing to their communities and trying everyday to make good choices.
          In my experience, those who leave the church are far more likely to separate themselves than for their family and friends to disown them. Its a change for everyone and hard to keep in contact with people you no longer share value with. Again, your experience may differ.

          • May 27, 2014 at 7:54 pm //

            That’s actually one of my favorite scriptures!

            “Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none, and there should not be whoredoms committed among them.”

            Translation: The Lamanites have it rough because they have dark skin, but you guys have it worse because you are such bad sinners.

  • I hear what you’re saying, False Name. On the surface it is easy to make that assumption. But all throughout the Book of Mormon, there are repeated promises to the descendants of Laman and Lemuel that their posterity would receive blessings and would not be forgotten, because of the Lord’s love for them. What a beautiful blessing to hope for–for anyone with a less than perfect situation. The easy foils of Nephites vs. Lamanites might look too simple on the surface, but the overall theme is that when people choose to follow the Savior, there is happiness and prosperity. When they don’t, there is misery. But it doesn’t have to be permanent.

    Here’s my very favorite part: The Lord’s hand is stretched out still.

    It is stretched out to me, my friends and my family, no matter how far from Him we get, or how many times I forget Him. It is up to us to reach for that outstretched hand. That is the beauty of the gospel and why it’s worth the struggle.

  • May 23, 2014 at 12:44 pm // Reply

    You only need to attend one ward dinner to understand why the Lord put us in families!
    To false name… while characters in the scriptures may seem to be either all good or all bad, or cold or hot about the gospel of Jesus Christ, the truth is that most of us in the world are somewhere in-between on the spectrum. Those stories didn’t make it into the books; but maybe someday we can meet more people who went before who struggled as most of us do to figure it all out. Still the principles apply to us all.

    As Christ said, they who are whole have no need of a physician.
    Christ taught us the perfect gospel to help all of us imperfect people.

    I love my family because with them there is always a safe haven. A place of love and acceptance. We figure things out together. It’s the BEST.

  • I think false name makes a good observation that can be difficult to see unless you’ve experienced a similar division within the family. I think it definitely is damaging to label good guys or bad guys based on differences in belief. All people, including (and in some cases especially) Mormons could benefit from a less judgmental culture.
    We all have strengths and weaknesses and we all have times in our lives when the weaknesses project over the strengths. Sometimes we even have entirely different definitions of “strength and “weakness” from people to whom we are very close.
    I feel the same way about heroes/villains while reading anything written by Ayn Rand. She (very successfully)uses extreme personalities and behaviors to clearly illustrate how specific decisions can change our lives’ paths. No one is really that black and white, except for maybe Nephi (I wonder if I’d be a little defiant too, if I had such a perfect seeming brother), but it’s easier to both teach and to learn, when you study the extremes.
    Was King David a hero or a villain? Alma the Younger?
    Lehi and Sariah both have documented weaknesses, as well as Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young.
    There always has been a place for imperfect individuals and families in God’s kingdom, and I’ll even suggest they are vital to help raise awareness, instigate service, and help us become a more loving, inclusive, group of people.

  • I don’t see Laman and Lemuel primarily as examples of “unbelievers,” though clearly they didn’t believe. I find it more useful to see them as examples of abusers. They put their family through the whole abuse cycle–complete with “honeymoon” periods of reconciliation, physical and emotional violence, rationalizations, and periods of blaming their victims for their own erratic behavior. The children who grew up in the environment of violence they created–I’m thinking their younger brother Jacob here–showed signs of life-long emotional scars.

    If Nephi’s descriptions seem too harsh to you, you probably haven’t tried to live with an abusive person. I have many friends who have experienced various levels of abuse, and I for one am grateful to read about how Lehi’s family coped, how they survived, and how they succeeded in spite of the constant hatred.

  • Who cares you are all way too up tight. Every one is different, faces different challenge , and will have different outcomes. Just suck it up.

  • Part of the the key of what I think is missing in this article is the faith in the redemptive nature and power of Jesus Christ, which for some reason the writer omits as the true name of the faith/church that is espoused.

    Whoops.

    Of course Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not perfect.

    As Christians and most other religions profess, we are fallen and broken. We need to be made whole by a higher power.

    That is Jesus. Through all the cases cited from scripture in this article, He is the cure.

    It is the United States of America, not the “American country”.

    It is the Church of Jesus Christ, not the “church of the Mormons”.

    Mormon is a nickname, as is American to US residents and citizens.

    What is in a name? Perhaps more than many people think.

    Mormon was a great prophet, military leader, and editor. I am not he.

    My name is Ed, and I am follower of Jesus and and a member of His Church.

  • 4 O ye people of these great cities which have fallen, who are descendants of Jacob, yea, who are of the house of Israel, how oft “have I” gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you.

    5 And again, how oft “would I have” gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, who have fallen; yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, ye that dwell at Jerusalem, as ye that have fallen; yea, how oft “would I have” gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not.

    6 O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft ‘will I’gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart.

  • June 6, 2014 at 11:41 am // Reply

    I often look about me at Church and see many perfect families. I think then why can’t my family be perfect. Why can’t all my daughters marry successful returned missionaries in the Temple, why can’t all my sons be missionaries and graduate from college with a useful degree and be successful, like their families do?
    I myself am a convert of 40 years, married in the temple, graduated from college and have been faithful and active the whole time.
    I guess people are individuals, right?

  • What people see in Church, the perfect families, aren’t. What you see are their “Sunday faces”. The ones where there is no pain or struggle. My friend, these people DON’T exist. They didn’t in the scriptures and they don’t at Church. We live in one of those “perfect wards” with perfect families who marry returned missionaries. The families that are strong in testimony and who NEVER struggle. I’ve got a news flash for you, there is not ONE family in our seemingly perfect ward that doesn’t struggle with something. Often it’s multiple somethings. I can tell you how deep hell is and how high the water gets. You see, I’m one of them. Disease, death, questions, seemingly a heaven that is as brass. This is reality for everyone. What you see are the “Sunday faces”. You don’t dry the tears or listen to the prayers or feel the heart ache and the aloneness of the person next to you, you see the “Sunday face” that hides all that.

  • June 7, 2014 at 7:31 am // Reply

    My “perfect” family is shattered. Husband left not wanting the church thing anymore. I didn’t ask him to leave. I begged him to stay. He separated himself from his wife and kids, and from his parents and siblings. His choice. 26 years of posing and smiling perfection every Sunday. He says he feels better now that he is living a more honest life and not being fake about his testimony. My family is surviving well because we have extended family and a ward family that love and support us. The gospel is true whether we are a “perfect”family or not.

  • June 9, 2014 at 7:50 am // Reply

    To False Name –

    Corianton – Corianton is often discussed as the BAD guy in contrast to his brothers Helaman and Shiblon. But you see that Alma is working with his son Corianton and that Corianton seems to come around and help in later missionary work.

    Many start off as bad guys (Of course Alma, Alma the Younger, the sons of Mosiah come to mind — who later become superstars — but there are also guys like Zeezrom who use their flattery and cunning to oppose the “good guys” — later to convert and support the missionary/reactivation efforts without being a featured character.

    Abish and her parents (Alma 19) – This goes along with some of the previous comments (see Sue Groesbeck) that the average Nephite/Lamanite families didn’t have their stories make it into the book. But with Abish we see that there is a Lamanite family, converted to the gospel, that is just living their lives out the best they can in their circumstances.

    You actually can see many sorts of people that are referred to in general terms, some who believed, some who fluctuated, some who opposed, some who didn’t particularly commit one way or another. But they remain only mentioned generally – as part of a group of people – and not by name.

    As Joel mentions in his comment, when selecting stories or narratives that are intended to drive home a certain point, the extreme personalities and behaviors will be featured to clearly illustrate the ramifications of the decisions that we make.

  • Something you might only notice if you had a Jewish background like I do is Nephi and Enos making statements about the Lamanites that are the equivalent of modern Mormons saying, “You know, he’s started smoking and drinking. He’s not even living the Word of Wisdom”! The Jews’ Word of Wisdom consisted of the parts of the Law of Moses pertaining to diet, called Kashrut. Here’s what Nephi said.

    And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey (2 Nephi 5:24). And what Enos said –…they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey;

    Ew. Truly NOT kosher eating. Those apostates. The Book of Mormon peoples were just like us.

  • “The church is not a showplace for Saints, but a hospital for sinners …”. This old saying still applies. The struggle for all of us, whether we are one of those who struggle along and are hardly mentioned, or whether we are one of the extremes that are used as an example, is to keep trying continually towards improving. The Savior will measure us in the end against our willingness to try. Not how perfect we become against others. Measurement will come against what our potential truly was and as each of us is at a different place on the journey, nessecarily the final potential will differ. We don’t measure a two year olds performance against that of a ten year old. So someone else may be performing their best, for their maturity or capacity level in the journey. We won’t even all get to the same endpoint and that is truly not the purpose in any case. The effort expended towards the goal is our acceptance of the sacrifice given and qualifies us for ” we are saved by grace, AFTER ALL WE CAN DO “. The perfection sought by members of our faith is the manifestation of our effort in that regard.

  • My late first wife was a convert to the Church but quit after she divorced her first husband because she felt like she didn’t belong anymore. After we got married, she realized that she wanted to be back in the Church but she didn’t tell me for for 2 years for fear of scaring me off. Finally, her 16 year old daughter, whom I had adopted, decided that she wanted to be back in the Church and I had to find out what the big deal was. It took me about a week after that. My wife warned me that I should not expect perfection there and I don’t but I have had many wonderful experiences for the last 32 years, with many stories to tell. Please see my profile at mormon.org

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