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February 2009

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Why do we do the bad things we do?


A former student wrote me recently and asked why I had done some things I had done. Some were helpful. Some were hurtful. The student was confused. Were the helpful deeds accidental or manipulative? Were the hurtful acts the truest measure of my flawed character?

Those are painful questions for anyone who has faced the stark reality of personal mistakes and persistent weakness. I try to do better but my badness doesn’t disappear. It sticks to me.

I wonder if Paul was dealing with similar feelings when he wrote:

“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19).

Why do I do what I do when I know what I know?

I take comfort in Hugh Nibley’s observation that righteousness is not a place where we relax or retire after working hard to defeat our weaknesses. No. Righteousness is repenting. Righteousness is the willingness to keep fighting sin and stupidity in our souls. It is the yearning to be filled with Him. In mortality, the battle for righteousness is never finished. I think this is what King Benjamin was saying:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever . . .

We must always fight against sin. Even after a lifetime of fighting against sin, I will not be made right–

unless [I] yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint

How do I become a saint, a true follower?

Through the atonement of Christ the Lord (Mosiah 3:19).

None of this is intended to excuse sin. It is merely an acknowledgment that we cannot make ourselves righteous. We fight against sin every day of mortality, but ultimately it is He who makes us right. The main thing we can do is to be humble.

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27, emphasis added)

We make ourselves humble and He makes us clean. He can make us what He is: Righteous. But we must hate sin and love Him. That is the only way for us to cast off our sins.

What are your thoughts? Are you ever burdened by your shortcomings? How do you conquer them?

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You Can Write Your Blessings—If You Do Right


Heber C. Kimball made an extraordinary invitation: “I have said often, you may write blessings for yourselves and insert every good thing you can think of, and it will all come to pass on your heads, if you do right.” (From an address in the Old Tabernacle, August 1853.)

Elder Kimball’s idea enjoys the endorsement of President Packer who tells of being invited to make a list of desired blessings at a New Year’s Eve party.  Much to his surprise he found that all the blessings, including some he considered to be highly unlikely, came to pass by the end of the year. (See Memorable Stories with a Message,
pp. 6-7).

In some ways this invitation should not be surprising. One of the commonest invitations of scripture is to draw blessings into our lives:

And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?

Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?

If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? (Luke 11:9-13, emphasis added)

Can we really write our own blessings?

It is immediately obvious that the Lord does not want us to squander our spiritual birthright on a mess of pottage. If we try to exploit His invitation to order up boats, cars, and vacation homes, we are probably not understanding the invitation.

Yet I have seen the invitation work in ways that may be surprising. I remember telling the Lord some years ago that I would rather have an older office that had windows than the one I had. It was some months after I was in the new office with lovely windows that I realized that my small request had been honored.

And there was the time when I sat in our older home and longed for more nature. I wished that we lived in a more forested area. We had lived in our new home for over a year before I realized that, right behind our fence, was a lovely forest just as requested.

Hmm. God often blesses us with such little fanfare that we may not even notice the blessings. Appropriate gratitude requires active effort.

The fine print

But what about my chronic back disorder? What about our dozens of miscarriages? These bedeviling problems have not yielded to heavenly requests, faith, priesthood blessings, and earnest seeking. Maybe we are like Paul in some ways. He approached heaven three times for his thorn in the flesh to be removed. God did not remove it. Instead, He gave Paul an appreciation for his limitations:

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Cor 12: 9-10

Paul came to see his thorn as a blessing.

Refining our understanding

So does this mean that we can write our blessings but we better not get our hearts set on anything—God may grant and God may withhold?

Yes and no. We do not have the right to impose our will on His perfect wisdom. But we do have the right to use heavenly power for heavenly purposes. I wonder if submitting to His will and making requests can be merged into one seamless whole. Maybe when we sit peacefully with God, He will give us righteous desires. Then, when we ask for the righteous things we seek, He gladly grants them.

This may all seem fairly pointless. Why have us asking for blessings that He will give only if He wants to give them? Why doesn’t He just give us the good things we want and spare us the groveling? And why does He invite us to ask for blessings when He knows that many thorns in the flesh will not be removed?

I think He uses His perfect process to teach us four things:

  1. We can learn to sense His will. Rather than being on fire with covetings and personal preferences or expecting God to arrange our life journey on our terms, we can relax into His purposes.
  2. We can learn to practice gratitude.  We can do a better job of noting and appreciating His orchestration in our lives as He responds to our hopes and needs, both large and small.
  3. We can learn to trust Him.  We can request blessings with confidence that even if our petitions are not granted, He will work all things for our good over time.  We can watch to see that denied desired blessings may result in opportunities for our growth or a closer relationship with Him.  And we can look to see if He leads us to unexpected alternative paths that render even greater blessings.
  4. We can learn to use His power to bless His children.  Once our will is aligned with His, we can join Him in using heavenly power to accomplish perfect purposes.

We are not hamsters on a wheel; we are God’s helpers in training.

He is teaching us to do exactly what He does: Act with great power while being in total alignment with Truth, Goodness, Eternity, Law.

So, when I sat down to make my list for the coming year, I tried to clear my mind of personal and selfish desires. I tried to feel what He would want me to want. I made my list. Four of the six things I listed are blessings for others. Now God invites me to draw on His power to realize the blessings. Every day I will try to sense the specifics of His will and draw His power into our lives accordingly.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for the insights that enriched this article.

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Mental Creation


It struck me this morning that a good life is a mental creation. A bad life is also a mental creation. Life gives us a jumbled mass of experiences and then we choose to see the parts as blessings or irritations.

As JonathaHaidt observed: Events in the world affect us only through our interpretations of them, so if we can control our interpretations, we can control our world.

This is surprisingly similar to God’s work. He takes a jumbled up mess of kids and makes us glorious by seeing and treating us that way.