Sunday, March 9, 2008

His Hand is Stretched Out Still--Musings on Doctrine, Apostasy, and Gay Marriage

For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.

When you read the words of the prophet Isaiah that [the Lord's] hand is stretched out still, does it give you comfort, or does it cause you to tremble?

The phrase is a picturesque one, occurring four times in Isaiah chapters 9 and 10 (9:12, 17, 21; 10:4). These chapters are included in the Isaiah passages found in the Book of Mormon. The refrain has been interpreted in two different ways in biblical exegesis.

The Lord's Arm Stretched Out in Mercy

In the consensus of LDS thought, it is explained that although the House of Israel has sinned and the Lord's anger is not turned away, yet his hand is stretched out to forgive and redeem his people. A footnote to Isaiah 9:12 clarifies the phrase as follows: "In spite of it all, the LORD is available if they will turn to him," and refers the reader to the Topical Guide heading "God, Access to."

In his Oct 2006 Conference address "Prophets in the Land Again," Jeffrey R. Holland reflected this interpretation of the phrase when he stated,

To all of you who think you are lost or without hope, or who think you have done too much that was too wrong for too long, to every one of you who worry that you are stranded somewhere on the wintry plains of life and have wrecked your handcart in the process, this conference calls out Jehovah’s unrelenting refrain, “[My] hand is stretched out still.” ...His is the pure love of Christ, the charity that never faileth, that compassion which endures even when all other strength disappears. I testify of this reaching, rescuing, merciful Jesus, that this is His redeeming Church based on His redeeming love..."

LDS audiences are most familiar with this interpretation of Isaiah's poetic chorus. After watching BYU Broadcasting "Insight into Isaiah," Kelly Miller wrote her own verses on the subject. Part of Kelly's poem reads:
As He extends mercy and assurance
His softly flowing waters fill,
Ever offering hope and guidance.
Where e'er we turn, His hand is stretched out still.

The Lord's Arm Stretched Out in Judgment

Little do most Mormons realize there is another way of looking at this familiar phrase. Note the context in Nephi's quotation of Isaiah 5:
Therefore, is the anger of the Lord kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them; and the hills did tremble, and their carcasses were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. (2 Nephi 15:25)

In this interpretation the Lord's hand is stretched out in judgment against a rebellious nation. Moeller's commentary on Isaiah 9 reads:
Here God declares himself as the one who is bringing these calamities. The reason: because the punishments have not turned the people to him. Since they continue in their abandonment of the source of their help he will allow further calamities to overtake them. ...There was more to come from the hand of a wrathful God. This series will only end with the complete destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and their extinction as a political entity.

As I've read the details of the Danzig case, I can only repeat Isaiah's words, over and over, in my mind. I've been reflecting upon these verses as compared to the Church's reactions toward perceived "apostasy" by its members. The hierarchy seems to see itself as the outstretched hand of the Lord, always there with mercy to welcome back the repentant sinner. Yet, members who struggle with reconciling their consciences with Church policies are recipients of the harsher treatment of the refrain. To these, the Church's hand continues to stretch forth in judgment and punishment rather than mercy and healing.

What I have seen of these very public cases over the years are members who sincerely believe in the Church yet struggle with ambiguity. I relate to the Danzig's dilemma since I was present in California when the Church became involved in helping to pass Proposition 22. As members, we were asked to participate in making phone calls supporting the initiative, and to place signs in our front yards. Much pressure was placed upon members in this effort. A few years later, having moved to Texas, a similar situation presented itself. This time, members of the ward sat through a fifth-Sunday combined PH/RS meeting where the position of the Church regarding gay marriage was delineated and members were pressed to spend time and money in passing the legislature. I am strongly in favor of the Church's official position on political neutrality, and believe that on the gay marriage issue this position is being strongly violated.

In an LDS press release, Church representatives stated,
"In his Tribune letter-to-the-editor, Mr. Danzig said he 'was troubled that my church requested I violate my own conscience to write in support of an amendment I feel is contrary to the constitution and to the gospel of Christ.' In reality Church leaders had asked members to write to their senators with their personal views regarding the federal amendment opposing same gender marriage, and did not request support or opposition to the amendment."
This may be the official position of the Church, but it has not been the case in my personal experience, either.

The release also contained this: "Church leaders are always saddened when an individual, whether through his or her actions or personal choices, decides to leave the Church. A welcoming hand of fellowship is always extended to those who wish to return at anytime."

For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.

UPDATE!! Come join an interesting discussion on these issues at George's blog Periginatioanimae!


SingleSpeed said...

Perhaps the phrase applies to the church as much as to individual. Perhaps it can be applied to this situation to mean that despite the church's disregard for its own non-involvement policy, the hand of the lord is still stretched out in mercy towards the organization and its members.


George said...

"I am strongly in favor of the Church's official position on political neutrality, and believe that on the gay marriage issue this position is being strongly violated."
and then singlespeed's comment above, "the church's disregard for its own non-involvement policy.." Man, oh man. I have always disagreed with just about everything you say (as I'd imagine you'd disagree with just about everything in my blog), however, it's an interesting read you don't find often in our LDS culture, I'll give you that. I always appreciate your reasoning and thought that goes into your views. God speed.

Steve M. said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who has interpreted those verses as referring to wrath rather than mercy.

Another awesome post, BiV.

brooke said...

my friend - i posted my response here:

thanks for the post.

Stady Canton said...

Some good musings here...

Can it mean both things at the same time? Perhaps we "clothesline" ourselves on His arm and He could still help us up if we wanted it.

I think I've been watching too much NBA lately.

Dan and Wendy said...

I believe that the church's neutrality in politics is more in regards to persons running for office than it does with core principles that run contrary to the techings of the church.

The church didn't condemn Mitt Romney or Harry Reid for views that they espoused that don't seem to be in line with teachings of the church.

The church doesn't take a stand on either of them.

However, the church does teach principles, which if followed, will be peace and joy into the lives of those following them.

The destruction of the family would lead to the downfall of society. It seems very appropriate to me for the church to get involved when the core of the family is at stake in a political issue.

Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary.

woundedhart said...

I've always hated hearing those verses interpreted to mean the arm of mercy, rather than the arm of wrath. Sure, it sounds nice, but when read in context, it seems pretty clear to me that it's talking about the wrath.

I can understand the points brought up above that the marriage amendment isn't necessarily a political issue, and therefore up for grabs with the church, but I also respectfully disagree. It's still asking the people of the church to vote a certain way, and I think there aren't many people out there who are unsure about the church's stance on gay marriage.

I also disagree that amending the definition of marriage will cause the destruction of the family. If a woman is allowed to marry another woman, that will not make a heterosexual couple decide not to marry, any more than not granting those two women the right to marry will make them decide to go straight.

Rich said...

The "official position" of political neutrality however appears to be all talk, while practicing quite the opposite.

Demagogue Sean Hannity blaring from church-owned and operated KSL loudspeakers for 3 hours a day? Sherri Dew (as much of a GA as anyone) praying at the RNC? Dick Cheney at BYU graduation? Cannon the editor of the Des News?

Talk is cheap.

George said...

I thought it only proper that I, the author, be the one to inform you that I wrote a rebuttal to your post on my blog defending the Church.

Bored in Vernal said...

Hey George,
Could you provide a link to your post?

George said...

hmm I posted using it, I dunno why my name isn't a link, sorry:

George said...

P.s. I responded to your comment on my post- I don't know if you automatically get a nod when someone responds to your comment on other peoples blogs, so here I am. (Maybe you just check it sometimes). And I would love to discuss other topics with you- maybe I'll comment on some past posts of yours and would be flattered if you did the same. Just one word of warning- for those who know me, I can be a very sarcastic person and as such have written many tongue in cheek posts opposing liberals and feminists. While there is a certain kernal of truth to my opinions expressed therein, it's easy to see how over the top they can be. Sometimes I'm a fan of shock value but am trying to cut it out. While my close friends find it funny, in recent times I've gained readers who DON'T know me and think I'm a horrible person. haha. So I'll express more of what I really think in the future and would be happy to clarify what I REALLY think (in past posts) verses what I said I think just for shock value.

Fifthgen said...

I have thought a lot about this post over the past week or so. The proper interpretation of the phrase poses very interesting questions, some of which you raise.

Reading the phrase in context, I had come to the conclusion that the wrath/judgment was the only one that made sense, although it is not the interpretation I like. Then, I recently read 2 Nephi 28:32 which kind of riffs on the same idea: "For notwithstanding I shall lengthen out mine arm unto them from day to day, they will deny me; nevertheless, I will be merciful unto them, saith the Lord God, if they will repent and come unto me; for mine arm is lengthened out all the day long, saith the Lord God of Hosts.”

I am not yet convinced that this means that Isaiah quotes are not referring to the judgment of God, but I do think that 2 Ne. v. 32 infuses some mercy into the equation, for anyone who is willing to repent and come unto the Lord.

Fifthgen said...

And here is one more thought: Having had a difficult time reconciling the "justice" and "mercy" interpretations of "but his hand is strecthed out still" myself, I like the overt infusion of atoenment and grace into the 2Ne28 verse. I couldn't reconcile the two concepts, but Christ can.

I know that none of this directy addresses the Danzigs, homosexualtiy or political neutrality, but maybe it does indirectly . . .