Monday, July 19, 2021

Email subscription is going away

It looks like email subscriptions will no longer be supported on Blogger soon. There is still an atom feed, so you can subscribe if you use a feed reader; I'm not sure if there's a service that will send you emails. I may just switch to another service. I'll keep you posted.

Healing the divide

Everyone seems to have an opinion these days. While it's nothing new that people are opinionated, there is a fervor in people's opinions that I find alarming. In recent months and years, I've heard people on both sides of heated debates dehumanize and scorn each other. In this increasingly charged atmosphere, mere disagreement is cause for outrage, which is often just a reinforcement for claims that people want to believe but that don't stand up to scrutiny.

I've thought about writing a post detailing why each side is wrong, but ultimately concluded that it would only add to the division. Instead, I'll simply assert that if you believe that no good person could disagree with you, my personal experience suggests that your opponent thinks the same – and that your opponents' arguments are likely to hold the same weight as yours.

So how can we deescalate these arguments and live in peace? I hardly know all of the answers, but I have a few thoughts that I hope are helpful.

First, remember that people are basically good. The people who disagree with you, even the ones who do so stridently or even violently, are trying to do something good. It's possible that they are misguided (who isn't, to some degree?), but that doesn't change that they're trying to make the world better. Give people the benefit of the doubt. And remember that although many people are screaming as loudly as they can, metaphorically, there are many other people who aren't. Their voices are like that of the Holy Spirit: a still small voice that is hard to hear over the earthquakes, fires, and winds (1 Kings 19:11). Make your voice like His. Remember that occasions that require shouting are exceptional and choose a life of peace.

Second, make it your practice to learn what can be learned from the people around you. Ideas that have no truth at all to them are not convincing, so assume that even the most flagrantly flawed arguments have a grain of truth to them (1 Thessalonians 5:21). It is uncomfortable work to look for truth in something you know is wrong, but it is also valuable to engage in that struggle. More important than the argument you could have won is the friend you could win simply by understanding someone. Keep in mind that part of the discomfort will come from realizing that you were wrong about part of your own stance. Embrace this discomfort instead of rejecting it and you will emerge with a better grasp on the truth and a humbler attitude (which is a better grasp on a different truth).

Lastly, remember to stand boldly for what is true. Before doing so, you must study diligently to understand the truth as deeply as you can. Always separate people from their ideas (Ephesians 6:12); the point of a healthy discussion is for both people to come closer to the truth, not for someone to win an argument. The truth speaks for itself; you don't have to clobber people over the head with it. In other words, stand for truth and do it kindly!

I can't solve this problem alone and neither can you. But each of us can be part of the solution.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Joyful humility

Alma records sermons he gave to each of his three sons. The longest of the three sermons is to his son Corianton, whose serious sins detracted from the success of the mission the two of them and others had served among the Zoramites. As he concludes his four-chapter discourse, Alma says the following to his son (Alma 42:30):

O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility.

Phrases like "down to the dust in humility" come as no surprise at the end of an extended speech on repentance. Until recently, I'd failed to notice that I had completely misunderstood the text. I always thought of this as self-abasement for sin. Perhaps this assumption is excusable; I'm not sure there is a more specific calling out (or, perhaps, "calling in") in all of scripture; Christ called people out explicitly but generally. But Alma did not tell Corianton to let his sins humble him; he taught his son to be humbled by the justice and mercy and long-suffering of God.

This seemingly subtle distinction makes all the difference in how we see humility, repentance, and the plan of salvation. Repentance is not a sorrowful duty; it is a joyous privilege. We must remember that repentance does not and cannot pay any of the debt that we owe to justice; the pain that we experience as we repent is to instruct us so we can become better.

Another way to put it is that Christ did not shoulder the burden of our sins to let us off the hook. He took our sins upon Himself so He could offer us freedom from them. Yes, He absolves us of guilt. But He also makes it possible for us to become as He is: when a person repents for having been dishonest, he or she accepts absolution but also becomes a more honest person through the grace of Jesus Christ. In this context, it becomes clear that Christian liberty is the freedom to seek after "everything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" (Articles of Faith 1:13).

Further reading: Brad Wilcox: His Grace Is Sufficient.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Choosing sides

As I read the last two chapters of the Book of Ether during the last few weeks, it struck me that one of the many dangers this section of scripture warns us against is that of partisanship. We see a division forming in Ether 14:19-20, where the people began to create two factions: one following Shiz and the other following Coriantumr. The language suggests but does not state explicitly that everyone belonged to one of these two groups. After a period of warfare, Coriantumr realized that two million people had already died and began to hope for a change. He wrote to Shiz, asking that they conclude the war. Shiz said that he'd stop the war if Coriantumr gave himself up for execution. Either way, it seems from v. 6 that the people were too riled up to stop fighting. The same interaction, more or less, repeats itself after more fighting.

While there is value in learning from negative examples, there is a positive example in this same portion of the Book of Mormon. It's mentioned briefly and without fanfare and it's easy to miss: In the first chapter of his book, Moroni explains that he is writing more than he thought he would for the benefit of the Lamanites. Remember that the Lamanites are the people who killed all of his family and friends. In a single day, the Lamanites killed 230,000 of his people, leaving only 24 alive. Despite their crimes against him and his people, Moroni recognized that the Lamanites were his brothers and sisters (in fact, he says so explicitly in verse 4). He also recognized that the only way forward for any of them was to accept the grace and the justice of Jesus Christ. It was not up to him to hold a grudge or even to insist on fair treatment; he had been treated unfairly and no amount of sackcloth and ashes (which were not forthcoming from the Lamanites of the time, as far as we know) would bring back his murdered people. And so he chose to work to record important doctrines in the hope that these people would accept Christ's gospel and choose to live by it.

We all have a choice like Moroni's. We have all been wronged in one way or another. For most or all of us, some of those wrongs were even intentional. We can choose to fight back, as Ether described in his record, or we can choose to emulate Moroni in forgiving and working to bless those who have wronged us. While we should not enable abusive relationships, we would all do well to consider if there is someone we can forgive. And if there is someone we can forgive or have forgiven, we would also do well to consider if there is any service we can offer them that will bring them closer to Jesus and, as a result, to the joy that He offers us all.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The joy and freedom of repentance


Over the years, several people close to me have left the Church. Some have simply stopped their formal activity with it; others have formally cut ties. A few of them have shared their stories and a pattern has emerged: each of them seems to misunderstand doctrine because of the teachings or examples of active members of the Church who are close to them. My friends correctly see that these incorrect doctrines cannot be true. Then, other influences have eventually pulled them away.

Although my friends are, of course, responsible for their own decisions, it seems clear to me that if they had been taught the true and living gospel of Jesus Christ, they would have had roots that could have held them fast. In other words, I believe the root of the problem is in active members of the Church who teach and live incorrect doctrines.

Accordingly, I have written this article (based on a talk I gave in church in July) about the doctrine of repentance and my intended audience is active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My hope is that Latter-day Saints, armed with a better understanding of our doctrine, will find joy and freedom as they repent constantly &endash; and that the people around them will be inspired by the joy and freedom that they see and choose the same joy and freedom for themselves.

Almost true

Let's consider a fictional Latter-day Saint named Joe, who typifies a set of frequently-occurring misunderstandings about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Joe understands the importance of the "big" commandments, such as the ones that come up specifically in temple recommend interviews. He obeys these laws but the gospel doesn't seem to affect much of what he does in the rest of his life. He's uncomfortable around people who don't live the same laws and especially struggles to forgive people who have the same values but whose behavior falls short. He sees repentance as an escape plan for fallen people or as a punishment. There are times, if he's honest, when the commandments he believes in feel restrictive &endash; especially when he sees people doing things he wishes he could do &endash; and he struggles a little bit but ultimately decides to soldier on. Joe is a good man and is genuinely trying hard.

Unfortunately, Joe's well-intentioned interactions are hard on the people around him. He is sometimes overly forceful as he teaches his children to live these commandments, which they learn to do to comply with his will, not because they believe in them of their own accord. He doesn't realize it consciously, but he's proud of his righteousness and looks down a little on people who live their faith in a different way. He occasionally shares the gospel with his friends, but they never seem interested. He sometimes meets people the missionaries are teaching but the friendships always fade away when the missionaries stop teaching them.

Joe's beliefs and practices are almost true, but they're based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He will certainly be rewarded for the good things that he does, but he is not experiencing the full "joy of the saints" (Enos 1:3), nor the freedom that Christ gives us (2 Nephi 2:26-27). Additionally, his incorrect understandings harm his most important relationships and the people in those relationships.

Every one of us understands some doctrine incorrectly. While this is inevitable, it is our duty to continually refine our understanding and allow that refinement to change our actions and bless the people in our lives.

Our own prison

God's commandments are for our benefit. He gave them to us to teach us how to enjoy happiness and how to develop the fullness of His power to act. These commandments, however, are insufficient; in D&C 56:26-29, our Father teaches us that there are things we should do that He has not and will not command us to do. One of the primary reasons for this is that God's goal has never been obedience. As Elder Renlund put it, "God is not interested in His children just becoming trained and obedient 'pets' who will not chew on His slippers in the celestial living room. No, God wants His children to grow up spiritually and join Him in the family business" (Choose You This Day. Oct 2018). As a result, we necessarily experience uncertainty about whether or not our actions are correct.

What's more, each of us fails to obey the laws that we do clearly understand (1 John 1:8). And when we do, we find that even our best and most sincere efforts cannot undo all of the harm we have done, nor can they absolve us of our guilt. Worse still, many sins create a feedback loop: we act poorly, shame ourselves, believe that we are unworthy of love, and from that spiritually weakened stance sin again. To summarize, each of us struggles with the following things:

  • We have sinned and cannot redeem ourselves,
  • We are sometimes uncertain about what is right, and
  • Our sins imprison us in a feedback loop.

Christian liberty

The atonement of Jesus Christ addresses each of these problems and more. First, He redeems us unconditionally from the effects of the fall: we will all be resurrected, never to die again and all of the pains we suffer on this earth because of the earth's fallen state or the actions of others will be made right (Alma 7:11-13). Second, He offers us the joy of repentance. If we are willing to turn away from our sins and towards Him, He will not only accept us but cleanse us from our guilt. Additionally, He offers us His grace to change our natures so that we no longer desire to sin. The joy of repentance is freely offered but not forced upon us; we must choose to accept it. However, it is always available to any of us if we will make that choice (Rev. 3:20).

The liberty that Christ offers us extends far beyond simply being cleansed once. Because His grace is inexhaustible, it applies to future actions as well as past actions. This means that while we honor and accept His sacrifice by trying to do what is right, we needn't live in the paralysis of fear, terrified that our imperfect understanding might lead us to a poor choice.

All of this freedom actually leaves us free to be ourselves: we are not forced by sin or by circumstance to choose what is wrong, nor are we forced to choose what is right. The brilliant reality of mortality is that all of its trials and difficulties actually give us the opportunity to choose what we truly desire, whether or not our desires align with God's will. Naturally, choosing God's will invites blessings into our lives that He is willing to give but that He cannot justly give to those of us who choose other paths.

With Christ's liberty, we still obey His laws; however, our purpose has changed. Instead of trying to achieve salvation through obedience (which was always beyond your capacity and mine), we now obey out of gratitude for His gift and out of a desire to become like Him. In fact, His grace gives us an even greater gift: if we choose to repent, He will gradually change our nature so that we, like Him, have "no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2); His image will eventually become "engraven upon our countenances" (Alma 5:19).

This transformation offers us the most transcendent freedom of all: it will free us of the conflict that can arise between our desires for good (in both our actions and their consequences) from our divine heritage and our desires for evil. The more His grace transforms us, the more aligned we will become with our deepest and most eternal desires. As we engage in the process of repentance, obedience will increasingly be a joy instead of a chore.

How we repent

Repentance is not universally well-understood, even among people who have been taught about repentance since their childhood. Part of the problem is that we fixate on the steps of repentance, which are the actions we can take to engage in the process, instead of on the grace of Christ that enables it and on our intent. The steps (summarized briefly as confession, restitution, and better behavior) are important, but we misunderstand if we think that repentance is how we set things right. We don't set things right because it is light years beyond our capacity. Repentance is how we show to our Savior that we want to be more like Him and welcome His grace into our lives. Absolution of guilt and change in our nature are both gifts He offers us; the best we can do is accept His gift and try to use it.

In this light, it is clear why insincere or incomplete repentance is ineffective: the point is for Christ to change us but He won't change us unless we wholly desire to change. Nothing short of our entire will is sufficient to invite the "mighty change of heart" (Mosiah 5:2) that He offers us. In other words, Christ saves us from our sins, never in our sins (Hel. 5:10).

The materials that missionaries study and teach define repentance as the process of "[changing] our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are not in harmony with His will." I prefer to rephrase it positively: to repent is to change our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to be more in line with God's will. This definition frees us of misconceptions about our role and responsibilities. It also shows us that there is much more to repentance than addressing the things that we typically think of as sins. That is, any thought, behavior, or belief that needs to be changed in order to harmonize with God's will is sin and any correction to thoughts, beliefs, or behavior is repentance.

To illustrate, I'll point out that you may have learned something doctrinal as you read this article. I know that I learned things as I studied and worked to articulate these ideas. As we learn, the Holy Spirit teaches us that these things are true. His voice is not condescending or condemning; rather, He rejoices with us as we learn. There is good reason that the scriptures abound with examples of people who repent and immediately feel joy (Alma 36:18-21, Hel. 5:28-31,45-47).This joy that we feel as our thoughts and beliefs (and behaviors) become better aligned with God's will, which is inseparable from truth, is the joy of repentance!

We seek

When John Wentworth asked Joseph Smith what it is that Latter-day Saints believe and what makes them unique, Joseph responded with a letter that includes the Articles of Faith. It is the closest thing the Church of Jesus Christ has to a definition of the beliefs and behaviors that make someone a Latter-day Saint. These Articles of Faith are the only part of the Wentworth Letter that has been formally canonized. There are thirteen articles, twelve of which are single sentences. The last has two sentences. As a result, there are fourteen sentences. In twelve of these fourteen sentences, the principal verb is "believe"; for example, the first article asserts that "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost." The twelfth article claims religious liberty for everyone.

The remaining sentence is the final sentence of the final article. In contrast with the other assertions about belief, the thirteenth article of faith concludes with the sentence "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things." I find it compelling that the first article of faith asserts a belief in God and the last asserts that we strive to learn, do, and become everything that is like our Father in Heaven. In other words, truly being a Latter-day Saint includes repentance. It does not require repentance as a single event or as an occasional practice; instead, repentance is a character trait that defines Latter-day Saints.

I believe that repentance is the source of "the joy of the saints" (Enos 1:3). I believe that repentance inevitably leads us to greater freedom (2 Nephi 2:26-27). Whether or not you identify with the fictional Joe, I invite you to study the doctrine of repentance and learn to find joy in constant repentance. I invite you to seek after everything that is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy and to discover heretofore unknown peace and joy. And I invite you to share the gospel in the only way that can work: to live it and to let other people see your life and gospel living for what they are.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The beams in our own eyes

Most of us know someone (or many people) for whom we wish better things. Some of us know wonderful people who want to marry but, for any number of reasons, is not married. Some of us know people who have left the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of us know people who are not living up to their potential in their educational or vocational pursuits. Some of us know good people who have become mired in an addiction. Naturally, many of us have wondered about our friends and wished we understood why things turned out as they did. I do not have complete answers to these questions, but I do have some thoughts.

Before I proceed, I need to clearly state a disclaimer: these thoughts do not apply universally. Please refrain from assuming these things about anyone, including about yourself. And if you carefully consider and determine that these things are true in some case, please be gentle with the people involved – especially if that person is you.

The idea is this: in some cases, there are good reasons for the ongoing struggles in people's lives. However many of these issues are not the fault of the people who suffer from them.

For example, I know single people who have issues with mental or emotional health (sometimes in degrees that might be diagnosed; other times, not). I have witnessed romantic relationships begin to develop and then fall apart because of these ongoing issues. Some of these people come from homes that are broken, either visibly or silently. Some of them have experienced some sort of trauma. Some suffered at the hands of friends who tore them down instead of building them up.

I have also had many friends who were once active participants in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in His church. Some of them have left His gospel behind. Some of them have left His church. Some of my friends grew up in ostensibly active and yet toxic families. Some of them grew up in homes that were culturally, but not doctrinally, sound. Others had good families but had bad experiences with their congregations. The same can be said for people who are trapped in an addiction or who struggle in any other way; in many cases, they are doing the best they know how to do with problems that were handed to them through no fault of their own.

As I worked on this post, a friend mentioned a video of Will Smith (he swears a couple of times but you can find it here), where he differentiates fault and responsibility. In the cases I've just described, people have ongoing issues that are not their fault. However, it is up to these people to choose a path that will allow them to heal.

And so I have a few suggestions:

  • Stop blaming people for the "sin" of being broken in a way that happens to be visible.
  • Stop assigning fault to people who are in bad situations.
  • Remember that we never have all of the details and so can never make perfect judgments about people.
  • Stop compounding people's problems by heaping shame on them, even if we believe their issues are their fault.
  • Start believing in the power of Jesus Christ to heal your wounds and the wounds of everyone around you.
  • Do whatever is in your power to welcome His healing influence into your life and encourage others to do the same.
  • Get in the habit of looking for the beams in your own eye.

If you have a friend who is single or addicted or struggling spiritually or afflicted in any way – or if any of these things applies to you – then the answer is Jesus, who welcomes us each with open arms and teaches us how to become different. Or, in the words of Elder Holland:

'Come as you are,' a loving Father says to each of us, but He adds, 'Don't plan to stay as you are.' We smile and remember that God is determined to make of us more than we thought we could be.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Thorns in the flesh

Every person on this earth was raised by imperfect people. Our interactions with parents (including surrogate parents), teachers, peers, and all kinds of other people influenced us for good and for ill. Many of us find ourselves striving to unlearn things that we believed growing up, through no fault of our own. At first blush, this appears to be a tremendous injustice. On the contrary, I believe that this is an opportunity given to us by a wise and loving Father in Heaven.

Something happens inside us when we learn by experience that simply doesn't happen when we learn in the abstract. Our theoretical knowledge becomes more concrete and we learn how it can be applied. Sometimes, it takes us years of experience to finally articulate something that a few moments of experience taught us.

The fact of the matter is that these things are unfair. However, we have been promised that the grace of Jesus Christ will not redeem us just from death and offer us redemption from our sins; His grace will also make right all of the injustices done to us. Somehow, we will look back on our imperfect lives and see that His grace has paid in full all of the debts incurred by the people around us, no matter how flawed they are or how depraved their actions.

And so we find ourselves in an imperfect world, where we have the opportunity to face and to overcome difficulties that could not exist in a better world, such as the one we came from. These difficulties are necessarily foreign to heaven. And yet the opportunity to overcome them is the opportunity to learn by experience what we could only learn in the abstract previously. It is the opportunity to become imbued with positive characteristics that we merely understood before we were born.

So the fact that you learned by your upbringing to be careless or anxious or overbearing or whatever else isn't fair. But it will be fair, somehow. And it's a glorious opportunity to become as you truly are: a child of God, full of His goodness.