“God Setteth the Solitary in Families,” Ensign, Dec. 1998, 22
Since joining the Church 17 years ago, I have searched scriptures for what they might say to someone like me who joined the Church alone without a family. The Lord’s response to my questions has been a meteor shower of guidance, insight, and mercy.
I see a parallel in the circumstances of my life and the way the ancient faithful awaited the promised Atonement before the meridian of time. They received the gospel covenant and understood that, while the Savior might not come in their day, the plan of salvation was in effect from the foundation of the world, and the timeline in which they lived could not deprive them of anything of eternal significance.1 They relied on the principles of the Atonement and the saving grace that would have retroactive efficacy upon all who lived prior to its physical performance.2
Many of us who are converts and who have no family in the Church similarly look to a future time when sealings and ordinances will be in place and we will be able to claim our eternal family relationships. Those sealings may be far off, but in the meantime we are entitled to rely upon another kind of sealing and another kind of eternal family. I take comfort in Psalm 68:6 [Ps. 68:6]: “God setteth the solitary in families.”
By joining the Church, we enter “into the bond of the covenant” (Ezek. 20:37) by which the law of the gospel is sealed among us (see Isa. 8:16). And in time “after [we] heard the word of truth … [we] were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13), which is “the promise … of eternal life” (see D&C 88:3–4). And we “who received the testimony of Jesus … and were baptized … are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise … [and] are they who are the church of the Firstborn” (see D&C 76:51–54). As such we are the spiritually begotten “sons and daughters in [the Lord’s] kingdom” (D&C 25:1; see also 2 Cor. 1:22).
Through baptism and keeping the commandments we are sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise into the covenant, the kingdom, the Church, and the eternal family of God.3 By joining the Church, we are sealed into nothing less than a spiritual family. To those of us who either have no families or join the Church alone, fellow members can be like mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.
I was barely 15 when I joined the Church. Because I joined alone, the ideal of Zion and being of one heart had particular urgency. I placed all my hopes upon these simple words: “As ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
“Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. …
“[Be] baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him” (Mosiah 18:8–10). I understood that difficult struggles lay ahead for one so young making a life-encompassing commitment, but I believed lack of a family support system would be compensated for within a spiritual family.
Some of the trials in my life have included being born in a communist country,4 enduring poverty, having parents who divorced, having a brother in prison, living away from my family since I was 17, and experiencing a general assortment of ordinary problems. My decision to join the Church so young was rewarded with divine guidance that allowed me to become, though practically impossible in my circumstances, a lawyer. Yet of all the difficult challenges I have experienced, the pain of being without a family in the Church is unique, overwhelming, and sometimes unbearable. I do not mean that being single is unbearable. It is yearning for a more intimate sense of brotherhood and sisterhood within a family-focused community that is so hard.
Victor L. Brown, a social worker, writes in Human Intimacy that “the hunger for intimacy is, next to survival needs, our deepest human longing.”5 I believe the need for spiritual intimacy is even greater than the need for emotional intimacy. It is difficult to explain to someone who has not experienced it how sad it can be to experience all the gospel ordinances alone while yearning to share things many members of the Church take for granted. For me, not having a family in the Church has meant rarely knowing what it might be like to have someone with whom I can pray, read the scriptures, listen to conference, share sacrament meeting, or attend the temple.
As an example, I remember the day I received my endowment with a mixture of joy and pain. I went to the temple alone and then came home alone. I remember sleeping that night feeling completely cleansed and whole, yet painfully aware that there was not one solitary person I could talk with about the experience. Less than an hour after leaving the temple, I felt as if I were back in the fallen world.
I am finally able to express why that experience hurt so much—because we all need spiritual intimacy in order to integrate our private spiritual life into the larger context of a spiritual community and the Church. The Lord, who made all our relationships possible, recognizes this need for spiritual intimacy and requires that we be “equal in the bonds of heavenly things, yea, and earthly things also, for the obtaining of heavenly things” (D&C 78:5). No one in our Father’s kingdom should have reason to feel unsealed to him or that their spiritual life goes unshared.
Through “the everlasting covenant” we are bound by principles intended to equalize one another’s spiritual condition on earth as much as possible. In the words of President Brigham Young, “We need to become more like a single family, and be one, that we may be the Lord’s; and not every one have his own individual interests.”6 If it were not so, those of us without families in the Church would be abandoned to spiritual poverty.
Heavenly Father created the human family and sent the Savior to teach us how to love and nurture each other as part of that family (see Matt. 22:36–40). The principles the Savior taught in parables using families as an example apply equally well to our Heavenly Father’s eternal family: “For what man among you having twelve sons … saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just?
“Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable. … I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:26–27).
His teachings expressly prohibit a value system that excludes or neglects, even when that value system belongs to your immediate family: “When thou makest a dinner … call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen. … But when thou makest a feast, call the poor” (Luke 14:12–13; see also Matt. 12:47–50; D&C 104; D&C 105:5; Moses 7:18–19). With piercing words, the Lord expresses His concern for those outside the family: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself” (Lev. 19:34). Further, “I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against … those that … turn aside the stranger” (3 Ne. 24:5).
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that perhaps one of the reasons we love each other so much in the Church is because “our friendships are not friendships of initiation at all but are, instead, friendships of resumption!”7 Thus, a wonderful aspect of receiving the covenant and the Holy Ghost is that it brings eternal friendships, even with earthly strangers, to our remembrance (see John 14:26).
Members of a spiritual family are entitled to inklings of eternal recognition. Our brothers and sisters, whether known to us as friends or strangers, may be the link that prompts us to recognize our own destinies and life paths. Among the gifts my friends have given me is a priesthood blessing so specific and inspired that it continues to guide me 14 years later. Another friend awakened my recognition that I was to go to law school. I count my friendships among the greatest spiritual blessings the Lord has provided because they have taught me pure love and stretched my capacity to remember God’s family—the only family I absolutely cannot live without.
When we view our relationships in the Church as being part of a spiritual family, it can be sanctifying to our own souls. As an example, one of my dearest friends is Gloria, a woman I worked with in the temple while I was an undergraduate student. Our life circumstances are vastly different; she is a widow and 40 years older than I am. But we are connected by empathy. My contribution to our friendship through the years has been to drive her places and tell her stories that make her laugh. She makes many contributions to our friendship. She says our friendship helps ease her loneliness. For me it opens a window into Zion, because we cannot see Zion without being equal in the bonds of earthly and heavenly things and unless we are brothers or sisters to one another in mortal time (see Moses 7:18).
Heavenly Father is ever organizing the events of our lives to reconnect us to His spiritual family. I have no greater evidence of this than when Joann, who became my closest friend in the Church, was called as my visiting teacher years ago at BYU. I believe the Lord knew how attuned our spirits would be and that our association would grow into an empowering friendship nourished by constant sharing of spiritual truth. Our friendship is powerful because it has our Heavenly Father as its foundation. He is the basis of all our conversations, the things we give each other to read, and the faith and mercy we exercise on each other’s behalf. Our friendship reminds me of my spiritual family, which should be the purpose of every relationship, particularly in the Church.
It touches me deeply that the Prophet Joseph Smith explained the purpose of the temple ordinances, and the washing of feet in particular, as “calculated to unite our hearts that we may be one in feeling and sentiment, and that our faith may be strong, so that Satan cannot overthrow us, nor have any power over us here.”8 Of course, this unity is only possible when we are willing to cultivate interpersonal relationships and understand that Zion has no ward or family boundaries. BYU professor Truman G. Madsen expresses the principle beautifully: “It is an open family into which we are grafted.”9 An open family has no social classes, no degrees of separation, no limited relationships.
I do not know the workings of the eternities, but this much I do know: We are not left fatherless, and every soul-stretching loss brings compensatory blessings. Not having a family in the Church has changed me in ways that are eternally significant. It has helped me create a spiritual foundation and depth of feeling for the kingdom of God that I would not have acquired any other way. And equally important, it has given me an acute awareness of my accountability before the Father. I understand, for example, that the question to be asked when deciding whether to help someone is not “Is this person my responsibility?” but “How would I respond if this were my own brother or sister or child?” I have learned that family is inextricably connected to the larger reality of God’s family, and I hope the two will never be separate in my soul again.
My circumstances are temporary, but I have promised my Heavenly Father that my memory will be eternal: I will not forget my brothers and sisters. Nothing would disappoint me more than to reach a stage in life when I neglect to actively express gratitude for my blessings by not sharing those blessings with others. I must not comfortably entertain the belief that it is harder for me to live the principles of love and service than it is for another to be forgotten or excluded. I am grateful for this understanding because it reminds me of my eternal nature and eternal family.
Heavenly Father has provided compensation in other ways as well. As a 14-year-old girl, I could give people no rational reason why I was going to become a member of the Church. Before I met the missionaries, I had never even met a Latter-day Saint. But still I knew, and I acted on that knowledge.
And when I had no other teacher, the Spirit of the Lord taught me directly. During college when I needed to understand the meaning of home, I unexpectedly got a job cleaning the Salt Lake Temple at night. It became my home. Ten years after I joined the Church, in an event that seemed no less powerful to me than if Heavenly Father had reversed the waves of the sea, I was accepted into law school despite having dropped out of high school in my teens. When I lacked the guidance of a father, a priesthood leader became my friend.
It is not easy to speak what Emerson called “the severest truth,” but in my clearest moments, I am grateful for the yearning and pain that cause me to turn to the Lord.10 I have an unshaken testimony that God responds, and so do good people.