By Guest Blogger Denia-Marie Ollerton
I grew up in a religious LDS household. My parents were and are hardworking, God-fearing, sacrificing people. But it wasn’t easy. We had our difficulties and challenges, and at the time I felt we had more problems than my seemingly-perfect Mormon neighbors.
Church was just a thing we did every week. My friends were there, but I didn’t feel much else pulling me besides them. I remember thinking that religion as taught in my church was for perfect people only. They’d talk about the virtues of being good, and of happy families. I didn’t feel that fit my experience. I thought that God was cold, mean, and punitive.
In my teens, I got into some trouble with school, friends, and had some close calls with the law. I wasn’t happy, but I was trying desperately hard to become so. I still felt that religion was too strict and family relationships too sterile. Around eighteen years old my parents loosened their grip, and I began to experience the reality of being all on my own. I had long since lost any close friends I had in high school. My interactions with my family were minimal, and my life consisted mostly of going to school, trying to stay out of everyone’s way, and going home to sit in my room. Yes, it was very lonely. I knew that the life I had lived and the choices I had made up to that point were not making me happy.
I noticed my siblings were good enough people, and they seemed happy. They were active churchgoers, and always talked about how great the church was. I decided that I’d try religion one time, and one time only. If it was true, if it did work to live by certain rules, then great. If not, I’d know and I could move on with life. At this time, a lot of teachings from my childhood started to come into mind. One principle that came to mind was repentance. Repentance as I understood it was supposed to be this thing where you told God (or your bishop) about all the bad things you’d done, and somehow that was supposed to make you feel better. Oh yeah, and you weren’t supposed to do it again.
I also remembered the teachings about Jesus. I didn’t have much of an opinion on him. I had heard about the crucifixion and the atonement, but those were just words to me. And yet, he did seem like the only forgiving person in the entire story of religion. I remember thinking, “Alright, if he really is merciful and kind, I’ll test it out. I’ll see if he can handle me and all I’ve done.”
I went to my bishop after thinking this over for some time. I expected some harsh words and punishment, but I was willing to go through the process to get to the other side whatever that was. I went in and just let everything out to him. I was surprised but grateful at how calmly and kindly he handled the situation. He just listened for a while, and then asked if we could meet again after church. I agreed. I went to sacrament meeting, and the speakers all spoke about repentance and the atonement. I cried. I felt like a spotlight had been shone on me, and God was finally noticing me. I went back and talked more with my bishop. All of his words were encouraging, hopeful, and healing.
I walked home that day and went to ponder all that had gone on. It was as if a heavy load had been lifted off my shoulders, and I didn’t even know I was carrying it until it was gone. I felt incredibly happy. I think it was joy. I can honestly say I hadn’t felt joyful or happy up until that point in my life. I had seen people cry “tears of joy” before, but I didn’t want to cry, I just wanted to smile. I went through the rest of that week with a huge grin on my face. I knew then that God lived, and that there was so much more to life than I had known. Who knew that because Jesus Christ died thousands of years ago, and went through the atonement, that I could find healing and happiness in life? I didn’t before, but I knew it then. And there was no way I was going back to the life I had lived before.
I became fascinated with religion. I realized that I had been surrounded all along by a wonderful road map to a successful and happy life! I felt that I was doing years of make up work, but also felt that I was given an increased ability to soak it all in. Everything was positive that I found out. My previous notion of a punitive God was erased in large, sweeping motions. I found out he really did care about me. He did answer my prayers, he listened to me, he talked to me, and he helped me connect with others in ways I never knew were possible.
By relying on the teachings of the gospel, I’ve overcome fear, judgment (mostly of myself), and discouragement and have instead found opportunity, growth, excitement, and love. I thought my past would weigh me down, but it has buoyed me up. It has taught me that if God can right the wrong in life, he can make the good even better. I can come to the Lord, imperfect and all, and ask him to change me. And he does!
I love living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not because it’s what I’m used to, or what I’ve known all my life, but because it makes me truly happy. And although I haven’t had a perfect life, I don’t hold myself to that perfect standard anymore, and I know God doesn’t either. He and I both know that I am powerful, and I have so much potential. And I’ll continue to draw on that potential, with his support, for the rest of my life.