Sunday, March 29, 2020

Making room to listen

As I've spent more time thinking, praying, and listening to the Holy Spirit, I've deepened my understanding of my own need to make room to listen. This is true in many ways, but my focus is on one very specific way: to listen to the still, small voice of the Spirit, we must put aside distracting emotions. This does not mean that we must be mechanical or that our interactions with the Spirit are purely logical; on the contrary, trying to limit spiritual interactions to logic is an attempt to wrest control of the conversation from God. What it does mean is that if we are listening to fear or anger or passion or even the elation of daydreaming, we introduce (in the words of the late Elder Scott) a jalapeño pepper that overpowers the flavor of the Spirit's grape.

When beginning a session of study and prayer, I find it useful to take a moment to breathe and identify and release my fears. This is an ability that I am still developing. Perhaps the most useful thing I have discovered is that if I approach the Lord with questions intended to help me avoid mistakes (in other words, if they are a manifestation of my fears), I rarely get strong answers. However, if my questions are about seeking after righteousness, I'm much more likely to learn from the Spirit. (For more on this distinction, see this previous post.)

Series introduction: Lessons from the hermitage

The COVID-19 pandemic and the seclusion that we're imposing on ourselves as a result have given me a larger dose of solitude than I've ever experienced. It has given me an opportunity to think more deeply and more slowly about things than in the past. While the solitude has been a struggle for me, it has also been a font of inspiration.

I'm hoping that by writing the things I've been learning, I'll learn them better and, hopefully, offer insights that can be of use to my readers. I expect most of these posts to be relatively short and generally without any accompanying stories. I don't know how many of them there will be or how frequently I'll take time to write. I do know that I have a lot to be grateful for, including this deluge of learning that has come from an unfortunate circumstance.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

When definitions fail

Those of us who attended school in the USA or who have ever played Mad Libs are familiar with the definition that a noun is a person, a place, or a thing. We are also aware of the fact that this definition, however useful as a reference for those who understand the parts of speech, is almost completely useless for teaching these concepts. Personally, I was able to parrot back this definition for several years before the concept made any sense to me.

In a similar way, I remember being confused by the definition of faith that Paul gives in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The description given in Alma 32:21 is much the same. And, as with my understanding of nouns, my understanding of faith has developed over time. I don't know if I could give a better definition for nouns or for faith than the ones I have mentioned. However, I can share some thoughts and experiences that may help to explain what faith in Christ is, regardless of your level of familiarity with the concept.


One of the oft-cited stories of faith in God from the Book of Mormon is that of the stripling warriors. The people of Ammon, who chose to name themselves after the missionary who had risked his life to teach them the gospel, had had a violent past. When they saw the error of their ways, they promised God that they would never again take up arms. In fact, many of them had been killed in Alma 24 because they refused to defend themselves. Some of the attackers had been converted and joined the people of Ammon when they saw that their victims would praise God even as they died. A few years later, their sons (who had not made this particular promise) volunteered to fight in their fathers' place to defend their country. These stripling warriors fought in multiple battles but, to everyone's surprise, all survived. One of these battles is described in Alma 56). In verse 47, we have an explanation:

Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.

At first blush, it seems obvious that they trusted God and knew that he would save their lives. But some of these stripling warriors may have been orphaned in the violence described some chapters earlier. Others may have been the children of aggressors who converted. It seems clear that they would have been aware of the fact that trusting in God does not always result in God doing for us what we hope. It seems more likely that their faith was like that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who told Nebuchadnezzar in no uncertain terms that they trusted that God could rescue them from him and would stay true to God even if God chose not to save them (Daniel 3:17-18).

While not a matter of life and death, there are some similarities in my career path. I had a simple but remarkable spiritual experience when I decided to pursue a PhD with the goal of becoming a professor of computer science. It was clear to me that this was a path that had God's approval. Until that point in my life, I'd been successful in most everything I'd tried to do. This was particularly true of academic pursuits. However, I started doing research and so began a decade of failure after failure after failure. I revisited my decision many times over those years. I prayed and pondered and concluded time and again that I should continue.

I struggled to find research that was interesting and important to me. Once I did, I struggled to understand the things I needed to understand in order to do the work. Then, I struggled to publish my work. I was genuinely surprised when my committee told me that I could defend my dissertation and I hurried to schedule it before they could change their minds. One of my committee members was on the faculty at Brigham Young University, where I hoped to teach, and approached me about a postdoctoral fellowship (which is a fancy academic title for a wannabe professor). I happily accepted and thought that things were finally falling into place.

After a year as a postdoc and a year as a visiting professor, I was still struggling to publish and the department chose not to offer me a tenure-track position. I was frustrated, hurt, and confused. I concluded that staying on for another year as a visiting professor would not help me to progress and took a job in industry. That choice led me to move across the country and has brought with it a host of uncomfortable life changes. In the year or so since I decided to look elsewhere for employment, I've wondered many times what God has in store for me. I thought that the path was clear and that things would fall into place for me. However, God has not delivered me in the way that I imagined.

This is perhaps best summarized by the late Jack Rushton, whom Elder Christofferson quoted in this last conference:

Some people think that religion or having faith in God will protect you from bad things. I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is that if our faith is strong, that when bad things happen, which they will, we’ll be able to deal with them.

The Bible Dictionary entry on prayer says more or less the same thing:

Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them.

It seems clear that faith is not a way for us to get God to do what we want. It also seems clear that if our faith were to require God to deliver on all of His promises during this life, that the complaints in Malachi 3 would be warranted.


Rock climbing

My brother is an avid rock climber. I'm a passable rock climber. When we're in the same area, we'll often go climbing together. One time, we went to a route he wanted to climb but got there a little later than we'd originally planned. Then, he couldn't find the chains at the top of the route and so it took longer. By the time I joined him about 80 feet above the ground, it was getting dark and we still hadn't found a proper anchor. As my mind started to fill with fear, I was struck with a realization: it was a bad situation, but I knew my brother. He's competent and careful. Remembering that I could trust my brother allowed me to calm down. We got out head lamps and he improvised an anchor and we descended safely.

Since returning, I've thought many times about my ability to calm myself when I reminded myself that I trust my brother. Whenever I'm struggling with a situation that seems dire, I try to remind myself that I know Jesus and trust Him to take care of me. Even if He asks me to walk a path that I don't like or that causes me pain, I trust that it will eventually lead to greater happiness than I thought possible.

Elder Bednar taught the same thing in his March 2013 CES fireside when he asked these questions to a young man with cancer:

Do you have the faith not to be healed? If it is the will of our Heavenly Father that you are transferred by death in your youth to the spirit world to continue your ministry, do you have the faith to submit to His will and not be healed?

Joy now for as-yet unfulfilled promises

Another aspect of faith is that it transcends time. Take, for example, Abinadi's discourse in Mosiah 16, which he gave around 150 BC. In verse 6, he says "And now if Christ had not come into the world, speaking of things to come as though they had already come…" He then proceeds to explain the implications that would befall if Christ were not to come, all as if He had come already. Similarly, Lehi rejoices in a time of trial because of the promised land that he had been given while still near Jerusalem (1 Nephi 5:5). Simeon and Anna praise God for His Son's redemption when they see Jesus as an infant, still decades away from realizing that redemption for mankind (Luke 2:29-32,38).

In Joel 2, God tells us to "rend [our] heart, and not [our] garments" (v. 13); in other words, to turn to Him in repentance instead of mourning. He then offers us the promise that He will "restore to [us] the years that the locust hath eaten" (v. 25), or somehow give back the harvests destroyed by pests. God's promises are, inexplicably and miraculously, not confined to the present or the future. Somehow, He can even change or make up for past events.

If God's promises can even work retroactively, then John the Beloved's promise that "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away" (Rev. 21:4) means that we can trust in God, no matter our circumstances, and know that everything will be made right.

What causes you the most grief? The most worry? If you knew that God would take care of things. Even if it seems impossible that anything could make your wrongs right, imagine that you knew that they would be. How would you see the world differently? How would you forgive? How would you change the way you see and treat other people? How would you change the way you see yourself?

Joy despite shortcomings

So far, I have served two missions. I was a full-time missionary for two years in Brazil, where I focused on proselyting. I was not perfect, as any of my companions would quickly tell you. I wanted so desperately to be a good missionary that, in some ways, I tried too hard. Despite the sincerity of my effort, I reached the end of my mission feeling painfully aware of the ways I'd fallen short of the ideal I had sought to achieve in my service. Quite unexpectedly, on my last day in Brazil, I had a simple but powerful and profound spiritual impression that God had accepted my sacrifice and was grateful for my service. My service in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (now The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square) was another mission. I had a similarly personal, albeit more musical, personal experience at the end of that service.

In the days and years that followed both of these missions, I was tempted many times to give into despair when I thought of my imperfections during my missionary service. God's merciful acceptance of my mission, however, had prepared me and I was able to remember that brief communication that had resonated through my soul and set aside my anxieties. In this context, faith in God meant accepting God's love and forgiveness and reassurance over my own fears. Day by day, He continues to show me this same mercy in ways large and small. I am slowly learning that my one and only responsibility is to "try, try, try". In the words of Elder Holland,

The first great truth of all eternity is that God loves us with all of His heart, might mind and strength. That love is the foundation stone of eternity, and it should be the foundation stone of our daily life. Indeed it is only with that reassurance burning in our soul that we can have the confidence to keep trying to improve, keep seeking forgiveness for our sins, and keep extending that grace to our neighbor.

Do you know that God loves you? If not, please ask Him. How does or would knowing that God loves you change your perspective? How can the security that His love provides enable you to be better? To repent? To forgive?


I know that God knows me and loves me. I know He feels the same about you. I know that we can come closer to Him by diligent study, earnest prayer, and by obedience to the things that we learn. And I know that because God loves us, we have nothing to fear.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Role models in Disney's Coco

I loved Disney's Coco. I enjoyed the vibrant colors and the uplifting story about family. Perhaps most of all, I love the soundtrack. I don't always listen to mariachi music, but it can be really fun. (There will be spoilers. We're past the statute of limitations on this one. You've been warned.)

It's now on my playlist that has basically everything on it and it comes up occasionally. The thought has struck me over and over that the characters are woven into the music. Take, for example, the contrast between Ernesto de la Cruz and Héctor Rivera. Héctor was the one who wrote all of the songs, but eventually wanted to return to his family. De la Cruz, in contrast, only cared about being successful. We eventually learn that de la Cruz killed his friend for the songs he had written.

Even the way they sing shows what they care about. It's noticeable in just the audio and virtually impossible to miss in the video. I'll show them in Spanish for two reasons: first, because they're better in Spanish; second, because my readers who don't understand it can focus on just the music and such. You don't need the words to see what they care about.

First, let's look at Ernesto de la Cruz in La Llorona. His ex-partner's wife is accidentally on stage and he wants the picture in her hand so he can silence Héctor by killing him again. Startled, she makes the best of it and is giving a terrific performance. But de la Cruz has other plans and he inserts himself into her song and chases her across the stage, grabbing the picture of her husband from her hand in plain sight of an enormous crowd.

In fact, the same thing happens with a movie playing in the background when Miguel sings El Mundo es mi Familia:

In contrast, Héctor only even enters the stage during Poco Loco when forced on stage by the dog who turns out to be a spirit guide. Although he is a seasoned performer and could easily have upstaged Miguel, he's there as a guide and seems intent on building Miguel up.

The only other times we see Héctor sing in the movie are when he's serving people; on one occasion, he comforts a dying friend. On another, he sings for his daughter before leaving for work:

Every one of us has talents and opportunities. We can use them to serve other people or we can use them for self aggrandizement. (Being on center stage does not mean we're being selfish, but it's healthy to ask why we want to be there.) We can use them to enable other people to act or to have our way with people.

It's worth taking a moment to ask ourselves about how we treat others. In what ways do we act like Ernesto? Like Héctor? How would we like to act and how can we change to better align ourselves with that ideal?

This post was inspired by a project a friend of mine created a few years ago: Pop Culture Parables. You might enjoy some of what's there if you liked this.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Goals, Grace, and Gumption


In both American and Latter-day Saint cultures (and especially in the confluence of both), we envision things that we hope will become reality and set goals. These goals are intended to lift our vision and we believe that without these goals, we will fall short of our potential. In fact, President Ballard said as much:

I am so thoroughly convinced that if we don’t set goals in our life and learn how to master the techniques of living to reach our goals, we can reach a ripe old age and look back on our life only to see that we reached but a small part of our full potential. When one learns to master the principles of setting a goal, he will then be able to make a great difference in the results he attains in this life (quoted in Preach My Gospel).

However, it is possible to take goals too far. Many of us seem to have the impression that as long as our goals are righteous (not a terribly well-defined term; we'll get to this in a moment) and if we work diligently towards them, God is bound to deliver the things that we want. The obvious corollary is that if we have a righteous goal and don't achieve it, it's because we didn't work diligently at it. This misconception seems to come out of misinterpretations of scriptures like D&C 82:10:

I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.

Yes, this is a powerful scripture with a truly remarkable statement: God allows Himself to be bound if we will obey Him. However, we seem to misunderstand what God is bound to do.

God has never once promised that He would work against His own purposes, which include our happiness. This means that He frequently chooses not to grant us things that we want because He knows that those things will interfere with our progression and eventual happiness. He is the ultimate strategist and is completely immune to shortsighted thinking.

To give a personal example, I had a plan to marry some time ago. I looked at cultural norms and expectations and imagined that I would marry before I completed my bachelor's degree. I kept that goal firmly fixed in my mind and worked mind, body, and soul to achieve it. And yet, I am unmarried. By any Latter-day Saint definition, a healthy marriage is a righteous goal; in fact, we believe that marriage is a commandment. And yet my best efforts have failed to deliver marriage within a decade of the time frame I envisioned.

Naturally, some people assume that it was a lack of diligence on my part (it was not) or that there's something wrong with me (this one is up for debate). I look at my life over the past ten years and see that the Good Lord has been teaching me lessons I would have missed had I been married and content. I have been forced to learn interpersonal skills that I might have missed. I have had leadership experiences completely distinct from those I would have had as a married man. My career may well be following a different path than it would have. In short, I believe that in not granting me my desire of marriage on my time frame, God is helping me become who He wants me to become. And I believe that a happy marriage is in my future; I simply don't know when it will come.

Clearly, diligent effort towards a righteous goal provides no guarantee of success when success is defined on our terms. While feeling certain about the things we hope for is comfortable, this understanding of goals is at odds with our doctrine about mortality. Goals are useful when they help us define our aspirations or when they inspire us to greater effort towards righteous ends. However, the expectation that we can achieve our goals, regardless of how righteous and reasonable they seem, will inevitably steer us wrong.

This is not a trivial matter, nor esoteric philosophy. Misconceptions about what we can have in life and about what we should have in life can destroy people and relationships. Consider a father who loves his daughter and wants her to be happy. He has learned by experience that she will ultimately be happy to the extent that she lives by true principles. Any variance he observes in her behaviors leads him to fear, anxiety, desperation, and eventually to coercion (see also this post). His daughter learns to toe the line and conform outwardly to his expectations, all the while failing to learn the principles he is attempting to teach because she is not making her own choices. Ultimately, she chooses another path and becomes estranged from her father. Similar patterns could explain cases of eating disorders, addictive behaviors, overemphasis on careers, perfectionism, and a host of other problems. The only way to avoid this pitfall is to abandon the illusion of control.


Ultimately, our happiness and the achievement of our desires is up to God. Happily, He is wise and loving and has created us and this world so that we could be happy. We can choose the happiness that He offers us, but only if we choose to trust in Him. This means that we can set goals and work for them (and, indeed, we should!) but that we must do so with the confidence that if we do not get what we wanted, God will take care of things and we will be happy.

How can we choose to be happy in the face of these denials? How can we find peace when all we want is health? Family? Stable employment? Friends? We want so many reasonable things that God sometimes chooses not to give us. How can this work for our happiness?

The short version is that we don't know all of the answers. In fact, we can't. If we did, this would not be walking "by sight," instead of "by faith" (2 Cor. 5:7). Our task in mortality is to own the fact that we want things and that God, in His wisdom, may or may not want us to have them – and to choose to live according to His principles, regardless. It really is as simple as the Lord phrased it when speaking to Nicodemus:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16-17).

Ultimately, every temptation takes the form of choosing between a course of action that we believe will lead us to what we want and a course of action that is compatible with God's will. If our beliefs about outcomes dictate our decisions, we will inevitably fall short.


Over the years, as I have slowly wandered down this line of thought, it has struck me that I don't know how to motivate myself without expectations about my goals. In fact, expecting results from work towards goals seems compatible with Joseph Smith's first lecture on faith:

Would you exert yourselves to obtain wisdom and intelligence, unless you did believe that you could obtain them? Would you have ever sown if you had not believed that you would reap? Would you have ever planted if you had not believed that you would gather?

When faced with the fact that we may not get the things we want, we are immediately tempted to give up. Why bother, if I can't have what I want?

The answer is simple: we can choose to act according to true principles not because we believe that our desires will be realized but because we believe that they will help to accomplish God's will. We can choose to do what is right without undue concern for outcomes because we trust that God can accomplish His work. Consider the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who were forced to choose between obedience to true principles and their lives:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up (Daniel 3:16-18).

Daniel, their contemporary, made an almost identical choice:

Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime (Daniel 6:10).

In these cases, they chose to obey regardless of the outcome and eventually got the outcome they wanted (their lives). Consider, however, the people of Nephi as recorded by Omni:

Mosiah ..., he being warned of the Lord that he should flee out of the land of Nephi, and as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord should also depart out of the land with him, into the wilderness—And it came to pass that he did according as the Lord had commanded him. And they departed out of the land into the wilderness, as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord; and they were led by many preachings and prophesyings. And they were admonished continually by the word of God; and they were led by the power of his arm, through the wilderness until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla (Omni 1:12-13).

These people kept their lives and their faith, but not their homes. Stephen, as recorded in Acts 6-7, didn't even get to keep his life.

If we truly want to seek after righteousness, we must choose to live according to true principles. The choice is ours.

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous (1 John 5:3).

I have learned by experience that God is mindful of us and that He does love us. He yearns to bless us and is not hampered by our lack of vision. To the extent that we learn to see with eyes of faith, His commandments truly are not grievous; they are a delight. I am determined to seek after understanding and applying true principles and invite you to join me.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Scripture study: Essential for peace


Today, we celebrate the centennial of the armistice that ended the First World War. It is a day for gratitude for the relative peace that we enjoy and an opportunity to learn once again from the horrors of war.

In recent years, I have considered a passage from D&C 45 (verses 68-71) several times. This section is a prophecy about the Second Coming, comparable to Matthew 24. Towards the end, a few verses explain that Zion will be at peace but the rest of the world will be at war:

And it shall come to pass among the wicked, that every man that will not take his sword against his neighbor must needs flee unto Zion for safety. And there shall be gathered unto it out of every nation under heaven; and it shall be the only people that shall not be at war one with another. And it shall be said among the wicked: Let us not go up to battle against Zion, for the inhabitants of Zion are terrible; wherefore we cannot stand. And it shall come to pass that the righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy.

As I've read these verses, I've wondered why everyone would be at war with everybody else. Why would Zion be any different? Why do people go to war? Why do people choose not to go to war? What does it mean to be at war or to not be at war? I can’t offer any definitive answers to these questions but I can offer some thoughts that illustrate true principles.

One conclusion I've come to as I've pondered these questions is that war is terrible because we depend on some basic rules for society to function. In some respects, war suspends these rules. Not everyone agrees on what these basic rules are, nor on what exceptions should exist to them. However, we generally agree that it is not permissible to kill other people. One of the major exceptions to this rule is that killing is permitted during times of war (pursuant to lawful orders). Interestingly, the war chapters in the book of Alma illustrate this idea of exceptions more than once:

And he also knowing that it was the only desire of the Nephites to preserve their lands, and their liberty, and their church, therefore he thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem; therefore, he found by his spies which course the Lamanites were to take (Alma 43:30).

In another account (Alma 53:4-21), Moroni has one of his soldiers pretend to be an enemy combatant, recently escaped from his army. He uses this subterfuge, which is clearly dishonest, to get his opponents drunk and takes advantage of their inebriated sleep to free his captured soldiers. Happily, Moroni captures the enemy soldiers instead of killing them as they lie helpless.

We can also see how exceptional war is by visiting memorials. Nuremberg is now famous for the war crimes trials held there. This was a conscious choice by the German people, who chose it because Hitler had made it his center of power. They intentionally rebranded the city. In addition to holding the famous trials there, they transformed the rally grounds into a beautiful park and built a museum across the street that details the history of Adolf Hitler. This is not intended as recrimination, but to help people to understand how something so terrible could happen. The hope is that we will learn from it and be wise enough to act differently as we move forward.

One of the most nauseating passages in scripture is Moroni 9:7-10, in which Mormon describes war crimes committed on both sides of an ugly war that ended in the extermination of one of its peoples. In verse 12, Mormon points out that these people were "civil and delightsome" only a few years prior. When I read it, I wonder (as I imagine Mormon must have) how these good people could possibly have fallen so far in such a short period of time.

As with the questions I asked earlier, I won't claim to have the answer to all of the questions. However, I do believe that I have learned true principles that offer at least part of an answer. My goal today is to show the transformative power of the peace that comes from faith in Jesus Christ and that consistent scripture study is crucial to the development of that faith.

War and Peace

We usually think of war and peace on a societal level; we're at war or at peace depending on formal declarations from our government. I've come to think of war and peace as mindsets that each individual may choose. When we're at war, we excuse ourselves from the typical rules we place on ourselves. We can go to war on a personal level when someone threatens us with bodily harm. We can also go to war personally when a neighbor plans or does something that damages our homes, when our children are threatened, or when someone disagrees with us politically. In these situations, we perceive a threat and our fear leads us to desperate actions.

It is difficult – in fact, it may be impossible – to know when these exceptions are truly necessary. A political disagreement, for example, is often going to make no difference because of each individual's limited political power. However, the stakes are very high in some political debates and it's understandable that we might overreact to someone's opinion when that opinion might undermine something on which we rely.

As is often the case, the answer is in the scriptures and has to do with asking a different question. Moroni 10:20-22 explains that faith leads to hope and that the absence of hope leads to despair. In this case, I'm making a lateral jump from despair to desperation, which are two different but closely related states of being. My understanding of these verses is that if we have faith, we will have hope. If we have hope, we will not be desperate. In other words, faith in Jesus Christ keeps us from becoming desperate. Although it is possible we'll find ourselves in a societal war, we can choose to have faith and, as a result, experience personal peace.

Peace in a Job Search

Academic jobs are hard to come by. Openings typically only appear when someone retires, which means that jobs are rare and the timing of openings is somewhat unpredictable. A few years ago, I had my sights on a particular job opening. However, I was still in grad school. I had a plan to publish a paper, defend my dissertation, and squeeze into an opening. I didn't have any way of knowing if there would be another opening. I was desperate to publish this paper. I remember pulling out all of the stops as I crunched to get the paper together in time for the submission deadline. Anything that could be dropped from my schedule was dropped. Looking back, I don't like who I became during that time.

I did not get that job but eventually did defend my dissertation. A year and a half ago, I started in the department where I'd hoped to work as a professor as a postdoctoral fellow. ("Postdoctoral fellow" is a fancy title for a wannabe.) My contract was for a year and ended last May. I had applied for a professorship but the hiring process is long and it wasn't possible to start immediately in that job. After some finagling, the professor I was working for managed to extend my contract for a few months. Then, at the end of the summer, a professorship for which I'd interviewed was still caught in red tape. The result was that twice in three months, I had serious reason to doubt whether my employment would continue.

The time between these two crises taught me a great deal. Interestingly, I was not seriously concerned about my own employment. I had learned that, one way or another, things would work out. This was partially confidence in my own qualifications and partially confidence in the Lord, whom I've learned to trust. However, I was concerned this last summer for my students. I'd created a research lab and had the privilege of working with some amazing students. If my contract hadn't been extended or if my current job hadn't come through, I would have been unable to continue to work with my students and they might have felt abandoned. The confidence I'd learned to put in the Lord gave me the capacity to have peace, think about others, and see reality more clearly.


I've always been a little confused by the desire voiced by people throughout scripture to have a king. I was born and raised in the United States of America, where we are proud about not having an aristocratic class and love the freedom that we experience as a result. What's more, the wording of the Book of Mormon uses monarchy and freedom as antonyms in several places.

Not having a satisfactory answer as to why people would actually want a king, I went through the scriptures to try to understand the narrative a little better. The reasons given were that the people wanted a king to judge (1 Samuel 8:5); by my understanding of the language patterns used, this means to administer justice. The people wanted a king to reign over them (1 Samuel 12:12), to save them (Hosea 13:10), and to be a protector (2 Nephi 6:2). And in 2 Samuel 11:1, we read that there was a time for kings to go forth to battle, which suggests that going to battle was a king's job. It seems that the people were accustomed to having a king to administer laws and to direct armies, which armies would protect them from domestic injustices and international invasions.

It is clear, though, that the Lord has another way of doing things. Specifically, He intends to be our king. It is He who will administer justice and who will protect us from the dangers of this world (see D&C 38:21, 1 Samuel 12:12, and 2 Nephi 10:14). If we turn to other sources, it is because we don't trust Him to take care of us. How, then, can we learn to trust Him?


Trust is an interesting phenomenon. There are things about which we feel vulnerable, such as jobs, health, romance, and trials. We hesitate to speak about them with most people. In fact, we often avoid topics of conversation in the hopes of preventing conversation from straying to those topics. And yet, we crave the opportunity to talk about them with people we trust.

Similarly, my students tend to be very anxious about their grades. Frequently, they'll ask about little things as they try to ensure that they maximize the points they get on various assignments. This anxiety is most evident when exams come up. What my students don't realize (as, so far, I have yet to have a student take multiple classes from me) is that I am trying to help them. I design my tests to assess their understanding but not to trick them. When, inevitably, there is a mistake or an ambiguity on the test, I find a way to make it right.

Why is it, then, that we trust in some situations, but not in others? How can we learn to trust in God?

The rock in the darkness

I had an opportunity to consider trust one day when I went rock climbing with my brother. I enjoy rock climbing socially, but my brother is avid. One day, we went up a canyon to a route he'd read about that seemed like a good match for my climbing ability. It took us a little longer than we anticipated to get to the base, but it was still light out and we got started. My brother lead and I cleaned after him. I was still on the ground when he went out of sight because of the shape of the rock he was on. After some time, he told me to tie in and start climbing.

I reached my brother a few minutes later. He'd been delayed because he couldn't find the chains that he anticipated. Probably, we'd started from the wrong place. In any event, he'd improvised a suitable anchor and I'd joined him. At this point, however, it started to get dark. We were both high above the ground without a way to hike back down.

This was the most dangerous situation I'd ever been in while climbing. I was unsure about what to do or how to go about it. However, I was not afraid. This came as a surprise to me until I thought about it for a moment. I was with my brother. I had grown up with him and knew his trustworthiness, his loyalty, his passion for climbing, his dedication to safety, and his ability. The situation was scary, but I trusted that my brother would help me out of it.

Once again, he found a way to make a suitable anchor. Wearing a headlamp (happily, we'd had the foresight to bring them), I rappelled down and then belayed him. We made it down without leaving any gear. We packed up, walked back to the car, and headed home, grateful for our safety.

I reflected on my experience and realized that I had been exercising faith in my brother. This same sort of faith can be exercised in Jesus Christ, who saved us from a much direr situation. Whenever I struggle to trust in God, I try to think of my experience with my brother and exercise the same sort of trust.

Faith: trust in God

It seems clear to me that we develop trust in someone by spending time with him or her and by giving him or her opportunities to demonstrate trustworthiness. While most of us don't walk with God in the same way that we walk with other people in our lives, we can spend time with Him as we pray, study scriptures, and try to do what He would do in our place. If we are not careful, these activities can lose some of their meaning if we allow them to become mechanistic. If, instead, we spend this time intentionally inviting God into our lives, it can become meaningful time together.

I saw this principle in action in my life as a teenager. Growing up, I was part of a "perfect" family (we're very not perfect, but this was the general perception). I always did the right thing, although I did so in part because I felt coerced to do so. In retrospect, my life was full of anger and darkness.

When I started attending seminary in the ninth grade, however, I decided that I needed to learn about the gospel for myself and determine whether or not it was true. Our course of study that year was the Old Testament. The assigned readings covered much, but not all, of the book. I decided that excerpts would not do for my needs and I read every day without skipping anything. By the end of the school year, I had succeeded in reading the entirety of the Old Testament. I applied myself to learning. I also started changing my motivations. Instead of doing what I thought was right because I was forced to do so, I started doing what was right as an experiment. My actions were part of the scientific investigation I was making of the gospel I was studying.

I remember a moment during my sophomore year. It was a completely mundane setting; I was on a little grassy hill across from the high school, waiting for a bus to give me a ride home. My view was that of a street, a parking lot, and a theater (the high school was a little off to my left). I don't remember what I'd been studying in school that day, what was on my mind, or what I planned to do with the remainder of the day. What I do remember was a realization that my life had filled with light. The change had been so gradual that I hadn't noticed it at all, but the contrast with the feeling of darkness in my life a year or two prior was shocking. Years later, Elder Bednar described this experience with remarkable precision:

A light turned on in a dark room is like receiving a message from God quickly, completely, and all at once. Many of us have experienced this pattern of revelation as we have been given answers to sincere prayers or been provided with needed direction or protection, according to God’s will and timing. Descriptions of such immediate and intense manifestations are found in the scriptures, recounted in Church history, and evidenced in our own lives. Indeed, these mighty miracles do occur. However, this pattern of revelation tends to be more rare than common (The Spirit of Revelation, April 2011).

By choosing to live the gospel and choosing to spend time with the Lord, I had slowly filled my life with a peace that I had never imagined could exist. I had discovered for myself that if we learn about Jesus, we "will have rest unto our souls" (Matt. 11:28-30). You and I can experience what the people of Ammon did:

And they were also distinguished for their zeal towards God, and also towards men; for they were perfectly honest and upright in all things; and they were firm in the faith of Christ, even unto the end. And they did look upon shedding the blood of their brethren with the greatest abhorrence; and they never could be prevailed upon to take up arms against their brethren; and they never did look upon death with any degree of terror, for their hope and views of Christ and the resurrection; therefore, death was swallowed up to them by the victory of Christ over it (Alma 27:27-28).

In this life, we will be tried in all things. Mortality would not achieve its purpose if it were not excruciatingly difficult. Left to our own devices, we will fight desperately for our own lives. If, however, we trust in the Lord, He will give us peace. Please join me in continually turning to Him.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The answer is listening

In this post, I intend to address a divisive issue. I chose this issue because I think it is important and because I think there are some ideas that need to be part of our conversation on the topic. I also chose it because it serves as an illustration of sort of war I wrote about as part of my New Year's resolution.

In the case of this particular issue, I believe that there are important concerns on both sides of the argument. I imagine that most of my friends will have an opinion already; in most cases, a strong opinion. As such, I imagine that most of my readers will disagree with at least some of the things I write here. I invite you to pause whenever you come across something you don't agree with and consider carefully what about it you do and don't agree with. Are there truths in the argument? Are there elements of it with which you agree?

My predicament

Exercise is important to me. I like pushing myself. I work better and sleep better when I stay in shape. I like being able to do hard things. Like many people, I prefer to exercise outside. However, I am also sensitive to air quality problems.

I'm not entirely sure if I actually suffer more from air quality problems than other people do or if I just notice them more. I sing quite a bit, so a little irritation can lead to considerable pain. Also, my work requires fairly extreme concentration much of the time and even a little sniffle makes an enormous difference in my productivity.

The area where I live is surrounded by mountains, which means that local air pollution doesn't leave easily. Even though traffic here doesn't compare to that of the world's major metropolitan areas, the air gets pretty bad during rush hour every day. It's worse in the winter, when a temperature inversion traps the smog.

On a personal level, there really isn't much I can do about it. I try to find ways of reducing my negative impact on the environment: I chain trips together and go to considerable effort to arrange carpools. I work from home on some days to further reduce pollution (and to save time). I pay a small fee to my power company to purchase energy from renewable sources. However, the air pollution problem happens because lots of people pollute a little bit (and a few pollute a lot). I believe that my efforts are the morally correct choice for me to take but I also recognize that they won't solve the problem.

I also worry that I might not be doing enough; I don't even own a bike, although I'd like to. One of the principal factors that has held me back is that I don't want to breathe the smog and make my respiratory issues worse. I don't love that I contribute to the problem by driving instead but the alternative doesn't seem reasonable to me.

Why people pollute

I think that most pollution happens because people are just doing the best they can. It's easy to miss it; we don't see the emissions from our cars or our homes (unless they're truly awful). We do, however, see how much time we save by driving instead of walking or taking public transit.

Most of us who have time to debate about the environment have enough income that we can choose to do things in an environmentally friendly way; for example, we can afford to buy cars that run efficiently. This saves us money on operating and saves us from the hassle of shopping around for a place that will let us squeak by on an emissions inspection. We might even be able to work while riding public transit. If that is our experience, we probably don't know what it's like to be living paycheck to paycheck and needing that car to get to a job that's across town but that at least pays the bills. We make the decisions we do largely because that's what our parents or society taught us is normal or acceptable.

The issue of air pollution is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons; each person acting reasonably in his or her own frame of reference results in everyone being poorly served. Crucially, unregulated capitalism will not (and cannot) solve this particular dilemma when the people concerned cannot or will not self-regulate.

Proposed solutions

In an attempt to solve the real problem of air pollution, many people favor laws or other regulations that would prohibit certain behaviors or that would make them more costly. Some examples of these efforts are state-mandated emissions tests and gas taxes. They also include public transportation, which is principally paid for by taxes in most systems in the USA. It is worth noting that the ratios in the linked article include operating costs but not construction costs, so they are higher than they would be if fares were compared with total costs.

Another approach is environmentalism by morality; when we discover that a behavior causes problems en masse, we determine that that behavior is not morally or socially acceptable. The hope is that this moral onus will discourage people from behaving in an environmentally irresponsible manner and that air quality (or the environmental concern in question) will improve.

Problems with proposed solutions

Environmentalism as we know it is a question of outcomes, not of methods. The end goal is a healthy environment. While this is certainly an important goal, it is worth asking what means we are willing to use to achieve it. Because environmental goals tend to require action (or inaction) on the part of the majority of people in a society, achieving these goals usually requires measures that make some people uncomfortable.

One common criticism of environmentalist policies is that they tend to violate the principle of the federal system of government: decisions should be left to individuals where possible, then to local governments, then to state governments, and only to the federal government in the last resort. In general, environmentalists are very concerned about the environment – and rightfully so. In many cases, they are either unconcerned by or in favor of a strong central government. In many other cases, their concern for the environment is stronger than their concern for decentralized government. Any of these positions is reasonable and can be defended; unfortunately, many people are unwilling to engage in a healthy debate on the point. The typical argument is that we can either toe the environmentalist line or we will all die. Even if this argument is correct, it is dismissive of and disdainful to real concerns that people have about the way we govern ourselves.

Similarly, there is a tendency for environmentalists to want stricter measures than some other people believe are necessary. Even simple regulations like requiring compliance with emissions standards adds a cost in time and money to each person who drives. In the case of people living in poverty, these costs can be crippling. In a more general sense, laws and regulations proscribe freedoms. They may do more good than harm; we have laws for a reason. However, an unwillingness to debate the point serves no one.

On the other hand

People who oppose environmentalist policy also tend to take a hard line. Some people oppose every tax on principle; others simply oppose taxes that cost them money. Some oppose government overreach; others have personal reasons for wanting to do certain things. I have a close friend who really likes tinkering with and driving automobiles; although he's concerned about the environment, I'm sure he would be very bent out of shape if we were to outlaw the internal combustion engine. There are, of course, people who just want to make easy money by exploiting resources in environmentally unfriendly ways.

In many cases, these objections to environmental policies completely ignore the valid concerns about the world in which we live. There is more carbon in the atmosphere than there was ten years ago and the polar ice caps are melting. On a more personal and immediate level, I have to be careful about when I run to avoid permanent lung damage. However principled our stance on government is, the fact remains that the invisible hand is not guiding us wisely in some cases. Those of us who ignore environmentalism for their ideological hobbyhorses are just as wrong as the extremists who oppose them.


Happily, there is a better way. I believe that there are solutions to be found. Some of them will come from research: we can discover better sources of renewable energy and improve our batteries. We may even be able to improve carbon sequestration techniques, which could help us to remove the atmospheric carbon dioxide that has been accumulating. Other solutions may come from more efficient city design, autonomous vehicles. It may (or may not) require us as a society to decide that some luxuries, like owning our own vehicles, are not worth the price.

Whatever the solutions are, they will not be found in vitriol or extremism. They will be found in a spirit of cooperation. We are one human family, living in a world whose size seems to be decreasing constantly. We breathe each other's air and we impact each other's lives. If we all work together to do so wisely and responsibly, we can enjoy a marvelous existence on this beautiful planet.