Tom Christofferson’s journey through life has been anything but ordinary. On the surface, it began as a typical Mormon story. He grew up in a close gospel-centered LDS family and went on to serve a faithful mission. But during these years, he was also trying to deal with an inconvenient truth: He was gay.
Although his life and family had been firmly rooted in the church (his older brother Todd was eventually called as an LDS apostle), Tom came to a point at which he could no longer envision a place for himself in the church, and he left. He went on to become an accomplished businessman on the east coast and created a good life with his partner of nearly twenty years.
Later in life, however, Tom felt strongly called to return to his LDS faith and community. His new book “That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family” (Deseret Book) includes his story of making a spiritual home in a faith that often may not feel like home to its gay members.
Tom Christofferson sat down with Terryl Givens in the studios of Faith Matters Foundation for this extraordinary, personal conversation.
Terryl Givens: Hello and welcome to another installment of Conversations with Terryl
Givens, a podcast/videocast series sponsored by the Faith Matters
Foundation, and dedicated to exploring the experience of lived
Mormonism as a catalyst to the abundant life and to the public good.
Our guest with us today is Tom Christofferson, an investment banker, a
public speaker, and most recently, a writer. We’ll talk a little bit about your
book later on, but first we want to welcome you to the show. Thank you,
Tom Christofferson: Thanks for the invitation.
Terryl Givens: I’d like to start by giving the audience a little bit of a sense of your
background. I often do this by asking what you think you’ll be
remembered for up to this point in your life. Give us a brief synopsis of
what your obituary is going to look like.
Tom Christofferson: What I hope it’s not going to be is “Apostle’s Gay Brother,” which seems
to be the shorthand for a lot of it right at the moment.
Terryl Givens: Yeah.
Tom Christofferson: I’ve been very fortunate in a career that’s been global in nature. I’ve had a
chance to do really interesting things in the professional sphere and have
had, in kind of a “chapter two” sense, a wonderful opportunity to discover
the Church again and to really, I hope, play a role in opening wide the doors of chapels. Right? To try and find ways to bring other people also to a place where they would feel comfortable returning to a chapel who might have gone away for a time.
Terryl Givens: For whatever reason.
Tom Christofferson: Yes.
Terryl Givens: Let’s start by talking a little bit about your spiritual formation, your
spiritual journey: where it began and the detours you’ve taken.
Tom Christofferson: Sure.
Terryl Givens: I like to cite the poem of William Wordsworth in which he’s writing about
his own life. He says, “There are in our existence spots of time,” and he goes on about how these are shaping influences that often occur as a moment, an epiphany, an experience, or an encounter. Could you just pick a couple of instances from your life, going back as far
as you can, that gave shape and direction to your life?
Tom Christofferson: Sure. You know, I think one is as a very early teen, maybe even preteen. Junior high was a horrible experience. I hated it!
Terryl Givens: I don’t think anyone liked junior high! Maybe the quarterback of the junior high football team.
Tom Christofferson: Exactly. For me, my refuge in that period of time was church — to have a social group that accepted me and welcomed me.
Terryl Givens: So you grew up in a strong LDS family.
Tom Christofferson: I did. In my early years, we were in New Jersey; then in the junior high
years, the suburbs outside Chicago. Then when I started high school, we moved to central Utah. But because church was such a refuge, it also became a place where, I think, I took the lessons, the reading, and the praying pretty seriously. Terryl Givens: Now why is that? Were you just naturally disposed in that direction? Tom Christofferson: You know what? Sometimes I have wondered if I’m of a believing temperament — but I genuinely think, though, that it’s always a choice. You know, I was certainly in an environment where belief was the common currency, but there’s still a choice to be made. I think I made it early, but then have had a chance to make it again and again over the course of my life.
Terryl Givens: Now, I want to press you on this point —
Tom Christofferson: Sure.
Terryl Givens: — because I’m curious about what aspects of the Church would attract or
appeal to a young, junior high school-aged mind? Do you think it was
something particular to the restoration doctrine and ideas?
Tom Christofferson: It was. It was very much Joseph Smith and the history of restoration, I
would say; coming to understand the personalities and the process.
Our grandparents had a great affinity for Joseph Smith and they were
married on his birth date.
Terryl Givens: Deliberately?
Tom Christofferson: Yes. So Christmas at their home was two days before on December 23rd,
and it was a celebration of the prophet’s birthday; of their anniversary; and
an early Christmas. So that was part of the fabric, I think, of our lives;
such a profound love and respect for Joseph.
I also remember a conversation with my dad when I was in high school. In
seminary we were covering the Book of Mormon, and I had gone home to
him one time and said, “Do you think this is literally a journal? Do you
think that somebody came and engraved in practically real time all the
things that were occurring — so in that sense it’s a literal record? Or do
you think it’s more kind of morality tales?” That’s not the way to say it,
but you know what I mean.
Terryl Givens: Yes. Inspired fiction.
Tom Christofferson: But you know, it’s meant for our time, so are these really parables that the
Lord has provided in our time?
Our dad was a great gospel scholar and a scientist and if you asked him a
question, he gave you an answer. This time I remember him just kind of
looking at me and he said, “Well, what’s your feeling about the Book of
I said, “Well, I feel like I’ve had the witness that Moroni talks about in the
10th chapter, so I believe that it is a second witness of Jesus Christ.”
He said, “Okay, well then, if the answer were either way — if it were
literal recordings of day-to- day events or if these were parables — would
either answer change the way that you feel you’ve received an answer to
your prayers about it?”
Then I had to sit back and think. “Well, I guess not.”
He said, “Okay.”
Terryl Givens: See, the genius of that response by your father is to question the question.
Tom Christofferson: Yeah.
Terryl Givens: To say, “Now how does this matter? What is the presupposed and what are
the implications?” It seems like we don’t get enough of that these days.
Tom Christofferson: I think so too. What I loved about it was that it came at a time that was
still early in my search and study of the gospel and understanding of the
scripture and everything else, and it came as permission, right? To be able
to incorporate things in my experience in my life and the ways that I
would understand it.
Terryl Givens: So your first experience of a faith challenge question is of enlarged
borders rather than constraint.
Tom Christofferson: Right. Exactly right.
Terryl Givens: That’s marvelous.
Tom Christofferson: I’ve often thought and wished that in later years I would have gone back
and asked the question again to see what he really thought, but we never
did, so I’ll have to wait until I see him again.
Terryl Givens: So that’s one of those moments that kind of shaped your conception of
what it means to be a believer?
Tom Christofferson: Right.
Terryl Givens: Can you think of others a little further down the road?
Tom Christofferson: Down the road — really the most critical — was in my decision to come
back to church.
Terryl Givens: Talk a little bit first about why you drifted away.
Tom Christofferson: Sure. Drifted isn’t really the word. At the time of going on a mission, I had
not told anybody that I was gay. I knew I was, but I hadn’t really talked to
anybody about it — and I hadn’t done anything about it, so there wasn’t
much to say — but it was this little secret harbored in my heart and my
hope was always that I could pray it away, right? That somehow praying
hard enough, fasting hard enough, and then thinking about a mission — if
I would work hard enough and dedicate my life — that somehow the Lord
would then be convinced that I was worthy of a miracle or something.
You know, it’s not like anybody ever said this to me; it was just somehow
in my own sense that the great prayer was that I would never have to tell
anybody, right? That this somehow would change; that I would never have
to admit that this was who I was.
I had a really wonderful mission experience; I loved the people that I
worked with — but when I came home, suddenly I realized that I was still
gay and it was a rude awakening. I thought that the Lord had welshed on
His promise; but of course, I was the one who made the deal, not Him.
I came back to BYU and time went on —
Terryl Givens: This is back in the 1970s?
Tom Christofferson: ‘80s. Mid 80s. The last semester that I was at BYU, I did an internship at
the State Senate in Utah and ended up working on a congressional
campaign for a year, and then went to California — so I’m now that
scourge of an unmarried man, you know?
I’d had an experience; one of the guys on the campaign was gay, so it was
my first time to really know somebody who was gay. Somehow or another
it all translated to me — he had all sorts of challenges — as “wickedness
never was happiness.” This would not be a way to be happy. I thought,
“Okay, well if I get married in the temple, you know, then of course the
Lord will make it all work because I’m trying to do all the right things.”
The sad part of that is that I did get married in the temple and it didn’t
work; the marriage was annulled after a relatively short period and a really
wonderful person who didn’t know what she was getting into — and the
only clue was that I told her I had “tendencies” — had a really horrible
experience in her life.
It came to a point where for me, it was, “I’ve tried to be the best Mormon
boy I could be and I’m not happy — and I’ve made somebody else pretty
unhappy, too. I need to do something differently.” So to me it was, I need
to find out if I can be gay and happy. Couldn’t figure out how to be gay
and Mormon, but I just said, “Let me see if I can be gay and happy.”
So I went to the bishop and I said, “I’d like to be excommunicated. We’re
annulling the marriage — I’m gay and I need to figure out what that
means.” In that era, saying you were gay was enough, so that was the
It was fine, I guess because it was my impetus to have it happen. To me it
really felt like integrity — like if I was going to do this, I needed to not be
portraying myself in anybody’s mind as Mormon; because in my mind, I
just couldn’t do it — I couldn’t figure out how to be gay and Mormon, so I
needed to not be. I didn’t have hurt feelings; I didn’t feel bitter; I didn’t feel like I’d been
treated badly. I just felt like I needed to find a different path for myself.
There was a whole journey in that process of discovery of who I was, but
it was never, for me, a lack of testimony. I didn’t suddenly cease to believe
in Christ; I didn’t suddenly cease to believe in the Book of Mormon, but I
just couldn’t figure out how I could follow the path I’d been on. My
determination was that I wanted to be a morally good person as a gay
person and then figure out what that meant — to hold on to as much as I
could and move forward.
Terryl Givens: So that phase of your life lasted how long?
Tom Christofferson: About 25 years, during which period I met the person who would become
my partner of 19 years, and we had a pretty wonderful life together.
Terryl Givens: Yeah. So here’s the question: you’re going to tell us the story of what
prompted you to come back, but I’m reminded as I’m listening to you of
Saint Augustine, who early in his career was a vigorous defender of the
idea of premortal existence. One of his main arguments — he has several
in its favor — was of the woman who lost the coin and is searching for the
coin. He said, “She wouldn’t be searching for it if she hadn’t once
possessed it.” He said, “Similarly, we as eternal beings wouldn’t be in
search of God if we hadn’t once known Him. We wouldn’t be pursuing
happiness if we hadn’t left a happy condition and a happy estate.”
So is that relevant?
Tom Christofferson: Can I amend that slightly? I don’t feel like I didn’t have the Spirit in other
parts of my life. What I would say is that I feel it more powerfully, more
consistently now than I did before.
Terryl Givens: Thank you for clarifying that.
Tom Christofferson: I felt like I was a spiritual person who was trying to follow those
promptings, but I also felt that I wanted a more rigorous curriculum of
study or something, and really, that connection of service in the Church —
of really being tied to other people as we all together try to discover what
discipleship means and work in that regard. So I had gone to other
churches — and I don’t mean that in any disparaging way whatsoever —
it was just that for me, the restoration was what made sense intellectually;
that that all kind of fit.
Terryl Givens: I’m hearing two different kinds of motivation: one is there’s a particular
kind of community that you felt you weren’t a part of and you wanted to
be a part of that again.
Tom Christofferson: Yes.
Terryl Givens: But there’s also a particular narrative of theology that made sense to you.
Tom Christofferson: Yes. Despite a very happy life — or maybe because of a very happy life —
and wanting to have that element of deeper meaning again and really focus
on that, I started to go back to church again. I, in the early days, would just
sneak in after the meeting had begun, then I finally talked to a bishop and
discovered that I could be myself — that I could be open and honest and
still be welcome to worship with the Saints.
So that really began that next process. We started this as one of the most
important formative experiences of my spiritual life, and I would say the
most important one really was in that process then of coming back to
church — because the more connected I became, the more I wanted to
really engage deeply; and the more I was studying and praying, the more I
wanted to be able to do more. To me, “do more” meant to actually be able
to be a member of the Church. It was great; as I always say, I was the most
active nonmember of the New Canaan ward, but I had this prayer that I
would somehow be able to be a member again.
I didn’t see how that could occur because of the commitments that I’d
made to my partner, so my prayer had been that — for years; this was a
seven or eight year period of living in New Canaan, but five years before
really getting serious about possibly joining the Church again —
somehow, he would feel what I felt and would have a desire to explore
this; that we could do this together and could make decisions together
about what that would mean for us and where we wanted to go.
That ended up not being the case, but at a certain point it became, for me,
a question of “Can I commit to this now rather than in a future life or some
other circumstance?” To answer that question, I really felt like I had to
know more than just believing it, but to have another level of knowledge
that Christ lived and that He is indeed the Christ; that His resurrection has
power, that His atoning sacrifice has power, and that those were real, not
just really wonderful ideas.
That is the most critical element of my spiritual life.
Terryl Givens: So you consider yourself fortunate in that you found a bishop and a
community who were inspired enough to be welcoming and embracing.
Tom Christofferson: Yes.
Terryl Givens: That’s not always one’s experience from what I hear.
Tom Christofferson: It’s not. I think there are things we as individuals in that circumstance can
do to make it more likely. Our approach should be — and in my mind this
isn’t just LGBTQ members of the Church or nonmembers of the Church;
it’s anybody who feels like they don’t really fit, that they’re not the
“Mormon mold” — based on our desire for discipleship. Our purpose in
being there is to experience, learn, and act as disciples. Then we have
common cause with the other people who are there; we’ve got a
framework of common ground that we can participate in together.
I think if our purpose is to go help everybody else learn why they’re
wrong or what else they need to know or how they can broaden their own
understanding, then we don’t have a common purpose. So that’s a piece,
but we do have to be men, right? The arms have to be open at least enough
for a handshake or something. I hope that’s becoming a more common
experience. I think it is.
Terryl Givens: Let me ask you a question. I was at a single adult conference not too long
ago and there was a beautiful, beautiful testimony meeting and some
members of this particular ward were suffering any number of different
kinds of afflictions; mental, emotional, and social.
One young man who was clearly troubled in some particular kinds of ways
I didn’t fully understand stood up to bear his testimony and he began by
looking out over the audience and saying, “The first thing you need to
know about me is that I’m weird.” He didn’t mean that in some kind of
ironic way, he was just saying, “I’m weird and you’ll have to accept me as
weird and, in fact, I’ve handed out some 3 x 5 cards to ask that you might
write something to me to communicate something to me.” He said a few
other words and then he sat down.
Of course, I was struck both by the unusual nature of his expression and
also by the kind of plea for some kind of contact and interaction that he
clearly didn’t feel he was experiencing. As the meeting ended and the
crowd dispersed, I noticed that he was hanging back in the very far part of
the room, watching — still too timid to engage — so I walked back to him
and I put my hand on his shoulder. I said, “You know, you need to know
something: we’re all of us weird.” I said, “We’re just all weird in our own
ways.” He said, “That’s beautiful! Would you write that down for me?” I
wrote it down and I handed him his card and that seemed to be helpful to
I don’t want to minimize the status of gays in the Church or African
Americans, but would you say that there is some truth in the claim that we
are arriving at a point where we are increasingly coming to recognize the
variety, but also the universality, of the crosses that individuals bear? I
don’t believe that God designs sickness; I don’t think He sends cancer or
reorients us one way or the other sexually — but I do believe that He
makes good of all that happens.
Do you see this as an opening — this phase that we’re in right now where
we are learning to be more unconditional and unqualified in our capacity
to love, embrace, and accept?
Tom Christofferson: I really do. In one specific example, I feel like the policy about same-sex
marriage equals apostasy and that the children of those unions have
delayed opportunity for ordinances — you know, that’s been such a
difficult thing for members of the Church who aren’t personally impacted.
To me, there’s a — I hope — critical mass, really, of members of the
Church who are praying earnestly that the Lord will reveal more.
You only get to that point if your heart is open, right? If you really want
there to be an understanding of every individual’s place, not just in the
chapel, but in the plan of salvation. I think that opening can change the
Church. The Lord will tell us whatever He wants to tell us whenever He
wants to tell us, but our own hearts can be changed.
Terryl Givens: And do you feel patient?
Tom Christofferson: Most days.
Terryl Givens: Do you agonize in your own mind? Do you wrestle with the theological
underpinnings that have produced this kind of a situation in the Church —
these limitations on the way that we define the family?
Tom Christofferson: I guess I’ve come up with my own views about the primacy of the family
of God, of the sealing chain that connects me to everyone before and
everyone after. In that sense, for me, I feel like I look forward to
relationships that will be celestial without understanding how really to
categorize the word; to see them in perfect clarity.
But my experience of the Lord’s grace, that His generosity so far outstrips
any merit, allows me to feel completely at ease knowing that whatever lies
ahead will be better than I can imagine.
Terryl Givens: Right. There are theological possibilities that I see — and maybe you
don’t want to go down this avenue — but I’m struck by the fact that the
Catholic Church, who has a position in many ways parallel to the LDS
position — predicates their stance on natural law theology, which is based
in biology, and in sexual differentiation of the male and female bodies.
I think we often assume that we’re kind of in a similar position on the
field, yet it strikes me that there’s great significance in the fact that the
proclamation on the family doesn’t use the words “sex is eternal” or
“sexual orientation is eternal,” but that gender is eternal. True enough, in
the Secular Academy and in the World Health Organization, such
institutions define gender as entirely a social construct, but we have
presumably an inspired document that says, “Well, no — actually there is
an aspect to gender which is eternal,” and that that may be differentiated
form sexual attraction, which is largely a function of biology, chemistry,
So it does seem to me that there are possibilities there that open ways of
thinking about sexuality and same-sex attraction that haven’t really been
plumbed theologically — and I’m not going to do them, but it does seem
to me that there are ways of thinking this through that we haven’t yet
Tom Christofferson: I have two reactions to that. The first is that the group of friends — the
group of people I love — who find that statement in “The Family: A
Proclamation to the World” most comforting are my transgender brothers
and sisters who feel like they do have an eternal gender and it somehow
got mismatched in how this world operates.
For many of them, that’s a very comforting thought. My sense has been
that so much of how we picture eternity is a projection of our current
experience, right? So since 94% of the world is straight or whatever, the
most common experience of happiness is mom and dad and kids. That, I
think, is the projection of greatest happiness and it leads people that
absolutely love us as LGBTQ members of the Church to project that
everything will be straightened our for us in the next world.
Honestly, I appreciate the love behind that thought and I’m willing to
suspend judgment and wait to see how it really plays out because I don’t
understand all of the relationships involved in the sealing chain.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Tom Christofferson: I’m the Joseph in proving contraries, right? The opposites; the yin and
yang or however you want to think about it. I’m very happy to think of the
notion of the sealing ordinance as the highest priesthood power that
requires man and woman, at least as we understand it now, and that’s fine.
But as I said to a friend of mine, “If we’re going to project our current
experiences, earlier in my career, I was a co-head of a business and went
home to my partner,” so I’m happy to think that there could be a shares
priesthood power and I still get to go home to my partner.
I don’t know. I say that a little flippantly, but I think we don’t really know.
Terryl Givens: We’ve become more and more uncomfortable with saying that. I’m a
historian of Mormonism; I should be able to point to what moment in time
this shift occurred, but I can’t locate it exactly. All I can do is contrast the
consternation that we experience today because we have apostles saying,
“Well, we don’t fully understand all of these things,” with the kind of
blithe, faithful acceptance of that statement when it was issued by
President Wilford Woodruff in 1894 when he said, “We’ve been doing
sealing wrong for 51 years. We’ve been doing it dynastically, but today the
Lord said that no, we need to be doing it father to son, son to father, and
there’s a lot more to be revealed that we still don’t have.”
From the records that I read of that period, there were many grateful,
happy members that said, “Yeah, I thought it wasn’t quite right the way we
were doing this sealing dynastically, polygamously.” So now that’s been
straightened out, but we still haven’t seen the finished product of what it’s
going to look like. It seems like we’d all be better off if we could just be a
little more chill and say, “This is a work in process,” right? The restoration
is still unfolding. We don’t understand fully the nature of familial
organization in the world to come, but the most important thing — the
thing that hasn’t changed from Joseph’s original vision to the present — is
that there will be eternal bonds of affection that will be honored,
preserved, and magnified. I think that’s a beautiful way to look at it.
Tom Christofferson: I think that can take us back to our earlier comment about discipleship as
well in the sense that what is at play is agency and intelligence. If the Lord
just handed us the answers to the quiz, what would be the point? Frankly, I
love the notion — and I think about this in terms of both spiritual
promptings and the effort of discipleship — that we all learn differently;
that the Lord, through the Spirit, tutors each one of us in the ways that we
I really believe that. I really do feel like this is such an individual process.
I’m going to take one step back: I was asked to speak at a funeral and it
was the son of beloved, beloved friends who had committed suicide and it
was the hardest thing I could think of — what do you say in that
circumstance? What came to my mind as I was praying about that and
trying to think was the notion that if we orient our lives to living perfectly,
if everything that we’re focused on is that we farrow out every
commandment, suggestion, and counsel, and just hold to those and work
to do everything we do perfectly, I think that leads almost inevitably to
either envy or pride as we look at how everybody else is doing — and in
some sense, that the Lord grades on a curve; that somehow, we’re
competing with each other in some regard in this process.
But if we focus on loving perfectly, then everything else comes easier.
Terryl Givens: Yeah, I noticed that in your book which is coming out, That We May Be
One. You say, and I think it’s beautifully expressed, that “the point should
be to love perfectly, not to live perfectly.”
My favorite theologian is Kenneth Kirk — he’s an Anglican theologian —
and he says, “The fundamental problem of religion is this,” and he says
that the problem erupts the moment you organize religion (and he’s an
Anglican, so he believes in organized religion) —
Tom Christofferson: High church.
Terryl Givens: Yeah. But he says, “The moment that you have rules and codes —
principles — you’re measuring yourself against those,” so your religion
becomes entirely self-centered: how am I doing? What do I need to do
better? He said, “The spirit of worship has to be an outward reaching
impulse,” so it resonated with me when you said that.
Can you say more about that? Do you think that as Mormons, we tend to
be too fixated on living rather than loving?
Tom Christofferson: I do. Again, some of that can be fear. I think of President Uchtdorf’s talk
in the April conference about “perfect love casteth out fear”; are our
motivations fear-derived or are they love-derived? I think that’s really
powerful. The first and second great commandments are love of our
Heavenly Father and the Savior, and of all around us. So everything else
— the law and the prophets — hangs off os those.
I think if we have our point of inflection identified correctly, then
everything else will follow along. But I think we’re sometimes so focused
inwardly, thinking, “Am I doing it right?” and “I know I’m doing it right
because these other people are doing so many worse things; sins I have no
desire to commit or don’t even have the physical ability to commit, they’re
doing, so I must really be doing great.”
I think of that in terms of the rich young man (or the rich young ruler in
the other version of it). Do you remember that? When Mark tells us that
“Jesus looking upon him loved him.”
Terryl Givens: Yeah, and it’s the moment He looked on Him. He looked on Him before
He knew which way the young man was going to go. To my mind, what’s
being taught there is that God loves us independent of whether or not we
pass the test, right?
Tom Christofferson: I think He also loved his dutiful nature, his observance; the fact that he
followed all the commandments since his youth — which would have
included, by the way, giving to the poor. He would already have been
Terryl Givens: Right, right.
Tom Christofferson: So I think that when the Lord says to him, “Sell it all and come follow
me,” it’s important to remember that the Lord can take of the poor in any
number of ways. It wasn’t the money; He wanted the heart.
I think that’s the hardest part, right? It’s when we move from our focus on
the observances or the outward performances, then all we can focus on is
our heart and our willingness to let our will be subsumed in His. That’s all
that’s going to matter: who we’ve become by virtue of His presence in our
Terryl Givens: Let me ask you something about the nature of the heart and discipleship.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately — I’ve been ruminating — on the story of
Job. I’ve always been fascinated by that account because there’s
something so psychologically realistic about that. The scriptures don’t use
the words “cognitive dissonance,” but it seems to me that that is the great
drama — cognitive dissonance — which I think is the severest test that
God can subject us to. I think that’s the test in the Garden of Eden (two
seemingly conflicting demands) and as I reread Job over and over again,
he’s saying, “I know I’m a man of integrity and I know the Lord is just, so
this situation doesn’t make sense.”
His friends are saying, “Just admit that you’re a sinner!” And Job says,
“But I know I’m not!” God is not fallible. I think I heard you say
something like this just a few minutes ago when you said, “Well,
discipleship is hard — we don’t have all the answers,” which is another
way of saying that we have conflicting information.
Tom Christofferson: Right.
Terryl Givens: So what gets us through? It’s just if our heart is committed.
Tom Christofferson: It is and to me, it’s the daily bread. Because I don’t and I can’t answer
those questions with certainty or I can’t do the reconciliation of what feels
to me to be conflicting commandments, the only way I can manage it is to
try to keep moving forward in faith each day and each day ask for the
bread and sustenance for that time.
It’s been a hard lesson to learn for somebody who is by nature always
looking ahead, but Joseph said that it would be a significant work even
then to learn our salvation even after we pass through the veil. So I feel
like that process of faith, trust, and being willing to move forward without
sufficient answers on a daily basis, but knowing that the Lord will provide
for today, may well be part of our experience even beyond this world; that
we may not open our eyes when we arrive in the world of spirits and go,
“That’s how it all works.”
Terryl Givens: Yeah. In fact, it seems to me that there’s one gap in Mormon theology that
I can’t quite bridge and that is that we put so much emphasis on this veil
of forgetfulness. In “Man’s Search for Happiness,” you go through the veil
and everything —
Tom Christofferson: In technicolor!
Terryl Givens: — but if full knowledge was restored to us at that time, why would there
be evangelizing going on in the spirit world? So there have to be all kinds
of areas that are still full of uncertainty, doubt, and ignorance, that we have
to work our way through even in the next sphere of our existence.
Tom Christofferson: Which gets to an idea of eternal progression, doesn’t it?
Terryl Givens: There you go.
Tom Christofferson: I know that you and I see it similarly.
Terryl Givens: Yeah.
Tom Christofferson: I think that there is a judgment for this life, but I wonder if there aren’t
multiple other judgments.
Terryl Givens: Look, I’m a professor, and I give a final exam — but it’s not the last one
they’re going to have. So yeah, I think final judgment means it’s the final
judgment at the conclusion of this estate, of this phase of our existence,
but I don’t think Elder Robert D. Hales would have told us, “Never, never,
never, never shut the door of your heart to your children,” if we had a God
who shuts the door of His heart to us. I think eternal progression has to be
Tom Christofferson: I do too. I get there through the infinite Atonement. We already know that
Jesus Christ’s Atonement has effect outside of this world because people
in the world of spirits can repent and be covered by it.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Tom Christofferson: It may apply to other world and I don’t know why it wouldn’t apply
infinitely as far as time is concerned or as far as eternity is concerned.
Terryl Givens: Yeah. There was a time when this was a pretty standard teaching from
Joseph Smith, who enacts it in the temple, right? Progression all the way
back to the celestial kingdom. It was taught pretty universally by all the
brethren until the 1950s and 1960s.
Tom Christofferson: That Calvinistic strain of Mormonism is hard to extinguish.
Terryl Givens: It is. But together, Tom, we can do it!
I want to talk a little more about your understanding of discipleship
because I think you’re a beautiful, magnificent example of a disciple of
Christ. Tell me what you’ve learned that you didn’t know before you came
back to the Church. As you said, I have no doubt that you were living a
good, moral, committed life and that you did feel the influence of the
Spirit in your life — but what’s different about your discipleship now?
Tom Christofferson: This is a journey in progress. I love Joseph’s first account of the First
Terryl Givens: In 1832.
Tom Christofferson: Right. He says that, “And for days afterward, I was filled with love.” To
me, that’s the biggest thing. When I feel close to the Savior; when I’m
doing my best in my desire for discipleship, I know it because I feel that
Terryl Givens: Tom, why do we have such a hard time as a people making Christ the
center of our testimonies? It’s become so much oriented around historical
propositions that we assent to. These things happened, like the restoration
events, and they are important — they’re seminal; they’re the vehicle —
but you seldom encounter a Latter-day Saint who says, “Yeah, I just gave
up on Christ,” or “Yeah, I just didn’t like the weeping God of Enoch,” or
“Yeah, this eternal relation…” right? It’s all the peripheral stuff.
Why do we get so distracted from the centrality of Christ in our faith and
Tom Christofferson: I don’t know. I think we need to build testimony of Christ first.
Let me give you an example: maybe because I’m not a dad, I just don’t see
it the same way —
Terryl Givens: But you’re an uncle, right?
Tom Christofferson: I am. I love being an uncle and a grand-uncle.
I get so uncomfortable when I hear a little four-year- old or five-year- old
say, “I know the Church is true.” I love their feeling, but I wish they were
saying, “I know that Jesus loves me,” because they do. I know they do. I
think they’re born with it. I wish we started there — really focused on the
Savior; that every one of us has that individual connection and that’s what
we build on. Then, the Savior created or restored a vehicle to help us as a
people help all around us come to Him
It’s not that we lose our faith in the Church and therefore, there is no
Christ — it’s that we always know that there is Christ, and the Church and
our understanding and testimony of it builds on that.
Terryl Givens: Yeah. Are there any particular ways in which you think God’s inspiration
is manifest in the way the restored Church is designed and structured to
bring us to Christ?
We have to believe that it’s doing a better job than the options that were
available or why go to the trouble, right?
Tom Christofferson: I think there are a lot of them and maybe even the most practical is Eugene
England’s essay “Why the Church is as true as the Gospel.”
Terryl Givens: That’s huge!
Tom Christofferson: It is.
Terryl Givens: Somebody told me the Amish also do this, but with that possible
exception, we’re the only Church that you have to go where you live.
You’ve got to learn to love these people, right? I always think it’s so much
like brothers and sisters.
Most of us — you may be an exception; you’ve got a particularly lovely
family — feel like, “I never would have chosen that guy as a brother!” But
you love them more than anything because you had to learn, and that’s the
Tom Christofferson: I think we love them because of what we go through together, which is
true of family and ward. Those experiences bond us together; what we’ve
had to get through together. Yeah, I think that’s a genius aspect of the
restoration of the Church.
Terryl Givens: I think that’s the way we should be looking at the Church — and that’s the
question that we should be asking — as the litmus test: what does this do
to foment in me a love for Christ and a correct knowledge and
understanding of Him and my dependence on Him?
If you look for it, I think you do see these things. I think home teaching/
visiting teaching is another great example of that, where we create a
community of ministers ministering to each other.
Tom Christofferson: We don’t seem to talk about it as often anymore, the four-fold mission of
the Church — but sometimes that fourth mission seems to be forgotten,
which to me is the crux of it all: our ministry to the poor. Again, I would
include the poor in spirit as well as the poor as to the things of the world.
That’s where we really learn to go outside of ourselves, and yes, saving
our ancestors, but there’s still a connection there. With those who have
earthly difficulties and spiritual difficulties, we don’t necessarily have to
have a connection unless we’re trying to do the work of the Savior. Then
that’s where it happens. Again, I think that’s a critical aspect of the
mission of the Church, not because they need our money, but because they
need our hearts and the Lord needs our hearts to become open to Him —
any little crack in the broken heart, He can fill and jump in with His love
Terryl Givens: Yeah. Coming back to the Church and recommitting, has it been harder in
any ways than you anticipated?
Tom Christofferson: You know what? When I was really considering that as something that
might happen, I had two critical questions: one, could I live with the law
of chastity as we currently understand it and if that’s for the rest of my life,
be able to make that commitment and live according to it? That took me a
while to come to that conclusion and there were some spiritual
experiences along the way that helped me to gain confidence that I could.
The second question, which to me was equally important, was feeling like
I’ll never fit in. I’ll never be the normal —
Terryl Givens: The Ensign version; the main-street Mormon.
Tom Christofferson: So can I find happiness there? Again, there was a a series of pleadings and
promptings. One happened one day: I was sitting in the chapel of the New
Canaan ward in Connecticut and at that point, I knew everybody in the
ward and loved them — but I remembered a bishop saying, “You know,
it’s such an amazing ward and then you’re called as bishop and sit on that
stand and realize there’s a problem in every pew.”
I looked around and I wasn’t looking at problems in pews; I was looking
at, “Who here would feel like they don’t really fit the mold? Who would
feel like, even in this wonderful place of such great love and acceptance,
that they aren’t really the “standard” Mormon? I came up with two-thirds;
that two-thirds of that congregation, for one reason or another, would have
some reason why they would think that they didn’t really fit the mold.
It’s like, wait a minute — the majority of us don’t fit. I think we’ve got the
wrong conception of what “fit” means. That’s one example, but the way I
really fit is discipleship; is my purpose in being a part of it is a desire to be
able to come to know increasingly better the Savior and to align my life
more and more with His.
Terryl Givens: Yeah. You know, doubt is a word that is on everybody’s lips these days;
“uncertainty” may be a less offensive word to some ears.
Have you had struggles — recurrent struggles — since re-entry?
Tom Christofferson: To me, I don’t think you have faith without doubt.
Terryl Givens: Otherwise it isn’t faith; it’s something else.
Tom Christofferson: Right. It’s knowledge. There are areas where I feel like I really do know
something; I feel like I know that Jesus is the Christ, but I think I still
operate by faith.
Terryl Givens: And you said that choice is important a few minutes ago. Can you talk
about choice and how you experience that as a part of your faith?
Tom Christofferson: Yeah, I think especially in terms of the speed of progress of things I wish
would happen or ways that seem, to me, that the Lord’s work could be
progressed more quickly. I choose to continue working and to keep faith in
the goodness and the faithful desires of others who are called to positions
of leadership: that the Lord is giving to them, in His own timetable, and
that they are doing the best they can to do everything possible to fulfill the
callings that they have.
There are days where that’s a harder choice than others, but most days,
that’s a choice that I’m happy to make and that I willingly make.
Terryl Givens: What changes would you like to see in your lifetime in our culture — not
officially, not doctrinally. Where can we do better?
Tom Christofferson: I think about it as if we would acknowledge that there is a temple standard
of worthiness and a chapel standard of worthiness, and that they exist side-
by-side in the Church. There are some who are able and desirous of being
able to make covenants and exist in a temple standard of worthiness, and
others who are not there at any point in time.
To me, the chapel standard of worthiness is if you walk through the
chapel doors — if you’re willing to walk through the door — and you
want to have some kind of a connection to Christ, you’re worthy. That’s
where I wish we would make our biggest change.
Terryl Givens: What a beautiful idea.
Tom Christofferson: We have that sign on the door that says, “Visitors Welcome” — it should
say “All are welcome.” This is the home for anybody and everybody who
wants to be a follower of Jesus Christ. They don’t need to show us their
repentance; they don’t need to show us progress in their lives. Our job is
just to open our hearts, our minds, and our arms, and be there to be
support. They’ll help us know what would be useful that we can do.
In my mind, it’s all there. It’s just acting on what we already know and
freeing ourselves of the fear: the fear of the unknown, the fear that if the
Lord is really as generous and as forgiving and as full of grace as we
think, does that mean that our performances didn’t matter after all?
Terryl Givens: What are we doing well? Is that anything that you can look around and
say, “Yeah, Mormons are getting this now.”
Tom Christofferson: I think there are a lot of ways. In some ways, that first piece is just almost
giving people permission to do what they want to do anyway. I think
Mormons are such a loving people; it’s almost just saying, “Yeah, that is
the right instinct; go with it.” You see that in the humanitarian aspect of
the Church. I see it in Fast Sunday — that so many people are literally
willing to do without something that is good for them in order that that
very thing may be provided to someone else; that someone else can
literally have what they’re willing to forgo just so that others can be taken
I think that’s incredible. I think that exists in so many ways. I love that
Mormons are reverent people — that we do want to be careful in our
speech and in our conduct; that we want to establish places where the
Spirit of the Lord can be unrestrained, especially in our own hearts.
I think there are so many things that are just incredible.
Terryl Givens: Good. One last question that we’d like to wrap up with: Krister Stendahl
used the expression “holy envy” to describe that feeling that we should
have a righteous jealousy of some other traditions, practices,
temperaments, and contributions.
Looking at other faith traditions that you’ve encountered or experienced,
what do you have envy of that you’d like to see us replicate?
Tom Christofferson: I think there are in some traditions a very practical Christian approach to
how we engage with others — a soup kitchen, an employment center, or
whatever it is. You’d say that as a Church, we do that in Deseret Industries
or we do it in the Bishop’s Storehouse — but I wonder if we are
personally as engaged as some of the most wonderful people I know in
other faith traditions, for whom their real demonstration of Christianity is
literally that engagement within the community.
Terryl Givens: That fourth mission; that fourth leg within the mission of the Church.
Tom Christofferson: Yeah. That sense that it’s a personal obligation every day to find a way to
share a burden, lift a burden of someone else. We have it — we have it in
our baptismal covenant; that we’ll mourn with those who mourn and
comfort those in need of comfort, but I think there are some traditions
where that individual impetus and drive is stronger — and I want us to be
the best at that.
Terryl Givens; Good. Thank you. Tom, I appreciate you being with us today; it’s been a
delight speaking to you, as always. Thanks for being with us.
Tom Christofferson: Thank you.
Disclaimer: LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ
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