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.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

All People That On Earth Do Dwell

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell
Come ye before him and rejoice.

Know that the Lord is God indeed;
Without our aid He did us make;
We are His flock; He doth us feed,
and for His sheep He doth us take.

O, enter then His gates with praise;
Approach with joy His courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless His name always,
For it is seemly so to do.

For why? The Lord our God is good;
His mercy is forever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure.

Sunday before last, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang All People That On Earth Do Dwell, a setting of William Kethe's adaptation of the 100th Psalm. Many hymns of praise feel saccharine to me, so I especially enjoyed singing a song of praise that speaks to my heart.

This text stands out to me because instead of praising by attempting to create an impressive concatenation of superlatives, it teaches specifics about God's goodness. In particular, the second verse teaches us that "Without our aid He did us make." He created each one of us and this marvelous world in which we live. It continues, "We are His flock; He doth us feed, and for His sheep He doth us take." Sheep are terrible at taking care of themselves, so caring for them is a tremendous responsibility. And yet He chooses to feed us, day by day.

The second verse gives us ample reason to praise the Lord, but the third and fourth verses are what leave me in a state of awe: "Enter then His gates with praise; Approach with joy His courts unto." We are invited to pass through His gates and enter into His courts on high. Almighty God has invited us to live with Him forever! In fact, "His mercy is forever sure." He gave us His Son, who lived a perfect life, died, and rose again so that He could bring us back to His Father's presence.

I also take comfort in the fact that "His truth at all times firmly stood, and shall from age to age endure." In a world of good but fallible people with ever-changing understanding of the world and the complexities of life, I take great comfort in knowing that I can rely on God to teach unchanging, perfect truth.

"The Lord our God is good." And I am grateful for it.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My new year's resolution

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1967). Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?. p. 67. Accessed from

I tend to get a little cranky when certain topics come up, as everyone knows who has discussed internet service in the USA or copyright law with me.

I'm not proud of all of the conversations I've had on these topics, as I've often been carried away. I have sometimes looked back on conversations that have just ended and felt more frustrated than before. Worse, I feel like the Holy Spirit is further away because of my anger: "He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who ... stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another" (3 Nephi 11:29).

This past year has made it abundantly clear that I am not alone in this failure. The election in the USA was spectacularly divisive and cynical. Fear has led to speculation, which has led in turn to more fear. These fears have resulted in a proliferation of anger. People on both sides of every political debate have decided that certain outcomes (for example, securing certain rights) are so important that they are worth every sacrifice. I applaud dedication, but dedication does not require that we abandon respect for our opponents, the rule of law, honesty, integrity, and other principles. These principles are not just nice things to have when times are easy; society cannot exist without them.

Throwing aside rules essential to the existence of society is a reasonable definition of war. In that light, deciding that there can be no compromise on any issue is either a willingness to wage war or an outright declaration of war.

A prophecy given in 1831 describes these conditions in surprising detail:

66 And it shall be called the New Jerusalem, a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints of the Most High God;

68 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.

69 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.

71 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.

D&C 45:66, 68-69, 71

A willingness to take up our swords might mean a willingness to do physical violence but it also might mean a willingness to discard the principles that hold society together: to lie, to disregard the rule of law, etc. As far as I can see, the only requirement for residence in Zion is a lack of willingness to take up our swords against our neighbors. There is peace to be had, but it is up to each of us to accept that peace for ourselves by choosing it over warfare, literal or verbal.

And so I have resolved to change this year: I'm going to stop taking up my sword. When I feel myself getting too worked up, I will stop. I'll ask myself if it's worth it. I'll remind myself that I believe in a God who looks out for me and for everyone else and in His Son who died for all of us. I'll either find ways to address the issues in a way that invites the Holy Spirit or I'll table them until I can address them in a healthy manner.

Whether or not you share my faith, I invite you to join me in taking a step back and determining that we will be reasonable and respectful in the ways that we think, speak, and act towards each other. In other words, come to Zion. Let's live together in peace.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

We seek after these things

The Articles of Faith

Defining characteristics

In 1842, John Wentworth was the editor of the Chicago Democrat. One of Wentworth's friends, George Barstow, was writing a history of New Hampshire and was interested to know about the Mormons, so Wentworth wrote to Joseph Smith to ask what it was that the Mormons believed. Joseph Smith responded with what is now known as the Wentworth Letter. Among other things, the letter includes the Articles of Faith: thirteen statements about what members of the Church believe. For example, the first article of faith states that

We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

As the Church has never formally adopted a creed, the Articles of Faith are the closest thing there is to a formal definition of Latter-day Saint theology.

Excepting the eleventh article (which asserts that all people should have freedom of religion), all of the articles begin with the words, "We believe". The conclusion of the thirteenth, which is the basis for this article, describes both belief and action:

If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

We seek

The primary verb of this sentence is not "believe", but "seek". This means that this goal – seeking after things that are virtuous, lovely, and so on – is as central to one's identity as a Latter-day Saint as are their beliefs.

The goal may seem obvious or insignificant. On the contrary, this goal has enormous philosophical and theological implications. Understanding and applying this principle can transform religious life from tedious conformity to exhilaration and liberation.


Many people see religion as a prison. This is particularly true of religions that emphasize obedience (take, for example, this T-shirt). This perception reflects a common misunderstanding.

We often use the word positive to mean good and the word negative to mean bad. But this pair of words has another meaning: positive can refer to the existence of something and negative can refer to its absence. The word posit (which is likely to be familiar to students of logic) means, in essence, the same as assert. The same words are used in political theory; for example, a negative right is an assertion that a person may not do something to another (we're not allowed to kill each other), whereas a positive right is an assertion that a person must do something to another (employers must pay certain taxes on behalf of their employees).

The only negative statement in the entirety of the Articles of Faith provides contrast:

We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.

In every case, then, the Articles of Faith express something positive. Instead of stating what we do not do, they state what we do.

"Don’t be evil"

I spent a summer as an intern for Google, whose motto at the time was "Don't be evil." This statement is negative; that is, it asserts that Google as a company and its employees are not to do something. Alphabet, the successor to and parent company of Google, has adopted a positive motto: "Do the right thing."

I struggled a bit with Google's motto, partially because I could sense the weakness in the negative statement. Merely avoiding evil sets one's sights on nothing higher than moral neutrality. Also, focusing on avoiding evil means that behavior can only reflect the motto as evil is identified and addressed; things that aren't clearly evil can be ignored. Perhaps most importantly, morality becomes a distraction and therefore an inconvenience. Imagine an engineer who conceives of a product that uses a smartphone's location to provide personalize shopping recommendations. She could easily leak personal data with this product – intentionally or by accident. If her focus is on engineering, the technical challenges will take the bulk of her attention and users' privacy and security will be afterthoughts. If she determines that the cost to users' privacy is too high, she would have to abandon an interesting engineering challenge with some real potential to provide value.

In contrast, the goal to do good things forces us to ask different questions. Instead of deciding what we want to do and then allowing morality to veto our decisions as necessary, the goal of goodness means that morality is a part of the decision-making process from the beginning. We choose to do good things; engineering is simply the means to that end. In our engineering example, questions of user privacy would guide decisions from the outset.

Obedience to the unenforceable

In a world where we "walk by faith, [and] not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7), we cannot define all that is right or wrong in an objective sense. "There could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation, and even if there were, enforcement would be impossibly expensive and burdensome" (D. Todd Christofferson, Moral Discipline). Ultimately, each person must police himself or herself.

Neal A. Maxwell's classic talk Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father borrows the phrase "obedience to the unenforceable" from Lord Moulton's Law and Manners. Moulton explains that there is a "middle land" that lies between Positive Law (the realm things that we are legally obliged to do) and Absolute Choice (the realm of things where individuals may decide without any repercussion). This middle land is the realm where choices matter but are not legally regulated. Obedience to the unenforceable refers to good behavior in this middle area and is a requirement for civilization.

Playpens vs. goals

Our culture (both Mormon culture and the culture of our larger society) frequently falls short of this lofty ideal. We allow others to define the boundaries of moral behavior. We interpret the rules literally and, as long as we find justification for a desired course of action within those rules, we proceed. In other words, the area outside the playpen is what Moulton might have called Negative Law. We assume everything not proscribed by rules or laws to be in the realm of Moulton's Absolute Choice. Like children who rely on their parents to tell them what to do and not to do, we stay in our playpen and trust that it will protect us.

In contrast with the moral mediocrity of a playpen, the vision of the thirteenth article of faith points us to a higher goal. The goal of seeking after everything good allows us to reach greater moral heights. It also keeps us as safe as would a playpen. If I am focused on expressing myself in an uplifting way, the question of which words or phrases are too vulgar to utter is moot. If I spend my time and energy seeking after things that are lovely and praiseworthy, I will avoid things that are degrading and I will find beauty that delights the soul and enriches the mind.

When we choose to pursue things that are right, we allow ourselves to act wholeheartedly. In stark contrast with the soul-draining feeling of complying with external pressure, a decision to strive to do what is right enlivens and enriches us. Karl Maeser invokes this imagery with his timeless quote: "The law is made only for slaves[;] a free character ... does right because it is right" (BYA domestic department records, 1879-1881, 51, UA 239, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, accessed via

An example

Perhaps the most common playpen used by members of the Church is the set of standards put forth in For the Strength of Youth. Originally a printed pamphlet and now also available in hypertext, For the Strength of Youth was written for teenagers but is applicable to people of all ages. It seems to me that as newer editions of For the Strength of Youth have been published during my lifetime that there has been a greater emphasis on teaching principles and a diminished emphasis on delineating the rules for appropriate behavior. Even so, there is a tendency to ask whether a behavior is appropriate or not based entirely on the rules in the pamphlet.

It is appropriate, of course, to turn to our inspired leaders for counsel as we determine the best course of action for us to take. But we should not assume that anything not prohibited by them is acceptable. If we use the standards they describe as illustrative examples of the principles they teach and if we give our best efforts to understand and apply these principles in our lives, we will find that the Lord will teach and guide us and bless us for our efforts.

Some practical observations


I have described incredibly lofty goals here – goals so lofty that they cannot be achieved in mortality. Happily, perfection is not asked or expected of us now. It is a goal for the eternities.

Our inability to do everything in our finite time means that we must prioritize. Some things are more important than others. Some prioritizations will be suggested by personal spiritual guidance, while other choices are entirely up to us. For example, I might be prompted to learn a particular language or to focus on my schooling right now, while you might decide (in the absence of a specific spiritual prompting) to focus on your family's particular needs for the time being. By seeking to understand universal truths, listening to the Holy Spirit, and choosing things that matter to us, we invite the Lord's guidance. This guidance sometimes comes in the form of spiritual communication and sometimes in the form of silence. Regardless of how He answers, we can rest assured that the things that matter most will be taken care of.

Beauty is an end unto itself

One of the most exciting conclusions we can reach from our responsibility to seek after everything that is "virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy" is that beauty is a goal worth pursuing. There is a feeling common to the human experience that we want to experience, share, and create beauty. In some cultures, however, that pursuit is shunted to the side to make room for more "practical" things, like educational and financial development. For Latter-day Saints, those practical needs are important as a means to an end. Beauty, on the other hand, is a characteristic of godliness and, as such, is an end worth pursuing in its own right.

What we seek trumps what we have done


One of my favorite characters in all of C. S. Lewis's Narnia appears towards the end of The Last Battle. Emeth is a young warrior from Calormen, the nation that invades Narnia. The Calormenes worship Tash, who is Narnia's devil. Emeth, unlike many of his countrymen, is a sincere, honorable man. He was raised worshipping Tash and was thrilled to be invading Narnia, the land he'd heard so many stories about. As events unfold, Aslan comes to meet Emeth.

Emeth knows that he has served Tash all of his days and expects that he will die immediately. And yet something in his soul recognizes that Aslan was worthy of his honor all the same. As Emeth tells others his story, he says, "Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be [king] of the world and live and not to have seen him." Much to Emeth's surprise, Aslan greets him with the words, "Son, thou art welcome." Aslan explains that Emeth had sought after what was right all of his life and that that service, misplaced as it was, could only be service to Aslan. "Unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."

Salvation by grace

In all of our discussions of virtues and goals and salvation, we must always remember that Aslan's graciousness to Emeth is the Lord's graciousness to each one of us. Nothing we can say or do or be or seek after can save us; salvation is His. In His graciousness, He offers to take our best efforts and reward us with virtues and blessings. He freely gives us the gift of the resurrection and freely offers us redemption from our sins and He invites us to follow Him, knowing that the process of trying to be like Him will teach us. As we try, His grace changes our nature – from bad to good and from good to better. I have experienced this change in my life and hope to continue to experience it. Come with me and together we will seek after the One who is virtuous, lovely, of good report, and worthy of all praise.

A new series

I have decided to begin including some of my more religious writings on my blog. This new series of articles (which will be published individually and with considerable time between each one) were originally written as outlines for sacrament meeting talks (sermons to be given in weekly worship services). Although I have made every effort to be doctrinally correct and to cite authoritative sources that are correct, this article should not be taken to be an authoritative statement on LDS doctrine. Since my blog has a more general audience, I've attempted to write in such a way that my meaning will be clear to people of all religions and philosophies.

As I write on spiritual matters, my thoughts become clearer and I gain more understanding. My hope is that, by sharing these thoughts publicly, I can share some of that benefit from others.

As is the case with all articles on my blog, I welcome my readers' insightful comments. I've learned a great deal from these comments in the past and hope to learn more in the future.