The Lottery

Years ago, my older sister came home from school with a terrifying short story to share: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. I was only around ten years old at the time but I read the whole thing, and the image of the black spot remains ingrained on my mind these nearly 20 years later. I almost cried when I finished it. If you have not read it before, please do. I can only say that it is indeed terrifying.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that membership in the Mormon church is a lottery, and one with extremely low odds. I say it is a lottery because it is largely based on chance rather than merit. The probability of living in a time and place where the church even exists and is accessible is very low. If you were born into a Mormon family, you’ve got a pretty good chance of being Mormon for life. But if not, the chances you will join the church as an adult are very low. This is the “lottery of joining.”

Fortunately, we have a system of belief that makes room for this lottery. Ever since Joseph’s vision of his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom (D&C 137), we have believed that “all who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God.” There is some uncertainty about what constitutes a legitimate opportunity to receive the gospel and at what point a person loses their second chance in the afterlife. But in general, we’ve accepted that lots of people who never join the church will be with us in the celestial kingdom.

What we do not have at this point is an established belief that makes room for the other lottery: the “lottery of staying.” I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that staying in the church is also subject to a lottery. It is not the same as the lottery of joining. To begin with, the odds of staying in the church once you have joined is much higher than the odds of ever joining. I don’t have the numbers but, obviously, right?

The more important difference between the two, for the purposes of this discussion, is the balance of chance vs. merit in determining the outcome. I think most Mormons would agree that the probability of staying in the church is much more based on merit than on chance, whereas the probability of joining is reversed (more chance than merit).

As I use it here, the word “merit” is meant to refer to the possession and demonstration of godly qualities, or the qualities that lead to salvation and exaltation. We tend to have a sense the these qualities are intentional and therefore subject to individual agency.[1] Two scriptures we might use to enumerate those qualities are the passage on the fruit of the spirit in Galatians and the description of the divine nature in 2 Peter:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23 (KJV, emphasis added)

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:3-8 (KJV, emphasis added)

I use the word “chance” with some license to refer to everything else. That is, I am thinking of qualities that are qualitatively neutral (neither godly nor ungodly), or those that are outside an individual’s control and not subject to their agency.

There are two ways in which I believe reality goes directly against the Mormon sensibility in the lottery of staying. First, I think here are many cases where a person is more likely to leave the church because of the possession, rather than a lack, of godly qualities. Second, I think there are many cases where a person is more likely to leave the church because of the possession of qualitatively neutral qualities or qualities outside their control.

In the last few years, these phenomena have been particularly apparent to me. I have seen close friends and other acquaintances leave the church. For me, it often begs the question: What made the difference? What made this person leave when others stay? There are no good answers to such questions. I can only say that from my perspective, the difference frequently seems to be something admirable (e.g., thoughtfulness, empathy, sincerity), something outside their control (e.g., trauma), and/or something qualitatively neutral (e.g., sexual orientation).

A truth that we must face is that sexual orientation is a lottery. Intrinsically, there is no winning or losing–it just is. In current societal conditions, however, you either win by being born hetero or you lose by being born anything else. A lot of gay people leave the church. What I think some people don’t understand is that in many, many cases, these people would never have even considered leaving the church if they had been born straight. They were, in every sense, “all in”. In fact, I guarantee there are many gay people who have left the church but, in an parallel universe where only their sexual orientation is different, they are general authorities. That’s the lottery.

I feel certain that if everyone in the church were born gay, assuming the church didn’t change significantly to accommodate them, most of them [you] would leave. I believe that absolutely. Until you grasp that fact, you can’t really get it. But of course the church would change in that case. Of course it would.

This is one reason I think so many people are having a hard time with this issue. We understand that there are rules and that rules are important. We understand that obedience leads to blessings and we can’t make exceptions just because people don’t want to obey. We get all that. But notice that there are no masses of Mormons demanding the freedom to drink alcohol just because they like it. This is different.

We want our membership in the church to be something we can be proud of, to mean something. We want to believe this is a church for everyone: “If there is only one true church, surely it must have room for everyone, right?” We want to believe that the same qualities that lead to salvation lead also to the church, but the divergence between the two is only becoming more apparent. We can’t help but see that this is all looking more and more like a lottery, and there are too many people drawing the black spot.


[1] I have not dealt here with the question of whether godly qualities themselves are in fact intentional or to what extent they are, in fact, also subject to a lottery. That is beyond the scope of this discussion but also worth considering.


4 thoughts on “The Lottery

  1. Jon, I really loved this. I’m hesitating to read “The Lottery,” because I hate feeling terrified. 😉

    I think you’ve hit on a terrifically important point here that deserves more dialogue.

    “We understand that obedience leads to blessings and we can’t make exceptions just because people don’t want to obey. We get all that. But notice that there are no masses of Mormons demanding the freedom to drink alcohol just because they like it. This is different.”

    The mainstream Mormon believes this is, in fact, actually what is happening. There is a big group of people who are demanding that they should be allowed to break the Law of Chastity because they want to. There is no difference in mainstream Mormon mind between demanding the freedom to drink alcohol and being asked to consider that there is something “different” about homosexuality.

    Even with the generous position the church has finally come to (in comparison to where it’s been), that homosexuality is not a choice, the fundamental belief is that a person with same-sex attraction is being tempted and tested, and the right path is to endure with faith, and that in the hereafter, and through the resurrection all will be restored to it’s rightful condition, which is heterosexuality. So, really, there is no difference between being gay and being born addicted to alcohol.

    This is all true, and doctrinally sound from a mainstream perspective. This is why it is virtually impossible for someone with that perspective to take in your message. That perspective requires the interpretation that those who leave the church have one thing in common, a lack of faith and testimony. If you’re in the “right way” you won’t leave the church. If you do, you obviously aren’t.

    “We want to believe this is a church for everyone: ‘If there is only one true church, surely it must have room for everyone, right?’”

    The perspective I’m referring to continues with, “Of course the church has room for everyone–everyone who is willing to set down the natural man, make genuine effort to resist temptation, and have faith in the words of the prophets. If you want to “keep your sin” after you enter the waters of baptism, then no, there is no room in the church for that.”

    I bring this up because I think it’s valuable to drill down deep, deep, deep to exactly what the impasses are between us. I want to understand, in a deep way, what the walls and roadblock are for the ‘other’ in the journey of reaching each other. Otherwise, I can only interpret their lack of progress down the road as blatant bigotry, ignorance, intolerance, and meanness versus a person genuinely facing hurdles that seem impenetrable, and the feelings and internal complexities that come with that experience.

    Okay, I think I’m going to be brave and read, “The Lottery.”

  2. GWK, beyond insightful as usual. This is definitely a deep roadblock that is worth spending time to consider. It’s something I try to think of from alternative perspectives and that is sometimes very hard to do!

  3. What if it were less of a lottery and more of a calling? More and more I find it much easier to imagine (a) a god who is using a variety of imperfect human institutions to guide people to where they can be the happiest and contribute the most as opposed to (b) a god who’s got all of his/her eggs in one basket (i.e. the LDS church). So what if some people are called to the church because it’s where they can serve and contribute and find the most happiness, and some people are called away because they can better serve their purpose elsewhere? I guess that flies in the face of exclusive truth claims, but to me it seems more consistent with a merciful god and with your observation that godly qualities in some cases cause people to leave the church.

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