Monthly Archives

February 2019

Self Development

STUMBLING OVER TRUTH: GOVERNING OUR LIVES WITH GODLY RULES

By H. Wallace Goddard and Barbara Keil

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” -Winston Churchill

I have a good friend who often hesitates to make decisions or commitments. She wants to keep her options open to continue evaluating her choices. In her mind, this will enable her to avoid making mistakes. While she is right that it is a good idea for us to do our homework when making choices, her fear of making the wrong decision sometimes prevents her from making any commitment at all.  She loses out on opportunities and experiences that would benefit her. This decision rule could be called the “safety first” rule.

Another good woman I know strives to do her best in every aspect of her life. As she evaluates how to invest her time and energy, she constantly challenges herself to the highest standards. She becomes overwhelmed and depressed when she feels she doesn’t live up to those standards. Her decision rule could be labeled, “anything short of perfection is failure”.

The dangers of our decision rules 

All of us have underlying principles that come into play when we make choices about how to approach our lives. I’m going to call them “decision rules”. Decision rules are mental maps made up of personal beliefs or preferences that make us likely to think or act in certain ways. Often we think our decisions are based on wise and rational choices. But frequently they can be an expression of our fears, worries or hopes. There are many factors that contribute to decision rules, for example: the desire to be accepted, be in charge, feel loved, be successful, etc.

We all have unspoken decision rules but we almost never examine them. We usually aren’t even aware that we have them. As a result of not understanding the decision rules we are applying, we often make decisions and then wonder why they turn out badly.

Decision rules can be limiting and cause us to behave ineffectively. For example, someone who has been hurt in a prior relationship may adopt the decision rule to never fully trust anyone again. This might seem to serve as protection from future hurt. But a lack of trust will limit that person from fully entering into a loving relationship even with a deserving individual.

Even decision rules that seem founded on correct principles can become problematic when applied by our “natural man” mindset (see Mosiah 3:19). “I will always speak up for the gospel” can be a good standard when it leads us to seek missionary opportunities. But it can become ugly when we use it to excuse contentious arguments with nonmembers or members. The decision rule “I will surround myself with others who share my beliefs” appears to be a reasonable choice, but could cause us to miss out on opportunities to serve those outside of our ward community.

Rewiring our thinking 

When a car does not perform optimally, we bring it to a mechanic who opens up the hood and looks at the inner workings in order to diagnose and fix the problem. Sometimes when we are not operating optimally we may need to “look under the hood” and examine our decision making process. We may need to change some parts.

How do we discover the decision rules that guide our lives? Consider the areas of your life: relationships, work, use of time, spiritual progress, growth opportunities, service, use of financial resources, current challenges. What are the problems that recur in your life? What decision rule might be behind the behavior that you know to be counter-productive?

What are the faulty decision rules that have held you hostage?

We might also ask ourselves in what ways we commonly break commandments. Maybe we get angry or justify unholy behavior. The desperate squeak from our consciences is evidence that we need to do more than try harder; we may need to change the rules that govern our behavior.

The person who is regularly timid may need to experiment with some courage. The person who worries about having everything in perfect order may choose to be selective about that perfectionism. The person who feels hurt by the comments of others may need to get outside his or her own view. The person who makes excuses for bad behavior may need to begin accepting accountability.

As we examine and challenge our decision rules, we can progress toward greater goodness. Yet sometimes when we analyze and diagnose our faulty thinking processes, we get into an endless loop. We may discover we have implemented yet another flawed decision rule: “This behavior cannot be changed.” We are using imperfect instruments to repair a defective system. Our attempts at self-repair often end in confusion and despair.

Rewiring by the Master Mechanic

We cannot sort out our minds and set them right when our fundamental problem is that we are fallen. We are all struggling entry-level mechanics with elementary tools in our repair cases. Yet the repair of fallenness requires a Master Mechanic. I recommend we patiently allow Him to tinker with us and our thinking. He will repair a fault here and a misunderstanding there. He will keep improving us. If we become unduly impatient and take over the job, we are likely to create a mess. If we patiently allow Him to tune and repair us, we will become what He is: a Master Mechanic.

To help the Master Mechanic fix our wiring, we should gladly submit to His diagnosis and repair. If we hold back because we like doing things our own way (this is a version of pride) or we don’t like to get help (this is self-sufficiency) or because we worry about what we will be asked to sacrifice (fear), then we remain broken and dysfunctional. We drag our way through our lives never functioning quite right and never really improving.

How do we get Him to rewire us? Little by little the Spirit will point out our ways of thinking that need fixing; our fears, worries, reluctances, lack of faith, shortsightedness, misjudgments, etc. As He reveals the need, we open our minds to a new way of thinking. We align ourselves with His guidance for our lives instead of our faulty decision rules. He will work to set us right.

The ideal decision rule

When Jesus had to make what was His most critical choice, He voiced the decision rule that guided every aspect of His life. “Not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matt. 26:39)

This, of course, is the ideal decision rule: to turn our hearts, minds, and energy over to Him. We set aside our preferences and prejudices. We turn to Him and ask for His counsel. How would He have us view the situations we face? What would His advice be to us regarding how to approach our thoughts and actions? This only happens when we make the fateful decision to accept His decision rule: What would God have me do?

My friend who has been paralyzed from committing to new experiences because of a “safety first” decision rule is gradually learning to trust the Lord as He leads her towards embarking upon new growth opportunities. The woman who previously felt depressed due to her “I must be perfect” decision rule is learning that He does not require perfection to love her. As we continue to seek the Lord and His guidance rather than leaning on our own understanding, we will infuse all our decisions with His perfect wisdom.

Like most spiritual progress, we cheerfully do all we are able, and then we turn ourselves over to God. We try to re-program our thinking while knowing that it is ultimately God who will change our hearts.

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If you’re interested in strengthening your marriage, may like a copy of Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, the gospel-centered marriage book by Brother Goddard.

Also, Brother Goddard has a 2-talk CD set: “The Heart of a Healthy Marriage and a Happy Family.”

Self Development

May God Our Gold Refine

We gingerly pick our way through life’s options trying to minimize our distress and maximize our enjoyment. We flinch at the prospect of an all-vegetable dinner. We contort ourselves to reach each nutrient-free dessert. It would seem that the winners in life are those who navigate life on a cruise ship.

Yet few people experience such uninterrupted sweetness in life. We have a friend who fights an endless battle against numbing depression. Another struggles (with little success) to master compulsions that repeatedly have devastated her life. Another dear friend anguishes with doubts about life and God.

Adult realities are often quite different from our youthful dreams. In the course of our married life, Nancy has had many miscarriages. We lost count somewhere around twenty. In the midst of the early miscarriages, we prayed, got priesthood blessings, spent many hours in doctors’ offices, and fasted. But the miscarriages—and frustration—continued. At one time of keen disappointment, I even threatened heaven with permanent ill-will. “Why should so many people who don’t want children get them while those of us who yearn for them are denied them?”

As a result of our unanswered hope, I learned a very useful lesson: Be grateful in all things. I learned to say each time we lost another pregnancy, “That is great.” If asked why it was great, I could not give a reason. I merely knew that it felt good to go beyond accepting our disappointment with resignation to embracing it with joy.

Our experiences provided a priceless and timeless lesson. I no longer demand that God explain His purposes to me. It is enough that it happened. I trust that He will use it to bless us. Indeed, He already has. When I simply trust Him, I feel a keen joy in faith. Faith bathes every experience with sublime purpose. I still do not prefer miscarriages, but, when they come, I rejoice.

“Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks” (D&C 98:1).

In everything give thanks, for the good, the bad, and the baffling.

“Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament—the Lord hath sworn and decreed that they shall be granted” (D&C 98:2).

Somehow, in ways we cannot comprehend, God is doing exactly what He has promised to do. He is blessing us. It is possible that the only purpose of the miscarriages was to teach us faith. If so, that is reason enough to bear the pain. Our friend who struggles with depression is inexpressibly grateful for glimpses of light in her life. Our friend who is troubled by compulsions has learned to hold to cherished family members. The friend beset by doubts finds simple ways to serve.

“Therefore, he giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name’s glory, saith the Lord” (D&C 98:3).

A cynic may scoff, “Your pain, your afflictions, your suffering work for your good and His glory? Life is only a senseless tangle of anguish with merciful periods of numbness.” So it may seem.

Yet the universe is packed with irony. The keenest may be that God has so structured the universe that believing and disbelieving are equally viable. Only a very brave God would do such a thing. But He has woven assurances of His redemptiveness into the fabric of the universe. Only a compassionate God would do such a thing. When we put on the mantle of faith, a quiet confidence distills upon us.

Many Nephites found that as they grew in their humility and faith, their souls were filled with joy and consolation (Helaman 3:35). On top of present comfort, God offers eternal blessing to those who look beyond the immediate pain.

“And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more” (D&C 78:19).

Our national tragedies can unite us in faith. Our family struggles can join us in love. Our personal disappointments can refine our purposes and strengthen our faith. Perhaps the surest sign of faith in a believer is that tragedy evokes submission and praise.

Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of thee; Thou only knowest what I need; Thou lovest me better than I know how to love myself. O Father! give to Thy child that which he himself knows not how to ask. I dare not ask either for crosses or consolations: I simply present myself before Thee, I open my heart to Thee. . . . Smite, or heal; depress me, or raise me up: I adore all thy purposes without knowing them; I am silent; I offer myself in sacrifice; I yield myself to Thee; I would have no other desire than to accomplish Thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray Thyself in me. Amen. (François de la Mothe Fenelon, quoted in Fosdick, Meaning of Prayer, pp. 58–59).

Adversity is a sacred trust. It is the raw material for making gold. When we put our earthly experiences on the altar of faith, He transforms them into glory.

“He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him” (2 Nephi 26:24).

Armed with faith we see the blessing in adversity.

Marriage, Parenting, Self Development

RECREATIONAL REPENTING OF OTHERS

I was walking along Canal Street in New Orleans with Bob, a friend, colleague, and a good Catholic man. He described his continuing challenge to be the man he wants to be. Often he falls short in one area or another. He told me that God occasionally taps him on the forehead with a twig—inviting him to overcome a fault. If he doesn’t respond, God starts tapping him with a stick. When that doesn’t stir him to repentance, God uses a railroad tie. Then he described a specific kind of challenge that often gets to him. “When people are overbearing, it gets me every time.”

I’m not sure if God uses railroad ties as one of His teaching methods. I’m not sure He even uses sticks. But I think that Bob was right about the central idea. When there is a flaw in our characters, God patiently provides opportunities for us to trade in the faults for a little more divine nature. The irritation we feel is an invitation to change the way we think and feel. Unfortunately, human nature commonly prefers our faults to His mighty change.

This provides an expansive opportunity for Satan. The prince of darkness tries to convince us that our faults are actually virtues. He laughs when we sin and feel noble about it.

You make me so mad!

Being angry is a prime example. We regularly get indignant when someone does something rude and thoughtless. Each of us has different triggers. But almost all of us have some predictable trigger that ignites our irritation. If we dwell on it, our irritation grows into anger and wrath. Someone is being wicked and we see our wrath as the instinctive (and righteous) response to badness. We put on the prophetic mantle and call them to repentance.

We only rarely sense that we add our own sin to the offender’s sin when we respond to badness with judgment and anger. Then the offender gets upset and defensive. He and I work furiously to justify ourselves and nobody repents. Satan laughs. We have been sucked into the vortex of judgment by our stubborn self-righteousness.

The call to repentance

Let me express the idea more baldly. When I am irritated, it is my fault. The irritation I feel is an invitation for me to repent.

Let me give examples. I try hard to be a positive guy. Sure, I have all the natural man scripts running like Muzak in the background of my mind. But I try to choose to see the good and dwell on it.

I have had amazing friends, teachers, and bosses who are wonderfully positive. Phil Ellis is one of those. His encouragement years ago still blesses my life. But I have also had bosses who are negative, critical, and seem to never see any good in my work.

My instinctive response to such bosses is to be defensive. I look for faults in the boss. I brood. Then my brooding spills into discussions with others. Pretty soon I have created a battleground on which truth and goodness are the inevitable casualties. I have responded to negativity with negativity. I am guilty of the very sin that offended me.

If confronted with my misdeeds, I might protest: “What was I to do in the face of such corrosive negativity?” Eternity whispers the reply: “You might have been a Christian.”

Ouch. That hurts.

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matt. 5:44).

In every experience of irritation, Jesus invites me to become more like Him. I can see the offender with compassion and I can act with charity. To be specific, I can see a boss who is stressed and overwhelmed. I can see jibes as an attempt to connect and communicate. And, if I call on the Fount of goodness, I can respond redemptively.

A parenting example

We have a grandson whose boundless energy regularly gets him crosswise with the world. The doctor says he has ADHD. His teacher says he is careless. His parents are overwhelmed with the unique challenges provided by him and his three siblings. One day, playing ball with me and his sister, he knocked her down in his drive for the ball. I am tempted to be angry with a boy who seems to always be hurting people around him. The natural man is inclined to lecture and punish him. But, if I apply compassion and charity—as God is inviting me to do, I respond differently.

Compassion calls me to realize how often this goodhearted little boy gets in trouble. I realize that he doesn’t get much kindness and appreciation to soothe his soul. Such compassionate thoughts soften me. With compassion in my heart, my mind is energized to think redemptively.

I put my arm around the boy. “Oops. You knocked your sister down. Let’s sit and think for a moment.” The boy sits while his sister and I continue to play. He knows that his job is to take a few deep breaths and prepare to do some repenting. After he has a few minutes to self-soothe, I sit by him. “Can you tell me what went wrong?” He starts to tell me what his sister did wrong. But I figure that each of us should repent only ourselves. “Take a couple more minutes and see if you can figure out where you went wrong.”

His sister and I play a couple more minutes and I sit with him again. I put my arm around him. “Can you tell me where you went wrong?” He is softer now. “I pushed my sister in order to get the ball.” “Yeah,” I reply. It hurt her, didn’t it?” He nods. “What do you think you could do differently?” He sighs. “I could play gentler.” “I think that would make you a better ball player and a better brother.” I squeeze him. “Are you ready to try again?”

If we play very long, there is a good chance that his energy will again bump into some else’s well-being. We will have another chat. It takes a long time to learn to manage all these human impulses–especially when we have so much energy. But we who love these little people must be prepared to provide healing love and patient teaching for a lifetime.

A marital example

In parenting, irritation comes and goes. Marriage is the perfect arena for steady irritation. In fact, if we practice our irritation faithfully, we can learn to think of our partner as “a teeming flaw colony,” as Dave Barry described the attitude.

At the beginning of most relationships, things were different. We dwelt on the good and minimized the bad. Over time some of the shine wore off. We became less willing to focus on the good. We let the irritations bother us more. Eventually irritation can become the theme of the relationship. We’ve all seen it, couples who have been together forever but argue about everything. They live what the song title describes: “I’m So Miserable Without You, It’s Almost Like Having You Here.”

Let me give you an example of a newlywed couple we love dearly. The husband is an easy-going and funny guy from a small town. The wife comes from the city, works in the fashion industry, and is wound tighter than her husband. You can see the battle coming, can’t you! He is heedless of appearance and says things she considers goofy. She appreciates his kindness but gets irritated by some of his actions.

Being in the early years of marriage, they are laying a foundation for what is to come. She can pester him about his shortcomings. He will become more distant and sullen. Or maybe he will deliberately annoy her. The years will pass and the bad feelings will accumulate. They will be one of those couples that can’t stand to be together and can’t stand to be apart.

Or there is another choice. Each partner can see his or her own irritation as an invitation to repent. Irritation is not so much about what my partner is doing wrong but how I am thinking wrong. I can repent. I can choose to see the good. I can see the differences as a blessing. I can allow my partner to be different from me. I can choose to learn from my partner and to feel blessed by my partner.

Fixing people is really God’s prerogative. Only as we become more godly should we presume to change another person. And here’s the great irony: As we become more godly, we enjoy people more and more just as they are. I don’t care if they change.

Let’s all repent.

Self Development

FREEDOM OR COMPASSION?

Recently I was talking with a friend who is a faithful saint. He expressed his frustration that we sometimes conflate our religion and our politics. We sometimes act as if a faithful member of the Church could have only one political stance: “Freedom comes first.” The people who start their history with the war in heaven sometimes talk as if the only principle worth fighting for is agency.

I agree with that friend. I suppose that agency got us here. But using that agency to show love and compassion is what will get us back with Father. While we start our story with agency, we conclude it with the United Order. Should we imagine that every cousin of socialism is evil? Should we talk as if government must always be minimized? Must the great principles of freedom and compassion be at war with each other?

I grew up in a home that was very conservative politically. I have been very conservative most of my life. But the repeated demand of scripture to care for God’s underprivileged children makes me more open to many ways of helping—including some governmental interventions.

I am not defending big government. I am not suggesting it is the immediate solution to our woes. Each of us must find ways to care for the poor. But I invite humility and patience as each of us tries to find a way.

Maybe we could all try to welcome any efforts to care for God’s underprivileged children. Maybe it is not Uncle Sam who is the enemy but rather Satan. He would have us harden our hearts against the poor. “They brought it on themselves.”

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 4:17-19)

I don’t think God wants us to choose between freedom and compassion. I think He wants us to use our best inspiration to choose both.

How can we do that? I welcome your ideas.

Uncategorized

THE SECRET TO SHOWING LOVE EFFECTIVELY

Dave Barry ironically observed that “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the past 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”

It’s human nature to expect people to learn our language, to do things our way, to meet our needs. No where is that more evident than in marriage.

Despite decades of marriage, Nancy has not reorganized her life, personality, and priorities around meeting all my needs. She is amazingly considerate and accommodating. But she still has her own preferences. She has not become another Wally or a servant to Wally. She is a unique person with her own strengths and her own inclinations. She still speaks her own language.

That is exactly God’s point in marriage! We may care very much about each other, but God wants us to do more than settle comfortably into our own ways. He wants us to stretch beyond our egocentric preferences. He wants us to truly learn how to love. And as part of that assignment, He wants us to spend a lifetime learning someone else’s language. We may one day speak it naturally and fluently. But, without effort, we will hardly be able to communicate.

You have probably heard of languages of love—the idea that we all have different preferences for the ways people show us love. Gary Chapman has written a popular book in which he lists five love languages:

Words of affirmation
Quality time
Receiving gifts
Acts of service
Physical touch

His book is good. And I love the concept! Yet his system seems unnecessarily complex. I never remember all five languages. So I use a system with three love languages instead:

Show me. “I’m not convinced by words but by actions.”
Tell me. “I love words and messages of love.”
Touch me. “I love to touch and snuggle.”

I find those three love languages easy to remember and simple to classify. Of course, most of us like to be loved in some mixture of the three languages. We want to see the actions. We value the words. We like to be held. We may value all three to some extent, but each of us likely places greater importance on one or two.

To add challenge to our relationships, our preferences may change over time. For example, sometimes we most cherish what is least available. Heavenly Father wants us to learn to pay attention to our partners and their needs on a continuing basis.

In addition to the three specific languages, I sometimes add two universal languages—ways of expressing love that everyone desires:

Understand me. “Listen to my thoughts and feelings. Try to value them and make sense of them.”
Spend time with me. “Join me in doing things I love to do.”

I wish I could say that I was a quick learner. The truth is different. Because I love (LOVE!) stuff, I tended to give Nancy stuff. When I wanted to show her love, I would buy her a new dress or a lovely mixer. Yet I could tell that Nancy wasn’t excited by those gifts. She would be gracious, but I could tell that I wasn’t speaking her language.

After almost three decades of marriage (Yes. I’m a quick learner!), I decided to try a different approach. I asked myself, how does she like to receive and show love? What are the gifts Nancy has received that she most cherishes? What makes her feel loved? It was instantly clear to me that I had not been speaking her love language. She loves sincere notes. I decided to write her a note for Christmas.

Having never been knowingly guilty of moderation, I decided to review the entire year and write to her about the sweet blessings we had shared that year. It took a lot of time to review my records for the year and write a letter that covered all that time. I worked at it many hours. As Christmas approached, I printed out the 4-page letter on quality paper, put it in an envelope, and put it under our Christmas tree with her name on it.

When Christmas arrived, our youngest, Sara, handed out presents from under the tree. After a time, she got to the letter and handed it to her mother. Nancy was puzzled. But she opened it and read, “Sweetheart, I am so grateful for the joyous experience we have shared this year. . . .” Nancy had read only a few paragraphs of the letter when she began to cry. She turned to me and said, “Wally, this is what I really want for Christmas!”

I instinctively responded, “Yes, Dear. But there will be some great sales after Christmas!” Despite my natural tendency to buy Nancy stuff, I am learning to love her in her language.

Nancy also likes me to help her in the yard. Of course, that is not what I prefer to do. Showing love requires sacrifice. It will always cost us to effectively show our love to another person. But if we wish to learn God’ lessons of love, we must be willing to do be stretched.

Of course, this same principle of customizing our love applies to our relationships with our children, other relatives, and anyone to whom we would convey genuine caring. To be effective, we must notice what matters to them.

There is an exception. In new and casual relationships, we appreciate any evidence of interest. A half-can of broken Pringles may touch our hearts at the beginning. But, in a mature and committed relationship, we must care enough to notice and to act in the ways that are meaningful to our loved ones. This stretches us. It challenges us to be more like the Savior, focused on the needs of others instead of focusing on our own convenience or preferences.

Invitation: Think about your loved one. What expressions of love would be most meaningful to him/her? Are there ways you can better customize your messages of love?

Recommendation: Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages is a good book for understanding the idea of customizing our love.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her help with this article.

Marriage

GOD’S UNEXPECTED (AND UNDER-APPRECIATED) PURPOSE IN MARRIAGE

The requirements for a successful date include having bathed within the previous 24 hours and being agreeable (naturally or artificially). Usually some amount of cash is also required. It’s really not too hard. When two freshly-washed and agreeable people spend a few hours together in some recreational activity, they will probably have fun. Dating is a nice way to pass time.

Marriage requires more. A successful companionship requires not only patience, hard work, commitment, compassion, and unselfishness but continued stretching. So when Father says that “marriage is ordained of God,” He has something loftier in mind than a pleasant evening or even a lifetime of pleasant evenings.

God has never varied in His commitment to the development of our character. He wants to stretch us toward godliness and that will often require discomfort and inconvenience. It is not enough to take a shower and put on a smile. We must be patient in affliction. We must be willing to grow. We must be willing to put aside our preferences and enter our partners’ worlds.

The problem is that most of us like the fun of dating far more than we like having our characters developed. We chafe when our spouses favor different foods and activities. We get defensive when our partners accuse us of selfishness. We feel indignant when they tell us we are wrong. We become insulting when they don’t meet our needs. We are filled with resentment when they expect us to set aside our priorities in order to meet the family’s needs.

The problem isn’t that marriage is challenging. God always intended it that way. The problem is that we expected it to be like those vacuous dates that began our relationships. We can become quite indignant when our expectations are upended.

President Hinckley quoted Jenkin Lloyd Jones: “There seems to be a superstition among many thousands of our young [men and women] who hold hands and smooch in the drive-ins that marriage is a cottage surrounded by perpetual hollyhocks to which a perpetually young and handsome husband comes home to a perpetually young and [beautiful] wife. When the hollyhocks wither and boredom and bills appear the divorce courts are jammed. . . .
“Anyone who imagines that bliss [in marriage] is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.
[The fact is] “most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. . . .
“Life is like an old time rail journey–delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.
“The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride”
(“A Conversation with Single Adults,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 60)

Of course Jones is right that marriage is challenging. But why is it so? Does God merely want to annoy us? Does He want to test us? Or is He providing us a gym in which to stretch and enlarge our Christian goodness?

That great marital therapist, King Benjamin, counseled us: “For the natural [spouse] is an enemy to [their partner], and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever . . .”

Forever and ever. That is pretty definitive. Fortunately, there is an escape close for those of us who are fallen partners:

“unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

When we understand God’s purposes for marriage, we cherish every moment of connection and joy. We also recognize irritation as an invitation to grow in our discipleship.

C. S. Lewis provided a glorious metaphor: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently, He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.” (Mere Christianity [New York: Macmillan, 1960], p. 174.)

Yes. Marriage is ordained of God because He is quite determined to teach us to get beyond our petty preferences and on to greater goodness. He wants to make us into Kings and Queens.

Invitation: Think about some of the things that currently irritate you in your marriage. Now, rather than find fault with your partner, consider what holy purpose God may have in that irritation. Is He trying to help you develop humility, compassion, patience, or kindness? If Heavenly Father sat down with you right now to guide you, how do you think He would counsel you to respond to those irritations?

Recommendation: For a spiritual perspective on marriage, read my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.

Self Development

THE LAW IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH

We read a familiar scripture in priesthood meeting:

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated–And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated (D&C 130:20–21).

We had the usual discussion about the scripture. It seems that there is a lawfulness to the distribution of heavenly blessings.

For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world (D&C 132:5).

It is comforting to know that God is not capricious; we will not be rewarded or denied because of some baseless whim.

The instructor invited other comments on the “irrevocably decreed” scripture. I thought back to a time when my dad taught me another interpretation of that scripture. “Notice that the scripture says that there is a law upon which all blessings are predicated. Maybe one meaning of the scripture is that all heavenly blessings depend on only one law.”

My dad loved to talk about the scriptures and the Lord. Even in the last days of his life, as his voice was failing him, he whispered his testimony of his Savior. He continued: “One law: Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything good flows from obedience to that law.”

I was tempted to share my dad’s idea with my priesthood brethren—but I was not sure if I could trust my emotions. My dad had only been gone a year. And I miss him. But I found that by speaking very slowly my tender feelings could be confined to well-hidden mini-sobs between my words.

I began: “My dad used to wonder if one meaning of the well-known scripture is that there is one central law upon which all blessings are predicated. An angel instructed Adam and Eve that ‘thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore’ (Moses 5:8). That is a pretty good summary of all our covenant obligations.”

I felt a wave of joy as my soul joined with my dad’s in honoring that name most blessed above all names. I thought back to our son’s wedding breakfast, which Dad attended with assistance. After the meal the guests were invited to share their feelings and tributes. Many expressed their love for Andy and Natalie. The gathering was about to conclude when my dad nodded to me that he would like to make a comment. I helped him to his feet and steadied him. In a hoarse but earnest voice he began, “I love the Lord Jesus Christ.” Dad caught his breath. “I know that he lives.” There was a special emphasis to the word know.

Dad’s few words brought tears to the eyes of those who have been blessed by his lifelong testimony. To his last breath Dad would testify of Christ.

And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen (2 Nephi 31:21).

As the days of our lives pass we discover new patterns in scripture. I continue to be surprised at the consistency of a simple pattern. When earthly wanderers are touched by the message of redemption, they cry out for mercy.

  • Alma:O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me . . . (Alma 36:18).
  • King Benjamin’s people: “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ . . .” (Mosiah 4:2).
  • The penitent publican: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13).

All kinds of sinners cried out to him for mercy. So did the blind, the possessed, and the leprous. He is the healing balm for every malady.

. . . there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ” (Boyd K. Packer, Ensign, November 1995, p. 21).

As an adolescent who wanted to improve continually, I kept a journal in which I briefly listed the events of each day and graded myself in each of about twenty areas from kindness to my sister (I usually got an “F”) to efficient use of time (I usually got a “D.”) The system was intended to help me identify my shortcomings and focus my energy for improvement; instead it left me demoralized. While I still stand quite ready to grade myself harshly, my earthly father and Heavenly Father have taught me a better system for improvement.

And now, my son, I have told you this that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn of me that there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ. Behold, he is the life and the light of the world. Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness (Alma 38:9).

When I was a child our family home evenings seemed like object lessons in eternal suffering. (Is it possible to get seven children simultaneously attentive and non-combative?) Yet mom and dad demonstrated with their lives their joyfulness in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I cannot count the number of people in need whom my father has gladly helped. Mom led us in Primary songs as we drove from place to place. As we grew older Dad asked us our opinions about gospel principles. He never tired of talking of Christ.

And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins (2 Nephi 25:26).

I am grateful that my father and mother have taught me to love that Perfect Source. There may be other laws upon which our heavenly blessings are predicated, but there is none as basic as faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Self Development

The Struggle Between Two Truths

We Latter-day Saints have an interesting tension in two elements of our world view:

1. We prize self-sufficiency. We store food and teach people to care for themselves. This fundamental principle is one of the reasons that LDS have often voted for conservative candidates. We are inclined to limit government interference. We want people to accept responsibility—to learn the law of the harvest.

2. We cherish compassion. We have a culture that strongly endorses helpful actions—everything from helping people move to providing meals in times of need. We hold up our welfare system as a model of readiness to care for people. We are instructed to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). Utah sets the pace for all US states in charitable giving.

These two principles can create interesting tensions in our culture. Our high value for self-sufficiency can make us deeply conflicted about divine grace. How much must I do and how much will He do to save me? The LDS culture is still struggling to reconcile personal responsibility with heavenly graciousness. The tension causes some fairly unchristian conversations among the saints.

A conflict that burdens our souls

There is another conflict that bedevils us. We try to keep government out of the welfare business. We worry that government support of the poor will make the poor more dependent on the government. It will undermine self-sufficiency and initiative. We want to prevent intergenerational welfare dependence.

If you’re ever in a priesthood quorum meeting when brethren are dozing off, suggest that the federal government should do more to care for the poor. I can almost guarantee that brethren edging into coma will snap to attention and be ready to fight.

So, under the righteous principle of self-sufficiency, we chafe at any suggestion that the government should do more to help the poor. I think of John Kenneth Galbraith’s accusing words: “The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character-building value of privation for the poor.”

Struggling for balance

In the process of championing self-sufficiency, we may regularly neglect the principle of compassion. I wonder if King Benjamin was speaking directly to us when he said:

And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 4:16-19)

This is remarkably strong medicine. If we do not respond to the plea of the poor, we have great cause to repent. We will perish. We are presuming to hoard what God has graciously granted us. This is offensive to Heaven. We know we are not a Zion people as long as there are poor among us (See Moses 7:18)

Finding our own way to obey

So we must break free of Satan’s either-or trap. Even if we do not think the government should be more involved in helping the poor, we must find some way to do our part unless we want to end up as short-order cooks in hell’s kitchen. Maybe we give as much to the Humanitarian or Perpetual Education Fund as we do to tithing. Maybe we reach out to people in our communities. Or maybe we take part in efforts to get the government intelligently involved in helping the poor.

It is not clear to me that God has mandated one method over another. Yet He HAS mandated that we do something to care for the poor. Those who trust the government may vote for policies to provide support programs. Those who trust the government less may contribute more to the Church or undertake personal efforts to help the poor. Our care for the poor demonstrates to God our understanding of our dependence on Him. In the absence of earnest and consistent efforts to help the poor, we stand condemned before the Lord.

We often feel that we can’t do anything for the poor when we are struggling financially ourselves. Yet the Book of Mormon tells us that our attitude should be that “I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give” (Mosiah 4:24).

We’re richer than we think

I read not long ago that the average American has a better quality of life than 99.99% of all the people who have lived on this earth. We may not be as rich as the Joneses, but the ordinary among us are richer than the vast majority of earth’s inhabitants. Of course we can keep ourselves in self-imposed poverty by buying more house, more car, more food, more of everything than we need. It is the rare saint who buys less house than the bank says they can afford. It is the rare disciple who cooks more of their own meals so they can share more with those who have no meals.

How can we know how much to give? I think it is interesting to ask if we give as much to fast offerings every month as we spend on clothes. Could we eat more simply and give half our food budget to the hungry? Could we buy affordable cars and regularly contribute to the Perpetual Education Fund? Could we live in smaller houses and help others with a rent payment or a down payment?

God awaits our answer.

Self Development

GOD DRAGGED BEFORE ANOTHER EARTHLY TRIBUNAL

A study in Nature magazine reported that the number of scientists who believe in a personal God has diminished over recent decades. In a new book, Duke University philosophy professor Owen Flanagan (2002) has stated the atheistic conclusion rather expansively: “There simply are no good arguments—theological, philosophical, humanistic or scientific—for beliefs in divine beings, miracles or heavenly afterlives.”

Those of us who have been around for some decades are dismayed to find God dragged before another earthly tribunal. Each generation poses the question of God afresh and each answers it according to its own sensibilities and assumptions. Some day it will be clear how presumptuous our provincial questions and minimizing pronouncements have been.

In the meantime, it seems fair to observe that our standard scientific processes for taking God’s measure are limited and biased. When we set up the rules of inquiry, we also foreordain the outcome. The dullest attorney knows the importance of controlling what evidence is entered in a court of law. Control the evidence and you control the conclusion. Likewise in the philosophical court of theology. When we decide what we will accept as evidence, we decide what our conclusion will be.

There is an interesting assumption in skepticism, an assumption that God, if He existed and wanted to be acknowledged, would want to be discovered by scientific methods. Let’s reflect on that assumption. Is it likely that our Heavenly Father wants to be approached through the scientific method? The assumption has merit if we believe that God’s primary concern is cultivating systematic inquiry—if we believe that God’s highest priority is rewarding cognitive complexity.

If, however, God’s primary interest is in cultivating compassion, humility, and faith, the trail of clues that lead to God are likely to be found on a very different path. If God is real, He will choose to be found on His own terms, which terms will be based on the qualities He wants to cultivate.

Rather than see the lack of scientific evidence about God’s existence as supporting a contention that He does not exist, I see any dearth of clues on the mortal crime scene as evidence of His profound regard for agency. The God who created the world chooses not to leave obvious evidence lying around in a manner that cannot be ignored. He wants us to be able to choose to believe or disbelieve without any intimidation or heavy-handedness.

In contrast, consider Saddam Hussein. I have not been to Iraq but, judging from media images, it appears that (before the invasion of Iraq in 2003), a picture could not be taken of the landscape anywhere in the country without getting a billboard, poster, statue, or bust of Saddam Hussein in it. His commanding image was ubiquitous. He retained armies and police to assure social order—as he defined it. And, when free and open elections were held, he was the only candidate.

The One who reigns over eternity is very different from Saddam. His divine imprint is subtly displayed in the visages of friends and family who are being transformed by Him. God employs no police but He has always provided an inner voice and official inviters—priesthood messengers—who beckon us to enjoy the blessings of obedience. In the elections of daily life, our ballots are littered with options, from secular humanism to atheism, from Buddhism to Shintoism, from Catholicism to Christian Science, from indifference to extremism.
God is not an insecure and demanding autocrat who insists on being obeyed. He is a Father who deigns to bless, teach, and enlarge us (see D&C 38:18 and 124:42). He knows that He honors our agency and ministers to our growth when He invites us to use our own agency and discernment.

Glenn Tinder has stated the case for human intellectual modesty much more eloquently than I can:

Perhaps discussions of religion would be more fruitful if we could rid ourselves of the assumption, common among Christians and practically universal among non-Christians, that God (if God exists) is simple-minded. We readily grant that a great writer such as Joyce or Proust is infinitely subtle and resourceful in fashioning a novel; but we assume that in fashioning human history God will be heavy-handed and obvious. Accordingly, some believers conclude that they know exactly what God has in mind and, vested with high office, could provide him with some much needed help. . . . In a parallel way unbelievers conclude that they know what God would do if he existed, and that since those things are not being done, he does not exist (The Atlantic, 265(3), March 1990, p.12).

Many of us find intriguing hints and harmonies in areas of science that suggest that the force behind the world is wise, good, and effective. When I took an astronomy class as a physics student, I felt that I saw the face of God on the elegant universe He created. More recently I have been amazed that, as our science in the realm of human relationships has improved, the conclusions have gotten closer and closer to the observations and recommendations of scripture. But it is not in the realms of science that I seek assurance of His reality.

For those of us who have chosen to seek him primarily on non-scientific paths and who feel that we have discovered encouraging signs of His existence and well being, the productive question is, “What can I do that will make my seeking more productive?” I think the first principles and ordinances of the gospel provide the guides. Those first principles seem also to be the second, third, and fourth principles of progress. They guide us from childhood to the end of mortality.

Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ comes first. It is the gift from our souls to him that testifies that we yearn for a relationship with the divine. God will not come and club us into submission. He will not compel us with a mountain of scientific data. He invites us. Ultimately we decide to try the personal experiment of trust or to resist it. If we are too proud or too independent to want a relationship with Him, we will not have one. He honors our choice while continuing to reach for us. His hand is stretched out still.

William James, the famous Harvard psychologist, observed that, “just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one’s word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn—so here, one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods’ acquaintance” (Fosdick, 1918, p. 9).

God asks that we enter into the spiritual experiment by trusting him—by showing faith. Even in that fundamental requirement He accepts baby steps, even good intentions—even a desire to believe—as an authentic first step in the journey of faith (Alma 32:27).

The fruits of faith are repentance. Having taken steps toward His way of thinking, we agree to test His way of living. We must do His will if we want to know the truth of the doctrine (John 7:17). Progressively we give His will and His purposes greater place in our lives. Having offered our minds to Him, we next bring our acts. Repentance is the evidence that we are serious about our spiritual investigations.

In our standard list of the principles and ordinances of the gospel, baptism and confirmation come next. Those washing and cleansing functions are marks of the transformation, the indescribable change that replaces the worldly in us with the divine. That spiritual process that makes us gentler and kinder may be mistaken for the effects of aging to those who are uninformed or uninitiated. For those who have felt that distinctive (and welcome!) change, it is much more than aging. It is the most serene of God’s miracles. It is a process that is repeated thousands of times as we progressively rid ourselves of the natural man to make room within us for the disciple.

As part of the vision of the tree of life, Nephi was quizzed by an angel: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi gave a wise and inspired reply: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:16–17). Even in our finest, most inspired moments we cannot comprehend God’s incalculable condescension. But we may sense that it is sure testimony of His love for us. He descended below all things that He might lift us above all things. The evidence of His good will contract is the subtle expanding of our souls. That subtle change of heart is hard to weigh in an earthly balance. It cannot be used to compel belief in others. Yet it is a welcome whisper of eternal hope for any who have felt it.

Joseph Smith, that remarkable messenger of heaven, observed that “good doctrine . . . tastes good. I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you. They are given to me by the revelations of Jesus Christ; . . . You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life. I know it is good; and when I tell you of these things which were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet, and rejoice more and more” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 355).

Science rightly holds an honored place in this world. It helps us discover the regularities that are woven into natural law. It helps us live more comfortable lives. Yet a scientific orientation might reduce any statement about the sweetness of honey to a chemical and biological formula. Science cannot adequately describe (or create) the subtle growing process of the soul that God directs. That process is as subtle as a breeze and as elusive as a neutrino.

In the laboratory of life, those who have followed His lab instructions and have tasted His love know that it is sweet beyond any description. They know He is real and, more important, He is good.

References:

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1918). The meaning of faith. NY: Association Press. [Recommended]

Owen Flanagan (2002). The problem of the soul: Two visions of mind and how to reconcile them. New York: Basic Books. [Not necessarily recommended.]

Marriage, Parenting, Self Development

Newton’s Third Law

Newton’s third law of motion teaches us that every action has an opposite and equal reaction. I suspect that his law applies to human relationships just as much as rolling rocks. Every action evokes a reaction. When we attack someone, they counterattack. When we send love, love is returned. Clearly this law does not operate on a simple level. Past attacks can cancel out today’s loving words.

 

Do any of you have experiences that illustrate this law of relationships?