Friday, March 15, 2019

Goals, Grace, and Gumption

Goals

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.

Grace

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.

Gumption

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

Introduction

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.

Kings

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

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.